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Force Levels (Afghanistan)

Volume 503: debated on Monday 11 January 2010

2. What recent discussions he has had on the contributions of NATO and other allies to force levels in Afghanistan. (309565)

8. What recent discussions he has had with his NATO counterparts on their contributions to coalition forces in Afghanistan. (309572)

We continue to press our international security assistance force allies to share more of the burden in Afghanistan. We will encourage a focus on what they can realistically deliver, including military and non-military assets and other contributions.

Will the Secretary of State indicate in a little more detail how the London conference could be used to ensure greater military and political burden sharing across the alliance?

There has already been a significant response to General McChrystal’s requests for additional forces for Afghanistan, and we are getting pretty close to the number that he asked for. Of course, we will try to address burden sharing even more to ascertain how people can co-operate and help one another and the contribution that they are capable of making. As I have said in the House previously, not all our partners can make the contributions that others can, but there are things that they can and should do to help. There will be other issues to address at the NATO conference, such as trying to get a framework for transition and maintaining momentum and progress in Afghanistan, but burden sharing will be an important part of the discussions.

For those NATO countries that either do not contribute troops or do so with restrictive caveats, what other forms of assistance are being requested, such as police training, money and development professionals? What are those countries pledging?

I heard “Not a lot” from a sedentary position. We are approaching the figure of 40,000 additional troops that General McChrystal requested. The Americans have overwhelmingly provided them and we have made a substantial contribution, but so have other partners—it is wrong to deny that. The countries to which my hon. Friend refers are providing all the things that he mentioned, such as money—sometimes nations have the ability to make a military contribution in Afghanistan but cannot finance it, so bringing different partners together to try to help finance things that others are prepared to do is another aspect of burden sharing that we are encouraging and getting into in detail with some of our allies.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it has taken considerable courage for an Arab country such as the United Arab Emirates to play the role that it plays in Afghanistan? What moves is he making to encourage other Muslim countries to take part in Afghanistan?

We welcome all contributions and I agree that it is a brave but appropriate decision to support our operations in Afghanistan. If we can get Muslim countries involved in the Afghan operations, that will be a real boon, so we will do anything and everything we can to widen the coalition as well as seeking appropriate support from those who are already part of it.

Is it not becoming increasingly obvious that some NATO alliance members, particularly in mainland Europe, will not risk the lives of their soldiers for anything but their national defence? At what point should we as a nation start to reassess the principles of article 5?

There are some of our allies who take a different view of what they can contribute and what they ought properly to contribute to those operations. We have tried to give them as many opportunities as possible to make a contribution. Many have seized it, and although it is not often in the form of force capability that can do the job in Helmand province, those matters are and will continue to be discussed in NATO.

Our armed forces value political consensus on Afghanistan when possible, so let me begin the new year on that basis. Counter-insurgency is about protecting the population. It requires a better force-to-population ratio than we currently have in Helmand province—that is why the expected uplift of American and Afghan troops is welcome. Britain is currently responsible for two thirds of the population in Helmand, with only one third of coalition troop strength. Does the Secretary of State agree that that has to change? Would it not be sensible to have a better equalisation of troop densities as the number of US troops in Helmand increases?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and I welcome and agree with his comments. As Major-General Nick Carter, who commands the whole of Regional Command South in Afghanistan, has said, he has already had an additional 20,000 troops. He will receive another 21,000 troops and it would be strange indeed if he were not considering how to balance the force in areas in the south. That is primarily a military decision. No decisions have been made yet, but it is appropriate that he looks at the matter.

Further to that, does the Secretary of State agree that there needs to be a rebalance between UK and US areas of responsibility, even if that might mean concentrating Task Force Helmand’s assets into a smaller geographical area in central Helmand? Does he agree that that should be interpreted not in any way as a downgrading of the UK effort, but as representing a better match between resources and commitments? It is essential that the UK play a full role in Afghanistan, including a full military role, but one that is proportionate to our force strength and configuration.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, the overwhelming majority of whom are in Helmand province, and it is right, as he says, that we currently have a responsibility for the majority of the population in Helmand province. With the kind of inflows of troops that General McChrystal will have, and that Major-General Carter will have in the south, the latter is going to have to look at force densities to try to make sure that he is properly using those troops where they are needed. If that means that there is a concentration of British effort in part of our current area of operations and some handing-on to American forces, we should look at that. Major-General Carter is looking at that, and I would encourage him to do so. I know that he has talked to the hon. Gentleman about that, and he has certainly talked to me about it as well.