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Volume 503: debated on Thursday 14 January 2010

Topical debate

I am pleased to be able to open this relatively short debate on the situation in Afghanistan. It is just two months since our last discussion of the Afghan campaign. Since the debate on 23 November, the conflict in Afghanistan has taken the lives of 11 more British soldiers, and this weekend right hon. and hon. Members will have seen reports of the death of the first British journalist—Rupert Hamer of the Sunday Mirror. These casualties, as the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats said at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, underline the courage and bravery not just of our servicemen and women, diplomats and aid workers, but of everyone on duty in Afghanistan. On behalf of the Government, I want to pay tribute to the fallen, and to the loved ones left behind.

The rationale for the mission in Afghanistan remains to ensure that that country never again becomes an incubator of al-Qaeda and international terrorism. Although in the last few weeks it is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that has dominated the headlines, after the Detroit incident, the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan remains the incubator of choice for international terrorist groups and poses the greatest threat to our security here in the UK.

Over the course of the past 12 months, it has become increasingly clear that the insurgency is strong and, in places, deeply rooted. With some success it has adapted its tactics, turning to asymmetric warfare and laying improvised explosive devices, often with deadly effect. However, it was striking that last week’s BBC-ABC opinion poll of 1,500 Afghans across all 34 provinces showed that 70 per cent. of Afghans now feel that their country is heading in the right direction—up from 40 per cent. last year and the highest figure since 2005. A similar proportion—71 per cent.—say they expect things to be better a year from now, which is up 20 per cent. on last year. I will come on to some of the other findings, not least those on corruption, which suggest the areas where the Afghan population want to see change.

Security, governance and regional support are the key to Afghanistan’s future. Last year saw notable developments in all three areas. First, we had the reinvigoration of the military strategy. Since his arrival in July, General McChrystal has rightly refocused international efforts on population security, and made the development of the Afghan national security forces a top priority—including through intensive partnering and mentoring. On 1 December President Obama promised an additional 30,000 troops to help General McChrystal to implement this strategy. Following on the heels of the 21,000 US troops and trainers deployed earlier in the year, this represents a very significant increase. And with other international security assistance force countries— including the UK—together providing a further 7,500 soldiers, it will markedly improve the density of international forces in the key provinces in southern Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Secondly, President Karzai set out at the end of November a clear and ambitious five-point agenda to set his country back on a path to peace and stability. Thirdly, the launch of the Pakistani offensive in the federally administered tribal area means we now have mutually reinforcing strategies on both sides of the Durand line. The insurgents have been pushed out of the Swat valley, Buner and Lower Dir. The military operations are now focused on the federally administered tribal area itself, notably in south Waziristan. Although the military have taken heavy casualties and many thousands of civilians have been displaced, public support for these operations is holding strongly. With 3,000 people killed in terrorist attacks last year, the Pakistani people have every reason to support these military operations.

Pakistani intervention on its own side of the Durand line has made a huge difference. How much confidence does the Foreign Secretary have that the Pakistanis will maintain the pressure throughout this year and next?

This is an issue that I discussed in Pakistan with its leaders last weekend. The Pakistani perspective has been changed significantly by the events of the past nine to 12 months. The prospect of the Taliban 70 km from Islamabad, which was the headline not just in the international newspapers but across the Pakistani newspapers last year, was a chilling explanation of the threat that domestic terrorism poses to Pakistan.

I believe that there is a strong commitment in the Government and the armed forces to take on the campaign against those terrorist groups who threaten Pakistan. However, I counsel two things. First, a military campaign on its own will not undo the political and economic underdevelopment, notably in the FATA. As I have reminded the House before, those agencies still operate under the Frontier Crimes Regulation 1903 and political parties are banned. Secondly, the Pakistani authorities need international help, as I shall say a bit later, in a range of areas.

This year will also revolve around these three issues: security, governance and development, and regional support. That brings me to the Afghanistan conference that will take place here in London in two weeks’ time. The conference will be co-chaired by me, my Afghan counterpart, with whom I spoke this morning, and the United Nations Secretary-General’s special representative, Kai Eide. Invitations have been extended to the Foreign Ministers of all ISAF partner countries, Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours and the key regional players, as well as representatives of NATO, the UN, the European Union and other international organisations, including the World Bank.

As the Prime Minister explained when he announced the conference on 28 November, the aim is

“to match the increase in military forces with an increased political momentum, to focus the international community on a clear set of priorities across the 43-nation coalition and marshal the maximum international effort to help the Afghan government deliver.”

The Foreign Secretary said that Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours have all been invited. Can he confirm whether Iran has been invited; and if so, at what level it will be represented?

I am very happy to do so. The Iranian Foreign Minister was invited, along with all the other Foreign Ministers who were invited, to attend the conference. We have not yet had confirmation from the Iranian authorities of the level at which they expect to be represented.

Does the Foreign Secretary expect the Afghan Government and, in particular, the Afghan Cabinet to have been approved and to be in place by the time of the conference?

I hope that I get some credit on the clock for these interventions, because it does not seem to have been adjusted following the last one. [Hon. Members: “It was.”] The one opposite me was not, actually.

The Foreign Secretary is most generous, and I shall be brief. Will he assure me that he will use the conference as an opportunity to encourage the majority of our coalition partners to do more in the effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan? Although a small number of coalition countries are being active and helpful, the vast majority could do more, particularly on the provision of front-line forces.

We certainly want the burden to be shared as widely as possible, and the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. My own sense is that the clarity of the strategy that is now available makes it far easier for countries to explain to their own people why they need to increase their deployments, whether military or civilian. The response of the NATO countries after President Obama’s speech was some indication of that.

No, I am sorry. The hon. Gentleman is going to make his own speech anyway, so he should contain his enthusiasm.

The basis of the political strategy can be simply stated The insurgency is not a monolith; it comprises many different groups that have, to a greater or lesser extent, co-opted foreign fighters, local tribes, those involved in the drug trade and mercenary foot soldiers who are paid as little as $10 a day. It relies heavily on the support or acquiescence of ordinary citizens, most of whom despise the Taliban but fear reprisal attacks if they resist. The fluid nature of the insurgency makes it resilient, and we know that the different groups feed off and support each other, but with the right political strategy, and the right balance of military muscle and political outreach, we can exploit those divisions.

No, I am sorry. Let me see how far I can get before the guillotine comes down on my neck.

The London conference will therefore focus on upgrading the international effort in three key areas: security, governance and development, and regional relations. First, on security, if we want Afghans to resist insurgent threats and bribery, we need them to believe that when international troops draw down, it will be the Afghan authorities, not the Taliban, who prevail. So the conference will focus on how international forces can help to mentor, partner and develop the Afghan national security forces.

ISAF has already trained and equipped 96,000 members of the Afghan national army, and the Afghan national police are also about 90,000 strong. The conference will also consider how the respective roles of the international and Afghan forces should evolve over time. As the Afghan security forces grow and develop, they will need gradually to assume, district by district and province by province, lead responsibility for security. We also hope that the conference includes announcements about the international community’s willingness to fund an Afghan-led reintegration programme, so the Afghan Government need a serious reintegration offer for those who want a route out of violence and back into normal Afghan life.

The second priority for the London conference is governance and development. With the Taliban appointing shadow governors and installing courts to deliver their swift but brutal brand of “justice”, the Afghan authorities need to guard against being not just out-gunned but out-governed. Nationally, the Afghan Government must respond by tackling corruption. In the BBC-ABC opinion poll that I mentioned, 95 per cent. of those surveyed said that corruption within the police or Government was a problem in their area. We hope that the London conference will help to support concrete steps by the Afghan authorities to improve transparency and accountability.

On that first objective, given that it will still take a long time to bring the Afghan security forces up to speed, will the Foreign Secretary address the central concern that in Helmand province, for example, the Americans will have twice the number of troops but cover only one third of the population? When it comes to counter-insurgency, does he agree that that ratio needs to be re-examined?

I very much welcome the fact that we are now talking about a coalition effort throughout the south, including in Helmand. I have seen in some newspapers—it is worth putting this on the record—talk of British troops “ceding ground” to the Americans or “retreating” to allow Americans to take over.

That, frankly, is nonsense, I agree. In fact, I wish that I had been able to say that before the hon. Gentleman popped it out of his mouth! That’s my line—that it is nonsense. How many years have we been saying in this House that we want greater burden sharing and to ensure the proper deployment of forces according to need? I know that General McChrystal very closely scrutinises force densities not just in Helmand province but throughout the country. When I was in Afghanistan in November, I spent the day with him and his team, looking at precisely where, throughout Afghanistan, the greatest deployment of forces was needed, and at how the force densities in the key provinces match the best of counter-insurgency doctrine.

Without going into any operational matters, I assure the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) that the appropriate force densities are kept under very close review. The US forces’ commitment to support the British effort in Helmand province is already making a difference, and I think that it will continue to make a difference.

Has there been an honest assessment of what the country would look like if the military forces were not there? Is the international military presence not a draw—a focus, an encouragement—for the insurgents and jihadists?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman means in Helmand province or in Afghanistan more generally.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the significance of Helmand province is, in many ways, its relationship with Kandahar. That is why it is very important to see the provinces not just as separate islands but as part of a whole. I do not buy the overall argument that international terrorism is being drawn into southern Afghanistan only because international forces are there. After all, we are there only because Afghanistan was used in the 1990s and early 2000s as the base for international terrorism.

However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—I hope that the whole House can unite on this point—that we must in word and deed give no succour to the suggestion that we are trying to create a colony in southern Afghanistan, or anywhere else. It is a pernicious lie that is told to people there, and it is dangerous to us and to our troops because it compromises their work. The suggestion that we are trying to create a colony is certainly part of the jihadi narrative, but it is untrue. The emphasis that we are putting on the transition of lead responsibility to competent Afghan authorities gives the lie to that allegation, but we must carry the process through.

Arguably, the most important reform is to build up structures of local governance to ensure the basic delivery of services, including representation of the people, and those structures will be informal as well as formal. Deciding Afghanistan’s internal structures must be a matter for Afghans, but the international community must stand ready to help, and President Karzai’s suggestion of a Loya Jirga, a gathering of regional leaders and tribal chiefs, might be an important step in the right direction.

With respect to economic development, it is clear that only by increasing the training and job opportunities for Afghan people can the Afghan Government tackle poverty and provide credible alternatives to the drugs trade and insurgency. The rise in legal agricultural production over the past two years, with the rising price of wheat and the wheat seed distribution programme, is an interesting indicator of how the Afghan people respond to opportunities for economic development.

The third element in weakening the insurgency is a new relationship between Afghanistan and its neighbours. Building trust is critical to unlocking a more positive dynamic. We hope that by bringing together the key players in London we will build on existing dialogues and possibly enable progress towards a more systematic approach. In that context, we very much welcome the Turkish announcement on Tuesday that its Foreign Minister will convene a meeting of Afghanistan’s neighbours to develop ideas for regional co-operation.

Of course, Pakistan is the neighbour with the greatest influence, which is why I visited it last weekend. Its long-term stability demands that we lift our sights above the current military campaign and provide support across a range of aspects of economic and political life. That is why I commend recent EU-Pakistan initiatives such as the UK-Pakistan education taskforce. When 45 per cent. of primary-age students do not attend school, and even those who do struggle to acquire even the most basic skills, there is a desperate need for education reform.

Last year was one of terrible loss for the UK armed forces in Afghanistan. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members have constituents with their own, very tragic stories, but the safety of UK citizens from international terrorist attacks depends on the valour of our soldiers. It also depends on the effectiveness of the Afghan Government and the effort of the international community. The London conference will help us to ensure that we have the partnership we need.

We very much welcome this short debate on this extraordinarily important subject. Let me begin by fully associating myself and my colleagues with what the Foreign Secretary said about the sacrifices of our armed forces, 247 of whom have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. All of us in public life in the United Kingdom should be humbled by the willingness of our armed forces to make sacrifices on behalf of the security of the people of our country.

I pay tribute, too, to the work of our international partners in Afghanistan, particularly the Estonians and the Danes in Task Force Helmand, for the tremendous contribution that they have made. Very often, some of the smaller nations that contribute to the coalition are overlooked, and it is right that the House pays tribute to them. It is also right that we pay tribute to the civilians who are giving support to our armed forces, including those from many of our defence companies who provide support for the equipment that is necessary to carry out our role in Afghanistan.

Finally, it is only correct that we recognise the role of service families and the continuing price that they pay for what our armed forces are doing in terms of the effort in Afghanistan.

We find ourselves at a crossroads in Afghanistan. We have a new strategy—a counter-insurgency strategy based around protecting the people of Afghanistan to deny the insurgents the centre of gravity. I think that that is the right strategy. We have a renewed international focus and vast numbers of troops and equipment, primarily American, pouring into theatre. There is evidence to suggest that President Karzai recognises the importance of tackling corruption, and there is, finally, an understanding that delivering good local governance will provide enduring stability and security in Afghanistan. This all looks very promising—but all of us in the House would recognise that we do not wish to raise unrealistic expectations about the time scale in which progress can be made.

The Foreign Secretary was right to begin by reminding the House of why we are in Afghanistan. There is only one justification for sending our armed forces into combat—because we believe that we are facing a national security imperative. It was essential that we denied to al-Qaeda the space that was being used to train and prepare for terrorist atrocities, and we largely dealt with that threat very early on. But there is a wider reason for being there—a geopolitical reason of regional stability. We cannot allow the contamination and destabilisation of Pakistan—a much larger and more important regional player, and a nuclear power to boot. It is correct that we remind the British public of the wider reasons why we are there, and see it in a proper geopolitical perspective. It is essential for us to do that in order to maintain public support.

We must also remind our public about what the cost of failure would be were we prematurely to leave Afghanistan. Were we to be forced out, for one reason or another, on a timetable not of our own making, that would, as the Foreign Secretary suggested, be a shot in the arm for every jihadist globally, because it would send out the signal that we did not have the moral fortitude to see through what we believed to be a matter of our own national security—something that the Minister for the Armed Forces dealt with in his recent speech, which I commend. The impact of such a situation would be felt beyond the Hindu Kush and the Durand line: it would extend across the region into the middle east and north Africa in one direction, and south-east Asia in the other. We do not find ourselves in an easy situation in Afghanistan, but to leave prematurely without achieving our objectives would have far greater costs that would run many years into the future. We should be under no illusions: if we are not successful in Afghanistan, that will fuel latent fundamentalist sentiment in this country, as well as in others, and diminish our national security. The other reason we need to be successful is that if we are unsuccessful, that would suggest that NATO, in its first major challenge overseas, did not have what it takes to see through a very difficult challenge. That would be divisive and damaging for NATO’s credibility and cohesion.

If we can describe failure, how can we describe what success looks like? I believe that there is a clear consensus that success in Afghanistan will be achieved when we have a stable enough Afghanistan that is able to manage its own internal and external security to a degree that stops interference from outside powers and allows the country to resist the re-establishment of terror bases of the sort that the Foreign Secretary talked about. Those who are critical of policy in Afghanistan will say, “We’ll never wipe out al-Qaeda”, or, “We’ll never wipe out the mindset that leads to this fundamentalist, violent behaviour.” Of course we will not be able to wipe it out, but we will be able to contain it. We are talking about degrading the ability of those forces to a degree that they can be managed by the Pakistani and Afghan forces themselves without a need for wider coalition efforts. It is correct that we set that in its context. We are not trying to achieve the unachievable, but setting ourselves realistic aims. I believe that the goal of security is achievable, and that therefore our mission in Afghanistan is winnable.

As I said, we have a new security strategy. In a population-centric counter-insurgency, success is defined by how many people are secure, not by how many insurgents are killed. That is, to some, a rather subtle change in how we describe the mission, but it is extraordinarily important. Eighty per cent. of the population in Afghanistan live in the rural areas, not the cities. Only 5.1 per cent. of the population in Afghanistan live in Helmand, and only 4 per cent. live in the British area of responsibility in Helmand. I say that because there is a great temptation in our media and those who comment on these things to read Afghanistan and Helmand as being synonymous. We are part of a greater coalition effort, and we need to see Afghanistan and what we are doing there in the round.

For the past three and a half years, British forces have performed superbly and gallantly in the face of a very determined Taliban insurgency. We have seen an increase in the number of British troops, and we are now seeing a greater increase in coalition numbers and a very welcome increase in numbers in the Afghan national army.

As the ethnic makeup of the Afghan national army is moving in the opposite direction to the 2003 guidelines, might the Pashtuns resent Tajik control over the country’s security?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely useful point. That is an argument for getting wider and better coverage of all the ethnic groups in Afghanistan within the Afghan national security forces—a task that the Government of Afghanistan need to turn their mind to.

As I said, 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 in troop numbers is so welcome. As my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) noted, Britain is currently responsible for two thirds of the population in Helmand and 50 per cent. of the terrain, but with only one third of coalition troop strength. There needs to be a rebalancing between the 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. It is very important that the British public understand that this is not the same as what happened in Basra. It is not a case of our handing territory over to the United States—it is about having a better match between our capability and our resources. The Foreign Secretary was correct that those who make such arguments are in fact talking nonsense.

The most important question for us to answer as politicians—it is very often thrown at us—is this: what is different about Afghanistan now that would lead us to believe that we can be successful, when, as those who are against the war in Afghanistan always say, the Russians were unsuccessful? There are a number of fundamental differences in what is happening in Afghanistan today. First, we are there supporting a democratic Government in Afghanistan, not trying to apply a regime to it. Secondly, the development of the Afghan national security forces is coming on apace—faster than many people thought possible—which is a great tribute not least to the British trainers involved in the process.

Thirdly, there is the regional emergence of China. When we look at what China is doing in Afghanistan on contracts for copper, it becomes possible to see Afghanistan becoming a net contributor to the global economy if it is given a sufficient period of stability. Fourthly, the advent of globalisation, with the ability of Afghanistan to export products—largely agricultural products—to its neighbours also provides the chance for prosperity and stability through economic development in a way that was not possible before. Fifthly, something else that is not fully appreciated is the fact that there is a large Afghan diaspora, who would have many of the skills for improving governance and professional services, but they need to be given sufficient time to settle down and graft their skills in.

We must avoid taking the defeatist view that we cannot succeed in Afghanistan. Many indicators suggest that we are actually making considerable progress and that there is considerable scope to give the people of Afghanistan the prosperity and security that they want, so that we can have the security that we want.

May I join the Foreign Secretary and the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) in expressing deep gratitude and admiration for all those who have paid with their lives in the conflict in Afghanistan on behalf of this country and their families? We also remember all those who have been wounded—some extremely seriously—in that conflict. I join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to journalists, and civilian and non-governmental organisation workers, who are also under threat. Some have lost their lives, most recently the journalist Rupert Hamer.

We need to spend more time debating Afghanistan in the House. I think we will see an increasing amount of consensus on this subject, particularly following the changes in strategy towards the end of last year. The Government are increasingly emphasising the need for a political strategy to go alongside the military strategy at international, national and local levels. That is extremely welcome. The Foreign Secretary was right to point out a number of strong, positive developments in recent months. Although some have been cynical in reacting to the opinion poll we saw, I think it is very positive. It was the latest of a series of polls that have been run for more than six years, asking the same questions, so it has a degree of strength and credibility, and a foundation, and it points in the right direction.

There has been a reduction in civilian deaths following the introduction of new strategies by General Stanley McChrystal. That is critical to winning hearts and minds. Most civilian deaths are caused now by Taliban insurgents. The efforts of the Pakistani Government are particularly welcome. Let us hope—the signs are positive—that those will be sustained.

The announcement that Turkey is to hold the two conferences—the trilateral conference and the wider international conference—is welcome, and I hope the Minister can confirm that China and Iran have agreed to go and talk to Turkey at those conferences. Hopefully, they will assist the preparation for the London conference so that that can be as successful as possible. We have also had reports of successes in the implementation of the counter-insurgency strategy in different Afghan provinces. It is a very early stage, but the reports are positive.

We should have no illusions: the task is tremendously difficult. As we look ahead and try to push and question the Government to ensure their policy is as good as possible, we need to recognise some aspects of the challenges that perhaps we have not focused on enough. We seem to have a lack of knowledge about the Taliban in their many guises, and about Afghan culture across the many different areas of Afghanistan. We need to do more work and to spend more time on that to ensure that it can feed in to the political strategy, so that we are extremely well informed and so that we can play our part as a true partner to the Afghan authorities. That is why some of us are very worried by the report from the think-tank, the Centre for a New American Security, by Major General Michael Flynn earlier this year. He talked about the shortcomings in American intelligence, and said that US intelligence in Afghanistan was still

“unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which US and allied forces operate and the people they are trying to protect and persuade”.

We need to improve the quality of intelligence. That is absolutely critical.

I wonder how well prepared we are for a rich political strategy in understanding how the Taliban respond to the new counter-insurgency. We have reports of a number of assassinations of tribal leaders, commanders and elders who are not linked to the Taliban—they have doubled to nine a week recently, according to some sources. The intimidation of people who might be susceptible to switching sides and playing a key role in reintegrating Taliban people and local people into the mainstream of Afghan politics needs to be understood and dealt with as quickly as possible.

In the short time that remains to me, I shall ask the Minister a few questions. Have India, Russia and Saudi Arabia been invited to the conferences in Istanbul and London? Have they responded positively? I believe their role is critical. Has the successor for Kai Eide finally been decided? There are reports that the Swedish diplomat Stefan Di Mistura is being considered, but when will an announcement be made? Can Kai Eide’s successor play a role in London and begin to meet some of the key players? What is the Government’s position on the possibility of parliamentary and district council elections this year? Are they going to go ahead and are we supportive, or do we think that a Loya Jirga or other proposals, some of which come from President Karzai, the best approach?

On a practical matter, the Foreign Secretary spoke of the importance of training the Afghan national police, but I do not believe the EU has done enough to get enough police trainers out there. It is good that the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is emphasising that, but can the Government push it too? Finally, President Karzai is coming to London. The London conference is important for putting pressure on him, but the international community and the people of Afghanistan need to ensure that he is living up to his promises. I hope the Government and the American Government continue to put pressure on him, because his role in bringing the conflict to an end is critical.

I listened with great interest to all three speeches and agreed very much with what was in them. I have been to Afghanistan once. I must tell my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and Defence Ministers that after 1945, some 200 US congressional delegations visited Germany to talk to General Lucius Clay, who was, as it were, the commanding officer in charge of Germany on behalf of the allies in that period. As a result, there was strong support in the American Congress for the continuation of a policy that previously would have run against American views that, on the whole, one should not get involved in foreign entanglements.

I have not found a great deal of enthusiasm and support from the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office for visits to Afghanistan, other than those, appropriately, for Select Committees. However, I think it would be helpful if many more Members of the House went there. When I went with a NATO delegation to visit Pakistan, I took the opportunity to go to Kabul to meet people and inform myself, but I had to pay for my own trip—more accurately, the Foreign Office paid for the £200 flight on a UN plane, then spent six months asking me for the money back. I am not sure whether that was a claimable expense, but I paid it from my own pocket. Therefore, please will the Foreign Secretary involve the House in the matter of Afghanistan, because every Wednesday since June 2003, the Prime Minister and the leaders of the Opposition parties have had to pay tribute to the men who have fallen in Iraq and now, increasingly, in Afghanistan? The tributes certainly represent what the House and the nation think of those brave sacrifices, but I sometimes question whether the nation will accept those sacrifices, year after year, from our rather small professional Army. The reasons we are in Afghanistan were set out eloquently by the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, and the nation needs to know those reasons. Visiting Afghanistan can help with that.

We also need a sense of history. Afghanistan is presented as a zone of permanent turbulence and violence. In fact, for most of the last 200 years, Afghanistan has been at peace, although yes, it has been poor and underdeveloped. When I was a student at university, Afghanistan was where all the hippies went to buy their Afghan coats, among other things. In the early 1970s, a Marks & Spencer was opened in Kabul. Where Marks & Spencer operates, civilisation often follows. I am not suggesting that it should be a goal of foreign policy to get Marks & Spencer to reopen in Kabul and other Afghan cities, but we should acknowledge that the present conflict is the result of a particular confluence of political decisions emanating from outside Afghanistan.

Those decisions include the desire to launch jihad, supported by the US and Great Britain, in the 1980s, and the provision of Stinger missiles, paid for by the Saudis and built by the Americans, to the jihadis. We created a monster and were then surprised that, after the Soviets had been driven out of Afghanistan, the monster did not quietly evaporate into thin air. We ignored Afghanistan after 1987 for many years, allowing it to become the incubator and supporter of the Taliban, with the consequence that they gave shelter to Osama bin Laden, which led to the planning of the 9/11 attack.

After 9/11, the reasonable criticism can be made that we took our focus away from Afghanistan and walked down the road to Iraq. I shall not enter into that debate now, but we should be conscious that more British soldiers have died in what one might call President Obama’s war in Afghanistan than in President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. The failure, twice in the last 20 years, to focus due political and strategic attention on Afghanistan has cost us dear.

I would like to see some unity of command. I referred to General Lucius Clay earlier. He was an engineer and builder, not a fighting general, and he was the supreme governor of Germany in the immediate post-war period until German political institutions were able to get back on their feet. I have no idea who runs Afghanistan. I have no idea which Government department is in charge. Who can give orders to whom? When I was there, there were three different European Union offices—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) says that that is no surprise, but there are five or six British offices each thinking that they are doing the British Government’s work, and I question the level of co-ordination. We know that efforts were made to engage the services of Lord Ashdown. I would have welcomed that, but it was rejected by President Karzai. Do we have efficient joined-up government in Afghanistan?

Those on the Opposition Front Bench say that by creating a so-called War Cabinet they would focus attention on Afghanistan. I politely suggest that they should find a word other than “war” to use. We are winning battle after battle: when British troops take on the Taliban face to face, there is only one winner, despite the sad sacrifices that are made. But the notion that we will win a war in Afghanistan commands no serious support anywhere, even among those who support our presence there. If the Opposition create a War Cabinet, they may be asking it to achieve the unachievable. Surely we should be thinking more of containment than of confrontation—I think that the shadow Secretary of State made that point. We should see this in the context of what happened after the second world war, when there was a sense among some that we could confront, take on and roll back ideologies that were oppressive and opposed to our way of life, not to mention supporting military and violent action against western interests all over the world. But wiser heads prevailed, and we adopted a philosophy of containment rather than military destruction.

I continually wonder why the British are taking more casualties—in proportion to the number of troops present—than any other nation save Canada, and incidentally I pay tribute to the Canadian troops too. I regret that the Conservative Canadian Government have set a deadline for pulling their troops out, but I doubt that if a Liberal Administration were to be elected next year, there would be any change in policy. I am not a military expert, but I wonder why it is necessary for so many British servicemen to fall in action or to come home with hideous and life-crippling wounds. We may have to ask our military whether they have got their strategy quite right.

There has been much talk about Pakistan and the solution to Afghanistan. In part, I accept that Pakistan must be involved, but there will be no solution in Pakistan until India changes its strategic approach in the area. According to a report in Le Monde on 8 January, The Times of India reported a secret conclave of the Indian general staff at Simla in December, at which they discussed the double-front strategy—an assault on both China and Pakistan. General Kapoor, the Indian chief of staff, has talked about a limited military attack on Pakistan, but it is beyond belief that a fellow Commonwealth country and nuclear-armed power—and a democracy to boot—can be talking about a military assault or invasion on Pakistan, when we need Pakistan to focus on Afghanistan.

Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, is perhaps not playing as constructive a role as it could in respect of Afghanistan, especially given its alleged support of the Taliban in many places?

There is no doubt that the ISI was the godfather—if not the mother and father—of the Taliban back in the 1990s, and after 1987, because the international community failed to fill the vacuum left by the Soviets. I agree, but of course in 1989 democracy was suspended in Kashmir, and 500,000 Indian troops moved in. Since then, between 50,000 and 70,000 people have been killed in probably the biggest bloodbath of Muslims in recent times under the Indian army occupation. Some of that was in response to Pakistan-initiated terrorism—the horrible explosions at Srinagar and elsewhere—but India is not even on the way to finding a political solution to the problem of Kashmir, and it is under pressure given the Bombay massacres and other issues. When the Pakistani army faces on its eastern flank an army of up to 500,000, national security demands that it put the bulk—80 per cent.—of its armed forces there. We would like as many Pakistani soldiers as possible on the north-western front to sort out the insurgency there and to end the protected area for the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda and the people moving across to cause trouble in Afghanistan.

As long as India refuses to talk or to find a political and peaceful solution—I am not talking about any transfer of sovereignty, but about finding a way forward; India is by far the biggest country in that region—of course, Pakistan should do a lot more. However, we must be careful not to typecast Pakistan as somehow an Afghanistan in waiting. I am utterly appalled at the ugly, invented acronym, “Afpak”, that Richard Holbrooke used at the Munich security conference last year, as though Afghanistan and Pakistan are one combined problem. It is a racist, unpleasant acronym, and I am glad to say that I know, from recent visits to Washington and from talking to senior officials from both the State and Defence Departments, that they do not use it any more. We need to involve India more in finding a regional solution.

I welcome the Turkish conference that has been mentioned. Frankly, we have to try to tease out our worries about Iran and its potential possession of nuclear weapons. I hope that on Iran at least there is some agreement that weapons of mass destruction are being planned for in that country. Most of Iran’s drug problems stem from heroin being transported west towards Iran, just as most of China’s drug problems stem from heroin coming east from Afghanistan. Both Pakistan and India suffer from serious drug problems, so all those big regional countries have an enormous stake in finding a solution to the Afghanistan situation.

We should try to understand that Pakistan has a vibrant press and a vibrant judiciary. They forced out General Musharraf when we were rolling out the red carpet for him. It is an imperfect democracy—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who is certainly the finest Foreign Secretary that we have got at the moment, and who does know where western Sahara is, has been in post for only a year or two, probably since General Musharraf departed.

I am sorry, my right hon. Friend met him, so they overlapped slightly. Prior to that, the leading Governments of the world—here and in Washington and elsewhere—were not paying enough heed to the people of Pakistan who were anxious to get rid of their unelected and authoritarian general.

Pakistan has a vibrant civil society and a very good, free and energetic press. It has a strong women’s movement and a strong human rights movement. Yes, it is very poor, so the real answer is to improve Pakistan’s economic and growth perspectives. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on pushing the European Union hard to open a dialogue and to try to increase trade between Pakistan and the rest of Europe. That is certainly where we should focus some of our efforts with our Pakistani and Kashmiri diaspora, of whom I know many in my constituency. They are men and women of peace—there is a Sufi version of the strand or path of Islam—and they are as horrified as any of us by the language of jihad and fundamental Islamism.

We have to look again at the ideology that spurs on the Taliban and other extremists. That ideology is not of the Islam religion, which has the same respect as any other Abrahamic faith, but is a coherent world ideology of Islamism that is rooted in the Muslim brotherhood that was founded by Hassan al-Banna in the 1920s and that has developed steadily since. [Interruption.] I hear again complaints from Conservative Members about my discussing Islamism as an ideology, but it is precisely the failure to understand that ideology and to work out ideological and political ways of confronting and exposing it that have left western countries vulnerable.

In no way can the right hon. Gentleman interpret any chuntering that he might inadvertently have heard from Conservative Front Benchers as criticism of anybody’s ideology. For his information, we were simply saying that we could be spared the history lesson, once again.

Those who do not like history lessons often find themselves repeating the errors of history. Up to now, this has been a completely non-partisan debate, but after that Bourbon intervention from someone who has learned nothing and forgotten nothing—

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right that this has been a very reasonable debate so far. Perhaps we can keep it that way.

I was talking about bourbon as a drink of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

What then do we have to do? We have to engage with the Muslim world and Muslim politicians much more strongly and seriously. We must try constantly to explain to them why any endorsement, however soft, of aspects of Islamism that lead to attacks on the universal values of human rights—whether those rights are freedom of expression, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, the rights of men and women to be gay, or the right of women to control their own lives—feeds what is a cause of deep repression and oppression in Afghanistan. We have to find ways of engaging our British Pakistani and Kashmiri community. We have noble Lords, hon. Members of this House and many councillors who could play a leading role by talking in Pakistan, in Kashmir and to the community here about the need for a new approach from Britain that respects the faith of Islam but utterly rejects any ideological or violent expressions of it. The Taliban insist that they are giving expression to the ultimate implementation, as a political philosophy, of Islamism, and that they are obeying what the faith demands. That is a false line and we need to confront it.

I conclude by urging right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to find ways of getting more MPs and other people to Afghanistan to understand the situation, and I urge that our Army chiefs be invited to consider using containment more and engaging in less confrontation. We need to reduce the casualty rate if the current support of the nation is to be sustained for a longer period. I urge that we should invite India to be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem by beating the drums of war, in Simla and New Delhi, against Pakistan. I urge that we use and harness our Pakistani British citizens to increase economic relations with Pakistan. We should set up effective structures using the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office, the Departments that deal with education and other Departments to find ways of explaining that what is happening in Afghanistan is a threat, not just to the region and not just in terms of providing incubators for terrorism in our country, but to everything that we should value if we want a peaceful and prosperous world.

I was very interested in what the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) had to say. He made some interesting and important points, some of which were somewhat disjointed, if I may say so, and some of which were slightly rambling. May I pick him up on one point, on which I disagree with him? He accuses the Conservatives of being in some way perverse in wanting to have a War Cabinet, but he must ask himself what on earth is happening to young men in Afghanistan. They are in firefights the like of which have not been seen by the British Army for 50 years. As a former soldier, I would say that it is a war, and I think that most of those young men would also say that it is a war.

I welcome the debate. I am sorry that we are having it on a very quiet Thursday when people are rushing to get back to their snow-covered constituencies, and I hope that we will have more debates on this issue, because there is, as has been said, a terrible lack of knowledge and a lack of understanding about what is happening in Afghanistan, both here in the House of Commons and throughout the country. That is particularly worrying. I have no special insight into what is happening in Afghanistan, and I am certainly not an expert. Both Ministers and fellow Conservatives will be pleased to know that I am not going to put forward some absolutely fundamental, clever plan to solve the whole Afghanistan issue, because I do not have that insight.

However, I do know the area a little. I have been to Afghanistan often, and I have spent a couple of very enjoyable holidays trekking on the Afghan border in the most beautiful countryside imaginable, with charming people. I remember seeing, some 25 years ago, Massoud’s mujaheddin streaming across border passes from Pakistan into Afghanistan, and some coming back on mules having had their legs blown off by Soviet butterfly mines. I have some slight understanding of the area, but that is all.

I also went there last year on a whistle-stop tour, and I thank the Ministry of Defence for laying that on, contrary to what the right hon. Member for Rotherham said. It was far too short a visit and we did not get out to the forward operating bases, but I came back with a clear view, not just from the briefing, of the medical evacuation plans that we had in place in Kandahar and in Bastion. It was valuable, albeit rather too short for my liking.

We also had a good briefing yesterday, again laid on by the MOD. I am grateful to the Secretary of State and others for that, because they are certainly trying to keep people abreast of what is happening. I am not sure that they are being entirely successful, but I cannot blame them entirely for that.

Those of us who know some history of the first and second Afghan wars know the traps that we allowed ourselves to be led into. The history of Afghanistan is not one of a united country. The right hon. Member for Rotherham referred to Afghanistan in the 1970s, when I, too, was young.

Never a hippy, no.

People came back from Kabul with those ghastly, smelly goatskin coats, which then sat in a cupboard and destroyed many student lodgings, as I remember. At the time, Kabul was a very civilised and beautiful city, and the King was moving towards a much more modern society, certainly in the urban area of Kabul although perhaps not in the rural areas. However, Afghanistan was never an entirely united country. As I understand it, it was always a fairly loose confederation, for want of a better word, of tribal areas. That is certainly what it appears to be now. I fear that in the constitution that has been created, assisted by the UN and others, we have perhaps tried to make Afghanistan into one centralised country. I do not have any great insight, but that seems to be turning into a difficulty. As has been mentioned already, it appears that the Pashtuns, who used to be called Pathans, resent other tribes lording it over them. I wonder whether we in Britain or in the UN can or indeed should aim to have a centralised Government in Kabul, as appears to be the case at the moment. It certainly does not seem to be working.

To stick with history, what was remarkable in the first and second Afghan wars was the way in which having foreigners in the country succeeded dramatically in uniting all the tribes against the foreign invader. I fear that we are seeing that problem to a certain extent now, which is why it is so important that the Afghans take over responsibility for law and order.

As we have seen both in history and recently, Afghanistan is a place of shifting loyalties. Loyalties are not laid down as we might think. People do not say, “My gosh, I’m an Afghan and I’m going to support the Afghan Government.” That is self-evidently not the case, which was true in 1840 and has been subsequently, so we should be realistic about what can happen there.

I do not know whether hon. Members have read the autobiography of John Masters, who wrote “Bhowani Junction” and other books. It is called “Bugles and a Tiger”, and I recommend it to everybody. Apart from anything else, it is a rattling good read. As an 18-year-old officer, he went out in command of a platoon of English troops to the North West Frontier, where in 1935 British troops were still being flayed alive by the Pathans—the Pashtuns—who did not see much of a border across the Durand line. It is worth remembering that that was in the lifetime of people who are around today. When we went into Afghanistan, we perhaps should have remembered the other half of the quotation about where angels fear to tread.

Finally on history, we can examine what the Soviets did. Of course it was a communist revolution that brought down the King and the Soviet invasion that led to the current chaos, destruction and poverty in Afghanistan.

As my hon. Friend will know, I spent a week in Afghanistan at the end of November and had the opportunity to meet many Pashtuns, about whom he has been talking. Many feel incredibly alienated from the Government and from what is going on. They feel that they have no role in politics or in the army, which they view as a Tajik army. They view the leader, Karzai, as not really a Pashtun, though he is a Pashtun. Does my hon. Friend believe that we should be doing more to figure out ways to get the Pashtun community more engaged with what is going on in the country, so that they are not driven into the arms of the Taliban?

As I said, I do not have a prescriptive solution, but my hon. Friend makes an excellent point from his own experience. Part of the reason why I wished to raised these matters was that I am not sure that the model of government in Afghanistan will work in the long term—I cannot say.

The points that have just been made are valid. We are currently in a delicate situation in Afghanistan, bearing in mind that when the Soviet regime left there was a civil war between the Pashtuns and the anti-Pashtun, Tajik-led forces. That is related to the ethnic tribal mix that my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) mentioned, which does not appear to be recognised adequately in the deliberations of the various organisations and countries involved in Afghanistan.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Not just I, but the west, the United Nations and others should beware of too many prescriptive solutions.

No, but as far as possible we should let the Afghans determine for themselves how they wish to run things.

I was glad to hear the Foreign Secretary—in a speech in which, unusually, I disagreed with very little—discuss corruption and the fact that it has to be sorted out. Corruption is endemic in Afghanistan, and anyone who has travelled in the area knows the cries of “Baksheesh” along the streets. We should therefore not be surprised. It is difficult to defend British soldiers dying to defend a Government who are steeped in corruption, and that has to be sorted out.

I wish briefly to address three problems: whether the current strategy is working, the question of public support, which others have mentioned, and the long-term impact on our armed forces. As I recall, British and American troops invaded Afghanistan in late 2001. I naively believed that we might be able to establish a western-style democratic Government who would give women all the rights that they have in the UK, and I think I might have made some comments to that effect. Now, most people accept that it is a different country in more ways than one.

It was not until four years later that we deployed troops to Helmand. We have now been at work in Afghanistan for nine years, yet the war is not abating. Of course, the second world war was over in six years and the first world war—the war to end all wars, as I recall—was over in four. We need to consider that time frame, because it puts into context everything else that we are doing. I am not coming up with an answer; I am just putting the matter forward. I conclude that the strategy so far has not worked, but it might be getting better. I base that on reports from not just the Secretary of State or my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who will be pleased to know that I did not disagree with a word of his speech, but from soldiers coming back from the front line to whom I have spoken and those who are there now. They say that things are changing and working. I am delighted to hear that. The US reinforcements, far from being something to be ashamed of, are a great boon, and I hope that they can help us to see the campaign to a finish some time in the foreseeable future.

There is a danger, as hinted at today, that we will not stick with the campaign. If we do not, however, we will send every message possible to jihadists everywhere that the west does not have the resolve to stay with it. However, that does not mean that Members of Parliament such as myself, and Opposition parties, should not be critical—in a positive way—or alert people to the problems being faced, without undermining the situation, I hope.

It is self-evident that public support for the war is not growing; it needs to be bolstered and we need to send a more positive picture. The Foreign Secretary’s remarks were very positive, as we need to be—without being complacent. Issues such as the planting of more wheat in Helmand are hugely important. People need to understand that there is a return to normality—or greater normality—and that, similarly, one can walk safely around some Helmand villages where a year or two ago one could not. I am not a great believer in spin, but I think that we need an exercise in public relations. I do not mean to be particularly critical, but so far that has not been working. We need to convince some media commentators that our cause is worth while, although that should not involve deception, I hasten to add.

The worst thing for public perception is the sight of the young men—and at least one woman, I think—returning in coffins. It is gutting beyond belief. I have never worn badges or wristbands, or anything like that except for Remembrance day poppies, but I wear a wristband now, because what is happening is so awful. How can we not be moved? My old battalion—the Coldstream Guards—is in Afghanistan at the moment. So far it has had only one fatality, and god willing there will be no more. Injuries have been referred to as well. Although this is all deeply depressing, the long-term effects on the armed forces are of greater concern. One such effect has been mentioned this week: 20 per cent. of infantry soldiers not being available for active service. I happen to know that the figure has always been surprisingly high, for all sorts of reasons, but I still think that that is an issue. Other particular issues are the long-term employment of injured soldiers—some will be multiple amputees—how they can be employed in the armed forces and what assistance they can be given subsequently.

I would like to address two further long-term impacts on the armed forces. First, public attitudes towards the armed forces have in many ways improved. I think of Wootton Bassett and parades through other towns—Leicester among them—in which the public turn out to express their support. That is very positive. Furthermore, as I understand it—the Minister will correct me, if I am wrong—recruitment has not fallen, although of course there is a recession. Part of the reason for that is that young men want adventure. We need to build on the fact that public attitudes have improved, and we should not be complacent. Nevertheless, things are not all negative.

The second, and perhaps more controversial, point concerns the long-term impact on the armed forces of the defence cuts announced on 15 December. Everybody in the House will understand that they are very serious cuts in our capabilities. I hope that we will not be in Afghanistan for ever, but we will be in need of our armed forces for the foreseeable future—certainly for all of my lifetime.

I shall not detain the House any longer. I welcome this debate, although I think that we should have a longer one in which more people can take part and on a less quiet day—if I may put it that way. I would like the Minister to address, although not in huge detail, some of the questions asked, including mine.

I was not expecting to say anything today, but I would like to put on record my thanks to some of the organisations that I visited during my time in Afghanistan at the end of November. In particular, the work of the Department for International Development is extremely good. It is doing a great job in the midst of an active, hot war. Its work is excellent. One observation that I might make, however, is that in trying to encourage farmers—DFID is doing a lot of work on agriculture and agribusiness—it can be counter-productive to bring in seed from outside the area, for instance, when we should be trying to buy it from local farmers to encourage them to develop that aspect of agriculture.

The Aga Khan foundation is doing some fantastic work, helping in excess of 2.5 million people in Afghanistan right across the board. The health care work being done by Merlin in the north—in particular, its work to give women who have severe problems giving birth the medical support that they need to prevent more deaths—is also excellent.

The final group doing excellent work that I should like to mention is Turquoise Mountain. Anybody who has an opportunity to visit Kabul should go to see the excellent work that Turquoise Mountain is doing in one area of the old city, identifying craftsmen and people with tremendous skills from around the country and bringing them in to help rebuild that area, which has been completely devastated. I should also like to thank all the organisations out there that give money to organisations such as Merlin and Turquoise Mountain.

Turquoise Mountain is connected to Rory Stewart, who hopes to enter this House as an hon. Member. However, as I understand it from reading his interesting books and articles, he is rather against the military presence and involvement in Afghanistan. Does the hon. Gentleman think that there will be a rethinking of policy on Afghanistan if Rory Stewart becomes a leading Conservative Member?

Should he get in, Rory Stewart will bring a wealth of experience on Afghanistan. He, perhaps more than anybody, will be listened to. I have read his book and I hope that our Front-Bench team will want to engage with him to hear what he has to say. With his experience, he certainly brings an interesting perspective, and we should listen to what he has to say.

The work of Turquoise Mountain, in its £25 million project, is helping to rebuild part of the old city that has been destroyed by using local craftsmen. In addition, the project is bringing health care to that part of the city, as well as primary education, which is much needed by many in Kabul.

I know that it is always customary to sum up by saying that we have had a good debate, but this time that has genuinely been the case. What has struck me most forcefully is the enormous degree of consensus across the House. That unity is insufficiently recognised in the wider public domain, particularly in the media. It could be that we are all wrong and misguided. However, I happen to think that MPs across the House, having looked at the issues in enormous detail, recognise the centrality of what is happening in Afghanistan to our safety and security. In the short time available, I want to respond to some of the points that have been made.

I agreed with a lot of what the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said, particularly the tribute that he paid to the Estonians and the Danes, who are making an enormous contribution alongside us in Helmand. The fact that we are in an international coalition, with 44 nations currently taking part, is often under-recognised in the public debate. I also agreed with him about the impact on Pakistan and the importance of that country. I have no doubt whatever that were we precipitously to withdraw from Afghanistan before it was safe to do so, there would be a return of the Taliban and the al-Qaeda capability in Afghanistan, and a massive flow of refugees across the border into Pakistan, making that country—a country that, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, possesses nuclear weapons—more unstable. That underlines the risk that we face.

However, I would take issue with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about British troops handing over Basra to the United States. We handed over responsibility to the Iraqi forces, which was the right thing to do in the circumstances. It was done through agreements and our troops made an enormous contribution.

Like me, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who leads for the Liberal Democrats, underlined at the beginning of his contribution the increasing consensus on the issue across all parties in the House. That is welcome. He asked a number of specific questions about the London conference and the possible participation of China, Iran, India, Russia and Saudi Arabia. All have been invited, but not all have yet replied. It is certainly our hope that all those countries will take part.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about the lack of knowledge and understanding of the Taliban. Given the nature of the Taliban, and the fact that it is, in many senses, a secret organisation, that point has plausibility on one level. However, we are doing our level best to get a genuine understanding of the Taliban. We certainly need to understand more, particularly if we are to follow the process of political reconciliation being led by the Afghan Government, in which those elements of the Taliban who are prepared to renounce violence can become part of the solution, rather than being part of the problem.

As our understanding of the attitudes of the Taliban is so important to this process, will the Minister share with the House any assessment the Government have made of the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, given that al-Qaeda brought about the downfall of the Taliban in the first place? Is there still an alliance between the two, or is there now a rift between them?

There certainly was an alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda; that was one of the principal reasons that we and our partners went into Afghanistan in 2001. My understanding is that such a relationship still exists. Were we precipitously to withdraw, the risk of that relationship re-establishing itself would be one of the biggest causes for concern.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton also asked me about elections. The district elections have been postponed, and there is still a decision to be made on the parliamentary elections.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) made an important contribution to the debate. He talked about the need for more Members of the House to have direct experience of the situation by visiting Afghanistan so that they may better understand and better articulate what is happening on the ground. That is a powerful point that we need to take on board, but there is one important caveat, which is that we must take account of the operational environment and the security considerations, and the impact that such visits could have on our troops. Nevertheless, he makes an important point, and I will certainly take his suggestion back to the Department and see what more we can do, in conjunction with the Foreign Office, to facilitate such visits.

My right hon. Friend asked which Government Department ran Afghanistan. I can tell him that there is intense, detailed co-operation across the three principal Departments concerned. People sometimes argue that there should be one lead Department, but, based on my seven and a half years’ experience as a Minister, I believe that if we were to remove a direct lead responsibility from one Department, priority would no longer be given to its issues. That might be right or wrong, but it is the reality. That is why I believe that we are right to continue with separate Departments having specific responsibilities and focusing their efforts accordingly, while working co-operatively. There are regular meetings of the Ministerial Committee on National Security, International Relations and Development—NSID—to pull that work together, led by the Prime Minister.

The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) made an important contribution to the debate. He started by referring to his holiday experience in Afghanistan. I have to say that, at that point, I turned to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) and said that I had never had the hon. Gentleman down as a hippy. Later, he confirmed that he was most certainly not one, and that he clearly has a long understanding of these issues. He referred to the regular briefings that the Ministry of Defence is conducting, led by the military, and to the one that took place yesterday. Those briefings are driven by our desire to give as much information as possible about what is happening operationally on the ground, so that parliamentarians may be better able to explain the mission as it is taking place.

The hon. Gentleman questioned the governmental structure in Afghanistan, which I think needs to be put into perspective. It is driven by the Afghans, and we need to recognise that Afghanistan is an independent country. I think the structure is working, but we must remember that Afghanistan is the fifth poorest country in the world and its development is light years behind anything that we have experience of. That factor needs to be taken into account. Nevertheless, progress is being made. The Foreign Secretary referred to the most recent BBC opinion poll, which showed that 70 per cent. of Afghans believed that their country was moving in the right direction.

President Karzai and his Administration certainly need to face up to the issue of corruption, but a really important political point for me—it is insufficiently understood in some of our public debates—is that Karzai represents the will of the Afghan people. Anyone who looks at the matter in detail reaches that conclusion. So yes, we need to use the levers at our disposal to influence with our partners the shape of what is happening, but we also need to recognise that Karzai is leading a Government who represent the will of the Afghan people.

The hon. Member for Blaby mentioned corruption and was concerned that we were defending a corrupt Government in Afghanistan. Let me be clear that the Afghan Government need to do more to face up to corruption, but our troops are there and are putting their lives at risk, not to defend a corrupt Government but to defend our national security and our national interest. That is one of the issues on which we need the strongest unity.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of public support. Undoubtedly, the last six to nine months have been extraordinarily demanding and we have tragically lost too many of our troops. Nevertheless, the last comprehensive opinion poll commissioned by the Ministry of Defence showed something like—I am quoting from memory—47 per cent. in favour of the mission and 42 per cent. against it. I think that demonstrates, given all that has happened, that there is a deep underlying understanding of the importance of what is happening in Afghanistan and of the fact that it serves our national interest.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the media. If one looks at the coverage of Afghanistan in the media over the last four, six or eight weeks compared to what it was previously, one finds that some progress is being made—but more is needed.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the appalling loss of life that has taken place. That is hugely challenging: every loss of life is something that we should enormously regret, but I also think we need to understand and articulate the fact that no military action has ever been undertaken without risk. If we, the media and the public create an impression or understanding that military conflict is possible without casualties, we risk undermining the necessary basis for the military actions that need to be taken in our national interest.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the PR10 statement—on procurement—before Christmas, which he described as defence cuts. What we were doing, rightly in my view, was demonstrating that Afghanistan was our main effort and that we needed to take some decisions within an overall budget that was not decreasing to ensure that that was case. Following the visits of the shadow Chancellor and the shadow Foreign Secretary to Afghanistan, I was interested to read in the Sunday press that they were not a million miles from that position, saying that they would protect efforts in Afghanistan while other areas in the MOD would be cut back—and cut back significantly. If the hon. Member for Blaby has any concerns about that, he should take them up with his Front-Bench team.

I am grateful to the Minister who, if I may say so, is making a very good speech. I agree with most of what he said—[Interruption.]Exactly, until just then. I may well be told off if I have got this wrong, but I think our policy is that we have a strategic defence review to determine what is needed to defend this country.

That is exactly the same as the Labour party’s position, and we are committed to it; a Green Paper will shortly be forthcoming to inform our strategic defence review. However, the hon. Gentleman needs to refer to the press briefing issued following the visit by the shadow Chancellor and the shadow Foreign Secretary, which made it clear that the Conservative party’s intention, were it to be elected to government, was to protect efforts in Afghanistan but to cut back elsewhere in defence. If I have got that wrong or if the briefing was wrong, I am sure that the shadow Defence Secretary or one of his colleagues will intervene.

In conclusion—

My understanding is that there was no briefing of any sort whatever. If the Minister had a copy of it, I am sure he would have shared it with the House.

That is the oldest and weakest defence in the book. I think the hon. Gentleman knows where those briefings came from. This has nevertheless been a good debate and the consensus I referred to centred around the recognition across political parties that our efforts in Afghanistan are about pursuing our national interest and our national security.

We are there as part of an international coalition. I think that none of us has any doubt whatever that were we to withdraw precipitately, before the Afghans have the capability to defend themselves, the safety and security of our country would be significantly less. That is not the same as saying we want our troops to be in Afghanistan for ever. That is why our efforts are focused on building the capacity, capability and numbers of the Afghan forces through training, mentoring and partnering, so we can get to the stage at which it is safe for our troops to withdraw. That is why before Christmas we took the decision to uplift our troop numbers by 500, along with our international partners. It is also why we have urged the Karzai Government to do more to tackle corruption. We believe that although the military component of what is happening is enormously important, a military solution alone will not succeed. There also needs to be a political solution involving reconciliation with those elements of the Taliban that are prepared to reject violence.

Fundamentally, we need to see this through until it is safe for us to withdraw—that point has been made in many contributions this afternoon. If we withdraw before then, not only will the Taliban and al-Qaeda return to Afghanistan, making us much less safe, but we will provide the most enormous boost for terrorists and jihadists across the planet. That is why we are in Afghanistan, and that is why this is so important to our national interest. As has been demonstrated this afternoon, that view is widely shared in the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of Afghanistan.