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Volume 506: debated on Monday 22 February 2010

The UK armed forces are operating in Afghanistan as part of the 43-nation international security assistance force. ISAF forces are conducting security and stability operations throughout the country in support of the Afghan Government. We are supporting the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan security forces. Our armed forces, alongside our ISAF partners, also play an important role in facilitating and protecting improvements in governance and socio-economic development.

I cannot get to a higher class than to have the Secretary of State reply to my question. Can he give me and the House an update on the deployment of mine detection and improvised explosive device-clearance systems, and on the Talisman project, which I understand was scheduled for initial fielding in late 2009?

I am aware of how important the class of the people whom he mingles with is to the hon. Gentleman. We have stepped up our efforts on countering IEDs over a long period, as the Taliban have increasingly relied on that capability to attack our forces. We have doubled the counter-IED force in theatre, and we have tried to get various new pieces of kit and equipment, including Talisman, which is operating in Afghanistan, into theatre. However, the big thing that we need to do is tackle the IED networks, through the increased use of intelligence, so that we can be proactive in taking apart the networks that seek to target our troops.

Is there to be a full inquiry into the NATO airstrike on Sunday that resulted in many civilian deaths—more than 30—following other civilian deaths? Is that the way to win hearts and minds? Increasingly, one understands the decision taken by the Government of Holland.

The recent incident took place in Oruzgan province, as my hon. Friend knows. He also knows—or should know—that the ISAF commander has apologised for those deaths. Every time I hear General McChrystal speaking, particularly to his own forces, he is really hard on this issue. Every civilian death is one too many, and he tries to hammer that through at every level and on every occasion. If we are to win this campaign, we have to win it in the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, and making every effort to reduce civilian deaths is his absolute priority. I believe that that is the right priority for him to have.

Given that stability has slipped significantly in previously secure areas such as Kunduz and Herat, and that there are Taliban shadow governments in every Afghan province, what is the coalition’s strategy for decreasing the strength of the insurgency across the country as a whole, beyond the southern area that is the focus of the current military operation?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the insurgency has looked to increase its capability throughout the country, and that it has enjoyed some success in certain areas. The feeling is that the insurgency has to be confronted in its heartland, and that the main effort therefore has to be made in the central Helmand valley. That is currently taking place through Operation Moshtarak, which is progressing fairly well in terms of taking the areas concerned away from Taliban control. The commander of the ISAF has also said that his other priorities are to clear the routes to enable people to travel freely on the main routes in Afghanistan, and to tackle the insurgency in Kandahar, which he will probably move on to soon.

On the transition of lead security responsibility to the Afghan Government, can my right hon. Friend provide us with the anticipated timetable for such action within each district and across the nation as a whole?

The last thing we want to do is to peg people to a timetable in that regard. Our handing over security control to the Afghans in any district or province has to be based on capability, and on their ability not only to take the lead in security in the first instance but successfully to prosecute that lead thereafter. The last thing we want to do is to hand over any district or province prematurely, as that could set the Afghans up for a setback. Capability has to be the key concern. Of course we want to make progress, and we need to be able to show progress in this next year, but we do not want to impose an artificial timetable in any particular area.

Public support at home for our armed forces in Afghanistan is vital for our long-term success, which is why we must give constant reassurance that NATO seeks at all times to minimise civilian casualties—which we do. However, with 80 per cent. of civilian deaths due to direct Taliban activity, with clear successes in recent operations, and with international co-operation resulting in a substantial reduction in al-Qaeda and Taliban capability in Afghanistan and Pakistan—including the loss of many of their military chiefs—why are the Government still failing to get a more positive and balanced message across to the British public? The British people need to see more than just casualties on our side if we are to keep them with us supporting our troops in their mission. What do the Government intend to do to win hearts and minds in Britain, too?

I genuinely do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has just said. We have made great strides recently, and to some effect, in terms of reassuring people about what we are doing, why we are doing it and how we are doing it, and about the success that we are having. There has been some excellent reporting of the recent Operation Moshtarak in central Helmand. Yes, of course, there has been some misleading reporting —as ever—but the majority of it has been first class, and people have been able to see what we have done and how we have done it, and the degree of success that our people have had.

In the Ministry of Defence, we have recently employed General Messenger, who has commanded in Afghanistan, as a spokesperson who can contact the media on a regular basis and provide in-depth briefings—both on and off the record—on how we are conducting our operations in Afghanistan.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is wrong: the Dutch Government have taken no decision on Afghanistan; they have simply collapsed on account of Afghanistan. Does that not send out a slight warning signal that we perhaps need a little less military confrontation, with all its collateral damage that does so much harm to our good name in Afghanistan, and much more political and diplomatic containment?

We need political progress in Afghanistan, which is vital, and we need to deliver it through the Afghan Government. However, the last thing that we want is to provide anything other than reintegration, reconciliation and political progress, but we will not achieve it from a position of weakness. The Afghan Government still depend on ISAF for their basic position, and they will do so for some time while we grow the capability of the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police. Of course we should emphasise the political and development side of these operations, as they are vital at the end of the day.