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House of Commons Hansard
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29 March 2010
Volume 508
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2. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Afghanistan. [324444]

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Wake up.

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My apologies: I think the problem is deafness rather than sleep.

As General McChrystal has said, the situation in Afghanistan is serious, but it is no longer deteriorating, and the international effort will make real progress this year. Already Afghan forces and ISAF—the international security assistance force—have successfully delivered improved security to the population of central Helmand through Operation Moshtarak. Working closely with our Afghan allies, the international community’s next step will be to strengthen governance and security in Kandahar city.

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Security in Helmand province has for years been the responsibility of British forces, many of whom have lost their lives in the process. What effect does the Secretary of State think it would have on our forces in Helmand if they were to be told, as has been suggested in The Sunday Telegraph, that they are shortly to be replaced by United States marines?

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There has been a substantial increase in forces going into Helmand. Some of those have been ours—we have increased our forces in Afghanistan by about 1,200 in a year—but the biggest single inflow has been from the United States of America. We have been very happy to work alongside US forces, and they now operate in the south of Helmand province—we very recently handed over Musa Qala to them. What we are involved in is a coalition effort: we have to work alongside our coalition partners, and that does not mean just the United States of America. In Helmand we have Danes and Estonians working in our area of operation alongside our forces, as well as those of the Afghans of course, so I do not think that there is a problem among our armed forces in recognising the need to work with others.

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Concern has been expressed about the impact of Taliban and al-Qaeda training camps in the North West Frontier province of Pakistan. Can my right hon. Friend say what assessment has been made of those camps, how effective they are, and to what extent the Americans now have a controlling impact on them, so that they cannot undermine the work being done by NATO and UK troops in Afghanistan?

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The overwhelming improvement that we have seen on the Pakistan side of the border over the past year or so has come about as a result of the efforts of the Pakistani Government and the Pakistani armed forces. Those forces have suffered great losses in some of the operations that they have conducted against insurgents in the FATA—the federally administered tribal area—and Waziristan. Those forces are bearing down on the insurgency on their side of the border, and we should recognise that and congratulate them. Of course we work with the Pakistani Government, as do the American Government and American forces.

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But in his carefully crafted answer, the Secretary of State declined to deal with the point that was raised a moment or two ago. Is there a proposal that British forces should be withdrawn from Helmand? Yes or no?

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Look, let me say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, as a result of the huge inflow of forces into the south of Afghanistan, there are a number of proposals as to how we approach the issue of command and control, and how we divide up our forces in order to ensure that all can be successful and that there is no gap in the security that we are providing. Those discussions are ongoing—

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So the answer is yes.

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There may be people within the coalition, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman has read in The Sunday Telegraph, who believe that it would be a good thing for us to remove ourselves from Helmand to Kandahar. I would have to be persuaded—and I would take some persuading—that that was a good thing. We have developed a level of understanding of the situation in Helmand province over a period of time which should not be thrown away lightly. We have invested a great deal in terms of money and infrastructure, as well as of losses. This is something that we would have to be very concerned about before we would agree to doing it. However, we should not set our face against things as some kind of knee-jerk reaction; we should be prepared to discuss these issues with our coalition partners.

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If we are to make proper progress down the Order Paper, as I always seek to do, we need to make progress a little more quickly.

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On 19 April, during the likely general election campaign, the Government are likely to face a court case relating to the ability of UK forces to hand prisoners over to Afghan authorities. The case, brought by peace campaigners, could have major implications for our commanders in Afghanistan as a result of international and European human rights law. It is bad enough that our troops have to deal with warfare; now they have to worry about “lawfare” as well. Will the Government place before the House, before the Dissolution of Parliament, consolidated Ministry of Defence guidelines on the detention of personnel in Afghanistan, so that Parliament and the British people can make a judgment about the Government’s position ahead of the court case, which many will regard with outrage?

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We do detain people in Afghanistan. Detention is an important part of the operations that we undertake there. Our forces are threatened by people in that country, and detention is therefore necessary. We also hand people over to the Afghans, and we have a clear memorandum of understanding about when and how we do that and about the safeguards that we seek to put in place. I will do as the hon. Gentleman asks and place in the Library a copy of our policy on detention—I had intended to do that anyway. I will do it as soon as possible; if not today, then tomorrow.