With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Afghanistan. First, I am sure that the whole House will want to join with me in paying tribute to Private Jonathan Monk from 2nd Battalion the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment and Lance Corporal Andrew Breeze from 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment, who have both died in Afghanistan. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and friends. Their service and sacrifice for our country must never be forgotten.
It was my fifth visit to Afghanistan, but my first as Prime Minister. I held talks with President Karzai and visited our troops in Helmand. I want to set out for the House how this Government will approach our mission in Afghanistan, and how that mission is progressing, but first let me stress the importance of such updates. The whole nation is touched by the heroism of this generation of our armed forces, who are fighting to protect us in harsh conditions far from home, and I believe that the country, and this House, are entitled to the facts. That is why this statement will be the start of a pattern. There will be regular updates to the House, with quarterly statements by the Foreign Secretary or the Defence Secretary, and we will publish on a monthly basis much more information on the progress we are making. This will include updates on the security situation, on recruiting, training and retaining the Afghan security forces, on progress in appointing and supporting provincial and district governors, and on progress in development work, including health and education.
Our main focus, however, will be on the security situation. For example, in the six months to March 2010, the Afghan national army grew by almost 20 %, with more than 17,000 people joining the ranks, but the Afghan police are assessed to be ineffective or barely able to operate in six of the 13 key provinces in General McChrystal’s plan. Good news or bad, we want to take the country with us in what is this Government’s top foreign policy priority.
Let me address the first question that people are asking. Why are we in Afghanistan? I can answer in two words: national security. Our forces are in Afghanistan to prevent Afghan territory from again being used by al-Qaeda as a base from which to plan attacks on the UK or on our allies. Of course, the al-Qaeda training camps and the Taliban regime that protected them were removed from Afghanistan in the months after 9/11, and the presence of NATO forces prevents them from returning, but Afghanistan is not yet strong enough to look after its own security. That is why we are there, and with the help of the greater efforts of the Pakistanis to hunt down al-Qaeda in their own country, we are now placing al-Qaeda under pressure on both sides of the border. Eighteen months ago, the then Prime Minister told this House that some three quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against Britain had links to the border area. Today I am advised that the threat from al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and Pakistan has reduced, but I am also advised that if it were not for the current presence of UK and international coalition forces, al-Qaeda would return to Afghanistan and the threat to the UK would rise.
The next question is how long must we stay. The Afghan people do not want foreign forces on their soil any longer than necessary, and the British people are rightly impatient for progress. Our forces will not remain in Afghanistan a day longer than is necessary, and I want to bring them home the moment it is safe to do so. The key to success is training and equipping the Afghan security forces at every level to take on the task of securing their country, so that Afghans can chart their own way in the world without their country posing a threat to others, and our forces can come home, the job done, their heads held high.
That is why we back the strategy developed by General McChrystal, commander of the international security assistance force, and endorsed by President Obama and NATO. That strategy involves protecting the civilian population from the insurgents, supporting more effective government at every level, and building up the Afghan national security forces as rapidly as is feasible. We want to transfer security responsibility for districts and provinces to Afghan control as soon as they are ready, but that must be done on the basis of the facts on the ground, not a pre-announced timetable.
The current year is the vital year. We are six months into an 18-month military surge, and we must now redouble our efforts to drive progress. Central Helmand has, along with Kandahar, been the heartland of the Taliban. It is from there that they gave safe haven to the al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan. That is why the operation in central Helmand is crucial to the success of the whole mission. Four years ago, we went into Helmand with 3,000 troops. I do not think anyone now seriously argues that that was sufficient. Today, there are around 30,000 troops there, with 8,000 British working alongside 20,000 US Marines. In total, we have more than 10,000 troops in the country as a whole. With the arrival of reinforcements and the continued growth of the Afghan security forces, we are now evening out the ISAF presence in the main populated areas in Helmand.
That is an absolutely crucial point. In the past, we have simply not had enough soldiers per head of population for an effective counter-insurgency campaign. Today, although the rebalancing is still work in progress, the situation is much improved. The arrival of a US Marine expeditionary force, combined with additional contributions from other ISAF partners including the UK, has given a huge boost to the resources available to ISAF in Helmand. For example, the Marines have arrived with some 80 aircraft and helicopters of their own, which are now available to support all ISAF forces in Helmand.
It is clear that we have made real progress in central Helmand this year. A degree of normal life has returned to places such as Nad Ali, where the bazaar is open again and people are going about their daily business in an area that was until recently completely infested with insurgents, but the progress is not yet irreversible. Inevitably, there will be tough fighting as Afghan forces, with ISAF support, hold the ground we have taken and push the insurgents out of further towns and villages.
During my visit, I was able to announce a further £67 million to double the number of counter-improvised explosive device teams, to tackle the most serious threat facing our young men and women. So with the improvements made in the past year, many of the acute shortages that hampered us so severely in our initial deployment in Helmand have been dealt with, but I do not pretend that every equipment shortage has been resolved. We will need to adapt constantly and deal with problems as they arise.
The whole country is incredibly proud of our armed forces, and I believe we need to do more to recognise these remarkable men and women and place them at the front and centre of our society. That is why I announced a doubling of the operational allowance for service in Afghanistan, backdated to 6 May; and that is why I believe it is right that we renew and reaffirm our commitment to the military covenant, that crucial contract between our country and those who risk their lives to ensure our security.
I do not pretend that we can succeed, either in Helmand or in Afghanistan, by military means alone. Insurgencies usually end with political settlements, not military victories, and that is why I have always said that we need a political surge to accompany the military one. We need better to align our development spending with our overall strategy, and I have announced £200 million to be spent on training, strengthening the police services and government institutions; and, crucially, we need a political process to help bring the insurgency to an end.
As a first step, that means getting individual Taliban fighters to put down their weapons, renounce violence and reintegrate into Afghan society, and the successful peace jirga earlier this month should enable that process to move ahead more swiftly. However, it means more than that. For there to be long-term political stability, everyone in Afghanistan, including those in the south, must feel that the Government is theirs, that it is their country, and that they have a role to play. As I agreed with President Karzai, we must start working towards a wider reconciliation process, leading to a political settlement that works for all the peoples of Afghanistan.
We are seeing a good example of that in Kandahar where, importantly, the process getting under way is largely Afghan-led. Alongside military operations by Afghan security forces together with international forces, it includes, for example, the shura of several hundred local elders conducted yesterday by the local governor, which President Karzai attended, and a major drive by the Afghan Government, with our support, to improve public services and the rule of law. From now on, what is happening around Kandahar and in Helmand should reflect a deeper understanding of the influence of tribal structures in Afghanistan. In the past, we simply have not paid enough attention to that and to the unintended consequences of some of our policies. I want us, for example, to take a careful look at the contracting policy of ISAF, to ensure that the money going into the local economy from the huge contracts that are let has a positive impact and does not help fund local militias or, even worse, the insurgents.
This is the vital year. We have the forces needed on the ground and we have our very best people, not just those in the military, but those leading on the diplomatic and development front. I do not pretend that it will be easy and I must warn the House that we must be ready for further casualties over the summer months, as the so called “fighting season” resumes and as ISAF extends its activity. But I say to the House what I said to our young servicemen and women in the dust and heat of Helmand on Friday: they are fighting thousands of miles away to protect our national security here at home. Like their predecessors, they have the support and gratitude of the whole nation. When we have succeeded in enabling the Afghans to take control of their own security, our troops can begin to come home. Even after our troops have left Afghanistan, the relationship between Britain and Afghanistan must continue as a strong and close one. Likewise, we want to continue to build on our relationship with Pakistan. These long-term relationships are, quite simply, essential for our national security. I commend this statement to the House.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the two soldiers who have been killed, Private Jonathan Monk from 2nd Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment and Lance Corporal Andrew Breeze from 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment. Our thoughts are with their families and on the grief of their loss.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. I welcome both his early visit to Afghanistan since coming into government and the increase in the operational allowance that he announced. All those serving in Afghanistan should know that they have the admiration and respect of the whole country and of Members from all parts of the House. Will he continue with Armed Forces day on 26 June?
May I restate Labour’s support for our mission in Afghanistan, which is, as the Prime Minister rightly said, first and foremost to protect our national security. As this was his first statement to the House on Afghanistan and the first occasion on which we have responded as the official Opposition, may I assure him that as he proceeds to take difficult decisions in the best interests of our mission in Afghanistan and of our troops, he will have our full support. In that spirit, I welcome the £67 million that he has announced to help tackle the IED threat. Will he inform the House in more detail as to what that will be spent on? We understand that there will be 13 extra Mastiff vehicles, and we welcome that. Will they be in addition to the £67 million? As there is also a need for well protected vehicles with greater manoeuvrability, will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will proceed with a second batch of 200 light protected patrol vehicles?
On the strategy in Afghanistan, the Prime Minister has reaffirmed that, despite the challenges, progress has been made. Will he confirm that the Government are continuing the strategy that the UK has been pursuing and that it has not changed? If it has changed, will he tell us in what respects? It is common ground that our work in Afghanistan needs to bring together security, development and diplomatic efforts. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the discussions he has had with President Karzai? I assure him that the Government will have our support to take through a strategy that sees that the Afghans are strong enough to take responsibility for their own security and prosperity. I welcome the £200 million that he announced for building up the Afghan army, police and civil service. Will he reassure the House that that will not be at the expense of vital existing development programmes elsewhere in the world?
Will the Prime Minister update the House on discussions that he has had with US Defence Secretary Gates and on whether they have addressed the proposed withdrawal of Canadian forces in 2011? A stable Afghanistan requires a stable Pakistan. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the discussions he has had with President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani of Pakistan?
On the families of our troops, will the Prime Minister follow through on the important work that the former Defence Secretary was doing, with my support, to back up the wives, partners and families of our armed forces?
On the strategic defence review, will the Prime Minister reassure the House that the front line will not be weakened? In opposition, the Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary argued for a bigger Army and for the expansion of the Army by three battalions. Will that go ahead?
Finally, will the Prime Minister explain to the House the reasons for the departure of Sir Jock Stirrup and Sir Bill Jeffrey? Will he confirm that they will both play a role in the strategic defence review and that they will remain until it is completed? May I ask him to join me in paying tribute to Sir Jock Stirrup and Sir Bill Jeffrey for their service to the nation?
I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her response—both for what she said and the way in which she said it. I know that we will have our differences across these Dispatch Boxes, but on the issue of Afghanistan there is great unity on the Labour and coalition Benches—[Interruption.] Well done; well spotted. That is important, because our troops like to know that everyone in the House is behind what they are doing.
On the specific questions that she asked, Armed Forces day will go ahead as planned on 26 June. She asked about the £67 million spent on countering the IED threat and whether it is in addition to the patrol vehicles that are already on order. Yes; I can confirm that it is. She asked about the strategy generally and what has changed. What I would say—I note what the Foreign Secretary said in his speech on the Queen’s Speech—is that we are six months into the McChrystal-Obama strategy of the military and political surge and we want to see that strategy through, so there is continuity in that regard. We must be absolutely clear in our focus on the national security perspective of what we are doing. That is not to say that development work and the building of schools, hospitals and other things are not important—it is just to get our priorities straight. In the end, our route home and our route to a successful Afghanistan is to put security first. That needs to be very clear. On the question about development aid, the £200 million is additional to the existing work we are doing in Afghanistan.
I very much agree with what the right hon. and learned Lady said about backing the wives, partners and families of all those who serve in our armed forces. In recent years, we have put enormous pressure on those families and we need to do more to help them. I have RAF Brize Norton in my constituency and I know the very severe pressures that we put on people. In all the issues around military families—whether it is about the schools their children go to, the health centres they use or time for leave—we want to do more to help, and we are going to give real focus to that.
The right hon. and learned Lady asked about the strategic defence review and whether it would cover the size of the Army. Of course, it will cover all of the issues in defence. Finally, she quite rightly paid tribute to Sir Jock Stirrup and Bill Jeffrey, and I join her in paying tribute to them. They both have been, and are, extremely strong and dedicated public servants, and everyone in this country owes them that thank you. Sir Jock Stirrup, as the right hon. and learned Lady knows, actually extended his time as Chief of the Defence Staff before the election because he wanted to see continuity—he wanted to see that service continue—and I was very pleased that that happened. For some time he has had in mind standing down in the autumn, at the end of the strategic defence review—at the end of October—and that is indeed what he is going to do, and what Bill Jeffrey is going to do. That will give the new Government time to put in place a proper transition for a new Chief of the Defence Staff to take on the vital work that Sir Jock has done. Let me say again that he has done a superb job as Chief of the Defence Staff. I am working with him extremely well. He came with me on the trip to Afghanistan, and he deserves the gratitude of the House of Commons.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a risk of conflicting messages? We are saying on the one hand to the Taliban that we will not cut and run and that we will stay for as long as is needed to do the job, but on the other we are saying to the Afghan Government that there is urgency for them to sort out their corruption and their governance. Does my right hon. Friend give priority to leaving as soon as possible or staying for as long as is necessary?
First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his successful election as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence. I look forward to reading his reports over the course of this Parliament.
I do not think that there is a contradiction, because I think people in Afghanistan want to know that foreign troops will not be on their soil for an extended period, and it is right not to set an artificial deadline about when troops will leave but to do all the work we can to build up the Afghan security forces to give us the chance to leave, and to put pressure—yes, it is pressure sometimes—on the Afghan Government to do all they can to cut out corruption and put in place good governance. It is important that we get on with this work but, as I said, not to set artificial timetables that we then cannot meet.
Order. Several hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Colleagues will be conscious that there are a further two statements to follow, and two debates, so single, short supplementary questions and—I know—economical replies are the order of the day.
The Prime Minister referred very briefly to Pakistan and he did not take the opportunity to respond to the questions about Pakistan asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition. Can he give us his assessment of Pakistan’s role, for good or ill, across the Durand line, in a political solution and regional stability involving Afghanistan?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The role of Pakistan in this is vital. What is encouraging is that in all the conversations I have had with President Karzai across the past five years I have never heard him as positive about his relationship with Pakistan as now. Clearly, a stable Pakistan and a stable Afghanistan are two sides of the same coin. The encouraging thing right now is that the Pakistan Government and the Pakistan military are pursuing al-Qaeda in South Waziristan and other parts of the tribal areas, and that is making a difference. But of course we have to convince both the Pakistan Government and the Afghanistan Government that we are there for the long term—not the long term with troops, but the long term with support, aid, diplomacy and development—so that they do not think that we will leave them in the lurch once again.
May I commend the Prime Minister for confirming that our only justification for being in Afghanistan is not corruption or the poppy trade but national security? On that basis, will he also confirm that the decision when we start to withdraw our troops should be based not simply on the Afghan army having increased in size or training, but when we are satisfied that it has reached the level of training and ability to ensure that al-Qaeda cannot return?
My right hon. and learned Friend is right. It should be a focus on national security and when we can safely leave the job of securing Afghanistan to Afghan forces. That is not about numbers; it is about capability and he is right to measure it in that way.
On 26 May, during the Queen’s Speech debate, I said:
“It is time to assert the principle that war is too important a matter to be left to generals. We need to assert the authority of this House and the authority of a politically elected Government over the lack of strategy in Afghanistan.”—[Official Report, 26 May 2010; Vol. 510, c. 246.]
Therefore, I welcome the Prime Minister’s keen interest. We have had too much of this war dictated by the red tops, with their jingoism, and the red tabs, with the generals’ priorities before those of the nation. I wish the Prime Minister well in what is clearly a change of strategy, with a politically elected Government in charge.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. I was once told that the first sign of madness is to read out one’s own speeches, but I agree very much with a lot of what he said. It is important that the military feel that they can give unvarnished, clear advice to Ministers, but it is also important that Ministers test, probe and challenge that advice. That is how policy should be developed, and that is how it should be done in future.
Given that one of the problems in Afghanistan in the past has been mission creep, may I thank the Prime Minister for the clarity of his statement? He pointed out that we are still in the United States military surge phase. Can he assure me that, although the US military are already beginning to talk about a future draw-down, we will keep in constant touch with them to ensure that we operate on the same timeline? Will he keep in touch with not only the US but our NATO allies on this point?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and I look forward to the work that it will do.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: making sure that we work together with the Americans and our NATO allies is absolutely vital to success. One of the things that strikes me when I go to see what our troops are doing in Helmand is just how close that work is. Sometimes people wonder whether it is right that British troops in Sangin are under American command, and it is right to point out that all the American troops in Kandahar are under British command. Our forces work incredibly closely together, including in the hospitals, and it is a great sight to see.
Could the Prime Minister update the House on the progress made on opium and poppy production and say whether there is now a prison in Afghanistan that is secure enough to hold any of the opium traders should they be arrested?
I am grateful for that question. There has been progress, as the hon. Lady will know. The province with the worst record of opium production has tended to be Helmand, but production is significantly down this year. There is a question mark about how much of that is due to poppy blight, how much of it is due to the excellent wheat-seed substitution programme that the British Government have been supporting and how much of it is due to security efforts. It is important as part of the picture that, as we see a more secure Afghanistan, we see more farmers pursuing alternative livelihoods. But again, we need to get the order of priorities the right way around.
May I welcome both the Prime Minister’s statement and his visit, join him in paying tribute to the soldiers who have lost their lives and to all those who serve, and assure him that his—our—Liberal Democrat colleagues stand four square behind him in the policy that he has announced? May I ask him a question about the implications for policy at home? Will he now review the work of our domestic Departments to ensure that returning troops have full support for their mental, emotional and physical needs, including their housing, after they have served in theatre in Afghanistan?
I am grateful for that question. We have said that we will examine every part of the military covenant and ensure that we fulfil it in all the ways that we should. Housing is clearly a key part of that, and the previous Government, to be fair, were putting money into forces housing, which we need to go on improving. Mental health is the area that needs the most attention. If we think of the combat stress that has been placed on those young men, now year after year, we should really recognise that this is something that needs to go through the rest of their lives, and we need to learn from countries, such as America, where much more is done to follow up mental health issues. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) is particularly looking at this area, working between the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health.
Further to that question, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will meet a small delegation, together with me, sometime in the future to discuss this very issue? I serve on a panel of inquiry appointed by the Howard League for Penal Reform to consider this issue and why so many returnees end up in the criminal justice system. Will he spare some time to meet us sometime in the future?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and either I or the Defence Secretary would be happy to meet him and other colleagues. He makes a very good point: because the whole problem of mental health issues has not had enough attention, we are seeing former soldiers fall through the net and, as he says, too often end up either homeless on the streets or, on occasion, in the criminal justice system.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we are to achieve lasting security success in Afghanistan, it is imperative that we exert the maximum possible pressure on al-Qaeda and the Taliban on both sides of the border? Is it the Government’s policy to continue the programme of bilateral counter-terrorism co-operation between the British Government and the Pakistan Government initiated by the previous Government here?
Yes, it absolutely is our policy to continue that work. The vital role that will be played by Pakistan will encourage it to go on driving al-Qaeda out of the badlands of the tribally administered areas. That is taking place, partly because there is good security and military co-operation, and there is a sense among the Pakistan Government and military that both the British and the Americans are there for a long-term relationship, to help them with this vital work.
Given that our forces are engaged in Pakistan, does the Prime Minister share my anger about how the departure of the Chief of the Defence Staff was announced—in an interview between the Defence Secretary and a national newspaper? Did not the CDS deserve rather better than that?
As I said, the Chief of the Defence Staff had for some time been intending to stand aside in the autumn after seeing through the strategic defence review, which is a vital piece of work. That is an appropriate time for him to do so. This is a good moment to pay tribute to the work that he has done, which has been genuinely good—I saw it myself in Afghanistan—and the very good leadership that he has given our armed forces.
I join my right hon. Friend and the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) in their tributes to two more of our fallen heroes. As some of us in all parts of the House have been pointing out ad nauseam since 2006 that this was an undermanned and underequipped Army, how does my right hon. Friend think it came about that four successive Labour Defence Secretaries were so uninformed?
My hon. Friend takes a very strong view about this issue, and I have listened to him talk about it many times. He is right to say that we went into Helmand province with far too few soldiers and without a clear enough idea of how dangerous the insurgency could become. We also—I made this criticism in opposition—did not have sufficient helicopters and did not move fast enough on vehicles and other equipment programmes. We have to start from where we are and ask ourselves what it is right to do now, and it is right to give this new strategy set out by Stanley McChrystal and President Obama time to work by having a correct number of forces on the ground to deliver proper counter-insurgency and build up the Afghan army and police force so that we can bring those troops back home. The point in the end is, what will make our country safer? Our country will be safer if we can leave behind an Afghanistan that, although it may not be a perfect democracy or a brilliant society, has some level of stability so that it is not a haven for terrorism.
Next year the British and American troops will have been 10 years in Afghanistan. It has cost the lives of hundreds of coalition soldiers and thousands of Afghan people, and the war has spread into Pakistan and created instability in the region. Is the right hon. Gentleman utterly convinced that this strategy of long-term military engagement with Afghanistan is not the cause of future problems and that we should not be thinking of an alternative process of involvement and negotiation rather than constant military activity?
Let me try to find some common cause with the hon. Gentleman. I agree with him to this extent: we will not solve this problem by military means alone. There should be a political process, a process for the Taliban to lay down their arms and rejoin Afghan society and, yes, a process led by the Afghan Government of engaging with the Taliban. However, there have to be some red lines. There has to be an acceptance of the Afghan constitution, an acceptance that everything must be done by peaceful means and, above all, the severing of any link with al-Qaeda. So a political process, yes, but let us not pretend that that will come if we walk away militarily.
Does the Prime Minister accept that al-Qaeda, as an international terrorist organisation, if it is suppressed in Afghanistan and Pakistan will begin to operate from any one or more of half a dozen other potential harbouring states? Given that it is out of the question that we could ever try to tackle that problem in the extremely costly way that we have tackled Afghanistan, will he undertake to view with an open mind the sovereign base bridgehead solution, which I hope to have an opportunity to discuss with him presently?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I know that he has considerable expertise in this area. He is right to say that there are other parts of the world where al-Qaeda is, regrettably, quite strongly established, including Yemen and Somalia, but it seems to me that that does not negate the need to do what is possible to deliver a basic level of security in Afghanistan, so that at least that country cannot once again become home to al-Qaeda. Doing that at the same time as working with the Pakistan Government can actually help to stabilise a region from which huge amounts of terrorism have come. In terms of the sovereign base idea, I am happy to look at it, and to discuss my hon. Friend’s ideas with him, but I think that a military surge that is part of a counter-insurgency must be given time to work.
In accepting that security and a political solution are of the utmost importance, will the Prime Minister be mindful of the need to advance human rights in Afghanistan? What progress can he report? Will he confirm that there will be no return to the oppression, particularly of women, that was suffered in Afghanistan in the Taliban years?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. I think that some progress has been made. When I say, “Look, we’re not going to end up with a perfect democracy or a brilliant society,” it does not mean that those things do not matter; they do. It is just about ordering our priorities. For instance, at the recent peace jirga, something like 20% or more of the representatives were women. I noted at my press conference with President Karzai that whereas the entire British press were made up of young, white men, all the questions from the Afghan press were from women, which I thought was a sign in itself.
The Prime Minister has rightly recognised how important the integrated nature of the military operation is, and how the coalition forces are together trying to achieve security for Afghanistan. Does he have a commitment from our coalition partners that they have understood the message that we can leave only once security is established, as the population in Afghanistan has to believe that we have the commitment to see the job through to the end?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. He will know that the Canadians and the Dutch have made their own decision about timetables, but it is very important to do all that we can to encourage other NATO allies—I met representatives of the Danish and Estonian military while in Afghanistan—and to ensure that all other NATO partners remain committed to the task, particularly in this most vital year, when the number of troops has increased in the way that I have described, and when there is a real chance of delivering a proper counter-insurgency strategy that protects the people, pushes the Taliban out and delivers that basic level of stability that we want to see.
The Prime Minister will be aware that the 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment includes many of my constituents who were formally of the Cheshire Regiment, so I thank him for his statement. He rightly says that the military effort must be the highest priority in the campaign but, given his visits and the reports that he has received, may I ask him to reflect on the engineering resource on the ground? There is no doubt that the engineering resource helps massively with the military effort, but it also helps to rebuild communications, which can in turn help the governance of the country. Is he satisfied that it is at the right level?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. No, I do not think that we have made as much progress as we should have done on the engineering front. Let us take, for instance, the issue of the Kajaki dam: that should be delivering a lot more electricity to a lot more people in Afghanistan. Progress has not been anything like as fast as we would have hoped. That is the sort of tangible progress that people in Afghanistan want to see, to demonstrate that life is now better than it was under the Taliban. We have to deliver that as part of the message of security and stability that will enable us to leave.
May I commend and support my right hon. Friend’s determination and commitment personally to take responsibility for what our armed forces are seeking to achieve in Afghanistan? Is he aware, however, that there has for a long time been a widespread perception that while we are fighting a war in Afghanistan, Whitehall has not been on the same wartime footing and has not been tackling problems with the urgency that those in our armed services would expect? What is he doing to put Whitehall on a war footing and, in his absence, will he appoint a Secretary of State for Afghanistan to drive things forward?
My hon. Friend takes a great interest in these matters. We have put Whitehall on much more of a war footing, not least by appointing a National Security Council and a national security adviser, who met on day one of the new Government. That is a difference, and it is driving the policy. That message has got through clearly to the Ministry of Defence. Obviously, there are sometimes time lags in getting equipment out to the front line, but we are doing everything we can to make sure that that happens and that the commitment is there.
The Prime Minister has focused most of his remarks on security issues—rightly and understandably so. Can he say a little more about the development angles of our strategy in Afghanistan, and in particular, what, if any, changes he sees in the overall development strategy, how he feels about the so-called whole Afghanistan strategy which looks beyond Helmand and Kandahar to other parts of Afghanistan, and how he feels about the use of instruments such as the Afghan reconstruction trust fund for the disbursement of assistance? Finally, will he revisit the International Development Committee’s report from nearly two and a half years ago, which still has relevant messages to give about development strategies in Afghanistan?
I agree with what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) says about a whole Afghanistan strategy. We must be careful not to be over-focused on Helmand province, although I make no excuse for that, as that is where troops are. In the end, the whole campaign and mission will be judged by progress in Helmand. With reference to how we are changing our strategy, it is to make sure that it is focused, particularly on the issues of security and helping to deliver that security. On too many occasions in the past five years, people working hard for DFID have not been able to get out into Afghanistan to deliver aid projects because there is not enough security, so we have to get that right first.
One of the many problems with our involvement in Afghanistan is that there has in the past been confusion about the key objective, so I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today, although I remain to be convinced that it can be achieved. Given that there has to be a political solution as well as a military one, how worried is he by the recent resignations from President Karzai’s Government of the chief of intelligence and the Interior Minister? Will he support President Karzai in seeking the compromise that is needed?
I discussed with President Karzai the resignation of the two Ministers, to which my hon. Friend referred, and the prospects for political settlement and for reintegration. That, combined with the military surge, will be vital to securing the future of Afghanistan and enabling us to bring our troops back home. In the end, particularly in southern Afghanistan, people must feel that they are part of the Government, and that it represents them. That process of reintegration, with the red lines that have been laid down, is a vital part of making that country more secure.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his commitment not just to the House, but to Afghanistan. It has been clear that our forces over there were undermanned. Instead of fighting one five-year war, we have been fighting five one-year wars. The various bases along the Helmand valley where British troops are now taking down the flags should be handed over not to the Afghans, but to the Americans. This is a repeat of Basra. Will the Prime Minister, along with the Defence Secretary, commit himself to counter-insurgency? We have always been good at that, but now we have been leapfrogged by the Americans.
I am grateful for the question and I know that my hon. Friend has great experience of Afghanistan, including having travelled there a great deal. I do not agree with him, though, that there is somehow a repeat of Basra, as he put it. Under the counter-insurgency strategy we are making sure that we have the correct number of forces spread across Helmand and across Afghanistan to deliver counter-insurgency. In some cases, as he knows, that means moving forces from one place to another to make sure that they are thick enough across the whole ground. It is welcome that there are now 20,000 US marines in Helmand. That should enable us to deliver such security, so we should not be in any way worried or ashamed or anything like that if we move the disposition of our forces around Helmand with our US allies. That is part of delivering a successful outcome.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. This autumn, soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade, from Colchester garrison, will be deployed to Afghanistan for the third time. In the Prime Minister’s statement on equipment, he did not mention unmanned aerial vehicles. Bearing in mind that UAVs are a very welcome tool in identifying insurgents and those who lay improvised explosive devices, will he give a commitment that UAVs will be very much there and part of the equipment programme?
I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. On previous trips to Afghanistan, I have had proper presentations on the work of UAVs, drones, Predators, Reapers and other such projects, and what they are able to do is incredibly impressive. A great deal of British investment is going into those technologies, too, and we will ensure that they can be deployed as quickly as possible.
When I recently spoke to soldiers from the Grenadier Guards who had just returned from Afghanistan, they made the point that the Afghan national police equipment is incredibly poor but the police themselves are very good, so will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister please address that as a key issue?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The problem has been not just equipment but recruiting, training and retaining good police officers, and obviously we had that appalling incident at Nad Ali last year. This cause has come out among Members from all parts of the House: for too long not enough focus was given to the most important things in Afghanistan, of which training the police was absolutely key. The effort is now going in. I met American and British police trainers, and the police training college in Lashkar Gah is now turning out very good police officers, but for too long that particular issue was ignored.
Certainly I had a presentation out in Afghanistan on the equipment now being used and the training undertaken, and what our troops are able to do is incredibly impressive. The truth—I am sure that the former Defence Secretary will agree—is that we have to keep on investing and catching up with the latest technologies that the enemy use, because they are incredibly cunning at trying to find new ways of making those things even harder to find.