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Volume 513: debated on Monday 5 July 2010

9. What his most recent assessment is of the security situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (5312)

We recognise that the security situation in Afghanistan remains very serious. However, we remain committed to protecting the Afghan civilian population and to developing the Afghan national security forces, to enable them to take on the lead for security themselves.

Given that the development of the Afghan national forces is critical to the eventual withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, will my hon. Friend please advise the House on how the training and equipment of the Afghan national forces is progressing?

There are currently about 119,000 members of the Afghan national army and about 104,000 members of the Afghan national police in Afghanistan. Targets for significant increases in both the army and police, supported by the international community, were agreed at the London conference. I remind my hon. Friend that that target is 171,000 members of the army and 134,000 members of the police by the end of next year. That would take the total security force numbers to more than 300,000.

A detailed American investigation into the Afghan army reports that a third of this group of drug-addicted mercenaries desert every year and that its members have little or no loyalty to their election-rigging President, their own Government or international Governments. Why on earth do we expect to build a stable Afghanistan on that crumbling foundation?

I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description. I visited Afghanistan just two weeks ago and British and American armed forces spoke very well of their Afghan colleagues. Nobody pretends that the situation is perfect, but we are involved in an embedded partnering relationship with the Afghan national army to try to ensure that the highest degree of skill and professionalism continues to grow and develop. We are impressed with what it has done so far; it is increasingly able both to plan and execute missions in its own right, and I have no doubt whatever that we are continuing to progress in the right direction.

I, too, have been out to see the Afghan national army being trained in Afghanistan. My impression is that it has been doing extremely well under the brilliant professionalism of the British instructors. But does the Minister accept that the police are much more worrying and have hugely further to go? The issue is about not just how many there are but the quality of their training. Can we not get more help from the Metropolitan police or other British police forces to help with their training?

In recent years, it has certainly been true that there have been concerns about the police not being as good as the army. However, I think that that situation is being rapidly addressed and that there is a tangible improvement in the training being given to the Afghan national police. The Helmand police training centre is based strongly on western models. There is a lot of western assistance in there, and most recent reports say that the quality of police recruits has improved tangibly on what it was like a couple years ago.

Can the Minister for the Armed Forces help to clear up some of the recent confusion on Afghan policy? The Prime Minister seems to be saying, both in the House and elsewhere, that there is a deadline—that all our troops will be out of Afghanistan by the end of the Parliament, by 2014. The Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary appear to be saying something slightly different. And we now have Lord Guthrie; I am so pleased to be able to quote Lord Guthrie. He warns us that

“The Army doesn’t want a government that dithers.”

I agree. Is there a deadline?

The key to our exit from Afghanistan is that we want to see the Afghans take control of their own security. They are not able to do that yet, but will be better able to do it as time goes on. As they progressively do that, our own troop numbers will come right down and our role will completely change. The process of handing provinces and districts to Afghan control will take place on the basis of an assessment of the facts on the ground. However, the Prime Minister has made it very clear that there will not be British troops in a combat role or in significant numbers in five years’ time. Of course, troops will still be there in a training role, as part of a wider diplomatic relationship like that which we have with other countries.