Mr Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to update the House on our operations in Afghanistan. As the Prime Minister has said, we intend to make regular updates to the House.
As this is a complex subject, I have made maps available to assist hon. Members. I am grateful to you for your support, Mr Speaker. These are now available in the Vote Office, and the Whips on both sides of the House are distributing them. In addition, I will obviously be happy to arrange further briefings at the Ministry of Defence, should Members find them useful.
The Prime Minister reminded us today of the ongoing sacrifices made by our armed forces in Afghanistan. In the face of such losses, we should be in no doubt about the importance of the mission—particularly today, the fifth anniversary of the London bombings in 2005. It is vital to our national security that we have a stable Afghanistan that is able to maintain its own security and prevent al-Qaeda from returning.
As I made clear in Washington last week, we are a committed member of the international coalition of 46 countries in Afghanistan. We have a clear political strategy, and a clear military counter-insurgency plan to support it. The focus now is on delivering, and we can be confident that General Petraeus will build on the considerable success of General McChrystal.
We face many challenges. Progress has been slower in some areas than others, particularly on the political side. We can expect success in counter-insurgency to be gradual, cumulative and hard won, but there has, nevertheless, been considerable progress. Through a UK lens, it would be easy to assume that all of Afghanistan is like Helmand. In fact, many parts of the country are largely secure, with low levels of violence. In Kabul, the Afghans themselves have assumed responsibility for security, and have proved themselves capable of dealing with the localised threats that have emerged.
We are also making good progress on building up the Afghan security forces, so that this pattern can be repeated elsewhere. The Afghan army has been growing steadily over the years—and by 20% in recent months—to about 130,000 troops now. We are playing our part, and the Government have recently approved the expenditure of up to £189 million on new surveillance, communications and logistics equipment for our bases, as part of Britain’s ongoing commitment to support the effective partnering of the Afghan security forces.
In southern Afghanistan, the story of this year has been one of the Afghans themselves increasingly coming to the fore in the fight against the insurgency. In Kandahar, and under the direct oversight of President Karzai, Afghan security forces are leading operations as part of a rising tide of security in order to set the conditions for improved Afghan governance. In Helmand, Afghan and international security assistance force units have together succeeded in expanding the authority of the Afghan Government to 11 out of the 14 districts, by driving insurgent fighters out of the population centres of Babaji and Nad-e-Ali, while consolidating previous gains in Lashkar Gah, Now Zad, Nawa and Gereshk. The situation in Marjah remains challenging, but counter-insurgencies are about progressively winning the confidence of the local people, and the US Marines are well placed to succeed.
Elsewhere in central Helmand, where our presence is more established, we have seen considerable success. In Nad-e-Ali, British troops have been operating alongside the Afghans to secure the district centre and allow unfettered access to local roads Improved security is allowing effective governance to flourish and trade to grow. In May, for example, around 3,000 Nad-e-Ali residents elected a more representative district community council. ISAF now intends to reinforce this success. For that reason, I have accepted an ISAF request for a temporary deployment of elements of our theatre reserve battalion, the 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. The theatre reserve battalion is a standing force based in Cyprus, which I have instructed should be used only for time-limited deployments to fulfil specific tasks. This deployment will meet those criteria. The additional forces will be used to give commanders additional flexibility to reinforce progress in central Helmand this summer.
In a counter-insurgency campaign, the people are the prize. It is hugely important that we strike the right balance between the numbers of the civilian population and the size of the security forces available to protect them. The Prime Minister and I regularly argued in opposition that British troops in Helmand were too thinly spread and that we had insufficient force densities for effective counter-insurgency. That is why we welcome the arrival of more than 18,000 US Marines, whose presence is allowing us to deliver a better and more realistic distribution of tasks within the international coalition.
As the House is aware, ISAF has already transferred security responsibility for Musa Qala and Kajaki to US forces, who are building on our achievements there. Lieutenant General Rodriguez, ISAF’s operational commander, will today announce the next phase of this process—I understand that he will do so within the next hour. ISAF intends to restructure its forces in the Farah and Nimroz provinces so that it can consolidate a US marine brigade in northern Helmand, which will assume responsibility for security in Sangin later this year. This will simplify current command arrangements and enable UK troops to be redeployed to reinforce progress in the key districts of central Helmand. The theatre reserve battalion will then withdraw. The result will be a coherent and equitable division of the main populated areas of Helmand between three brigade-sized forces, with the US in the north and south, and the UK-led Task Force Helmand, alongside our Danish and Estonian allies, in the central population belt.
We have been closely consulted by ISAF, and fully support this plan. In Sangin, UK forces have made huge progress in the face of great adversity. The district centre has been transformed. Helmand, as a whole, is a safer place as a result of our endeavours and sacrifices there. I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to those who have lost their lives in Sangin, and those who continue to serve there.
The operations in Afghanistan, though geographically distant, are of vital importance to our national security. On the ground, we continue to make progress. There will be hard days ahead, but the further changes that I have announced will mean more manpower and greater focus for the key terrain of central Helmand. We have the right strategy, and we are determined to succeed. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Defence Secretary for his statement, for early sight of it and for the indications that he gave me yesterday about the broad outline of what he was going to say today. That is good news for our ability to continue to support, from all parts of the House, our forces’ operations in Helmand province.
I welcome what the Defence Secretary said about his commitment to regular updates to the House, and his offer of briefings in the Ministry of Defence, but will he consider continuing the direct military briefings that started last year for Members here at the House of Commons? They were appreciated by Members on both sides, and I know that the all-party Army group has written to him and asked him to continue them. If he could, that would be appreciated. I know that it is onerous in terms of his time, but I ask him to consider doing so.
I totally agree about the purpose of the mission. Our forces are in Afghanistan to protect our national security and to keep us safe. The right hon. Gentleman says that we have a clear counter-insurgency plan and the military tactics to support that plan, but he knows that there is some concern and confusion over whether there are deadlines. Will the Government do their level best to clear up that confusion, so that people know the exact commitments? Is our combat mission in Afghanistan to continue on a conditions-based footing until the Afghan forces can take over, as was the situation, or is there a very clear deadline from the new Government stating that our combat mission will end on a particular date, irrespective of the conditions in Afghanistan? It is enormously important to clear up that point.
The right hon. Gentleman felt the need to say that, in opposition, he and the current Prime Minister repeatedly said that there were issues of force density, but I ask him to accept that it was not only he in opposition who felt the need to concentrate on and deal with force densities, because we in government had exactly the same priorities. Before force densities could be addressed, however, we needed to have someone to hand those districts on to, so, before the arrival of the American uplift, we could not hand on Musa Qala, Kajaki or Sangin to anyone other than the Taliban. Thankfully, the American uplift now gives us an opportunity to rebalance our forces in Afghanistan, and we have been doing that for some time. I understand that his announcement today is simply a continuation of an ongoing process. Does that effectively end the need for force rebalancing? In the British area of operations, do we now have the same ratio of forces to population as the Americans have on their side of the line?
The right hon. Gentleman said that Marjah is very challenging. Does he intend to deploy elements, as he said, of the theatre reserve battalion to the American—Marjah—area of operations? If so, for how long, and in what numbers? He says “elements”. Does that mean the whole theatre reserve battalion? Do we now, effectively, have no reserve for the rest of the deployment, or are some elements of the theatre reserve battalion still available to cover other contingencies that might arise?
We had already agreed in principle to hand command in Sangin over to the American brigade. I understand that the Secretary of State is now saying that it is not only in terms of command—the Americans themselves will take over in Sangin. When will that happen? Has he any idea what forces will be deployed, and in what numbers, into the Sangin area?
Does the Secretary of State accept that there will be mixed emotions, and pretty deep emotions, among many elements of our armed forces who have served in Helmand—not only those who have experienced injury, but those who have lost loved ones, which includes families back here, and everybody who has served in the most dangerous part of our theatre of operations? Our forces went out there on a daily basis to patrol, fully knowing the risks that they faced, and the whole House must pay tribute to the immense bravery, courage and resilience that they have shown over a period of time. They have achieved some considerable improvements in Sangin, but I think that the Defence Secretary will accept that we are still handing on a challenge. We have not got as far as we ideally would have hoped to get in Helmand before this hand-on.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the specific proposals that I have set out today and for his general support on the mission in Afghanistan. He was very generous with the briefings that he made available to the Opposition when he was in government, and we will continue the same courtesy. I also fully intend to continue the briefings for Members of Parliament begun under the previous Government; they are very valuable. In addition, as I said, if we are able to provide more detailed briefings in the Ministry of Defence, we are happy to do so. We should not, in any way, shape or form, be shy about providing any Member of this House with the information they require to make better sense of what is happening in this most important national security mission.
The shadow Secretary of State is entirely correct that it took until the American surge was fully under way for us to be better able to have sensible force densities. He asked me directly about comparisons between the British and Americans. Combat Team North has a population of 441,000, which is 37% of the population; Task Force Helmand has 388,000, or 32%; and Combat Team South has 370,000, or 31%. These are much better matches in terms of force density. He asks if this will effectively be it. Well, not necessarily, as there will be changes in the mission, but we will want to continue this pattern, or shape, in terms of force density. As he says, we have reached the end point, at least for now, of a process that began some time ago.
On the size of the theatre reserve, we will have some 300 personnel, and they will stay there until October. The size of the current UK force is about 1,000—I think that the exact number is 1,008. The exact number that the Americans put in will of course be for their commanders to determine in terms of the security situation that they find.
As regards 2015, I can only repeat what the Prime Minister has said—that British troops will not be there in a combat role, or in significant numbers, in five years’ time, but we can expect them to still be there in a training role. There will be a continued need for us to ensure that the quality of the Afghan national security forces is adequate. I echo the point that he made by saying that we are very fortunate in this country to have a volunteer Army—people who are willing to put their life and limb at risk on a voluntary basis for the security of this country, its people and its interests. We are deeply honoured and privileged to have such people in our armed forces.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and particularly what he said about the ratio of troops to local population.
General McChrystal instigated a change of policy so that our troops should fire only when they were absolutely sure that Afghan civilians would not be put at risk. Inevitably, that put our troops at a greater degree of risk, but with the longer-term aim of maintaining the support of the local population. Is any change to that policy being considered?
Although I am not completely convinced about the reasons for the movements that the Secretary of State described today, in fairness, I do not have the facts and intelligence that he has. I am also concerned about the Prime Minister’s statement that we should be out of Afghanistan in five years, which has been repeated. Will that statement encourage or discourage the Taliban in their operations against our forces?
We intend to follow the strategy through. We believe that it is the correct strategy, and that it is likely to produce success in the time scales outlined. I should reiterate to the hon. Gentleman that General McChrystal initially assessed that the Afghan national security forces would be able to take on the role themselves in 2013. We amended that as part of the strategy, to 2014, because we believe that that is a more realistic target. What the Prime Minister set out is entirely consistent with the strategy. The Afghan national security forces can be expected to take full control of their own security by 2014, as set out in the strategy by General McChrystal.
Five years ago to the day, we were attacked not by Afghans, but by Yorkshiremen. They were trained not in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan and the Lake district. The previous Government insisted on telling us that conventional military operations would somehow impede that sort of attack in future, but that is clearly nonsense. Will the Secretary of State come to the Dispatch Box and explain that we are involved in a regional war that stretches right the way from Iran to Russia, that that is as much about fighting for Pakistan’s stability as Afghanistan’s stability, and that the lives and blood of our servicemen and women are being shed in a crucial cause?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for the points he makes, which will resonate across the House. It is clear—as it always has been, to the credit of the previous Government—that this is not just about Afghanistan, but about Pakistan. Increasingly, on both sides of the Atlantic and throughout the international coalition, it is recognised that we are dealing with a regional problem, and that without success in Pakistan and the full co-operation of the Pakistani authorities in dealing with the Pakistan Taliban and the Afghan Taliban, we would find the mission in Afghanistan much more difficult.
I am happy to reiterate my hon. Friend’s points. This is a vital national security mission. We cannot simply wish it away. If I could make one wish, it would be that all countries in the international coalition show the same resolve displayed by our armed forces in burden sharing effectively, with the minimum of caveats, to ensure that we are absolutely able to deliver the maximum effect for the international coalition’s mission.
I disagree with the broad consensus on Afghanistan, and have done so for some time. Is the Secretary of State aware that the question every Member of the House should ask whenever they sit in the Chamber is this: how many more British soldiers—I pay tribute to their bravery—will die or be seriously injured before the talks begin with the enemy? General Richards, the most senior British general, says that such talks are more or less inevitable. I believe that the war is unwinnable, and that it does not help in the fight against terrorism; other hon. Members say that the war is essential in that.
There are a number of points to make in response to the hon. Gentleman. I fully accept that he has long held the view that the war was not justified, but we must agree to disagree on that. I believe that it is a vital national security mission for this country. There has never been any doubt that ultimately there must be a political element. The international coalition, the previous Government and this Government have always held the view that we cannot win the wider regional conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan by military means alone.
There is difficulty in determining who is reconcilable to the Afghan constitution and Government and who is not—that is an ongoing process—but I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The measure of a conflict or war is not the number of those who, sadly, die, but whether we succeed in our mission and strategy. I believe that we should at all times see our armed forces not as victims, but as champions of the freedoms and security that they are trying to bring for our country. I am sure that that is how they would like to be seen: as victors, not victims.
My right hon. Friend is undoubtedly the right man in the right role, and he is loyally defending a strategy even though it might not be the right one. Does he accept that there is a fundamental tension between classic counter-insurgency warfare down among the people, which takes many years to bring to a conclusion, and the statement made by the Foreign Secretary yesterday? He said that
“there will not be British troops in a combat role or in significant numbers in Afghanistan in five years’ time”—[Official Report, 6 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 168.]
If we are not to sacrifice our strategic interests in the area, will the Defence Secretary hold himself open to the possibility that a plan B might be necessary if plan A does not work out on schedule?
The Government believe, in alliance with the United States and the other members of the international coalition, that we have the correct strategy. We believe that the counter-insurgency aim of protecting the population, and of providing them with security so that there is a space for better governance, is the correct strategy.
There is a difference between our national security mission to ensure that Afghanistan can develop in a way that enables the Afghan forces to look after their own security, and the wider mission of reconstruction and development—that is complementary to, but not the same as, the national security mission—which will have to be undertaken for a very long time, given the social state of Afghanistan.
I support the Secretary of State’s response to the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick). On the question of dialogue with the Taliban, we need to be clear that it would be entirely unacceptable for us to discuss the future of Afghanistan with them at the same time as they are killing our soldiers in that country. Should not we draw on the lessons from Northern Ireland and other theatres of conflict? We should require a clear and unequivocal ceasefire by the Taliban and some degree of commitment to non-violent principles before there can be any question of dialogue with them.
Although in principle I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman, we must be clear what we are dealing with. The Taliban covers a broad range of different groupings—there is no single Taliban commander or a Taliban army with a Taliban uniform—and it is advantageous to find the groups among them who are reconcilable to the process, and to bring them on board to create a critical mass of support. That can only help us in our wider counter-insurgency aims. We should also reflect on the terms we use—not just “the Taliban”, but “the insurgency”—and ask whether there are a number of discrete insurgencies rather than just one, just as there are a number of discrete groups that we tend to call “the Taliban.” If the House accepts that we are dealing with greater complexity than is sometimes described, we might find it easier to understand the complexity of some of the solutions that we and the Afghan Government must find.
The Afghan national army is now larger than the British Army. The Secretary of State referred to the international coalition of 46 countries in Afghanistan. I pay tribute to Denmark and Estonia, but the simple fact is that none of our major European allies have had troops on the ground in Helmand province. Bearing in mind that soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade will this September make their third deployment to Helmand, will he confirm that the new surveillance equipment will include additional unmanned aerial vehicles, because they must be a great way of identifying insurgents and those planting improvised explosive devices?
My hon. Friend is correct. We have to make available the full range of ways in which we can deal with IEDs, including UAVs. The subject of our NATO allies has been raised by previous Defence Secretaries, and I raised it at the NATO ministerial meeting, where there was what I would have called when I was in the Foreign Office a full and frank exchange of views on burden sharing in NATO. I would flag up just one issue, however. As we move into the transition phase in Afghanistan, with districts being handed over to the Afghan Government, it would be very unwise for the alliance to believe that that was an excuse for it to leave Afghanistan, or for any members of the alliance to do so and thereby leave only a small number of countries in the most difficult areas. During the transition period, it is essential that we look to have a NATO strategy that ensures that burden-sharing continues to the end of the mission, and that there is not an easy bail-out for those who just happen to have been in some of the quieter areas.
This October will be the ninth anniversary of the deployment of British troops into Afghanistan, 300 of whom have died. Thousands of Afghan people have also died, and the war has spread over into Pakistan and is in danger of spreading into other countries as well. What on earth would the Secretary of State say constitutes victory in Afghanistan, before the withdrawal inevitably takes place?
“Victory” is a word I do not use; I talk instead about success in Afghanistan. On the national security mission we have set ourselves, I would describe success as a stable enough Afghanistan that is able to manage its own internal and external security without the need for external intervention. There is of course the Pakistani problem to be dealt with as well, which will require us to give considerable help in a number of different areas to the Government of Pakistan. There is not going to be a moment when we can hoist up a flag say, “This is a victory.” There will be ways in which we measure success in terms of national security, but the regional problems are likely to continue for some time, and if we are serious about the national security of the United Kingdom we cannot simply turn a blind eye and wish them away.
Does the Secretary of State agree, however, that we went into Afghanistan on the wrong premise? We were told we were going there to protect Londoners going to work. We now know that al-Qaeda has moved most of its operations to Pakistan, and that most of the Taliban whom we kill die within 20 miles of where they were born, so why are we there? Is it to hold territory, which nobody has ever succeeded in doing in Afghanistan—not even the Soviets with 240,000 people? If it is to fight a dirty war and keep heads down, why do we not place more reliance on special forces, rather than let the British Army carry on bleeding to death?
My hon. Friend knows that we never comment whatsoever on special forces and what they do, but we are in Afghanistan to give the Afghan Government space to develop the skills in governance and security, so that when we do leave we do not leave behind an ungoverned space into which, as a security vacuum, elements of transnational terrorism are once again drawn.
I sometimes wonder whether the general public remember the chronology correctly. I was in the United States last week, where a woman said to me, “If we hadn’t been in Afghanistan, we would never have had 9/11.” We need to remember that we did not seek this confrontation; it was brought to our streets and cities against our will. We did not seek this conflict, but we will see it through to its conclusion.
This morning some of us met Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special representative in Afghanistan, who pointed out the importance of the mission to women in Afghanistan. They have returned to the professions and to the schools, and that should not be underestimated. Perhaps there are never enough women in the Ministry of Defence, because this point is never made in the Chamber.
As I said, we are providing the security environment in which the Afghan Government can, over time, develop not only their own security structures but better governance, and part of that better governance has to be a full understanding of human rights, and that human rights apply irrespective of race or creed or gender.
Many years ago during the Gulf war, I accused the BBC of being the Baghdad broadcasting corporation. I am very concerned that there is now a similar situation with the Taliban, in that they are getting far too high a profile. The news this morning is that, apparently, it is a defeat that we are moving troops around in Sangin. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the media must be very responsible when reporting propaganda from our enemies, and that they need to take a close look at this?
I think it is good counsel for the BBC and the media generally, and for Members of the House, that we use reasonable language and are balanced in our views when discussing this issue. We have a large number of serving men and women in Afghanistan, and they will listen to what we say and to what the media say. That is also true of those who are our enemies in that part of the world. Clarity and honesty would be two very useful tools. I also think, however, that we need to use information. For that reason, I have asked a group of our national newspaper editors to come to the MOD in the near future for a detailed briefing, simply in order that they can understand the facts on the ground and get them first hand from the military, so that there is no excuse for misreporting the facts in future.
Good progress has been made on the number of Afghan national police, but to be frank with the hon. Lady, that is not really my concern. My concern is the quality of the recruits to the Afghan national police, and what we need to do is not to have them recruited and then trained, but trained and then put in place. That is a vital mission for the whole of the international coalition. The issue was widely discussed at the NATO ministerial meeting at a number of different levels, and I think there is growing acceptance that providing policing and law and order, not at a Supreme Court level but in terms of dispute resolution and effective policing at the very lowest level, is one of the ways to deny the political and social space that the Taliban will otherwise occupy.
All countries tend to see Afghanistan in different ways depending on the focus of their national media. There are countries that see Kandahar as being Afghanistan, and there are countries that see Kabul as being Afghanistan. We tend to see Helmand as being Afghanistan. It is useful if people understand that across the country as a whole, a lot of progress has been made on security. Those Members who have been travelling to Afghanistan over a period of time will have noticed that, for example, in Kabul there is a great difference in the security arrangements and how easy it is to move around the city. Clearly, that has not yet spread to enough parts of the country, but we are getting close to transition. While it is understandable that we and our media focus on our casualties and the fatalities that we, very sadly, have taken, we also need to show the other side of the ledger to the public—the successes being achieved in Afghanistan. That is vital if we are to maintain public support, which is a very important part of our resilience in a democracy.
Unusually, I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on these matters. Can the Secretary of State tell the House how many of our 46 coalition partners have set a date for the end of combat operations, and if he were a Taliban commander in Helmand, would he be more encouraged or less encouraged to continue his insurgency knowing that such a date had been set?
I think the best way to deal with the elements of the Taliban is to show our commitment to the strategy itself—to show that we are willing to put the forces on the ground and that we are in full support of the strategy as set out by General McChrystal and now being carried forward by General Petraeus. I hope the increase in US troop numbers and some of the movements I have set out today will leave our enemies in Afghanistan in no doubt as to our seriousness about taking and holding territory and improving security on behalf of the Afghan Government.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Does he agree that the challenge in Afghanistan is to turn military success into “hearts and minds” success on the ground, so that the public there see some advantage from our military success? In doing that, we will achieve two things: we will make it less likely that it will be a training ground for terrorists, and more likely that we will get a political settlement.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. As I said earlier, it is not possible to separate entirely the military elements from the wider political elements. Indeed, the whole point of the counter-insurgency strategy is people-centric: it is there to give greater security to the people of Afghanistan and to give them greater confidence in the ability of their Government to provide that security later. When we are making some of these arguments, we must also remember that as we win what he describes as the “hearts and minds” battle in the counter-insurgency strategy, that also provides us with better intelligence. The greater the proportion of the Afghan population who feel secure, the more likely we are to get information that will tell us who is planting IEDs and where. That is what ultimately happened in Iraq, and that counter-insurgency strategy and those same themes will apply in Afghanistan.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. One of my concerns, which has been voiced by other Members, is about media speculation. Some of the papers referred to retreat today, but there is no retreat: the fact is that some soldiers’ tour of duty is coming to an end. Will he state clearly to everyone, including those in the media who perhaps do not have the ears to listen but who need to listen, that what is being done is tactical and is not being done for any other reason? Earlier, the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) spoke about his constituent who had lost two legs and an arm, and about his great courage. One could not fail to be touched by his comments. On behalf of the soldiers who have returned injured and the 99 who have died, we need a commitment from the media to support the troops in the way that we clearly have.
What I have announced today makes complete military and strategic sense. It is what commanders in ISAF wanted to happen to make full use of the forces that we have. Our forces in Sangin have done a wonderful job, as will the US Marines after them. When our forces leave Sangin and move into central Helmand, they will do so with their heads held high, rightly proud of their achievements. Any attempt by anyone to describe that as a retreat is quite contemptible.
I pay tribute to my old regiment, the 1st Battalion Scots Guards, who are currently serving in Helmand province and who will be not only delighted but encouraged by the fact that the redeployment will bring better focus. Working closely with the United States makes them remember that they are not alone. Is it only the US that is going into Sangin, or will other international partners be joining in that redeployment?
It will be the United States that goes into Sangin, but to enable US forces to be fully deployable to Sangin, other nations will be taking up some of the territory currently occupied by the US. I hope my hon. Friend understands that, although I am aware of which forces they are, I have been asked by ISAF commanding forces not to say who they are yet.
I am reassured to hear the Secretary of State repeating the Government’s support for the comprehensive approach. We will not find security in Afghanistan and be able to leave until the Government of Afghanistan, nationally, regionally and locally, are respected and trusted by the Afghan people; it is they who have to win the hearts and minds of the people. What is the governor of Helmand province doing to reach out to all sections of the non-insurgent population and their political leaders to incorporate them in government? What is being done to start talks with those sections within the insurgency who can be talked into laying down their arms and joining constitutional government?
I have met the governor in Helmand on several occasions, and he is one of the most impressive and bravest politicians in Afghanistan. Despite a number of attempts having been made on his life, he continues to get out among the population. A good example of the projects he has been spearheading includes the distribution of wheat seed and fertiliser, which I personally saw him being involved with.
The hon. Gentleman is correct that it is not only the governance of Kabul that will matter, but the governance at ground level. As I said to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) earlier, simple issues such as dispute resolution at the very lowest level will be required if we are to deny the Taliban the space they will otherwise occupy. We need to be very clear that if we are not there, they will be, and we have to make some of those small details available. When I spoke to a farmer—I think I have mentioned this in the House before—he said, “When I sold poppy, I was given a farm price by the Taliban and I sold it at the farm gates. When I take wheat to market, I have to go through several checkpoints and it costs me money every time I go through a checkpoint.” It is the small things on the ground that we sometimes have to focus on and get right if we are to have wider success in the big strategic picture.
This was simply a common-sense approach to have greater clarity in our command structures given the increased size of the force, and it has shown just how well the coalition is now working together. I remember criticisms being made in the House in the early part of the deployment in Afghanistan that there were too many command structures, and that no one was talking to anyone else. Anyone who has spoken to General Parker or General Carter recently will have discovered that we have very clear lines of communication and command. That has been a major improvement over the years in what is happening in Afghanistan.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving this update on what is going on in Afghanistan. I am a little encouraged by what he says will be the likely situation in 2015, but can he assure the House that every possible diplomatic avenue will now be pursued with the greatest possible vigour, so that we can come out of there as soon as possible?
It is very important that our concentration, diplomatically, is on getting all the parts of the international coalition to do everything they can to support the success of the mission. It is also important, as I said earlier, that as we move to transition, we do not have a coalition in which some members think it is permissible for them to leave without making any further contribution. There will be a very important diplomatic effort in the months ahead to hold the international coalition together, so that we see through this strategy to a successful conclusion.
I very much welcome today’s statement and the focus on central Helmand that it implies. If I have understood the Secretary of State correctly, the deployment of the theatre reserve battalion will effectively mean an increase in our forces on the ground in Afghanistan of about 10%, which will be of concern to some people. Will he confirm that that deployment will simply be until the Americans take over in Sangin, when the battalion will be withdrawn, so that effectively, the number of our troops will remain the same as the current number?
May I press the Secretary of State further on the ongoing combat role of our troops? He will keep his options open, will he not? If in three, four or five years’ time there continues to be a need for a significant number of British troops in a combat role, he will be prepared to keep them there, will he not?
I do not intend to give any comfort to the Taliban by talking about what might happen if we are not successful. We intend to see this mission through, to do what is required to put in the numbers needed to make the mission a success, to ensure that the equipment is there and to play our full part in the international coalition. We intend that the strategy as set out by General McChrystal will be met within the time scale he set out.
I join the rest of the House in paying tribute to the courage and commitment of our forces, the burden of which is reinforced by this redeployment, which shows what they have undertaken on their own so far. Will the Secretary of State outline what effect the new military reconfiguration will have on the provincial reconstruction team and on engagement with civilian communities in those areas?
The provincial reconstruction team will continue as it is. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me this opportunity, which I should perhaps have taken earlier, to praise the work of the PRT. Its success will be central to the long-term stability of, and thereby the governance support for, the security situation. It is a leading example of what is possible and is internationally admired.
Every effort is made, including substantial talks undertaken by the Foreign Secretary in Pakistan recently. All contacts at a political, diplomatic and military level are used constantly to emphasise to the Government of Pakistan the importance of their role in dealing with this wider security issue. As has been mentioned already, this is not simply a problem that relates to Afghanistan within its own borders. There is a regional element and unless we have the full co-operation of Pakistan and success in Pakistan, any success we might achieve in security in Afghanistan would naturally be undermined. We take every opportunity to tell the Government of Pakistan that we stand ready to help them in their important contribution to this mission.
My right hon. Friend will be fully aware that for there to be any sort of success in Afghanistan, we need to win the propaganda war, yet the latest report to Congress from the US Department of Defence clearly highlights that we are not succeeding on this front. What more can we do to turn this around? Success in a counter-insurgency war can soon become a pyrrhic victory if we do not carry the people with us.
One of the elements of asymmetry so often talked about is the fact that, whereas we, in a democracy, must take our people with us, the Taliban do not have the problem of having to influence democratic opinion. It is vital, as my hon. Friend says, that we should do so. It is incumbent on us in this House, on the Government as a whole, on the media and on our armed forces to show the British public that there are two sides to the ledger. Yes, we have fatalities and casualties, but there is also success. We are beginning to see greater stability across much of Afghanistan. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) said earlier, if we stopped viewing things entirely through the prism of Helmand and started to view them across the country as a whole, perhaps the electorate in this country would get a better and more accurate picture.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given that the Taliban continue to draw their funding from the illegal drugs trade, we must tackle them successfully on all fronts—not only militarily, politically and diplomatically, but economically too—by getting to grips with the illegal drugs trade and cutting off their funding at source?
I agree with my hon. Friend that dealing with the drugs trade has to be part of the long-term way in which we improve stability, security and governance in Afghanistan. If we are to do that, we must find alternative incomes for some of the poorest people on the planet. Until we can provide alternative incomes for those who are basically subsistence farmers, in many ways, we are unlikely to win hearts and minds—or, indeed, the economic case that my hon. Friend so correctly points out.