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Linda Norgrove

Volume 516: debated on Monday 11 October 2010

With permission, Mr Speaker, it is with great sadness that I make this statement about the tragic death of Linda Norgrove, the British aid worker taken hostage in Afghanistan, who died during the course of a rescue attempt by US forces on the night of 8 October.

Linda was working for the non-governmental organisation Development Alternatives Incorporated when she was kidnapped along with three Afghan colleagues by insurgents dressed in Afghan national army uniforms as she travelled by car on 26 September in Kunar province in north-east Afghanistan. Immediately following her disappearance, a crisis management team began work at our embassy in Kabul, and the commander of the international security assistance force in Afghanistan, General Petraeus, was informed, along with the Afghan Government’s national security adviser. In London, Cobra was immediately convened. Intensive efforts to locate Linda began. Leaflet drops were carried out, offering a reward for information about Linda. Forces in the area began an increased tempo of operations in and around the area where she was captured, designed to limit the hostage takers’ room for manoeuvre.

Our objective throughout was clear: to secure Linda Norgrove’s safe release while continuing the long-standing policy of successive British Governments not to make concessions to hostage takers. From the very start Cobra assessed that Linda’s life was in grave danger, which is why I authorised from the beginning a rescue attempt to be made in the right circumstances. Linda’s captors were assessed to be representatives of a local Salafist group allied to the local Kunar Taliban, who have links higher up the Taliban chain of command to al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas. We had information from the outset that the objective of Linda’s captors was to pass her further up the Taliban command chain and perhaps move her to yet more inaccessible terrain. On the basis of the information available to us, we were in no doubt whatsoever that there was a continual and real threat to her life and no credible option for a negotiated release.

Linda’s Afghan colleagues were released on 2 October, but at no stage was any serious attempt made to negotiate by those holding her. Afghan media reports purporting to convey demands by her captors, including the complete withdrawal of all UK forces from Afghanistan, were not judged to be credible. Nothing that happened between 26 September and 8 October caused me or anyone else involved to change our view that a rescue operation was the only realistic hope for Linda’s safe and secure release.

Linda was captured in the US area of operations in Afghanistan. We agreed at the outset that this operation would be US-led. The US has had forces in Kunar since 2006 and has excellent knowledge of the region. US special forces were therefore held on 30-minute standby to mount a release effort from the day Linda was captured. In the early days of her captivity, bad weather and storms in the region hindered attempts to get detailed information about her exact location, meaning that a rescue attempt was not possible in those early days.

After intense efforts by the UK and our allies to prepare for a rescue, US special forces attempted to rescue Linda on the night of 8 October. In the operation that followed, these special forces succeeded in reaching the right location and in shielding 10 women and children from the fighting that ensued. However, tragically, the operation still was not successful, as we did not succeed in saving Linda’s life.

Every indication that we had over the weekend suggested that Linda had been killed by the explosion of a suicide vest worn by one of her captors. Early this morning General Petraeus contacted the Prime Minister’s office to say that in the review of the rescue operation, new information had come to light about the circumstances surrounding her death. The review and subsequent interviews with the personnel involved indicate that Linda may not have died at the hands of her captors as originally believed, but may have died as the result of a grenade detonated by the taskforce during the assault. All such rescue operations involve a measure of risk which has to be weighed against a constant risk to a hostage and a risk that such an opportunity to undertake a rescue operation may not recur.

I wish to pay tribute to the US forces in Afghanistan who risked their own lives to try to rescue a British citizen. We should also remember that the responsibility for the loss of Linda’s life lies with those who took her hostage. The Prime Minister and I are utterly determined to do everything that we possibly can to establish the full facts and give Linda’s parents a full account of the tragic circumstances in which their daughter died. General Petraeus has personally assured the Prime Minister that ISAF will carry out a full investigation into what happened. The UK will be fully involved and the House will be informed of its outcome.

The taking of hostages and the targeting of civilians, including aid workers, is morally indefensible under any circumstances. We did all in our power to rescue Linda from the appalling circumstances in which she found herself. She was a dedicated professional doing a job she loved in a country she loved, helping a people who have borne the brunt of conflict and poverty for decades. For Linda’s family, this will be the most painful loss it is possible to endure. Our thoughts are with them as they come to terms with the death of their daughter and the whole House will be united in sorrow for them.

May I join the Foreign Secretary in sending our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Linda Norgrove at such a difficult time? Linda Norgrove did vital work towards ensuring a stable and secure future for Afghanistan, and the House will want to pay tribute both to her work and to her courage. But although we all know the bravery of our aid workers and the risks that they take, it was still shocking for all of us to hear of Linda Norgrove’s death this weekend, after she was taken hostage two weeks ago. That shock will be compounded by the distressing information this morning.

The House will know that we support our military and civilian effort to create the conditions for a political settlement that can bring the war in Afghanistan to an end. We condemn utterly the actions of the hostage takers throughout the events to which the Foreign Secretary has referred today. Operations such as the one launched by the American special forces this week are incredibly challenging. They require immense bravery on the part of the armed forces involved, and success can of course never be guaranteed. We understand, too, the intricate and complicated web of intelligence required for such an operation, and nothing can ever be certain. The Foreign Secretary will appreciate too, however, that important questions now arise as a result of these events.

First, could the Foreign Secretary tell us more about the Government’s role in the planning and authorisation of the operation? When we spoke, I asked him to tell the House as much as he could about his assessment of the risks to Linda’s life that made the rescue operation the best opportunity to save her life, and I am grateful for the additional information that he has provided to the House today. Could he also tell us about the nature of the authorisation that he gave the rescue operation, and say how much information he was given about the rescue attempt before it began and the level of UK involvement in the planning of the rescue operation?

The Foreign Secretary will be aware, too, of the concern that has arisen about the potentially inaccurate information that was disseminated over the weekend. I thank him for the briefing that the Foreign Office provided me at the weekend. I know that it was provided in good faith, but does he share my concern that the information that people received over the weekend is now cast in serious doubt? The Government and ISAF appeared to be certain over the weekend that the hostage takers had killed Linda Norgrove during the operation. Given the uncertainty that inevitably surrounds such a difficult and complex operation, may I ask him on what basis that was believed to be the case? We agree, too, with the Prime Minister’s statement this morning about the importance of avoiding inaccurate information in such a sensitive and complex case. However, can the Foreign Secretary tell the House why it appeared that Government and military sources gave the impression of such certainty about events in the briefings over the weekend? Can he also tell the House about the new information from General Petraeus? Has he spoken to General Petraeus, and has the evidence—including, perhaps, surveillance footage—on which the new conclusions are based, been shared yet?

I welcome the investigation into the operation and the Foreign Secretary’s statement that the UK will be involved. Can he tell us to whom the investigation will report? Will its findings be made public? Who will be entitled to see its conclusions and its evidence? Can the Foreign Secretary give us some guidance on how long he expects the investigation to take? Can he also reassure the House that Linda Norgrove’s family will be kept informed throughout? The House will appreciate that the focus of the investigation will be on the events during the operation, but can he also tell us whether there will be a review into the way in which information on the issue was disseminated over the past 48 hours?

Finally, the safety of our aid workers has always been a matter of concern for our forces on the ground, which is an issue that I know the Government take extremely seriously. Aid workers play an essential role working to establish the conditions that will allow our forces to leave Afghanistan. Clearly we all want to avoid a situation where aid workers are unable to help the Afghan people because of a minority who want to terrorise the country. Could the Foreign Secretary therefore tell us what advice the Government are giving to British aid workers, particularly taking into account the fluid security situation? Linda Norgrove’s work was extremely important for the future of Afghanistan. We need to ensure that her work can continue for the future.

May I begin by congratulating the right hon. Lady on her appointment as shadow Foreign Secretary? I wish it were in happier circumstances that we were meeting across the Dispatch Box for the first time. We share across the House the condemnation of the taking of hostages and the concern for aid workers that she has just expressed. Many of them work in difficult and dangerous circumstances. Our travel advice is against all travel to Kunar in Afghanistan, but Linda Norgrove was working for a US non-governmental organisation, knowing that she was working in very dangerous circumstances. Nevertheless, that is known by many people who work in those places and conditions.

The right hon. Lady asked about the authorisation given by the United Kingdom and the knowledge that we had. I mentioned in my statement that we were aware that this was a group with links to al-Qaeda, to the Taliban in many different forms and to other terrorist groups operating on the Afghan-Pakistan border. I cannot expand in enormous detail on the precise intelligence, for reasons that the House will understand, but everybody concerned—in the military command, in the British embassy and in the British Government—agreed, from what we had seen, that there was a continual threat to the life of Linda Norgrove, and that we could not be sure that the opportunity to rescue her would come again, either because of weather conditions, or because we would not know her location again or because she might not survive for us to attempt a rescue. The specific authorisation to take such action was given by me on that first day, within a few hours of her being taken hostage. That authorisation was supported by the Prime Minister, who was of course kept informed throughout.

The role of the British special forces was to supply a liaison officer. Contrary to some media reports that I have seen this afternoon, it was not to take part in the planning—and certainly not in the execution—of the operation. The operation was planned by the US special forces, and it was carried out by them. We must remember that, after their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past nine years, the US and UK special forces are now extremely well practised in their operations and extremely skilful at what they do. That does not mean, however, that every mission succeeds.

The right hon. Lady rightly raised the question of the inaccurate—or likely to be inaccurate—information that was given out at the weekend. Of course we regret that; any Government would regret that inaccurate information had been given out on such a matter, or on any matter, particularly one of such importance. There is a balance to be struck between transparency and certainty, and at the weekend—and, indeed, today—we have erred on the side of transparency. We give the country the information that is available to us. Certainly, the initial viewing of the various videos that were taken during the action suggested that it was an explosion caused by the hostage takers that had cost Linda Norgrove her life. It was on a second viewing by different US personnel that it appeared that there was another possibility. We must not rush to judgment about that possibility, however.

There will be an investigation to try to establish exactly what happened. That investigation will take place as rapidly as possible, but I cannot give the right hon. Lady a precise timetable for it at the moment. Clearly, however, General Petraeus and ISAF command attach enormous importance to this matter. It is something that they have focused on at the very top level of the military command over the past two weeks. As I mentioned in my statement, General Petraeus spoke to the Prime Minister today, and the Prime Minister has been able to view some of the evidence involved. We hope that the investigation will be completed as soon as possible. Given that we will need to design a new form of investigation, the precise form that it will take is now being discussed with ISAF command.

We will certainly keep Linda’s family as fully informed as possible. We did so during the hostage taking. Our ambassador in Kabul visited the family last week, and the Prime Minister has spoken to Linda’s father today. I spoke a few hours ago to our colleague, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who is the constituency Member of Parliament involved. He could not make it here for logistical reasons this afternoon, but he obviously had questions to raise. We will keep them fully informed of what is happening, and we will look to have a report, the conclusions and every significance of which can be fully described to the House and to the country.

All of us hope that Linda is the last overseas aid worker to be captured by the Taliban, but sadly she may not be. What protocols are in place involving our military and the US military in terms of the nationality of any captive? For example, were an American aid worker taken captive in territory in which British forces predominate, would it be our decision to go in to rescue them, or would it be the Americans’ decision? At what level are these decisions taken?

Decisions about what can happen militarily are taken by ISAF command. The commander of ISAF is General Petraeus, the US general. The deputy commander is a UK commander, so these decisions are taken together. They require the political authority of the Government of the national concerned. In the case of a US citizen who is held hostage, the US Government would have to give their authority for such an operation. Could it involve British special forces? Absolutely. We would treat an operation involving a US citizen as if they were one of our own, just as the US in this case treated Linda Norgrove as one of their own.

May I first add my very sincere condolences to the family and friends of Linda Norgrove following the terrible tragedy that has befallen her? In saying that, may I offer my full support to the Foreign Secretary and his colleagues on the excruciatingly difficult decisions that they have had to make, as I know only too well from my own experience? I ask him to confirm that, although it is correct that there should be an investigation, any investigation that looks at the circumstances that faced the decision takers and participants should take them forward, and should not, from the languid luxury of hindsight, seek to second guess those incredibly fast decisions that they had to make?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who having served for five years as Foreign Secretary is familiar with these dilemmas and difficult decisions. Let me stress that this is an investigation into the military circumstances and what happened in the actual incident. However, it is important to remember, when looking at the decisions that we have made, that we had to bear in mind what might have happened had we not made the decision to mount a rescue operation. We might not have had the opportunity again. We know from experience that a hostage held by the Taliban can be murdered in cold blood and that Linda Norgrove would probably have been taken into yet more inaccessible terrain. That is why we concluded from the beginning that the best option would be to take the earliest opportunity for a rescue operation if the conditions were right for that and if the military assessment were that there was a good chance of success. Clearly, the view was—a view confirmed by General Petraeus in his telephone conversation with the Prime Minister this morning— that there was a good chance of success. General Petraeus would not have wanted to send his troops into action without that good chance of success. All those things must be borne in mind.

To return to the question of the investigation, will it be conducted under the auspices of ISAF or under the auspices of the US military?

As I mentioned in answer to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the shadow Foreign Secretary, we are still designing the form of the investigation because this is a new set of circumstances. The UK will certainly be fully involved in the investigation. General Petraeus proposed that from the beginning and the Prime Minister was absolutely clear about our wish to see that in his conversation with General Petraeus this morning. Therefore, we will have to sort out in the coming hours whether that takes place under ISAF auspices or under the auspices of the US military with UK involvement. I will let the House know in the appropriate form, perhaps through a written statement, how that has turned out.

I add my sincere condolences to the family and friends of Linda Norgrove at this very sad time. It is evident from the tributes being paid to her that she was a very exceptional person who dedicated her life and considerable talents to helping other people and the peace efforts in Afghanistan.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to establishing what has actually happened and I also welcome his statement. This tragic incident is a salutary reminder of the risks that humanitarian aid workers face in Afghanistan and other dangerous parts of the world, yet their contribution to those efforts is indispensable. Can he assure us that assessing the safety of the circumstances in which humanitarian aid workers and NGO staff are working in Afghanistan will be a priority for the Foreign Office in the weeks and months ahead?

Of course we want to see whether any security lessons can be learned, but let me stress that very many steps are taken to try to ensure the security of people working in Afghanistan by our military, by ISAF—and therefore by the military of other nations—by the Afghan security forces, and sometimes through the operations of private security companies. A great deal of security is provided, but that is not a guarantee against murder or kidnap. We will all remember the tragic case of Karen Woo earlier this year—another aid worker who was murdered in Afghanistan. The House must recognise, as indeed it has in the comments that have been made today, that people often take considerable risks in order to deliver humanitarian aid and development to difficult parts of the world. We should salute the efforts of those people.

I am mindful that the people who went in on this exceptionally difficult operation were as brave as they could be, but I am also slightly worried because helicopters were used. Sometimes, helicopters are heard from a long way away, so there was warning, and one of the first principles of war is surprise. I hope that the investigation will look at the reason for using helicopters.

It is very important for Ministers and those responsible for giving a general authorisation for such an operation not to interfere too much in the military aspect of it, which must be left to the military experts on the ground. Of course, my hon. Friend speaks with military experience and will know a thing or two about such matters. The terms of the investigation are still being drawn up, but I am sure that it will be able to look at all the military circumstances surrounding the operation. However, he should bear in mind that operating in Afghanistan, in mountainous and inaccessible regions, very often requires helicopter-borne operations, including if there is to be any surprise. Land forces making their way over mountains and through valleys over a long period of time may find it more difficult to achieve surprise than helicopter-borne troops.

This awful tragedy, like the one of Dr Woo to which the Foreign Secretary referred, reminds us of the rising death toll of civilians in Afghanistan as the Taliban target civilian administrators, mayors, justices and anybody whom they can kill as part of their campaign of intimidation. I wonder how much longer our strategy should be maintained. When he came to office, the Prime Minister indicated a change of thinking on Afghanistan, and I hope that that new thinking continues to be thought, as it were.

We have been very clear about our approach to Afghanistan, and on giving all the necessary support to our troops. Indeed, we announced in the early stages of the new Government a doubling of the operational allowance for our forces who are fighting there. We have greatly increased development aid to try to assist the Afghan Government in building their own capability and the speed of development in Afghanistan in future. We have also lent our strong support, as the previous Government did, to the political process, to which the shadow Foreign Secretary, referred. That adds up to the right strategy for Afghanistan, and it is important that we are not diverted from it by events, including military encounters and tragic events such as the one that we have experienced and that we are discussing today. Such events do not invalidate the overall strategy that we are pursuing.

May I join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to Linda Norgrove and to the grace and dignity shown by the Norgrove family? Is it not the case that the ultimate responsibility for Linda’s death lies fairly and squarely with the evil and cowardly Taliban?

That is absolutely right—my hon. Friend reminds us of that extremely important point, which the whole House must always remember.

On Friday, in my constituency, I attended the funeral of Sergeant Andrew James Jones, the 339th British hero to die in Afghanistan. Of course, the responsibility for his death and Linda Norgrove’s death lies with the Taliban, but does this House not have a responsibility to bring this increasingly futile conflict to a swift conclusion?

The hon. Gentleman is right to remind us of the scale of the casualties, of the names that we have so often heard read out in this House and of the fact that his constituent was the 339th of our servicemen and women to die in Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman has a long-held different view about the merits of what we are doing in Afghanistan. What I can say is that this Government will, as we have pledged, present a regular review—a quarterly review—to the House of what we are achieving in Afghanistan, or what we are not achieving, what our immediate objectives are and what resources are required to attain those. I hope before the end of this month to be able to make a statement to the House with the latest such review, which will enable hon. Members of all views on this issue once again to take part in reviewing what we are doing and questioning the Government.

The Foreign Secretary referred to the long-standing policy of successive Governments not to make concessions to hostage takers. The international security assistance force troops comprise soldiers from more than 30 member states, and those states do not always take the same view in their responses to hostage taking. Is he having any discussions with some of those member states to ensure that, at least when we are in the same theatre of operations, we take the same approach?

Yes, and the hon. Lady makes an important point. I have raised this issue with Foreign Ministers of other nations during bilateral discussions in recent weeks, because clearly if one nation is prepared to pay or to sanction the payment of ransoms, that can undermine the international position. I also raised this very strongly in the discussion on terrorism at the United Nations Security Council in New York, which I attended in late September, during the United Nations General Assembly. I particularly stressed the point that it is against not only international practice, but international law for such ransoms to be paid, and I will regularly reinforce that point to other nations.

In his opening remarks, the Foreign Secretary said that the hostages—Linda Norgrove and her colleagues—were taken by people wearing Afghan national army uniforms. Has he made any assessment of how many similar events have taken place in the past year in Afghanistan and of whether there is a problem with regard to the security of uniforms and other material from the Afghan national army?

The hon. Gentleman raises an entirely legitimate point, which deals with one of the issues that we will need to follow up after this incident. As far as I am aware, this is not the only incident in which Afghan national army uniforms have been abused. It is not easy in the circumstances of Afghanistan, and with an army that now numbers well over 100,000 and has a relatively high turnover rate, to control the uniforms available around the country. This may therefore be a difficult problem to address going forward, but we will certainly want to do some additional work in ISAF and with the Afghan Government on how to tackle it.