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Volume 520: debated on Monday 13 December 2010

1. What assessment he has made of the capacity of the Afghan national security forces to assume responsibility for the security of Afghanistan by 2015; and if he will make a statement. (29876)

Assessments of the Afghan national security forces are regularly carried out by the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, of which UK forces form an important part. There are currently around 144,000 Afghan national army personnel and around 116,000 Afghan national police. The October 2010 targets were exceeded two months ahead of schedule and we assess that the growth in both capacity and capability of the Afghan forces is on track to meet the target of transferring lead responsibility for security to the Afghans by the end of 2014.

When in Afghanistan, the Prime Minister said he was confident that troops could begin to return home in 2011, but the Chief of the Defence Staff has said that we will not “cut and run”, and the Defence Secretary has said that we will be there for as long as it takes. That causes confusion and could make the situation in Afghanistan worse, and it causes a great deal of uncertainty for both our troops and their families. Will the Secretary of State categorically state whether UK troops will begin to depart from Afghanistan in 2011?

The Prime Minister made it clear on his visit to Afghanistan, as the Chief of the Defence Staff and I have done, that if conditions allow, we may be able to see a reduction in 2011 of some UK forces. We may also decide to use UK forces in a different way, particular in more of a training mission, but that will depend on what happens on the ground next year.

May I ask my right hon. Friend, the sixth successive Defence Minister to whom I have pointed out the utter folly of our current intervention in Afghanistan—four of the quintet before him have wisely fled the House, and the first has just been banned from the Tea Room for five years—to whom he thinks the Afghan security force, which has been recruited from various tribes who have been bitterly hostile to each other for centuries, will owe their allegiance? Alternatively, does he expect a military dictator to emerge from their ranks to impose order?

I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s long-standing interest in Afghanistan and his long-standing difference of opinion with the mainstream. It is not just the UK that believes that the mission is essential. A coalition of some 48 countries in Afghanistan believes, and understands correctly, that we need both to degrade the threat in Afghanistan and to increase the capability of the Afghan Government to provide security if we are to see regional, and indeed global, stability.

The progress being made by the Afghan security forces is good news, but when I asked the Prime Minister why he decided to announce a deadline so far out from 2015, he replied that one reason was to get away from the pressure for constant, short-term deadlines. He then went to Afghanistan and announced that our troops may well start coming home by 2011. Why is he doing that? What is the purpose of those constant public announcements on the end of the combat mission and the beginning of troops returning home? No one in the House denies that they want to see the troops come home quickly, but everybody is somewhat worried about those public pronouncements.

There was indeed no announcement of any short-term milestone on the way to 2015. In answer to the question of whether British troops might be able to come home in 2011 and reduce their number, the Prime Minister said that that was dependent on conditions on the ground, which is entirely consistent with the Government’s position in the run-up to 2015.

The numbers of Afghan forces—some 250,000 all told—are encouraging. That is a major step in the right direction, but does the Secretary of State agree that their capabilities and abilities matter more than just the numbers? What assessment has he made of the development—rapid or otherwise—of those capabilities?

The capabilities speak for themselves. There have been enormous leaps in what the Afghan forces can do. The Afghan national army has conducted itself honourably and with great credit in terms of its technical ability, not least in Kandahar, and the Afghan national police are now moving ahead, for two reasons. First, the police were given equal pay status with the ANA, and secondly, along with that, literacy training led to a big increase in the quality of those joining. That is a major step forward from where we were in recent years.

No one doubts the bravery of many of those joining the Afghan security forces—it is beyond doubt—but the Secretary of State will be aware that there are still worries about the quality of current training, the levels of desertion from the Afghan forces, and the very few cases in which some in the Afghan forces have turned their weapons on those in the international security assistance force. This is a crucial issue, because success in Afghanistan depends on it, so will he support increased international effort to improve the training and resilience of Afghan forces on the ground?

Indeed, I will. The right hon. Gentleman makes a crucial point. The international community, if it wants to be truly successful, must recognise that this is about not just the numbers but the capability. Those who intend to transition away from a combat role would do well therefore to put the resources into increased training in Afghanistan to ensure that what the international community sets out to do is achieved.