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Volume 520: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2010

11. What his most recent assessment is of the political and security situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (30271)

Earlier today I laid a written report on recent progress in Afghanistan before the House as part of the Government’s commitment to keep the House regularly updated on the situation there. The report covers the security and political situation including the results of the recent elections, outcomes of the NATO conference in Lisbon, governance and regional engagement.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer, but does he share my concern about the very high rate of attrition in the Afghan police force? Some reports put the figure at 7,000 out of 35,000 over a very recent period. What action can be taken to ensure that there is a stable and established police force in Afghanistan so that people there can have confidence in their civil policing arrangements?

This is a vital matter and the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to it. The written report I set before the House today shows that by mid-November Afghan national police strength had reached 116,000 and is on track to meet the target of 134,000 by next November. One of the crucial matters is an increase in the rate of training the Afghan national police, as well as reducing attrition. For most categories of police officer, attrition rates have fallen in recent times, and the NTM-A—the NATO training mission for Afghanistan—reports an increase of around a third in the number of trained officers and a twofold increase in the number of trained non-commissioned officers. Clearly, the Afghan national police are being built up, despite the difficulties to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Our strategy in Afghanistan oscillates between infantry-intensive counter-insurgency campaigning, at high cost, and advance notice that we are going to withdraw, which puts pressure on one side to compromise, but not on the other. Will my right hon. Friend at least keep his mind open to the possibility of alternative strategies, such as the strategic base and bridgehead area solution, which would allow us to secure our strategic interests at lower cost, and thus square the circle?

There will always be a strategic debate about Afghanistan. There is no oscillation about those infantry-intensive campaigns. Our troops continue to do an extraordinary job, and as the Prime Minister has said in the House and elsewhere, they are able to do it more effectively now that we have the right concentration—the right density—of forces in Helmand, where our troops are mainly deployed. The whole of NATO has the strategy of building up the Afghan national security forces to the point where they can lead and sustain their own operations throughout Afghanistan by 2014. It is consistent with that for us to say that we will not be engaged in combat operations by 2015. We are joined with 47 nations in pursuing our strategy, and therefore we should not try to change it on a daily or weekly basis.

May I bring the right hon. Gentleman back to the answer he gave to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee? We can all recall the Prime Minister saying in the summer that the combat mission would come to an end in 2015, but no one can recall the Prime Minister saying at that stage that British troops would start leaving Afghanistan next year. When was that first said and why?

The people who did not hear it were not listening to the BBC on 21 July, when

“Mr Cameron was asked whether people could expect British forces to follow the Americans in starting to pull out of Afghanistan from next year. The prime minister said: ‘Yes we can, but it should be based on the conditions on the ground. The faster we can transition districts and provinces to Afghan control, clearly the faster that some forces can be brought home’.”

That is still on the BBC website. What my right hon. Friend said last week—also in answer to a question—was simply repeating what he had said in Washington last July.

Further to the question put by the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), the Foreign Secretary will be aware of a Pentagon report that says that the time line given by President Obama for the withdrawal of American forces has given aid, succour and assistance to the Taliban. Have we been wise to follow that example?

There are many conflicting reports, as my hon. Friend will be more aware than most. It is argued by some that the references by the President to a draw-down beginning in July 2011 gave some in Afghanistan the impression that there would be a complete withdrawal of forces in 2011. Anybody who is expecting that is in for a shock, because the combination of the surge of NATO forces we have seen recently and the now fairly rapid build-up of the Afghan national security forces means that more forces are deployed against the Taliban than ever before. Clearly, that build-up will continue, with the huge increases projected for the Afghan forces up to 2014. What we say about 2015 is in no way in conflict with that.

May I associate the Opposition with the tributes to Richard Holbrooke, a tireless worker for peaceful solutions to conflicts around the world, most recently in Afghanistan? There, in a couple of weeks, our troops will be celebrating Christmas far from their families, and we send them our thanks and best wishes, and look forward to welcoming them home.

Can the Foreign Secretary fully reassure the House, in the light of previous questions, that any draw-down will be determined by conditions on the ground and not by the calendar? What conditions will be needed for combat troops to be pulled back from Afghanistan, especially when we approach 2014-15?

I want to pay tribute to Ambassador Holbrooke in a moment, at the beginning of topical questions. I join the right hon. Gentleman in his comments about our forces in Afghanistan. Throughout the Christmas period they will, I hope, be in the minds of all of us in the House. The conditions on the ground that are necessary for any draw-down or any change in the deployment of forces to begin over the next few years are successful transition of districts and provinces. We made it clear at the NATO summit that we want that to begin early in 2011, but that does not always mean that forces that then become available are withdrawn. Many of them can be redirected into training. In recent months we have moved 300 additional forces into training. Although Canada is withdrawing its combat forces, it announced at the NATO summit that almost 1,000 trainers would be made available for Afghanistan. It is in this form that transition takes place and, as a result, there will be adjustments from time to time in the deployment of the forces of the 48 nations involved.