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Volume 522: debated on Monday 31 January 2011

12. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (36746)

Based on what I saw on my recent visit to Afghanistan, including my conversations with commanders and politicians, I assess that important security gains are being made. They are not irreversible and we can expect a high tempo over the winter and throughout the year. Although there are many challenges, there is cause for cautious optimism in the growth of the Afghan national security forces. We have the right strategy, numbers and equipment in place and now a little strategic patience is required to ensure that we are successful. Both 2011 and 2012 will be key years in that regard.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that the best way forward for Britain’s long-term strategic security interests is to form long-term relationships between the international security assistance force military leaders and the Afghan police and military commanders? What observations would he make on the level of co-operation between UK forces and Afghan security leaders?

That is an ongoing and progressing relationship. I point my hon. Friend to one particularly successful project—the police training taking place in Helmand. Those involved in that project throughout the country would recognise that what the British armed forces are doing is very possibly and very probably the leading project of that kind. If we can not only continue with what we are doing but export it as best practice to others, we will be making a doubly important contribution.

Gains that are clearly being made by our armed forces at an operational level will be undermined if we do not get things right at the strategic level. The growing of the Afghan national security forces and the attacks being made on the Taliban leadership will not be enough on their own: what is being done to pump some life into the reconciliation process? Surely we need to get that strand of work up and running and get the Americans committed to it before the 2014-15 deadline.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. It has always been the case that there could not be a political settlement without a military settlement and vice versa. We now have quite large military gains on the ground, as he says, but he is quite correct that those gains cannot be maintained unless we get an acceleration in the pace of the political programme. There are gains being made at national and local level but they are neither widespread nor deep enough. We need to ensure that throughout this year we push the Government of Afghanistan to understand that we need to make progress now, while we have a reasonable following wind, because this is the crucial time to be able to get the gain on the ground that will make what we are trying to achieve sustainable.

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that all the emphasis in recent months has been on the withdrawal of our combat troops by 2015 and that it would be worth while concentrating on putting some more flesh on the bones of the role that we will continue to play after then, including, perhaps, in officer training?

Clearly, there will be a role for the United Kingdom to play in that period, but it would be impossible to assess now what it will look like without knowing what the contribution from the international community will be. We very much hope that our international allies in ISAF will recognise that the concept of in-together, out-together is a sensible one and that countries do not simply transition from the safe areas that some might be in at present, right out of Afghanistan, but instead take part increasingly in the NATO training mission. By that means, we can have a proper share of responsibility after the transition away from combat forces. I think that would give us greater legitimacy and would give the mission greater acceptability in the UK.

I agree with so much of what the Defence Secretary said in response to those questions. I returned from Afghanistan yesterday with the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Foreign Secretary. We were all moved by both the bravery and the modesty of our armed forces in Afghanistan. I agree with the Defence Secretary that people are moving away from a sense of reluctant pessimism to cautious optimism about the effort in Afghanistan. With the international forces exiting combat roles by 2015, as he mentioned, and given the point that he made about training the army, which has to be strong, even though most recruits cannot read and write, and many recruits cannot even count the number of bullets to place in a rifle, what success has there been so far in trying to persuade some of those nations, which are leaving earlier than us, to commit to that training effort not just in their own areas, but across the whole of Afghanistan?

May I say first how grateful we are to the Leader of the Opposition for reasserting the bipartisan approach to Afghanistan? It is very important for our national security and for the morale of our armed forces. I am grateful for that support, even if I know that it is not endorsed by all sections of his party. That makes the decision even braver and even more in the national interest, so I thank him for that.

The right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) is right that it is important that we encourage those of our allies who may be moving out of a combat role into a training role. The decision taken by Canada in recent weeks is welcome. We wait to hear more details of the decision that may be taken by the Dutch. The National Security Council, on the Prime Minister’s instruction, has sought to find areas where Ministers have a particular personal engagement, where we might be able to maximise the pressures that we can bring to bear to get exactly that training mission outcome.