With permission, Mr Speaker, I will report to the House the Government’s assessment of progress towards UK objectives in Afghanistan.
Before I begin my statement, I regret to have to inform the House that two British soldiers from the Royal Logistics Corps died early this morning at Camp Bastion. An investigation is under way into their deaths, but early indications suggest that they were caused by a fire. Their families have been informed, and I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I say that our thoughts and prayers are with them at this very difficult time.
International forces from 48 nations, including the United Kingdom, are in Afghanistan to prevent terrorists, including al-Qaeda, from again using Afghanistan to plot and launch terror attacks. The contributions of each nation to the international security assistance force are listed in the supplementary written information that I have provided for Members.
Meeting our objectives requires working with Afghanistan’s neighbours, and that includes helping Pakistan to tackle the problems on its side of the border. We are acting to provide the security space required for indigenous security and governance to grow, and we are supporting that growth through diplomatic, developmental and military means. The goal is for the Government of Afghanistan to provide, on a sustainable basis, the capability and governance required to manage their own security.
Although international military forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001 and significant gains have been made, it is only since August last year that we have had the number of troops and the right level of equipment to fulfil the strategy set for them. The challenge lies in having the patience and will to see the mission through.
The Foreign Secretary reported to the House in October. In this quarterly report, I will concentrate on the security progress being made in central Helmand, where the majority of UK forces operate. That is represented by the shaded area on the map of Helmand province that I have provided to Members.
Afghanistan has 401 districts, but 60% of the violence occurs in just nine of them, and eight of those nine are in Helmand and Kandahar. So we need to remember that Helmand is not representative of Afghanistan as a whole, and that there are many places where progressively a sense of normality and security is returning. Before I turn to general progress, in keeping with our undertaking to keep Parliament better informed as far as operational restrictions allow, I should like to update the House on current force levels.
The previous Government announced on 30 November 2009 that they had increased the endorsed UK force level to 9,500. It will not surprise the House to hear that that core number of 9,500 does not fully account for the actual force numbers we have deployed, given the complex and highly dynamic current situation on the ground. As the previous Government acknowledged, a sizeable contingent of our highly effective special forces operates in Afghanistan. In accordance with long-standing practice, we do not specify the scale or nature of their activities, but, if we take them into account with the enabling support that they need, we see that they take our numbers to more than 10,000.
For many years, UK forces have contributed to the protection of Kandahar airfield. In December 2009, it was expected that they would hand over that task to another ISAF partner within a matter of months. That did not happen, and we still have almost 200 extra troops protecting Kandahar airfield. That is constantly under review. Additionally, in September 2010, we announced the deployment of 200 personnel from the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps to ISAF Joint Command for 12 months. They will return by February 2012.
To maintain operational flexibility, we also approve temporary deployments, or surges, of additional personnel to meet specific and time-limited tasks. These include personnel to provide key headquarters functions or to prepare infrastructure for the rigours of the Afghan winter. From time to time, we also deploy the Theatre Reserve Battalion. The number of UK military personnel on the ground in Afghanistan also fluctuates from day to day, reflecting the number of personnel on rest and recuperation breaks, as well the changes that occur as we hand over responsibility between units during the twice-yearly reliefs in place. So the actual number of military personnel currently in Afghanistan is regularly well over 10,000.
We keep our force levels under constant review, and some reductions this year may be possible, dependent on conditions on the ground and implementation of the security transition process. I want every member of our armed forces deployed in Afghanistan to get the credit for the incredible job that they do, and I know that all those in the House will want to join me in paying tribute to their selfless courage and hard work.
The efforts of our armed forces are supported by the work of many hundreds of civilians from the Ministry of Defence and other Departments, including staff in our embassy in Kabul, in our taskforce headquarters and provincial reconstruction team in Lashkar Gah, in district stabilisation teams across Helmand, and in units and facilities outside Afghanistan. Again, I am sure that the House will want to join me in acknowledging the valuable work that they do and their devotion to duty.
In central Helmand, as General Petraeus has said, we have not yet seen success or victory, but we are seeing progress. It is fragile and not irreversible, but it is progress. The increase in Afghan and ISAF forces has enabled us to take the fight to the insurgency and, understandably, this has led to an overall increase in the number of violent incidents. But over the past three months, although the number is still higher than in previous years, we are seeing a trend of falling security incidents. For example, in the Marjah district of Helmand province, security incidents have fallen from a high of around 25 a day at the height of summer to just three or four a day at present. There is a seasonal pattern, as many insurgents, especially those fighting for financial rather than ideological reasons, return to their homes for the winter. This year, however, with the unusually mild weather and with winter arriving late, and the increased activity by ISAF and the Afghan national security forces, the fall in the number of incidents is more likely than in previous years to be an indicator of progress. However, I have to say to the House that casualty numbers are once again likely to rise in spring this year as insurgent activity increases.
This year will be just as difficult as 2010, but there will be distinct differences. The increased number of ANSF and ISAF forces allows us to arrest the momentum of the insurgency in more areas. Afghan forces will also begin to take the lead for security as the first districts and provinces begin the process of transition. There are now over 152,000 Afghan national army and 117,000 Afghan national police. This is on schedule to meet the October 2011 growth target to deliver 305,600 Afghan national security forces. But as the quantity increases, quality must not be neglected. One example is improving literacy to ensure that orders can be communicated in writing as well as orally, so that there is less scope for misinterpretation. Currently, around 85% of ANSF recruits are illiterate on entry. Literacy training is now mandatory for all recruits. The training is to be conducted by Afghan teachers, creating employment and boosting the economy, and significant progress is being made.
Progress has also been made in implementing the Afghan local police initiative. This is a temporary programme of village-owned security aimed at providing a security effect in areas with limited or no ANSF presence. The programme, established by presidential decree, comes under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior. Fourteen sites have been established, and 2,800 ALP have been recruited. Once the necessary security and capacity are established, these local forces will be integrated into the regular ANSF.
In Helmand, our bilateral police mission has focused on training Afghan national police at the Helmand police training centre, from which the 2,000th officer graduated in December. The UK Government have funded the building of six new police stations in Helmand in the last six months, with 10 more in construction and 28 more in design.
Following the Lisbon NATO summit, the transition process is on track. The joint Afghan-NATO transition board is set to deliver recommendations this month on which provinces will enter the transition process. President Karzai has confirmed that he will announce the first phase of transition on 21 March.
The UK Government’s development programmes work with the Government of Afghanistan to build capacity to direct and deliver their own development. Real progress is being made at the local level across Afghanistan. UK-funded teams from the provincial administration in Lashkar Gah have begun to create a district community council in Marjah, which this time last year was an insurgent stronghold. In Musa Qala, the newly elected council is developing a district plan for the Afghan Government to deliver with support from the UK. At national level, action plans have been developed for the Afghan Government’s national priority programmes, and we have seen encouraging progress in some areas. For example, revenue collection has increased by 32% compared with the same period last year, albeit from a low base. That is 9% above the International Monetary Fund target and brings Afghanistan a step closer to self-sufficiency.
The newly elected Afghan Parliament was inaugurated last month, with frictions between the Executive and legislature resolved democratically. However, we remain very concerned about levels of corruption, and in particular about the disturbing allegations about the Kabul Bank. We will continue to press the Afghan Government to translate their anti-corruption commitments into action.
The Afghan Government are taking further steps towards peace and reconciliation for all Afghans. The High Peace Council has toured Afghanistan to publicise the Afghan peace and reintegration programme. It is early days, but in some areas of Afghanistan, particularly in the north, increasing numbers of insurgents are seeking a way out of the cycle of violence. The High Peace Council recently visited Pakistan to take forward dialogue on peace and reconciliation.
Three hundred and fifty-six British servicemen and women have died on operations in Afghanistan— 15 since my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary last reported progress to the House at the end of October. In the face of such sacrifice, we should be in no doubt about the importance to our national security of the mission and our support for it. We have seen progress over the past few months but the need for strategic patience remains. To paraphrase the US Defence Secretary, we need to stop pulling up the tree by its roots to see if it is growing. There is still a great deal to do, but I believe there is also cause for cautious optimism.
I welcome the chance to respond and I thank the Secretary of State for his update and for advance sight of it. This is the first opportunity I have had to put on record my thanks and those of the leader of my party and the shadow Foreign Secretary to all who facilitated our recent visit to Afghanistan.
The Secretary of State is right to say that as we go about our proceedings, more than 10,000 fellow Britons go about the business of making the UK more safe by making Afghanistan more stable. As I have reflected before, the courage of our forces is surpassed only by their modesty. I also put on record our appreciation of the efforts of our diplomatic and development staff in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan, many of whom we met. Theirs is a tough job and they combine professionalism with more than a little bravery. We remain committed to a cross-party approach to a cross-government strategy. The Secretary of State should know that our default position is to support the Government’s efforts in Afghanistan.
The Secretary of State is right to pay tribute to those who died earlier today and those who have died in recent times. No words said in this House can halt the suffering in the family homes of those who have been lost, but those families will know that across the country, there is immeasurable respect for them. They remain in all our thoughts and many of our personal prayers.
The House will be grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s update on the security situation and it will be glad to hear about the progress being made. I wish to ask him two sets of questions: the first about security and the second about diplomacy. On security, he rightly said that violence is concentrated in the south, but there are also concerning reports that violence is increasing in previously peaceful areas, most notably in the north of the country, where the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is said to be operating and strengthening the Taliban’s ability to attack. How is the coalition, and in particular nations other than the UK and the US, responding to those worrying developments?
The ability of Afghan forces to take ever greater responsibility for their own country will be an incremental process towards 2014, with the most significant recent development, alongside the US military surge, being an Afghan surge of locally recruited forces. In that context, I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State’s comments about the Afghan national police being on track to meet its final recruitment targets this year.
We had the opportunity to visit the excellent police training centre in Helmand involving British police forces, which is so important to the literacy and numeracy that the Secretary of State spoke about. He will be as concerned as I am, however, about the assimilation of national police within local communities. A recent UN report showed that in the south, the popularity of the police has dropped over the past year. It strikes me as unsustainable to have a national police force that is only 3% southern Pashtun. How are recruitment practices being modified to ensure that the police force is more reflective of the areas that it is charged with securing? Will the Secretary of State undertake to keep the House informed on a regular basis of the Afghan national security forces’ ability to operate independently of ISAF?
Turning to the political process, it is increasingly acknowledged that there will not be a military-only solution in Afghanistan. Although there have been, and will continue to be, military successes, we also need a diplomatic surge to match the military surge. As we moved to the agreed withdrawal date of 2015, a political settlement is not a prerequisite for our withdrawal, but it is undoubtedly a condition for lasting peace.
Many people make comparisons with the peace process in Northern Ireland, including some of the Afghans whom we met in Kabul. Although I believe the similarities are limited, one thing that Northern Ireland teaches us is that the process can be painstaking, even though there were fewer domestic and international actors there and a clearer sense of central authority—conditions that we do not currently have in our favour in Afghanistan. Will the Secretary of State share with the House how he foresees diplomatic efforts within Afghanistan and with her neighbours progressing over the forthcoming year? What are the benchmarks by which the House will be able to judge short-term success?
There are many other major issues that it will be important for Afghanistan to overcome to enjoy lasting peace. There are innumerable financial challenges, with rising unemployment and high levels of poverty fuelling recruitment to the poppy trade and the Taliban. There are rising numbers of internally displaced people, and corruption remains a real problem. I therefore ask the Secretary of State to confirm to the House that he will raise those matters at the Bonn conference, particularly a plan for further support for the Afghan economy. Will he provide an update on negotiations between the Afghan Government and the International Monetary Fund on the Afghan support fund?
On returning from Afghanistan, it struck me that over the past year or so, there had been a shift from a collective feeling of reluctant international pessimism to a sense of cautious optimism. Nothing in the Secretary of State’s statement today led me to change my opinion. On behalf of Labour Members, I continue to look to work with him on a bipartisan basis on this most important of issues.
I am extremely grateful not only for the content of the right hon. Gentleman’s response, but for its tone, and I am very glad that the Government were able to facilitate a successful visit to Afghanistan. It is fair to say that we are lucky in this country, because unlike some countries involved in the international coalition, we have a generally unified political position, from which we can give support to operations and to the morale of our armed forces. I am very grateful to the Opposition for that.
On security, the right hon. Gentleman is right that there are small pockets in the north and east where we continue to see trouble—and in some cases exacerbated trouble—but Afghanistan is still most violent in the south, which is where we face the greatest violence from the insurgency. I had the opportunity on my last visit to go to regional command north to discuss the situation with General Fritz. I went there from Helmand, so being able to go out and walk freely in the streets, visit a university and do a small press conference was quite a contrast. We need to be clear that the difference across Afghanistan is huge. We tend to look at Helmand as the typical experience and extrapolate from it, but we need to try to remember that there is a wider Afghanistan too.
It is clear that the Afghan local police will supplement the ANSF. It is also clear that the Government in Afghanistan recognise the need for a bottom-up as well as a top-down approach to policing, and the need to supplement the ANSF where required. If I may say so, the right hon. Gentleman perhaps got his figures mixed up, because the southern Pashtuns are better represented in the Afghan national police than in the Afghan national army, but everybody is aware of that problem.
On the political settlement, all of us, and especially those who have visited Afghanistan recently, have recognised that we are moving into a settlement that is based on the political space and not just on the military space. It has always been the case that both will be required. It is also worth pointing out that we cannot expect a clean-cut settlement, to which the right hon. Gentleman alluded. The settlement will be Afghan-based, Afghan-focused and Afghan-dependent, and it is unlikely to be anything other than messy to those who look at it from the outside. However, we have always said that we need to look both to those who are reconcilable to the Afghan constitution and the concept of democratic government, and to those who are irreconcilable and who need to be dealt with by military means.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman made an important point on the concept of a regional settlement. Too often, the discussion on Afghanistan is in terms that it is some sort of vacuum, but we must consider its northern neighbours, the relationship with Pakistan, the complex interaction between Pakistan and India, and increasingly, the relationship between Pakistan and China. We need to understand all that in the context of the settlement, and the long-term implications of the settlement in the region. I discussed some of those issues with General Kayani and President Karzai only a week and a half ago. There is an increasing awareness among Afghanistan’s neighbours that the countries surrounding them need to play a constructive role in Afghanistan if any of the gains for which so many sacrifices have been made are to be sustainable.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and particularly for his last few words on involving the international players around Afghanistan in a final settlement. Can he say more about who will lead the political settlement around which we hope stability will be maintained as British and American troops withdraw later in this decade? May I point out that cautious optimism represents painfully slow progress 10 years after this war started, and that a lasting settlement is possible only if there is a political settlement that involves talking to our enemies?
It is very clear that it is unlikely that a single political initiative will bring all the players into a final settlement, so there are a number of ongoing initiatives. The Prime Minister’s role has been very important in having a dialogue with the Government of Pakistan and the Government of Afghanistan on a trilateral basis, and a similar initiative is being undertaken by the US. We must all understand that the key player is Pakistan, which is so important to a successful outcome.
If I may make a plea to the House, a lot of criticism is levied at Pakistan when things are not going right, but it would do us all good to be much more welcoming of the positive measures that are being taken there. Pakistan is in a very difficult situation, but it is still able to assist us. It does us no good constantly to criticise a key ally, or to fail to praise it, when it is making important contributions.
I thank the Defence Secretary for the open way in which he conducts these quarterly reports. I hope that we can have a longer debate on Afghanistan, because there is a danger that it will become the forgotten war—as we can see from the relatively few Members in their places.
With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have two questions. First, on security, the Defence Secretary did not mention the annual and respected UN security assessments. They were reported in The Wall Street Journal in December and showed that security deteriorated across the country in 2010. I wonder whether he will commit to publish those assessments, or a summary of them, because the maps were very clear.
Secondly, I wish to follow up the important comments by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin). The regional engagement is central, and I was pleased to hear the Defence Secretary reflect on that. However, a year and a bit on from the London conference we are no closer to the council for regional stability or anything like it, which could put on to a structured basis the regional engagement that he and I know is so important for any political settlement in Afghanistan to have sustainability and confidence.
The right hon. Gentleman makes several important points. There are few things that would give me more pleasure than trying to persuade my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to have a debate on Afghanistan. It is very important that Members get more time than is available when simply responding to a quarterly statement. I think many hon. Members would wish to take time to explore in more detail some of the more nuanced issues than is possible in the response to a statement.
If I am not able to get the full assessments published and placed in the Library, I will certainly ensure that summaries are available. On the issue of deteriorating security, we need to be careful about how we measure that. If we are getting a larger Afghan national security force and ISAF taking on the insurgency in more places and challenging them for ground in more places, we are likely to get a rise in the level of violence, but that level is not a good measure of the security situation. It is better to find a way to measure the safety of the population and ensure that we have a balanced view of what security means.
I take on board the right hon. Gentleman’s point that we need to make more progress in regional co-operation and involving the regional leaders, but I may be able to provide one moment of optimism. At the Munich security conference just two weeks ago, more than at any time previously I felt a growing awareness of the need to see Afghanistan in its regional context, given the complexities surrounding it. That is something that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I want to push forward as quickly as we can. I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the regional aspect is key to the long-term sustainability and viability of the Afghan state.
The whole House will have been saddened by the death of the two young soldiers in Camp Bastion this morning. The return of their bodies to the UK will mean a total of three repatriation ceremonies in a fortnight through RAF Lyneham and Wootton Bassett. Is the Secretary of State yet ready to tell us or make a statement about what will happen to repatriation ceremonies as we move towards the closure of RAF Lyneham? I know that the statement is imminent: when will it be ready?
I am not able to give those details today, although my hon. Friend is correct to say that we will do so shortly. I am sure that the House would agree that it is not so much where we honour our war dead, but how we do so. Wherever those ceremonies take place, it is essential that those who have made sacrifices are treated with all due respect and honour.
May I, too, pay tribute to the soldiers serving in Afghanistan? I recently had the privilege of meeting some of them when we were there with the Defence Committee, especially those of the Royal Irish Regiment based at Nad Ali, who are doing an excellent job in driving back the Taliban. Perhaps not enough is said in public about the success that our armed forces are enjoying. That, sadly, is not matched by the political progress that is being made and I echo the comments of the Opposition spokesman. More could be done on the political side of things, especially with the Afghan Parliament. We in Northern Ireland, who have some experience of negotiating political arrangements and taking care of the rights of minorities, would be happy to sit down with our Afghan counterparts and share our experience with them.
I am grateful for that offer. I have often thought about how, through our development aid, we are willing to give advice on economics and bureaucracy but still seem to expect people who have never had experience of political life suddenly to be able to be politicians. I would have thought—if I may say so—that one thing we have plenty of in this country is ex-politicians. We should be trying to find a way of using our experience at all levels of government to assist with the skills level necessary for politics in Afghanistan to succeed. Why do we assume that people require professional assistance in every other walk of life, but that somehow people can learn instantly to become democratic politicians? There is room for improvement in that area.
What confidence does my right hon. Friend have in the principal overland supply route from Karachi, particularly given the recent unwelcome attention of the Pakistani Taliban and on occasions—sadly—the attitude of Islamabad? Furthermore, what alternatives is ISAF planning to the north and the west on the extremely colourful map with which he has provided us?
Sadly, being colour-blind, I cannot share in the enthusiasm on that last point. However, I say to my hon. Friend that we always have to consider the wider security picture to ensure that we can maintain our supply routes. As he correctly said, there have been problems recently with the southern supply route, and certainly the Americans are increasing their dependence on the northern route. Along with our ISAF partners, we will consider what changes we might have to make in the balance between those supply routes to ensure that we never compromise the essential links on which our armed forces in Afghanistan depend.
May I, as others have done, compliment the Secretary of State on the considered tone of his statement? However, little was said in it about the prospect of a political settlement involving all the parties, including the regional ones. Although it might be impossible for him to include a section on that, given the dire security implications, will he bear it in mind that his view is shared throughout the House and the country? We are not seeking a military victory—one is not possible—in this set of circumstances. Furthermore, a political settlement will be protracted and difficult, so the sooner we get on with it the better, and the more he will be able to tell us about it.
The hon. Gentleman is correct that increasingly attention will be focused on the political element of a settlement in Afghanistan. Those who have visited it recently will have been struck by the fact that on the ground, at a tactical level, we are certainly making gains. The security picture on the ground is improving, in some cases beyond recognition. However, the problem remains at the political level. It remains this: how do we persuade those in Afghanistan that there is a better future for them under a democratic constitutional Government? This year we have a major opportunity. One of the Taliban’s great propaganda weapons has been to say that the international community will be leaving in July 2011. However, when it becomes clear not only that we are not leaving, but that we are building up the Afghan national security forces, we might deny it one of its best cards. We should be preparing, therefore, for a political push in the second half of the year on reconciliation and reintegration. That is when we will find that we have a better following wind than in recent times. We will pay a high price if we miss that window.
Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con): Drawing on my right hon. Friend's comments about Pakistan, I ask him to update the House on his assessment of what would happen to the stability of Pakistan were we to withdraw our troops in the very near future.
There would be a real risk of instability in the whole region. Again, I go back to the issue of Pakistan. When one talks to the political or military leaders in Pakistan, one finds an increasing understanding that they cannot simply deal with the Pakistan Taliban and not deal with the Afghan Taliban, because ultimately there is a threat to the stability of the Pakistani state itself. The concept that we must fight a common threat together is one that is increasingly understood in Islamabad. Although we will have criticisms of what might not be done in Pakistan, we should also welcome political and military activities there that are helping in what is increasingly regarded as a common fight.
The Select Committee on Defence was able to see first hand how the training of the Afghan national security forces is improving and how the investment is paying dividends. However, Afghanistan has a very small air force—an excellent air force, but a small one—and will never be able to provide its own strategic air cover. What role does the Secretary of State see Britain’s RAF playing in providing that air cover, in the way that it did over Iraq for the Kurds? Does he see that as part of our ongoing commitment, and is he happy that we will have the capacity, in pilots and planes, to carry that through?
Strategic air cover for Afghanistan is some way down the line, but it will be required when there is a stable state able to maintain its own security. That, of course, is some way in the future, but given that Afghanistan’s capacity will be small, as the hon. Lady said—at the moment it is well behind where it needs to be—how arrangements for that process are put in place will be a matter for the whole of the international community, not just the United Kingdom.
There are many Afghans outside the ruling clique who believe not only that the exit strategy will not work in the long term, but that it is fatally flawed and in fact cannot work. General Petraeus’s strategy has been described as “Fight, then talk”. Does the Secretary of State think that we ought to be fighting and talking, and that this should include talking to all modes of the insurgency?
History teaches us that in any insurgency or conflict, we inevitably move from a military phase, taking on the violence of insurgency, into a phase where there is both military contact and diplomatic activity, and hopefully from there into a phase of diplomatic resolution on the political stage. I think that we are at a point where, as I said earlier, we will increasingly be looking not simply at the military position or the security situation on the ground, but at the political level. What has come across in the House this afternoon appears to be an increasing view on both sides that the political arena will be increasingly important. That is in no way to diminish the importance of the security environment within which those political talks will take place, but without the success of the political element the security gains will not provide a stable and secure Afghanistan.
Following today’s announced cuts in RAF training, which will deny us the use of pilots who are virtually qualified, what guarantees can the Secretary of State give on the impact on heavy lift supplies to Afghanistan, which the Afghans will never deliver themselves, and the delivery of helicopter support to both our troops and theirs on the ground? Surely he realises that the Government must not impose an increasing burden on a diminishing number of our pilots.
I also recently visited Afghanistan and can testify to the excellent job that our armed forces are doing in carrying out their duties. I do not believe that the same can be said of President Karzai or Members of the Afghan Parliament, and this is not just a capacity or knowledge issue: there is also too little focus on human rights and the quality of life of the Afghan people. Does the Secretary of State agree that we must address the political deficit, to ensure that in the long term the blood and treasure that this country is spending for the benefit of both our countries will not be in vain?
I agree with my hon. Friend, but I think that the signs are perhaps more optimistic than she suggests. Certainly, those who have had regular meetings with President Karzai will recognise that, since the Lisbon summit, he has become less worried about the time lines of 2011 and the summer deadlines that he previously believed to be extremely important. He is now more focused on the 2014 transition. That has had a beneficial effect on the ability of the Afghan politicians to look at the wider range of issues, and we will continue to stress the need for that in our ongoing engagements with President Karzai and other members of the Afghan Government.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the small country of Georgia has actually lost more soldiers in Afghanistan than NATO nations such as Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia and even Turkey? Will he also confirm that Georgia has more soldiers serving there than NATO countries such as Belgium, the Czech Republic, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia? Will he pay tribute to Georgia for that? Georgia cannot join NATO because we now have to be nice to Moscow, but I know that the Secretary of State likes his travelling, so will he find time to pay a short visit to that country to say thank you for the sacrifice it is making?
I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman, because I was in fact able to make our thanks known directly to the President of Georgia when I met him last week at the Munich security conference. The great benefit of such conferences is that they diminish all our travel while enabling us none the less to engage in the necessary diplomacy. The right hon. Gentleman makes the important point that some of the small nations that have been involved in Afghanistan have set a wonderful example to some of the larger ones—those that I might characterise as the sleeping giants. Some of those small countries, including Georgia, Estonia and Denmark, have made a disproportionate contribution. They should be extremely proud of what they have done, and all democratic politicians in the House should be willing to thank them whenever we can.
In the past, my right hon. Friend has mentioned the fact that 11,000 of our troops have been in Afghanistan, which is a very high number. Would he be willing to confirm that that is the case? Will he also join me in paying tribute to 3 Commando Brigade, which is soon to go to Afghanistan, and in wishing it Godspeed and hoping it comes back safe and sound?
It is always the wish of Members on both sides of the House that our troops should come back with the minimum of loss, given the wonderful job that they do on our behalf. As I have said today, the number of our forces in Afghanistan is regularly above 10,000. It has, on occasions, reached the 11,000 mark, but that is not the case at present. That is inevitable, however, given the complexities of the reliefs in place, the rest and recuperation changes and the temporary surges that I described earlier. I hope that I gave the House a proper description of what is happening on the ground. I think that it is better to make it transparent when we deploy increased numbers, so that the House and the country can thank every one of our service personnel for the level of sacrifice that they are making.
The Secretary of State has made it clear today that troops “may” begin to be withdrawn this year, depending on the conditions. However, the Prime Minister has previously stated that troops will begin to be withdrawn this year. Did the Prime Minister inadvertently mis-speak, or has the position changed?
The Prime Minister has made it very clear that, although we would like to see British troops coming home as soon as possible—which family of any member of our armed forces would not want to see that?—that will happen when conditions on the ground are appropriate. As I said today—I repeat the Government’s position—it may be possible to see some troops coming home this year, but that will be dependent on the conditions on the ground.
I am not sure that I am the best person to arbitrate on that question. From discussing the issue with our troops on the ground and their commanders, I know they will say, particularly since the American surge, which has made a difference to the whole dynamic in Afghanistan, that there has been a change in the overall level of equipment. I think that since our engagement in Afghanistan started, there has been an ongoing improvement and refining of personal equipment—the individual equipment—for our armed forces. I think that that will continue to change as circumstances change. One thing that is very clear is that the Government remain absolutely committed to ensuring that our troops on the ground have what they need to do the job.
Still optimism after 10 years! That is a longer period than the first world war and the second world war combined—a period throughout which our British soldiers have been dying in Afghanistan. There are 356 dead—twice the number killed in Iraq and three times the number killed in the charge of the Light Brigade, an event of similar futility. The Secretary of State’s optimism is based yet again on his being in denial of the reality. Would he like to tell us about the army and the police in Afghanistan—not the numbers joining, which he has told us about again and again, but the numbers of those dismissed or who have deserted since his last statement?
If the hon. Gentleman wants always to focus on the problems we face, there is a long list from which to choose. To say that we are in denial of the overall position, however, is simply not to be in full command of the facts. Anyone who has visited Afghanistan will be well aware that there is a big improvement in the security position on the ground.
If the hon. Gentleman has the manners to let me answer his question, I will do so.
There is undoubtedly still a problem with the capability of the Afghan national security forces—it is not just a matter of the numbers in the Afghan army and the Afghan police, but they are improving. The ability to train them in specialist tasks is also improving. If there is a weakness in the case, it is the fact that not all the partner nations are contributing to the extent that they could in the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, which would provide some of the wider ranges of skills. The improvement in literacy is driving up the standards. Given the cynicism that the hon. Gentleman brings to these debates, let me point out that General Karimi cited one young soldier who said:
“The Taliban want to keep me in the dark. My army will teach me to read and write so I can come into the light and make my own decisions.”
Who are we to want to turn that light off?
I thank the Secretary of State for making his statement and also, on behalf of the House, for giving us the back-up information and for announcing in advance on the Order Paper that this statement was to be made. I would like to echo his tribute to our special forces, who are not often mentioned but who do a terrific and excellent job. How does my right hon. Friend propose to wake up the sleeping giants so that they contribute more to the operations?
With difficulty, but persistence. The former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), is no longer in his place, but I am thinking of the discussions we had when we were in opposition. This has been an ongoing problem. It is simply a matter of continuing to press the idea that if we all want the collective benefits of a stable Afghanistan, we all have to contribute to making it happen. I know that the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and I never waste an opportunity to remind all our partners in Afghanistan that everyone must play a maximal role if we are to achieve the success we want—particularly, in view of the deficit we still face, in the NATO training mission. We are short—290 short at the moment—of police trainers. If anyone is listening to our exchanges in any of the countries mentioned, they might want to take note.