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Volume 525: debated on Monday 14 March 2011

1. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (45696)

The whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Stephen McKee, from 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan on 9 March. The House will want to join me in paying tribute also to the station commander of RAF Northolt, Group Captain Tom Barrett, who was killed in a road traffic accident on the evening of Thursday 10 March. Many members of the current and former Governments will have known him well. Both men served their country with honour and distinction, and our thoughts and prayers are with their friends, colleagues and families at this very difficult time.

The security situation in Afghanistan varies significantly across the country. About 64% of violent incidents take place in just three of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, Helmand, Kandahar and Kunar, which have about 11% of the total population. The insurgency’s heartland remains in the south. The increases in the international security assistance force and Afghan national security force have helped us to make real progress over the winter in all aspects of our counter-insurgency operations: security, governance, and development.

I join the Secretary of State in his tributes to our fallen soldiers.

The security situation in Afghanistan may have a permanent impact on service personnel after the conflict. Taking into account valuable lessons learned from previous conflicts, such as the Falklands, whereby more servicemen took their own lives afterwards than died during fighting, what measures are in place to support servicemen and women who experience mental health or social problems either during or after the conflict?

My hon. Friend makes a very valuable point. It is all too easy to see the physical scars of war; it is much more difficult to see the mental scars of war. It is because of the importance given to the matter by the Government that, cross-departmentally, we are making more funding available to mental health projects for our armed forces. We are looking at the scientific evidence available to see whether we can better target that help, but the measures that we are putting in place include the new phone line for service personnel.

The Secretary of State will recall that on 14 February he made a moderate and encouraging statement to the House, saying that he thought that the second half of this year would be a good time to make a political push towards a settlement. He also said that we would pay a heavy price if we failed to take the opportunity that would then occur. He has since no doubt seen the Defence Committee’s report, which says that at the moment the Americans seem disinclined to pursue a political settlement. Can he assure the House that he will use his best endeavours to encourage the Americans to take the course that he has recommended?

I am not sure that I am required to make efforts to get the Americans to make such a change in their posture, as the hon. Gentleman describes it. In fact, I spoke to Secretary Gates at the ISAF meeting in Brussels at the weekend, and it is very clear that we are all now moving together. The process of transition, including which parts of Afghanistan will undertake that transition, will be announced by President Karzai on 21 March.

The Defence Secretary brings a welcome dose of realism to his post, but given that counter-insurgency operations in the past, such as in Malaya, suggest that not one of the pre-conditions for success exists in Afghanistan today, why does he think this is going to be different, and why does he think that we are going to beat the Taliban?

Our aim in Afghanistan has been to create a stable enough Afghanistan so that it is able to manage its own internal and external security without the need to rely on the international community. We have put in place improvements in governance, as well as an improvement in the security position. We have seen a big increase in the size and capability of the Afghan national security force, which should enable Afghanistan to maintain that position when the international community leaves in an active role.