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Escape of Taliban Prisoners

Volume 527: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2011

(Urgent Question): To ask what repercussions the escape of Taliban prisoners will have on United Kingdom soldiers.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) for raising the subject of this serious incident. It might help the House if I give some of the background to it.

At 4 o’clock in the morning on 25 April, 476 prisoners escaped from the national security unit in Sarposa prison, Kandahar. This prison is under the control of the central prisons directorate of the Afghan Ministry of Justice. A number of prisoners have been recaptured by Afghan security forces, and they continue to search for escaped prisoners. The Afghan Ministry of Justice will conduct a joint investigation into the escape with the national directorate of security. The head of the CPD, General Jamshid, is travelling to Kandahar and General Tahir, of the detention and investigation section of the NDS, is already there. In the meantime, all prisons in Afghanistan have been put on alert and have reviewed their security accordingly.

The UK has had no involvement with infrastructure builds, training, mentoring or any other support to Sarposa prison. We continue to support the development of the Afghan prison sector by assisting the Afghan Ministry of Justice’s central prisons directorate in developing prison infrastructure, policies and working practices; supporting and structurally maintaining the high security unit within Policharkhi prison in Kabul; providing training and mentoring to improve prison officer standards; and funding the construction of a prison in Lashkar Gah.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s specific question, this is a serious event that vividly underlines the importance of building a secure prisons sector in Afghanistan. We urge the Afghan Government to put every effort into recapturing those who have escaped in order to minimise the danger and damage to anyone—be they UK forces and personnel or anyone else—and to apply lessons learned from the planned investigation to ensure that this does not happen again.

The valiant professionalism of our soldiers in Afghanistan is as distinguished as that of any in our proud military history. They deserve our gratitude and they also deserve our vigilance to protect them against avoidable risks. This was not just a small incident—it was a disaster. Many of those who escaped were captured originally at grievous cost in blood and treasure. Now hundreds are liberated to attack our soldiers again.

The Government have been accused of being optimistic in their faith in the reliability and loyalty of the Afghan police and army. This is the second major escape from Kandahar. Three British soldiers were murdered by an Afghan soldier. This month, the Afghan police stood aside as United Nations peacekeepers were lynched. The Afghan security services have proved themselves, to a large extent, to be endemically corrupt, inept and probably, in this case, infiltrated by the Taliban. Their loyalty is often for sale. When will the Government realise that they cannot build an ethical reliable army and police force on rotten corrupt foundations? Will they now concentrate on a political solution in Afghanistan and abandon our misplaced trust in the Afghan army and police, which is now a deadly threat to the lives of our British soldiers? Optimism and trust become naivety when we do not know who to trust.

I understand, and go along with, a certain amount of what the hon. Gentleman has said. This is a significant event—a disaster, to use his term. It is a disaster in security terms; of course it is. Were those held in the prison detained at great cost? Yes, they must have been, to all who were involved. I understand that only three or five of them were originally UK detainees who were passed into the Afghan system, but that does not mean that others who were involved in capturing and holding them were not upholding the very standards that he was talking about, or that they have not been let down by the security situation. That is why there must be an investigation, and why we must find out what happened.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s other points, it is of huge importance to us all that there be a transfer of power and responsibility to allow Afghanis to be responsible for their security, because there is no other answer. Security cannot be held indefinitely by those outside Afghanistan. I am sure that he is well aware of the political process that is going on in parallel with the transition process and everything else. I do not think that those members of the Afghan national security force who, along with the international security assistance force, were involved so much in Helmand last year in clearing out the Taliban and working so hard to create a safe space for their fellow Afghanis would quite recognise his description of them. Of course, maximum effort must be given to the training of new security forces—both police and army. Loyalty must be an absolute basic and training must be rigorous, but it is not correct to dismiss them all because of individual incidents.

That this matter is serious there is no doubt. We must get to the bottom of it and there must be tightening regarding those responsible and the security system. The future for Afghanistan is, as the hon. Gentleman makes out, a political solution, but the military and tactical support we are providing to the Afghanis, who must ultimately be responsible for their own security and safety, must continue despite the setbacks.

Having been involved with several such prisons around the world, I know that reinforced floors and listening microphones were customarily fitted in them to prevent the digging of tunnels. Was such equipment fitted—and if not, why not?

Clearly, at this stage, not having the same experience as my hon. Friend, I am not able to go into detail about what equipment was available to protect security. The basic point is that if people have expended effort in detaining people to pass them into a secure system, the responsibility we owe to all those to whom those people might be a threat is to make sure that they are secure. It will be part of the investigation to look not only at what has been done to ensure security previously, but at what might be done in future to reinforce that and to make sure that in future, secure places are indeed secure.

May I express our admiration and support for the work of our troops in countering the Taliban and inflicting heavy losses on them? Understandably, our troops will be concerned at the escape of some of those whom they risked their lives to capture. We fully recognise that these are early days in collecting information and framing a considered response. In that context, can the Minister give us an early assessment of the seniority, importance and capabilities of those who have escaped, especially as we approach the fighting season? We should be frank that this is a setback, but we also need to be clear about its significance.

Secondly, what assessment has been made about the—clearly failed—level of security at the prison, and what steps are being taken across Afghanistan to check on security arrangements at other prisons? Indeed, given the previous breakout, what had been done to make the prison more secure, and to vet the staff? Can the Minister give any assessment of those who have been recaptured—what level they are, and what level of co-operation has been given by the Afghan police and the local population in relation to their recapture?

Thirdly, has the Minister also asked for an assessment of recent intelligence gathering? Had any indication of an impending escape been picked up, and if so, was that information conveyed to the right level?

Fourthly, what discussions has the Minister had with our NATO allies, especially the US, about our immediate response and our assessment of the broader impact on progress in Afghanistan?

Finally, moving closer to home, has the Minister made, or will he be making, an assessment of the impact of the escape on the threat to our security in the United Kingdom?

I am grateful for the tone and the nature of the right hon. Gentleman’s questions, which mirror almost exactly the questions that we in the Department are asking. It is barely a day after the event, and the answers to his questions lie a little way in the future, but in fairness I must deal with them.

It is indeed crucial to find out who has escaped. Record keeping is not such that we can be supplied with a list immediately. It is a matter of huge concern to us to find out exactly who escaped, and their positions in the seniority of the Taliban. Estimates of who has been recaptured already vary. There are some estimates as low as 25 and others as high as 60, but we do not know. Again, it is just too early to find out, but we need to do that. The investigation into what happened will cover not only what has changed as a result of events but, as I indicated to my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), what might be done in the future to make these places more secure.

The right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) made extremely good points about intelligence gathering. Again, we have not yet had the reports on what might have been picked up, but plainly it was not accurate enough to enable the escape to be prevented, or on threat levels to us, but those are at the top of our agenda.

What the incident demonstrates clearly is that in the process of working with Afghan authorities in the essential job that they do—taking responsibility for their own country, its security, its prison system and its justice system—it is vital for our engagement and the engagement of others to continue. Kandahar, the area concerned, is not the direct responsibility of the United Kingdom. Another nation is responsible for the provincial reconstruction team working with the authorities there, including the prison authorities.

Of course the incident is a huge setback, but it demonstrates why we continue to need to be engaged as much as any reason to say no, there should be no further engagement. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will join me, and the rest of the House, in saying that the work must continue and lessons must be learned every time there is an incident in order to prevent it from happening again, but ultimately Afghanistan must be responsible for its own security under a proper political process initiated by the Afghans themselves and supported by the international community.

This event will come as a heavy blow to our armed forces just as the fighting season begins. The handover of operations to Afghan security forces is integral to our exit strategy, yet it seems that they are incapable of even guarding the Taliban, let alone taking them on in the field. Although it is early, what lessons can be learned from this in terms of our eventual exit strategy?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for understanding the essential nature of Afghanistan’s involvement in its own security. The lessons are blindingly obvious to all of us. Whatever security was in place there was inappropriate. The methods to detect what might be going on in terms of any potential escape were clearly inadequate, but we need to know a lot more before we can make definitive judgments and, more importantly, work out what needs to be done in the future. It is essential for the process to continue.

The Afghan security authorities and the Afghan Ministry of Justice are responsible for other installations elsewhere in Afghanistan that have not been subject to similar incidents. To draw from one incident the conclusion that none of them are working anywhere in the country would therefore not be appropriate or correct, which is why some provinces are moving towards transition, as was announced by the President just over a month ago.

I very much welcome the sober and serious remarks of the Minister today, which stand in sharp contrast to the claim of the Defence Secretary in the House last July, when he said:

“In Kandahar, and under the direct oversight of President Karzai, Afghan security forces are leading operations as part of a rising tide of security”.—[Official Report, 7 July 2010; Vol. 511, c. 373.]

May I ask the Minister to respond to two points? First, there should be an absolute ban on that kind of happy talk. Secondly, is it not time for the United Nations to appoint a mediator to take forward precisely the political settlement that he and I agree is so essential to our exit from Afghanistan and its development as some kind of secure and stable society?

On the right hon. Gentleman’s second point, I do not necessarily make the same link as he does between this incident and the political process. That is continuing. There are further conferences this year on the peace process, which was authorised and supported at the Kabul conference earlier this year. There are processes in place, which are being followed by the international community and led by President Karzai. The UN is closely involved, but I am not certain that a call for a mediator is either enhanced or diminished by the events of the past 36 hours. I recognise what the right hon. Gentleman says, but that process is continuing apace.

As for remarks about optimism or otherwise, it is entirely appropriate that, as they have done in the past, colleagues make statements honestly as they see the circumstances and as they see security situations improving, or not improving. I am here to talk about an incident that has clearly set back the process, but there are other things to talk about in relation to Afghanistan that clearly show the process moving in a different direction. I think that it is right that colleagues should be able both to report honestly the optimistic aspects of what is happening in Afghanistan and, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, to assess things soberly if they go wrong.

Can the Minister at least confirm the early report that suggests that instead of prisoners tunnelling out, accomplices tunnelled in to reach them? What does it indicate about the internal security of a prison if people are able to tunnel in and it proves possible to go from cell to cell assembling hundreds of prisoners so that they can take advantage of that outside help?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for such a detailed question. However, I am sure that although he will be disappointed, he will not be surprised to learn that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not yet have sufficient detail to confirm the veracity or otherwise of that report. It is such reports that lead, understandably, to our great concern about this case, and the need to find out exactly what has happened—and, of course, how we can ensure that such circumstances do not arise in future.

The Minister is right that this is a blow of whose significance we cannot at this stage be certain, but surely it points to the fact that we cannot rely on the security sector alone to provide a stable situation in Afghanistan within the time frame that the Government have set—by 2014-15. We must now, as the Foreign Affairs Committee has called for, redouble out efforts on the political front, in conjunction with our allies. Will he ensure that the Government do precisely that without delay?

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. He will not hear any voices from the Government side of the House, or indeed from his colleagues, indicating that the events of the past 36 hours or so suggest any lessening in the determination to find a political answer. Ultimately, the future of Afghanistan will be in the hands of Afghanis themselves. They will be responsible for security, whether through policing, justice or the army, and the work of training goes on apace. I read with great interest the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report about its concerns and how it wishes to see people proceed in future. The political process is an absolutely key and integral part of that, and the United Kingdom will continue to support it, while at the same time supporting the work being done to ensure that the transition to Afghan security control is as good as possible, but that work will continue beyond 2015. The House should remember that although 2015 is the date when combat troops will be withdrawn, it is not the date when the United Kingdom will finish its commitment to the people of Afghanistan and their future.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the news of 476 dangerous Taliban fighters escaping from detention risks seriously damaging the morale of our troops serving in Afghanistan, and that it is therefore essential not only to improve the security at the detention centres immediately, but to tell our troops on the ground what measures are being taken to improve security, in order to shore up their morale and give them the confidence to know that that will not happen again?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Armed forces from whatever background, whether Afghanis, other elements of ISAF forces or UK forces, must be absolutely reassured that when they have done their job, at great cost to themselves, by securing the detention of those who have caused harm or danger to others, the system at that stage is able to pick those people up and make them secure. It is certainly my intention to ensure that once we have a full report and the Afghan authorities have completed their investigation, that information is transmitted to forces so that they know that if they do their jobs, other people will do theirs.

I wholeheartedly support the calls that have been made this afternoon for redoubling the political effort in Afghanistan, but is not one of the most depressing facts about this event that in many cases it will have been British special forces who captured those people in the first place, and it may well be British special forces that have to capture them all over again? I do not expect the Minister to comment on operational matters, but is it not depressing that at this stage we are cutting 650 troops from the Royal Marines—precisely where those special forces are largely drawn from?

May I repeat something that I said earlier? Of the 476 detainees who escaped from the prison, as far as we are aware between three and five of them were captured and transferred into the system by United Kingdom forces: as the hon. Gentleman makes his distinction, I have to make that distinction back. A very small number of the total were involved with and detained by British security forces—but that does not avoid the main point, which is that of course there are 476 detainees who should be inside the prison today, not outside. The situation affects all the forces that have been engaged, and we do not draw a distinction as to who detained the prisoners.

The Minister has made a very clear and good statement, but is the situation not proof again that events in Afghanistan are controlling us, rather than the other way around? I wonder whether, on the subject of Afghanistan, a lot more people in this House and in the country may be recognising the salience of Pitt the elder’s remark that we should retract while we can, rather than retract when we must.

Yes, I am very comfortable knowing a great deal more about Pitt than I did when I first took this role, having read some excellent books about him over the past few months. [Hon Members: “Wrong Pitt!”] All the Pitts.

In answer to the question, however, I must say no. This is an example—whatever the effort being made on military operations in Afghanistan and on the political process—of an immensely complex and difficult process in which there will be progress and setbacks, and it is no more fair to suggest that policy is run by all the setbacks than it is to say that progress can continue in an absolutely linear direction without any setbacks whatever.

It is perfectly proper to advance the process on the basis that the work that so many people are doing will increase and improve security month after month as time goes on. That is what everyone is working towards, but of course it is absolutely inevitable that there will be setbacks and difficulties. The responsibility of the Government, and my responsibility, to the House is to make sure that anything that can be done to prevent those setbacks is done, and that if things occur to which there was no opportunity to make any change or difference, lessons are learned from them in order to make improvements for the future.

I think the record will show that I have spent the best part of the past five years asking Ministers in successive Governments how many secure prison places they think exist in Afghanistan. So far I have not had a decent answer, but, given that the Minister said he thought that this was an isolated incident, can he give us an assessment of how many secure prison places he thinks currently exist in Afghanistan?

The short answer to the hon. Lady is that I do not know, and she must forgive me for that. I will endeavour to get a written answer—to the best of our knowledge—to her as quickly as possible, so that it is public. The picture is more flexible, depending on what one sees as detention, official prison places and the like, but if the hon. Lady has asked successively we must get the best answer that we can for her, and I undertake to do that as quickly as I can.

That was a very sober statement to the House. The indications are that it took eight months to dig the tunnels and 450 prisoners on their hands and knees probably upwards of 12 hours to escape—but nobody saw anything. We in the United Kingdom have many governors and prison people with experience and knowledge, so will the Minister offer that knowledge to the Afghan authorities to ensure that they can improve on what has happened?

Yes, indeed. I have already had that discussion with officials. The inquiry and investigation must be carried out by the Afghans as the sovereign power, but we do indeed have great expertise in all aspects relevant to the escape, and it is absolutely clear that it should be made available to the Afghan authorities. We will certainly be doing that.