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Volume 530: debated on Wednesday 6 July 2011

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Afghanistan.

From the outset this Government have sought to take a more hard-headed, more security-based approach to our mission. As I have said, we are not there to build a perfect democracy, still less a model society. Yes, we will help with the establishment of democratic institutions. Yes, we can improve infrastructure, develop education, encourage development. But we are in Afghanistan for one overriding reason: to ensure our own national security by helping the Afghans to take control of theirs.

This means building up the Afghan security forces so we can draw down British combat forces, with the Afghans themselves able to prevent al-Qaeda from returning and posing a threat to us and to our allies around the world. This is particularly poignant today, on the eve of the sixth anniversary of 7/7—an attack that was inspired by al-Qaeda and executed by extremists following the same perverted ideology that underpinned the 11 September attack in 2001.

Three hundred and seventy-five British servicemen and women have died fighting in Afghanistan to help strengthen that country and keep Britons and Britain safe from another 9/11 or 7/7. Thousands more, including many civilians, have risked their lives, and hundreds have been injured fighting for the security of our nation. They have been part of an international coalition involving 48 countries with a specific UN mandate, working at the invitation of a democratically elected Government. Though there have been many, many difficult times, we should be clear about what has been achieved.

In 2009, my predecessor as Prime Minister told the House that some three quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against Britain had links to Afghanistan and Pakistan. We must always be on our guard, but I am advised that the figure is now significantly reduced. International forces have been bearing down on al-Qaeda and their former hosts, the Taliban, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, Osama bin Laden has been killed and al-Qaeda significantly weakened. In Afghanistan, British and international forces have driven al-Qaeda from its bases and, although it is too early to tell for certain, initial evidence suggests that we have halted the momentum of the Taliban insurgency in its heartland in Helmand province.

We are now entering a new phase in which the Afghan forces will do more of the fighting and patrolling, and our forces more training and mentoring. As President Obama said in his address last month, the mission is changing from “combat to support.” When we arrived there was no one to hand over to—no proper army, no police force. In many places across the country the Afghan security forces now stand ready to begin the process of taking over security responsibility.

Success in Afghanistan requires a number of critical steps. The first is to ensure that Afghan security forces are able to secure their own territory. There have been well-known problems, especially with the Afghan police, but there has been real progress in the past two years. General Petraeus went out of his way to praise the recent performance of Afghan forces in a number of complex and dangerous operations. The Afghan forces are growing rapidly and are ahead of schedule to meet the current target of having 171,600 in the Afghan army and 134,000 in the Afghan police by the end of October this year. They are now deploying in formed units and carrying out their own operations.

There have been some real successes. Afghan national security forces have prevented insurgents from reaching many of their targets, and just eight days ago, when a major hotel was attacked in Kabul, they dealt with the situation. This was a major, sophisticated attack. They dealt with it professionally and speedily, calling in assistance from a NATO helicopter only to deal with insurgents on the roof. As General Petraeus stressed to me, they acquitted themselves extremely well. It is this growing strength and capability that will allow us over time to hand over control of security to Afghan forces and draw down our own numbers.

We remain committed to the objective, shared by President Karzai and the whole of NATO, that the Afghans should assume lead security responsibility across the whole country by the end of 2014. Last month President Obama announced that the US will withdraw 10,000 of its forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year and complete the removal of the US surge—some 33,000—by the end of next summer. At the time of the US surge, the UK increased its core force levels by an extra 500. For our part, I have already said that we will withdraw 426 UK military personnel by February 2012. Today I can announce that the UK will be able to reduce its force levels by a further 500, from 9,500 to 9,000, by the end of 2012. This decision has been agreed by the National Security Council on the advice of our military commanders.

These reductions reflect the progress being made in building up the Afghan national security forces. Indeed, it is worth noting that for every US soldier who leaves as the surge is removed, two Afghans will take their place. This marks the start of a process that will ensure that by the end of 2014 there will be nothing like the number of British troops who are there now, and they will not be serving in a combat role. This is the commitment I have made, and this is the commitment we will stick to.

Having taken such a huge share of the burden and performed so magnificently for a decade, this country needs to know that there is an end-point to the level of our current commitment and to combat operations. This decision is right not only for Britain but for Afghanistan. It has given the Afghans a clear deadline against which to plan and has injected a sense of urgency into their efforts.

Although there is a clear end-point to our military combat role, after 2014 the UK will continue to have a major strategic relationship with Afghanistan: a development relationship, a diplomatic relationship and a trade relationship. Above all, we have a vital national security interest in preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for international terror, so although our forces will no longer be present in a combat role we will have a continuing military relationship.

We will continue to train Afghan security forces. In Afghanistan I announced plans for a new officer training academy, which President Karzai specifically asked me for, and which I am proud Britain is able to deliver. We intend to lead the academy from 2013, in addition to maintaining our current role in the officer candidate school, which is due to merge with the academy in 2017. We will continue our efforts to help Afghanistan build a viable state, but our support cannot be unconditional.

In my meeting with President Karzai, I made clear the Afghan Government’s responsibility to ensure that British taxpayers’ money is spent well and spent wisely. I emphasised to President Karzai just how important it is that he personally grips the problems with the Kabul bank and the need for a new International Monetary Fund programme. I also urged him to support due democratic process and to tackle corruption, and I made it very clear that, although Britain wants to stand by Afghanistan beyond the end of our combat mission, we can do so only on the basis that Afghanistan must help itself, too.

Almost all insurgencies have ended with a combination of military pressure and political settlement, and there is no reason why Afghanistan should prove any different. As we strengthen the Afghan Government and security forces, so we will back President Karzai’s efforts to work towards an Afghan-led political settlement. The death of bin Laden presents the Taliban with a moment of real choice. Al-Qaeda are weakened; their leader is dead.

Last month, the United Nations adopted two separate sanctions regimes, creating a clear distinction that separates the Taliban from al-Qaeda. Local peace councils have now been established in almost all of Afghanistan’s provinces. These have already allowed more than 1,800 people from 17 provinces to be enrolled on the scheme for reintegration, so we should take this opportunity to send a clear message to the Taliban: now is the time to break decisively from al-Qaeda and to participate in a peaceful political process.

In this task, we need Pakistan’s assistance. As I discussed with President Zardari last week, that process is now as much in Pakistan’s interests as Britain’s or Afghanistan’s, because the Taliban pose a mortal threat to the state of Pakistan as well.

There is no reason why Afghanistan should be destined to remain a broken country. It has abundant mineral wealth and fertile agricultural land, and it stands at the crossroads of Asia’s great trading highway. It has succeeded in the past when not wracked by conflict, but Afghanistan still has many challenges ahead.

There are real security issues and a lack of Government capacity, but 10 years ago Afghanistan was in the grip of a regime that banned young girls from schools, hanged people in football stadiums for minor misdemeanours and banished radios and any form of entertainment—while all the time incubating the terrorists who struck on 9/11 and elsewhere.

Afghanistan, for all its imperfections, has come a long way. Today, it is no longer a haven for global terror, its economy is growing and it has a Parliament, a developing legal system, provincial and district governors and the basic building blocks of what could be a successful democracy.

In Helmand province, which with Kandahar, we should remember, was a stronghold of the Taliban and the insurgency, there is now a growing economy, falling poppy cultivation and many more effective district governors. The fact that President Karzai has been able to choose Lashkar Gah as one of the areas to include in the first phase of transition is a sign of the transformation that we have helped to bring about there.

As we enter this new phase of transition, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to our servicemen and women who have made such incredible sacrifices to defend our national security. While we have been going about our daily lives, they have been out there day and night, fighting in the heat and the dust and giving up the things that we all take for granted.

That is the true character of the British Army, and it is why we are so incredibly proud of all our forces and the families who support them, and why we are so grateful for everything that they do for us. I commend this statement to the House.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our forces, who serve with such dedication and such heroism in Afghanistan, and let me just say to him that, whatever differences separate us on other issues, I commend the substance and the tone of his statement today and, indeed, his approach to the issue of Afghanistan.

As we prepare to remember tomorrow the victims of the attacks of 7/7, we are all reminded of why we are engaged in Afghanistan: to secure our security at home. That is why Opposition Members continue to support our forces in Afghanistan. We continue to support also the Prime Minister’s intention to end the British combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. It is right that we make it clear to the Afghan Government and their security forces that they need to step up and take responsibility for the future of the country, and it is right that we make it clear to the British people that this is not a war without end.

This year and next we must maintain the combination of military pressure, the accelerated build-up of the Afghan security forces and the work on basic governance and justice. I support the Prime Minister’s plan to maintain British troop levels above 9,000, as they have been for the past two years, for this fighting season and the next. That will give our forces the best chance of consolidating the situation before the process of transition to Afghan control accelerates in 2012 and 2013, when our forces can start to come home in greater numbers.

May I first ask the Prime Minister about our troop commitments? Will he assure the House that if our reductions go slower than those of other countries—in particular, America—that will not cause British forces to take on a disproportionate share of the burden in Helmand? Can he assure the House that detailed plans for troop draw-down will always be based on military advice and conditions on the ground? I am sure that he can give that assurance. We ask our troops to do a difficult job in testing circumstances. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that our armed forces will continue to receive all the equipment they need in the months ahead, including the 12 Chinooks he promised but for which the order has still not been placed?

The bravery and professionalism of our armed forces deserve to be given the best chance of success. As the Prime Minister said in his statement, that will be realised only if we see political progress in Afghanistan. The political track is as important as the decisions on troop numbers and military strategy. As I understand it, there are still talks about talks. I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that much work needs to be done between now and the Bonn conference in December, and indeed after it, if we are to make the most of this opportunity. I have some specific questions on that issue.

First, to build on the excellent work of Stefan di Mistura, the UN special representative, will the Prime Minister press for the Security Council to appoint a senior figure, perhaps Mr di Mistura or someone from the Muslim world, to be empowered to mediate between the Afghan Government, ISAF and those members of the Taliban who renounce violence? Such a figure could help to secure the commitment of countries in the region to support a new political settlement, reflecting their shared interest in long-term stability in Afghanistan.

Secondly, although it must remain a red line that the Taliban and others must commit to a peaceful political process, the constitution need not be set in stone. Will the Prime Minister press the Afghan High Peace Council to consider constitutional reform, including a more devolved Afghan state, which I believe is one demand that could unite people with political differences? Those steps need to be taken now so that by the time of the Bonn conference in December the ground has been prepared and real progress can be made.

As we look to a stronger Afghanistan, we all recognise that there are issues of governance and the rule of law. Will the Prime Minister say more about the ongoing scandal over the Kabul bank? I welcome that he raised the issue with President Karzai. Does he agree that this problem symbolises the inability of the Afghan Government at times to distance themselves from practices that threaten to undermine the Afghan economy and international development assistance? Will he tell us more about the role that Britain is playing to get the Afghan Government to take the necessary steps to tackle the crisis in the Kabul bank and allow the International Monetary Fund to resume its proper support?

Finally, I turn to Pakistan. We all accept that long-term stability in Afghanistan depends on stability in Pakistan. When I met President Zardari last week, I commended the hard work and sacrifice of the Pakistan security forces in tackling violent extremism in the north-west of the country. As the Prime Minister said in his statement, the situation in Pakistan continues to be serious. There is a danger that the bringing to justice of Osama bin Laden, which should be welcomed on all sides, will not have that effect in Pakistan. What steps is the Prime Minister taking to put British support for counter-terrorism in Pakistan at the heart of our relationship with the Pakistan Government?

We all want to see British troops come home at the earliest opportunity, not least the family and friends of those who are currently serving in Afghanistan. However, we also want the campaign to be concluded in a way that ensures that their service and sacrifice has not been in vain, and that Afghanistan and the wider region move into a stable future, rather than once again posing a serious threat to our security and that of other countries. I welcome today’s statement as a step along that path. I say to the Prime Minister that I will continue to work with him on Afghanistan so that we can redouble our efforts on the military and political fronts to give Afghanistan the stability it needs for the future.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his response to the statement and for the very good cross-party support not only for the mission but for how we are proposing to draw down and bring it to an end. He is right to say that the combination of military pressure, the build-up of the ANSF and a political process can enable us to meet our objective.

The right hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions, the first of which was on troop commitments. Yes, we are withdrawing troops more slowly than the US, but of course the US had a surge of about 33,000 troops. Its enduring number is more like 70,000, so obviously it makes sense for our draw-down to be proportionately smaller. It is important for us to have the draw-down in the way I have said.

The right hon. Gentleman said, quite rightly, that we must be careful as the draw-down takes place that we do not put a disproportionate burden on the remaining British troops. I am very clear that we must not enter into large new operational areas. We should continue the excellent work that we are doing in Helmand province, handing over progressively to the Afghans. Indeed, we are seeing the transition of Lashkar Gah and it might well be possible to transition other parts of Helmand province in a very effective way before the end of the process.

On the issue of equipment, one thing that struck me on the visit from which I have just returned, and indeed on visits over the past couple of years, is that there is now a real sense among our troops that they have the equipment they need. The body armour is much improved, as is the quality of vehicles, such as Mastiffs. There is no use of Snatch Land Rovers outside bases any more, and what has taken place is very positive. Obviously some of that action was initiated under the previous Government, and it has been continued under this Government. Funding the urgent operational requirements in Afghanistan is working well. Clearly we need to ensure that we have helicopter capacity and that Chinooks and the rest go ahead.

On talks, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the need for a new international figure. I feel that perhaps the time for that has passed. I think that we now need an Afghan-led process. There are now much more effective discussions taking place between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a much more positive attitude on both sides. We should do what we can to give that every possible support.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the High Peace Council. I met former President Rabbani, and I think he is doing extremely good work in that process. We should not be completely hung up on every element of the current Afghan constitution, but it is important to give a reassurance to the Government, Parliament and people of Afghanistan that there is not some secret agenda to carve their country up. There is not. We want to see a strong and stable Afghanistan, with everyone within it playing a part in its future.

On the Kabul bank, we are very clear about what is necessary. We need a forensic audit of what went wrong and what happened, and we need the recapitalisation of the central bank so that the financial system is properly supported. The UK is massively involved in that process, and we are working for a positive outcome. We need it, because otherwise funds cannot flow into organisations in Afghanistan in the way that they need to.

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right to commend the Pakistani security forces for what they have done in the north-west frontier and elsewhere. On the British relationship with Pakistan, what is important at a time when it is clearly under huge challenge is obviously to talk about our counter-terrorism relationship, but also to stress all the parts of our relationship and explain that we are there for a democratic and peaceful Pakistan for the long term, just as we want to have a long-term relationship with Afghanistan. Both those countries fear, and have good evidence from the past, that some in the west will walk away. We must convince them that our long-term interests are to be with them and stand with them.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the magnificent performance of the men and women of all three services and all those who support them in Afghanistan? May I particularly commend the decision that he has pushed forward to have an officer training school in Afghanistan and provide the personnel to be instructors? The British Army is brilliant at that and will do it very well. May I suggest that he might also consider whether our resources might extend to doing the same thing to provide help in training civil servants?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I misspoke—I referred to the spirit of the British Army, but I should have talked about all the British armed services. It is very striking when one is there just how many RAF personnel, and indeed how many Navy personnel, are in Afghanistan, not least the Marines. I had the great pleasure of being able to speak to both the UK Royal Marines and the US Marine Corps—an odd thing to do on Independence day, but I struggled through none the less.

My hon. Friend is right to mention what we are calling “Sandhurst in the sand”, which I think is the right proposal for British involvement in the future. Clearly there is also a case for doing more on civil service training, and we will look at that as well.

May I beseech the Prime Minister to reconsider his rejection of the idea of a UN mediator? His own arguments about the record of the Afghan Government, and indeed its present activities, show why an independent figure from the Muslim world needs to be engaged there, with the Afghan Government as a party but also with western nations and neighbours as parties.

Secondly, will the Prime Minister pick up the idea of a council of regional stability? Although he is right to mention Pakistan, the truth is that stability in Afghanistan requires the engagement of all its neighbours, not just the Pakistanis. The dangers in Afghanistan relate not just to the presence of the Taliban in the political system but to some of the northern and other groups. A council of regional stability is essential to provide the type of support for a stable Afghanistan that we all want to see.

I listen carefully to the right hon. Gentleman, who has considerable experience in this. I agree very much about ensuring that Afghanistan’s neighbours are fully involved. One point I would make, though, is that from what I have seen there is no shortage of ideas for new processes to wrap around that. The problem is a lack of commitment. We need to see real commitment from the Afghans to work with the Pakistanis and real commitment from the Pakistanis to work with the Afghans.

President Karzai made the very reasonable point to the Pakistanis when he visited recently that there must be an ability to allow Taliban who want to talk to go to talk, but that those Taliban who do not want to talk must be arrested and confronted by the Pakistanis. It seems to me that it is about commitment. We can wrap all the processes in the world around it, and I will certainly look at what the right hon. Gentleman says, but in the end what we should be about is encouraging real commitment to make the peace process work.

May I endorse the points that have just been made about the need for regional involvement in stability? The Prime Minister went to some lengths to explain what the United Kingdom would do after the withdrawal of combat forces. What confidence does he have that other countries—for example, members of NATO or the European Union—will be willing to contribute in a similar way?

I think there is good evidence that there is a real commitment in NATO. Many NATO partners say that we joined this together and should leave together. There is a growing understanding that what needs to be done in cases such as this is to have an enduring relationship rather than just a short-term relationship. That argument is well understood, and the commitment that other NATO members have made to the training positions in Afghanistan is a pretty positive story.

As someone who takes a somewhat different view on Afghanistan, may I make it quite clear that I pay tribute, as I have previously, to the British troops involved for their bravery?

Will the Prime Minister continue to reject the arguments of those who oppose ending the British combat role in the next four years? As far as I am concerned, I would like to see it done earlier. Is there not a very strong feeling in this country that, after 10 years, the British people want out?

I think what the British people want is some certainty about the length of the mission and what it involves. My belief is that because we have been in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Helmand province since 2006, it is reasonable to say to people that we are going to be there until the end of 2014 in large numbers and in a combat role, but that after that the numbers will be lower and we will not be in a combat role. That gives people in our own country some certainty, but it also puts some pressure on the Afghans to ensure that they have really worked out how they need to take their responsibilities. The advice that I receive from our military commanders is that this is doable. Yes, it is challenging, but it is on track to be achieved.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about the modest withdrawal of troops next year, and, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames), I also particularly welcome what the Prime Minister said about the officer training academy in Afghanistan. Will the military relationship after 2015 extend beyond that academy to training, mentoring, logistics and other support?

Yes, it will. Let us look at the numbers—we are talking about roughly 120 British personnel for the training academy, supplemented by other countries’ personnel. Indeed, the US has agreed to put, I think, $38 million into the training academy. Clearly we want to do more over and above that, and the National Security Council will discuss precisely how much we should commit and how much we will spend. Yes, of course we will be going over and above that as part of an important relationship to help Afghanistan build and maintain its capacity.

May I join the Prime Minister in expressing my condolences to the family of Scott McLaren, who was killed in such tragic circumstances earlier this week? He came from Edinburgh. His loss of life is a reminder to us of the sacrifice being made in Afghanistan by so many young people from this country.

When the Prime Minister spoke of drawing down troop levels next year, I think I am right in saying that he meant reducing our troops to the numbers that we had at about the beginning of 2009. However, I was unclear about what will happen after 2014. Are we talking about maintaining such a significant presence after that time? I appreciate that the troops will be in a different role and doing different things, but the House will want to have some idea whether we are talking about maintaining such a significant presence, and also of where other countries stand on that.

The right hon. Gentleman asks a totally appropriate and legitimate question. What I have said is that the numbers are going down to 9,000 by the end of 2012. We must then work out the right number for 2013 and into 2014. I have said that after that, we will not be in Afghanistan in anything like the same number, nor in a combat role. I am not in a position now to give a figure for, as it were, the enduring commitment, through 2015 and beyond and the training role, which involves the officer training academy and other training work. We are not in a position yet to put a figure on that, but it will obviously be way down from the figures that we talk about today.

The Prime Minister reaffirmed today that the stated policy objective in Afghanistan is to deny al-Qaeda a base from which it can attack the UK and other British interests. From that, it is fair to assume that he continues to receive intelligence that al-Qaeda remains a threat in Afghanistan. I know that this is difficult, but will he consider how that information and intelligence can be shared with the House?

Obviously, the whole process of sharing intelligence is a difficult vexed issue, and there are some difficult recent historical connotations. What I said in my statement is that there was a time when the lion’s share of plots that threatened people in UK came from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. The number of such plots has come down significantly since then. Clearly, al-Qaeda has been absolutely hammered in Pakistan—it has lost a huge number of its senior leaders—and it has nothing like the presence in Afghanistan that it had when it was hosted by the Taliban in 2001. Our aim should be not just to exclude al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, but to ensure that the Afghans can go on ensuring that exclusion without the support of foreign troops. That is our real enduring aim.

I express my admiration for the service personnel, including the men and women of York’s 2 Signal Regiment, whom I met in Afghanistan when I went with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly three weeks ago. As our troops come home we will, thanks to the NATO training mission, leave behind very strong, and very well-trained and armed, Afghan national security forces. However, at the current rate of progress we will also leave behind fragmented politics. Given the history of military dictatorship and authoritarian states in the region, I believe that Afghanistan could go the same way. What are our Government doing to try to prevent that from being the medium-term outcome?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The more mechanical task of training the Afghan army and police is now going very well. There were errors and mistakes in the early days, but I think that they have been ironed out. I was very struck by what General Petraeus and Lieutenant-General Rodriguez said about the quality of the Afghan army. Clearly, the long pole in the tent—as they like to call it—is how strong, sustainable and vigorous is the quality of Afghan governance and democracy. The moment there is a stand-off between the Executive on the one hand and the Parliament in the other, we must settle those issues.

As I said, I do not think that we will achieve perfection—Afghanistan is a country without a long-standing democratic history—but we must help to put in place basic democratic institutions and functioning government. The British effort is hugely geared towards that task.

Given that for many years our Government negotiated with the Provisional IRA while we were still fighting, I suspect that at some level, we will be negotiating with the Taliban. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that one of the most important things that we must put forward in any negotiations with the Taliban is that al-Qaeda should never become part of Afghanistan if the Taliban were ever to form a Government, or part of a Government, in that country?

My hon. Friend is right. Let me make two points. First, this must be an Afghan-led process. This is about the Afghans trying to bring together in their country all the elements that should form a part of its future. Clearly, if the Taliban separate themselves from al-Qaeda, and if they are prepared to give up violence and accept the basic tenets of the Afghan constitutions, those are end conditions. If they can do that, there is the potential for a political process that can speed the end of this conflict. Clearly, we must go ahead on the basis that we are building the Afghan army and continuing with very tough operations to take out Taliban insurgents, but that there is also the opportunity for a political integration process at the low level, and a reconciliation process at the high level, that can speed the end of the conflict, and we can end up with a more stable and peaceful Afghanistan.

The Prime Minister referred to the recent attacks on the hotel in Kabul, which is well inside several security rings. Are there not worrying indications that the Taliban are infiltrating parts of Afghanistan where they previously had not been? How confident can we be that the Afghan authorities and President Karzai will be a in a position of complete control over the internal security of Afghanistan by the end of 2014?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the capacity of the Afghan Government and the scale of the Afghan security forces, which is improving all the time. The point I would make is that there has been rather unfair press about the hotel. In fact, the Afghan security forces were able to clear it of insurgents rapidly. There was of course a regrettable loss of life, but the operation was fast and effective. They drove the insurgents on to the roof, where they were effectively taken out with the assistance of NATO. We saw a similar attack on a hotel in Mumbai, and we have seen suicide attacks in other countries. All I can say is that people who are pretty tough nuts, such as General Petraeus and Lieutenant-General Rodriguez, were very impressed by what the Afghan security forces did. We should be talking that up, not talking it down.

Although my right hon. Friend, and indeed President Obama, are under all kinds of pressures to speed up the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and although that would be the wrong reason to withdraw, may I commend my right hon. Friend on setting a timetable, because that is how to accelerate the political process in Kabul and make President Karzai sit up and engage in the some of the talks that are already taking place? I also agree with my right hon. Friend that it would be quite wrong to internationalise that process. It must be done through the tribal structures and Loya Jirgas in Afghanistan, by and for Afghans. It is not something that we can supervise from the UN.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question; perhaps I can adjudicate between the two poles in the House. The process must be Afghan led. We do not want a bad, tribal, poorly thought-through carve-up that will lead to future instability. Clearly, there must be a proper reconciliation process, but what I have seen—a timetable has perhaps assisted with this—is a very positive engagement from Afghanistan in Pakistan on their shared future. We can push, encourage and work with those two countries, but in the end they must make decisions together on how they will be more secure.

Everybody would welcome the fact that peace negotiations are seriously under way. May I ask the Prime Minister for assurances that the rights of women will not be sold down the river? Those rights have been hard fought for. We do not want to see women once again imprisoned in their homes, and children—girls—not allowed to go to school. Will he ask the President to include women in his negotiating team? Many women are fearful of what will happen in Afghanistan in future, and they deserve such assurances.

The right hon. Lady makes a very good point. I would stress that prominent Afghan women are involved in that reconciliation process through the high peace council, which is run by former President Rabbani. Clearly, nobody wants a return to the days of the Talibanisation of Afghanistan, but we must accept that if we want a speedier end to the insurgency and long-term stability in Afghanistan, what President Karzai has referred to as his “lost cousins”—those who have lost their way—must be brought back into the body of Afghanistan. We found that fantastically difficult with Irish republican terrorists, but none the less, people who were previously committed to violence, maiming and bombing people are now sitting in government in Stormont. The same process must happen in Afghanistan, difficult though it is.

May I press the Prime Minister again on the importance of talks with the Taliban being non-conditional? Non-conditional talks with the IRA helped to bring about peace in Northern Ireland, and I suggest that the US wish for al-Qaeda and the Taliban to sever all ties should be part of a settlement rather than a precondition.

My hon. Friend is right, in that what matters is the end of the process. If we can get into a political process in Afghanistan with people who have separated from al-Qaeda, given up violence and accepted the basic tenets of the Afghan constitution, that will be a success. However, we cannot shade or fudge the idea of letting armed terrorists into government. We need to have some red lines in our minds about what is possible and appropriate, otherwise we will not end up with stability or any form of functioning state.

The Prime Minister will know of increasing concern about the use of drones in Afghanistan and elsewhere, particularly about the risk that they will strike civilians. Just yesterday it was confirmed that a drone had killed four Afghan civilians and injured two others. Given that military officials are saying that almost one third of the Royal Air Force could be made up of drones within the next 20 years, will he review the use of this policy?

Of course it matters hugely that we avoid civilian casualties, whether in Afghanistan or in Libya. However, I do not think that the answer is to turn our face away from the modern technology that can now pinpoint people who are doing us harm. The technology being used in Afghanistan, including drones and other aerial ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—cameras, has been hugely effective in driving back the Taliban insurgency and taking out people who are doing us harm.

16 Air Assault Brigade recently returned from its fourth deployment to Afghanistan, much good having been achieved. I urge caution over the speed of the withdrawal of British troops in case all that good work comes to nothing. In particular, I draw the Prime Minister’s attention to what happened in the summer of 2008, when the four battalions of the Parachute Regiment joined forces to transport a turbine to the Kajaki dam. Three years later, it still has not been connected up.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I do not want us to jeopardise the success achieved so far. From my many conversations with our service personnel, many of whom are going back to Afghanistan for a second, third or, as he said, even a fourth time, it seems to me that morale is extremely high, and that there is a sense that we are achieving good things in Afghanistan. However, I think that we need to focus on what is effective. One problem has been that we should have applied earlier the effective measures of counter-insurgency that we are now pursuing—protecting the larger population centres and ensuring that the main transport routes are open. Some of what we have done in years gone by might have had important symbolism for Afghans, but the real symbolism lies in protecting large population centres so that people can go about their daily lives.

Does the Prime Minister support the campaign by his own constituents and many families of the bereaved for the processions that bring the bodies of the fallen back to this country to be rerouted through urban areas so that local people can publicly express their respect, the families can express their grief and the country can be reminded of the true cost of war?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue. Obviously, as the constituency MP, I take a close interest in it. I have tried to allow for the greatest possible consultation with the armed forces, the MOD and local councils in Carterton town and across West Oxfordshire district council. I believe that we have arrived at a sensible route with a far better centre for families within the airbase. Money is also being spent on a proper memorial garden where families will be able to show their respects to their loved ones. A lot of thought has gone into this, and of course we must keep it under review and ensure that it is done in the right way. However, there is sometimes a great danger—whether it is the local MP or the Prime Minister—of stepping in without allowing people to determine what is a good outcome that will be well done. Let us see how it works in practice before we jump to conclusions here.

If we are to achieve a political settlement involving the Taliban, there must be an incentive for the Taliban to negotiate. At the moment, however, there is no such incentive. Has the Prime Minister received any indication from our American allies that they are contemplating the preservation of a long-term strategic base and bridgehead area in the region that would demonstrate to the Taliban, in any future Government in which they participate, that the return of al-Qaeda or other international terrorist organisations would not be tolerated and could easily be punished?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. However, I think that there is an incentive to join a political process, because Taliban mid and high-level leaders are being killed in ever larger numbers. Actually, we are now seeing, in some cases, lowering morale among the Taliban within Afghanistan because their “brave” mid and high-level leaders are cowering over the border in Pakistan. That is what has happened, and we need to keep up that pressure. Of course we need to work with the Afghans so that they have the long-term capability to go on dealing with the insurgency, if it continues—even in a minor way—along the lines that he suggests. However, no one should think that the Taliban are not under pressure; they are under huge pressure because of the surge and the effectiveness of the operations in which we are also engaged.

Will the Prime Minister guarantee that as we draw down troops in Afghanistan, we will not draw down the number of people who provide security for the diplomatic teams that will be left in the country?

Obviously it is hugely important that we secure those who work in our embassy. I had the great good fortune of meeting many people who work in the Kabul embassy, which is now one of our biggest embassies. They have to make huge compromises to work in such a difficult location, and their security needs to be absolutely at the top of our agenda.

It takes wisdom to set a date for withdrawal, but it takes enormous courage to stick to that date. Will the Prime Minister reassure us that no amount of guilt at lost lives, over-optimistic promises from generals or fear of lack of progress will ever shake his resolve that Britain will be entirely out of combat operations by the end of 2014 at the very latest?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance because it is important to give people a sense of an end time to these combat operations. As he said, it is always difficult to change the lay-down of British armed forces. I think that the early decision I made to focus on central Helmand and to get out of Sangin has been hugely important in ensuring that we have the right concentration of forces on the ground to do the job that we need to do. It is always difficult to come out of somewhere, but it is an important measure to make us more effective. That does not mean that lives have been lost in vain, however, and the Americans continue to do excellent work in Sangin. Nevertheless, we have to make hard-headed and difficult decisions for the long-term good of our armed forces and country.

In his discussions with President Karzai, did the Prime Minister raise the issue of the exodus of thousands of Afghanis from Afghanistan? As he knows, I have raised this matter in the House before. Fifty thousand Afghanis crossed the border between Turkey and Greece last year. Although he accepts that the threat from al-Qaeda is receding in Afghanistan, it is increasing in Yemen. What are we going to do about country shopping by al-Qaeda?

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right. One of the roles of the National Security Council is to sit down and look at the scale of the threat that we face, and where that threat is coming from. Clearly the threat picture is changing, in that the number of threats coming out of the Pakistan-Afghanistan area is receding, and the number coming from Yemen and Somalia is growing. The nation has to work out how smart we can be in combating that threat. That means learning lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan about how best to combat extremism and violence in those countries. I am determined—with the good advice of the Home Affairs Committee, I am sure—to learn those lessons.

I welcome today’s statement, and in particular the Prime Minister’s reminder to President Karzai that his Government must be responsible for ensuring that British taxpayers’ money is spent wisely and well. Can the Prime Minister reassure British taxpayers that measures are in place to ensure that that happens?

I can give that assurance, but clearly not everything has been satisfactory up to now. The situation with the Kabul bank has been appalling, but we now have it moving towards a solution, because there will be a forensic audit and recapitalisation of the bank. However, we need to put in place procedures within the Afghan Government so that there is not the level of corruption and wasted money that there has been.

I fully accept the Prime Minister’s argument that he cannot be entirely precise about how many of our troops will be in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. However, I am somewhat surprised that he can be so certain that they will be there in a non-combat role. If the progress made over the next few years is not as positive as he anticipates, surely he would not allow our troops there to be placed in a situation where security could not be secured, and which might require them still to have a limited combat role.

Let me turn the hon. Lady’s question the other way round. If we are still in Afghanistan in 2014 in our current numbers and still in a combat role, clearly there would be something fundamentally wrong with the strategy that we would be pursuing. The point is that we have a programme and a plan. It involves the build-up of the Afghan national security forces, which is going well, it involves working with our allies, which is going well, and it involves close co-operation between us and the Afghans, all of which can be done. That is what we should focus on, and that is the programme that we will deliver.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. Does he agree that a key element in achieving long-term stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be providing good quality basic education, which will give people hope and opportunities, and lead them away from entering into sectarian and ethnic violence?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. If we look at the huge population growth in Pakistan in particular, and the fact that more than 10 million children are now out of school, we have to ask what sort of future will they grow up into and what sort of extremism will they be prey to. That is why, in spite of the frustration sometimes felt at Afghanistan being unable to do more on education itself, we are right to have the targeted programme that we do, in order to put more Pakistani children through school.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, and pay tribute to the bravery and dedication of our soldiers and security personnel in Afghanistan. Will he ensure, however, that we will withdraw from Afghanistan at a time when we have achieved our overriding goal of ensuring our national security, as he has stated in the House today?

The answer to that is yes. Our goal is that Afghanistan can secure itself from al-Qaeda and terrorist bases without the need for British or other forces. That is the goal, and that is why building up Afghanistan’s security apparatus is so central. All the other things that we have talked about today—schooling, development, education—are important, but security is the absolute key.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s focus on an Afghan-led political solution, but in honour of the 375 brave British service personnel who have died in Afghanistan, that solution must include the rights of women, rights for other minorities, religious freedom and a commitment to developing democracy. Can he assure me that in detailed talks, those will be some of his red lines with the Taliban?

Those things are guaranteed through the Afghan constitution, and Afghanistan has made huge steps forward. Knowing President Karzai as I do, I know that he would not agree to an Afghanistan that was miles away from the sort of human rights and development goals that my hon. Friend wants to see progressed. However, we have to have a hierarchy, as it were, and the hierarchy of need from the UK’s point of view is to focus on security and the Afghan Government’s capacity to secure their own country. Other things have to take their place behind that.

What I am saying is that we have made announcements about Chinooks being ordered, and we will stick to those announcements.

Britain can help to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan by leaving a lasting long-term legacy. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement today about the officer training school, but does he not agree that for education for all, especially young girls, is also important?

I do agree: if we want to see long-term stability in Afghanistan, that cannot be possible by excluding half the population from being educated. Indeed, if we look right across north Africa and the middle east, the empowerment and education of women is important not just for human rights, but for economic development and for peace and progress.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement to the House today. Back in March, round about St Patrick’s day, several hon. Members, including me, had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan, and in particular Lashkar Gah. At that time, we met some of the people from the police training college. One could not fail to be impressed by their energy, enthusiasm and commitment. However, they needed a $6 million new college, yet they told us that there was no start date or completion date for it. If there is to be a handover of security, the police will need training. Can the Prime Minister give us a commitment on the start and completion dates of the police training college in Lashkar Gah?

I shall make two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, the police training college in Lashkar Gah is up and running, and it is working. I have visited it myself, and it is taking huge steps forward. One of the tragedies of the situation is that police training was the responsibility of other countries. Britain has had to take on some of those responsibilities directly, and we have done so very well. He will be interested to know that Lashkar Gah town will be one of the first places in Afghanistan to effect a transition. It is imminent: indeed, already today, security in Lashkar Gah is basically provided by Afghans for Afghans. Having been to Lashkar Gah many times over the last five years, I find that fact pretty staggering and pretty encouraging, and I think others should too.

Given that the raw material for such a high proportion of the illegal drugs on Britain’s streets starts in Afghanistan, what progress is being made on getting farmers to grow something other than poppy, and is the Prime Minister confident that the Afghan Government will continue that work once we have left?

We are seeing progress on that, and Britain has invested in the wheat seed distribution project in Helmand. However, one of the lessons that I have learned from going to Afghanistan repeatedly over the last five years is that we can talk all we like about destroying crops and the rest of it, but if we want to do something about poppy cultivation the real key is building roads, because we have to enable the Afghans to get their produce to market. If they do not have legitimate produce to get to a legitimate market, the drug dealers will prey on them, give them their poppy seed and collect their poppy at the end of the harvest, and the job is done. This is about roads and government capacity as much as it is about the criminal justice system.

Given the Prime Minister’s remarks about the need to build Afghanistan’s political structures, he will have seen today’s media reports, so can he confirm whether the UK is considering sending senior civil servants or senior Officers of this House to Kabul on either a permanent or a temporary basis?

I had the great honour of meeting the Speaker of the Afghan Parliament. As I understand it, there will be good and strong relations between this Parliament and the Afghan Parliament, which is beginning to establish itself—but I will leave decisions on what Mr Speaker wants to do to Mr Speaker.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments about education in Afghanistan, but can he update the House on how much progress has been made from investing in schooling and education over the years, and on where that leaves us now?

The hon. Gentleman asks a good question. I shall write to him with the specific figures for the number of Afghans in school in Helmand province and elsewhere. I think that he will see very good progress, but I will write to him with the exact details.