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Volume 533: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2011

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

Let me begin by paying tribute to Rifleman Vijay Rai of the 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles, who died in Afghanistan on Saturday. His commanding officer described him as tough, loyal, utterly professional and immensely proud to have been serving in the British Army. I am sure I speak for the whole House in saying that our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.

The House will appreciate that I have not yet had an opportunity to visit our troops in Afghanistan. I intend to do so as soon as is practical. The purpose of this statement is to provide information on progress in Afghanistan since the Prime Minister’s statement to the House on 6 July. Our mission is to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for international terrorism, and the presence of our armed forces in Afghanistan to achieve this aim is supported on all sides of the House.

This mission has a cost: 383 members of our armed forces have lost their lives since operations began—eight since the Prime Minister’s statement of 6 July. I know the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute both to their sacrifice and to all those who have returned with serious injuries, and to the families who support them. I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the troops from Estonia, Denmark and Tonga who are operating under British command in central Helmand. Since 6 July, two Danish soldiers and one Estonian soldier have also lost their lives, and I am sure the House will want to join me in expressing condolences to their families.

I am clear that this is an operation to protect our national security and national interests. That view is shared by the 49-nation, UN-mandated coalition. We share a common purpose: to enhance security and build the capacity of the Afghan national security forces and the Afghan Government, so that Afghans themselves can be responsible for their own territory, their own security and their own affairs. We ensure our national security and the security of the NATO alliance by helping the Afghans to take control of theirs.

Our strategy is comprehensive, drawing security, governance and development objectives together. In 10 years, with international support and assistance, Afghanistan has come a long way. Governance and the rule of law are improving across the country. The Afghan Government are providing increasing levels of basic services, with Afghans enjoying much greater access to health facilities, and more education opportunities—including for girls—than in 2001. We welcome the Afghan Parliament’s decision on Saturday to approve the supplementary budget to recapitalise the central bank, paving the way towards agreement on a new International Monetary Fund programme of support in the coming weeks. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has been actively engaged with the Afghan Ministry of Finance and the IMF in support of this objective. Agreeing the new programme will reinvigorate the Kabul process, allowing donors to align themselves behind Afghan Government priorities and systems as we move through transition and beyond.

Let us not understate the tangible improvements that have taken place, but let us also not underestimate the scale of the remaining challenge. We are working from a very low base. If progress is to be sustained, the commitment of the international community, including the UK, will have to endure for many years to come, long after international troops have withdrawn from combat operations.

On the security front, progress has been real and meaningful, but it has been hard won and is not irreversible. In many areas, Afghanistan remains a dangerous place. Levels of violence vary dramatically from region to region, but the insurgency continues to be a nationwide threat. The insurgency is under considerable pressure, but its leaders remain committed to conducting a violent campaign. Over recent months we have seen them increasingly focus on high-profile attacks, such as that on the British Council in August and on the US embassy and the international security assistance force headquarters in September. The murder of former President Rabbani is a particular setback. It is important that his death does not derail efforts to engage with those willing to renounce violence and work towards peace. We will continue to support President Karzai’s efforts to promote peace and reconciliation, and are encouraging engagement to support this from all those in the region, including Pakistan.

Despite that difficult background, there is also cause for optimism. In the UK area of operations in central Helmand, there is clear evidence that the ISAF troop surge has brought security gains, limiting the insurgents’ ability to prosecute their campaign. UK troops, partnered with Afghan security forces, are having a tangible impact on insurgent activity in our area of operations. On 9 October, 20 Armoured Brigade assumed authority for Task Force Helmand from 3 Commando Brigade, who can be proud of the progress made during their tour.

The central achievement this summer has been the commencement of the formal security transition process. July saw the first group of three provinces and four urban areas across Afghanistan, covering almost a quarter of the population, begin that process. This included Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, where the Afghan national police now lead on security in this bustling community of 120,000 people. ISAF remains ready to provide support if needed, but the ANSF have been able to respond effectively to insurgent attacks and to pre-empt many. That has been a source of considerable pride, both to the Afghan security forces and to the civilian population. Here in the UK, we should remember that the ANSF have suffered very considerable losses themselves.

The process of transition is on track and will continue. The Afghan Government, with ISAF support, are continuing the preparatory work needed to begin the transition process in the next set of provinces and districts. October also saw Task Force Helmand resume responsibility for the upper Gereshk valley. That follows the temporary deployment of US marine corps to the area, during which time UK forces provided security on the strategically significant Highway 1, outside the UK area of operations. UK forces will now work with the ANSF to prepare the district to enter the transition process in the future. We look forward to the second tranche of transition and an announcement later in the autumn by President Karzai outlining which areas are to be included.

Strong Afghan national security forces are key to achieving our objectives. The ANA now stands at 169,000 men and the ANP stands at 134,000, and both are on track to meet their target levels by October 2012. But progress cannot be measured in quantity alone—it must be measured in quality too—in respect of the effectiveness of the Afghan forces and the strength of their organisation. The Afghan-led response to the attacks on the US embassy and ISAF headquarters saw the ANSF successfully complete an exceptionally difficult night-time building clearance and, for the first time, Afghan air force helicopters were deployed in direct support of troops on the ground. Operational effectiveness rates are improving, allowing the ANSF to take the lead in many operations. Literacy rates among the ANSF are also improving. All 12 of the Afghan army’s planned specialist branches are now functioning, which will, in time, improve self-sufficiency and professionalism. Measures to improve retention rates in the ANSF have also been introduced. Such measures include a pension scheme and a work cycle consisting of periods of operations, training and leave. So the ANSF are improving but, as the recent report by UNAMA, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, shows, there remain important areas where further improvement is crucial.

President Karzai has stated his commitment to his Government assuming lead security responsibility across the country as a whole by the end of 2014, which is a goal that we share and support. That means that British troops will not be in a combat role by 2015, nor will they be deployed in the numbers they are now. The ANSF will, however, still need support from the international community even after the conclusion of the transition process. We will continue to support their development: for instance, through our lead involvement in a new officers academy announced by the Prime Minister in the summer.

On 5 December, the Afghan Government will chair an international conference in Bonn. This is a key opportunity to advance the political track. The Istanbul conference in November and the Chicago summit next May are further opportunities for the international community to reiterate its long-term commitment to Afghanistan. That commitment is crucial if we are to deliver on our key objective of ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for international terrorism. Our armed forces will continue to protect our national interests with the selfless devotion to duty we have come to expect. I am sure that we in this House will reciprocate by maintaining the staunch cross-party support that has underpinned the operation from the outset, and I commend the statement to the House.

I echo the tribute paid to Rifleman Vijay Rai of 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles, who died in action on Saturday. On all such occasions it is right that we should recognise the sacrifice and dedication of our service personnel here at home and overseas. They fight for others’ security and peace in order to protect our own. They carry our pride and our patriotism and they, and their families, must be the constant in our minds. It is also right that we should pay tribute to our allies, many of them nations that have also been scarred by terrorism.

I welcome the new Secretary of State and thank him in advance for his statement. I want to put on record my personal view that, whatever other disagreements I had with the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), I never doubted his passion about doing the right thing in Afghanistan, his personal commitment to supporting our forces, and the skill that he showed in trying to build consensus on the operations in Libya. As I made clear to him, when the Government do the right thing we will strongly support them, while carefully scrutinising their decisions. Will the Secretary of State take this early opportunity to reiterate his predecessor’s welcome commitment that nothing in the strategic defence and security review will adversely impact on the Afghan front line, and will he say whether anyone currently serving in Afghanistan is in line for compulsory redundancy?

Media attention has understandably been on Libya in recent months, but it has been another difficult summer in Afghanistan. Despite the painful losses, British casualties have mercifully been significantly lower than in the last two years, and casualties among all international forces lower than last year. There are, however, worrying security trends, with high-profile terrorist attacks including that against the British Council, which reminded us again of the danger in which many of our people, including civilians, put themselves for the sake of stability in Afghanistan and security at home. There have also been increased targeted assassinations across the country, and signs of insurgency spreading to previously calmer areas, and mixed messages on the political track. Despite that, our forces are doing brilliant work in central Helmand, jointly with the Afghan army and police force. This remains an intense and challenging campaign and one that is in our national interest. I hope the new Secretary of State will consistently make the case for why our forces are engaged in Afghanistan.

Let me turn now to my specific questions. We continue to support the intention to end the British combat role in Afghanistan by 2014. Will the Secretary of State share his assessment of the security situation and how it has changed in the districts and provinces involved in the first phase of transition? Will he assure the House that detailed plans for troop withdrawal will always be based on military advice and conditions on the ground?

On security, last week I spent time at NATO HQ and met the Secretary-General of NATO, who was full of praise for our forces. We discussed the security situation in Afghanistan. Will the Secretary of State comment on reports that Pakistani militants are exploiting a security vacuum left by the departure of US troops from parts of eastern Afghanistan, notably Kunar and Nuristan?

This is an issue for the whole of NATO, so how does the Secretary of State think we can persuade other nations with forces in Afghanistan to bear more of the burden? Pakistan is, of course, central to the future of Afghanistan and the wider region, so could he reflect on the worrying assessment by Admiral Mike Mullen that Pakistani intelligence is currently supporting extremists in Afghanistan? The campaign of targeted assassinations has also suggested a pattern of infiltration by the Taliban into Afghan forces. Could he say what changes are being made to Afghan national army and Afghan national police recruitment procedures and effective background checks to protect against this in future?

On the political process, we all know that for progress to be made in Afghanistan, there must be inclusive politics inside and beyond the country’s borders. Within its borders, could the Secretary of State reinforce the importance of protecting the gains made in development in Afghanistan in reducing child mortality and improving education? There are more than 7 million students in schools across the country, one third of whom are now girls. Beyond Afghanistan’s borders, India has recently signed a strategic partnership with Afghanistan. What does he see its significance as being, and what does he read into Pakistan’s response? The forthcoming Bonn conference, as he suggested, can be a real moment of strategic progress. Will he share his assessment of the credible likely outcomes coming from the Bonn conference?

In conclusion, we need Afghan security forces that are strong enough to defend and sustain the political and economic progress, and a constitution that reflects a changed Afghanistan, but to do so we need genuine and deeper achievements on economic development, political reconciliation, and better involvement with neighbours. Britain fought three wars in 80 years in Afghanistan; this is our fourth, and we have no intention of there being a fifth. That is why it is essential that real progress be made at the forthcoming Bonn conference.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome, and indeed for his continuing endorsement of the cross-party approach to this issue. He asked about the impact of the SDSR on the Afghan front line and I can tell him that in the very short time that I have had at the MOD, one of the first things I have done is to ask for an assessment of the equipment and personal protection available to our troops in Afghanistan. I am satisfied that they have the best level of protection they have had since this campaign began and appropriate equipment to carry out the task that they are being asked to carry out, and I will ensure that that remains my No. 1 priority. He asked about compulsory redundancies. No troops serving in Afghanistan will be subject to compulsory procedures either while they are serving in Afghanistan or during their recovery period upon return.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the importance of the political track, and I absolutely agree with him. If Afghanistan is to have a stable and sustainable future, there has to be an inclusive solution to the political challenges that the country faces. I recognise that there are huge issues in achieving that but it must remain our focus. He was also right to draw attention to the success of our forces. A military solution alone will not be sufficient, but without a climate of security we will not be able to achieve the nation-building and reconciliation process that is so important for the future. I confirm that I will consistently make the case for the presence of our troops in Afghanistan.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the current security situation. In the districts and provinces that have transitioned, the experience is good and the Afghan national security forces are showing good capability. Indeed, ISAF in Lashkar Gah has had to intervene only once since the transition took place.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about Pakistani militants, and I think he was referring to Haqqani network activity in the more easterly provinces to the east of where Task Force Helmand is operational. There has certainly been an increase in activity and the pattern clearly is that there has been a reduction in military activity in Regional Command South West but a corresponding increase in some other areas, including the area subject to Haqqani network influence.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to talk about the centrality—the crucial involvement—of Pakistan in the long-term solution to the problem. We should never forget that Pakistan has borne a burden as great as that of any other country in the fight against terrorism, taking more civilian casualties than any other nation. We will continue to work with the Pakistanis to ensure that they engage in the interests of Afghan security, and indeed of their own long-term security, by ensuring that the insurgency is defeated.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the infiltration of the ANSF through recruits. I absolutely accept that this is a critical issue. I have been assured that progress is being made, but I do not have the details that I can give to him across the Dispatch Box. I am very happy to write to him later today.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about protecting development gains. We are clear that a long-term lasting solution must involve the securing of those development gains and building on them—enhancing them. Afghanistan has to become a viable nation capable of offering its citizens basic services that they require, and capable, in a sense, of competing in its offer with what Taliban and other insurgents have been offering at local level. We have to build on those processes. We have to secure the gains that have been made, and I hope that at the Bonn conference the international community will take the opportunity to send a very clear signal of its long-term commitment to this process, beyond the draw-down of forces at the end of 2014.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his vitally important post and wish him every success in it, but may I commiserate with him, as I have with his six predecessors, on bearing responsibility for what, despite the tremendous bravery of our troops, I have always predicted since 2002, future historians will regard as a fiasco as great as the first two Anglo-Afghan wars? The wisest thing the Secretary of State for Defence can now do is to bring our troops home as soon as possible.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his views. I am sure other Members of the House are familiar with them. That is not the view that the Government take. The Government take the view that we are embarked on a process. The Afghanisation of security is progressing. We have set out a timetable for the draw-down of forces, and we will continue to engage actively with the processes of nation-building, reconciliation and Afghanisation of security over that timetable.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his position. Is he yet able to say anything to the House about the Government’s policy on the need for co-ordination across the whole of ISAF of the draw-down of troops between now and 2014 towards the end of the combat mission? I am concerned. We are already backfilling in the upper Gereshk valley and we are operating out of area, as he said, on Highway 1. If we take that too far, we will damage the troop density that has given our troops the ability to make the operational progress that they have made. The Secretary of State needs to watch this. Our troops are enthusiastic to help. They see a job that needs to be done and they want to go and do it. If he allows that to go too far, it will damage their ability to operate.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and thank him for his welcome. Some points of information: the operation on Highway 1 has concluded, so we are no longer operating out of area on Highway 1. We are not backfilling in the upper Gereshk valley. The upper Gereshk valley is part of the UK area of operations. The US marine corps moved into the area in order to protect contractors carrying out a blacktopping of the strategically important Highway 611. That is now complete, and we have retaken control of it.

On the crucial issue of draw-down, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We cannot talk about the profile of UK draw-down to the end of 2014 and beyond in isolation. We have to look at what the United States is doing, and we will obviously have careful regard to the announcements of US intentions and take the advice of the military in responding to those.

May I, too, offer my congratulations to my right hon. Friend? Is he aware of some suggestions that there has been an adverse impact on the availability of certain equipment in Afghanistan because of deployments over Libya? That may have been necessary and even acceptable in the short term, but may we take it that at the earliest date any such equipment—I particularly have in mind Apache helicopters—will be made available for deployment in Afghanistan?

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend, who will know that the news from Libya appears to be progressing, and that progress is being made towards liberation. I hope that we will very quickly be at the point where equipment tied up in the Libya campaign can be released.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his position, thank him for advance sight of his statement, and join in his message of condolence. Earlier today a survey of Afghan opinion was published by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and it found that 56% of Afghans now see the foreign troop contingent as an occupying force, and only 39% see ISAF as a guarantee of security—down from the 45% who did so only last year. Does the Secretary of State have any reason to disbelieve those pessimistic findings?

The important thing is that the ANSF are growing in size and capability, so, with 25% of the population already living in areas that have been transitioned and another tranche of transition to be announced later this autumn, Afghan civilians will increasingly find that their day-to-day security contacts are with the Afghan national security forces. As we move towards 2014, allowing foreign forces to be seen as formations that can be withdrawn without compromising the security that Afghan civilians enjoy is a positive step, so I should like to see something positive in the figures that the hon. Gentleman cites.

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to his position. He has a hard act to follow, but I am sure that he will do a very fine job—and if he does not, the Defence Committee will hold him to account. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of our key strategic aims in Afghanistan must be to bolster the stability of Pakistan? How does he think that we can manage the draw-down of our combat troops so as to bolster that stability, rather than undermine it?

I thank my right hon. Friend, and absolutely agree with his analysis that the greatest strategic challenge is security in the wider region, including security in the vulnerable cross-border area. If he does not mind, with only 48 hours under my belt, I will not give the House a lecture on how that is to be delivered, but I will confirm that I recognise it as a very important priority.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to the formidable challenges that lie ahead of him. Can he assure the House that if the security situation in Afghanistan were to deteriorate after 2014, there would be sufficient flexibility to deploy British military assets in support of the Afghan security services?

The Prime Minister has made it very clear that we will have withdrawn from a combat role by the end of 2014, and that the number of UK troops remaining after that point will be very considerably fewer than are there now. The detail of the role of those few remaining troops has yet to be determined.

May I welcome the Secretary of State to his office? He rightly says that our mission is to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for international terrorism. When he does get out to Afghanistan, will he reflect on the possibility that, with the death of Osama bin Laden and other leading terrorists, that mission might already have been achieved? If he reaches that conclusion, will he agree that it gives him some flexibility over the rate of the draw-down?

I am sorry to say to my hon. Friend that I think that that is a slightly optimistic assessment. I do not need to get to Afghanistan to make that assessment. We know from history that areas that are subject to divided—weak—Government and poor security are likely to become safe havens for international terrorism. It is very much in our own national interests that we support the Afghan national Government to be a strong, unifying and inclusive force and secure the development gains that have been made, as well as the Afghanisation of the security process. That will be the Government’s agenda.

2014 also happens to be the end of the second term of President Karzai, who has led us to believe that he will not seek reappointment—which would also be unconstitutional. That means that at the very time when we are withdrawing troops, we require political stability. Can the Secretary of State give us some indication of his thinking on how that political stability in Afghanistan can be provided?

The draw-down of troops will take place between 2012 and 2014, and the profile of that draw-down has not yet been decided or confirmed. At the same time, the Afghan national security forces will be taking an ever greater role in maintaining security in the country. I would like to think that by that stage the political process will be able to go on in a constitutional fashion, while the Afghan national security forces protect the security of the country and the population and create the stable baseline that will allow for that political process.

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his kind and sincere words about my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). I also express my faith in my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State; I am sure that he will fulfil our expectations that he will do a good job in his new role. Is he concerned that President Karzai has, once again, ruled out any dialogue with the Taliban when it is quite obvious that any stable political settlement in Kabul is essential if security is to be maintained as we withdraw from Afghanistan?

It is clear that politicians in Kabul will have to respond to the assault on the peace process that the assassination of former President Rabbani represents. However, it is also clear that in the long run there is no alternative to an inclusive peace process that will bring all elements of the Afghan population into a durable and sustainable settlement.

One thing that we are all united on is the sheer bravery of the British troops in Afghanistan; there is no division on that. Is it not important, however, for the new Defence Minister to realise that there is not unanimous support for a 10-year-old war that many of us consider to be absolutely unwinnable, and that it is certainly the strong feeling in the country—there is no doubt about it—that the sooner that British troops come home, the better it will be?

If I have got it wrong I will correct myself, but I am pretty sure that I said “cross-party” support, and resisted the temptation to say that there was support in all parts of the House.

Public recognition of service and sacrifice in Afghanistan is terribly important. The good people of Royal Wootton Bassett were delighted to welcome the new Secretary of State and the Prime Minister there on Sunday. Will my right hon. Friend similarly try to find time in his diary to be at the north door of Westminster Hall on 31 October at 3.30 in the afternoon to welcome in 3 Commando Brigade as they return from Afghanistan?

Instead of detonating improvised explosive devices safely at a distance, we still instruct our soldiers to dismantle them by hand in order to identify—to find the fingerprints of—the bomb makers, and then imprison them. After the escape of 500 Taliban prisoners from Kandahar, including many bombers, is it reasonable to ask our troops to continue to dismantle those bombs in such a dangerous way when we cannot keep the prisoners safely behind bars?

There are two parts to the hon. Gentleman’s question. First, we clearly have to work with the Afghans to improve detention arrangements in Afghanistan in terms of ensuring that human rights issues are properly respected and that prisons are secure. On the first part of his question regarding the technical process used for dealing with IEDs, I am afraid that I have not got to that part of my briefing pack yet, but now that he has drawn my attention to it I will ask the relevant questions this afternoon, and will be happy to write to him.

It is highly probable that when our troops withdraw in 2014, the insurgency will still be active. Among its top targets will be any civilians whom we leave behind to engage in nation building, and any Afghan interpreters who have helped our forces. When he has the time and opportunity, will the Secretary of State give serious thought to how those two groups are to be protected?

My hon. Friend is, of course, right. The plan for post-2014 has to include a credible way of protecting UK civilians involved in reconstruction and development, and a solution for those who have served the British forces and who might be at risk as a result.

I hope that the Secretary of State will find time in the near future to read the Defence Committee’s report, “Operations in Afghanistan”. Will he say more about what assessment the Government have made of the role of women in the future of Afghanistan?

The Select Committee’s report is in my box and I was hoping to have read it before today, but alas! I will certainly put it high on my reading list. It is clear that a sustainable future for Afghanistan has to include all parts of the population. We have to build on the enormous gains that have been made, particularly in the education of girls. That is already beginning to flow through into changing the nature of Afghan society. We must build on those gains, and we are clear that they are part of the sustainable future that we crave.

May I join other colleagues in welcoming my right hon. Friend to his post? May I press him on the implications of the Indian-Afghan strategic partnership? He rightly talks about the need for an inclusive political process internally. Externally from Afghanistan, that must include China, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, as well as India.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that all Afghanistan’s neighbours are engaged in the process and that none of them should feel threatened by it.

To follow on from the excellent question asked by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, if the Government are to meet their deadline of coming out by 2014—in other words, if we assume that the insurgency will be well under control and that the Afghan national army and police can deal with it—it will be crucial for the Pakistani security services to be in a much better position in terms of the co-operation that they give than they are now. I know that the Secretary of State has been in the job only a short time and that he may want to write to me, but can he give an assessment of whether the situation of the Pakistani security services helping the Taliban and other extremists has got better or worse in the past six months?

The hon. Gentleman will, I hope, forgive me if I say that from what I have seen so far, this is an incredibly complex and sensitive area. I would rather study it a little further before writing to him, if he does not mind.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his position. He inherits a well-intentioned campaign, but if we are honest, there has been a drift in mission and a lack of clarity and conviction from the international community. If we are honest, there is not the required sense of governance at a regional or a national level, which means that a lot of the good work that we are doing in Helmand may well be reversible. I ask him to examine the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan, which were handed over to the Afghan forces but are, sadly, now in the hands of the Taliban.

I will certainly look at those provinces and draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to what my hon. Friend has said. Of course, my focus will be on the area of central Helmand, for which the British forces have direct responsibility.

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I welcome the Secretary of State to his new position and pay tribute to the professionalism of his colleague who served before him. Will the Secretary of State assure me, and the House, that soldiers who have returned home from Afghanistan with serious physical and mental injuries will continue to receive the best possible medical attention for as long as they need it?

The Government have put a huge investment of time, management effort and money into that exercise, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that those who need medical help as a result of injuries that they received while fighting on behalf of their country will receive it.

The battalion that I commanded, 1st Mercians, will shortly return to Afghanistan, within two years. When it was there last it lost 12 men and more than 100 were wounded. May I ask the Secretary of State to write to me, when he can, to explain how battle casualty replacements will work in the future? Commanding officers find it very difficult if they lose 100 men out of 500, and it will be especially difficult as we will be withdrawing and drawing down in the next couple of years.

I am happy to write to my hon. Friend, who of course has direct experience of handling such issues. The good news, of course, is that casualty figures are substantially down. UK forces are taking far fewer casualties than they were at the time to which he refers. However, I will write to him.

The right hon. Gentleman is the seventh Secretary of State since the conflict started, and we all wish him well. The statements, though, have not changed, even if Secretaries of State have come and gone. We hear about cautious optimism, determinism, determination and some interesting development statistics, then the next Secretary of State comes along and repeats the same statements. May I urge him to be the first one to grab hold of strategy and tactics from our 250-odd generals and ensure that whatever presence we maintain in Afghanistan, there are no more funeral cavalcades through Royal Wootton Bassett? Our men should stop being Taliban target practice.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He may detect a similarity in the statements, and I may detect a similarity in his questions. I can tell him that there has been very significant military progress in the taskforce Helmand area. Violent incidents and casualties are down dramatically this summer fighting season compared with last.

The right hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but the fact is that the number of enemy-initiated violent incidents this summer fighting season is 40% down on the number last summer fighting season. In parallel with that, governance is improving. Governor Mangal, in Helmand province, is behind an effective programme of poppy eradication that has reduced the poppy crop year on year. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman says something unrepeatable, but I say to him that tackling the root causes of the problem at the level of the Afghan economy, basic public services and security is the way to create a stable situation in the future, and we will persist with it.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his assumption of his extremely challenging post. Despite the title of the statement, the questions asked today have revealed that the problem lies as much in Pakistan as in Afghanistan. Will the Secretary of State tell the House when he is likely to engage in talks with his Pakistani counterpart?

Of course the Foreign Secretary leads on our relationships with Pakistan, but I am absolutely ready and willing to engage with my military counterparts in Pakistan if he wishes me to do so.

The Secretary of State has emphasised military transition, political inclusion and stabilisation. Is he sensitive to the concerns in Afghan civil society that the imperatives for the international community, and the interests of Afghan political powers in the context of those imperatives, may not extend to sustaining the advances that there have been in the status of women? As well as insisting that Afghanistan must never again be a safe haven for terrorists, will he outline the Government’s determination that it will never again be a theme park for atavistic prejudice against women?

I think that some of the gains already made, such as the education of girls, will be irreversible changes in Afghan society. We have made it very clear that we want to ensure that those gains are consolidated. However, it is not for us to dictate to the Afghan people their agenda for the future. It is for us to ensure that there is a climate of security and stability in which they can exercise their constitutional right to determine the future of their country in a way that does not threaten the security of ours.

With all due respect to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), may I urge my right hon. Friend to stick to the strategy, and leave the tactics to the soldiers on the ground? Much work has been done in increasing the capacity of the Afghan national Government, but given the need for economic development, which has been highlighted, much more work needs to be done in provincial government, where capacity remains poor, if we are to leave Afghanistan in a stable state in the long term. Will the Secretary of State say a few words on how we will address that problem?

I am sure that the soldiers would thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I will consider it carefully. The Government are very much aware of the need to reinforce governance at local and provincial level. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is focused on ensuring that the UK and the broader international package deals at all levels. I would say to my hon. Friend that the initiative to recruit Afghan local police, which is already bearing fruit in a number of provinces, will continue to help to stabilise the situation at local level.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and wish him well in his new post. A large percentage of the soldiers who have been killed or injured in Afghanistan have been killed or injured as a result of improvised explosive devices. Some progress has been made on the equipment that the soldiers are issued with, but the US army, along with private companies, has developed modern technology to combat the threat of IEDs. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that technology advancement in the US will be exchanged with, and made known to, the UK and allied armies, so that the horror of IEDs can be reduced?

We have made considerable progress in providing better equipment to reduce the risk of IEDs to the forces. However, developments are ongoing, particularly in relation to vehicles, and we will keep on top of them.

The last quarterly statement discussed the challenging supply route from Karachi. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on that route, and on measures to improve the supply of Helmand province from the north?

My understanding is that the US is exploring other possible routes of supply into Regional Command South West. However, for the moment the UK remains dependent on the supply route through Pakistan. As my hon. Friend says, that is a difficult, vulnerable and expensive route. The route is fragile, but it remains a vital lifeline to our operation in Helmand.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s observations on the importance to nation building of the progress of women and girls. Two weeks ago I met Fawzia Koofi, an MP and presidential candidate in Afghanistan, who expressed great concern about the role of women in the upcoming Bonn conference. What can his Department do to ensure, or at least to encourage, the participation of women in that conference?

I am not aware of the exact composition of the Afghan delegation to that conference, but I shall certainly take up the issue and discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development to see whether he needs to intervene to ensure that the interests of women are effectively represented.

May I welcome the Secretary of State to his extremely important position and wish him well? May I also welcome his reassurance in response to the Opposition spokesman’s question on equipment? Will he reassure the House that, unlike the previous Government, this Government will never deploy troops with inadequate equipment?

I have been saying for many years, long before I came anywhere near having a responsibility at the Dispatch Box for this issue, that it is not moral to ask troops to go into mortal danger without the best equipment that we can provide them for personal protection, and that remains my view.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend both on his appointment and on the remarkable speed with which he is mastering the brief? He mentioned the importance of developing the local police force. One of the key factors for success in Helmand province and elsewhere in southern Afghanistan will be recruiting southern Pashtuns into the Afghan national army, so that it is no longer seen as an army of northern foreigners.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. At the moment the ethnic balance in the ANA does not reflect the ethnic mix of the population, as it is heavily Tajik dominated. In the longer run, it will be necessary to achieve a better representation of the ethnic mix of Afghanistan in the forces, but that process will take time and inevitably will be a consequence of the reconciliation and reintegration process that will take place over the coming years.

I have spoken in the Chamber before about gaps in the air bridge that can mean that up to three days can be taken off the two-week rest and relaxation period that is obviously incredibly valuable to our personnel. Will my right hon. Friend look at this issue again as we approach transition, and see whether the period can start from when troops arrive back in the UK, rather than when they leave their front-line bases?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I will certainly look at the issue. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces thinks that we have already done that, but I will check and write to her.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to the role of Secretary of State. It has been an absolute pleasure to work as part of his team in the Department for Transport, and I am sure that he will make an excellent Secretary of State for Defence. Will he update the House on his plans for an Afghan national army officer training centre?

The Prime Minister announced in the summer that the UK would lead the establishment of an Afghan national army officer training centre just outside Kabul. We will provide about 75% of the staff required for the academy and we are in discussion with other nations about supplying the other 25%. The centre will be one of the UK’s lasting legacies for the effectiveness of the Afghan national forces in the future.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend. I appreciate that he has only been Defence Secretary for a few days, but what is his assessment of unmanned drones, such as Watchkeeper, in terms of combating threats such as IEDs?

Clearly the evidence of the campaign in Afghanistan is that unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles make a huge contribution to our intelligence picture, including at the level of interdiction of IEDs. Armed unmanned aerial vehicles have also played an important part in the US campaign to attack high-value targets.

I too welcome the Secretary of State to his post, and having listened to him for some 48 minutes, I would have thought that he had been in post for four years rather than 48 hours. I have spoken to the US general responsible for training the Afghan police and army, and he put a real emphasis—as did his report—on the quality of recruits, not just the quantity. Does my right hon. Friend agree that improving the levels of literacy will be crucial if we are to leave a strong force behind?

Yes, I absolutely agree—and good progress has been made on improving rates of literacy in the ANA.

If I may, I will take this opportunity to give the answer that I could not give earlier to the Opposition spokesman. All ANA and ANP recruits are now biometrically enrolled, which will help with the anti-infiltration programme.

In addition to our military activities, what role, if any, are our troops playing in supporting and providing the vital infrastructure that will be so important in helping Afghans develop their economy and create the stable environment in which to provide for their own security?

My understanding is that our development programme is executed via the use of private contractors, but where necessary, of course, we shall use UK forces to protect those contractors, as happened in the case to which I referred earlier involving the highway construction programme.

I welcome the new Secretary of State for Defence to his position and urge him to stay there for as long as he possibly can, because we need to break this cycle of permanently changing Secretaries of State for Defence. I thank him for agreeing to meet 3 Commando Brigade when it returns, but I ask him for two assurances: that Plymouth will remain a principal naval port in the defence of our country and that he will find time in his diary to visit the Haslar unit, which is part of 3 Commando Brigade in my constituency and which helps members of the armed forces who have been badly hurt and who sometimes have had limbs amputated?

I am happy to do my best to remain in post for as long as I can, although my hon. Friend might address his plea to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. It is the Government’s policy that Plymouth will remain one of the UK’s principal naval bases, and I am happy to arrange a visit to the Haslar unit at a convenient time.

May I, too, add to the bouquets of congratulations under which my right hon. Friend is being buried today? In July, President Karzai of Afghanistan accepted that his Government needed to provide a more predictable environment of security to Afghan citizens. What further can the Afghan Government do with their political and military machinery—my right hon. Friend has spoken about the recruitment of more local policemen—to help build that more predictable security environment before 2014?

If my hon. Friend could avoid the term “buried”, I would be grateful to him. It is vital that we create this climate of security—I have referred to some of the initiatives under way—but it is clear to me, from everyone I have spoken to over the past 96 hours, that nobody who knows the country believes that there can be a sustainable, durable, peaceful Afghanistan unless all its people are included. That means that reactivating the reconciliation process and the political track at the earliest possible opportunity—after the disruption suffered following the Rabbani assassination—will be of critical importance to the future.

May I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment? Although lots of NATO countries are involved in Afghanistan, only we, the United States and a few others are doing more than their fair share. The same seems to be true in other theatres, such as Libya and in the anti-piracy operations off the African coast. Will he do all that he can to ensure that all NATO members play their full part in the success of this organisation?

I am happy to take up the cudgels on this issue, which, as my hon. Friend will know, my predecessor regarded as hugely important. I pay tribute to the huge progress and consistent effort that he made in reminding our NATO allies of their obligations. However, my understanding, from talking to military people over the past couple of days, is that the contribution that the Estonians and Danes, for example, have been making under British command in Helmand has been recognised as first class and is very welcome.