I have just returned from my first visit to Afghanistan as Secretary of State for Defence. The visit allowed me to see at first hand the fantastic job that our armed forces are doing on behalf of our country, and the progress that they are making both in reversing the momentum of the insurgency and in training the Afghan security forces to defend their own country. I assess that the security situation in central Helmand has improved, and that good progress is being made in both the number and capability of the Afghan national security forces.
Given this morning’s disturbing report that the Taliban are attempting to procure the security arrangements for the forthcoming Loya Jirga, what assistance will the international security assistance force be able to provide to the Afghan security forces to ensure that those participating in that important event can do so free from attack and intimidation by the Taliban?
The Loya Jirga will take place in Kabul, and of course ISAF has considerable resources deployed there in support of the Afghan security forces. Also, many ISAF contributing nations have special forces operating in Afghanistan, working in collaboration with the Afghan special forces and special police. All those arrangements will help to ensure the security of the Loya Jirga.
Will my right hon. Friend pay an especially warm tribute to the soldiers of the British Army, and those in other parts of the services, who are contributing so much to the training of Afghan forces? Has he decided in which particular areas we will specialise in training Afghans after 2015?
I am happy to join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to British servicemen and women for their work in training and mentoring Afghan national security forces on the job. Looking forward, the Prime Minister has made a commitment that Britain will take the lead role in the Afghan national officer training academy, which will be established just outside Kabul and will train the bulk of officer recruits to the Afghan national security forces.
The progress at the operational level in central Helmand that the Secretary of State reports has been achieved by the bravery of troops, yes, but also by the fact that in the past year or so they have had sufficient troop density in the area of operations to carry out an effective counter-insurgency operation. Is he now taking decisions that will effectively widen the area of responsibility, but with the same number of troops? That will surely have an impact on force density, which will potentially undermine their ability to succeed in the way they have in the past couple of years.
The simple answer to the right hon. Gentleman is no. I understand very well the concern that he expresses. He is referring, I think, to stories about the level and speed of US Marine Corps withdrawal from central Helmand, and indeed from the wider Helmand area. We are very clear that it is the increased force density that has secured the success of the British mission, and we have no intention of allowing that force density to be diluted in a way that damages our future prospects of success.
Over recent years the Afghan national police have been regarded as a threat by the local population second only to the Taliban. Can my right hon. Friend say whether significant progress has been made in bringing the quality of the police up to that of the Afghan national army?
I believe that progress has been made. The composition of the Afghan national police is different from that of the Afghan national army in terms of the distribution of locally raised forces. There is a greater affinity between ANP forces and local people than between the army and local people, but there is still further work to do, and I fully recognise what my right hon. Friend says.
We remain committed to the Afghan mission, and we now want to see military might matched by substantial political progress. The Secretary of State will know that reservists will play a bigger role in Afghanistan and beyond, which may require additional mandatory training. At a time when many reservists have lost their full-time jobs, the benefits system might be unintentionally penalising them and hindering their freedom to take on extra reservist training or allowances. It would be a disgrace if a single reservist lost a penny in benefits because of their service. Will the Secretary of State undertake a wider piece of work with the rest of Government and conduct an urgent review to ensure that our welfare state does not punish a single reservist?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for again reasserting the cross-party support for the Afghan campaign, and he is right that reservists are playing an important part in it. Sadly, one of those killed in action most recently was a reservist serving his country.
My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces tells me that the problem the right hon. Gentleman raises is one that we are acutely alert to and aware of. There is work being done across Government to look at the problem and ensure that the concerns that he has raised are dealt with.