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Afghanistan (Civilian Killings)

Volume 542: debated on Monday 12 March 2012

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on what discussions he has had with his US counterpart over the killing of civilians in Afghanistan.

The hon. Gentleman is of course referring to the very regrettable events in Kandahar on Sunday morning. We are all deeply shocked and saddened by the killing and wounding of Afghan civilians in Kandahar province. It was undoubtedly an appalling tragedy, and I know the House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the victims and their families. We support the investigation into the attack.

The Secretary of State is currently overseas on official business but has regular contact with a number of Defence counterparts, including Secretary Panetta in the United States. The Secretary of State last spoke to the US Defence Secretary on Saturday about other matters, prior to this incident.

At this tragic time, I can only echo the words of General Allen, commander of the international security assistance force, and inform the House that the attack

“in no way represents the values of ISAF and coalition troops or the abiding respect we feel for the Afghan people.”

These have been a difficult few weeks in Afghanistan, with the Koran-burning, the tragic loss of six of our own soldiers in a Warrior and now this. I was able to see for myself the week before last the progress that we are making, and that the UK and ISAF remain resolute in our purpose.

As the Minister says, we are all deeply shocked and horrified by the news that an American soldier—a staff sergeant, I believe—went out in the night and murdered 16 innocent civilians in cold blood. Is it the case that the murders were in fact carried out in the night, and that the victims were asleep in their beds? Of the casualties—the victims of this mass murder—will the Minister confirm that nine were children and three were women? It has been reported—perhaps the Minister has the latest information—that some of the children were no older than two or three years of age. Were the bodies burned by the murderer? Perhaps we could have information on that too.

Obviously, as the Minister has said, all hon. Members are deeply saddened and send our sympathy to the families of the victims. I accept entirely that this is not in any way the policy of the NATO forces and certainly not that of the United States. Nevertheless, as he said, this follows other incidents and tragedies in which civilians have been killed by US troops, and US troops have urinated on dead Afghans and burned the Koran. That was a despicable act in itself, but it also took the lives of other innocent people who were killed by the Taliban in revenge.

Will the Minister accept—he mentioned the six brave British soldiers who died last week—that, overall, there is a growing feeling in this country, and no doubt in the United States, that this is an unwinnable war? People certainly no longer accept the official line that our security depends on our military continuing its military role in Afghanistan.

President Obama and the Prime Minister meet this week. Would it not be wise for them to accept the strong feeling that this war has gone on for more than 10 years and is not winnable? Apart from the tragic incidents that we are referring to, the need is for the Afghans themselves to find a solution to their political and military problems. After 10 years, outside military intervention is much more the problem than the solution.

I again make the point that so many people, including me—I do not know how many in the House of Commons feel the same, but I suppose I am not alone—simply no longer accept the official line, which I accept was also the previous Government’s official line, that our security depends on British troops fighting in Afghanistan. That will not help the fight against terrorism; it perhaps even helps the terrorists.

In answer to some of the factual questions the hon. Gentleman asked at the beginning, ISAF has confirmed that 13 Afghan citizens were killed in the attack. However, open source reports indicate that up to 16 may have been killed. As he said, I understand that nine children were killed in the attack. I have no further information on the age of those children. It is understood that a further five civilians were wounded and are being treated in the military hospital at Kandahar.

On the broader points that the hon. Gentleman makes, at the Lisbon summit ISAF drew up a time scale for the remainder of the combat operation in Afghanistan, which was reconfirmed at the NATO ministerial meeting two weeks ago. I believe that that is a realistic timetable for the remainder of our operation in Afghanistan.

The progress that is being made in building up the Afghan national security forces is impressive—not only in scale but in their competence. They are developing a culture of leadership and planning more of the operations in which they are involved. The process of transition from ISAF security lead to ANSF security lead is progressing well so far. I believe, therefore, that we are on the right course and have the right security strategy. I think what the hon. Gentleman is getting at, though, is the widely held view that we need to find a political solution to the future of Afghanistan. Although progress on that has been disappointingly slow, there are now encouraging signs, and there is a realistic prospect that a political process will be under way within the time scale I am talking about.

These are devastating events for the victims and their families which may well have long-term implications for ISAF between now and 2014. Does my hon. Friend accept that these events remind us of the fact that we ask our young men and women to be deployed to circumstances that are difficult, dangerous and stressful? In our recruitment, we lay great stress on physical attributes, but is he satisfied that we are equally searching when it comes to the psychological component of recruitment? If not, is it not time for a review?

My right hon. and learned Friend is right to say that we demand exacting standards from our new military recruits, and they certainly have to pass physical tests, among others. We are always on the lookout for signs of people suffering psychological stress—that occurs at every point—and considerable progress has been made in recent years on removing some of the stigma that attaches to anybody in those very exacting circumstances suffering from the effects of stress. There should never be any shame attached to that. We are making progress in identifying it, in extending a sympathetic arm to those suffering from stress and in improving the long-term assistance given to them when they return to the UK, because the sorts of incidents that some of them will have witnessed will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

The killing of 16 innocent civilians in Afghanistan yesterday was an appalling act, and I join the Minister in rightly sending our thoughts to the families of the victims of this incident. The information we have so far is that it was the act of an isolated individual outside the chain of command, and it is important that we do not draw any wider conclusions about the conduct of US or other ISAF forces, who act with unparalleled bravery and professionalism in the conduct of their mission in Afghanistan.

We have all heard the warnings from the Taliban of reprisal attacks on coalition forces. In the light of that, may I ask the Minister what assessment the Government have made of the increased threat posed to UK armed forces and civilian personnel working in Afghanistan? Have any operational changes been made—notably on ending the use of night raids—and has additional security been put in place to protect diplomatic and civilian staff working on behalf of the UK Government?

The influence of ISAF forces in stabilising Afghanistan depends on the trust of the Afghan people. This act has clearly put that trust, carefully built over the past 10 years, in jeopardy. Will the Minister say what discussions the Government have had with ISAF counterparts on measures that can be put in place to build trust in the light of this appalling incident? The post-2014 planning will determine the success of our mission in Afghanistan, so will he say a little more about what early assessment ISAF has made of the impact of these events on negotiations over ISAF’s presence post 2014?

Although the tragedy is undoubtedly a blow to the ISAF mission, what about the UK’s mission and British public opinion? Will the Minister tell the country more clearly what the UK’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan will be and what type of nation he expects to leave when the draw-down takes place post 2014?

We have always approached the issue of Afghanistan from a bipartisan standpoint, which it is important to do while we have our forces in harm’s way there. We welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to raise the issue of Afghanistan at his meeting in Washington with President Obama this week, and we look forward to seeing greater details of the plans for post 2014.

It is important to stress that there is a US and Afghan investigation now under way into exactly what happened. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this would appear to be the action of one isolated individual, completely outwith the control of the chain of command, and he is also absolutely right that it is in no way indicative of the behaviour of the rest of the ISAF forces who are there.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about force protection. We were already operating on an enhanced set-up for force protection in the light of the Koran-burning incident; following this incident, vigilance will be even greater, and at a local level, commanders on the ground will be making whatever sensible arrangements they think are necessary. Operations in the night are increasingly led by Afghan forces, and I think this is likely to be the case even more so in the foreseeable future.

The hon. Gentleman quite rightly raised the issue of trust. It is absolutely essential to what we are doing that there is trust between the international forces, and the Afghan authorities and the Afghan people. There is no doubt whatever that that trust will have been tested severely by the incidents of the last few weeks. Of course, this is not one-way traffic, because we have seen incidents where both British and French troops have been killed by Afghan troops they were mentoring. These are delicate relationships, but I was impressed when I was there two weeks ago that the commander of ISAF took this aspect of his work extremely seriously and had been very quick to get on the front foot and go to President Karzai and the Afghan authorities to apologise and make clear the profound regret that he and the west felt for the incidents that have happened.

As for the post-2014 situation, it is important that everybody understands—both in the west and in Afghanistan—that the end of western troops being in Afghanistan in a combat role does not mean the international community walking away from Afghanistan. It is certainly the case that we will continue to have troops stationed in Afghanistan, providing training and mentoring for Afghan troops. Specifically, we have made a commitment, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, to take the lead internationally in running the officer training programme from 2013 onwards. However, as we begin and continue the process of transition, we expect to see a greater number of international partners coming in and helping Afghanistan to build up, in terms of both aid and, increasingly, ordinary trade and economics. We cannot allow the setbacks of the last few weeks to put us off that overall objective, which in my view, notwithstanding all the pressures, remains on course.

We have got two years and about nine months left of combat operations in Afghanistan, and we have lost 404 soldiers so far. The idea that we can start challenging the plan to withdraw early worries me a great deal, because soldiers need certainty. It is needed for the officers to plan and for the soldiers to get used to it. It is going to be increasingly challenging for our soldiers over the next two years, as we move towards withdrawing from combat operations. Does the Minister agree with that assessment? We have got to support our soldiers utterly and completely. The plan is set and must now remain set.

Let me assure my hon. Friend that the internationally agreed plan remains firmly in place. It was reiterated two weeks ago at the NATO ministerial conference. It is important for all those who are engaged in the operations in Afghanistan to understand that the plan remains in place and that there is no question whatever of our cutting and running early because of these events or any others. Two out of five phases of transition—area by area, district by district—have so far taken place, and both appear broadly to have gone off very well. The three remaining phases will take us through this year and into next year. Within the time frame between now and 2014, the nature of the work that our troops are doing will increasingly shift to a supportive role, but they will still be there bearing arms until the end of 2014. It is important, particularly for those who grieve for the losses that we have suffered, that they should not believe that those losses have been in vain. We are not going to give up; we are going to see this through and finish the job off according to the internationally agreed plan.

May I return the Minister to the question of a political strategy, which he rightly says is the key to ending any insurgency? The Defence Secretary wrote in The Daily Telegraph last week that a political strategy could not succeed until the Afghan Government had established a position of strength. May I put it to the Minister that the difficulty with that is that the Afghan Government are seen by many Afghans as a significant part of the problem, and that the search for a position of strength defies the logic of a counter-insurgency, which is that one can achieve tactical advances in one part of a country while the insurgency strikes back elsewhere? Does he acknowledge that the best approach would be for the international community to appoint an international mediator with United Nations Security Council backing who could talk to those on all sides and frame the political strategy, both internal and regional, that is so desperately needed? Does he also acknowledge that, if we do not start working on that now, every day that passes will weaken the chances of establishing a stable Afghanistan that we can leave?

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s stress on the need for a political solution. During his time as Foreign Secretary, he did his best to promote such processes, but unfortunately he did not meet with a great deal of appetite elsewhere for getting them under way. Frankly, it has remained pretty tough going until relatively recently. Thankfully, some of the key stakeholders now seem to be showing a greater appetite for sitting down and participating in a political process. The Afghan Government are certainly more willing to do so than they have been in the past, and it looks as though the Pakistan Government might also be more willing to engage in such a process. The proposal to open a Taliban office in Qatar has served as a catalyst to focus people’s minds. The right hon. Gentleman was paraphrasing the Defence Secretary slightly; I do not think a political process has to await a situation in which the Afghan Government achieve a position of strength. Applying military pressure to the Taliban has probably made it more likely that they will be willing to sit down and join a political process, but any such process must be inclusive of all the elements in Afghanistan who need to buy into a long-term settlement, as well as all the elements in the region who will be vital to the delivery of peace on the ground in the years to come. We are a long way from achieving that, but progress is at last being made.

Order. Accommodating the level of interest in this subject, given that there is important time-limited Back-Bench business to follow, will necessitate brevity, which will now be exemplified by Dr Julian Lewis.

I thought you might pick me for that, Mr Speaker.

The Afghan Government and the Afghan people are rightly outraged by this atrocity, but does the Minister agree that the one bunch of people who have no right to promise revenge are the Taliban? It was their hosting of an international terrorist organisation that murdered thousands of men, women and children that led to the invasion of Afghanistan in the first place.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. In addition to their past atrocities, the Taliban are also responsible for the great majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan—77% in the past year.

Two years and nine months is half the length of the second world war, and a plan that cannot be changed in the light of circumstances is barely worth the paper it is written on. The Minister has a hard job, and we are not here to criticise, but these incidents and atrocities are typical of the end of an occupation or a conflict. We cannot justify British soldiers dying between now and withdrawal. Does the Minister agree that we should honour the sacrifice of our men by ensuring that no more are sacrificed?

Nobody has said that we are adhering to a plan that cannot be changed. The point I have been at pains to make is that the plan has not been changed as yet. Of course we follow closely, as do the ISAF commanders, the situation on the ground. The plans will reflect the realities as we go forward. This is a process of transition. I said that we have gone through two of the five phases of transition—and it is broadly working. I have to say that the rate of casualties on our side has come down markedly. I simply do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is right: if we were to pack up and leave now, it would make a mockery of everything that has been done to date.

History has a way of repeating itself. Not only did six British soldiers die last week within miles of where 1,000 perished in 1880, but the garrison of Kandahar in the same year also carried out a series of isolated unpleasantnesses against the civilian population. Armies reflect society. Regrettably, we have to expect more of these sorts of isolated instances. Will the Minister therefore comment on the rumour that this incident is related to alcohol—exactly as it was with the incidents in 1880—and on what is being done in respect of our Muslim allies and on how we will control the consumption of alcohol among allied troops?

The hon. Gentleman raises some interesting historical points, but asks me specifically whether we know of any connection between this incident and alcohol. I know of absolutely no such connection. It is, of course, the case that our forces in Afghanistan operate entirely dry; alcohol is not provided for them. I have no knowledge of alcohol having anything at all to do with this appalling incident.

The whole House is shocked by this terrible event, as are members of the British Afghani community, thousands of whom have settled in my Leicester constituency. This is the slaughter of the innocents. I understand that the father and son of this family survived these atrocities. In our discussions with the Americans over the next few days, we should urge on them the importance of supporting those who remain and the community they come from. I know there is going to be an investigation, but before that happens we need to do something to help this local community.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point—that the sense of grief that will grip communities in Kandahar will, of course, be felt by the diaspora of Afghan and Pashtun people, not least here in the UK. He is absolutely right that there is no need to await an investigation of exactly what happened before we begin to repair relations with those communities as far as we possibly can and to offer every possible support to the families and those grieving in the wake of this appalling incident. It is certainly the case that we will urge our allies to crack on and do that.

The Minister will be aware that a minority of the House, including myself, voted for withdrawal some time ago.

In an asymmetric conflict, emotions are very important in driving people’s behaviour. Will the Minister agree to review the current strategy to identify whether that fact in itself could make it harder rather than easier to achieve our objectives in the long term?

The ISAF strategy is kept under constant review. I can reassure my hon. Friend that it will continue to be so, but I do not think it would make sense for us to be in a great hurry this week, in the aftermath of these incidents, to spring into some fundamental review. I can assure him, however, that the temperature is read constantly and that progress is assessed all the time. We will take stock of everything that happens as we continue to plan on an international basis what we will do for the remaining two and a half years.

This is a terrible tragedy. It is not the first, and it will probably not be the last. Equal tragedies—such as the killing of wedding parties by drone aircraft, and so many others—compound the results of this the 11th year of the war. As neither the Minister nor his Secretary of State is able to say what success would be in Afghanistan, is it not time to bring forward the date of withdrawal, and to recognise that this has not been a profitable or a successful operation?

We are able to say what success would be. Success would be an orderly and successful handover of security to a competent and able Afghan national security force by the end of 2014. Many challenges will face us between now and then if we are to achieve what remains an ambitious target, but that is what success would look like, and that is the strategic goal in security terms towards which we are working. However, I repeat the point made by the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband): if there is to be a lasting peace in that part of the world, a political process is needed alongside the security strategy. Unless we have both, we will not secure the lasting peace that I think everyone in the House wants to see.

I share the horror felt by Members in all parts of the House at this ghastly incident, and endorse the policy supported by both Government and Opposition. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the show of solidarity by Angela Merkel at a time when her Government are suffering from a number of other pressures?

It is important for us to retain an international view. The ISAF strategy is one that we have drawn up together, so expressions of support from the German Government are of course very welcome. Essentially, the conclusion that was reached at the Lisbon conference was that we had gone in together and should come out together. That is what I mean when I say that we will agree with our ISAF partners exactly what the strategy and the timelines should be, and that we will act together according to our collective judgment of the progress that we are making.

Does not the recent tragedy demonstrate that we need to speed up the process of transferring as much of Afghanistan as we can to Afghan control? Will the Minister give some indication of how many Pashtun soldiers will be in charge of Pashtun areas once the takeover has happened?

I do not think that the lesson to be drawn from this is that we should speed up a process which is moving as fast as it possibly can already. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that the Afghan national security forces are being grown from a cold start. I think that the progress they have made is remarkable: they have grown in number, but, far more impressively, they have grown in competence, in their quality of leadership, and in their ability to plan and execute operations. I think that hurrying the process at this stage, or passing the baton to them prematurely, would undermine all the progress that has been made. We are pushing the process of handover as fast as we possibly can, and if we were to cut and run now, we would risk undoing the progress that we have made.

I echo what has been said about the improvements to the Afghan national army. We should not forget that that is due not just to British forces, but to the American forces who have trained them. We should also not forget that this was an isolated incident, and that more than 2,000 Americans have been killed. There will be some who call for urgent withdrawal, but I stress what has already been said by Members on both sides of the House. This is not just about security; it is also about governance, and I hope that that will be discussed at the forthcoming summit in Chicago.

The Chicago summit will provide an opportunity for the international community to make long-term commitments both to the future security of Afghanistan after the combat role has ended and to its future prosperity. We will look to countries around the world—countries that have been involved in ISAF, but also many others that have not—to come forward and make commitments to Afghanistan’s long-term future. We want all stakeholders in the equation to understand that the international community remain committed to the future of Afghanistan, and that simply ending a combat role at the end of 2014 does not mean in any sense that we are walking away or leaving them to it.

Apart from the horror of the latest incidents, by which we have all been rightly shocked, a number of other issues have been raised during these exchanges about the conduct of our combat mission during the remaining period in which we will deploy a combat role in Afghanistan. They are difficult issues, and I wonder whether it would be sensible for the House to have the opportunity to take part in a full and serious debate on the conduct of our mission. I see that the Leader of the House is present, and I wonder whether the Minister might recommend an early debate on the subject.

The right hon. Gentleman should, perhaps, raise that issue at business questions. I agree that it is important that we debate these matters, which is why the Government make quarterly statements on progress in Afghanistan and why, in between them, we have monthly written statements. If the House wishes to debate these issues further, we would welcome that, and I have no doubt whatever that there will be an opportunity to do so before too long.

At morale-sapping moments such as these, our troops need to know that the standard operating procedures, and the checks on those whom they fight alongside, are as good as they possibly can be. Will the Minister assure the House that the lessons learned will be shared fully with the UK, and that we will be able to reflect upon the report on this terrible tragedy as soon as possible?

My hon. Friend’s constituency has been in the eye of the storm in the last couple of weeks, and it will feel more acutely than anywhere else the pain of the six losses we took in the earlier Warrior incident. He is right that there are broader issues at stake in the incident under discussion. We have a very open relationship with the Americans and the other ISAF allies, and we have the opportunity to reflect upon everything that happens and to learn from that. I assure my hon. Friend that everybody in ISAF is absolutely determined to learn from these incidents, and to ensure, to the extent that we can, that nothing like this happens again.

Given the differences that there are between the Taliban and al-Qaeda and the increasing amounts of intelligence suggesting that very few al-Qaeda remain in Afghanistan, if we are to remain true to our original mission, does not this incident underline that the Americans, as the lead force, should open non-conditional talks with the Taliban in order to explore possible common ground, particularly given that the Taliban have recently sent signals that they are willing to talk?

Many more parties in addition to the Americans and the Taliban will need to be party to any lasting political settlement. There are other elements within Afghanistan who might not be at all comfortable with a simple two-way arrangement between the Taliban and the Americans. I believe that on all sides there is a genuine and growing openness to the idea of having a political dialogue, and I believe that that will begin to happen in time. However, I have to say that the way to ensure that al-Qaeda does not come back into Afghanistan and become an element in the future is for us to ensure that the future Afghan forces are able to look after their own security, including their own borders.

Although this was an appalling atrocity, does the Minister agree that, in recognition of what has been achieved by Her Majesty’s armed forces—those who have served, those who are currently serving and those who will serve—we should make it clear that it is in neither Britain’s nor Afghanistan’s best interests to follow the line argued by the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), who tabled the urgent question?

I could not agree more that the extraordinary investment that has been made in Afghanistan over the past decade—the money, the time, the patience, the bloodshed and everything that everybody who has gone out there and served so bravely and so valiantly has done—would be wasted if we were to cut and run now, when we can clearly see the remainder of the task that stretches out before us and we know what needs to be done to finish the job.

This incident raises broader questions about the general responsibility to the civilian population. Will the Minister confirm that infinite care is taken to ensure that everyone in the British Army—from the most senior commander to the most junior private soldier—is fully aware of their duties, responsibilities and obligations under the law of war? This is, perhaps, more relevant now than at any time since we have had a standing army, and there are probably currently more members of the army legal services advising throughout the British Army than there have ever been at any time in military history.

My hon. Friend makes some very good points. I would like to reassure him that, as part of the pre-operation training before going to Afghanistan, British troops are indeed given detailed tuition in the legal and moral aspects of warfare. I wish to put his mind at rest on the fact that they understand exactly where their obligations lie. Every time I visit Afghanistan, I am struck by the extraordinarily thoughtful way in which our troops go about their operations. If one has any sort of discussion with them, particularly with officers who plan and execute operations, one finds that there is nothing remotely gung-ho about what they do; it is all extremely thoughtful and it is always conducted with a keen appreciation of the legal and moral framework in which they operate.

Despite the terrible events of the weekend, does the Minister agree that it is more imperative than ever that we stick the course in Afghanistan to produce the stable country that we all need and want?

I entirely agree. We will still face many challenges in the remaining period of combat operations in Afghanistan, but we have identified a clear strategy and it is essential that we stick to it and create the space within which a political dialogue of the sort we have been discussing can take place.

Three of the six British servicemen who died last week were constituents of mine. Over the weekend, I met the parents of Corporal Jake Hartley and the grandparents of Private Anthony Frampton—Private Danny Wilford was the third of my constituents. Many other constituents have legitimately been asking me this weekend why we do not just withdraw now, so that there are no more young losses. However, after their deaths and those of their colleagues from the Yorkshire Regiment and the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, and after these horrific killings of innocent civilians, it is important that we do not let their deaths be in vain and that we withdraw in an orderly and calm way, as we had planned with ISAF forces.

I commend my hon. Friend’s words, as he is absolutely right in what he says, and I know from the contact we have had with other bereaved families that that is exactly their view, too. They feel that the sacrifice that has been made and the valour that has been shown will be rewarded only if we stick at the task and finish the job that we can see clearly before us. That is what we are determined to do.

This was a terrible incident, but the whole House will be aware that our young men and women put their lives at risk every day to protect Afghan civilians. There is a group of people in this country who are always worried about those people overseas: their family and friends. Given the heightened danger that our troops must be in at the moment, what reassurance can we give to those people?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to pay tribute to the personal commitment made by all those whom we ask to go out to serve on our behalf, and of course we must recognise the stress and worry that this puts on their families behind them. We will continue to do everything we can to support them, and I know that everyone in this House is very proud of what they do, no matter what our policy differences might be. It is right that, after we have had casualties of our own, we grieve and acknowledge the sacrifice that has been made, but of course the reason why we have had this question this afternoon is to recognise also that the Afghan civilian population is making a terrible sacrifice. Our thoughts and our prayers remain with those Afghan villages and the families there, who have been on the wrong end of an appalling tragedy, which I know we all profoundly regret.