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Afghanistan (Troop Levels)

Volume 543: debated on Thursday 26 April 2012

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on future force levels in Afghanistan.

Let me begin by paying tribute to the commitment, professionalism and bravery of the men and women of the United Kingdom’s armed forces deployed in Afghanistan. Since UK forces first deployed to Afghanistan in 2001, over 100,000 personnel have served on operations there, many for more than one tour, and many more, military and civilian, have supported the mission. Since the surge in the international commitment to the mission as a whole in 2009, which boosted the forces available to ISAF—the international security assistance force—by 30,000, the United Kingdom has maintained an enduring level of conventional forces in Afghanistan of 9,500, the great majority of whom are now in the UK area of operations in central Helmand.

This has been a critical period for the mission, for UK forces, for ISAF and, significantly, for the Afghan national security forces—ANSF. Our combined efforts have arrested the momentum of the insurgency, diminished its capability, and weakened its strategic position, but it still represents a threat to the people of Afghanistan and to the security of Afghan territory. It retains the ability to launch significant operations, as the attack on Kabul on 15 and 16 April demonstrates. The response of the ANSF to that attack demonstrated just how far they have come in their capability and ability to undertake major operations autonomously. They are justifiably proud of their performance.

Our aim in Afghanistan is to build Afghan governance and security forces to the point where they are resilient in the face of any residual threat from the insurgency, confident in their ability to protect their own citizens and able to deny safe haven to terrorists who seek to use Afghan territory as a base from which to threaten international security. Significant progress is being made across Afghanistan and the monthly progress report for March, published today by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence, sets out more details. Nowhere is that progress more obvious than in Helmand.

There are now 12 district governors in Helmand’s 14 districts, up from just five in 2008. Thirty extra schools have opened since 2010, with another 46 currently being built. Twenty-nine extra health clinics have opened. There are more roads and more bridges, and bazaars re-opening, meaning more commerce and opportunities for ordinary Helmandis. In the past year alone, income levels in Helmand have increased by 20%. Prosperity will be a critical weapon in the battle against the insurgency.

All this social and economic progress has been made possible by the improvements in security across the province. This has been facilitated not just by the surge in ISAF troops, but by the increasing number and quality of Afghan national security forces. The size of the Afghan national army in regional command south-west, which includes Helmand province, has increased by 30% in the past 18 months. Two of the three districts in Task Force Helmand’s area of operations have now entered formal transition. The security situation in those districts is unrecognisable compared with the start of British operations in 2006.

The whole of Lashkar Gah district and the most populous 60% of Nad Ali is now completely under Afghan control. The ANSF has demonstrated repeatedly its ability to provide security in these areas and, as a result, 36 of Task Force Helmand’s checkpoints, patrol bases and military positions have been handed over to the ANSF in the past six months, while a further 16 new posts have been constructed and occupied by Afghan forces.

This has enabled Taskforce Helmand to reduce its basing footprint by 50%. As circumstances allow, UK and ISAF forces are progressively moving towards the support role of training, advising and assisting.

During 20th Armoured Brigade’s recent tour, the campaign moved to being run on an Afghan-formulated campaign plan, written in Dari by the Afghans and executed by them. Seven major operations were carried out in central Helmand over the six-month period of Operation Herrick 15—a pace that, in the words of the UK brigade commander,

“sometimes left us running to catch up with our Afghan colleagues.”

In the recent Operation Now Roz, more than 1,000 members of the ANSF, supported by British forces, cleared insurgents from a key heartland within the Helmand river valley. While UK forces secured the flanks, the Afghans cleared more than 200 compounds, made safe 44 improvised explosive devices, found seven bomb-making factories and confiscated more than 145 kg of home-made explosives. It was the fourth major ANA operation in central Helmand in four months, and the largest and most complex so far. The success of the operation further demonstrated the ANSF’s increasing professionalism and capability.

Helmand remains difficult and challenging and the insurgency remains a constant threat, but the progress we have made demonstrates that we are on target to meet the transition objectives agreed by President Karzai and the international community at Lisbon in November 2010. Maintaining that momentum will be the challenge of the transition process between now and the end of 2014. There is no room at all for complacency and much work needs to be done to maintain the momentum of progress in building ANSF capability, but the reality on the ground is that Afghan forces are increasingly taking the lead. That allows ISAF, including UK forces, gradually to reduce force levels and change their role.

The Prime Minister announced in July last year that we would be drawing down UK forces by 500 to 9,000 by the end of this year. The Chief of the Defence Staff has now provided military advice on how those reductions will be achieved. The House will understand that it would be inappropriate to go into exact operational details or talk about specific capabilities, but I can give a general overview of how the manpower reductions will be achieved.

First, I can confirm that the majority of the 500 being withdrawn will be combat troops, reflecting the reduction in the need for ISAF ground-holding capabilities as transition progresses and the Afghans take over positions. Secondly, we will merge the UK forces headquarters in Nahri Sarraj North and Nahri Sarraj South to align better with the increasingly important Afghan administrative boundaries and the civilian control structure, which will deliver efficiencies and manpower savings. Thirdly, there will be a reduction in support personnel and enablers, commensurate with the changes I have set out. Finally, we will withdraw some combat support capabilities for which there is no longer an operational need as a result of the availability of alternative weapons systems in theatre. Those measures will reduce the United Kingdom’s enduring conventional force levels to 9,000 and will be completed by the end of this year.

I can also inform the House that, in addition to the overall reduction in numbers, a further 200 combat troops will be transferred from ground-holding roles to security force assistance teams working with the ANSF. For the avoidance of doubt, I should be clear that whatever role is being fulfilled, including the training of ANSF forces, British forces in Afghanistan will retain combat capability until the end of 2014.

The details I have announced today are consistent with our intention to move out of a combat role by the end of 2014. They demonstrate our commitment to the process of transition and the increasing capacity and capability of the ANSF, reflecting its real achievements on the ground. As the ANSF grows and gradually takes lead responsibility for security across the country, ISAF’s military footprint, including that of the United Kingdom, will reduce further. We will keep the House informed of future plans for further reductions in UK troop numbers as conditions on the ground permit.

Our combat role will end by December 2014, but the United Kingdom’s commitment to Afghanistan is for the long term. That is demonstrated in part by my announcement last week at the NATO ministerial meeting that we will commit £70 million a year to the funding of the ANSF after 2014, and by our commitment to run the Afghan national army officer training academy, which we are building outside Kabul.

Each nation has its own constitutional processes in which to consider its contribution as transition moves forward, but all agree that ISAF cohesion must be maintained. The UK will continue to work and plan closely with our ISAF partners, particularly those operating alongside us in Helmand, including the United States, which provides the bulk of coalition forces. As the Prime Minister told the House yesterday:

“The speed of the reductions between now and the end of 2014 will be in accordance with the conditions on the ground and with what is right in terms of transitioning from allied control to Afghan control—and at all times, of course, paramount in our minds is the safety and security of our brave armed forces”.—[Official Report, 25 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 943.]

That safety and security will be best assured by working with our allies in a co-ordinated draw-down as responsibilities are handed progressively to the ANSF. That is the way to honour and protect the legacy of our involvement in Afghanistan and the sacrifice made by the 409 servicemen and women who have given their lives and the hundreds more who have suffered life-changing injuries. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and advance sight of it. My right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State is in Scotland at a family engagement and could not return to the Commons because of the short notice of the statement.

Labour Members have been consistent, both in government and in opposition, in our support for the mission in Afghanistan. We have immense pride in our armed forces, who fight for others’ security and peace in order to protect our own here at home. We will offer the Government our support where they do the right thing, but we will scrutinise their decisions and urge them to make the case for a conflict that we believe remains firmly in our national interest.

We agree with the Secretary of State that there has been progress in Afghanistan. The continued growth in the size of the Afghan national army and the Taliban’s agreement to open an office in Qatar as a place to hold peace talks are notable examples, alongside those he mentioned, but such gains have been overshadowed by recent events. Key allies have unilaterally announced divergent withdrawal dates; instability in the US-Pakistan relationship remains; infiltration of the army by the Taliban remains a serious concern; and, most worrying, we have all recently seen the Taliban’s continued capacity to launch “spectacular” attacks in allied-controlled areas. Any discussion of troop numbers must be held in that context. Although we welcome today’s update, we hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to answer some further questions about long-term Afghan security.

It is the political conditions within and beyond Afghan borders that will ultimately determine whether the conditions that led us to war in the first place never return. Disconcertingly, last month the Prime Minister made clear his view that the handover to Afghan forces could be achieved satisfactorily without a political settlement, but that is contrary to all experience. A power vacuum would encourage neighbouring countries to seek influence, could allow the Taliban to return, and would jeopardise the gains already outlined. A clear political strategy must match military might. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that the Government’s efforts are focused on achieving an inclusive political settlement and give us an assessment of the progress made?

The Secretary of State will know that, painful though the process may be, constructive, proactive and flexible negotiations with the Taliban are necessary if any lasting settlement is to be reached. We must demand a denunciation of violence and an endorsement of the principles of the constitution, but there will be no peace without a settlement reflective of a diverse nation. Will he therefore outline how Britain is supporting the Afghan Government in facilitating that and, indeed, the role of regional partners in that effort?

We agree with the Government that there must not be a cliff-edge withdrawal, and that reductions must take place in areas where Afghan forces have the skill and capacity to take full responsibility. It may worry some that the Secretary of State has talked today of transition as a sign of progress, because recently British fatalities have tragically occurred in Lashkar Gah, an area where transition has been completed. Does he have full confidence in the capacity of those to whom we are transferring responsibility? What assurances can he give the House that, following those events, the scrutiny of Afghan forces assuming lead security responsibility has been strengthened?

Further, will the Secretary of State expand on the nature of the role of British personnel in Afghanistan post-2014? What is involved in the combat support role that they will play, and can he confirm that any British personnel in Afghanistan post-2014 will be non-combat and will rely entirely on Afghan forces for their security? Does he have full confidence in that arrangement and does he believe that changes need to be made to the police and army recruitment processes? That is particularly pertinent to the police, whose quality, by their Government’s own admission, has not yet reached the required standard.

What assessment has been made of the size of the residual British presence in Afghanistan, and what commitments will the Government seek to gain from NATO partners at the Chicago summit next month on their long-term commitment post-2014? The Secretary of State mentioned the recently announced £70 million contribution to a £4 billion international fund for Afghanistan to support Afghan forces, and we support that important investment. Does he expect a greater UK contribution to be announced at the Chicago NATO summit? As we approach the summit, what will the Government’s goals be? Does the Secretary of State agree that they need to include a co-ordinated timetable for the withdrawal of NATO forces, a stable funding package for the Afghan security forces and a status-of-forces agreement on the role of any international forces after 2014? To that list, I hope he will add genuine progress on a stable political settlement in Afghanistan, bringing regional powers into the agreement.

In all these discussions, uppermost in our minds are all those who are still serving in that most difficult environment and all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. We pay tribute to them and to their families.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support and delighted, as will our armed forces be, that once again the cross-party consensus on a campaign that was entered into for reasons of our national security interest, and continues to be prosecuted for those reasons, has been reasserted by an Opposition Front Bencher.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), who leads for the Opposition on defence, is not able to be here. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) says that this was because of the statement’s short notice, but I make it clear that the title of the statement was laid last night before the House rose, as is the proper procedure.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the US-Pakistan relationship. He is absolutely right that good relations between the US and Pakistan are crucial, and recent disruptions to those relations are a matter of concern. Good relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan will also be central to ensuring the stability of the region.

The hon. Gentleman talks about the Taliban’s capacity to mount attacks and refers, I think, to the Kabul attack. Yes, that attack caused significant disruption, but we need to be clear that it was a complete failure: the attack itself failed to inflict any casualties or any significant damage. A number of members of the Afghan security forces and some civilians were killed in the clearance operation afterwards, but there is no doubt that the attack was a failure.

The hon. Gentleman talks about the handover of security responsibility to the Afghans potentially creating a power vacuum, but that is definitively not the case. ISAF is very clear that the draw-down needs to be measured and calibrated to match the building capability of the Afghan security forces, so that they can take over the ground-holding and security role, and we ensure that a power vacuum is avoided. I agree that it is not something we would tolerate.

I agree also that we need an inclusive political settlement. All Afghan citizens who are prepared to renounce violence and accept the constitution need to be brought inside the tent, and we need to see diversity in the way Afghanistan is run. I have to say that Helmand is leading the way: we have the significant engagement of female political and community figures in community councils and district councils in the area of operations for which we are responsible, and the Afghan peace and reintegration programme has so far recruited 4,000—admittedly, mainly low-level—Afghan fighters back into mainstream Afghan life. That is a basis on which we will want to build very significantly over the remaining two and a half years of ISAF combat operations.

The hon. Gentleman talks about the scrutiny of Afghan forces, referring, I think, to the very tragic recent “green on blue” incident in Lashkar Gah. There is in fact no evidence that that was an act of infiltration. Of course we have to be constantly alert to infiltration, but we have also to recognise the reality that Afghanistan is a society where people are used to settling personal grievances by resorting to violence, including violence with firearms. I have seen no evidence that the incident was an act of Taliban infiltration.

The hon. Gentleman asks me about the UK’s role and the size of force lay-down post-2014, but no decisions have been taken yet, other than that we will not be there in anything like our current force strength and we will not be there in a combat role. We have made a commitment to run the Afghan national officer training academy, but beyond that we will make our decisions with our allies over the coming months and, probably, years. It is not a decision that we need to make now; the process will start at Chicago but it will certainly not be completed there.

The hon. Gentleman asks me whether the UK contribution that I announced last week of £70 million, or about $110 million, to a fund of $4 billion—not £4 billion, as he said—to fund the future ANSF is likely to be increased at Chicago. That is not the case. That £70 million is the UK’s proposed contribution, and we have decided to make the announcement early to encourage others to make a commitment.

Of course we will co-ordinate with our allies on the timetable, but the timetable for draw-down will be responsive. It will depend on what is happening on the ground and on what our allies are doing, and of course the hon. Gentleman is right to say that any ISAF forces remaining in-country after 2014 will need a stationing-of-forces agreement.

The battalion that I had the honour to command returned from Afghanistan two years ago with 12 men dead and more than 100 wounded, and it returns to the country in October. I am worried about two things. First, we must ensure that as we withdraw we retain our soldiers in sufficient strength so that there is a balance to deter attacks. Secondly, I am concerned that we have had too many instances of rogue Afghan national army soldiers turning their guns on our allies and on our personnel. We have to be very careful, and I ask the Secretary of State to look at that.

I hear what my hon. Friend says, and of course the so-called “green on blue” incidents are particularly tragic. I was in Lashkar Gah two days after the most recent incident, when I was able to speak to Afghan commanders about it. I can tell the House that they feel a deep sense of shame and betrayal about what has happened. They recognise that the future of Afghanistan depends on effective partnering between ISAF forces and Afghan forces, and they recognise the huge damage that those very rare incidents cause.

UK forces are in routine contact with their Afghan counterparts—there are thousands of contacts every day —and we have to see these tragic but very rare incidents in that context. I assure my hon. Friend that commanders on the ground have taken a number of sensible precautionary measures to ensure that UK forces are always in a position to defend themselves if necessary, and the Afghans themselves have taken a number of measures to ensure the more effective vetting and monitoring of their own soldiers.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there will be a mighty sense of relief when Britain’s combat role in Afghanistan comes to an end? There are bound to be different points of view in this House—it would be odd if there were not. However, does he recognise that very many people in this country—I would say a large majority—believe that we have been involved for more than 10 years in an unwinnable war? The sooner British troops come home, the better.

I suspect that there is an almighty sense of relief when any war is over. I am sure that the British people wish for nothing more than to see our troops come home, but that will be a pyrrhic achievement if the territory of Afghanistan again becomes available to international terrorism that attacks us and our allies. We have to bring our troops home, but we have to do the job properly and ensure that the Afghan national security forces can secure the territory, protect their own country and ensure that international terrorism never again takes root in Afghanistan.

For those who have served, for those who have suffered life-changing injuries and for those who have lost loved ones, to honour and protect their involvement, I welcome the confirmation by the Secretary of State that the United Kingdom’s commitment to Afghanistan is for the long term. With that in mind, will he prepare a statement on what has happened to the Kajaki dam project in the four years since 2008, when soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade took a turbine through dangerous terrain without losing a single life?

There is good news on the Kajaki dam project. I am trying to find the exact details in rapid time, but I am afraid that I cannot. Further equipment has been installed at Kajaki—I was briefed on the project during my visit to Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago—but I will write to my hon. Friend and place a copy of the letter in the Library.

If the Secretary of State receives advice by 2014 that the security situation has not improved to the extent that is envisaged or has deteriorated, or that the Afghan Government do not believe that their security forces can take on the security role that is envisaged, will the combat role continue after 2014?

We are very clear that United Kingdom forces will not be in a combat role after 2014. We have to bring this engagement to a close. It was a measured decision to fix December 2014 as the end of combat operations. We are highly confident about the level of development of the ANSF.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that there is no example in history of an insurgency being effectively and sustainably defeated by foreign troops. It has to be local forces that sustainably defeat an insurgency. That is the path on which we are embarked in Afghanistan.

I welcome the statement, which stands in marked contrast to the gloom and doom we heard a year or two ago from some elements in the House. I put it to the Secretary of State that for the military success in which our troops have played such an important part to be seen through, a national political settlement is crucial. To that end, the idea that has been floated of bringing the elections forward a year so that the new Government are in place in good time would be a constructive step.

The timing of the Afghan presidential election is a matter for the Afghans, in accordance with the Afghan constitution. Our concern is to ensure that the constitution is upheld, that a democratic process is followed and that there is an orderly transfer of power from President Karzai at the end of his term.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question, because I have just written myself a note to remind me to respond to a point made by the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway. When we talk about not having combat troops in place, that does not mean that the troops who are in Afghanistan will not be permitted to defend themselves should they come under attack. Clearly, when British personnel are deployed in an area where there is danger, they must have the capability to defend themselves. The Afghan national officer training academy is being built within the perimeter of an American facility that will be defended by US troops.

I too pay tribute to our troops, but I continue to have grave doubts about the capability that the Afghan forces will have when ISAF ceases combat operations. What scope is there to drop the preconditions to talks with our enemies, which are unrealistic in many respects, so that we can explore possible common ground, particularly given the fundamental differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda? I suggest to the Secretary of State that those of us who served in Northern Ireland showed, I hope, that one can talk and fight at the same time.

I have no doubt about the growing competence, capability and confidence of the Afghan national security forces. They will inevitably fight a different type of campaign after 2014 from that fought by ISAF. I have a high level of confidence in their ability to hold the ground against the insurgents. The UK Government recognise the need for an Afghan-led reconciliation process, but the basis for that must be that the people who are involved renounce the use of violence and agree to pursue their objectives by political means.

Following on from the previous question, we talk about insurgents as though they were a uniform group. Has the Secretary of State made an assessment of whether the pattern of who the insurgents are has changed and of the differentiated response that is therefore required?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. One striking statistic shows the percentage of the reintegrees—horrible word—who have joined the peace and reconciliation programme whose original gripe with the Afghan Government had nothing to do with ideology, but was a land dispute or some other local dispute that led them to feel disfranchised and disillusioned with Afghan society. Sometimes it was a reaction to the corruption that is still, I am afraid, only too endemic. She is right that there is a hard core of people who are ideologically motivated, but there is also a much softer group of insurgents who are alienated from Afghan society but not ideologically motivated against it. That represents fertile territory for the reconciliation programme.

Does the Secretary of State believe that our troops have the kit and equipment they need to continue to do the job effectively?

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that when Brigadier Patrick Sanders, who commanded 20th Armoured Brigade during Herrick 15, was in the House on Tuesday evening, he said, as Members who were there will have heard, that the equipment that he had available during his tour was the best that he had known in his 26 years in the Army. The soldiers who are fighting for us have the best personal protection equipment they have ever had and their commanders have the enablers that they need. I have no doubt that, at long last, we have the kit that we need to fight this campaign.

It is not obvious that the political process has made the same progress as the military one. In that context, does President Karzai have the capacity to deal with the issues that the Secretary of State has mentioned today, such as corruption, and allow more people to be reintegrated? In any case, does he have the capacity to have proper dialogue with his previous political opponents? Without a political solution there will be no long-term capacity for peace.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is no long-term solution without reconciliation and reintegration, but it would be a mistake to judge Afghan society by our own standards. While I was in Helmand, I was astonished to see an attitude survey suggesting that Afghans object to the level of bribes, not their existence. They accept the existence of bribes as part of everyday lives, but they do not like their reaching extortionate levels. We have to go with the grain of Afghan society, but he is absolutely right that the willingness and ability of the political elite to manage reconciliation to a successful conclusion will ultimately determine whether the process succeeds.

The nation will be very glad that today marks the beginning of the end of combat operations in Afghanistan by our magnificent troops there. Nevertheless, does the Secretary of State acknowledge that the next three or four years will be among the most dangerous and sensitive times that our troops have had to face, as they withdraw, and that any information that he might inadvertently give in the House or elsewhere might endanger that withdrawal? Will he therefore be very cautious indeed about the tactical level of information that he gives out about the withdrawal?

My hon. Friend is of course absolutely right. As we go through the withdrawal, our troops will face new and different challenges, and nothing that we say in the House should place them at any greater risk. I reassure him that my statement was made with the full agreement of the military commanders to the detail that it contained.

Figures suggest that UK arms sales to Afghanistan are doubling, while Transparency International’s corruption index still shows the regime there as one of the most corrupt in the world. In that context, as we bring our brave troops home, how will the end use of the arms that we sell to Afghanistan be monitored?

As the hon. Lady knows, we have one of the most rigorous arms control and monitoring regimes of any nation, but if we want the ANSF to take over the combat role from us, we clearly have to ensure that it is effectively equipped to do so.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that our American allies are seriously considering the retention of one or more strategic bases in Afghanistan after 2014 as the best way, and indeed probably the only way, of ensuring that the military gains and any political settlement do not unravel after that date?

My hon. Friend will know that that has been widely reported as a US objective, but my understanding is that nothing has been agreed or finalised between the Afghans and the US on post-2014 lay-down at this stage.

May I offer my heartfelt condolences and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) to the family of Sapper Connor Ray? Sapper Ray came from the city that we both represent and was the 409th fatality from Britain. He was among the bravest of the brave.

The Secretary of State’s statement contained, as always, excessive optimism about the situation in Afghanistan. Will he admit, and tell us about, the growing strength of the Taliban outside Helmand and the growing area that they control? Is there not a real possibility that after going into Afghanistan to get rid of a Taliban Government, when we leave we might find a new Taliban Government in control?

No. I am sorry, but I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman on the last part of his question. Of course, I wholeheartedly agree with his condolences to the family and friends of Sapper Connor Ray. I am sure the whole House join him in that.

It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman has a fixed agenda and just keeps reiterating it. The reality is that the Taliban are significantly weakened and do not have the ground-holding capability that they did before. Yes, there are areas in the east of the country, along the border with Pakistan, where there is still significant Taliban activity. However, an Afghanistan in which Helmand province, the main highway and the big cities are under the Afghan Government’s control will be a viable Afghanistan that can contain an insurgency in the mountains along the Pakistani border. The key to the battle is in the big cities of the south and south-west and on highway 1, and it is about ensuring freedom of movement and control of the big population areas.

I wish the hon. Gentleman could find it in his heart to share our aspiration for Afghanistan and take it from me that the military gains on the ground and the growth in the capability of the Afghan national security forces are real. This is a good news story, but I agree with him that it is not irreversible.

I welcome the statement and the intent that it contained, but does my right hon. Friend recognise the remarks that General John Allen made in evidence to the Senate armed services committee last month? He said that he was having what he described as a “strategic conversation” with his political masters about the US draw-down towards the end of the year, in advance of a report on the subject that he intended to deliver later this year. To what extent is the announcement that my right hon. Friend has made today provisional on that report?

The announcement that I have made is not in any way provisional on that report. The United States will recall its surge troops during the course of this year, bringing its force level in Afghanistan back down to 68,000. The discussion that General Allen referred to is about the trajectory of US force levels beyond that figure. We have no definitive read-out of that discussion yet, and we have as yet made no definitive plan for our own draw-down beyond the end of 2012.

Understandably, much of the focus has been on the role of the British Army, but may I press the Secretary of State to say a little about what role, if any, the Royal Air Force may provide post-2014 either in direct combat operations or in combat-enabling operations?

I should first say that members of all the armed forces will be involved in the Afghan national officer training academy, so there will definitely be a tri-service presence in Afghanistan after 2014 in that capacity. Beyond that, we have made no decisions about the nature or scale of any continuing support that we may provide. As I said earlier, the conversation about that will begin in Chicago, but I do not expect it to be concluded quickly.

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that no UK forces will be required to backfill any areas that are left as US forces withdraw from Helmand?

Yes, I can give that assurance. The UK’s area of operations—the three districts of Nad Ali, Lashkar Gah and Nahri Sarraj in central Helmand—will remain the focus of UK operations. We do not intend to extend our area of operations, and US forces drawing down elsewhere in regional command south-west will be replaced by Afghan national security forces.

How easy it is to start a war, and how difficult to finish one. The Secretary of State has announced another 32 months of our soldiers being Taliban target practice. President Hollande, if he wins next week, will pull French troops out this year, and I believe that if President Romney is elected in November, there may be some big political rethinking in the United States. Having listened to six Secretaries of State make the same statement—we are defeating the enemy, we are making political progress—I ask the Secretary of State at least to ask our military to ensure that as few of our soldiers as possible are killed in the remaining 32 months. We do not honour the sacrifice of those who have died by adding more corpses to the funeral pile.

The right hon. Gentleman is a real dyed-in-the-wool glass-half-empty man. I have not announced that we will commit our forces for another 32 months. The Prime Minister announced early last year that we would have them out of a combat role by the end of 2014. That is a good news story, as is the fact that in the interim, all the ISAF nations are focused on creating an ANSF that can take over our role and maintain security in Afghanistan.

In the meantime, everybody in the House ought to be extremely proud of the social and economic development in central Helmand. There are significantly more schools, hospitals, clinics, bazaars, and bridges. Over the past six months, the British Army has built the biggest bridge that it has constructed since the second world war. All those things allow ordinary people in Helmand province to resume their normal life, grow their income and make mainstream Afghan society more and more attractive to those who have previously been attracted by the insurgency.

My concern is that the current residual threat is not a reliable indicator of what precisely will happen post-2014. What assurance can the Secretary of State give the House that the likely change or intensification of threats from without Afghanistan in 2015 are being properly examined and acknowledged in the training being received now by the ANSF?

The strategic threats are acknowledged in, and form a core part of, ISAF’s thinking. I do not know whether my hon. Friend had a particular aspect in mind, but it is clear to us that building a sustainable and reliable relationship with Pakistan and ensuring the security of the border with Pakistan will be fundamental to the future of Afghanistan.

The UN assistance mission in Afghanistan recently confirmed that there were 3,000 civilian deaths in 2010, that 25% of Afghan children die before they are five and that 70% of people live in poverty. Is not that the real legacy of a decade of war?

No, it absolutely is not. The number of civilian casualties is of course a matter of extreme regret, but more than 76% of civilian casualties are caused by Taliban activity, not by ISAF or ANSF activity. Health care, literacy and poverty have all taken great strides forward since 2006. The Taliban banned girls from schools. There were no girls in school—

Virtually no girls were in school in Afghanistan in 2006, but now large numbers of girls are being educated. Schools, clinics and hospitals are springing up all over the place: 90% of the population of Helmand is within one hour’s walk of a health facility. That state of affairs could not even have been imagined in 2006. I therefore tell the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) not to talk the place down. It is making significant socio-economic progress.

Next week sees the funerals of my constituents Corporal Jake Hartley, Private Anthony Frampton and Private Danny Wilford of the Yorkshire Regiment. Will my right hon. Friend continue to state the progress made in Afghanistan, as he has today, and describe the orderly way in which we will withdraw from the country, so that we continue to demonstrate to their loved ones that their sacrifices have not been in vain?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We owe it to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to conclude this operation in good order and to secure our legacy—their legacy—for the future.

In paying tribute to our troops and recognising their hard work, I seek a reassurance from the Secretary of State. Although we recognise the development of the ANSF, is he getting reassurances from our ISAF partners that they understand the need to maintain resources on the ground during transition so that there can be a flexible response to the assistance role?

Yes. I attended last week the NATO Defence Ministers conference in Brussels, where speaker after speaker asserted the principles of “in together, out together” and reaffirmed their commitment to the Lisbon 2010 declaration principles. We all understand that we are now in the last stretch of this campaign, but we have to do it properly in order to secure the legacy.

Because of the need to balance the Ministry of Defence budget, a number of service personnel will be made redundant later this year, including, I suspect, a number who have recently returned from Afghanistan and a number based in my constituency with the Royal Logistic Corps. However, those people have skills that are much sought after by local employers, so will my right hon. Friend ensure that MOD officials work with the local community to set up a social enterprise to ensure that the skills of the service personnel who are made redundant are made known to local employers as swiftly as possible, and so that as many of those skills and those people can be brought into the local labour market as swiftly and speedily as possible?

I should say first of all that nobody who is on operations in Afghanistan nor anyone who is recuperating in the six-month period after returning from Afghanistan is eligible for redundancy, but my hon. Friend is right. As we balance the MOD budget and reduce the size of the Army to around 82,000, there will be a series of redundancies. Many of the people being made redundant will fortunately have skills that are of value in the civilian economy. I am not sure I agree with him on the need to create a social enterprise, but I can assure him that very robust arrangements are in place to ensure that local jobcentres are alerted in advance to the availability of the skills that those people have.

I thank my right hon. Friend very much for his announcement, which I am sure will go down well in my constituency, where, as hon. Members may know, 3 Commando Brigade, which served so valiantly last year out in Afghanistan, is based. What impact will today’s statement have on the reservists? Will he also explain what support his Department is giving to reservists’ families, who can on occasion feel somewhat isolated from the support given to their regular counterparts?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. A significant number of reservists contribute to the campaign in Afghanistan. They tend to serve as individual augmentees—people with specific skills who are called up to reinforce other units—and as such, their families do not benefit from the group support that tends to help the families of personnel in Regular Army units. As we move forward with our plans to strengthen the reserves, we hope there will be more opportunity to deploy reserve units as formed units, which will in itself help to address the problem my hon. Friend highlights.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I shall try to be good value.

I welcome the ongoing withdrawal and support the troops from my constituency from 39 Regiment Royal Artillery who have recently returned from a successful tour of Afghanistan. Does the Secretary of State agree that a political deal with the Taliban must be a vital precondition of continuing the social and economic progress in Afghanistan that we would all seek as we continue our withdrawal?

Yes, Taliban is a loose term. As I have already sought to suggest, a significant proportion of people who have supported the insurgency are not obviously ideologically motivated. The key challenge for the Government of Afghanistan is to negotiate with the political leaders of the Taliban and seek to reintegrate those who are supportive of the insurgency at the moment but who are not necessarily ideologically motivated—those who can be brought back on side by simply dealing with the grievances that put them off side in the first place.