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Afghanistan (NATO Strategy)

Volume 550: debated on Tuesday 18 September 2012

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the change in NATO’s strategy in Afghanistan.

There has been no change of policy in Afghanistan. As I told the House yesterday, the security of our deployed forces in Afghanistan or anywhere in the world remains a defence priority. The safety of our service personnel is an issue that all in government and in the military chain of command take extremely seriously.

In respect of the international security assistance force fragmentary order issued on Sunday, not for the first time the media have become a little overexcited. It might help the House if I quote a press release issued by the commander of ISAF forces in Kabul this morning. He stated that

“recent media coverage regarding a change in ISAF’s model of Security Force Assistance is not accurate. ISAF remains absolutely committed to partnering with, training, advising and assisting our ANSF”—

Afghan national security forces—

“counterparts. The ISAF SFA model is focused at the battalion level and above, with exceptions approved by senior commanders. Partnering occurs at all levels, from Platoon to Corps. This has not changed.

In response to elevated threat levels resulting from the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video, ISAF has taken some prudent, but temporary, measures to reduce our profile and vulnerability to civil disturbances or insider attacks…The SFA model is integral to the success of the ANSF, and ISAF will return to normal operations as soon as conditions warrant.”

The commander of ISAF Joint Command has effectively directed a change to the level at which partnering and advising are scrutinised and authorised. Most partnering and advising was already at the kandak, or battalion, level and above. The change does not mean that there will be no partnering below that level. The need for that will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and approved by the regional commanders in theatre.

The regional commander in Regional Command Southwest, where British forces are based, is Major General Mark Gurganus, a US Marine Corps general. He has endorsed the approach currently being taken by the UK-led Taskforce Helmand, including mentoring and partnering at below kandak level. That means that the UK partnering and mentoring operations will continue substantially unchanged by this order. It is normal practice that all elements of our operations are subject to oversight by the chain of command, and operations will continue to evolve and risk assessments will continue to be updated. The ANSF capability for independent operations is, in any case, steadily increasing, and our level of partnering activity on the ground has therefore been steadily decreasing.

The personal safety of our deployed personnel remains a defence priority, and we will take every step necessary to minimise the risk to them. We have always kept the level at which we mentor the ANSF under review and will continue to do so through the process of security transition. British commanders on the ground retain the flexibility to mentor at the appropriate level in consultation with the regional commander. We have a strategic plan that takes us to the end of combat operations in 2014 while strengthening the ANSF to take over security responsibility from us. I have every confidence in the way Com ISAF is executing that plan.

May I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question?

At the very least there is confusion with regard to this issue. A NATO statement has made it clear that joint on-the-ground operations have been suspended until further notice. The decision announced in Afghanistan by General Allen has appeared to take the UK Government by surprise. Only yesterday, in Parliament, the Defence Secretary was rightly defending NATO’s continued work with Afghan troops on the ground. When did the Government know of this decision, and were they consulted on the matter?

This announcement threatens to blow a hole in our stated exit strategy, which is heavily reliant on these joint operations continuing until Afghan forces are able to operate independently and provide their own security following ISAF’s withdrawal. As a soldier myself, I know the real value of mentoring—coaching and training—at ground level, and there is no substitute for that. Anything else above battalion level is very much theory. If these operations are not going to take place at ground level, where does that leave our exit strategy? Will our soldiers be coming home early? The announcement adds to the uncertainty as to whether Afghan forces will have the ability to keep an undefeated Taliban at bay once NATO forces have left.

This, in a way, goes to the very heart of what our mission is in Afghanistan. For those of us who opposed our involvement in Afghanistan, there appears to have been confusion from the start. Al-Qaeda was driven from the country in the early stages. The mission has now morphed into one of nation building, human rights and democracy. Laudable though those aims are, they are very different from our original mission. I suggest that we need to be clear about this. Last week, the International Development Secretary talked of nation building. At the same time, the Defence Secretary, when visiting troops in Afghanistan, talked, rightly in my view, about it being wrong to risk the lives of our troops for nation building when they should only protect our vital national security interests. The importance of that distinction is that nation building requires defeat of the Taliban, whereas protecting our national security interests in preventing al-Qaeda from returning does not necessarily require their defeat, given their differences with al-Qaeda.

What is our mission in Afghanistan? Clarity is required. If we are remaining true to our original mission of eliminating al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, should we not now be doing more to encourage the Americans to conduct non-conditional talks with the Taliban in order to explore possible common ground?

There were a lot of questions there. First, my hon. Friend talks about consultation with Governments. This is not a strategic initiative; it is a tactical initiative, taken by commanders in theatre, operating within their delegated responsibility. We would not seek to interfere with the military judgment of commanders on the ground.

On information, I can tell my hon. Friend that this FRAGO was issued on Sunday evening. I was told about that during a meeting on Monday, along with information about several other measures that ISAF has taken. No particular significance was attached to it.

My hon. Friend talks about partnering at below kandak level. I should stress to him that US forces have not routinely partnered below kandak level. It has been the practice of the British-led Taskforce Helmand to partner and mentor Afghan units at tolay—company—and even platoon level. That is not a practice used by the Americans, so the impact of the announcement will be far less significant than he suggests. As I made clear in my opening remarks, General Gurganus, Regional Commander of RC Southwest, has this morning confirmed that he is happy for Taskforce Helmand to continue in its current mode of operations. In other words, he has endorsed the risk assessment and management approach that we have been using. We will continue our operations as we were carrying them out last week in Helmand.

My hon. Friend asks, at the more strategic level, about our mission in Afghanistan. I touched on that yesterday, and he knows my position very well: we can ask British forces to place themselves at risk for the defence of Britain’s national interest, and legitimately for no other reason. I am clear that the mission we are carrying out in Afghanistan is to protect Britain’s national security by denying Afghan space to international terrorists. That is our mission, and that is the mission we will complete.

The Government’s priority in Afghanistan is, rightly, to achieve the mission while protecting our forces and those of our ISAF allies. In that, as in Afghanistan policy more generally, our approach is to support and scrutinise the Government’s actions. While the details of today’s announcement are still not clear, it appears to mark a significant change in the relationship between UK, ISAF and Afghan forces.

May I ask questions about three areas? First, on the training of Afghan forces, if the approach is that we will not automatically and routinely partner with smaller Afghan forces at company level, what impact will that have on the training of individual Afghan recruits by UK forces and on the safety of UK forces, which will increasingly be patrolling without Afghan partners?

Secondly, on the ISAF announcement, the Secretary of State did not even refer to this new ISAF approach yesterday when he made his statement. I know him, and I know that he would not want to keep Parliament in the dark, so many are now assuming that the UK was not fully sighted yesterday on the ISAF announcement. What changed between his making his Commons statement on the UK’s approach and ISAF announcing a different approach just hours later? Did he discuss that with the US Defence Secretary and the Secretary-General of NATO?

The Secretary of State said in response to an earlier question that he knew about the new approach on Monday. Did he know about that before the statement was made? If he did, why did he not share it with the House? If he did not know before the statement, why was he not sighted on it?

Thirdly, on progress towards a 2014 timeline, today’s announcement will undoubtedly have an impact on combat operations and security, so how is ISAF adjusting its assumptions on what can now be achieved by 2014? Yesterday, the Secretary of State announced increased patrols outside the wire of Bastion. How, if at all, will the ISAF announcement impact on his announcement?

To lose a loved one in Afghanistan is heartbreaking. To do so in a cowardly insider attack multiplies that hurt. In dealing with that threat, we rightly seek continued consistency from the Government in their policy in Afghanistan. Our forces and our nation deserve nothing less.

I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman may not have seen General Allen’s press release, and had to write his speech before he heard what I had to say, but frankly he has completely ignored the information that I have given the House. I thank him for his support for the overall policy and strategy in Afghanistan, but I repeat that this is not a significant change. There is no change of strategy. We will continue, in Taskforce Helmand, routinely to partner at tolay level. The United States has never, or not in recent years, routinely partnered at levels below the battalion or kandak, so there is no practical impact on operations. [Interruption.] I will answer the right hon. Gentleman’s chuntering question in just a moment. This is not a different approach.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me specifically when I became aware that this approach had been implemented. It was during a routine meeting in the Ministry of Defence on Monday afternoon, after I had made my statement, when I was in a video telephone conference with the deputy commander of ISAF in theatre. We went through some of the measures that had been put in place. No significance was attached to this particular measure at that time. It is a tactical measure, decided on by commanders in theatre. UK commanders in theatre were aware of the measure and were involved in the discussions, but we do not engage in debate with commanders about tactical military measures; it is not appropriate. It is not a strategic change.

To answer the right hon. Gentleman’s last question, there will be no impact whatever on the additional patrols that I mentioned yesterday around Camp Bastion. This will not make any difference at all to them.

Order. There is notable interest in this urgent question, but I remind the House that there is a motion on a ten-minute rule Bill to follow, and after that there is the pre-recess Adjournment debate, which is to take place under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee; I can assure the House that that debate is heavily subscribed, which means that there is a premium on brevity.

The reason why, in opposition, the shadow Defence ministerial team opposed naming an advance date for withdrawal was the fear that the Taliban would redouble their efforts in the run-up to that date. Given that we are where we are with such a date, is it not obvious that a move towards a strategy of maintaining one or more long-term strategic bases in Afghanistan would show the Taliban the need to negotiate a solution and a settlement? Without that, it will not happen.

My hon. Friend makes reference to the widely held view that US policy favours the retention for the long term of a small number of US strategic bases in Afghanistan. That will be an issue for the United States. I can tell the House that the UK Government have no appetite for a long-term combat role in Afghanistan, and have made it very clear that we will be out of the combat role by the end of 2014.

I do not think that I have ever seen a Defence Secretary so humiliated. Twice he has had to be dragged to the House, instead of having decided to make a statement—first to talk about the original problem, and now to discuss the change of policy. Either his officials are informed but do not tell him things, or he is not in charge of his officials. It is time for this Government to get a grip, and to start telling the generals what to do, instead of re-reading generals’ press releases at the Dispatch Box. The fundamental problem remains the same: I do not believe that our country is willing to accept any more blood sacrifices, now that the strategy of fighting, training and patrolling with the Afghans has been blown away by Washington and the generals in the field. The Prime Minister announced today that the Cabinet will re-examine the policy. I say: the quicker the better.

On the humiliation of Defence Ministers, the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) might want to have a look at the experience of many of his right hon. Friends under the previous Prime Minister who routinely humiliated his Defence Ministers by ignoring them and passing over them. It is very clear to me that politicians and the military have a role. I do not seek to involve myself in the tactical decisions that military commanders make; it is wrong for us to do so. There has been no strategic change whatever. This is a tactical decision for a short period of time; it will be reviewed and reversed, as General Allen made clear, as soon as the situation has stabilised.

The Secretary of State made the welcome comment that the international forces wished to lower their profile at a time of trouble, but then he seemed to imply that that applied only to American forces. What action has been taken to protect British forces? What is the approach to their having to co-operate with people who may intend their death, and would he not move more quickly to Afghans policing dangerous places in Afghanistan?

As I said yesterday, a number of measures have been taken by ISAF and British commanders to improve our own force protection. I cannot go into all the details, but I shall give an example. There is much evidence that there is a much lower risk where long-term partnering arrangements are in place—in other words, where a group of troops are working with a group of Afghan troops on a daily basis—and much more risk where these partnering and mentoring activities are on an ad hoc basis, so that relationships are not built. We have moved to make sure that the overwhelming majority of our contacts with Afghans are on the basis of long-term partnering where relationships are built, and thus greater safety is ensured.

Now that it has been revealed that the allies are unreliable, Karzai is useless and the Afghan forces are treacherous, it is time to get out.

I think what the hon. Gentleman meant was that it has been opined, not revealed, and his opinions are noted.

Mentoring is one of the most important ways in which we have increased the capability of Afghan forces, and the Secretary of State has made it clear today that the instruction from ISAF in Kabul will not alter the British relationship to partnering. Does he not recognise, however, that the nuances between tactics and strategy can be lost on insurgents, and that the timing of this is unfortunate, so we must redouble our efforts to make it clear to the forces of terror that they cannot push our strategy off course?

Of course my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is the crucial message that needs to be sent to the insurgents. As I said yesterday, the stepping up of these insider attacks is, in fact, a reflection of the success of partnering and mentoring operations. The insurgents’ key fear is that as we withdraw from combat operations we leave behind competent and capable Afghan national security forces who will continue to contain their ambitions. That is what they fear, and that is what they seek to attack in mounting those types of attack, and that is what we will continue to resist.

I am afraid that the muddled response to this fits in with the muddled strategy on Afghanistan. May I ask the Secretary of State a clear question? What advice has he received from commanders on the ground and in this country about whether the level of partnering should be reviewed, reduced or kept the same?

As I said in my statement, the amount of partnering will steadily reduce with the transition to Afghan lead, then Afghan sole control. As a matter of fact, it has been reducing. [Interruption.] I can tell the hon. Gentleman that over the past few days, before that ISAF order was issued on Sunday, UK commanders had already reviewed—I discussed this with them when I was in theatre on Thursday—the activities of British forces to make sure that any unnecessary contact with Afghans was withdrawn during this sensitive period. We are flexible and cognisant of the broader atmosphere. We will take all steps necessary to minimise the risk to our forces consistent with maintaining the key strategy of partnering and mentoring to build up ANSF capability.

My right hon. Friend said that the new measures announced by ISAF were prudent but temporary. In what respect are they temporary? In what respect can they be?

General Allen has indicated that he intends to review the order in the light of the evolving security environment, and to return to normal operations, as he described it, as soon as possible.

Many families in my constituency in the Rhondda watch events in Afghanistan closely because they have sons and daughters out there. The Secretary of State would have inspired a great deal more confidence in the mission and in the work of his Department if he had volunteered to come to the House and make a full statement yesterday or, for that matter, a full statement today, which would be printed and available to the Opposition before he appeared at the Dispatch Box, rather than simply being dragged here to answer an urgent question. It just feels, hideously, as if he is not in control of his brief.

What happened this morning was that the BBC picked up something that was issued on Sunday and jumped to a wrong conclusion. I am very happy to have had the opportunity to make the facts clear, both to the media earlier and now in the House.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that American soldiers who are mentoring seem to be slightly safer than our junior NCOs, young officers and soldiers, because they are not right on the front line? It worries me a great deal that we continue to allow our solders to go right to the front line, where they are seemingly in greater danger than their American colleagues.

I do not accept that our soldiers are in greater danger, but it is the case that our model differs from the American model, in that it includes routinely mentoring at company, or tolay, level. That is the model that we have deemed most effective. We have in place measures to minimise the risk to our forces, and those measures are continuously reviewed. As I said earlier, there is clear evidence that where that partnering is on a continuing basis and relationships are built, risks are minimised, and that is what we seek to do.

The role of our brave soldiers at the moment is to act as human shields for Ministers’ reputations. The danger to our soldiers has been prolonged by those on the Front Bench who have the power to stop it. Other countries have removed their soldiers from this dangerous area, and they are not doing what we are doing, which is arming and training our future enemy. Is this not similar to the end of the first world war, when it was said that politicians lied and soldiers died, and the reality was, as it is now, that our brave soldier lions were being led by ministerial donkeys?

Order. I noted what the hon. Gentleman said, but may I ask him to make it clear that he is not suggesting that any Minister is lying to the House of Commons? It would be helpful if he made that clear.

That is precisely what I am saying. I believe that we have had lies from the Minister, and I believe that our soldiers have been let down, and they—

Order. I am sorry. I asked the question because I wanted clarification, but I am afraid that it is not acceptable for any hon. or right hon. Member to accuse another Member of lying to the House. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that allegation.

I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, but I insist on retaining my accusation of lying. That is far more important than allowing a group of people to send our soldiers to die in vain in a war from which we should withdraw and from which the country wants us to withdraw. I accept the consequences of what I am saying.

I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman is ignoring the ruling of the Chair, and in so doing he is behaving, whatever his motives, in a grossly disorderly manner. In those circumstances, I am obliged to name Mr Paul Flynn, the hon. Member for Newport West. Under the power given to me, I name him, and I ask that the appropriate course is now taken by the Deputy Leader of the House.

The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), was named by the Speaker for grossly disorderly conduct (Standing Order No. 43).

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 44), That Paul Flynn be suspended from the service of the House.—(Tom Brake.)

Question agreed to.

The Speaker directed Paul Flynn to withdraw from the House, and the Member withdrew accordingly.

We now move on. I think that the Secretary of State had, if memory serves, responded, but if not, he will now do so.

My response was simply going to be to note that the hon. Gentleman’s accusation was scandalous.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I would point out that his response is to the House, which is why it is perfectly proper for him to respond.

The Secretary of State has made it commendably clear that it is in our vital national interest to stick to the strategy that has been set in Afghanistan. When it comes to the security of British troops, does he take comfort from the words of Brigadier Bob Bruce, who will be leading the 4th Mechanised Brigade in its forthcoming tour of Afghanistan, who has said that we are sending to Afghanistan

“the best prepared and the best equipped…Task Force”

the United Kingdom has ever put into the field?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a stalwart supporter of the policy and the strategy, which, as I have emphasised this morning, has not changed. I am grateful to him for those words. It seems to me that although the Opposition protest their support for our policy, they are desperate to try to read into this ISAF operational notice a strategic change when there is no strategic change. It could not be clearer.

Will the Secretary of State share with the House what his reaction was when, during a routine conversation, he was given this piece of information? Did he regard it as no more than routine, or did it begin to dawn on him that it might actually have been a major strategic decision?

As I have said to the House before, this is not a major strategic decision. I will answer the hon. Lady’s question directly. I was given the information, along with quite a lot of other information, during a meeting yesterday. I did not remark upon it, and when the BBC reporting was brought to my notice this morning, it was not immediately clear to me that the matter was something we had discussed the previous day. I was reminded that it had been among the measures that was mentioned to me during the course of the meeting yesterday afternoon. We are talking about one of a number of measures. It is not a strategic change; it is an operational matter being reported from theatre, alongside many others.

I wish to place on record my support for the line being taken by the Defence team and say that I have not received a single message from the military community of Colchester in recent days to say that the Government should alter their current strategy.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I think we might get further if we listened to the military advice, and in this case that is exactly what we have done. General Allen has made a tactical decision, which he is absolutely entitled and right to do, and we should allow military commanders in theatre to execute our strategic plan in the way that is best at the time and that best protects the safety of our troops.

Will the Secretary of State concede, hand on heart, that within two years he will have to bring the British troops home? They cannot be expected to remain in that situation for two years, under attack from the Taliban and completely unconfident of the loyalty of their supposed allies. Is he really going to allow more troops to die for a war that has not been won and cannot be won, and that will become increasingly unpopular with the public in this country?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on many things, but I will say this. I recognise, as does everybody in ISAF, along with President Karzai, that the incidence of insider attack is sapping public morale in the ISAF home countries. That is why we are determined to solve the problem—to nip this trend in the bud and ensure we get on top of it. Huge resources have been put in by both the Afghans and ISAF to address the problem, and I am confident that we will see a significant improvement over the coming months.

It has taken a long time to get on top of, and to minimise, the IED threat to our forces in theatre, but it has been done, often with some of the best ideas coming from the squaddies on the ground. In minimising green-on-blue attacks, will the Secretary of State ensure that every squaddie, of whatever rank, is encouraged to come forward with ideas, so that it is not just left to the commanders?

My hon. Friend makes a helpful suggestion. In my next conversation with General Bradshaw I shall ask him what specifically is being done to gather opinions and ideas from the ranks for implementation.

The Secretary of State says that the operational model under which troops work with Afghani forces has not changed, and he recognises that there are differences with the American model. What reassurance can he give the House that our operational model is not placing our troops in unreasonable danger?

I can reassure the House again that everybody, both in the Government and in the military chain of command, is focused on force protection—that is, protecting the security of our service personnel. We do indeed have a different model from the Americans, and if I may say so the British Army is very proud of the fact that it does things differently from our larger American cousins. We pride ourselves on finding different ways to tackle the problems we face, with different levels of engagement. If I may make a generalisation in characterising the way the British Army tries to do things, we try to get closer to the people and lower down the command structures, and we try to be more embedded than the Americans sometimes appear to be. That is our special niche approach and capability, and we have shown time and time again that it can be effective.

The Secretary of State mentioned earlier that a motive for the attacks was the despicable video that was published on the internet. Does he agree that another motive, which I have mentioned to both him and the Secretary of State for International Development, is the use of drone strikes, which have killed nearly 1,000 civilians in Pakistan and a higher number in Afghanistan? Does the Secretary of State not agree that we urgently need to look at reviewing the use of drone strikes, which is considered on the front page of The Times today?

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles to carry out strikes is continuously reviewed, but I do not believe there is any need for a wholesale change to the current approach, which is that UAVs will be used where they are the most appropriate way to execute a particular operation. However, this question came up yesterday as well, and I would just say this to my hon. Friend. We all regret civilian casualties, and ISAF takes huge steps to avoid or minimise them; but when we are talking about civilian casualties, the overwhelming majority that are incurred in Afghanistan are inflicted by Taliban insurgent action. It is defeating the insurgents that will reduce the number of civilian casualties.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that troops from 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment will be continuing their partnering and joint operations with the Afghan police and Afghan army this week, this weekend and over the next few weeks, before they are returned to the United Kingdom next month?

They will indeed be continuing partnering operations. However, in order not to mislead the House, I should say that at the patrol base where the incident took place on Friday, the local Afghan police have been disarmed as a precaution and the 3 Yorks troops are occupying the base on a sole occupation basis for the time being.