UK forces will continue to mentor and train the Afghan army and police as they progressively assume responsibility for security operations over the next two years. The Government are clear that our support to Afghanistan will endure long after the end of our combat operations in 2014. That is in our national interests and in line with the long-term commitment made by the international community at the Chicago summit in May.
NATO is currently working to refine the detail of its training, advisory and assistance mission in Afghanistan after 2014, but the UK has already committed to lead the new Afghan national army officer academy near Kabul, which is under construction.
One of my constituents, Private Thomas Wroe, who was just 18, went to the aid of an Afghan policeman last month but was murdered in a cowardly way. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that during the draw-down our troops are protected as much as possible from these green on blue attacks? Will he also join me in praising the hundreds of people from Kirklees and Huddersfield who turned out last Thursday to pay tribute on the homecoming of Corunna Company, 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment?
I know that every Member will join me in condemning these attacks and those who perpetrate them in the strongest possible terms. We were all deeply shocked by the cowardly act that resulted in the death of Private Wroe and his colleague in 3 York, Sergeant Gareth Thursby. I know that the thoughts of the whole House will be with their families and friends.
We continue to work with our ISAF and Afghan partners to reduce the risk to an absolute minimum, but I am clear that we will not allow these cowardly attacks to deter us from our strategy or our commitment to the mission in Afghanistan. I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in congratulating the people of Kirklees and Huddersfield on turning out in strength to demonstrate their support for the units of the armed forces that are particularly connected with those communities.
As long ago as 2006 I saw on a visit to Afghanistan some of the excellent work our forces were doing to train the Afghan army. Given that six years later we still appear to have more work to do, how confident is my right hon. Friend that the transition of security responsibility to Afghan forces will be completed by 2014?
Commanders on the ground are confident that it will be completed by 2014. Yes, we still have more work to do, because Afghan security forces have been expanding dramatically since the time six years ago to which my hon. Friend refers. Afghan forces are taking more initiatives on their own. They are planning their operations, leading on almost all operations and acting alone or as the primary force on many of them. They have recently started to conduct much more sophisticated operations—for example, flying raids using night vision goggles. This is a very important step for them and we are very confident that by the end of 2014 Afghan national security forces will be capable of containing the insurgency as ISAF forces withdraw.
Families who suffer bereavement or veterans who suffer injury in Afghanistan know that when they return local authorities currently have the power completely to exempt war disablement pension and war widow’s pensions when means-testing for council tax benefit. Does the Secretary of State agree that under the new system local authorities should continue to ensure that the full disregard is given for those benefits in England and Wales?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman in principle, and will look into his specific question, although I doubt whether we have the power to direct local authorities in Wales. I suspect that is a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government, and I know that he will take it up with the relevant authorities.
The RAF tactical medical team provides the only consultant-led, blue-light rescue service across ISAF. It is highly regarded, giving those whom it rescues and treats a 25% greater chance of survival. Will he ensure that at least a basic capability is passed on to the Afghan national security forces, so that they too will have the confidence of knowing that they have rescue services that can support them?
I cannot give the hon. Lady any specific assurances about the form of continuing enablement post-2014, but I can assure her that ISAF commanders are acutely aware of the effect on Afghan morale of having high-quality medical support services available. One issue that will be addressed over the next two years will be how best to deliver that in a way that is sustainable post-2014.
When my right hon. Friend made his welcome comments last week about reducing the number of British troops in Afghanistan next year, was he signalling a change from the agreement at the Lisbon NATO summit of “in together, out together”? Or will he confirm that decisions will continue to be taken with our key allies, most notably the US, which is a little preoccupied at the moment? How soon does he expect the US to make the decisions, and will those not be all-important?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that there is no change in policy. Over the last couple of weeks, I have been able to pass on the rather good news that commanders in theatre now believe, given the situation on the ground and the role that Afghan security forces are increasingly playing, that it should be possible to achieve a further significant draw-down in forces before the end of 2013. I can assure him, however, that the principle of “in together, out together” remains. ISAF will take these decisions together, and I expect them to be made once the new US Administration is formed early in the new year.