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Volume 555: debated on Wednesday 19 December 2012

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on Afghanistan.

Let me once again pay tribute to the brave men and women of our armed forces serving in Afghanistan. Theirs is a difficult and dangerous job; they operate in the most demanding of environments, displaying courage and heroism on a daily basis. Since operations began in 2001, 438 members of our armed forces have made the ultimate sacrifice; 11 since my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary made the last quarterly statement on Afghanistan on 13 September.

In the face of such sacrifice, we should be in no doubt about why we are operating in Afghanistan. It is for one overriding reason: to protect our national security. Atrocities on the scale of 11 September 2001 must never be allowed to happen again. We seek an Afghanistan able to effectively manage its own security and prevent its territory from being used as a safe haven by international terrorists to plan and launch attacks against the UK and our allies.

That is an objective shared by our coalition partners in the international security assistance force and by the Afghan Government. We in NATO fully support the ambition of the Afghan Government for them to have full security responsibility across Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Our strategies are firmly aligned. The phased process of transition of security responsibility, agreed at the Lisbon summit, is well advanced and on track. In accordance with ISAF planning, by the end of 2013 we expect that UK forces will no longer need to routinely mentor the Afghan national army below brigade level. This is a move up from our current battalion level mentoring, a reflection of rapidly improving Afghan capacity and capability and in line with the Chicago milestone.

As the Prime Minister has just announced, a progressive move to brigade level mentoring will also allow us to make further reductions to our force levels from the 9,000 we will have at the end of this year. Our current planning envisages a reduction to approximately 5,200 by the end of next year. That number is based on current UK military advice and is in line with the NATO strategy agreed at Lisbon and the emerging ISAF planning. It also reflects the real progress being made in Helmand. We will keep this number under review as the ISAF plan firms up and other allies make draw-down decisions in the new year. Let me be clear: this reduction is possible because of the success of the Afghan national security forces in assuming a leading role.

Across many parts of Afghanistan, security is already delivered by the Afghan national security forces. Today, the ANSF has lead security responsibility in areas that are home to three quarters of the population, including each of the 34 provincial capitals and all three districts that make up the UK’s area of operations. Across Afghanistan, the ANSF now leads on more than 80% of conventional operations and carries out 90% of its own training. It sets its own priorities, leads its own planning and conducts and sustains its own operations. By the middle of next year—marking a moment of huge significance for the Afghan people—we expect the ANSF to have lead security responsibility for the whole country.

This national picture is replicated in Helmand. The ANSF is now firmly in charge in the populated areas of central Helmand, increasingly with the ability and confidence to operate independently, and, as the ANA’s confidence in its own ability grows, it is showing an appetite to conduct Afghan intelligence-led raids, and we are focusing our advisory effort accordingly.

The focus of our assistance to the ANSF in Helmand is increasingly switching from company-level activities to mentoring at battalion level. Kandaks from the ANA’s 3/215 Brigade in Nad Ali and Nahr Saraj have already moved to the new model, working alongside the UK-led brigade advisory group, and further kandak advisory teams will be in place shortly. The reaction of the leaders and commanders at all levels in 3/215 Brigade has been one of pride based on self-confidence. Furthermore, this phased transition has allowed the UK-led Task Force Helmand to reduce its footprint significantly, and, since April, nearly 50 permanent British base locations—more than 60% of the pre-April total—have been closed or handed over to the ANSF.

Although progress on security has been real and meaningful, partnering is not without risk, and the attacks on our forces, including the so-called insider attacks perpetrated by rogue members of the ANSF, remind us how difficult the mission is. We are working at every level to suppress this threat and will do everything that we can to thwart it. We are clear that we will not allow these cowardly attacks to derail our strategy or commitment to the Afghan people.

The insurgents remain committed to conducting a campaign of violence in Afghanistan and continue to represent a threat to the future stability of the country. The ANSF, supported by ISAF where necessary, is taking the fight to the insurgents and pushing them away from the towns, markets, key transport routes and intensively farmed areas towards the rural fringe. As a result, the Afghan-led security plan is increasingly able to focus on disrupting the insurgency in its safe havens.

Although we cannot be complacent, the picture as a whole is of an insurgency weakened. The number of enemy-initiated attacks has fallen by an average of more than 10% in areas that have entered the transition process, so demonstrating that the Afghans are managing their own security. More importantly, the geographical pattern of enemy-initiated attacks shows a significant reduction in impact on the local population. Although our combat mission will be ending in 2014, our clear message to the Afghan people remains one of firm and ongoing commitment.

On the security front, at the Chicago summit in May, the international community agreed to provide funding to support the continued development of the Afghan national security forces in the years after 2014. NATO has agreed the establishment of a new, non-combat mission after transition completes. The UK will support this, including through our role as the lead coalition partner at the new Afghan national army officer academy. That is our baseline commitment, and, as the Prime Minister said earlier, we will consider other options for additional engagement after 2014.

On supporting the Afghan Government as a whole, the Kabul conference in June sent a clear message of regional engagement, and, at the Tokyo conference in July, $4 billion per year was pledged to meet Afghanistan’s essential development needs. The UK’s combined ongoing funding commitments from Chicago and Tokyo are almost £250 million a year. For the value of this support from the international community to be fully realised, however, the Afghan Government will need to address the corruption that remains rampant and could become a very real threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan. The Afghan Government now need to deliver on their commitments through the Tokyo mutual accountability framework to establish a legal framework for fighting corruption, improve economic and financial management and implement key economic and governance reforms, including on elections.

Democracy is taking hold in Afghanistan—not, of course, in the same shape that we have here in Britain, but Afghan voters can look forward to a future of their choosing, rather than one that is imposed upon them. Afghan women enjoy a level of participation in their society and their politics that few could have dreamed of even half a decade ago. The Department for International Development will continue to provide funding and support to advance this important agenda further. In Helmand, the process of local representation has seen marked improvements. Voter participation in 2012 for district community council elections in the traditionally challenging districts of Sangin, Nahr Saraj and Garmsir has been impressive by comparison with levels in previous presidential and parliamentary elections in the same areas. October’s announcement of the 2014 presidential elections is another important milestone in Afghanistan’s history. Many challenges remain, but an inclusive and transparent electoral process will be a sign of real progress.

Ultimately, the best opportunity for a stable and secure Afghanistan for the long term lies in a political settlement—one that draws in those opponents of the Afghan Government willing to renounce the insurgency and participate in peaceful politics. Any political process will, in the end, require the Afghan Government, the Taliban and other Afghan groups to come together to talk and to compromise. We appreciate how difficult that is for the respective parties, so we are working with our international allies to help to bring all sides together. In particular, the engagement of Pakistan in the process is hugely important. Our aim is to generate confidence and dialogue. Our message to the Taliban is that reconciliation is not surrender; it is an opportunity for all Afghans to sit down together and help to shape their country’s future. Common ground can be found, focused on the need for a strong, independent, economically viable Afghanistan.

The future of Afghanistan can be seen in the increased level of economic activity across the country. Bazaars that had been deserted are re-opening and commercial investment is evident in the towns. Basic public services are available to increasing percentages of the population. Nevertheless, Afghanistan, although rich in culture and natural resources, remains one of the poorest countries in the world—a legacy of 30 years of conflict. Its people are proud and hospitable, yet they have suffered unimaginable brutality and deprivation.

Over the last 11 years, we have been helping to ensure that Afghanistan’s past is not inevitably its future. As we move towards full transition at the end of 2014, it is clear that there remain huge challenges ahead for the Afghan people. Our combat mission is drawing to a close, but our commitment to them is long term. Progress is clear and measurable, and our determination to complete our mission and help Afghanistan to secure its future remains undiminished. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his quarterly statement. On each occasion when we meet to discuss Afghanistan, we rightly pay tribute to our service personnel and their families. That is even more poignant as we approach Christmas. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas with our families, we remember those in Afghanistan, separated from theirs, and those who have been lost, never to return to their loved ones. They are in the thoughts of us all and in the prayers of many of us.

The commitment to success in Afghanistan runs deep on both sides of the House. Although we on the Opposition Benches will scrutinise Government decisions, we will support the intentions with which they are made. Afghanistan has seen significant, but not irreversible progress. Al-Qaeda has been dispersed; we have overseen elections; the army and police forces are being trained; and a rule of law is developing. However, none of those tasks can be said to be complete. There are immense challenges to overcome. Facilitating free and fair presidential elections, tackling green-on-blue attacks, improving the representativeness of the police and the army, developing an education system and, above all, helping to deliver political reconciliation are all issues that necessitate our commitment up to and beyond 2014.

We all want to see our troops home as soon as possible, and we welcome today’s announcement. However, can the Secretary of State say when he will be able to tell us which units will leave and from which parts of Helmand? We are all concerned about the continuing risk to UK personnel who will remain. Can he tell us whether any force protection capabilities will be drawn down as a consequence of his announcement?

The Secretary of State spoke in general terms. Can he be more specific about how the capacity of those who are departing can be sufficiently replaced by Afghan forces? Can he give the House more details about the capability of Afghan forces specifically? What capacity do they have in providing an airbridge, aerial surveillance and intelligence?

The Secretary of State told us that 3,800 of our forces would leave by the end of next year. Does he currently envisage most of them remaining until the end of the fighting season, and does he expect the UK forces who remain after 2013 to be withdrawn throughout 2014 or to remain until the end of combat operations?

The co-ordination of the military coalition is essential. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether today’s announcement is part of a synchronised international set of announcements? Can he also say whether all those who return from Afghanistan, whether in 2013 or in 2014, will be exempt from any future tranche of compulsory Army redundancies?

Although the focus is rightly on withdrawal, it is also necessary to consider the post-2014 military settlement. The Chief of the General Staff is right to say that our commitment to Afghan institutions must be long-term, but we need more clarity about the nature of that commitment. Will the Secretary of State be more specific about the role of non-combat personnel? Is it his current thinking that our trainers will be embedded with the ANSF, and, if so, who will be responsible for force protection?

The Prime Minister rightly alluded to this earlier, but it is still unclear how many UK forces will remain post-2014 and from which services they will be drawn. When will the Secretary of State be in a position to give us more details abut that, as well as the UK’s equipment legacy to Afghanistan?

We all know that a long-term settlement for Afghanistan will be achieved through politics, not just through military might. There have been reports recently of a road map to peace from Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, outlining plans for talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban early next year. How confident is the Secretary of State that such talks may indeed take place, and does he believe that talks between the Taliban and US officials will recommence in Qatar in the new year? Will he also comment on the significance of Pakistan’s release of 18 Afghan prisoners? Does he feel that it marks a potentially significant shift in the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship?

One of the main measures by which we will judge progress in Afghanistan is the progress of women. Sadly, a recent detailed UN report showed that Afghan women remain frequent victims of abuse. What efforts are the UK Government making to ensure that women’s safety does not deteriorate once ISAF forces have left? In particular, beyond DFID’s efforts, what are the Government doing to sustain the progress that has been made for women in relation to the political process, the police and the judiciary?

As we enter the 12th and penultimate year of UK combat operations in this bloody but unavoidable conflict, there will rightly be lessons and consequences from Afghanistan. The time will also come for us to reflect, as a nation and free from party politics, on how we can mark in a lasting way our commemoration of those who have fallen and those who have been injured. I look forward to hearing from the Secretary of State how NATO can achieve withdrawal while maintaining the stability for which so many Britons have fought so fiercely. We need to get this right. This is our fourth conflict in Afghanistan, and we have no intention of there ever being a fifth.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and for the tone in which he made them. I know that he expressed the views of Members in all parts of the House in sending best wishes for Christmas to the members of our service personnel who will be in theatre over the Christmas period. I am grateful for his continued support and for that of the whole Opposition.

The right hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to emphasise the scale of the challenge ahead, and the reversibility of the achievements that have been won. It is for precisely that reason that we are engaged in the ongoing process of building the Afghan national security forces and the institutions of the Afghan state for the long term, and it is for precisely that reason that we have gone out of our way to emphasise the nature of our ongoing commitment to the Afghan people way beyond the end of our combat operations in 2014.

The right hon. Gentleman understandably asked some questions about the draw-down of our forces during 2013. He asked which units would leave and from which parts of Helmand. Owing to our six-monthly rotational pattern in which units are deployed to theatre routinely around March-April and September-October each year, it is less a question of which units will leave than a question of deploying fewer units to replace those that are coming out of theatre at each successive turn of the handle. I expect that there will be some draw-down of numbers next April, a period during the fighting season in which numbers remain constant, and a further draw-down in September-October, towards the end of next year.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about force protection measures. Ours is an integrated force. The 5,200 figure was arrived at through a bottom-up process of military logic and military planning that took account of the shape and scale of the force that will be required to deliver the tasks that we expect to be delivering by the end of 2013.

As for the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces who will increasingly fill the gap as we reduce our numbers, the message is clear. The right hon. Gentleman will have heard it: I know that he has heard the back-to-office reports of returning commanders from Afghanistan. The Prime Minister mentioned it earlier, and I have heard it myself. Everyone talks of the Afghan forces’ increasing confidence, increasing competence and increasing willingness to engage. There has been a step change in the level of what they are able to do.

However, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, at present Afghan forces still depend on ISAF allies for some key enablers: air cover, air support, indirect fire support—they are building a capability of their own in that respect, but it is as yet immature—and, crucially, medical evacuation, which gives the Afghan army high levels of confidence on the battlefield. Over the next two years, we will focus on developing Afghan indigenous capabilities so that they can replace those enablers at the end of our combat involvement.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the international dimension of draw-down. There is an emerging ISAF plan, which is being discussed among the ISAF nations, and today’s announcement is entirely consistent with that plan. Other allies, including the United States of America, will make specific announcements in due course.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the rules on redundancy. Announcements about future tranches of Army redundancy will be made in the new year, and the rules will be set out to be as fair as possible. That means ensuring that the field of redundancy is as wide as possible, while ensuring that those who are about to be deployed on operations, those who are currently deployed and those who have just returned from operations remain exempt. The more widely we set the field, the fairer the process of redundancy selection will be.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the post-2014 non-combat commitment and about embedded training. Those matters have not been decided, beyond the commitment that we have given to take the lead role in running the Afghan national officer training academy. There are a number of things that we could consider doing beyond that, but we have decided that it does not make sense to make firm commitments earlier than we need to, before we see how the situation develops on the ground and before we see what other allies intend to do. We will make announcements to the House in due course, during 2013, as those decisions are made.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban and between US officials and the Taliban. The Government are working very hard and very diligently. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is routinely engaged in encouraging the process of dialogue, as is the Prime Minister. We know from our own experience over many years that conflicts of this kind invariably have to be settled by means of dialogue and compromise. At the heart of that dialogue and compromise will be a renewed shared understanding of the need for future dialogue and co-operation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I am pleased to say the UK has played a significant role in enhancing that and in ensuring there is genuine engagement with Pakistan in these discussions.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. My question is about force protection. As all the ISAF countries begin to draw down, they will have concerns about force protection, including how to protect increasingly isolated units. What is being done to reduce the isolation of ISAF units and to share possible force protection measures across ISAF countries and the Afghan national security forces?

My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that question, as the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) also did. As we draw down, force protection will be one of the key determinants of the shape of the force and the scale of draw-down that is possible. As my right hon. Friend suggests, there will be co-ordination across ISAF, including sharing force protection arrangements as the force gets smaller. I should also draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to what I said earlier about the reduction of the UK footprint in Helmand. That is significant and has significant implications for force protection. We are now servicing 32 UK locations in Helmand province, as opposed to more than 80 UK locations just nine months ago. That has led to a significant reduction in both the logistics challenge and the force protection challenge.

When military action was first taken in Afghanistan some 11 years ago, the purpose was rightly to remove, after 9/11, al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, and that was accomplished fairly quickly. I welcome the troop reduction, but does the Secretary of State accept that a military victory of any kind over the Taliban is totally out of the question—it has not come about so far, and it is not going to come about in the next two years—and that the future of Afghanistan will have to be decided by Afghans, even including some Taliban members, who are totally opposed to that obnoxious organisation?

To my surprise, I largely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is right that the initial challenge was to defeat al-Qaeda and deny it the space to organise in Afghanistan, and that has been achieved. He is also right that military means alone will not solve the problem in Afghanistan, and I do not think anyone in this Government or the previous Administration has suggested that. In the end there has to be compromise and dialogue, and a process that draws into civil society what we might call the soft part of the insurgency, which is willing to renounce insurgent activity and engage in political dialogue. Our experience in the United Kingdom and around the world clearly suggests that that is the way sustainably to end these kinds of enduring conflict. If we want an enduring peace in Afghanistan, it will need to involve all sections of Afghan society and all strands of political opinion.

May I also express my admiration for, and gratitude to, those who have served and who are serving in Afghanistan? Like other Members, I was reassured by what my right hon. Friend said about force protection, as it is axiomatic that land forces are at their most vulnerable at the time of withdrawal, but a further area of protection needs to be addressed. Will there be proper protection of equipment, to minimise opportunities for it to be used by insurgents or others with malign intentions towards the Government of Afghanistan?

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his remarks. I should have said in relation to force protection that the transition from company-level to battalion-level and then to brigade-level mentoring and advising will make the force protection challenge much easier by reducing the daily footprint of contact with Afghan forces and the Afghan population. We intend to recuperate to the UK large amounts of equipment, as we are planning to use much of it in the construction of our future Army plans, Future Force 2020, but we will, of course, ensure that any equipment that is not required back in the UK is either properly and formally gifted to the Afghan national security forces or the militaries of friendly neighbouring countries, or is appropriately destroyed.

Out of which budget will the cost of repatriating and reintegrating equipment come? Will it come out of the £160-billion core equipment budget?

That is a good question. Our arrangements with the Treasury are that equipment that has been purchased as urgent operational requirements from the special reserve may be repatriated into core without any charge to the defence budget, but the cost of physically recuperating that equipment will be met from the core defence budget. In respect of armoured vehicles that have been purchased as UORs, therefore, the Army will have to decide whether it is cost-effective to bring that equipment back and overhaul and re-equip it for future service, or whether it is more appropriate to abandon it and devote the money saved to purchase new equipment.

My right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister both rightly referred to the importance of maintaining a post-2014 commitment in Afghanistan. One of the ways that we might most appropriately manifest that is by maintaining Camp Bastion, which has been specially built for its purpose. Indeed, a huge amount of money has been invested in it. That would not only send a signal to the Afghan population and Government; it would also provide a useful strategic asset in what is an important and turbulent area of the world.

The United States is currently considering where to retain strategic bases in Afghanistan beyond 2014, and my understanding is that it is highly likely—although not yet absolutely certain—that it will choose to continue to occupy Camp Bastion.

A few weeks ago in the House of Commons there was the first ever meeting of the UK’s Hazara community. As the Secretary of State knows, the Hazaras are a Shi’a minority who have suffered considerable oppression in Afghanistan, going back at least as far as the first British war there, but in particular under the Taliban regime. The Secretary of State has rightly talked about the need for a political solution, but may I urge him and his fellow Ministers from other Departments to ensure that the interests of the minority Hazara community are not lost in the rush to achieve a political settlement?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that question, and I will ensure that his concerns about the Hazara community are drawn to the Foreign Secretary’s attention. There is a significant number of minority communities in Afghanistan—it is a fragmented society—and one of the challenges will be to design a future solution that is coherent and promotes having a strong central Government but also respects the many different minority communities in the country.

What does my right hon. Friend mean when he refers to mentoring at kandak or battalion level? Does that mean our soldiers and officers will not venture out on patrol, but will remain with the headquarters element and therefore will not be as exposed as in the past?

Not necessarily: some of the kandak-level advisory activity may well involve moving with the battalion headquarters element, and if the battalion commanders are moving outside their bases, on some occasions the advisory team may move with them. This is a flexible construct, however, and things will depend on how individual commanders prefer to work and how their kandak advisory teams find it most constructive to work with them. There is a large degree of discretion.

Although of course it is right to press ahead with dialogue with the Taliban, it is also prudent to keep an eye on what they are doing as regards the ongoing conflict. What are our military doing to build the intelligence gathering capacity of the ANSF in advance of withdrawal?

That is a very good question. It is probably fair to characterise ISAF as having had rather poor human intelligence capability and having relied on very sophisticated electronic and other technological intelligence gathering. We will not be able to replicate in the ANSF a similar level of high-tech intelligence gathering, but I am pretty confident that what the ANSF will lack in that regard will be more than made up for by its human intelligence capability. Members of the ANSF have an intuitive understanding of what is going on in local communities that gives them a touch and feel for the local area that ISAF troops, however long they stay there, will never have.

Given what my right hon. Friend has said about the inherent risks of reversibility in the security situation, what plans are in place if there is a significant change in what is anticipated over the next couple of years so that, if there is not the training and leadership capability among the Afghan population, we have the flexibility to implement different plans and that our hard-won gains are not lost by the end of 2014?

Of course, we retain flexibility in our plans, but I would not wish to mislead my hon. Friend: our clear intention is to end our combat operations by the end of 2014, along with the rest of our ISAF partners. By setting that clear target, we have set the Afghans a target and all the evidence is that they are stepping up to the plate with alacrity and delivering on—indeed, exceeding—our expectations of their ability to respond to that challenge.

As Pakistan has a key role to play in any peaceful solution for Afghanistan and the Secretary of State has mentioned increased engagement, what evidence does he have of reduced involvement from certain sources in Pakistan, particularly the security services, in helping and sheltering insurgents and the Taliban?

As the hon. Gentleman knows and as we have discussed in this House before, the situation in Pakistan, particularly in the federally administered tribal areas, is extremely complex, as is the engagement of the Pakistani intelligence agency in activities there. We are seeing a clear political direction from the Pakistani civilian Government towards engagement and constructive working with the international community and Afghan partners, but we are also seeing a clear indication that the military are now thinking hard about where Pakistan’s long-term interests lie. They know that there are only two years left of ISAF combat presence in which to sort this out and they are engaging with international partners and the Afghans in a much more constructive way than we have seen for many years.

The Secretary of State quite rightly says that the relationship between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban will be central to any peace, which we all hope will include respect for the rights of girls such as Malala Yousafzai, who is surely one of the bravest teenagers in the world. Does the Secretary of State detect any lasting shift in Pakistani public and political opinion and in attitudes towards the Taliban following on from her extraordinary example?

I think that the answer to that must be yes, that has had an impact on Pakistani public opinion. There is also evidence that the Taliban is moderating some of its more extreme views because it recognises that they are costing it popularity with the population.

I was in Afghanistan three weeks ago as president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. I concur that the Afghan national army is capable, well led and well equipped. It is essential that it remains under political control, however, and as President Karzai will step down early in 2014 and a new president will be elected, will the Secretary of State reassure me that our Government and those of our ISAF allies will give as much attention to the political transition as to the security transition?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Clearly, maintaining political control of the Afghan national army is crucial. I see little sign that it is becoming politicised and it operates effectively as a military force, but the Afghan Ministry of Defence is a weak institution. One area that we are considering for UK engagement beyond 2014 is the provision of support at senior level to the Afghan Ministry of Defence.

Will the Secretary of State assure me that he will not listen to the requests from the Opposition to provide yet further details about our tactical deployments and tactical draw-down? Our enemies already know too much about when we are withdrawing, how many troops we are withdrawing and in what numbers. Giving units, equipments and other important details would, I suggest, help our enemies and not hinder them.

As I have already said, I cannot at the moment give the details of which units will be in theatre in future. We make no secret about units being deployed—we make routine announcements on which units will be deployed to theatre—but I completely agree with my hon. Friend that a public discussion about which capabilities we will retain and withdraw and about when we will do that would not be helpful.

I, too, was able to visit Afghanistan with colleagues from the Defence Committee, as the Secretary of State will know, and we saw much of the progress he has described. However, we identified one particular issue on which I would like him to make an observation: the detention of prisoners at Bastion and the difficulties in transferring them into the Afghan justice system. I understand that two of them are charged with the murder of British troops. Will he comment on how that process is progressing?

I am happy to update the House on the detention situation, which is an important aspect of our operations. We suspended transfers into the Afghan justice system earlier this year because of concerns about the potential for the mistreatment of prisoners in National Directorate of Security facilities. Over a period of months, a significant number of steps were taken to increase our oversight of what happens to transferred prisoners. We were hoping to recommence transfers in the autumn, but two things happened. First, in a case that is being heard in the High Court in London, an injunction was granted against us, preventing further transfers into the Afghan system without the permission of the High Court. Secondly, new and classified information came to my attention that led me to make a decision to continue as a matter of policy to suspend transfers into the Afghan system. That means that we are holding significant numbers of detainees who are to be charged in the Afghan judicial system but cannot, for reasons of policy and legal impediment, be transferred into the Afghan system at present. We are improving and increasing the size of the detention facility at Bastion to reflect the fact that those people will be held in larger numbers and for longer periods.

People across Wiltshire, to where many of these soldiers will return, will strongly welcome the announcement about what is effectively the beginning of the end of our combat involvement in Afghanistan. It is very welcome indeed. Does the Secretary of State agree that the success of our withdrawal will be judged by two kinds of Afghan confidence? First, they must be confident that they can do the job, which increasingly seems to be the case, and secondly they must be confident that we will not cut and run—that we are not leaving them to it, but that we will keep an eye on what happens and stand ready, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) said, to intervene again should that become necessary in the years to come.

As the Prime Minister has repeatedly made clear and I have emphasised again today, although our combat mission will be coming to an end, our commitment to the Afghan people will be enduring and is underpinned by a firm commitment of more than £250 million a year of military aid support and development aid.

Mohammed Hottak is a former Afghani interpreter who lives in Leicester. It took him years to get his asylum case processed, and his wife and children have still not joined him. He and other interpreters risk their lives to support our country. Why are the Afghani interpreters being treated differently from those who helped us in Iraq?

Locally employed civilians include interpreters, but the question goes much wider than interpreters. We are currently looking very carefully at how we are going to make appropriate provision to support locally employed civilians as we draw down and eventually end our combat mission. We have a clear commitment to treat them fairly and appropriately, and to ensure their safety and security beyond the term of their employment with Her Majesty’s Government. I cannot comment on an individual’s specific case, but I am confident that as we get nearer to the end of our combat involvement in Afghanistan, further statements will be made about our detailed policy towards locally employed civilians; I believe we currently have about 3,500 of them.

A few moments ago, the Secretary of State gave a very important answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), when he confirmed, for, I think, the first time by a British Minister, that our American allies are thinking of retaining at least one strategic base in the region. Given that we face the threat of the return of al-Qaeda to Afghanistan and the destabilisation of Pakistan by the Pakistani Taliban—with their nuclear arsenal to be borne in mind—is it not extremely important that somebody has a fallback plan, based on the use of strategic bases, even if it is not us?

When any of my colleagues stands up and says that I have said something that no Minister has said before, my heart sinks, but I think on this occasion I am okay.

I would not be so presumptuous as to speak for the United States, but my current understanding is that US planning very likely envisages the retention of Camp Bastion. Of course, any remaining footprint in Afghanistan—strategic base or otherwise—depends on the agreement of the Afghan Government, and as my hon. Friend knows, negotiations are under way between the United States and the Government of Afghanistan about a long-term strategic partnership agreement.

Can the Secretary of State tell us exactly how much money has been spent by the UK in the Afghan operation over the past 11 years—[Interruption.] It is not a joke. Can he also tell us what the comparative figures are for poverty among the ordinary people of Afghanistan now and 11 years ago?

On the first part of the question, I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman off the top of my head what the total expenditure has been since the beginning of the operation in 2001, but I am happy to write to him to give him those numbers. I think they have been published, but I am very happy to write to him and place a copy in the Library.

On the hon. Gentleman’s second point about poverty, Afghanistan is still a very poor country, but its economy has been growing, and although it is of course relative, there is a strong sense in Afghanistan of growing prosperity. People are able to get their goods to market; if they farm their produce, they can actually sell it. There is investment in towns and cities, and the economy has been growing at 9% a year for the last few years. Those are positive signs for ordinary Afghan people, and the progress that has been made in moving the combat—the insurgency—out of the populated centres is crucial in restoring confidence in the local economy and allowing it to thrive and prosper.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that Defence Equipment and Support is based in my constituency. Will he join me in paying tribute to DES for all the work it has done over the entire deployment, making sure that we have the right kit and the right people in the right place at the right time? Will he give us an assurance that DES will have all the resources it needs as the draw-down begins to take place, so that equipment and personnel can be brought back efficiently and on time?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Defence Equipment and Support, and in particular to draw attention to the extremely efficient way in which the UOR process has worked throughout both this conflict and the Iraq conflict before it. Resources will of course be available for the recovery of our personnel and equipment, and a huge logistic operation is beginning to get under way—reopening the reverse lines of communication both through the northern stans and Pakistan—to bring that vast amount of equipment out of theatre.

I welcome the news that more troops are to be swiftly withdrawn, but I want to go back to the question put by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) about Afghan interpreters. They are worried that they will be sent back to Afghanistan and killed, and interpreters still serving UK troops in Afghanistan fear for their lives as more British troops leave. Can the Secretary of State assure us that he will let us know as soon as he can whether a scheme similar to that in Iraq will be properly extended to Afghanistan? Legal proceedings are about to be mounted on behalf of those people, who fear that their lives are at risk.

As the hon. Lady says, legal proceedings are about to be instigated—we understand—so obviously it would be improper for me to say anything about them. This is a big and complicated issue. A large number of people are involved and not all of them are interpreters, who usually are quite highly educated. There are also large numbers of locally employed staff in other capacities. As I said, we are very much focused on the problem and we must have a properly thought-through and coherent approach. I give the hon. Lady an undertaking on behalf of the Government that once we have a clear plan we will announce it to the House.

This is a landmark statement, which signals the beginning of a long draw-down in a very difficult war. Difficult questions will need to be answered as to why it has taken us so long to get to where we are today. Peace is by no means guaranteed. Does the Secretary of State agree that the welcome advances in security must be matched by improvements to governance and economic development if Najibullah is not to be repeated?

Yes, I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend. In particular, progress has to be made on the endemic corruption that still exists in Afghan society and throughout the Afghan economy, if the progress already made is to be built on.

Perhaps I could take this opportunity to tell the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) that I have become aware—by magic—that the net additional cost of military operations since 2001 is estimated as £17.4 billion to date.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. The murder in Pakistan of six aid workers delivering vital polio treatment shocked us all. Can he assure the House that there will be military protection for medical aid workers in Afghanistan to ensure that the polio inoculations and medical treatment that are so important for children and adults can be maintained?

The responsibility for protecting Afghan local health services will be primarily for the Afghan police and military, but I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we were all shocked by the reminder of the primitiveness of some of the Taliban doctrine, and that they would attack people for providing vaccination against life-threatening diseases. That is the scale of the challenge we are dealing with.

I welcome the statement, but as the Secretary of State knows, some Members of the House have long held the view that we were fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country, as we strayed from the original mission. Will he confirm that ISAF is now conducting non-conditional talks with the Taliban? Until fairly recently, the American position was that they would only talk to the Taliban if the Taliban laid down their arms and accepted the constitution. The Americans were living in never-never land. Has the position on those talks changed?

I think it would be wrong to characterise the discussions as ISAF discussions. There are discussions that the Afghan Government have indicated a willingness to enter into, which are conditional on an acceptance of the Afghan constitution. That is the position of the Afghan Government. There are also discussions, which have been widely reported, between US officials and Taliban representatives, which do not have the same preconditions attached to them.

This year, Corby lost one of its sons, Grenadier Guard James Ashworth, who died in a grenade attack in Helmand. In paying tribute to James and all the soldiers from Corby who served in the past and will serve in the future in Afghanistan, may I ask the Secretary of State to say what assessment he has made of the increased risks to the 5,500 servicemen and women who will be in Helmand in 2014?

Our current estimate of the opening number in 2014 is 5,200. We do not think there will be an increased risk to them. There are balancing factors to consider. On the one hand, we will be mentoring and advising at a higher level of command; that will imply a lower footprint, fewer bases and fewer patrols going outside the wire. On the other hand, we will be drawing down, and drawing down and evacuating equipment is by its nature a complex and risk-based business. But I think overall we would not expect the total amount of risk to increase during the draw-down, taking those two factors together.

On our recent Defence Committee visit to Afghanistan it was impossible not to be deeply impressed with the progress made, and my right hon. Friend’s statement is extremely welcome. May I put it to him that pivotal to our successful operation in Malaya and also, arguably, Northern Ireland was the offer of a genuine amnesty to those who laid down their arms, and that the current amnesty on offer, which does not even extend to drug-dealing activities, is not really the right route to get the softer element of the Taliban to negotiate?

I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend that reintegration of people who have been opposed to the regime and, indeed, active supporters of the insurgency is an essential part of a stable future for Afghanistan. A substantial reintegration programme is under way, as he knows. Thousands of low-level Taliban fighters who have abandoned the insurgency have been reintegrated into Afghan society and that process will need to continue if we are to deliver stability in the future.

Having visited Helmand two years ago, I want to add my own tribute to the fantastic work of our armed forces, having seen that at first hand. I recently spoke to personnel serving in Afghanistan who fear leaving the forces, fear looking for a job, and fear the cuts to support to people on low incomes. Increasing numbers of veterans who have served in Afghanistan are turning to the Royal British Legion and other forces’ charities for advice and often emergency support. What is the Secretary of State doing to support those charities to serve our very brave veterans in their lives after they leave the forces?

Of course we support the service charities; they are a very important part of the overall service family. But the hon. Gentleman does not do our armed forces and the people who serve in them any service by painting that very bleak picture of their prospects after service. The truth is that over 90% of people leaving the armed forces who are looking for work have found work within three months and over 95% within six months. That is a good result. We can continue to do better; we can continue to deliver additional support, and the recent appointment of a transition tsar by the Prime Minister to support service people leaving the forces and to help them in the process of getting into work and establishing a new home is a very important contribution to that. It is basically a good news story, not a bad news story.

I join other Members in congratulating the Secretary of State on making a very difficult, very courageous, correct decision to draw down troops so rapidly. May I ask him to remain open to the possibility that, depending on US decisions in January, we look at this as being only the minimum amount we withdraw, and to remain open to the possibility of withdrawing significantly more?

I have announced that our current planning sees numbers going down to about 5,200 by the end of 2013. That planning is of course based on certain assumptions about what the rest of our ISAF partners are doing, and about what the ANSF will be doing. We believe that those assumptions are robust, but if it turns out during the course of 2013 that things turn out differently, of course we retain the flexibility to look again at our plans.

Given that combat missions will continue to 2014, as the Defence Secretary has said, will he ensure, in the light of green-on-blue attacks and other reasons, that all soldiers are equipped with sidearms for force and individual protection? Like many, I have constituents in Afghanistan, and some who are going there, and they and their families would be slightly less tense if all soldiers were equipped with sidearms, which would also act as a deterrent.

Without getting into the technicalities, I do not think I can give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that all soldiers will be equipped with sidearms, but I can tell him that current orders require all soldiers to carry a weapon at all times when they are anywhere in contact with Afghans, and if they are in a circumstance where they cannot carry a weapon, a so-called guardian angel system is in place where armed troops overwatch them during any period where they are necessarily unarmed, such as during sports activities.

One of the legacies we can give to those who have paid so much in sacrifice for our mission in Afghanistan is the long-term stability of the nation. In its economic stability, are we doing everything we can to make sure that the wealth of natural resources that my right hon. Friend mentioned is exploited to the best benefit of the people of Afghanistan, not those from outside?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the long-term stability of Afghanistan depends on its economic development and a key part of its economic development will be the successful exploitation of its mineral wealth. Mineral wealth cannot be taken offshore to Dubai; it sits in the ground, and as long as the wealth of Afghanistan is in Afghanistan, local people will invest in Afghanistan and the future of the country. There are all sorts of international efforts, including many supported by the UK’s DFID funding, to ensure the development and exploitation of that mineral wealth for the benefit of the people of Afghanistan.

The withdrawal is of course very welcome, but why has the Secretary of State disregarded the alarming fact that in the past 12 months, $900 million has been stolen from the bank of Afghanistan by Government corruption, and that £4.5 billion has been smuggled out of that country, much of it to Dubai, to tart up the boltholes that the politicians have prepared to flee to in 2015? Does he think that the Afghan army will give their allegiance to a corrupt Government, to the Northern Alliance or to the Taliban?

I am not ignoring those facts. I have acknowledged that the Afghan Government will have to do much more about corruption if Afghanistan is to have a viable future. All our activity, through DFID and other channels, is to secure sustainable development in Afghanistan, which will encourage people to retain their wealth in Afghanistan, but I do not dissent from the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that there is wholesale corruption and that significant amounts of money have been illegally expatriated from the country. He is of course right.

Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan fuels much of the illegal hard drug trade on the streets of Britain. What progress is being made, and will be made, to reduce the reliance of the Afghan economy on poppy cultivation, while also ensuring that the livelihood of many poor farmers is not endangered?

This is a perennial challenge in any country where narcotics cultivation is a core part of the economy—to develop sustainable alternative forms of economic activity that provide a livelihood for peasant farmers which can compete with the returns available from narcotics. That is a big challenge for the Afghan Government. We are putting a lot of investment into helping them with that challenge and counter-narcotics will be a continuing strand of our involvement with Afghanistan well beyond the end of our combat operations in 2014.

May I press the Secretary of State to say whether Afghanistan campaign returners will be subject to compulsory redundancy?

The hon. Gentleman asks the question in the abstract—[Interruption.] It is not a yes or no question at all. At the time when redundancy decisions are made, a defined group of people will be excluded from consideration. That will be people deployed on operations, people preparing to deploy on operations, and people recovering on leave after operations, but I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman, as the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) asked me to do, that anyone who is now or at any time in the future deployed in Afghanistan will not be eligible for redundancy. That would reduce the field eligible for selection to a tiny number and would be most unfair.

I welcome the ongoing United Kingdom commitment to give £250 million a year for development in Afghanistan. This represents about 10% of the pledged total. Does my right hon. Friend have confidence that the remaining 90% will be found and that the United Kingdom will not be left to pick up the difference?

I think my hon. Friend might be confusing two things. There are, rather unhelpfully, two separate 4 billions here. There is £4 billion of development aid that was pledged at Tokyo, and there is $4 billion a year of support for the ANSF, of which the United Kingdom has committed about $100 million—around £70 million. We are confident that these sums will be found and that they will be available to the Afghans on an ongoing basis. We have set out our commitment and we do not intend to change from that position.

Like many hon. Members in the Chamber, I represent several families who have lost their loved ones in Afghanistan over the past decade. That felt like a very optimistic statement from the Secretary of State on the progress we have made. I am a little more sceptical about what it has cost us in human life and treasure for the progress we have made. We would all agree that a political solution is necessary to resolve the conflict, but what assurances can the Secretary of State give us that when we reach that political solution with our draw-down forces, we will be able to maintain the safety of all those Afghans who have been our allies over the past decade, and we will not leave them to the mercy of the elements of the Taliban that we wish to draw into the future government of Afghanistan?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has visited Afghanistan, but many of his colleagues have. It is not a perfect democracy and it never will be. It will not be the case that the Afghan Government will control every inch of their territory after 2014. There will be messy compromises in some parts of the country. Some will not be under the control of the central Government, and some of the behaviours will not be behaviours of the type that we would put up with here or in any European country, but any of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues who have been there will tell him that the lives of ordinary Afghans are immeasurably better today than they were five or six years ago, and that is the standard by which we should measure our involvement.

The Secretary of State said that the civilian Government in Pakistan are fully committed to engagement and a stable Afghanistan. He will know that there are general elections in Pakistan in March—that is, three months away. Have there been discussions with other political parties to see whether they are committed to the same process of engagement and a stable Afghanistan?

To be honest, I cannot answer my hon. Friend’s question. It would be usual for our local post to have some degree of contact with non-Government parties, but as he has asked the question, I am happy to interrogate my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on this and to write to him and put a copy of my letter in the Library.

Recent events have given rise to fears that some of the advances that have been achieved for women and girls in the region, particularly in education, might be lost. One of the ways to protect women and girls is to embed attitudes towards education for women in those who will be serving in the security forces. Can the Secretary of State confirm that that is being done and is being given priority?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question because she highlights a dilemma: how do we at one and the same time say that the Afghans must be responsible for determining their future, and that we want their future to look, in this respect, like this—with women and girls remaining engaged in society? She is absolutely right that embedding a change in culture is the way to do it. That is one reason why the Prime Minister has, from the outset, been so determined that a significant part of our commitment post-2014 will be in the form of taking the lead in the Afghan national officer training academy, which will allow us to shape the cultural awareness training that officer cadets receive and that will filter down through the Afghan forces. The hon. Lady is right. DFID will go on investing in this agenda and the military commitment that we have made to the Afghan military will allow us to ensure that we are able to influence cultural attitudes within the security forces.

I associate myself with the tributes that have been paid already, and I want to mention specifically 16 Air Assault Brigade, many of whose members have been deployed four times. The Secretary of State’s statement says: “Although our combat mission will be ending in 2014, our clear message to the Afghan people remains one of firm and ongoing commitment.” Without giving specific numbers, can he state whether there will be a significant British troop presence in Afghanistan in May 2015?

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we have made two firm commitments. We will support the ongoing non-combat NATO mission and we will support the Afghan national officer academy. Together those commitments will amount to a small number of hundreds of personnel. Beyond that, we are considering the options available to us. We do not need to make firm decisions yet and the National Security Council is clearly of the view that we should not make firm decisions before we need to do so. I can tell him that in May 2015 there will almost certainly still be a small number of logisticians dismantling the last of our equipment and returning it to the UK.

During the years of British involvement in combat in Afghanistan, a huge number of young men and women have lost their lives or been seriously injured, including very many Welsh young men and women. There can be no greater tribute or memorial to all those people and their families than a lasting, secure, stable Afghanistan. Will my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that he will be as committed to securing that stable, peaceful Afghanistan after 2014 as the British Government have been to combat up until that date?

I can give my hon. Friend that commitment. We are committed to sticking with the Afghan people beyond 2014 because it is the right thing to do by them, because it is the right way to protect our national security, and because it is the right way to honour the memory of all those who have given their lives and made such enormous sacrifice over the past 11 years.