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Volume 560: debated on Thursday 21 March 2013

With permission, I will make a statement, as we do quarterly, on our progress in Afghanistan. This represents the combined assessment of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence, and the Department for International Development.

I pay tribute to the great courage and professionalism of our armed forces in Afghanistan. Four hundred and forty British service personnel have lost their lives there since 2001, including two since my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary made the last quarterly statement on 19 December. We will never forget the sacrifice they and their families have made to protect our nation’s security, or the efforts of the civilian staff, who have also served bravely in Afghanistan over the past decade.

The Government’s objective and strategy in Afghanistan are unchanged. We seek an Afghanistan that can maintain its own security and that is not a safe haven for international terrorists. That requires us to help the Afghan Government to increase the capability of their national security forces, to make progress towards a sustainable political settlement, and to build a viable Afghan state.

Although formidable challenges remain, there is progress to report to the House on all three of those fronts. First, significant progress is being made in building up the capability of the Afghan security forces. In the past three months, insurgent activity in Afghanistan has followed the historical cycle of winter seasons, with a reduced level of violence nationwide. High-profile attacks have been limited over the period. Recent attacks, such as those against the national directorate of security and traffic police headquarters, have been largely dealt with by Afghan forces, without direct support from the international security assistance force. Afghan security forces are now leading 80% of all security operations in Afghanistan, and are due to take lead responsibility for combat operations across the country by this summer, with ISAF taking an advisory role. More than three quarters of ISAF bases have been closed or transferred to the Afghan Government, and the ANSF is on track to assume full responsibility for security in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

That progress is allowing the gradual redeployment of UK military forces and equipment. The Prime Minister announced in December that our military presence will be reduced by nearly half this year, and that the UK, along with our allies, will move steadily towards a supporting role. The role of UK personnel is changing from a combat role to training and advising the Afghan security forces. In the short term, UK personnel will continue to support Afghan operations through casualty evacuation, air support and the provision of surveillance capabilities, while working to help the Afghans to develop their own suitable capabilities. In addition, UK personnel provide the infrastructure necessary to work in Afghanistan, including food, medical care, welfare and transportation. Although our focus is increasingly on supporting our Afghan partners, we will maintain sufficient capability to project military force if the conditions require it until the end of 2014.

The ANSF currently has more than 330,000 personnel and is progressing towards a final number of 352,000. As those forces become more capable and approach full strength, our mentoring has switched from company to battalion level, and by the end of this year, our forces will no longer need to mentor them below brigade level. The vast majority of training is also now led by the Afghans themselves.

Of course, our task is still a difficult one. The Taliban will continue to seek to undermine popular confidence in the Afghan authorities, and as Afghan forces assume the lead in combat operations across the country, they are likely to become the focus of Taliban attacks. Moreover, the formation of professional armed forces takes time, and reducing attrition rates and improving leadership across the Afghan forces will be important priorities for years to come. The UK is therefore proud to take the lead in building up the new Afghan national army officer academy which will develop the next generation of Afghan military leaders.

Secondly, we continue to help drive progress towards a sustainable political settlement and efforts by the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to strengthen their relationship. On 3 and 4 February, the Prime Minister hosted a summit at Chequers with President Karzai of Afghanistan and President Zardari of Pakistan. That was the third in a series of trilateral meetings hosted by the Prime Minister in the past year. The aim was to assist the Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process, and strengthen joint Afghan and Pakistani efforts to address extremism, and to advance regional peace and stability.

The summit led to an agreement on co-operation between military and security services, and strengthened co-ordination of Taliban prisoner releases from Pakistani custody. It also led to a public statement supporting the opening of a Taliban political office in Doha. That sends a clear message to the Taliban that now is the time to take part in a peaceful political dialogue. The UK will continue to support this Afghan-led peace process and to facilitate improved relations between the Afghan and Pakistani Governments, including supporting further trilateral meetings in future.

Thirdly, we continue to work to help strengthen Afghanistan’s democratic institutions. In just over a year’s time, on 5 April 2014, the Afghan people will begin voting in the third presidential elections since the fall of the Taliban. Elections to the provincial councils will take place on the same day. These elections must be credible, inclusive and transparent. All Afghan constituencies, including women and minorities, must feel part of the electoral process and have the opportunity to make their voices heard. Although it will be Afghan-led, the UK will continue to provide support and advice to the local authorities. We are lobbying the Afghan Government to ensure that key electoral laws, which will underpin the credibility of the 2014 elections, are passed by the Parliament and not by presidential decree.

The UK is supporting the Afghan authorities to prepare for the elections through providing funding to the United Nations Development Programme ELECT II programme—Enhancing Legal and Electoral Capacity for Tomorrow—which builds the capacity of the Independent Election Commission. The UK will provide £12 million between November 2012 and December 2013 to the ELECT II fund. In addition, last year we provided $215,000 to the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan, and we have provided an additional $750,000 to the Afghan Parliamentary Assistance Programme, which supports capacity building for Afghan Members of Parliament, including on drafting legislation, improving budget analysis and oversight and strengthening links between parliamentarians and their constituents.

Economic growth is also vital if Afghanistan is to become a stable and secure state that is not dependent on foreign aid. The country has significant natural resources that must be developed, including metals, minerals and hydrocarbons. On 6 March, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for International Development, and the Afghan Minister of Mines, hosted a forum for representatives of the extractives industry to help attract credible international investment to Afghanistan. The Department for International Development has also agreed a three-year, £10 million programme of support to the Ministry of Mines to improve transparency and accountability, so that the main beneficiaries of that mineral wealth are the Afghan people themselves.

I wish to emphasise that it is critical that Afghanistan takes the necessary steps to ensure women are able to play their full role in society and developing the economy. The Foreign Office, along with other Departments, continually lobbies the Afghan Government on human rights issues. Women’s rights were an important theme of the visit of my noble Friend Baroness Warsi to Afghanistan earlier this month, and the Secretary of State for International Development met President Karzai in her visit in December to discuss the challenges faced by Afghan women.

UK aid funding has already helped to ensure that 5.9 million Afghan children are regularly attending school, including 2.3 million girls. That compares to virtually none under the Taliban. Our aid money is also being used to recruit and train teachers, build and maintain schools, and increase the availability and quality of education. DFID has announced a further £45 million for the global girls education challenge fund, which is helping to improve education for more than 250,000 marginalised girls.

The FCO and DFID are also working together to ensure that the Afghan Government uphold their commitments on women’s rights, including through implementation of the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, which is a central commitment under the Tokyo mutual accountability framework. The International Development Secretary has stated that tackling violence against women and girls will be a strategic priority for the Department’s work in Afghanistan.

The UK will do whatever it can to increase rights for women in Afghanistan, and we must also do more to improve the lives of all the Afghan people. We will therefore play a key role in ensuring that Afghan commitments from last year’s NATO summit in Chicago and the Tokyo conference on development are implemented by the Afghan Government. We look forward to the initial review of progress against the Tokyo mutual accountability framework in July, and we will chair jointly the first ministerial review of it in 2014.

We also continue to take steps to address the immediate humanitarian needs of the Afghan people; DFID has announced a new £12 million humanitarian programme from existing funding that will provide nutrition and food support to more than 900,000 vulnerable people affected by conflict, natural disaster and harsh winters.

The end of the ISAF mission next year does not mean an end to the support provided by the international community. Planning continues for the NATO-led follow-on mission that will help to train and advise the Afghan security forces after combat missions draw to a close. The UK will continue to support governance and development in Afghanistan through the next decade—with £178 million per year agreed until 2017—helping to ensure that the progress made to date is not lost. That is in addition to our £70 million commitment to sustain the ANSF after 2014.

The path of transition will not be easy. But progress is being made, and we will stand by the people of Afghanistan as they build a more peaceful and secure future.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for early sight of it. I join him in paying tribute to our forces who continue to serve in the most difficult of circumstances. In particular, I offer the condolences of the whole House to the two service personnel killed since the Defence Secretary last made a statement of this kind to the House. The suffering of the families and the sorrow of the loved ones left behind are in the hearts and minds of all Members. I pay tribute to the ongoing work of our civil servants and to NGOs working, struggling and hoping to build a better future for Afghanistan, often in difficult and dangerous circumstances. I put on record the shadow Foreign Secretary’s regret at not being here to respond to the statement, but given the scheduling of the statement I am responding on his behalf.

Like the Government, we recognise that the transition period between now and the full draw-down of NATO forces will be extremely testing, with significant challenges for all. It is therefore imperative that the Government ensure that the alliance keeps focused on the key objectives. First, they must remain a key priority to ensure that the Afghan state is able to maintain its own security and prevent the country from being used once again as a safe haven for terrorists. The support being given to the Afghan national security forces is vital, as is their increasing capability, but can the Minister reassure the House that that is sustainable, particularly as in the months ahead, as the Foreign Secretary acknowledged in his statement, we are likely to see the period during which in past years we have witnessed some of the most intense levels of fighting and attacks? To what extent is he confident about the internal cohesion of those Afghan forces and their capabilities in the face of such sustained pressures?

In light of the recent tragic reports of continued loss of life through what are referred to as green on blue attacks, can he provide his current assessment of the threat posed to our forces by such attacks, and what steps are being taken to minimise the risks, as much as is possible in the context? Given that British forces will remain in a training role for some time in Afghanistan following the 2014 draw-down, can he provide us with reassurance about the levels of force protection? Frankly, it will not be sufficient to state merely that troops are not in a combat role. As I am sure he will accept, and as soldiers know only too well, unfortunately it is primarily the enemy that defines whether troops are in a combat role. Given that he rightly stated that the insurgents remain committed to conducting a campaign of violence in Afghanistan, what role does he see the UK playing post-2014 in preventing the return of insurgent dominance in regions of the country? Will he also clarify whether the planned force reduction figures from his last statement have altered, and, if so, how does that align with wider ISAF withdrawal planning?

Turning to the issue of Afghan civil society and the protection of human rights, will the Foreign Secretary set out what steps are being taken to embed the considerable advances that have been made in recent years—some of which he has referred to today—particularly with respect to women’s rights? I am sure the whole House will want to join me in welcoming the news of Malala Yousafzai, the brave young girl brutally attacked by the Taliban in Pakistan in October, who this week went back to school—in Birmingham—for the first time since the shooting, and her wonderful treatment at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham. In Afghanistan, despite similar continued campaigns by the Taliban, it is worth repeating that enrolment of girls in school has risen from 5,000 under the Taliban to 2.3 million. In addition, vastly more women now have access to medical facilities, particularly in rural areas.

There is a very real fear in Afghanistan and elsewhere that that could be put at risk by a potential re-emergence of the Taliban in certain regions following the NATO draw-down. Amnesty International has produced an excellent briefing for parliamentarians entitled “Now is the Time for Women’s Rights”, which I commend to the Secretary of State and other Ministers. It rightly quotes the comments of the Chair of the International Development Committee, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce):

“The treatment of women in Afghanistan after troops pull-out in 2014 will be the litmus test of whether we have succeeded in improving the lives of ordinary Afghans over the last ten years.”

What assurances has the Foreign Secretary sought to ensure that those gains will be protected as part of any future negotiations over a political settlement with the Taliban and other insurgent groups, and that the electoral process is, as he says, truly inclusive?

The ongoing situation in Afghanistan is of vital strategic interest to us, but for neighbouring countries its stability is also crucial. The Opposition regularly urge the greater involvement of neighbouring powers in ensuring stability and social progress in Afghanistan, and we welcome the tripartite summit that the Prime Minister hosted in February with President Karzai and President Zardari of Pakistan. In those discussions, did the Prime Minister raise the rights and participation of Afghan women as being essential to any reconciliation process and to securing a stable Pakistan?

These discussions must continue, because, in addition to the support of the wider international community, they are key to ensuring Afghanistan’s long-term security and regional stability. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore outline what diplomatic architecture is being discussed to help ensure the sustained and ongoing engagement of regional partners? There is a danger that if neighbouring countries pursue individual agendas, leading to instability in Afghanistan, all of them will suffer from the fallout, as well as us in the wider international community.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. He rightly joined in the tributes to our armed forces and everyone who has worked so hard and so bravely in Afghanistan, and I join in his tribute to Malala Yousafzai. I am proud that we took the decision to bring her to this country and that she has been so well looked after in Birmingham—in Edgbaston, to be specific. I visited her family there shortly after she arrived for medical care and was enormously impressed by their determination, resolve and bravery, as well as by that which she herself displayed.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that the transition is a testing period, and he correctly pointed out many of our priorities. The Afghan national security forces are showing steadily increased capabilities, including in their cohesion and ability to hold territory and conduct operations. As I mentioned, they now lead 80% of operations, and by this summer will have lead responsibility for security across the whole country. This transition has been taking place in one area after another, through four transition tranches, on the basis of experience and the capabilities of the Afghan forces, which should be increasingly respected internationally and within Afghanistan.

A great deal of work has been done to minimise so-called green on blue attacks, including through collecting biometric data earlier from Afghans involved in training. The MOD has taken every possible measure to minimise the threat of those attacks, while of course ensuring that training and mentoring can continue in the appropriate way. The right hon. Gentleman also asked about force protection. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who is here, is clear that those forces must be adequately protected, but we will make decisions in due course about the number, level and nature of the forces necessary to do that.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the draw-down of forces. There has been no change since my right hon. Friend’s statement in December and the Prime Minister’s announcement then that our force levels would fall to approximately 5,200 this year. That is well aligned with statements made by our partners, particularly the United States, which of course contributes more than two thirds of all international forces deployed in Afghanistan. Since the last statement to the House, President Obama has announced a draw-down of approximately half the US forces—quite similar to our statement, therefore—reaching 34,000 over the next year, up to early next year.

We are intensely focused on women’s rights and the position of women in Afghan society, as I set out at some length in my statement. I will not go over all those things again, except to reiterate the importance that the Department for International Development attaches to this issue in all its huge programme of work— £180 million a year—which is particularly focused on this area. The International Development Secretary has made it a strategic priority of DFID’s work over the next few years. Again, that is a challenge, but the UK has a strong record in this area and can continue to contribute a great deal.

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the trilateral process that we have been conducting with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The involvement and support of neighbouring countries is the most important piece of the jigsaw. He was right to point to it, because when it is clear that Pakistan and Afghanistan will co-operate more closely together, including on their security, that the whole leadership of Pakistan seeks stability in Afghanistan and that Afghanistan knows it can have a successful peace process only with the support of Pakistan—these things are increasingly clear owing to our trilateral process and the efforts of both Governments—that in itself will be a powerful signal to the Taliban that it is time to take part in a peaceful political process. The opportunity is now there for them to do so.

Other regional support comes through different formats, including the Heart of Asia process—I attended the conference of countries from around Asia which took place in Kabul last June. Through that process we are able to encourage support from other nations in the region as well.

Clearly, the long-term economic stability of Afghanistan is key. Arguably, the chief output from the economy is the poppy crop. Can my right hon. Friend report to the House on what progress has been made to ensure that it is used for beneficial, medical purposes, rather than for the illicit black market trade in drugs?

The poppy crop is of course, if we are realistic, mainly for the illicit black market trade. Only a small proportion of it would be for the objectives that my hon. Friend rightly talks about. There was an increase in poppy cultivation in some areas last year, brought on, it seems, by the high prices that were available in 2011. Nevertheless, the Government of Afghanistan’s eradication programmes have been expanded successfully. The total area under cultivation last year was about 40,000 hectares less than at the peak. It is therefore fair to say that some progress has been made, but we are a long way from achieving the cultivation of such crops purely for the beneficial and medical uses that my hon. Friend speaks about.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his update. Can he tell us what is being done about the criminal gangs that are preying on Afghani citizens, making them pay thousands of euros in order to traffic them from Afghanistan to the border of Greece and Turkey and eventually into the EU? It is an appalling practice that is causing enormous distress, because at the end of the day the Afghani citizens are deported from the EU back to Afghanistan and the cycle starts again. What can we do about that?

The right hon. Gentleman points to what is a serious problem not only in Afghanistan but in many other countries. Human trafficking of this kind has many sources, in many different parts of the world, particularly in Asia and Africa. We are increasing our law and order co-operation. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary visited Afghanistan for the first time a month ago, to talk partly about counter-narcotics co-operation, but also about how we work together on policing and maintaining law and order in future. This issue is a natural part of that work. The right hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to a serious problem and I will write to him with further details on what we think we can do about it.

Afghanistan has been of great security and strategic significance for centuries. May I echo the Foreign Secretary’s tribute to the work done by British and international personnel, both military and civilian, in recent years to try to ensure the stability of Afghanistan? I broadly share his optimistic view of the future, but some commentators do not. What discussions has he had with his international counterparts on what the international response would be if the situation deteriorated and those historical anxieties recurred?

Of course the situation remains difficult, as I made clear in my statement, but it is important that responsibility for security should be passed to the Afghans themselves. It is for them to make decisions about their own country. Regarding future support, the international commitments made at the NATO summit in Chicago last year and at the Tokyo summit on development are very strong. Each commitment involves the provision of $4 billion a year, well into the future, to maintain the Afghan national security forces in one case and to contribute to sound economic development in the other. That $8 billion commitment from the international community is a huge one. That is the support it is going to provide, and we now have to help to ensure that the Afghan leadership can make good use of it.

May I press the Foreign Secretary on one point? He has pledged that Britain’s combat role will end in 2014. Is that absolutely firm, no matter what occurs or whether the Taliban engage in talks?

Yes, that has been firm for a long time. The hon. Gentleman will have heard the Prime Minister talking about this, as well as my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and me, and he will remember how clear the Prime Minister has been on the matter for a long time. It is in any case the commitment of the whole of ISAF. There are decisions to be made about the presence after that, but that is the end of our combat role. We have already made a commitment to lead the officer training academy afterwards. I have given such enormous attention to building up the Afghan national security forces and a viable Afghan state, as well as pursuing the political process and an Afghan-led peace process, so that we can be absolutely sure about this.

The beginning of the end in Afghanistan is a welcome moment indeed, but let us cast our minds forward to what will happen after 2014. Am I right in thinking that the bulk of our training forces will be in the north, in and around Kabul and the officer training base? If so, will we retain any presence in Helmand province, and what will happen to Lashkar Gah and Camp Bastion?

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that the bulk of the effort will be near Kabul. As I have said, we have made no decisions about any other military presence apart from that after 2014. We will make those decisions in due course, along with our partners in NATO, and we will keep the House updated on that through further statements. Of course, the transition is already taking place in many parts of Helmand. Lashkar Gah, for instance, was one of the first places to undergo transition, and other parts of Helmand have been involved in tranches 2 and 3 of the transition process. So even in Helmand, it is increasingly the Afghan forces that have been taking the lead, and they are equipped to do so.

When does the Foreign Secretary expect the first meetings in Doha to take place between the Taliban and the High Peace Council of Afghanistan? Also, has the UK considered making post-2015 aid dependent on respect for the human rights of women?

On the hon. Lady’s first question, that will depend on the actions of the Taliban. Afghanistan and Pakistan support the opening of a Taliban political office in Doha, with our encouragement and with the support and readiness of Qatar. The Taliban leadership now need to decide whether they are prepared to take this opportunity to enter into a peaceful political process, or whether they will let it slip by and lose such an opportunity.

As to decisions about development—if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development were here, she would prefer to put it in the positive sense—we are committed to development in Afghanistan with the programme of £178 million a year, and women’s rights are an important part of that programme. It is not our normal habit around the world to say, “This aid will be withdrawn unless you do X, Y and Z”. If countries behave in a completely unacceptable way, of course, we have been known to withdraw our assistance.

On the point about commitment by the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Foreign Secretary will know that there may be a new Government in Pakistan in May, as there is an election going on, and that within a year there will be a new President in Afghanistan. Have there been discussions with some of the main opposition elements to see if they are committed to this process of working together for national security, peace and stability? Linked to that, will the Foreign Secretary join me in paying tribute to the Government and Parliament of Pakistan for the latter being the first in the history of Pakistan to serve its full term?

Yes, I readily join in that tribute. This statement was very much focused on Afghanistan rather than on anything internal happening in Pakistan, which explains why I did not mention that earlier, but I absolutely join in that tribute. It is an important milestone in the democracy of Pakistan, which all parties across the House strongly support, that a democratically elected Government have served a full term and that another democratically elected Government of whatever shape or form will follow; that has never happened before in the history of Pakistan. The discussions we have hosted between the Pakistani and Afghan Governments have been broader than comprising just the political leaders, as they have included the military and intelligence leadership of those countries. Wherever possible, we have briefed opposition leaders. Just last week, for instance, I had discussions with the leading member of the opposition parties in Pakistan, Mr Nawaz Sharif. If opposition parties come into office, they will of course have to make their own decisions, but I believe there is a strong consensus across government—and, I hope, across political parties—in both countries in support of that.

Order. The Foreign Secretary is as courteous a member of the Cabinet and as fine a parliamentarian as it is possible to find. He cannot be accused of excluding from his answers any matter that could conceivably be of material relevance to any hon. or right hon. Member. I am hoping, however, that we can wrap up this debate by midday, as 37 Members wish to speak in the Budget debate.

I thank and congratulate the Government and the staff at Brize Norton on the very sensitively conceived new facility for receiving the fallen from Afghanistan and on providing some consolation to their loved ones.

Frederick and Kimberly Kagan were at the right hand of General Petraeus during his time in Afghanistan, and they had access to all the secret documents and secret meetings. They were employed not by the Government, the military or Petraeus, but by the defence contractors, who were thought to be hugely influential. As our policy is tied to American policy, should we not look at the influence of defence contractors in prolonging existing wars and fomenting new ones?

The hon. Gentleman raises a wider issue. I think he can be very confident that the decisions of the United States—and, indeed, of its allies, including the United Kingdom—have been thoroughly consistent throughout the last few years with what I have described: bringing our combat role to an end, transferring responsibility to Afghans and building a peaceful future for Afghanistan. I do not think anyone could accuse President Obama of anything other than that—or of any of the things the hon. Gentleman has just described. The President’s commitment to bringing this about in Afghanistan is abundantly clear, and I do not think he has been influenced against that by any contractors.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s report on the further democratic developments in Afghanistan as it moves towards its presidential elections next year, but is he at all concerned by the report in The Times that the first major political figure to announce his candidacy—Mr Daudzai, the President’s former chief of staff—has, in the past, received cash in aid from the Government of Iran?

I do not think it would be very helpful to the Afghan electoral process for Foreign Ministers in other countries to give a running commentary on each of the candidates as they emerge. My hon. Friend has made his point, but I do not think I will take it any further. In view of your injunction that I should be less informative in my answers, Mr. Speaker, I shall take this opportunity to set an example.

I am sure the whole House agrees there should be no drop in the quality of medical care available to personnel after 2014, given that some will be staying behind. Can the Foreign Secretary update the House on the progress of talks with the United States about the need to ensure that the air bridge and the medical support continue to be of the present high standard?

That is an important issue, which the Ministry of Defence continues to pursue. Our facility will be located next to a major United States facility. That will mean that we have access to the best possible medical care, which is the MOD’s intention.

May I press the Foreign Secretary on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) and touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher)? How dependent are the nature and extent of the Government’s involvement in Afghanistan on the outcomes of the elections in Pakistan and Afghanistan this year and next?

I can assure my hon. Friend that they are not dependent on that. It will be important for us to work with the Governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, whoever is elected this year and next year, because we have vital strategic interests and it is vitally in our national interests for us to continue to do so; and it is important for whoever stands for election in those countries to know that we are prepared to do so. The imperative to support—in a new and different way, after 2014—the building of peace and prosperity as well as security in Afghanistan will continue, and it is not dependent on those two elections.

As the Foreign Secretary will know, the original ministerial decision to shift United Kingdom military effort from northern Afghanistan down to Helmand in the south came at a time when the UK was already dedicating a significant effort to operations in Iraq. I am not saying that that decision was right or wrong, but I do think that a mechanism is needed to enable the Government to review such decisions and learn from them. Does the Foreign Secretary agree, and if so, what does he think is the best mechanism for the purpose, in the context of Afghanistan?

The hon. Gentleman has raised a very interesting issue. The decision to which he refers was made back in 2006, under the last Administration, so I cannot go into too much detail about the making of it. However, it is important for us to learn lessons after any conflict, and we have learnt enormous lessons in Afghanistan as we have gone along, including about such matters as military equipment and tactics. It will be for the House, and for all of us, to take stock when our combat role comes to an end, so I will not commit the Government to some new process of examination or inquiry at this point.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. We must never forget the ultimate sacrifice made by so many of our soldiers, including Lance Corporal Jordan Bancroft and Lance Corporal Michael Foley from Pendle, in achieving a sustainable settlement in Afghanistan.

I also welcome the Prime Minister’s recent trilateral meeting with his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts. Can my right hon. Friend say more about the continuing dialogue with Pakistan? Are there plans for any more trilateral meetings to take place before the Pakistani elections?

Pakistan is going through a period of caretaker government before the elections. We will of course maintain contact with the caretaker Government, and I will continue to pursue with the caretaker Foreign Minister of Pakistan the trilateral process that I have pursued with the outgoing Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, over the past year. I have spoken to the Afghan Foreign Minister in the last 10 days to make sure of Afghanistan’s continuing commitment to the trilateral process. The election in Pakistan will not interrupt that process.

It is 10 years to the day since the illegal invasion of Iraq, yet we have no statement and no debate in this House, even though the Scottish Parliament could debate it. Is that because the Foreign Secretary has sent a memo to senior Cabinet members telling them not to discuss the war—not to mention the war? Did he get away with it?

It is easy to obey your request, Mr Speaker, by giving a short answer to this question because it is not relevant to the subject we are discussing. This statement is about Afghanistan, and we do not forget our responsibilities to our forces there just because there are controversies about other conflicts in the past.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his precise report, and I welcome the idea that we are going to be very supportive of governance in Afghanistan. The key to that is ensuring that an independent judicial system and a corruption-free police force are in place, so is he happy with the progress being made on that? Does he think that when we eventually come out of Afghanistan next year, that will be able to continue?

It would be going too far to say that I am happy with all the progress made, because a lot more needs to be done to tackle corruption in Afghanistan. At the Tokyo conference last July, the Afghan Government entered into 164 specific different commitments about fighting corruption, and it is very important that they implement all of those. They have started implementing them, and we have seen some prosecutions following the Kabul bank scandal, but more work needs to be done on that as well. My hon. Friend draws attention to a very important subject, on which a beginning has been made—but it is only a beginning.

Our objectives in Afghanistan have always been noble, but surely there are lessons to learn from how we have pursued them at various times during the conflict. That applies not only to specific decisions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) mentioned, but to how we have deployed and rotated our forces, which initially led to a frequent change of tactics. As we approach 2014, surely the Government are doing some work to assess how our country has fought and managed this conflict.

A great deal has been learnt under both Governments who have been involved in this as matters have progressed in Afghanistan. We have learnt about military tactics, training and equipment, all of which have been improved as time has gone on. Secondly, at this moment our focus is, of course, on the priorities I have set out: on making sure that our forces come home safely, and that the rest of the help we are giving Afghanistan is properly and effectively supplied. Thirdly, there must be a time for reflection in the round on all these matters, but I have no new announcement to make about that today.

Since 1945, Her Majesty’s Government have had more experience than any other on earth of withdrawing armed forces from theatre, and since the 1840s we have disengaged from Afghanistan several times. Sadly, the countries we have left behind have not always had the most stable of new beginnings. Since we have left Iraq, Iran’s influence over that country has grown exponentially. What is to stop the pernicious influence of Iran taking over in Afghanistan?

My hon. Friend is right to ask that question. It underlines the importance of building up the Afghans’ capability to look after their own security and to develop their own economy—that is the only sure answer to the excessive interference by, or influence of, any other power in the region. It also shows the importance of supporting an Afghan-led peace process with the active co-operation of Pakistan. That is the best hope of bringing about a political settlement and a general peace in Afghanistan that would also then minimise outside interference in Afghan affairs. So those are two central planks of what the Government are trying to do.

Yesterday, I met two female Afghan MPs. One had narrowly avoided being killed by a suicide bomber, and the other had been evacuated from her constituency by the UN and ISAF after having the temerity to celebrate international women’s day. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that not all Afghan women are victims, that those are exactly the kind of women we need to work with to ensure that the gains in women’s rights are not lost post-2014, and that an important way to do that is to implement the EU guidelines on human rights defenders in Afghanistan?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Afghan Government made a series of public commitments at the Tokyo conference in July to uphold the human rights of all Afghan citizens. That includes women, of course, and the promotion and protection of their rights as enshrined in the Afghan constitution. It is vital not only that human rights are upheld, but that human rights defenders are defended and protected, and that the Afghan Government fully implement their commitments on the law on the elimination of violence against women and the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. We will try to hold them to all those things.