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Operation Herrick

Volume 563: debated on Tuesday 14 May 2013

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on troop rotations as we draw down our forces in Afghanistan.

First I would like to pay tribute to Corporal William Thomas Savage and Fusilier Samuel Flint, both from 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and Private Robert Murray Hetherington, a reservist from 7th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, who were tragically killed in action in Afghanistan on 30 April when their Mastiff vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device on route 611. Their deaths are a stark reminder of the continued dangers our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines face as they manage the transition of security responsibility to the Afghan national security forces. My thoughts are with their families and loved ones as they come to terms with their loss.

Although security in Helmand is steadily improving, with Afghan forces already responsible for the bulk of the province, the environment in which our troops operate remains dangerous. IEDs remain one of the greatest threats and present risks even to the very best-protected vehicles available, of which Mastiff is one.

As the House will be aware, at the height of operations we had around 9,500 military personnel in Afghanistan. Our troop numbers will be at 7,900 by the end of this month and, as the Prime Minister announced last December, they will reduce further to around 5,200 by the end of this year. This is a clear reflection of the international security assistance force campaign drawing to a close and the Afghan national security forces taking on increasing responsibility for their own security. Already the ANSF lead 80% of all security operations, covering nearly 90% of the Afghan population. By the summer, that figure will reach 100%. So after more than a decade in which fighting the insurgency has been a primary focus of the ISAF coalition, the campaign is changing and the UK’s military role in Afghanistan is evolving from combat to one of training, advising and assisting the Afghans; and, as the Prime Minister has made clear, UK forces will no longer be in a combat role by the end of 2014.

In the light of this, and of the changing nature of the operation, we have looked at how we can best deploy what will be declining numbers of troops and smaller amounts of equipment between now and then to deliver the best possible protection to our people while continuing to provide the Afghans with the support they need during this critical transition period. Brigades deploying to Afghanistan on Operation Herrick have routinely done so on a six-monthly cycle, with a relief-in-place occurring in spring and autumn each year. The phased nature of the rotation and the overlap of deploying and redeploying forces has meant individual tours of between six months and six and a half months for the vast majority of personnel. That pattern of rotation has worked well for the enduring deployment, but is judged not to be sustainable during the final months of the draw-down period. The Army has therefore decided that the brigade deploying in October on Herrick 19 will deploy for eight months from October this year until June 2014. The subsequent brigade, Herrick 20, will deploy for six months from June 2014 to December 2014 when the ISAF campaign concludes, but the deployment could extend to up to nine months for a relatively small number of individuals who may be needed to support final redeployment activity post-December 2014.

The rationale for this decision is clear and is based on advice from military commanders. First, it will better align the final tours with key milestones in the transition process such as the Afghan presidential elections in spring 2014. Secondly, it will help to maintain continuity in posts where we work closely with our Afghan partners at a time when retaining and bolstering Afghan confidence is critical, both for mission success and to ensure our own force protection. Thirdly, it removes the need to train and deploy another brigade at greatly reduced scale to cover the final couple of months of 2014. It will therefore minimise the total number of service personnel who deploy to Afghanistan over the next 18 months. That will allow personnel to focus on post-Afghanistan training, improving the general readiness of the Army as it reverts to a contingent posture for the future.

The Chief of the Defence Staff and I believe that extending Op Herrick 19 to eight months and allowing the possibility of some personnel on Op Herrick 20 deploying for up to nine months is the most effective way of maintaining force protection, meeting our commitment to the NATO ISAF mission, and supporting the Afghans until the end of 2014. Of course, as we have already made clear, the UK’s commitment as part of the international community’s assistance to Afghanistan will continue well into the future, beyond 2014, in terms of significant investment in development assistance and support to the ANSF, as well as UK-led military training.

The changed pattern of brigade rotations does not mean that all those deploying will do so for a longer time. I should emphasise to the House that, because of the expected steady reduction in numbers during Herrick 19 and 20, we expect that most personnel will continue to serve no longer than the standard six or six-and-a-half-month tour, while significant numbers will serve less than six months. At the same time, the amended tour rotations mean that some personnel will deploy for up to eight months, with a much smaller number potentially deploying for up to nine months. At this stage it is not possible to be precise about the total numbers of personnel who will be affected, although current estimates suggest that between 2,200 and 3,700 overall may deploy for more than six and a half months.

We have considered carefully how best to compensate affected personnel who serve extended tours and face increased uncertainty about their pattern of deployment and relatively more austere conditions which may be expected towards the end of the Herrick campaign as the redeployment of assets continues. Her Majesty’s Treasury has agreed the recommendation of the defence chiefs that a bespoke allowance should be paid to eligible personnel who serve more than seven and a half months in Afghanistan from September 2013. This Herrick draw-down allowance will be paid at the rate of £50 per day before tax and is payable on top of the standard operational allowance package. The new allowance will not apply to those personnel in the small number of established longer-term posts who are already compensated by the campaign continuity allowance. Service personnel who may serve longer terms and who may therefore be eligible for the new allowance have already been notified by their commanding officers.

As I said at the beginning of this statement, the campaign and the UK’s military role in Afghanistan are changing. During this period, it is critical that we retain the ability properly to protect our forces, as well as to maintain the confidence of the Afghans as our combat operations draw to a close and they take on full security responsibility. The number of UK forces in Afghanistan may be reducing, but they still have a vital job to do, and this initiative is the most effective way for them to do it successfully, while remaining as safe as possible. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for providing notice of it, although unfortunately much of it appeared in this morning’s media.

I wish to start in the same way as the Secretary of State by paying tribute to those who lost their lives recently in Afghanistan: Corporal William Thomas Savage and Fusilier Samuel Flint, both from the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and Private Robert Murray Hetherington form 7th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland. Little we can say in this House can heal the hurt that their families feel, but they should at least know that they remain in our thoughts and prayers. Members on both sides of the House will always remember the remarkable individual acts of heroism and the collective acts of courage that define our armed forces. It is their sacrifice and bravery that is helping to make Afghanistan more stable and the UK safer.

It is essential that the progress our armed forces are making in Afghanistan becomes permanent and that full transition to an Afghan lead on security is successful. This remains a mission that is not just in our national interest, but in the interests of international stability.

The Opposition consistently commit to bipartisanship on Afghanistan and our support is, of course, complemented by scrutiny. Today is no different: we see the logic in the Government’s move, but many will be concerned about the impact on the individuals affected.

The enormous operation mounted over the past 12 years will require extensive and expensive effort as it is brought to a close. Recouping and reintegrating equipment, training the Afghan forces, facilitating inward investment and seeking a political solution are all essential elements of the international community’s task. As part of this, we see the merit in ensuring that there is not a destabilising changeover during the Afghan presidential election next year and that personnel are present to ensure that equipment is repatriated efficiently.

Could the Secretary of State say which regiments and units will be affected, how many of those expected to stay for longer he anticipates will be reservists, and why the Herrick draw-down allowance does not start from the beginning of the extended tour?

I say gently to the Secretary of State that there appeared to be a slight contradiction in his statement. He said that he was not aware of the exact number that will be expected to stay beyond six months, but towards the end of his statement he said that everyone who will be expected to stay for longer than six months has been informed by their commanding officer. There therefore seems to be a glitch, if not a contradiction, in the logic of his argument.

Many people will worry that a smaller force operating in Afghanistan after the withdrawal deadline may be subject to higher risk. Will the Secretary of State say whether all those who are planned to be in-country in 2015 will be combat troops with NATO-provided force protection?

Extended exposure to conflict increases the risk of physical and mental health problems. Research for King’s College London has shown the importance of adherence to the Harmony guidelines. Will the Secretary of State say how the Harmony guidelines will be altered for those affected by today’s announcement? Research for King’s College London also shows that if tours are longer than anticipated, servicemen and women are much more likely to report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

This is a one-off measure which, as I have said, has merit. However, many will note that the 2010 strategic defence and security review stated categorically:

“We need to challenge some of the fundamental assumptions which drive force generation, such as tour lengths and intervals”.

It stated that the single service chiefs would carry out the review,

“completing their work by the spring of 2011.”

Last year, that work was still ongoing. Will the Secretary of State say what work has been done internally on the wider application of longer tours of duty? If there is to be a shift to longer tours on a more regular basis in any future conflict, the military community will want a better understanding of the recommendations of the service chiefs.

Today’s announcement also raises the issue of the UK’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan. As part of an alliance presence, training and support for Afghan forces post-2014 will be essential. There is no word yet on the size and scope of such a force or the UK’s role within it. Who will be responsible for the protection of UK service personnel? Will any commitments that are made before 2015 be open-ended or time-limited? When does the Secretary of State expect more detail to be forthcoming?

Today we are focusing on the temporary extension of two tours. I want to turn, finally, to how we will mark permanently the contribution of all those who have toured and, in particular, those who have not returned. The Opposition believe that there should be a national memorial for all who have served in Afghanistan. We have also proposed that streets be named after fallen personnel, should their families and communities request it, and that veterans champions should be working hard in every local authority to help service leavers with the transition to civilian life. I hope that the Government will take this opportunity to support those and other measures.

As the operation in Afghanistan draws to a close, our nation is rightly showing huge support for those who have served. That public sentiment will prevail beyond any withdrawal timetable and so should the commitment of the Government, no matter who is in power. It is in that spirit that we want today’s announcement to be successful. We offer to work with the Government to achieve a fitting legacy in Afghanistan and to support our troops.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for reasserting the bipartisan approach that has prevailed on matters relating to Afghanistan. I welcome his pragmatic engagement with this announcement and his perfectly legitimate questions.

I should say at the outset that when I said that the people who were eligible and likely to be affected by the announcement had been informed, I should have used the military term warned off. Those in the pool from which the people will be drawn have been warned off that they may be affected. It will be some time before we can be clearer about who precisely will be affected. Although the next Herrick rotation is in preparation, we have not yet announced the precise composition of the next brigade. That will be determined by the practical evolution of things on the ground. I am afraid I cannot therefore give the right hon. Gentleman more detail today.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me why the Herrick draw-down allowance is not payable from day one of the tour. It is intended to compensate for the longer period of duty, the uncertainty and the austerity that may exist in the final part of the Herrick campaign. Normal allowances will be payable throughout the deployment. The Herrick draw-down allowance is an additional allowance payable from the seven-and-a-half-month point. That ties in with the current campaign continuity allowance and makes it fair and equitable among those who have served longer than six and a half months historically and those who will do so in the future.

Of course, the right hon. Gentleman’s points about additional risk and the additional potential for physical or mental health issues arising from longer tours are legitimate, and we have considered them carefully. It is worth pointing out to the House that as we draw down, a higher and higher percentage of the troops deployed will be deployed to main operating bases, where they will be relatively much safer than they have been in the forward operating bases, patrol bases and checkpoints that they have occupied in the past. Conditions will generally be significantly better.

The Harmony guidelines will not routinely be breached. Harmony is measured by the number of nights of separated service over a three-year cycle, and nothing that I have announced today is expected to have an impact on the armed forces’ ability to maintain Harmony. I should also say that this is emphatically not a systematic shift in policy with regard to tour lengths. It is a bespoke solution to deal with the final few months of the Herrick campaign and will not affect our standard deployment policy for the future.

On the two generic points that the right hon. Gentleman raised about the timing of our announcements on post-2014 deployment, he will know that discussions are going on with NATO literally right now, as we sit here, on the post-2014 configuration. We will continue to discuss the options with allies, and as soon as we have come to a conclusion we will of course inform the House.

Finally, I am pleased to say that we are in complete agreement on the question of a national memorial. My expectation is that the memorial wall in Bastion will be dismantled and recovered to the UK, probably for re-erection at the national arboretum in Staffordshire. My personal view is that we should also look at having a fitting memorial in central London to those who have given their lives both on Op Herrick and, before, on Op Telic. I would be happy to enter into a discussion with the right hon. Gentleman about that to see whether we can make it a bipartisan initiative.

May I begin by associating myself with the remarks of condolence in relation to the three individuals who have recently lost their lives in Afghanistan? The Royal Highland Fusiliers is a regiment to which my family has a particular attachment.

It was never the understanding that bringing an end to combat operations would consist of turning the key in the lock and putting the lights out. Obviously, we need to employ rather more sophisticated means. In that respect, what the Secretary of State has said is entitled to receive the endorsement of the House, since it proceeds upon the military advice and has as its primary consideration force protection at a time when our forces might be particularly vulnerable.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend and should emphasise that our intention and objective is still to compete the draw-down by the end of 2014 if we can. We will certainly make every effort to do so that is consistent with proper force protection and the good order of our forces. However, today’s announcement gives us the flexibility to keep small numbers, primarily of logisticians, in Camp Bastion beyond the end of 2014 if they are needed to complete that draw-down.

There is obviously a difference between those who serve in the rear echelon at Camp Bastion and so on, who are important to the whole operation, and those who go outside the operating bases on to the front line. Does the Secretary of State envisage that personnel will be continually asked to do that throughout the whole of their deployment? In particular, what will happen to the medical teams that are sent out to Camp Bastion?

It is not our expectation that we will continue routinely to patrol outside the main operating bases beyond the end of this year. By then, we expect to be operating from only four main operating bases, and troops will routinely be operating within those bases. Of course, they will have to retain the ability to go out in support of the Afghans if that is necessary. We intend to maintain the role 3 hospital at Camp Bastion right through to the end of the operation.

What the Secretary of State has announced this morning makes perfectly good sense from a straightforward operational standpoint, but does he not agree that if one is deployed for up to nine months, with a six-month pre-deployment training period prior to that—a total of up to 15 months away from the family—particular strains may come to bear on friends and family at home? What extra care will he take to ensure that those who are deployed for lengthy times are looked after from a compassionate standpoint? In particular, will he pay great attention to reservists, for whom those stresses and strains may be even greater?

First, I do not think my hon. Friend is absolutely correct to say that the six months’ training, together with a maximum theoretical deployment of nine months, would amount to 15 months away from home—certainly not all the training period will involve being away from home. However, I am quite certain that the chain of command will be sensitive to individuals’ circumstances in planning the next deployment.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point about reservists. A period of service that might be extended may clearly be more problematic for reservists than for regulars. Again, we will take that fully into account when planning for individuals to be selected for deployment.

May I associate myself with the earlier expressions of condolence?

As one who voted against the incursion into Afghanistan, I am obviously pleased that the deployment is drawing to a close. As the Secretary of State knows, history shows that periods of draw-down are especially dangerous. There will be an increased risk of people suffering from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and associated problems, as well as the possibility of increased periods in the field leading to fatigue and potential loss of life. I am sure he is aware of that and will do everything in his power to ensure that it does not happen.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and can tell him that not only those who voted against the operation but those who fully supported it are pleased that we are now drawing down and bringing our combat commitment to an end. He is absolutely right that the draw-down period is a critical phase of the operation with its own risks. One reason for the decision to change the rotation pattern is the importance of maintaining relationships with key Afghans as we have fewer of those relationships. Historically, we have been mentoring and partnering at battalion and company level, but we will not be doing that any more, so we will have fewer relationships with the Afghans. It is important for our own force protection and situational awareness that we maintain and build those relationships.

May I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, the logic of which is straightforward? Having spoken socially to some of those who will deploy this October, I think it was widely anticipated that they would serve longer. Perhaps they were warned off, to use the Secretary of State’s expression.

Getting out of Afghanistan safely and steadily requires a great deal of meticulous planning. Does the Secretary of State agree that those who are prone to saying occasionally in the media that we should pack up and get out now are rather missing the point? In the months it would take to rip up the existing plan and devise another one properly, we would probably have got back on to the timeline for the existing plan.

My hon. Friend is of course right. We are packing up and getting out—we are actively in the process of recouping our equipment. Hundreds of containers, hundreds of vehicles and pieces of major equipment have already returned, and it is an ongoing process. To try to do it any more quickly, particularly at a time of significant transition in Afghanistan and through the period of the presidential elections, which can be anticipated to be a difficult period for internal security, would be reckless with Afghanistan’s security but also reckless with the protection of our own forces.

Will the Secretary of State explain why we are planning to keep more troops in Afghanistan after 2014, and say what purpose they will serve while in a place of enormous danger and huge political uncertainty? Would it not be better to say that the whole escapade has not been a great success and that we are bringing everybody out, according to a rapid timetable?

The hon. Gentleman’s views on this subject are well known. As I have announced, a small number of people—mainly logisticians—will possibly remain after 31 December 2014 to complete our redeployment from Bastion. In addition, we have committed to providing trainers and life support personnel for the Afghan national army officer training academy outside Kabul, which is a military training academy modelled on Sandhurst. Those are the only commitments we have made at the moment, amounting to a couple of hundred personnel on an ongoing basis. We judge that to be an effective and appropriate way for us to continue supporting Afghan national security forces, together with the £70 million a year cash support that we have pledged as part of the international community’s commitment.

Even before British troops have left, our brave Afghan interpreters have been threatened with assassination. How many of them must be killed before we do what we ought to do and offer those who wish to come to this country the opportunity to do so, as the previous Government rightly did for Iraqi interpreters?

The situation in Afghanistan is not the same as that in Iraq. Lessons were learned from the Afghan campaign, and the way that interpreters and other civilian employees have been recruited in Afghanistan has been modified accordingly to take those lessons on board. I assure my hon. Friend, however, that we will not turn our back on those who have served us in Afghanistan as locally employed civilians. We believe that Afghanistan has a future that will require skilled, capable people who are committed to building it post-2014. We want to explore all options for encouraging people, wherever they can, to be part of that future and help to build their country in which we have invested so heavily. We have and will continue to have mechanisms that deal with cases of intimidation or threat, including those that could, in extremis, allow for resettlement in this country.

Employers of reservists who may be deployed in the next two brigades might feel great anxiety about losing staff from their day jobs for considerable periods of time. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with employers? If employers feel unable to release an employee for that period of time, what impact will that have on the reservist’s employment record in the military?

The hon. Lady raises a fair point, and through the employers advisory committee we are constantly in touch with the views of employers. As we come to the end of the Herrick campaign, we are likely to use fewer reservists in the last couple of rotations of that campaign, and we will be sensitive to the views of reservists and their employers if they do not wish to serve. It is unlikely that many reservists will be required to serve because of their particular skill sets if they express a clear wish not to do so.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that these changes are based purely on military advice from service chiefs, and are not about cutting costs?

Yes, I am happy to do that, and it is not yet clear whether there will be any significant financial savings from the measures announced today. Clearly, we will not have to train a final, much smaller brigade for deployment to Afghanistan. That does not mean that the training will not be conducted;, it means that those troops will be training for contingent operations post-Afghanistan. That will present itself as a dividend to the military in terms of an increased readiness for return to contingent operations.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House who will be responsible for UK forces force protection post-2014? Will it be the Afghan national army, and does the Secretary of State have total confidence in that?

So far, as I made clear to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), we have committed only to providing trainers and life support personnel in the Afghan national army officer training academy outside Kabul. We are, of course, dependent on Afghan national security forces for overall security in Afghanistan after 2014, but we will be collocated at Qargha, at the Afghan national army officer academy, with US forces who will be running a similar academy on the adjoining site. Detailed force protection arrangements have not yet been agreed, but they are likely to include elements of UK and US forces, providing protection to the combined facility.

Having served a nine-month operational tour of duty in Bosnia, I can attest to how long that is to be away from one’s family. Will the Secretary of State confirm that this is a one-off change to the way we do business, and that it will not represent a slippery slope and a longer-term change in doctrine?

It will not represent a slippery slope and it is not a change in doctrine. I am hesitant to call it a one-off since my hon. Friend has just given an example of another occasion on which nine-month tours were served. There are already people in theatre who are serving tours of nine months or longer in specific posts, so it is not unknown, but there is no intention to make a general change to the operational deployment of six-month tours.

I endorse tributes already paid across the House to the soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Scotland who were so sadly killed in Afghanistan recently. The Secretary of State spoke about packing up and getting out, but will he indicate the value of the equipment that will have to be left in Afghanistan and gifted to the Afghan forces?

The policy on gifting to the Afghan forces is NATO-wide and it is important that we adhere to it. Equipment should be gifted only if it is genuinely valuable to the recipients and within their capability and financial capacity to maintain and operate—in other words, it is a “no dumping” policy, and we will not just leave equipment behind because it is not convenient to take it with us. We have not finally decided what, if any, equipment will be gifted to the Afghans, but we will gift it only in accordance with that ISAF policy.

May I express a little disappointment that after a decade of involvement in Afghanistan, we never completed the railway line from Kandahar to Spin Boldak, linking to the Pakistani railway and the port of Karachi? It would have been a game changer for the city of Kandahar, and a more efficient and simpler way of getting our kit out. Perhaps it is not too late.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that today’s announcement about lengthening tours will mean that one fewer brigade needs to go to Helmand, which could lead to taxpayers’ money being saved?

I am sorry about the railway. If my history serves, we never completed the Cape Town to Cairo railway either, but such are plans. I prefer to focus now on High Speed 2—we should look to the future.

My hon. Friend is right. Today’s announcement will mean that it is not necessary to prepare and train a further brigade to deploy. It is not yet clear whether that will make any significant saving for the taxpayer because most of that deployment, had it taken place, would have been in the back of transport aircraft that would have been going out empty in order to come back with repatriated equipment.

I associate my party with tributes to the soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan, and I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. He will be aware of the experience and training gained from Operation Banner in Northern Ireland. Will he confirm that the valuable skills developed through that operation will be made available to the Afghan army to the end of 2014, and indeed beyond?

I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that we are training Afghan troops in various specialist techniques that will be of value to the Afghan security forces in maintaining security in future. Of course, that draws on all the experiences that British troops have gained over the years, including many valuable experiences in Northern Ireland.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the introduction of the Operation Herrick draw-down allowance. Last year, following a spate of so-called green-on-blue friendly fire attacks that resulted in casualties from, among others, the Yorkshire Regiment—my local regiment—a number of measures were introduced to remove the threat. Will he confirm that, as the draw-down gathers pace, that the threat from green-on-blue attacks will be minimised as much as possible?

As I have sought to emphasise throughout the statement, maintaining force protection during the draw-down period is our primary consideration; thereafter, it is maintaining effective support to the Afghans. The green-on-blue threat has not gone away. As we draw down into fewer and fewer bases and have less and less contact with the Afghans, the nature of the threat changes. In some ways it is diminished, because we have less contact; in other ways it is increased, because we have less awareness. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that the military commanders are extremely focused on how best to manage the situation to optimise force protection during that period.

The Secretary of State says that between 2,200 and 3,700 military personnel could deploy for more than six and a half months, and for up to nine months in some cases. In addition to the Herrick draw-down allowance, will personnel have additional home leave entitlement during that extra deployment period?

It is not intended that an additional R and R period will be incorporated. As with current practice, there will be a single 14-day period of R and R during a tour.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a sensible move to ensure that the transition is orderly? Does ISAF have any intention of retaining a continuing capability beyond the extra three months of 2015? Will the UK be prepared, beyond the support to the officer training academy, to contribute troops to ensure that the transition period to full ANSF control is achieved?

I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that a NATO chiefs of defence staff meeting at which that question will be discussed is taking place today in Brussels. No concrete proposal has yet been accepted, and the UK has made no commitments beyond the Afghan national army officer academy. However, we will consider what ISAF and our NATO allies propose to do in future. We will look at the requirements that any NATO plan involves, make a decision on what, if any, participation the UK should have post-2014, and notify the House as soon as any such decision is made.