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Volume 575: debated on Monday 10 February 2014

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Afghanistan. At the end of this year we will have completed our combat mission in Afghanistan, so today is an opportunity not just to pay tribute to the courage and sacrifice of the men and women of our armed forces, but to reflect on why the mission matters and what we have achieved so far and to look forward to the completion of Operation Herrick.

It is well over a decade since September 11, but the events of that day still have the power to shock. The operation that began later in 2001, and continues to this day, has been hard fought and has cost us dear, but the cost of doing nothing and abandoning Afghanistan to the terrorists and insurgents would have been much greater. Thankfully, in today’s Afghanistan al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self, and we are all safer as a consequence.

Since the start of operations in 2001, 447 members of our armed forces have made the ultimate sacrifice, two of them since my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development made the last quarterly statement on Afghanistan to the House on 17 October. I know that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to the extraordinary courage and commitment of those individuals, and of their families, who have to live daily with the loss of their loved ones, and of the many hundreds more who have suffered life-changing injuries. Their sacrifice will never be forgotten. They have protected our national security by helping the Afghans take control of theirs. Working with our international security assistance force partners and the Afghans themselves, they have ensured that Afghanistan is neither a safe haven, nor a launch pad for terrorists who despise everything we stand for and seek to destroy our way of life.

The security situation in Afghanistan today represents very real progress since 2003. When the campaign started, the Afghan national security forces did not exist. Today they are leading operations, protecting the population and taking on the Taliban. For example, as part of the security operation for the Loya Jirga in November, the ANSF established a layered security zone a week before the event. It was a complex, large-scale operation in which all elements of the ANSF co-operated. The results were impressive: 6 tonnes of home-made explosives were interdicted and the event ran safely and smoothly.

A major operation in December spanning Kandahar, Zabul and Daykundi provinces, and involving over 4,000 ANSF personnel, had a similarly successful outcome. More than 250 villages were cleared of insurgents and more than 600 improvised explosive devices were destroyed, with few casualties sustained. The Afghan air force flew resupply missions and evacuated casualties during the operation, with ISAF support limited to advice, intelligence and a small number of air support operations.

The ANSF have almost reached their surge strength target of 352,000 army, police and air force personnel, and between them they are leading 97% of all security operations and carrying out over 90% of their own training. While work continues on professionalising the forces and addressing high attrition levels, their ability to provide security for the Afghan people and maintain the momentum generated by a coalition of 50 nations remains a significant achievement—a source of pride to the Afghan forces themselves and a source of confidence to the civilian population.

As the ANSF have grown in stature, so our role in Afghanistan has evolved from leading combat operations to training, advising and assisting the ANSF. Today, UK forces are primarily engaged in mentoring their Afghan counterparts, providing world-class training and support and undertaking our own draw-down and redeployment activity. The progress of the ANSF is helping to drive the pace of transition, enabling us to meet our target of reducing our military footprint in Afghanistan to 5,200, down by nearly half from this time last year, when there were around 9,000 UK personnel in theatre.

As the nature of the mission has changed and the Afghans have taken the lead responsibility for security across central Helmand’s three districts, we have significantly reduced the number of British bases, from 137 at the height of our engagement to 13 last January and just four plus Camp Bastion today. Our draw-down trajectory will reduce our footprint to one forward observation post and the main operating base at Camp Bastion following the elections. Subsequently, as we enter the final phase of the Herrick campaign, the UK will combine its headquarters at Camp Bastion with those of the US Marine Corps.

Our efforts have not just focused on building the necessary security apparatus. The UK-led provincial reconstruction team, currently operating from Camp Bastion ahead of the completion of its mission next month, has helped deliver real progress in Helmand. Today, 80% of the local population can access health care within 10 km of their home, improved security and infrastructure conditions have meant the reopening of local bazaars and the reinvigoration of the local economy, 260 km of roads have been added to the existing network since 2012, and we have seen the completion of the paving of the strategically important Route 611 in Helmand, a project funded jointly by the UK and the United Arab Emirates.

Ordinary Afghans have seen the quality of their life improve significantly, and we can be proud of the role we have played in making this possible. Nationwide, there has been a 20% rise in household incomes since 2010, and tax revenues increased eightfold between 2004 and 2012. About 6 million children are in school, compared with fewer than 1 million a decade ago under the Taliban. About a third of those are girls, who were previously denied this basic right altogether.

The presidential elections in April will be an important step on Afghanistan’s path to normalisation. The insurgency will almost certainly target these elections in an attempt to derail the process and prevent the Afghan people from casting their votes as is their democratic right. Ultimately, it will be for the ANSF to safeguard the elections, but the UK is committing £20 million to help the Afghan electoral authorities improve their management of the process. Ultimately, a political settlement between the Afghan Government and the Taliban offers the best prospect of a sustainable peace in Afghanistan. As we know from our own experience, securing peace and achieving reconciliation is a long, complex and difficult process. We will continue to support the efforts of the Afghan Government and the High Peace Council to achieve this crucial objective.

The combat operation might be ending, but our commitment to Afghanistan will endure. A small contingent of UK military will remain to provide the coalition lead at the Afghan national army officer academy, supported by mentors from Australia, New Zealand, Denmark and Norway. The academy is currently training over 250 male officer cadets. We expect to train an additional 30 female officers alongside each male intake, with the first female cohort starting in June this year. Together, they will form the next generation of military leaders, and this will be our lasting legacy to the Afghan army.

We want to continue this support, but that requires a NATO status-of-forces agreement which, in turn, requires the Afghans to sign the US-Afghan bilateral security agreement. The BSA was painstakingly negotiated over many months. The Loya Jirga has spoken for the clear majority of Afghans in endorsing it and welcoming international support after 2014. It is now imperative to the future of Afghanistan that this agreement is signed.

Afghanistan today is a very different place from the one we entered in 2001. The Afghans are taking charge of their security and their democracy. It is changing fast, with a growing economy, a young population, and a revolution in access to the outside world through mobile communications and satellite TV. The 2013 Asia Foundation survey of Afghanistan paints a picture of a people who, despite the country’s difficulties, can dare to hope. This is particularly true in Helmand, where 84% of the population believe their country is heading in the right direction. They are a people who are at last seeing an opportunity to move away from the conflicts of the past and towards a brighter future of reconciliation, investment and lasting security.

We have played a key part in making that happen. We should be proud of what our armed forces have achieved over the past 13 years in helping Afghanistan to stand once again on its own two feet. Our focus now is on helping the Afghans to secure the gains of the last decade, using these as a platform for further steady progress in the years to come. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it.

Nothing unites this House more than the admiration we have for our armed forces and their service and sacrifice. Nowhere is this more evident than in Afghanistan. As the Defence Secretary said, 447 members of our armed forces have died in operations there since 2001, with many more injured. Their commitment to the United Kingdom and Afghanistan, and to our respective peoples, should never, and will never, be forgotten.

Many British civilians are also working to build peace and progress in Afghanistan, and that will become ever more important as the combat missions wind down. Does the Secretary of State share the shock and sadness at the attack in Kabul just a few weeks ago that cost the lives of 21 people, including two British citizens? Many colleagues from across the political spectrum knew Del Singh, who died in that explosion. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said:

“He dedicated his life to working with people across the world who needed his support.”

Ultimately, he gave his life, too, and we in the Labour party remember him and his work with pride and a sense of determination to continue it.

Will the Defence Secretary outline what steps the Government are taking to ensure the protection of British forces and civilians and give reassurance to them and their families as to what is being done to provide it, both now and after the military draw-down? Does he share the concern that civilian deaths in Afghanistan rose by 14% in 2013, and to what does he attribute that significant rise?

There has been undoubted, but not irreversible, progress in Afghanistan. In terms of finding a political settlement, it is clear that elections scheduled for April are an indication of both the advances and the challenges that remain. Will the Defence Secretary outline what steps are being taken by international forces to ensure that insurgents do not succeed in disrupting the elections and, by extension, the democratic right of the Afghan people? What is his assessment of the risk of increased insurgent activity in the run-up to the Afghanistan national elections this year, particularly in urban areas?

The role of external actors will, as the Defence Secretary knows, also be key. What is the Government’s assessment of the most recent peace talks between the Pakistani Government and the Taliban? How is this impacting on the Taliban’s behaviour in Afghanistan? Has he read reports that they are patrolling jointly with the Afghan national security forces, and what is his assessment of the implications of that?

May I also ask the Secretary of State some specific questions about security and the role of the ANSF and ISAF as the international combat mission ends? Will he provide specific details of what he expects the UK military footprint to be in Afghanistan beyond 2014? As the number of deployed troops falls, the level of danger for ISAF units increases, so will the Defence Secretary tell the House what is being done to maintain vigilance on force protection as UK forces wind down through the course of this year?

Will the Defence Secretary update the House on the progress of the Afghan national army officer academy and the work being done there, particularly on core anti-insurgency capabilities such as air cover, air support, medical evacuation, intelligence gathering and indirect fire support? What percentage of that training is now provided by ANSF forces themselves?

The Defence Secretary will have seen media reports today about the RAF utilising United States air force assets—namely, unmanned aircraft—when UK aircraft are unavailable. Will he confirm that those aircraft always operate on UK tasks, with RAF aircrew in control, using our rules of engagement?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that no soldier currently serving in Afghanistan will face compulsory redundancy, and will he clarify whether serving personnel who apply for redundancy will have their application accepted? What will the total cost of equipment repatriation be to the Ministry of Defence?

It is clear that, as we approach the withdrawal of British and international combat forces, the more necessary it will be for us to adopt a comprehensive approach to engagement with and in Afghanistan. The shadow Foreign Secretary and the shadow Secretary of State for International Development—my right hon. Friends the Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) and for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) respectively—and I work together closely on that and I know the Defence Secretary does, too. What action is he taking to ensure proper treatment and, if necessary, safe haven for those who have supported our forces as interpreters over the past years?

Today the US Government announced three new development initiatives worth almost $300 million. What assessment have the Government made of how UK aid will work alongside those plans?

One area of shared concern is that of the rights of women and girls after the international forces depart. Will the Secretary of State update us on what discussions the Government are having with counterparts in Afghanistan on the issues? Does he share our deep concern—I am sure he does—about the new law that will, in effect, silence female victims of domestic violence and forced or child marriage?

There can be no room for complacency about such complicated and continuing issues. There is still much work to be done before the end of our combat mission, with British troops remaining in danger, and there will be a great deal of work, albeit of a different kind, to do afterwards. Our commitment is to build peace, progress and the lasting stability that our armed services have fought so bravely to secure.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support on this matter, on which—to the great credit of this Parliament—there has been and remains a bipartisan approach.

I of course share the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments on the Kabul attack, the purpose of which is to undermine the international support on which Afghanistan will depend for many years to come if it is to continue to make progress. I am sure that all Government Members will wish to be associated with his expression of sympathy to the families and friends of the British victims of the attack.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the future security of British civilians in Kabul. Obviously, we are monitoring the situation closely, and we will make appropriate arrangements to support British civilians in Kabul, particularly those on Crown service. He would not expect me to go into the detail of those arrangements at the Dispatch Box, but there should be no doubt in anybody’s mind that Kabul will remain a dangerous place for foreigners for the foreseeable future. We will rely primarily on the ANSF to maintain security in that city.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the recent rise in the civilian death rate. That is of course deeply regrettable, but I am sure that he would want to focus attention on the fact that more than 74% of all civilian deaths are directly attributable to the insurgency. In fact, the number of civilian deaths attributable to ISAF action has gone down over time, and the number of those attributable to ISAF air strikes—they were once the cause of considerable concern—has gone down by 80%. That is something that we will continue to pursue.

The hon. Gentleman asked about election security and what action ISAF will take. Clearly, ISAF will support the ANSF in every way it can, particularly in the provision of intelligence and surveillance capabilities, but the ANSF must take the lead. The message around this election is that the Afghans have taken lead responsibility for their security. The ANSF is capable, and it is very determined to be seen to lead this operation and to deliver the security that Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy requires.

There will be threats to the elections. We have already seen a concerted campaign of targeted assassinations. I am afraid that the realists among us expect that to continue and probably to accelerate as we move towards the election date. It is greatly to the credit of the leaders of Afghanistan’s democracy that it has not yet in any way undermined their enthusiasm for the democratic process.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the talks going on between the Pakistan Government and the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan in relation to the situation in North Waziristan. We of course hope that there is the possibility of a solution between the two sides, but it remains the case that the Pakistan Government have to be willing to take firm action against the TTP in North Waziristan if a settlement is not possible.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the reports of joint patrolling in Sangin. It is very difficult to get to the bottom of these reports, but I have personally been able to establish at the very highest levels that there is no mandate from the higher levels of the Afghan system for any such activity. Indeed, action has been taken to ensure that nothing that could be interpreted as joint patrolling or any kind of compromise with the insurgency can happen again.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the UK footprint. As he knows, our position is that we expect to have a continuing footprint at the Afghan national army officer academy at Qargha, just outside Kabul. That footprint will be within a much larger complex, which will have a US and ANSF-controlled perimeter. I cannot give him the precise number of UK personnel at the moment, but it will probably be between 150 and 250, depending on our precise assessment of the force protection needs at the time. He asked what percentage of training at the ANAOA is being done by Afghans. I cannot give a precise figure. If I can get a useful figure, I will write to him. It uses a “train the trainer” model, so we expect the Afghans increasingly to take responsibility for direct training.

The hon. Gentleman asked about media reports on remotely piloted air systems and about US aircraft backfilling for the unavailability of UK remotely piloted aircraft. We operate a combined fleet with the US and there is ISAF tasking. UK and US aircraft therefore fly ISAF mission tasks and they may be piloted by UK or US pilots. However, UK pilots always operate to UK rules of engagement. The rules of engagement for remotely piloted aircraft are exactly the same as those for our Tornado aircraft and those that will apply to our Apache rotary-wing aircraft when they are in action.

The hon. Gentleman asked for an assurance—with tongue in cheek, I hope—that any volunteers for redundancy who are currently serving in Afghanistan will be accepted. I cannot give him that assurance. They will certainly be considered. The criteria for voluntary redundancy relate to the future shape of the force and whether the skills that individuals hold are needed for its sustainment.

The repatriation of equipment is slightly ahead of plan. We have repatriated about half the equipment that we have to repatriate. Originally, we estimated that the cost would be up to £300 million. We are confident that the repatriation will be completed within that cost envelope.

The hon. Gentleman asked about locally employed civilians. He will know that we have two offers for locally employed civilians. The first is a redundancy scheme for eligible individuals who have served on the front line as interpreters, which allows them to accept a financial and resettlement package in Afghanistan or to come to the UK. So far, most of those who are eligible have opted to come to the UK. The second is an intimidation package for those who are not eligible for resettlement in the UK under the redundancy scheme, but who have experienced intimidation in Afghanistan.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman talked about our future aid budget. We are committed to providing £170 million per annum of ongoing Department for International Development support to Afghanistan until at least 2017. Some of that aid is targeted at projects that seek to protect the legacy of our achievement in the crucial area of the rights of women and girls. The Afghans made specific commitments on that area in Tokyo, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development addressed President Karzai on the subject personally during her most recent visit to Kabul.

May I welcome and agree with what the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State have said on this important subject? Does my right hon. Friend agree that one cannot sensibly discuss Afghanistan without also discussing Pakistan? That region is and will continue to be of supreme importance to this country. Does he agree that as we draw down in Afghanistan, we should consider increasing our attention on and assistance to Pakistan in order to preserve that importance?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Pakistan is crucial to the security of the United Kingdom. A significant proportion of the potential terrorist threats to the United Kingdom comes from the tribal areas of Pakistan, and we target a commensurate proportion of our aid effort into Pakistan. That includes a programme of military support for counter-IED training, which is greatly appreciated by the Pakistanis because it addresses a very real threat to their civilian population.

Further to the question from the Chairman of the Defence Committee, much of the logistical support and leadership of the Afghan insurgency remains across the border in Pakistan. Does the Secretary of State agree that the opportunity for a real settlement would be vastly improved if the Pakistanis were prepared to engage properly and take effective action against those individuals? Has he seen positive signs of an increased preparedness to do so that he can report to the House?

Yes. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that that area on the border is difficult to access. The border is very porous: action on one side tends to drive people across to safe havens on the other side, and the reverse happens when action starts on the other side of the border. It needs collaboration. There has been modest progress at tactical operational level on Afghanistan/Pakistan co-operation along the border, and we have seen a considerable de-escalation of tension along the border since the events of November 2012, which led to a serious stand-off and the closure of the reverse lines of supply through Pakistan. This will be a long haul, but I believe that the relatively new Government in Pakistan are committed to working with regional partners to secure stability in Afghanistan, and that they have realised that stability in Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s long-term interest.

We can all be extremely proud of the achievements not only of Her Majesty’s armed forces but of the provisional reconstruction team that my right hon. Friend mentioned in his statement. Does he agree that the future for Afghanistan after we leave still presents immense challenges? At the risk of being rather boring about this, may I press my right hon. Friend that, subject to an agreement on the status of forces after the end of this year, we should retain a sizeable interest in the country? If it all goes pear-shaped, very soon there will be 447 grieving families who say, “What did our sons die for in vain?” We have soldiers, sailors and airmen present, and it is better that they should be doing that than kicking their heels in Aldershot.

I can assure my hon. Friend that those people did not die in vain. They have delivered stability in Afghanistan that it could only have dreamed of a decade ago; they have made substantial progress in delivering the infrastructure of a functioning state; and they have protected us from terrorist attacks that could otherwise have originated from that territory. All I can say to my hon. Friend is that the footprint post-2014 will be, as I have set out, based around the Afghan national officer academy, but even that will be at risk if we do not get the bilateral security agreement signed and a NATO status of forces agreement in place.

German Foreign Minister Steinmeier has said that Germany will not agree to Bundeswehr training missions unless that agreement is signed. Have we been as explicit, saying that unless it is signed ASAP we will simply not enter into further agreements?

I think Mr Steinmeier was merely articulating a view that is shared by all NATO partners. We cannot operate without a status of forces agreement that will protect our own forces from exposure to Afghan judicial processes. We must be able to deal with forces’ discipline issues ourselves, and to assure any forces we put into theatre that they will not be subject to local jurisdiction; without that, we will not be able to operate. I think the Afghans understand clearly that no bilateral security agreement and no status of forces agreement means that there will be no foreign forces in Afghanistan.

May I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to the extraordinary achievements of all three services, of all ranks and of all arms, for their exceptional services in Afghanistan? Will he also congratulate the Ministry of Defence and all those responsible for the extraordinary logistical operation of bringing back so much kit, which will be useful to us in the future? Would he consider doing more at the Ministry of Defence to make clearer to the population at large the extent of the British achievement in Afghanistan, and the fact that we are leaving in good order but will take steps to ensure the protection of those troops that are left there? As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) said, we will do our best to protect our heritage and legacy there.

As I have made clear, we are very committed to protecting that heritage, but we can do so only with the co-operation of the Afghans in the form of a status of forces agreement, which will allow us to have a continuing presence and to make the continued financial contribution we have agreed to support the Afghan state in future.

I am happy to join my right hon. Friend in his tribute to all three services, and in his welcome tribute to those who labour behind the scenes in the incredibly complex logistics operation. Many Members of the House will, in one guise or another, have had the opportunity to see the scale of the operation at Camp Bastion. Anyone who has seen it will understand how integral the ability to take tens of thousands of tonnes of matériel that far away and sustain it in a war theatre is to our military capability.

It is worrying that, as the Secretary of State has made clear, senior commanders did not have the situation under control in Sangin to such an extent that joint patrols took place with the Taliban. Are the Taliban and/or the insurgency network pushing out or defeating the Afghan security forces in any other parts of Afghanistan?

I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that I am not sure whether it has been established that there was anything that could be called a joint patrol. The reality in Afghanistan is that some areas are not controlled by the Government and are under the control of the Taliban. Where there is such an interface, either it can be dynamic, with continuous fighting, or there can be some kind of understanding that allows it to be stable and for the boundary to be recognised. My interaction with senior Afghan commanders and political leaders reassures me that they do not recognise any arrangements such as those he describes, and that they have taken steps to ensure that nothing that could be misinterpreted as a joint arrangement on the ground will happen in future.

Does the Secretary of State see any connection between the reluctance of the Afghan Government to sign the very important future security agreement and the sort of negotiations that they may be having with the Taliban?

It is possible that the considerations in play in the Afghan President’s calculations on the bilateral security agreement involve negotiations that may or may not be happening, and that may or may not be visible to us, with elements of the insurgency. It is also possible that the situation is influenced by the impending presidential election and the politics of that.

The Secretary of State has said that 30 women are being trained at the academy along with the group of men. I am not sure what the time scale is for the training, but I recall that there was a target to train 150 women a year. Was that target too ambitious or is it still in place?

There are 30 women per training cohort. I will need to check whether there are five cohorts in a year—if there are, the target is still in place. I will do so and write to the hon. Lady.

Last Saturday, I went to the squadron of the Leicestershire and Derbyshire Yeomanry, part of the Royal Yeomanry based in my constituency in South Wigston, where I presented campaign medals to three members of the reserve forces, two of whom had recently come back from Afghanistan where they had been serving in active roles. One of them, Trooper Edwards, was a driver of a Warthog vehicle stationed with the Royal Tank Regiment. The Secretary of State mentioned repatriated equipment. Will some of it be repatriated for use by the reserve forces, who have demonstrated their ability to take their role alongside the regular forces, but who need the equipment to train so that they can be more effectively deployed with it?

There are two separate points here. First, the equipment that was bought for Afghanistan through urgent operational requirements, especially armoured vehicles, represents a significant investment and we are repatriating it into core. All armoured vehicles except those that are damaged beyond economic repair will be returned to the UK and brought back into the core equipment fleet.

On the question of reserves, we have made a commitment that the reserves will increasingly in the future train on and use the same equipment as the regular forces. We have already started to deliver on that commitment by rolling out new deliveries of equipment to reserve units across the country. The pool of equipment will be joint, for the use of the integrated force—regulars and reserves.

Our fundamental mission in Afghanistan was of course to improve the security of the British people, rather than any improvement in the living conditions of Afghans. Does the Secretary of State agree, however, that the two go hand in hand? If we leave behind a more progressive country, it is more likely to remain an enduring ally of the United Kingdom in the decades ahead. Will he agree to look again at our principles for future intervention to ensure that making countries more progressive and upholding our values remain a fundamental part of what we are about as a country?

Let me answer that question this way: it is clear that our immediate mission was to deny Afghanistan to terrorists who would have used it as a base to strike at us and our allies and interests. But in the long term, it was never going to be a credible proposition that foreign forces could hold this territory. We had to build a stable and capable state in Afghanistan with a security force of its own that could do that job. My judgment is that a country that has a basic rule of law and recognises human rights will be a more stable and sustainable place in the future. A country that has education, health care and infrastructure will engage the loyalty of its citizens in a way that Afghan Governments have not always done in the past. We have to be very careful about the tone of this debate, however. It is not about exporting our perfect model of society and imposing it on others who in many fundamental respects will not accept some of the tenets that we regard as basic to our everyday existence.

I welcome and support the Secretary of State’s statement, especially his praise for our armed forces. As well the need to bring them safely home, he has touched on the fact that we have to return or dispose of considerable amounts of military matériel. Will he comment—either today or in a fuller statement in due course—on the matériel that we will dispose of and exactly where it will go?

I can give my hon. Friend some indication. As at the end of January, we had redeployed 1,694 vehicles and other major equipment, and 2,374 20-foot equivalent containers of matériel. We have also destroyed or disposed of some equipment in theatre, but I can assure him that no military equipment is disposed of in any way that would allow anything of military use to fall into the hands of the enemy. I can assure the House from my personal experience that this obligation is taken very seriously. I saw a container full of dead Duracell batteries and I was told that they had to be brought back to the UK because they might be of use to the enemy if they were left in theatre. The military are not taking any chances.

The Secretary of State has advised the House that our remotely piloted air systems capability is utilised across ISAF, not just by our own RAF forces. Is he also able to assure the House that at no point have other members of ISAF been able to use any of our RPAS for intelligence gathering or for armed attacks in Pakistan?

Our RPAS vehicles in our fleet operate only in Afghanistan, so I am able to reassure the hon. Lady on that point.

In welcoming my right hon. Friend’s statement and commending the professionalism and courage of our armed forces, may I nevertheless urge him, when we look back on lessons learned for future conflicts, to continue to ask the hard questions not on the intervention in 2002 after 9/11, but on the decision to move south into Helmand in 2006, both per se and on the question mark over the split between the different Government agencies, which took such a very long time to heal, and the split command structure in Afghanistan at the time?

I have no doubt that in the fullness of time all these things will be examined in great detail. I know that my hon. Friend would not want his comments to detract in any way from the fantastic job that British forces have done in three of the most kinetic and dangerous districts in the whole of Afghanistan. In fact, the three districts of central Helmand are Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in terms of enemy activity. The job we took on was very challenging and the work done by our armed forces has been very successful in addressing that challenge.

Last month, three Afghan interpreters commenced legal proceedings against the Government, highlighting the difference between their treatment and the treatment of former Iraqi interpreters. Since June last year, 116 claims have been made relating to threats made against those former Afghan interpreters. Why are we treating the Afghan interpreters differently from the Iraqi interpreters? Both supported our Government’s troops and put their lives at risk.

First, just to put the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks in context, all those claims, I think, have been brought by a single law firm that has not stumbled on these claimants by accident. The reason we are treating them differently is that the circumstances are different. After careful consideration of the differences between the situation in Afghanistan and the situation that existed in Iraq, we took the decision to make the redundancy package proposal that we have made. We also have in place in Afghanistan an intimidation policy that is able to deal with any cases of intimidation that fall outside the scope of the redundancy package. We did not have such a policy in place in Iraq.

May I, too, welcome the statement, which shows that Afghanistan is increasingly taking control and responsibility for its own affairs? May I also offer a tribute to our armed forces? I am a frequent visitor to Afghanistan and it was positive to see how the capability of the Afghan armed forces has improved. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while there are many challenges in the areas of economic development and governance, NATO should be commended for its specific role in improving security and in training the local Afghan forces in a very difficult environment?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. NATO should be very proud of what has been an incredibly complex operation integrated across the 50 partner nations. On the capability of the ANSF, I think it is fair to say that at every stage of the process our UK commanders have been pleased and surprised at the rate and quality of progress made by the Afghan forces. They have become a credible and sustainable military force in far quicker time than we ever really expected would be possible.

As the Secretary of State knows, the Hazaras are an ethnically distinct, predominantly Shi’a minority in Afghanistan. They suffered terribly under the Taliban, but also under previous Governments. At a meeting in this House in January of the Hazara all-party group, a lot of concerns were expressed about the vulnerability of this minority, come the withdrawal. Will he say what specific discussions have taken place on the vulnerability and protection of minority groups such as the Hazaras as the year progresses?

The Afghan constitution makes it clear that all ethnic minorities are protected and enjoy the same rights. Furthermore, some of the key players in Afghan society and political circles are Hazara. Of course, however, we should be mindful of the risks to ethnic minorities and the risk of ethnic fragmentation, which, after all, is at the root of many of Afghanistan’s historical problems. The right hon. Gentleman’s point is, therefore, well made, and it is very much on the radar screen.

In echoing the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), I think we should reflect on the fact that two and a half times as many British servicemen have died in Afghanistan as died in Iraq and that the proportion of injuries among us and the Americans is about five times that suffered in Iraq. It is, therefore, inconceivable that there should not be a full and proper inquiry into the entire campaign. Now that the end date for active UK operations is well in sight, I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend took back to the Prime Minister the need to establish such an inquiry.

My hon. Friend has made his position clear. There are different views about the wisdom of embarking on these large-scale inquiries, but I certainly undertake to pass his suggestion to the Prime Minister.

While I am on my feet, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I take the opportunity to confirm that we expect 150 female cadets to be trained per year? The course is indeed 10 weeks, so there will be five cohorts of 30 in each year.

Heroin production is at a record high, the number of civilian deaths is at a record high, the Taliban control large parts of the country and the hard-won women’s rights are being degraded by the ingrate Karzai, who described our brave soldiers and their work as a failure, especially in Helmand, where most of them died. Can this be described as “mission accomplished”?

And the hon. Gentleman forgot to say that the glass was half empty. No one has ever suggested that Afghanistan is emerging as a perfect society. This is a war-torn country with deep ethnic and tribal divisions and a young and fragile Government seeking to hold it together, and we are trying to assist them in maintaining something better than what has been there in the past—decades of internecine warfare resulting in desperate standards of living, many tens of thousands of people dead and many more displaced.

On the hon. Gentleman’s specific points, there has been an uptick in civilian deaths, but given the historical levels of civilian deaths, I believe we are making progress. I am disappointed by the recent opium harvest figures—he is right that we are not making as much progress there as we would like—but on women’s rights I think he is being unduly negative. Rights do not just operate around statutes and laws; they are about societal norms, and the norms in Afghan society are changing. The genie of women’s rights is out of the bottle, as even the Taliban now acknowledge in recognising the rights of girls to an education. That is progress, albeit slow and painful progress.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the work of 3 Mercian, the Staffords, as it carries out its final operational tour? It has given unstinting and costly service over many years of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in praising the unstinting work that 3 Mercian has done. I can remember, long before I came into this job, listening to those reports on our televisions every night and thinking that the Mercian Regiment seemed to suffer a disproportionate number of casualties. It has given a great deal to this campaign, and the nation will remain profoundly grateful to it.

The Secretary of State referred to the porous nature of the border with Pakistan. Is there any prospect that a newly elected leadership in Afghanistan—perhaps disputedly elected, as last time—will be any more likely to recognise the Durand line as an international border, or will we have this continuing problem of the open, free movement of terrorists from either side to the other?

I do not claim to be an expert on the complexities of Afghan politics, but it would probably be suicidal for any elected Afghan politician to recognise the Durand line, which the Afghan people do not recognise as a fair definition of the boundary of their country. Having said that, it is not disputes over the Durand line that make the border porous; it is the nature of the terrain, which is just about the most inhospitable it is possible to imagine. Flying over it, the only thought in one’s mind is: “How on earth could anybody possibly live, let alone move around, in this kind of territory?”, but those who wish to, manage to.

The Secretary of State has wisely and correctly made reference to the national officer academy. Can he confirm that places will be offered to officers and officer cadets of neighbouring allied countries?

No; the purpose of the Afghan national army officer academy is to train officers for the Afghan national army. We have a number of nations contributing trainers and mentors to that process, but as far as I am aware, there are no plans at the moment to offer cadet places to the armies of any other country.

Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), may I press the Secretary of State on what he is doing to ensure that the position of women and girls does not deteriorate as ISAF leaves? We are very concerned about the new law and its implications for preventing family members from prosecuting other family members in cases of domestic violence.

I hear the hon. Lady’s concern. All I can do is repeat to her that my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary, who visited Afghanistan recently, met President Karzai and presented to him her concerns about this and other matters, and the implications of pursuing that route for Afghanistan’s future support from the international community, upon which that country will be dependent. There was a clear bargain set out at Tokyo. Afghanistan has agreed to address issues around human rights, the rights of women and the ingrained nature of corruption in Afghan society, and the international community in exchange has offered to provide ongoing financial support. The Afghan Government have to deliver on their side of the bargain.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. In relation to the peace talks in Pakistan between the Government of Pakistan and the Taliban, he will know that the previous talks were scuppered on 2 November, when Mr Mehsud was taken out by a United States drone strike, and on 30 May 2013, when Mr Waliur Rehman, a Taliban leader, was also taken out by a United States drone strike. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that discussions will be had with our international allies about not using drone strikes in Pakistan, as they may scupper talks again and undermine the authority of the Government of Pakistan and our relationship with that country when we need to be strengthening it?

I think our allies are aware of the importance of at least exploring the possibility of some kind of negotiated settlement with the Pakistan Taliban in North Waziristan. I observe that there appears to be a space being allowed for these negotiations to progress, but that space will not remain open for ever, and I hope the parties will do everything in their power to reach a conclusion rapidly.

I welcome the statement. The Secretary of State was right to refer to the importance of the forthcoming presidential election in Afghanistan, and the importance of the Afghan security forces’ taking responsibility for the security arrangements. Can he say a little more about the £20 million of UK money that he mentioned, and about what it will be used for as part of that security operation?

It is not directly designed to support the security operation; it is designed to support the good administration of the elections. We have also allocated funds to increasing the participation of female candidates, and providing the training and capacity building that will enable more of them to take part in the election.

Given the unfortunate gap between our hopes and aspirations and the time taken to achieve our goals in Afghanistan, can my right hon. Friend tell us why he is so sure that Afghan forces possess enough resilience to handle the expected intensification of violence at the end of 2014? In what circumstances would the supporting role of British troops intensify after that date to ensure that this country’s sacrifices were not wasted?

As the House would expect, I make my judgments about military matters—in particular, the resilience and capability or otherwise of any particular forces—on the basis of military advice, and that is the military advice that I am receiving. However, I am not sure that my hon. Friend is necessarily right in seeing nothing but a reinforcement of the insurgency after the end of 2014. On the one hand, ISAF will not be present in the same numbers or in the same role, but on the other hand, there is no doubt in my mind that the presence of foreign forces has been one of the great recruiting sergeants of the insurgency, and that the removal of foreign forces changes the dynamics. There are definitely Afghans who would have signed up to the insurgency to fight foreign soldiers but do not wish to join up and kill their Afghan brothers in the ANSF.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The smooth transition of power after the election is crucial to the long-term future of the country. Is my right hon. Friend convinced that all the main candidates broadly support the policy directions followed by President Karzai, and, in principle at least, support the bilateral security agreement?

President Karzai is not currently indicating a willingness to sign the agreement. I think our assessment is that all the candidates appear to support it, and that all of them—as would be expected in a democratic election—are committed to the constitutional settlement in Afghanistan.