The Afghan national security force has now reached 97% of its surge strength target and has the lead responsibility for security across the country. Despite persistent efforts and a number of high-profile attacks, the Taliban have failed to achieve a breakthrough and confidence in the ANSF among the civilian population is high.
Against this backdrop, nearly 7 million Afghans took part in provincial and presidential elections on 5 April, 36% of whom were women. On election day itself, the ANSF secured polling centres, effectively preventing any high-profile attacks. Last week, I visited Afghanistan and took the opportunity to congratulate the Afghan military commanders in Helmand on this truly remarkable achievement.
A secure Afghanistan needs the support and co-operation of Pakistan. Did the Secretary of State discuss that with Prime Minister Sharif on his recent visit to the United Kingdom, and what assurances did the Prime Minister give, as any future President would need that support?
I did discuss security with Prime Minister Sharif during his recent visit to London, and I congratulated him on the effective border security that Pakistan had provided during the recent Afghan presidential elections. He, in turn, reiterated his Government’s commitment to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, and to working with whoever emerges as President Karzai’s successor to confront the common challenges that both countries face.
On Saturday 26 April, five British servicemen were tragically killed in a helicopter crash, including Flight Lieutenant Rakesh Chauhan, whose parents have a business in my constituency and are widely respected there. Will there be an investigation and if so, can we have a timetable, and can we be assured that all support is being offered to the bereaved relatives?
First, I am sure that everybody in the House would wish to join the right hon. Gentleman and me in sending our deepest condolences to the relatives of those who died in that tragic accident. It is a poignant reminder, coming so close to the end of the combat campaign, not just of the risks our service people undertake every day in the face of the enemy, but of the intrinsically dangerous nature of what they do, day in, day out.
There is an ongoing review into the circumstances of the accident. At the moment, there is no evidence of any enemy action being involved in the incident. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman a timetable for the completion of the review because it will take as long as it takes, but as soon as we have information that we can publish, we will do so.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the security situation. Does he agree that one of the highest priorities after the main withdrawal must be ensuring that we can still provide security for the teams from the Department for International Development that are carrying out essential social and economic work?
Once the UK forces have drawn down from the combat role in Helmand, we will still have a small security team, largely composed of civilian contractors, based in Kabul. We will work closely with the Foreign Office and DFID to ensure that their officials and the civilian contractors whom they employ in the ongoing aid effort, are properly protected.
On Pakistan, will the Secretary of State tell the House what discussions he has had recently with the Americans and other allies about how we can provide ongoing support to Pakistan to ensure a secure and safe border and that it is able to deal with insurgents and Taliban on its side of the border?
The UK has a close military-to-military relationship with Pakistan. When I met Prime Minister Sharif recently, I was able to reassure him about our intentions to continue in particular the excellent counter-IED work that we are doing with the Pakistan army and the Pakistan civil defence and police authorities. IEDs claim a huge toll in Pakistan, and that work is seen by the Pakistanis and ourselves, and by the Americans and the Danes—both of which countries intend, I understand, to contribute to our future programme—as key to Pakistan’s future.