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Volume 585: debated on Tuesday 9 September 2014

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Afghanistan. First, I want to pay tribute to the courage and commitment of our armed forces in Afghanistan, where 453 UK service personnel have been killed serving our country and many hundreds more have sustained life-changing injuries. At the NATO summit in Wales last week, the international security assistance force—ISAF—nations joined together in honouring the sacrifice made by those killed or injured during the mission in Afghanistan. Our servicemen and women continue to risk their lives every day, even at this late stage in combat operations. Just a few weeks ago, on 5 August, an attack at the national defence university outside Kabul cost the life of US army Major General Harold Greene and injured many more, including two UK personnel. I know I speak for everyone in this House when I say that our thoughts go out to the general’s friends, family and colleagues, and to all those who were wounded.

It is a testament to the bravery and sacrifice of our armed forces that Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for international terrorists of the kind who spawned the 9/11 attacks, and that it now has the tools to maintain its own security. Our troops have helped build the Afghan national security forces from scratch to a strength of approximately 350,000 personnel, capable of battling the insurgency without our help and of sustaining our progress in eliminating the terrorist threat to the UK that once existed in Afghanistan. Afghan forces are now leading 99% of combat operations across Afghanistan and proving increasingly effective. Nowhere is that clearer than in the successful security operations to protect both rounds of presidential elections in April and June. With minimal support from ISAF, they prevented insurgents not just from significantly disrupting the elections, but from prosecuting a single high-profile attack on either polling day.

Significant challenges remain, and it is clear the insurgency will continue to test Afghan forces, particularly in Helmand, but when the Taliban had some short-term success earlier this year, capturing isolated checkpoints and rural areas in northern Helmand, the Afghan national security forces quickly regrouped, reinforced the area and reclaimed much of the lost ground. To maintain this progress, the ANSF needs our sustained support—and they will get it; at the NATO summit, international partners reaffirmed their financial commitment to the ANSF post-2014. At the Chicago summit in 2012, the UK committed £70 million per annum to this crucial activity. In Wales last week, we confirmed that we will continue to fund the ANSF at this level for at least the next three years.

As part of the evolution of our support for security in Afghanistan, we are continuing to draw down our troops. We now have only about 4,000 personnel in theatre, and have redeployed more than 70% of our vehicles and equipment. All UK combat forces will have left Afghanistan by the end of this year. The focus of our assistance is now the Afghan national army officer academy, which aims to provide the professional and effective leaders the army needs to maintain security in the years to come. I would like to take this opportunity to thank our coalition partners—Australia, New Zealand, Denmark and Norway—which are working alongside us at the academy to develop the future leaders of the Afghan army.

Since my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development made the last quarterly statement to the House on 14 May, the academy has reached full operating capacity. The third kandak of recruits, including the first female blook, have commenced training. That is an important milestone for the academy, and we look forward to continuing to support the Afghans in its development. However, for that to happen, the new Afghan Government will need urgently to agree the US-Afghan bilateral security agreement, and the NATO status of forces agreement.

As well as an effective military, Afghanistan needs political progress and stability to safeguard its future. The elections in April and June were an important step. The fact that they took place in a process managed by Afghan institutions was no small achievement for a people who until 10 years ago had never had the right to choose their leader.

A constitutional, peaceful transfer of power from President Karzai to his elected successor will be a milestone for Afghanistan and a source of pride and hope for its people. The enthusiasm for the elections was demonstrated by the large number of people who participated, with more than 7 million voting in the first round.

The UK continues to provide support to the electoral process and good governance. We have committed £20 million to help Afghan election bodies manage the 2014 and 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections. We are providing £4.5 million for a separate programme to increase women’s participation, and we have made £7.5 million available to help strengthen political institutions and processes.

The presidential election process has been challenging, but we welcome the agreement between the presidential candidates to support a full audit of the ballots cast on 14 June and for the winner to establish a Government of national unity. We welcome the joint statement to NATO from the two candidates on 4 September, which reaffirmed their commitment to a Government of national unity.

The UK helped the audit by providing dozens of observers as part of an international effort, and now that the audit has been completed, we encourage Dr Abdullah and Dr Ghani to continue to work together to build a Government of national unity. We have made it clear that our efforts are in support of the democratic process, and not any individual candidate. The choice of Afghan President must be for the people of Afghanistan to make.

Although there were reasonable and legitimate concerns with the electoral process, they do not justify threats of violence or extra-constitutional measures.  Such measures would only imperil Afghanistan by risking the international community’s future financial and security support for the country. Afghan leaders now need to come together to build on the progress and construct the positive, peaceful future that the people of Afghanistan deserve. I spoke to our ambassador in Kabul just a few moments before coming into this Chamber, and the situation remains unresolved. We continue to use all our influence to encourage both candidates in the presidential race to resolve the impasse over the election; to respect the outcome of the audit; and to engage candidly in the political process towards a deal to form a Government.

We look forward in due course to working with the new Government as they build on the achievements of the past decade. We should be proud of the advances in basic services and economic development that we have helped to bring about. Some 6.7 million children now attend school, almost 3 million of whom are girls—there was virtually no female education under the Taliban. Some 15,000 km of roads have been rehabilitated, and 60% of the population now live within two hours’ walk of a public health facility, compared with less than 10% having any access to health care services in 2002.

There has also been significant progress on human rights, particularly women’s rights, since 2001, but we recognise that the gains made are fragile. We continue to remind the Afghan Government of the need to abide by their international commitments and the Afghan constitution to ensure the equal rights of all their citizens and to respect freedom of worship.

To help safeguard those gains, the UK will continue to support the Afghan Government’s efforts to build on the progress made, to grow their economy and to provide basic services and opportunities to all Afghans, including women. We are providing £3 million to strengthen access to justice for women in up to six provinces across Afghanistan. We contribute to the comprehensive agriculture and rural development facility—CARD-F—programme, which operates in five provinces, including a pilot programme in Helmand and a new intervention in Parwan. The programme promotes sustainable growth in legal rural incomes and employment. We also contribute to the strengthening provincial administration and delivery—SPAD—programme, which helps local government bodies in Bamyan deliver better public services in accordance with communities’ needs and priorities.

We are acutely aware of the challenges that the new Government will face. Although the Afghan economy has improved considerably over the past decade, it still remains extremely fragile. The draw-down of international forces, a continued reliance on a volatile agricultural sector and delays to mining projects all mean that the economy remains vulnerable to shocks. The protracted election process has also affected economic growth.

Afghanistan also faces significant fiscal challenges. The new Afghan Government will need to take urgent steps to manage expenditure, increase revenue collection further, address the fragility of its financial sector and strengthen governance and transparency. We will have an opportunity to discuss those issues when the UK Government co-chair the London conference on Afghanistan with the new Afghan Government in November. That conference will be an opportunity for the international community to reaffirm its support for Afghanistan’s development, to review progress against commitments made at the Tokyo conference in 2012 and to shape our future development partnership with Afghanistan, including the delivery of critical reforms, in the period after combat operations.

This country should be proud of what we and the Afghan people have achieved since 2001. Our focus now is on helping the Afghans to build on the gains of the last decade and, through our enduring commitment to their security, continuing to protect the UK from harm. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of the quarterly statement. Given the scheduling of the statement, as he is aware, I shall be responding on behalf of the shadow Foreign Secretary.

Let me join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the British service personnel who have served and continue to serve in Afghanistan, to their families, who support them every step of the way, and to the 435 killed serving our country. They are in our thoughts every time we meet to discuss Afghanistan in the House. I join him in offering condolences to the families of the two UK personnel who were injured in the attack at the Fahim national defence university, which took place since the last such statement.

This has been a significant week in securing the future of Afghanistan following the ISAF draw-down by 2015, so we welcome the progress made at last week’s NATO summit, as outlined by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. It is clear that Afghanistan is a different country from what it was before operations began, and the whole House will agree that the priority now must be to agree a strategy for consolidating the gains achieved through such sacrifice. That strategy must include a political settlement for Afghanistan, a stable security agreement, support from regional allies, the continued engagement of international partners and the defence of human rights. I shall take each of those in turn.

As the Foreign Secretary indicated, progress in Afghanistan crucially depends on Afghan leaders resolving their post-election differences and agreeing to form a unified leadership for their country. As talks and dialogue between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani continue, the internationally backed process still holds the promise of being Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power, so will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what progress is being made in the negotiations? Does he agree that the process is particularly important given the need, as he mentioned, for a status of forces agreement to be reached with the Afghan Government, for which, of course, an Afghan Head of State is needed? Both candidates are committed to signing the agreement, but disputes about the results of the election have delayed any signature. Does he agree that an agreement is urgently needed so that the non-combat mission can be officially launched and the vital planning work can begin?

Alongside vital political progress, Afghanistan’s future stability will inevitably require a strong and stable Afghan security force. Despite the important pledges made at last week’s NATO summit, which we welcome, there is still a real risk of there being a shortfall in funding for the Afghan security services after the international draw-down. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that more still needs to be done to ensure that continued resources are available to the Afghan security forces in the long term?

What is his assessment of the Government’s confidence in the internal cohesion of those Afghan forces and their capabilities in the face of sustained pressure in the months ahead?

With the end of the ISAF mission by the end of the year, the nature and scope of our engagement with Afghanistan will change. The Foreign Secretary made it clear that Britain’s post-2014 contribution will be focused on the Afghan national army officer academy, but are there any plans for the UK to contribute to broader non-combat missions in Afghanistan? With those forces remaining in a training role in Afghanistan for some time following the 2014 draw-down, can the right hon. Gentleman reassure us about the levels of force protection that are envisaged?

Alongside our armed forces for many years now have been brave and committed British civilians from NGOs and Government officials, who have worked hard as part of an international aid effort to help to build peace and progress in Afghanistan. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that given events in Afghanistan and elsewhere, threats to their safety could become more significant? What steps are being taken to ensure the protection of international aid workers in Afghanistan?

Recent events across the middle east have highlighted to all of us the effect that outside actors can have on the internal dynamics of a state. In Afghanistan it has long been the case that certain regional players, specifically neighbouring countries including Iran, hold the key to securing the long-term peace and stability we all want to see. There is still a real danger, if the neighbouring countries pursue individual agendas leading to instability in Afghanistan, that all of them, as well as the wider international community, will suffer from the fallout. What is being done to ensure the sustained and ongoing engagement of regional partners, in particular Pakistan?

The progress the Foreign Secretary has outlined is welcomed by the whole House, but the continued commitment of NATO allies to the future security and prosperity of Afghanistan is still the key. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the protection of human rights remains a cornerstone of Afghanistan's future stability and security, and that the UK, along with allies, has a vital role to play in promoting this? We welcome the Government's hosting the development conference on Afghanistan in November. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the conference will place a significant emphasis on the protection of girls and women in post-2014 Afghanistan? In particular, will Afghan women's groups and activists be appropriately represented at the conference, and can he assure the House that their voices were also heard at the NATO summit?

The Foreign Secretary described the significant gains made by women and girls since the Taliban lost power, but there remains a very real fear that that could be put at risk by the Taliban’s re-emergence at a political level, so will he act on Amnesty’s call for the UK to improve its support for human rights defenders, especially women, some of whom it was my privilege to meet recently? Will he draw up a country-specific plan, including appointing someone as a focal point in our embassy in Kabul? 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?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the constructive tone of his remarks. I am delighted to learn, as I am sure everyone in the House is, that the shadow Foreign Secretary is not abroad somewhere, but working hard in and for the United Kingdom today.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about progress on the presidential negotiation. I think I mentioned in my statement the current state of play there. The audit is complete. I am told that the results of the audit will be made available privately to the candidates on the 11th or 12th of this month; there will then be a 48-hour period in which they can lodge formal complaints with the electoral complaints commission, with a public announcement expected on the 15th of this month. Notwithstanding the result of the audit, we are urging the two candidates to continue to work together on the political process to form a Government of national unity, and that is where we are focusing our effort at the moment.

We have made our commitment on the funding of the ANSF, and many other nations have made commitments. The US, which is leading the funding effort, continues to chase the recalcitrants—those who have not yet signed up. My understanding, though, is that the United States is committed to meeting the funding deficit, if there is one after the hat has returned, having gone around the loop.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about Afghan national security forces’ capabilities. From my time as Defence Secretary, I can say to him with complete honesty that everyone I ever spoke to in the UK military had been positively surprised by the progress that the ANSF made in terms of both quality and the speed with which they delivered. They have continued to surprise us by their capabilities, the rapidity with which they have taken overall responsibility and the enthusiasm with which they have embraced the responsibility for defending their own country.

Regarding the UK mission post-2014, our principal military contribution will be the Afghan national army officer academy. I think the right hon. Gentleman is aware that the level of our personnel contribution there will draw down quite rapidly after 2016, because this is essentially a train the trainer programme: we are building a cadre of Afghan trainers who will be able to staff the academy in the future. I can give him the assurance he seeks that we will maintain adequate force protection levels for our people for as long as they are there. I cannot tell him what that level will be, because to some extent it depends on how many troops other parties, particularly the United States, have in that part of the country, but we will work closely with them. We will also have advisers in Government security ministries—small numbers of high-level people who will exercise a significant influence and help the Afghan security ministries to reform their effort to support the Afghan national army in the field.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about protection for UK aid workers. That is an issue, as we will have a continuing significant aid programme. Most of that will be delivered through Afghan aid intermediaries, but we will have a number of UK aid workers, who will be Kabul-based after the end of this year. We will make sure that proper arrangements are in place for their protection.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that a key factor in the future stability of Afghanistan will be the attitude of its neighbours, particularly Pakistan but also Iran. We have an ongoing and very close dialogue with Pakistan. We are the sponsors of the trilateral dialogue between Afghanistan and Pakistan, mediated by the UK. Both the Afghans and the Pakistanis have made it clear to us that they find this initiative of the Prime Minister extremely helpful and they want it to continue, so we will continue to facilitate that discussion.

On the NATO ISAF commitment, anyone present at the NATO summit will have been struck by the resolute commitment of the ISAF nations to protecting the legacy in which they have invested so heavily, and the measured way in which the Afghan Defence Minister representing the Afghan Government set out his position and the commitments that were made. Of course there is uncertainty about the outcome of the presidential election. The good news is that both candidates are well known to the UK and the ISAF allies, and their positions on the security agenda and foreign policy are almost identical. We expect to be able to work very well with whichever one eventually becomes president.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about human rights and the conference in November. There will be a significant human rights component to the conference. The Afghan Government made significant commitments on both human rights and anti-corruption at Tokyo, and the western and other financial commitments to support Afghanistan’s development were made in response to those. We will want to remind the Afghan Government of the solemn commitments that they have made and to ensure the mechanisms are in place for monitoring delivery. There will be a significant presence at the conference of Afghan non-governmental organisations, including the human rights activists the right hon. Gentleman mentions.

There are clearly difficulties in the Afghan economy, with revenues down by 30% and civil servants not being paid, and the Foreign Secretary has spoken of difficulties in the agriculture and mining sectors. This will drive young men into the arms of the Taliban, and it would be ironic if the economy undermines the security situation. What progress has been made in offering support or advice, or enlisting international institutions, to help the Afghan economy?

My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. The Afghan economy is fragile, even though it has very significant potential. We all know—perhaps, rather closer to home, we were reminded of it yesterday—that uncertainty is the enemy of smooth economic development and sustained growth. Once the new Government are in place, this will become a major focus for our effort and that of other allies.

When the Foreign Secretary was Defence Secretary, he suggested that if the status of forces agreement was not signed by the end of September, we may consider accelerating the draw-down of our troops. Does he now assess that the outcome of the presidential election, or a dateline for that, is sufficiently certain that that will not be necessary?

We keep this situation under continuous review. We have two candidates who disagree about the outcome, but nobody disagrees that one of them has won. They are both absolutely committed to signing the bilateral security agreement and the status of forces agreement at the very beginning of their presidential term. At some point, this agreement must be signed. Practical decisions have to be taken by the UK and other countries in order to get our forces out by 31 December if an agreement is not in place, but our working assumption for now is that it will be put in place within the next few weeks.

The Foreign Secretary referred to our enduring commitment to the security of Afghanistan. He will know that the former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Admiral Jim Stavridis, was very keen that the United Kingdom should leave a residual force of 1,000. We will be leaving about half that number. If this commitment is to mean anything, what will be the mix of the residual forces, and is the Foreign Secretary confident that they will be able to do the job?

I should first say that Admiral Stavridis’s comments, as my hon. Friend very well knows, were made in the context of a much higher total number that he was then bidding for to the Pentagon and other ISAF partners. The force that we leave behind will be focused around the training force in the Afghan national army officer academy, the life support troops working with them, the force protection element around that, and a detachment of engineers to support the small helicopter lift capability that we will need to retain in order to get people safely in and out of the officer academy. We are confident that that self-contained force will be adequate for the purposes we have set out.

The Foreign Secretary is aware of my concern about the early withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan given the continuing economic, political and security instability. Does he, on reflection, still think it was the right thing to do to withdraw troops this early?

Yes, I do. When the original announcement of the decision to end the ISAF combat mission in December 2014 was made, lots of people said that the ANSF would never be ready, that we could never build it up to its strength of 350,000, and that we would never be able to maintain stability on the ground. In fact, all those things have been achieved. The ANSF has built up its numbers and has demonstrated capability and commitment on the ground. In a sense, the ISAF draw-down has been a forcing mechanism for the Afghan Government, the Afghan people and the Afghan national security forces, and it leaves them stronger as a consequence.

I am very proud of the achievements of international forces and services in Afghanistan, including those associated with Gloucestershire, such as 1 Rifles, the allied rapid reaction corps, and of course GCHQ. However, with security once supported by international forces in Libya and Iraq threatening to unravel, does the Secretary of State agree that it is as important to the international community as it is to the Afghan national security forces that we deliver all the financial and technical support necessary to ensure their future success?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right—that is of course essential. The analogy with Libya can be misleading, though. The problem in Libya is a power vacuum. In Afghanistan, we have a Government clearly in control of most of the country, we have the basic institutions of civil government in place, and we have the 350,000-strong armed forces who are in control of most of the country. That is a very different situation from the one in Libya.

Prior to the NATO summit, Mr Rasmussen looked forward to a new chapter in our relationship with Afghanistan. What hope is there for that new relationship, with further and continuing Taliban violence and the election result as yet still undeclared?

The situation is not perfect, and I am not pretending that it is. We would have preferred a clear and decisive outcome to the presidential election that was accepted immediately by the losing candidate. That is not what we have, although we are very optimistic that the stalemate will be resolved over the next few days. With regard to continuing Taliban violence, nobody ever doubted that there would be a continuing insurgency. The question is whether we have created strong enough institutions of government, strong enough civil institutions and strong enough armed forces to contain that insurgency and allow the normal life of the country to go on and to function. Of course, once the new Government are installed and foreign forces have withdrawn, thus removing one of the principal bones of contention for many of the insurgents, there must then be a move towards a peace process that reconciles the elements of the Taliban who are willing to give up violence with the existing forces of the Government so that we have long-term and sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

My right hon. Friend has one or two problems on his plate at the moment, as he will be only too well aware. There are now reports of a pan-Islamist fundamentalist link-up between the Taliban and so-called Islamic State. Would he like to share his views on that? Is there any truth in it?

There is some evidence for it. My right hon. Friend will probably have seen evidence on his television screen of individual Taliban commanders. The Taliban are not a monolithic organisation but individual insurgent commanders who have indicated an attraction to the ideology of ISIL. That will be a problem that has to be managed. Everything is relative, is it not? A few years ago, we talked about the Taliban as an extreme Islamist movement. In the light of what we have seen in ISIL, it is probably fair to say that much of the Taliban agenda looks more like a nationalist agenda. It remains our belief that significant elements of the insurgency in Afghanistan are capable of being incorporated into a peace process. There will be small elements that are ideologically opposed to any compromise, and they will have to be dealt with very harshly.

The Foreign Secretary’s welcome admission of the fragility of the situation in Afghanistan was illustrated by the actions of Lieutenant-Colonel Enayatullah Barak, who did not reach Newport, although he was planning to be his country’s standard-bearer, because he sought asylum at Heathrow airport from what he regards as the hell of life in modern Afghanistan. Now that we are faced with many grave decisions on military activity in future, would it not be appropriate that this House looks to the decision that we took in 2006—when only two of our soldiers had died in combat—that led to 453 of them dying? That was the decision on going into Helmand. Should we not now plan to discover what went wrong with that decision?

The military, at least, regularly look at decisions that have been taken and consequences that flow from them, as part of their lessons learned process. We should be proud of what we have achieved in Afghanistan. Notwithstanding an individual who has decided that life in the UK looks more attractive than life in Afghanistan, the fact is that for ordinary Afghans life has got enormously better over the past few years.

This country has been in a state of almost constant war for the past 30 or 40 years, and for the first time in most people’s living memory they have the beginnings of a functioning democracy; a rapidly growing, though still fragile, economy; human rights on a scale that they have never seen before; and access to health care, education and transport infrastructure that their parents could never have dreamed of. That is real and tangible progress, and we should be proud of the part we have played in it.

Nevertheless, I put it to the Foreign Secretary that those of us who are critical of our Afghanistan policy point to the mistake made when we allowed the original, narrowly focused objective of defeating al-Qaeda, which we succeeded in doing and could have sustained, to morph into a much broader mission of nation-building, which we have struggled to sustain and which will ultimately result in the Taliban regaining control over large chunks of Afghanistan. What lessons can the Foreign Secretary draw from this episode with regard to our policy in the region generally?

My hon. Friend insists on looking at this with a glass-half-full mentality. Enormous gains have been made in Afghanistan and I simply do not accept that the inevitable outcome of this process is that the Taliban, as he says, will regain control of large areas of territory. I hope that a process of genuine reconciliation between the Taliban and the Government of Afghanistan will begin as soon as a new Government are in place. If my hon. Friend is inviting me to recognise the risks of mission creep, I promise him that I am up for that. I recognise entirely that when we go into any exercise, political or military, we need to be clear about the objectives we are seeking to achieve and we need to be extremely resistant to the temptation to allow the mission to creep.

What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had, either in his current role or previously, with Pakistan about how to stop the bases in Pakistan being used by elements of the Taliban that may not be reconciled to the new political arrangements? As he knows, the Durand line was drawn by a colonial administrator and does not reflect the Pashtun communities on both sides.

I am discovering in my new role that many lines representing the borders of many countries turn out to have been drawn with a red pencil by somebody in the Foreign Office many years ago. I visited Pakistan in my previous role and had many meetings here with previous Pakistani Prime Ministers and Presidents. Progress is being made along the border. A significant Pakistani effort is going on at the moment to deal with insurgents on the Pakistani side of the border in the North Waziristan agency area. It is essential that we continue to make the case that calming this border is in the interests of both countries. There are insurgents on both sides of the border operating across the border in the other country. The situation has to be a win-win for both countries in order to make it sustainable.

My right hon. Friend might have noted that the Iranian authorities have just arrested a number of Afghan and Pakistani citizens on their way across Iran to join the fight for the Islamic State in Syria. Will he acknowledge the significant number of common interests we share with Iran in combating the Islamic State and on issues such as drug interdiction coming out of Afghanistan, and will he act accordingly?

I recognise, of course, that we have a number of areas of shared concern, the rise of ISIL being one and concerns about the flow of drugs another. My hon. Friend will know that we are on the brink of reopening our embassy in Tehran and we hope that that will be the beginning of a sustained but properly calibrated re-establishment of good working diplomatic relationships with Iran, hopefully on the back of a comprehensive agreement of the outstanding nuclear proliferation issue, which we hope to see later this year.

May I ask the Foreign Secretary for two assurances? First, is everything being done, even at this late stage, to ensure that the Afghan security forces are at the highest level of capability? Secondly, although I completely agree that we should be proud of what we have achieved, will the Government take the opportunity at some point to learn the lessons from our commitment? It is important that we understand what we got right and what we got wrong, to inform the conduct of our foreign policy in the future.

I have some sympathy with that last point, but think that if such retrospectives are to be effective, we need to allow a little air gap so that the dust can settle and we can look at the issues from a proper historical perspective. I think that means that it will be an issue for the next Government to consider in a proper and timely fashion after the general election.

In response to the hon. Gentleman’s first question, even at this late stage we are, of course, still building the Afghan national security forces. The emphasis has moved from the front-line forces—the fighting capability is good—to making sure that their logistics are improving so that those front-line forces get the support they need in the field.

I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s announcement about the engagement with Pakistan and the work being done to reduce the porousness of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Will he bring us up to date on the latest plans for the ownership and future use of Camp Bastion and Camp Shorabak and whether they might have a role to play?

The state of play when I was last in the Ministry of Defence, which was eight weeks ago, was that Camp Bastion will be transferred to the Afghans. That has been agreed in principle: the Afghans want to take control of it. At that stage, there was an issue about how the perimeter would be secured without stretching the forces of 215 Brigade, which is responsible for that area of Afghanistan. In principle, however, a reduced perimeter Bastion will pass into the control of the Afghan national security forces on 31 December.

The Foreign Secretary has rightly drawn attention to the very difficult and hard-won progress on equal rights and human rights, not least with regard to the 6.7 million people—3 million of whom are girls and young women—who are now in school. Based on his analysis of the fragility of that progress and the fragile economy and politics of Afghanistan, how confident is the Foreign Secretary that it can be protected?

The Afghan constitution guarantees the rights of all Afghan citizens and we have to press the future Government of Afghanistan to ensure that the constitutional rights of all citizens are met. We also, of course, have a crucial lever in the Tokyo agreement, which provides that the substantial international aid support to Afghanistan over the years to come is specifically predicated on Afghan delivery on human rights, women’s rights and anti-corruption. By the way, this is not an agenda that we have to force on senior Afghans—all senior Afghan political players embrace it—but it is a deeply conservative country and they have to push this message down the line and make it work in practice across the provinces, towns and cities of Afghanistan. The conference in November will have a significant focus on how we ensure that the Tokyo commitments are delivered and that we work together with the Afghan Government to make that happen.

From his time as Defence Secretary, the Foreign Secretary will recall the argument that the hard-won gains in places such as Afghanistan could easily be reversed unless a strategic base or bridgehead area was established for the medium to long term in the region. Given what has happened in Iraq, where equally optimistic predictions about the long-term resilience of Iraqi forces were made, what would we expect to see in terms of a long or medium-term American presence if the status of forces agreement is eventually signed?

The US intention, subject to the bilateral security agreement being signed, is to have a continuing presence of US forces on the ground in Afghanistan, both for counter-terrorism activity and for the protection of US interests, but clearly I cannot speak for the US Government beyond the plans that they have already announced.

I just want to pick up my hon. Friend’s analogy, which many other people have sought to draw, between the Iraqi security forces and the Afghan national security forces. Afghanistan is a country of multiple ethnicity; yet we have not seen the kind of ethnic tensions in the Afghan national security forces that have clearly been present in the Iraqi security forces, and which are widely believed by western observers to have been instrumental in the failure of those forces to halt the ISIL advance earlier this year.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s information about the £3 million that is being provided for securing access to justice for women. Further to his response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) about confidence in protecting women’s and girls’ rights and ensuring that they are secured, what are the Government doing and what will they do at the Tokyo conference specifically to make sure that that happens?

I think that the hon. Lady means the London conference; the Tokyo conference took place in 2012, when the commitments were made. At the London conference, we will very much look to reassert and get reaffirmation of those commitments by Afghanistan. We can do two things: we can use the leverage of the very significant aid and support that we provide to Afghanistan, and we can use our direct ability to provide support to the indigenous institutions that monitor and promote such agendas. Many hon. Members who have been to Afghanistan have had the opportunity to meet quite incredibly brave Afghan human rights activists, including women who have come to the British embassy to talk to us about what they are doing. In what is still a deeply conservative country, they take some considerable personal risk to promote the agendas in which they believe.

I am very pleased that the UK Government are still contributing to the comprehensive agriculture and rural development facility with the view to establishing sustainable agriculture, which will make a huge difference to the stability of Afghanistan and to expanding the economy. The UK once had a responsibility for bearing down on poppy growing in Afghanistan. Does it still have that responsibility, and how much progress has been made?

No, that is not our responsibility. An Afghan ministry is specifically devoted to poppy and drug eradication, and various initiatives are going on in different parts of the country. I have to say that the drug eradication programme is not one of the most strikingly successful elements of the package being delivered in Afghanistan. It is clearly an area in which significantly more work is required in the future.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. Much progress has been made. There is a question, however, about whether the Afghan national army is ready and able to take on the role whenever the UK withdraws from Afghanistan. I ask this question because the Iraqi army was well trained by the US army and the British Army and it was well equipped, but whenever the battle came from ISIS, it evaporated like snow off a ditch when the temperature rises. That prompts this question: what reassurance can the Foreign Secretary give the House that what happened in Iraq will not happen in Afghanistan? Along with the training and the equipment, is there a sincere and deep commitment there, and is the officer training college an integral part of ensuring that the Afghan national army can take on and continue to defeat the Taliban?

The officer training college is clearly vital, because good leadership is the key to an effective fighting force. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that the Afghan national army has shown itself to be very capable in a fight. There are questions about the sustainability of its logistics, about some of its senior command and control elements, and about the way in which the Ministry of Defence is organised and how it interacts with the army—these issues are all being addressed—but there are no questions about the willingness of Afghan soldiers to engage in combat, or their ability when they do so. If hon. Members talk to any British service people who have served on the front line in Helmand, gone out on patrols with Afghan soldiers or seen them in fire-fights, they will say that there is no doubt about their commitment, bravery and willingness to fight. In Iraq, the situation was exacerbated by a sectarian Government who were clearly not governing on behalf of the whole of the Iraqi people, and by an army that reflected and was fatally undermined by those sectarian divisions. Those conditions do not exist in Afghanistan.

I had the privilege some time ago of visiting Camp Bastion to see the incredible work that our servicemen and women have done there. Given those achievements, is my right hon. Friend convinced that the numbers, with the 350,000 personnel in the Afghan national security forces and those going through the officer academy, are sufficient to maintain lasting peace for the future?

The surge number of 352,000 was not arrived at randomly; it was very carefully calculated, and we believe that it is sufficient. It is not sustainable in the long term, but the US has made it clear that it, along with other allies, is prepared to commit the financial resources to sustain that number at least until 2017. By that time, we hope to be in the position to see a gradual reduction in the number needed to maintain internal security.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that our emphasis must now shift from military involvement towards securing an enduring political settlement by good governance measures, such as encouraging the two presidential candidates to work together, and particularly by providing financial advice on tax-raising powers, as we have for several years?

Good governance is, indeed, one of the essential ingredients. I think my hon. Friend is aware that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has provided advice to the Afghan Treasury on how to improve its tax yield, which is an essential element in stabilising the Government’s finances. We will continue to provide advice and support to the Afghan Government, but we will also continue to encourage the peace process and, once the new Government is in place, to encourage outreach to moderate elements of the Taliban in the hope of reaching a comprehensive peace settlement.

The London conference will be an excellent opportunity to continue to remind the Afghan Government, as my right hon. Friend has said, of their need to abide by their international commitments to ensure the equal rights of all their citizens and to respect freedom of worship. How much success has he had in such discussions so far?

As I have said already, the Afghan constitution guarantees the human rights of the citizens and their right to freedom of worship. The Afghan Government made pledges to respect human rights and freedom of worship at Tokyo. However, we are not naive: we recognise that there can be a gap between what is written on a page of the constitution and what is delivered on the ground, and we will focus on that in the months and years ahead.

The Foreign Secretary has spoken about the future of Camp Bastion. Will he say something about the equipment that may well be left behind and the steps being taken to ensure that it is put to good use by the Afghan security forces?

Most of the equipment in use in Afghanistan—the big kit, as it were, or the serious bits of equipment—will be brought back to the UK. Indeed, the vast majority of it has already been brought back to the UK, rehabilitated and brought back into core for the future use of the British Army as part of its Future Force 2020 posture. If equipment cannot be brought back but is of sustainable use to the Afghans, which means that they can sensibly use and maintain it—it is no good leaving them kit that they cannot service and maintain—then it will, where appropriate, be gifted to them. Equipment that fits into neither category will be destroyed so that it cannot possibly fall into the wrong hands.

By what mechanism can international development assistance from a wide range of nations best be co-ordinated to ensure sustainable economic development for the Afghan economy?

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are involved in that process, and the London conference in November will of course be a further opportunity to co-ordinate the actions of the donors.

Six years ago, 16th Air Assault Brigade, with personnel from all four battalions of the Parachute Regiment, undertook an extremely dangerous mission in transporting a huge turbine through hazardous terrain to the Kajaki dam. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us how much electricity it is generating?

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the turbine has still not been installed. However, the last time I was in Afghanistan, a US team was looking at what could be done to bring it into operational use, because doing so could satisfy the electricity deficit in Kandahar.