With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement on Afghanistan.
Let me begin by offering my condolences to those who were killed and injured in today’s attack, including, sadly, two British embassy staff. It is a tragic reminder that there are some who still seek to undermine the progress that has been made towards peace and security in Afghanistan. I also pay tribute to the courage and commitment of our armed forces, 453 of whom lost their lives, and to the many others who have suffered life-changing injuries in the service of our country. Their legacy is that terrorists have been prevented from using Afghanistan as a launch pad for attacks on our streets. The Afghan security forces whom our armed forces have helped to mentor, and who are now securing the country’s future, have played a major part in that. The sacrifice of our servicemen and women will never be forgotten.
Since the last quarterly statement to the House on 9 September, a national unity Government has been formed, with Dr Ashraf Ghani as President and Dr Abdullah Abdullah as chief executive. President Ghani was inaugurated on 29 September. That was a historic moment: the first democratic transfer of power from one elected President to another. In their first significant act, the Government signed the bilateral security agreement and the NATO status of forces agreement. During my meeting with President Ghani in September, I was encouraged to note that he had clear priorities for the new Government: tackling corruption, making progress on the peace process, working towards stronger economic development and improving regional relations, including relations with Pakistan. We will be working closely with President Ghani and chief executive Abdullah as they continue Afghanistan’s significant development.
The Afghan national security forces successfully secured the elections this year, with more than 7 million people voting. The forces have performed well against a determined enemy. Despite prolonged fighting over the summer, the Taliban have failed to take any district centres, or to capitalise on small and temporary tactical gains in north Helmand and the taking of significant casualties, but they remain a potent force. Afghan forces continue to conduct clearance operations against the Taliban, and their strong performance this year should serve them well in the next fighting season.
The UK had the second largest force in Afghanistan, and our troops undertook some of the heaviest fighting, but it is important to remember that we were only one part of a coalition of 51 nations that helped to build the Afghan national security forces from scratch to a force of over 330,000, which is capable of battling the insurgency and sustaining progress in the removal of the terrorist threat. There can be no guarantees, but the sacrifices made by coalition and Afghan forces have given Afghanistan the best possible chance of a stable future.
The UK has taken a leading role at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy, and I addressed the graduates of the first battalion at their graduation ceremony during my visit in September. We will continue our role there next year with around 470 troops as the United Kingdom contribution to the NATO Resolute Support mission, a coalition of 35 nations. Our contribution will focus principally on mentoring in the officer academy. We have committed ourselves to providing about £70 million a year to help to sustain the Afghan forces, thus reaffirming another element of the enduring international commitment to Afghanistan.
The redeployment of matériel has been a challenging process, but, notwithstanding the scepticism expressed by many people, it is now almost complete. The redeployment from Iraq in 2009 was conducted predominantly through Kuwait, across 130 km of relatively permissive lines of communication. In Afghanistan, the land routes to the nearest port were 900 km long, and included areas of significant threat. Despite that, about three and a half times as many containers and about four times as many vehicles have been redeployed from Afghanistan as were returned from Iraq.
I want to put on record my praise for the efficiency of our military planners and logisticians, as well as that of our combat troops. All our major matériel has now left Afghanistan. At the height of our involvement, we had some 137 bases; more than 120 have now been handed to the Afghan authorities, and the rest have been dismantled. Earlier this week, our troops left Kandahar airfield for the last time, following our departure from Camp Bastion in October.
As we face new terror threats, we are learning the hard lessons of our Afghan campaign. First, to take on an insurgency, armed forces must gain the trust and support of the local population. That support must be inclusive, crossing political lines and bridging tribal divides, and it must also involve early training of local security forces. Secondly, the increasingly complex nature of 21st-century conflict means that we must build strong international military coalitions—alliances that are ready to act, and capable of sharing resources. Our experience of forging partnerships in Afghanistan provides a model for the sort of agile and effective rapid reaction forces that NATO countries pledged to develop at the recent NATO summit in Wales.
Thirdly, military action can only be one part of a wider solution. In Afghanistan we pioneered a cross-Government approach that combined defence, diplomacy and development via our provincial reconstruction teams. They were deployed in the Afghan provinces, and combined military and civilian organisations to strengthen local political institutions, empower local leaders, and improve social and economic progress.
When I visited Helmand, I saw the difference that has been made by the United Kingdom, including our armed forces. Most citizens in Helmand now have access to health care, household incomes have risen by 20% since 2010, and more than 120,000 students are enrolled in Government schools across the province—including nearly 30,000 girls, compared with none in 2001. We will continue to support that development, and our continued support will include maintaining our contribution of £178 million a year in development aid until at least 2017.
Next week, the London conference on Afghanistan will be led by our Prime Minister, President Ghani, chief executive Abdullah, and other leading international figures. It will focus on the future development partnership between the international community and the new Afghan Government to build on the foundations that we have laid over the last 13 years, and will reaffirm our enduring commitment to supporting the future of Afghanistan.
There remain significant challenges ahead for Afghanistan, but we have helped to develop Afghan security forces who have proved that they are able to take the fight to the insurgency. Tackling the drugs trade remains a considerable and generational challenge, but we and our international partners are committed to helping the Afghan Government to combat it. The international community is working with the new Afghan Government to secure long-term fiscal sustainability, and we are pleased to see the new efforts that are being made to tackle corruption.
We fully support the Afghan Government’s promotion of prosperity through jobs, growth and investment, which builds on the sacrifices made by our armed forces. That campaign was long, but it was worth while, and we believe that we have given Afghanistan the best chance of a safer future.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for his courtesy in informing me earlier in the week that he would be making it today. I concur with both the tone and content of his remarks, and was particularly pleased to hear about his discussions with President Ghani, the good progress of the draw-down and the continuing work on development issues.
We are all shocked by this morning’s despicable terrorist attack on a British embassy vehicle in Kabul. People have lost their lives. It reminds us of the dangers still faced and the challenges that remain. Can the Secretary of State give us any further details about that incident?
Like the Secretary of State, I pay tribute to our armed forces. Our servicemen and women perform their duties with bravery, honour and distinction. Nowhere has that been more evident than in Afghanistan. I think in particular of the 453 members of our armed forces who gave their lives serving our country, as well as the many who were injured. They and their loved ones are in my thoughts and, I am sure, the thoughts of all Members of this House. As the Secretary of State knows, we support efforts to have them commemorated in a national memorial in London, and will work with the Government and others to bring that about. Can he update the House on the progress on that?
I say with sincerity that the United Kingdom’s role in Afghanistan in the past 13 years is one we can be proud of. Does the Secretary of State agree that our combat mission was a success? It has been hard fought and we have paid a heavy price, but the consequences would have been far worse had we, in 2001, left Afghanistan to those who subjugated that country and its people and used it as a base to launch terrorist attacks on other countries and their peoples. In a world that is of course still dangerous and unpredictable, the UK armed forces in Afghanistan have enhanced our safety and security in Britain by assisting the Afghans to take charge of theirs. Does he agree that those of us in positions of leadership have a responsibility to explain to the public the complexities and success of our role in Afghanistan?
The Opposition are convinced that the UK along with our allies must remain involved in assisting the fledgling Afghanistan as it takes important steps to manage its own security. Only with the international community’s enduring support can we work to ensure that hard-won gains in Afghanistan are not lost. Therefore, I want to focus my remaining remarks on the future and the role the United Kingdom will play.
The Afghan national security forces did not exist in 2001, but are making steady progress. Can the Secretary of State update us on the strength of the ANSF and the work being done to sustain and professionalise the army, police and air force? What specific work will be done by British armed forces in continuing training and support, and how many personnel will be involved? Can he tell us whether any of that work will involve helping with the removal of unexploded ordnance? Does he believe that sufficient numbers are being committed for the task that they have?
I and my shadow Cabinet colleagues are committed to a cross-Government, multi-agency approach, which the Secretary of State mentioned. The key tenet of that will of course be the relationship between the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence. Can he tell us how many staff from each Department, excluding the armed forces, will remain in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014?
To that end, I welcome, as the Secretary of State did, the forthcoming London Afghanistan conference, which will have the full support of the Labour party in seeking to chart a plan for security, socio-economic and development gains. He may know that the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, has called on the Government of Afghanistan and the international community to adopt sustainable measures to address the causes and consequences of gender-based violence in the country. Can the Secretary of State confirm that violence against women and girls will be a priority at the London conference? Can he tell us how many women will be invited to take part in the main conference as well as the private sector and regional co-operation side events? Does he agree that the conference communiqué should commit to the full implementation of the national action plan for the women of Afghanistan and the elimination of violence against women?
The conference will no doubt receive an update on progress towards a political settlement. Several weeks ago, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani invited the Taliban to join national reconciliation negotiations and earlier this month Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif backed Ghani’s initiative. Can the Secretary of State give a commitment that the UK Government will work and support those involved to help to make those negotiations a success?
I hope the message that the Government, our allies and the people of Afghanistan take from what the Secretary of State and I have both said is that the UK is committed to ensuring a peaceful, stable and, in time, prosperous Afghanistan. We in the UK stand by Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy and we will do all we can to help it on its journey to a brighter, better future. We owe that to the 453 brave service personnel from our armed forces who gave their lives to allow it to happen. It will be their legacy.
I am grateful to the shadow Defence Secretary both for what he said and for the tone in which he said it. As we learned this morning, there is no guarantee of an absolutely safe and stable future for Afghanistan, but I believe that we have given it the best possible chance of a stable future.
Let me try to pick up some of the points that the hon. Gentleman made. On this morning’s incident in Kabul, he will appreciate that it happened only a few hours ago. I can confirm that, sadly, two British embassy staff were killed. I believe a number of others were killed and injured, including passers-by. The incident occurred not at the embassy itself but within Kabul, some distance from the embassy. As soon as I have more details, I will of course ensure that he and the House have them.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the London memorial. He will have seen the announcement a few days ago that the memorial appeal, which was launched in The Sun, will be headed by a former chief of the defence staff, Lord Stirrup, who will be in charge of raising private sector contributions. The memorial will be in London but it is worth reminding the House that the memorial wall at Camp Bastion is being returned to this country and will be erected in the national memorial arboretum in Staffordshire.
The hon. Gentleman asked me to agree that the campaign was a success and worth while. It was certainly worth while. I believe that the decision to intervene with other countries in the light of the attack on the twin towers in 2001 was right. I do not think now there can be any question about that.
The hon. Gentleman asked me to confirm our future commitment. It is a good time to emphasise to the new Afghan Government that, although we have withdrawn our combat troops, we are not walking away from Afghanistan. We will underline that at the London conference, but our commitment to the Resolute Support mission will be enduring for 2015 and for 2016.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the make-up of the ANSF. That is a mixture of army, police and other elements, including an air force, which will take some time to develop. However, having met the local Afghan army corps commanders in Helmand province, I have no doubt about their appetite for defending their country. I saw that at the graduation ceremony that I was privileged to attend on behalf of the UK. I saw the determination of all those young officer cadets to get out into the field and defend their country against the kind of violence that we have seen and that continues sporadically in some areas.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the continuing UK presence. As I said, we will retain some 470 personnel in Afghanistan, largely in the Kabul area. They will continue to work at the national officer academy. They will provide advice on counter-terrorism and support to the security ministries. Our force will include an element of force protection, but it will be located mainly in and around Kabul. I cannot give him specific figures for the other Government Departments but, if he will allow me, I will write to him on that specific point.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked me about the London conference. The programme for the main event at the end of next week is still being developed with the Government of Afghanistan. However, ensuring that Afghan women’s and girls’ issues feature prominently is a top priority, and we are deliberately planning the conference in such a way that those are incorporated across all the main themes, including discussions on the overall reform agenda.
If I may, I will write to the hon. Gentleman on any further questions that I might not have picked up.
As someone who was looking at the scale of the draw-down at an early stage, I ask my right hon. Friend to do me the favour of passing on my thanks and congratulations to all those, both civilian and military, who have been involved in a magnificent logistical operation. The Ministry of Defence is often criticised—including, I have to say, on occasion, by me—but this time what it has achieved is nothing short of spectacular, and it deserves the thanks and congratulations of the whole House because it has done our country proud.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and he is right that there is occasional criticism of the Ministry, but I will be delighted to pass on his congratulations. This was a huge logistical exercise, and there were many who told us at the time that it simply could not be done and the matériel would not be brought out safely—that the convoys would be attacked and the lines interdicted and so on—but that did not happen. That is in very large part due to the skill, commitment and professionalism of the planners and logisticians, as well as to civil servants in my Ministry, who sometimes do not get the praise we rightly accord, of course, in the first place, to our combat troops.
May I add my voice to that of the Secretary of State concerning the appalling terrorist attack today? Does he agree that this shows that it is not just our military but many civilians and locally engaged people and people in the various private security organisations who put their lives at risk in trying to help the people of Afghanistan, and that we should recognise that this is a threat not just in Afghanistan, but throughout the world?
I certainly endorse that. A huge number of people have been helping in the effort to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan—as the hon. Gentleman says, civil contractors, locally employed staff and others—and it is right that we acknowledge not simply their commitment, but the fact that they, too, have been willing to put themselves in harm’s way to work for a better future.
As a former Minister for Afghanistan who knows the embassy and staff there, may I, too, express my deep sadness at the events of this morning? This will have affected the place very badly, and indeed the whole of the FCO family, particularly as it is highly likely that our security staff were involved. We express our thanks to them for the work they do to protect many of us as we go around the world. We know the Government will do all they can to support them at this difficult time.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that such events make it even more important that the international community continue to provide support not just in the form of security but, crucially, of economic development, and that the conference next week in London can demonstrate that and show that upon the sacrifices of today and previous years a future for Afghanistan can, and will, be built by all of us working with the Afghan people?
I thank my right hon. Friend. Few Members of this House have as much experience as he gained in his time as Minister with responsibility for this area, and he probably knows better than any other Member of this House just how deeply this attack will be felt in the FCO family. There are going to be attacks like this. The terrorist threat—the insurgency—has not been fully defeated, and I know the Government there and their armed forces expect that and are ready to take that on.
My right hon. Friend is also right to focus on the future economic development of Afghanistan. While I am pleased that other NATO countries have now fulfilled the commitment they made to the Resolute Support mission and that finally, the numbers of troops we need from the different participating countries have been pledged, it is equally important that other countries now rally behind the London conference and make the same kind of commitment to Afghanistan’s longer term economic development. We have a Government of national unity in place there now—a Government whom I believe have a better prospect of delivering the kind of economic reform that is well placed to tackle corruption, but they are going to need the help of the international community, and I grateful to my right hon. Friend for continuing to underline that.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. He will know that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has said there is a 7% increase in the number of hectares under poppy cultivation this year, and a 17% increase in opium production. What measures will be taken and what money will be allocated at the London conference specifically for farmers to move from the production of poppies and opium to other crops, and what money will be made available to them to make up the shortfall in their income resulting from losing that high-value crop?
If I may, I will write to the hon. Gentleman on the details of the subsidy that is made available to farmers. We should be frank about this, however, and he is right to draw attention to the challenge posed by the poppy crop. It has increased—let us make no bones about that—and it presents a threat not just to the future of Afghanistan but to the west as well, where these drugs eventually get through. So it is a challenge that the new Government have to surmount, and in doing so they are going to need all the assistance and expertise that other countries can offer.
I support the Defence Secretary’s tributes in his statement, and as a constituency MP I wish to draw attention to 16 Air Assault Brigade. Can he elaborate on the priorities for the new Afghan Government in working towards stronger economic development? Will that include bringing on stream the turbine at Kajaki dam, which soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade took there more than six years ago?
I note the tribute my hon. Friend has paid to his own unit. I could easily have singled out a whole number of units but I deliberately did not because the campaign in Afghanistan involved many—from all three service in the end—and I thought it invidious to pay tribute to any particular one. However, I certainly pay tribute to his.
I am familiar with the turbine that was, at some cost and with great difficulty, brought up to the dam, and I believe there are plans to get that working finally. I will write to my hon. Friend with details on that.
Will the Defence Secretary thank and congratulate Mrs Hazel Hunt of Abergavenny, who has set up a very successful new charity named Welsh Warrior, which is helping to provide aid and comfort to those Afghan veterans who have been maimed in mind or body? Mrs Hunt is also the mother of Richard Hunt, who was the 200th solider to die in Afghanistan. She recently said, “My son was killed because of the politicians. They asked too much of the armed services.” Mrs Hunt is asking for an immediate inquiry into the war. Can she have an assurance that that inquiry will not be delayed for five years, as the Chilcot inquiry has been, so that the guilty cannot hide the truth?
I am happy to pay tribute to the work of Mrs Hunt, and I think I acknowledged the enormity of the sacrifice made by our servicemen and women, not simply those who lost their lives but those who suffered life-changing injuries during the campaign, and it is right that we should continue to pay that tribute.
The matter of an inquiry is not wholly one for me, the hon. Gentleman will understand, but I am clear that we should learn the tactical lessons of the campaign. We are already learning some of them, such as the way we combat IEDs, and I drew attention to some of the wider strategic lessons we need to learn in working with our partners, but no decision has yet been taken on the nature of any inquiry.
I entirely endorse the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) about the seriousness and importance of the enduring commitment to which the Secretary of State has referred. Last year, the then Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Admiral Jim Stavridis, asked me to impress upon the British Government the importance of maintaining a continuing military contribution more in line with that of the Germans, who are committing about 1,000 troops. Given what has happened in Iraq and the catastrophic consequences of the reversal of the United States’ plan to leave 10,000 troops there—they were withdrawn because of Maliki’s failure to offer a status of forces agreement—will my right hon. Friend keep under review the British military contribution in Afghanistan? Many of those who have been bereaved will feel that their sons and daughters will have died in vain if we do not secure enduring peace in that country. That is a tall order, but I believe that it would be valuable if the Secretary of State could keep the British military contribution under review to ensure that what happened in Iraq does not happen in Afghanistan.
I made it clear earlier that we have withdrawn our combat troops from Afghanistan and that we are not going to revisit that particular decision. I have outlined to the House the nature of our enduring mission there, which will help the Afghan military in the challenge that it faces. My hon. Friend is right to draw some comparison with Iraq. In many senses, Afghanistan is better placed, in that we have left as our legacy an Afghan security force that is genuinely representative of all parts of the country. That was not the case with the army that was bequeathed under Maliki in Iraq. Afghanistan therefore has a better chance of dealing with the insurgency in the name of the whole of the country, and of not being subject to the political and tribal difficulties that the Iraqi national army has experienced.
The British armed forces have spent more than a decade fighting the Taliban, yet it seems that the Taliban are now part of the reconciliation negotiations. What does the Secretary of State see as the future role of the Taliban in Afghanistan?
I have discussed with President Ghani his approach to this. There are moderate elements in the Taliban, and it is important for the new Government to reach out to them whenever possible. That is the ambition of President Ghani who—rather differently from his predecessor—is open to that and to building more effective international alliances with his neighbours, including Pakistan, India and China. It is in everyone’s interest that Afghanistan has a stable future.
We should be proud that millions of Afghan girls are now in school and that thousands of women are doctors, teachers and politicians, but Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Many women in public life there pay with their lives. In the light of such violence, it is unlikely that any peace process that excludes women will be sustainable, so, while I welcome the Secretary of State’s assertion that the London conference will consider women’s issues, may I ask him to go further? Will he make it his priority to ensure that women are not only represented but able to speak for themselves at the conference and at all future peace negotiations?
I will certainly bear that in mind as we finalise the agenda and programme for the London conference. I found, on my visits to Afghanistan, that women were becoming increasingly involved in the future of the country. It was noticeable at the first passing-out parade of the officer academy that there were female cadets training there—two platoons are training at the moment—and that, after I had spoken to the first battalion of cadets to graduate, I was followed by a female member of the Afghan Parliament who addressed them in far more rigorous and robust terms than I had done about their obligation to defend their country.
I, like many other Members who have visited Afghanistan, have been protected and supported by British embassy staff in Kabul, so may I also express my deepest sympathy to the families and friends of those who have been killed in this morning’s tragic events? On that note, will the Secretary of State set out his plans for any national recognition or memorialisation of British civilians and civilian staff who have served, lost their lives or suffered injury in Afghanistan during the campaign? Also, on the issue of memorialising servicemen and women, has he issued any guidance to local authorities around the UK on how those who lost their lives in the campaign might best be memorialised locally, in addition to at the national memorials?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his first comment. The tragic event in Kabul this morning is a reminder that this campaign has involved all kinds of people—civilian contractors, locally employed staff, and so on—in addition to the combat troops that we seconded. The intention is that the main London memorial will pay tribute to the memory of all those involved—everyone from the civil service staff in my Ministry all the way through to those who fought and those who supported those who fought. That will certainly include those who were employed on a civilian basis in Kabul. I will certainly look at his suggestion about encouraging local authorities to play their part in this memorialisation. I understand that some councils have already taken the decision to name particular streets after local heroes who lost their lives in the campaign. This is certainly something that we ought to encourage.
Many of the specialists involved in the successful withdrawal of heavy equipment from Afghanistan are from the 17th Port and Maritime Regiment of the Royal Logistic Corps based at Marchwood in my constituency, and I hope that the Secretary of State will take this opportunity to confirm that that military port facility will be neither run down nor degraded in any way.
On the question of the lessons of the campaign, it is a fact that there are al-Qaeda-type groups in many other countries, too, and we must develop a doctrine—based on strategic bases and bridgehead areas, as I have endeavoured to suggest on previous occasions—to enable us to tackle those groups without having to take on nation-building from the ground up in every country where they appear, because that is an impossible strategy and we need a flexible, sensible strategy for the future.
I note what my hon. Friend says about Marchwood, of which he has been a great champion. He does not need me to confirm the important role that it has played in the recovery of so much equipment, matériel and vehicles from Afghanistan. I can certainly confirm that we will have a continuing use for that kind of facility.
I also note what my hon. Friend says about the doctrine. We are seeing al-Qaeda in different forms in some countries, and we are seeing it mutate into ISIL. He makes the important point that the western nations are simply unable to reconstruct whole countries time and again.
I pay tribute, as everyone else does and should, to the sacrifice and the loss of service people in Afghanistan. May I ask the Secretary of State to be slightly more objective about the situation that the Afghan people are now facing? The levels of poverty are very serious, and large numbers of Afghan people are seeking refuge in other places because they feel that they can no longer live safely there. He indicated in answer to an earlier question that the new Afghan Government were going to undertake some kind of talks with the Taliban. One obviously hopes that that will bring about long-term peace and stability for the country, and that it will result in the recognition of the rights and role of women in society there. Does he not think, given the fact that British troops and many others have been there for 13 years, that the levels of poverty, drug production and corruption are very serious? Should we not be a bit more objective about what has happened, rather than being triumphalist about it?
I hope the House will agree that I have not been triumphalist about the campaign. I believe the campaign we fought, for which so many sacrificed their lives, was certainly worth while, but I am not triumphalist about it in the least. Afghanistan remains a relatively poor country and a place in which there is still great danger, as we have learned from this morning’s events. I hope the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that Afghanistan is a more prosperous and safer place than it was 12 or 13 years ago, and that women have a better prospect now of fuller participation in civic life than they did 10 or 13 years ago. I have noted that the drugs trade remains an increasing and enduring challenge to the current Afghan Government, and, indeed, to the international community. He is right to say that we should not be triumphalist about this campaign, but, equally, he should recognise some of the progress that has been made.
One fifth of the Royal Navy are in the Royal Marine Commandos and one quarter of Army personnel are in infantry regiments. At airfields, force protection is achieved using the admirable Royal Air Force Regiment. Those branches of our armed forces have taken by far the highest percentage of casualties in Afghanistan—I believe the figure is over 80% or over 90%—and it is always the same in any active operation. Only by using those combat soldiers, be they in Navy, RAF or Army uniform, who do the very dangerous business of closing with the enemy, are military conflicts normally brought to a satisfactory conclusion. They truly represent the very essence of the martial risks always run by our courageous service personnel. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in any future strategic defence and security review that recognition must be placed centre stage?
I wholly agree with my hon. Friend, who brings to the House his own military experience, and I am sure he will continue to press that point as we approach the strategic defence and security review next year. It is important to emphasise, as he did, that all three services—the Marines, the RAF and the Army—were heavily involved in this campaign, and it is slightly invidious to pick out any individual unit as this campaign was fought by the services. However, of course he is right to say that those in the front line have borne the heaviest burden of the combat.
I very much welcome the Defence Secretary’s statement and endorse everything he has said. The BBC documentary “The War Widows of Afghanistan” talks about the estimated 2 million war widows after decades of war. Some 13,000 Afghanistan soldiers are thought to have died. What support is being provided to those Afghan women who have lost their husbands?
My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the heavy casualties taken by the rest of the Afghan population—of course, there were years of conflict before we even got to Afghanistan in 2001. The Afghan war widows are the responsibility of the new Afghan Government, but we will be working with that Government from next week’s London conference onwards. As I said earlier, the role and recognition of women in Afghan society will be a key part of that conference.
Among those killed in Afghanistan were constituents of mine serving in the Royal Logistic Corps, the Yorkshire Regiment and the Royal Air Force Regiment. Will my right hon. Friend continue to make the case for our intervention in Afghanistan, to show that their sacrifice was not in vain? Will he also do all he can to keep the families and loved ones of those who made that sacrifice updated on the progress of the national memorial, which will be a fitting tribute to their sacrifice?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who of course served in the armed forces. He makes a good point about keeping those who lost loved ones in the campaign and those who suffered injuries up to date with the progress on the memorial, and I certainly undertake to do that.
Most of us agreed at the time with the initial deployment to rid the country of al-Qaeda, but what we tend to forget in this House is that that mission was accomplished within a couple of years. The mistake we made was then to allow the mission to morph into the much bigger one of nation building, something we did not properly resource. Given that—to use the Defence Secretary’s own words—the Taliban “remain a potent force”, may I draw him out a little and ask him what he thinks the key lessons are from this intervention?
I think I drew attention to the military lessons we can learn: these campaigns are best fought by local armies that have the support of the local population and have that inclusive support across tribal and political divides; these campaigns are waged best in conjunction with international partnerships, so that we learn and can operate each other’s equipment; and military action has to be supplemented with effective economic and political support alongside it. I certainly acknowledge that there is a great deal more to do in all three of those respects.
I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House and keeping us so well informed, and I am also grateful for the responsible approach taken by the Opposition. May I, too, pay my personal tribute to the men and women who have served in Afghanistan? Looking back at the conflict, is the Secretary of State now satisfied that we had all the right equipment for our troops? In particular, did we have enough helicopters throughout the whole of the campaign?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I know that he, too, had close family involved in the campaign. I have been focused on dealing with the draw-down from Afghanistan and ensuring that we have the right remaining balance of force there for 2015-16. I have not had time to look back as to when and where the equipment was provided in the right order. As I said to the House, no decision has yet been taken on the nature of any inquiry, but it is important that where there are military lessons to be learned from the campaign we do learn them, and reasonably quickly.
My right hon. Friend rightly said in his statement that the major legacy of our intervention is that terrorists have been prevented from using Afghanistan as a launch pad for attacks on our streets, and all involved are to be hugely commended for that terrific achievement. But what we have not been able to do is prevent the flow of drugs and the poppy growing, which ends up killing young people on our streets in this country. He rightly says that that represents a generational challenge to us, but may I urge him to attach a top priority, now that the security situation is as good as we could possibly have left it in Afghanistan, to concentrate our efforts on tackling the problem of opium production there? It should be made a top priority for both his Department and the Department for International Development.
I am happy to take on the commitment to relay what my hon. Friend has said to my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary. My hon. Friend rightly says that the increase in poppy production is a threat, not simply to the stability of Afghanistan, but to the west and to the streets of our own countries. We therefore have every interest in helping the new Government face up to that particular challenge.