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Volume 644: debated on Wednesday 11 July 2018

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on Afghanistan. The United Kingdom will never forget the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the thousands of innocent women, men and children killed in the atrocity. That barbaric violence prompted the UK, alongside our NATO allies, to enter Afghanistan to ensure that terrorists could not use it as a base from which to attack our citizens at home or abroad.

Before I continue, I want to pay tribute to the efforts of the tens of thousands of brave British men and women who have served in Afghanistan for the past 16 years. We will never forget what they did, particularly those 456 brave men and women who paid the ultimate price and those who suffered life-changing injuries in the line of duty. Their service and sacrifice has not been in vain. As I saw when I visited back in March, not only do millions of ordinary Afghans now have access to clean water, vital medicine and education, which would not have seemed possible less than 20 years ago, not only have they enabled the Afghan people to take charge of their own security, and not only is the capability of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces growing, but elections are giving a voice to the people of Afghanistan, who are increasingly calling for peace, which would have been unthinkable a short time ago.

Our commitment to Afghanistan remains an enduring one. Although UK combat operations ended in 2014, our troops are playing a key role in NATO’s Resolute Support mission by leading the Kabul security force. They are performing a vital role in training, advising and assisting the Afghan national army and air force and developing the nationwide security structures that will strengthen Afghanistan’s democracy. They have a quick reaction force that works alongside the Afghan army to provide urgent help in Kabul if and when required. They also continue to work alongside their Afghan, Australian, New Zealand and Danish partners to mentor staff at the army officer academy. Since opening in 2013, the academy has held 11 graduations, and more than 3,000 high-quality officers have passed out of that great institution, which is modelled on our Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. They are making a genuine difference in helping the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces to maintain security and keep its citizens safe.

The momentum is with the Afghan forces, and the Taliban cannot win militarily. Ultimately, Afghanistan’s only chance for a better long-term future is through an Afghan-led peaceful negotiation, and significant progress is already being made. The UK welcomes the Government of Afghanistan’s offer to start a discussion on a political process with the Taliban, supported by the recent ceasefire. It is encouraging to see bilateral relations with Pakistan improving, which will help to build wider stability in the region. Critically, parliamentary and presidential elections are to be held over the coming 12 months, giving ordinary people the chance to shape their nation’s destiny very much for the better.

However, despite the growing confidence of the Afghan forces, atrocities such as the appalling attack against the Intercontinental Hotel at the start of the year, which killed 42 people, demonstrate that the insurgency has proven resilient. It still controls parts of Afghanistan and continues to conduct brutal suicide attacks, killing innocent people. Of equal concern is the fact that terrorist groups such as Daesh are seeking a foothold in the region in order to conduct operations against Britain and other nations. Given the upcoming elections and efforts by the Afghan Government to reach a political settlement, NATO has recognised that now is a critical time to give extra support.

So, in response to a NATO request and in recognition of the professionalism and competence of our armed forces, I can announce today that we will increase the number of troops to support our existing mission, sending an additional 440 personnel in non-combat roles to take the total UK contribution to around 1,100 personnel. That will make the UK the third largest troop contributor to the NATO operation. Around half of the 440 additional personnel will deploy in August, and the remainder will follow no later than February next year. The additional soldiers will initially deploy from the Welsh Guards, which already provides the UK’s contribution to the Kabul security force.

Today’s decision underlines our commitment to the people of Afghanistan. It will help to strengthen the institutions that preserve Kabul’s security and enable the Afghan-led peace process to develop. It will also send a signal to the Taliban that we will not abandon this proud nation and that they cannot simply outwait our departure. It also shows our commitment to NATO, which must remain the cornerstone of our defence in a darker more unpredictable world. Above all, however, it reiterates Britain’s commitment to strengthen the security of our nation. History teaches us that the prize of a more secure Afghanistan is peace and security for all. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it and join him in paying tribute to all the servicemen and women who have served and are serving in Afghanistan. We remember the 456 men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice there and those who continue to live with injuries sustained during the conflict. We commend the courage shown by our Afghan partners who work under the constant threat posed by insurgents.

As alliance leaders gather in Brussels today, we reaffirm our commitment to NATO and to the range of operations that it supports around the world. The UK has always played its full part in contributing to NATO missions, and we currently have personnel deployed in Kosovo and in Somalia, as well as on the Resolute Support mission. It is right that the skills and professionalism of our armed forces can be used to benefit our partners in Afghanistan by training Afghan forces to the same high standards.

May I ask the Secretary of State for some further detail on today’s announcement? Will he outline the planned timetable for our troops to remain in Afghanistan? Our armed forces have a range of technical skills, so will he say more about the specific work that they will be undertaking? Will the training offered to our Afghan partners focus on specialist activities or continue to be more general? As the Secretary of State will be aware, there has been some recent concern about the eligibility rules for operational allowances, so will he confirm that troops will continue to receive the allowance for their work in Afghanistan? The Resolute Support mission currently comprises some 16,000 personnel from 39 NATO member states and partners, so will the Secretary of State set out what discussions he has had with NATO allies about upping their commitment to the mission?

The work of the armed forces in Afghanistan must of course form part of a wider strategy to promote good governance there, so what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about how it and the Ministry of Defence can support one another? We welcome the U-turn in Government policy on locally employed staff, such as interpreters or drivers, whose work in Afghanistan has been vital to the UK and NATO’s efforts in the country, so will he update the House on the progress that his Department has made on that issue?

Members across the House support the important work of our personnel in Afghanistan, recognising it as part of the process towards reaching a lasting peace settlement, but we must also be clear that the work is quite distinct from the combat operations that ended in 2014. So, finally, will the Secretary of State confirm that the additional troops will be there for training, not in a combat role?

The hon. Lady raises several important points. We want to be in Afghanistan to ensure that we get the right outcomes for the peace process, and it is not possible to put a date on when that will be concluded. However, we continue to work closely with all our allies in the NATO coalition and, most importantly, with the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to try to promote the peace process and bring it forward as rapidly as possible. Work will be undertaken with the Kabul security force, which we have been leading. There is a rapid reaction force element that will support Afghan forces if there are incidents. We have a force there, but it is very much there to support Afghan forces.

All personnel will be in receipt of operational allowance, which is important when we ask service personnel to put themselves in harm’s way. They do such an important and valuable job. I re-emphasise that our work not just with the FCO but with the Department for International Development and other organisations across the international sphere is pivotal in bringing a peaceful resolution to Afghanistan.

I understand that this deployment sends a very strong signal, as my right hon. Friend put it, to the Taliban that they will not be allowed to win, but does it send a sufficiently strong signal to the Treasury—an even more formidable opponent—that an uplift in the defence budget towards 2.5%, and eventually 3%, of GDP is necessary to fund our global role adequately?

We are very much focusing on the Taliban with this announcement, which goes to show how Britain can make a difference in the world. We talk about global Britain, and this is a brilliant personification of how we can make a difference in different nations. It is to our armed forces that our nation so often turns. Whether in dealing with the recent difficulties in Salisbury or in Afghanistan, it is our armed forces that have the capabilities, the knowledge and the ability to deliver consistently for this nation.

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. I associate myself with his comments on the personnel and, of course, I extend our thoughts to their families, who I am sure will be having a tough time following this announcement.

May I press the Secretary of State slightly on the timetable? I am not looking for a date or a specific length of time for how long he thinks this increase will last but, in general, does he view this as a long-term or a short-term increase?

May we also have regular updates on Afghanistan? Afghanistan is one area of the world on which attention has perhaps fallen back. We regularly have updates in the Chamber on Syria, which is extremely helpful, and such updates might help us with Afghanistan, too.

The online community through which Daesh spreads its poison is clearly a massive problem. Can the Secretary of State give us any indication as to whether the training and resources going to Afghanistan will be used to seek to tackle Daesh’s online presence to prevent its poison from spreading and gaining the foothold that none of us wants to see?

Finally, on the political process and the offer of talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, can the Secretary of State lay out, in general terms, how hopeful he is that those talks will be successful? Where are we in the political process right now?

A number of those questions almost interrelate, especially the hon. Gentleman’s first and last questions. We will not prejudge the timetable, and we will continue working with other NATO allies. We constantly review our force structure not just in Afghanistan but in Operation Shader in Iraq and Syria. We will be constantly reviewing this, and we will be trying to encourage other allies to continue contributing. We have already had discussions with other partners. There will be a conditions-based approach to how long our forces remain there, but in my discussions with the Afghan Government, and in the previous Foreign Secretary’s discussions, there has been a real willingness and eagerness to try to sit around the table.

This was the first time we have ever seen a ceasefire during Ramadan, and it was a very short ceasefire, but it was a chink of light, and it showed that progress can be made. It is important not just for Great Britain but for other nations to support the Afghan Government at this critical time in seizing the opportunity for peace.

Although the increase in non-combat support is welcome, and the sacrifice of our own troops there should never be forgotten, should we not also acknowledge the massively greater contribution of the United States to the support of that very fragile democracy, and put on record this week our thanks to President Trump for the increase in United States troop numbers and missions, which help the operations in Afghanistan that help to keep us safe from the threat of transnational terrorism?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point about the role that the United States has played in doing so much to bring about and promote stability in Afghanistan, and to deal with terrorist threats that can manifest themselves at home. I put on record our appreciation not just for President Trump, but for US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and for General Nicholson, who has taken such an important and pivotal leadership role in dealing with the insurgency in Afghanistan over the past few years.

In supporting the Defence Secretary’s statement and the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), I urge the Defence Secretary to redouble his efforts to explain to the British public why we are doing what we are doing, and how it impacts on the security of our citizens in this country. There is a lot more to be done on that. I know that he is trying, but I urge him to redouble his efforts to explain it to the British people.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, because an unstable Afghanistan leads to threats here in Britain. We saw how the ungoverned spaces that developed in Iraq and Syria were used to promote terrorist attacks on the streets of Britain. We have to deal with that at source, and we will do everything we can to explain to the British people the threat that such an Afghanistan presents.

Those of us who served in Afghanistan for many years saw the importance of the coalition of the willing, as it was then. Does my right hon. Friend agree that NATO has provided the fundamental underpinning of not just the security of Afghanistan, but our own security? As the summit starts in Brussels today, this is the moment to remember that the only time the article 5 guarantee has been invoked was when the United States was attacked on 9/11. We are therefore essentially reinforcing not just our own security, nor indeed just the security of the people of Afghanistan but, fundamentally, the security of the people of the United States.

The NATO alliance has served every nation incredibly well, and my hon. Friend is right to point out the fact that article 5 has been invoked on only that one occasion following the 9/11 attacks. We must not underestimate the value or utility of NATO, and we must continue to invest in its future to keep us all safe.

As ever, we owe a debt of gratitude to our armed forces and their families who will be supporting them during this deployment. As the NATO summit continues, what efforts are being made to encourage our other NATO allies to increase their own commitments?

As soon as I complete this statement, I will be going to Brussels to have numerous bilateral meetings with our many NATO allies. We need to hammer home the message that, for NATO to work, we all have to invest in it. We cannot expect one country to carry the burden all the time. We all have to show that willingness to invest. The Prime Minister will be sending that message, and the United States will also be sending that message. I think that the message is starting to get through.

I thank the Secretary of State for delaying his arrival at NATO to make this important announcement himself from the Dispatch Box. I believe this is the largest deployment he has authorised since becoming Defence Secretary.

I share with everybody in the Chamber a great respect for the Welsh Guards, in particular—they will be playing a significant role. Does my right hon. Friend recognise the role that UK aid has played over the past few years, particularly in the education and training of young women and teachers? Do not the role of UK aid and that of our services personnel complement each other in helping to make Afghanistan a more stable country?

My right hon. Friend is correct to say that UK aid and our security forces have to work hand in glove in order to build a viable future for Afghanistan. We have to promote prosperity and education, and we have to support the Afghan Government in delivering an exciting and hopeful future for their people in order to have stability there.

May I remind hon. Members that one of my children is serving in the armed forces?

As the Secretary of State said, we will have 1,100 service personnel deployed in Afghanistan, some of whom will face lengthy deployments lasting months or perhaps even longer. By definition, that is stressful for them and their families. Will he therefore assure me that there will be a leave rota in place that will ensure that these people can come home to their families on a regular basis during their deployment in Afghanistan?

We will work closely with the families federations to ensure that that happens. If someone is on a six-month tour, they have the ability to come back for two weeks during that tour. Someone on a nine-month tour has the ability to come back for two sessions of two weeks. Obviously, we will be working with all forces to ensure that that is made available to people.

I welcome the statement that our involvement is limited to training. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that there will be no mission creep and no return to combat duties? Drawing hard on the positive scenes in Kabul during the ceasefire, which were inspiring for ordinary people there, will he say, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, that we should increase our efforts to encourage the political process and try to get the two sides talking to each other, as that is the only way we are going to get peace?

I have been clear in my statement about our commitment. We do not have any intention to change what we are doing, as outlined in my statement. The point is that we all want to find a peaceful solution for Afghanistan, and that is why we will continue to support the Afghan Government in reaching that peaceful solution.

What is the Secretary of State doing with the Home Office to address the issues faced by the Afghan interpreters who have settled here under the Government’s scheme, but are now facing real difficulties in being reunited with their families here because of the normal spousal visa rules? The work of those interpreters was crucial and dangerous, and they deserve better.

As a Department, we have consistently worked closely with the Home Office to ensure that any issues brought to our attention have been resolved. We made a change in our policy just a few weeks ago that we hope will be of further assistance to more of those people who helped and supported the British armed forces. We will continue to review that and provide what help we can.

When I chided President Ghani over his lack of co-operation on the return of failed asylum seekers, he told me that as a war president his priority was the young men and women taking the fight to the Taliban, rather than those who had run away. It was a fair point, was it not?

We recognise the enormous contribution that so many people made—not just those working with British forces, but the Afghan security forces, who are taking the fight to the insurgents every single day. I am talking about not just the Taliban, but Daesh and other states that seek to extend their influence into Afghanistan.

May I associate myself and my colleagues with the Secretary of State’s tribute to those who made the supreme sacrifice, including many from Northern Ireland—I think of several from my constituency? Given the deployment that is about to take place, what steps will he take to ensure that other nation states will share skills and training, as we obviously have, so that there is better future for everyone in Afghanistan?

This is very much a coalition effort. Last year, a number of nations stepped up to increase their effort and deployment in Afghanistan, and we will be pushing this point going forward. We want all nations to make a larger contribution to this NATO mission, and we very much hope to lead by example.

Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking members of the 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards from the Aldershot garrison for their continued contribution to the security and stability of Kabul? Will he tell the House his assessment of the link between the Taliban in Afghanistan and elements of Daesh?

I certainly wish to thank all those tens of thousands of service personnel who have contributed to efforts to make sure that Afghanistan is not a safe place for terrorism. As for the link between the Taliban and Daesh, we are seeing more and more Daesh fighters heading from Iraq and Syria into Afghanistan. That is why we need to be making these moves to ensure that they do not create a space in which they are able to operate.

When I was watching yesterday’s fantastic RAF 100 celebrations, I thought very much of the brave RAF pilots with whom I was lucky enough to be flying when I visited Afghanistan in the middle of the conflict. They played an incredible role and we should pay tribute to them. I am also delighted to see the Welsh Guards playing a crucial role in this new deployment. Will the Secretary of State give us clarity on the breakdown of reserves versus regulars in this deployment? What steps does he think will need to be taken to protect civilians, humanitarian workers and minorities in Afghanistan, as we have seen some horrendous attacks against the Hindu, Sikh and other minority communities, which is a point raised by my constituents? What role will this deployment play in increasing stability and security?

We see this deployment as a vital part of increasing stability and security, giving the Afghan forces the confidence to be more forward leaning in dealing with threats, but it is the political process that is so vital. This is about the Afghan Government sending the clear message that they are a Government who represent every part of Afghanistan, and can deliver peace and justice there. The reserves are such an integral part of everything we do. This deployment will be comprised predominantly of regulars, but many, many reservists will be part of it. I will write to the hon. Gentleman to provide further clarity on the breakdown of the numbers.

British forces are renowned for not only their military capability, but their ability to capture hearts and minds. Will my right hon. Friend therefore further explain our objectives and also tell us the expertise we will apply that is unique to Britain?

We have been pivotal to creating the ethos and template for the Afghan military academy, giving the country’s armed forces the skills, training and knowledge they need to be able to command forces in often hostile and difficult environments. Those skills, along with what we will bring in terms of command to the Kabul security force, will be vital, because people turn to us as a nation that has an understanding of Afghanistan and the ability to lead other nations.

Towards the end of his statement, the Defence Secretary described NATO as a “cornerstone” of our defence in dark and unpredictable times, and he also underlined our commitment to NATO. Will he assure us that that sentiment will be impressed upon the US President at the NATO summit this week? Will he assure us that we will stand by ready to defend our allies in NATO against any vocal attacks?

The unity of allies is the greatest strength of NATO, and I am sure that everyone will sign up to that message.

I briefly worked in New Zealand, so I am very conscious of the ties between our two countries. Although NATO is the cornerstone of our defence, will the Secretary of State comment on the importance of the wider military alliance?

We have a deep and enduring relationship with not only New Zealand, but all “Five Eyes” nations. We are seeing a deepening of that relationship in terms of not just operations, but the sharing of capabilities. Of course, we had the great news of the purchase of Type 26 frigates by the Royal Australian Navy. I was speaking to my counterpart in New Zealand just at the weekend, and we are looking at how we can operate more together to deal with the threats that are emerging in the world.

I echo the comments of other Members who have expressed our thoughts for the families of the Welsh Guards facing deployment.

Yesterday, frustrated by the lack of progress, the US Administration announced that they were going to conduct a comprehensive review of their Afghanistan strategy. The Secretary of State will be aware of Trump’s initial policy to withdraw from Afghanistan when he assumed the presidency. Given that we have now been at war in Afghanistan for 17 years, does this latest deployment indicate that in reality the current strategy is failing?

Over the past few years, we have seen the United States commitment to Afghanistan grow, along with the pressure that it is putting on other partners to contribute to a political solution. The true solution to the situation in Afghanistan is a political process, and that is what we, NATO and the United States are promoting.

Just over 13 years ago, I deployed to Kabul on my first Afghanistan tour, and I found it very rewarding indeed. I wish the Welsh Guards well. The frustration during that first tour was the imbalance in commitment and risk appetite between the NATO countries that made up the Kabul Multinational Brigade. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is not just numbers and budgets that underpin NATO, but member states’ willingness actually to deploy their troops with rules of engagement and a risk appetite that allows them to contribute fully to alliance operations?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct in his assessment of what is needed for resolute support work and to operate in the best possible way. We need those common rules of engagement, and we have to be forward-leaning to ensure that we give the Afghan Government as much support as is needed.