My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence and Minister for Veterans. The Statement is as follows:
“Before I answer the honourable gentleman’s question, I am sure that the whole House will join me in offering our condolences to the families of Corporal Thorpe and Lance Corporal Hashmi, the two soldiers killed on Saturday in Helmand province along with their interpreter. I have no doubt either that I speak for the House in wishing a speedy recovery to the five soldiers injured in the same attack. Our thoughts and prayers are with them all.
“I should also explain first, Mr Speaker, that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has been unable to return to the House in time from his constituency, since the time that we decided to take this Urgent Question.
“The losses of life that our forces have suffered over the past few weeks are a tragedy, but they do not mean that our mission in Afghanistan is somehow confused. The position of our Armed Forces in Afghanistan is clear. First and foremost, our troops are in Afghanistan to ensure that never again is it a safe haven for the likes of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Quite simply, the risks are too great to us, our allies and the Afghan people for us to stand aside and allow the terrorists to return. That overriding aim was clear when my right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced our deployment to Helmand last January, and it is clear today.
“Our forces are our contribution to the expansion of the UN-authorised and NATO-led international security assistance force—ISAF. This is not just a British mission. Danish and Estonian troops are embedded into our forces in Helmand. Overall, 36 nations provide troops for ISAF. They, too, have had their casualties. A Romanian soldier was killed last month. Canadian and US troops have also died.
“That means that they are there to help foster the environment in which the Afghans, with the support of the wider international community, can develop sustainable governing institutions and spread the authority of central government across the country. It means that they are there to help build up the Afghan security forces. They are there to help set the conditions for developing the Afghan economy and infrastructure. As a result of that, it means we also help put in place the sort of environment in which the Afghans, again with international support, can make an impact on the narcotics trade.
“Yes, our Armed Forces have been in action against the Taliban. That was only to be expected. That was why we sent an air-mobile battle group; it was why we sent artillery; and it was why we sent Apache attack helicopters. Let me be candid: we would not have deployed such a formidable package if we did not think that there was a real threat to the safety of our Armed Forces. It was not pulled together on a whim. We did not pick and choose. We sent what the top military advice in the country, the chiefs of staff, said that we should send. So, I want to make it absolutely clear and plain that there has never been a sense that our aims and objectives were unfocused.
“Of course, as with any operation, we keep our forces under review. The House will know that we regularly announce force changes for Iraq, as various formations are deployed in and out of that theatre. Afghanistan is no different. We are working through such a process now. The honourable gentleman will know that it is the intention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to make an announcement on the roulement of 16 Air Assault Brigade before the Recess, but he will not do so until he has received the advice of the chiefs of staff on the precise details of the roulement. That will form part of a much wider NATO process that will be under way in July.
“The House will understand that I cannot go into more detail now. Honourable and right honourable Members can be assured, however, that, despite press reports today, commanders have not asked for extra infantry or air cover. We do not go into this kind of thing in detail, for reasons that the House will understand, but I can go as far as to say that the latest requests to the chiefs of staff, which are part of the planned ongoing analysis, include requests for enablers and engineering equipment. I want to make it clear that these requests were expected from the outset and that, as the campaign continues, we expect more requests from theatre, and that if those do include “combat” elements, we will consider them seriously and immediately, as we always do.
“I must stress, however, that we are only at the start of a three-year operation. Our forces in Helmand only reached their full operating capability this weekend. There is still much to do. We all know that the democratically elected Afghan Government have had little sway in Helmand. It is inevitable that the earliest stages of such an operation will focus heavily on helping the Afghans to create security and stability. Only then can our wider aid and development programmes go forward unimpeded. They have already begun. Once fully under way, they will in turn reinforce security and stability as Helmand’s legitimate economy grows and the rule of law expands and curbs the influence of the Taliban and the drugs traffickers.
“I shall say one final thing: we are committed to the success of the wider international project to help to rebuild Afghanistan. We can best dothat by making a real contribution—political, developmental and military—to the stabilisation of Helmand. Our Armed Forces are doing a magnificent job in making that happen. They should continue to receive the full support of all of us in this House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. We, too, send our condolences to the families of the two soldiers, and their interpreter, who were killed, and we wish a speedy recovery to the five soldiers who were injured in the attack.
I pay tribute to all those service men and women serving in Afghanistan. There is no question that they will receive full support from this side of the House. The question is whether they are all receiving the full support that they are entitled to expect from the Government. The Government have two tasks: to do everything to maximise the success of the mission and to minimise the threat to our troops but it would appear from weekend reports that both are at risk.
The Statement makes it clear that commanders have asked not for extra infantry or air cover but only for enablers and engineering equipment but highly reliable sources on the ground have made it very clear that commanders need more than they have got. I understand that the Minister cannot go into details, but will he specifically confirm in this House thatthe Government have received no requests from commanders on the ground or the chiefs of staff for any additional combat troops, fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters, particularly now that the army has some experience on the ground?
Is the Minister still satisfied that we have sufficient support helicopters, particularly where casualties are involved? My understanding is that there is real concern among those serving in Afghanistan about this issue. Is there sufficient medical support in theatre?
The Commons Defence Committee has already warned that the British force lacks sufficient air support or transport helicopters. Despite radioing for aerial support, the soldiers who managed to fight their way out of the recent ambush were apparently told that no aircraft were available.
While it is recognised that some of our troops may be killed when engaged in a firefight with the Taliban, those troops who were killed were successfully attacked within their own base. The Statement does not recognise this. The daily attacks raise fears over the lack of air cover for vulnerable outposts. It is acceptable to send our troops to Afghanistan but it is not acceptable to have them shot at with impunity.
As the Minister stressed, this is not just a British mission but a coalition. We welcome the fact that some of our NATO allies have made a token contribution. But what representations have the Government made with our NATO partners and European allies to ensure that they really do pull their weight? Are their combatants under the same rules of engagement as our troops?
I accept that reconstruction and opium eradication cannot start until the security situation is more stable. When do the Government anticipate that we may be able to make a start? Senior Taliban recruiting sergeants in Pakistan have revealed how they are smuggling very large numbers of new fighters into Afghanistan, despite Pakistani Government claims that they had tightened border security. What discussions are the Government having with the Pakistan authorities about insurgents crossing from the lawless border areas of Pakistan?
We agree with the Statement that this mission must succeed. The risk of failure is too great to this country, our allies and the Afghan people for us to stand aside and allow the terrorists to return. But the Government must give our Armed Forces the manpower and equipment to get this job done.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and from these Benches we offer our deepest condolences to the families of Corporal Thorpe and Lance Corporal Hashmi, and our sympathy to those who were injured and their families.
I can be relatively brief, given that we had such an extensive debate only last Thursday, which covered many of the issues relevant to the Afghanistan operation. I have some sympathy with the military commanders who are trying to set up what is a difficult and challenging mission, which is in a process of transition from the US coalition to the NATO operation. They are getting a surfeit of advice, I suggest, from all quarters. I do not believe that it is the role of us in Westminster to try to micromanage the tactical decisions in the operational theatre. I agree with the Statement’s assertion that a serious force was sent out. We recognised that at the time when there was cross-party support from us all for the operation. We recognise that it is inevitable that as the situation develops changes will be needed depending on the intelligence gathered.
We need an assurance from Ministers that requests from commanders will be dealt with promptly and will not be resource constrained. This is a real operation that cannot operate with resource constraints. I understand that the Prime Minister has today given such an assurance. In that case, perhaps the Minister will revisit some of the questions we asked on Thursday about mobility and in particular about helicopter lift and how this new opening of the treasure chest might help things. I am happy to give him one suggestion: that he might tonight go back to his office and authorise the necessary work on the eight Chinook HC3s that have been sitting in a shed for some years now, grounded through incompetence in how they were managed before. All that is needed is money to get those helicopters flying again. How long will it take from him making the decision tonight to our getting eight more Chinooks into theatre?
While I accept that the commanders may not at the moment be asking for more close air support, it is clear that the current trend is for more engagements that are likely to cause difficulties in availability of close air support. Indeed, the Sunday Times gave a graphic account of the difficulties for a unit when it is engaged by the enemy and has to wait several hours for close air support to turn up. Will the Minister at least assure us that the Ministry of Defence is looking at options for how this might be taken forward if it looks as though we need extra forces? I am glad that the decision was made not to bring the Harriers home; that was a wise decision in the event but perhaps we need to think about how we rapidly reinforce the Harriers. In all of this, we must not forget our allies who own aircraft that could give close air support and helicopter lift. Are we pressing them to prepare in case they are needed in future?
I mentioned on Thursday the end of the Canberra aircraft. I was at RAF Waddington on Saturday for the farewell to the Canberra. I learnt there—I was not aware of this—of the amount of work that the Canberra PR9 has been doing in Afghanistan over the past four years. It is a unique reconnaissance capability, which will disappear on 31 July, not to be replaced. The Statement referred to enablers. The reconnaissance capability that was there was an enabler; we are losing enablers, not necessarily gaining them.
We, too, support the aims of the Afghanistan operation. We regret that the adventure in Iraq meant that we had done too little, too late in the past four years in Afghanistan. We need to make sure that we do not make that mistake again.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Astor, made a number of points about the Statement, many of which I fundamentally disagree with. His central tenet was that our Armed Forces are not receiving full support from this Government. That is absolutely not the case. As was made clear today by No. 10, if extra resources are needed by our forces, those extra resources will be found. We need to recognise that these issues are, first and foremost, a matter for the military. It is for the military to assess what is required and for military commanders to decide. It is not for politicians to decide, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Garden, for saying that it would be wrong for Westminster to micromanage these issues.
The noble Lord, Lord Astor, mentioned what he called highly reliable sources on the ground, but I think that we should listen to the commanders of our forces in Afghanistan. The commander of the British forces in Helmand has been quoted as saying that they are well trained, well prepared and well equipped. As today's Statement said, there have been no requests for combat troops or air cover. Therehave been requests for enablers and engineering equipment, but if our military commanders decide that they require additional equipment, resources or troops, those will be found.
It must be recognised that we have said from the very beginning that this was going to be a difficult mission. I met the Chief of the Defence Staff this evening before coming to the House and he went through with me the thinking that has gone into this mission. As he said, we always knew that it was going to be a difficult mission, that we would take casualties and that this would be a difficult summer. But the force package was agreed at all levels and was appropriate at the start of the campaign. No campaign evolves exactly as planned: you have to adapt. As I said in the House last week, for a variety of reasons, the pace of this campaign has been faster than we originally anticipated, particularly in the north of Helmand province, and we need to respond to that. The Secretary of State and the Chief of the Defence Staff visit Afghanistan regularly and for some time they have been clear about how the situation is developing. It is important that we do not pay too much attention to whoever these highly reliable sources on the ground may be, or to the press reports that we have seen over the weekend, but that we look at the situation in context.
I do not agree that we accept that our forces are there to be shot at with impunity—quite the opposite. The force package that we have sent is very robust. It is there to protect the people who are engaged in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. As the noble Lord, Lord Garden, said, the need to send artillery and the Air Assault Brigade was recognised from the beginning because of the environment that we were entering. We have recognised from the start the challenge in Helmand, but we know what we are doing and we are up to the task.
My Lords, from the Back Benches I join in giving condolences to those who have suffered in the recent exchanges. The Minister made a reasonable Statement in good faith, but perhaps he will allow me to reflect on the background to the whole business of invading and hoping to secure Afghanistan. To what extent has one reflected on the misfortunes of the Russians in the 19th century and more recently in trying to subject Afghanistan? How many troops did they employ? What were their losses? To what extent are we seeing the development of a situation where our losses begin to match some of those? After all, what we are seeking is not a modest operation; we are seeking to transform the political, economic and social structures of Afghanistan on an almost gargantuan scale. I do not get much encouragement from the fact that it will now be conducted by a multilateral force. A great deal of history shows that a multilateral force is even less effective than one conducted within the nation state. I fear that we are drifting into a policy which is largely American in its inspiration and which holds out little hope of advantage to us.
My Lords, I agree absolutely that we learn the lessons of history, but it is important that we pay attention to the fact that this is a completely different strategic situation. The role of our forces in Afghanistan, as part of a coalition force, is to support the democratically elected Afghan Government, assisting them in the reconstruction of the country's democratic process of governance and helping the development of aid within the country. We must recognise the significant need within that country for aid and how important it is for us to provide such security support as we can to enable that aid to get through, and we make a mistake if we compare what we are attempting today in Afghanistan with the occupations of various imperialist troops in the past.
I disagree with the noble Lord’s criticism of the coalition forces. We have seen the effectiveness of NATO over the past 50 years or so, and it is vital that we work with our coalition partners to provide the environment within Afghanistan in which the rule of law can flourish. That is the precondition for our being able to provide livelihoods which are an alternative to the dominant opium trade in the country. When we recognise that only about 8 per cent of the population of Afghanistan is involved in the narcotics trade but that the economy is dominated by the trade, and when we look at the level of the population that voted in the recent elections, we can see that there is no shortage of support for what we, together with the coalition forces, are attempting to achieve there. I say to the noble Lord that we believe we will be successful in this cause.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Statement. It suggests that the aims with which we set out, the force strength that we have committed and the opposition that we are currently meeting are more or less in line with the Government’s anticipations. That is obviously reassuring but it has to be seen against some quite disturbing eyewitness media accounts, which we have all been reading recently. Nevertheless, one accepts the Government's assurance.
However, I am concerned that we are now exposed on two fronts in two different theatres against insurgents, whose performances are pretty unpredictable and can get extremely unpleasant. In either or both theatres, there will be pressure on some of the supporting elements—the helicopters, the transport and so on. Can the Minister reassure the House that there is sufficient reserve to cope with any increase in the opposition which our forces are meeting in either Iraq or Afghanistan? It would be great to know that reinforcement is available, should it be called upon. I am not asking for details but for confirmation of the general principle that the need for reinforcement could be met if required.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord for highlighting a central point: that much concern has been raised by newspaper reports over the weekend. In those circumstances, it is very important for us to pay clear attention to what our commanding officers—the military officers on the ground—are saying. For example, Lieutenant General David Richards has said, “Bottom line, I am content with what I have and I have the resources required to carry out the mission”. The noble and gallant Lord asks whether we have sufficient reserves to cope with the two main operational theatres that we face today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, we have the reserves to do that. We shall provide additional resources quickly if they are requested by the military commanders. I stress again that decisions on what resources are required in the field are not decisions for politicians to take.
A number of noble Lords have spoken about helicopters. The noble Lord, Lord Garden, asked specifically about the eight grounded Chinooks. I wish the only problem was money. If I could get those eight Chinooks fixed by just throwing money at the problem, the situation would be much simpler to resolve. We are working very hard to find a fix-to-field solution for those Chinooks that makes sense and I hope that we can get that done this year. That is part of a general issue; on a number of occasions we have said to the House that we lack enough helicopter lift. That is absolutely right. We estimate that at about 15 per cent. As we have recently announced, we need to take action on improving the serviceability and availability of our existing fleet and on ordering more helicopters. I want to make it absolutely clear that, if we require more helicopters for our operations in Afghanistan, they will be provided. I understand that military commanders have already authorised additional helicopter hours, which was the point that we discussed in this House about a week ago. We shall look at options for extra resources closely and, if they are requested, they will be provided.
My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that the developing situation with which the Statement is concerned re-emphasises the need for the rules of engagement to be clear, realistic and fit for the developing purposes? Will he undertake to publish in this House the rules of engagement and any extent to which they may be amended?
No, my Lords, absolutely not. Publishing the rules of engagement would just play into the hands of the opposition. It would be very helpful for the opposition to know exactly the rules of engagement under which our forces are operating at any time. Rules of engagement are set by Governments. Different Governments operating within the coalition framework operate under different rules of engagement. That has been the practice for many decades, and is not a particular issue relating to these operations. Despite not being able to disclose to the House the detail of the rules of engagement, I reassure noble Lords that they are absolutely robust enough for the job. In all the issues that have been raised regarding operations in Iraq, there have not been issues relating to firefights. We do not regard any concerns about rules of engagement to be relevant to our operations at present in Afghanistan.
My Lords, I join others in sending my sympathy and condolences to all those who have been affected by these deaths, especially the close families. The Statement focused mainly on the military aspects of the situation, but within that there are important political considerations. On the military, I would like to hear more from the Minister about the training of local Afghan forces to support and to replace the international forces. The Minister spoke of the aim of developing sustainable governing institutions in Afghanistan. It would be good to hear more about the evidence of real progress towards sustainable governing institutions. In that connection, the role of the warlords and poppy cultivation come to mind.
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for highlighting those two very important aspects. On the security forces, two battalions of the Afghan National Army are currently in Helmand province, although they are not at full strength. One of the key roles that we have in the province is to develop the capability of the Afghan National Army and the police. From our experience in Iraq, we know how that can be done. We believe we have been extremely successful with the Iraqi security forces and we regard that as something that will be successful in Afghanistan.
On the police, in January, the latest month for which I have data, there were approximately 1,700 police personnel. We have to be realistic about the reliability of the police within that area, where governance and the rule of law are only beginning to be established. That is why it is so important in that environment in Helmand province, where our troops, as part of the coalition, are providing the security framework to enable the reconstruction to take place, to recognise that we start from a very low base. It is a very challenging area, as it is dominated by narcotics production and by the factions of the warlords and the mafia.
It will take time to address those issues and to provide alternative livelihoods. The strategy that we are adopting is based on the development of so-called “ink spots” of reconstruction, with improvements in governance within a security framework provided by our troops. That strategy has worked extremely successfully in the past and, despite the real challenges which we recognise in Afghanistan, we anticipate that it will work there, too.
My Lords, I believe that I am correct in saying that the Royal Engineers have been building the main British base in Helmand province. Were the two lives that were tragically lost on Saturday lost in the main base or in a separate base? In so far as the Minister can tell the House, how close is the completion of the construction of the main base?
My Lords, I am sure that the House will appreciate that it is just not possible for me to detail the level of construction of our bases. I am sure that noble Lords will understand that we must do nothing in our debate this evening to prejudice the safety of our troops on operations there.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. I remind the House of my peripheral interest. The casualties are, of course, extremely regrettable. Sadly, we know full well that they will not be the last, but it is our duty to provide full moral support.
During a recent oral Question, I asked about the funding for the operation in Afghanistan. The Minister pointed, I think, to £1 billion of funding, but presumably that includes the DfID funding for the provincial reconstruction teams that we hope will do such an important task. No doubt there is much, quite carefully targeted work being done, which is very welcome. Is the military side of the operation funded from the MoD main budget as an enduring operation, or is the operation funded on the same basis as OPTELIC 1? In other words, is the operation an enduring one, funded by the MoD, or an additional one, in which the marginal or avoidable costs are funded from central Government? That is important because the top military advice in the country, referred to by the Minister, was given in the context of a funding envelope, as was the planning.
In another oral Question, my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever asked about helicopters. The Minister stressed the importance of managing the helicopter flying hours. Does that mean that commanders in the field are being rationed on helicopter flying hours, even if it is necessary to avoid breaching logistic limits rather than financial ones? It is fine for the Prime Minister to talk about extra resources being provided if necessary, but no one can do anything about a physical limit.
My noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew asked about the rules of engagement, and the Minister gave absolutely the right answer. The only point to note is that our opponents in these sorts of operations always know exactly what our rules of engagement are. The only people who do not know are Members of Parliament.
The Minister says that necessary manpower resources would be provided if necessary. It is important to remember that, if we wanted to deploy another brigade, we could not. We do not have another brigade. Part of the reason for that is the Bowmanisation project, now on track, which unfortunately takes out a whole brigade, so we currently have extremely limited manpower.
My Lords, let me be crystal clear about funding. There is no sense in which this operation is done to a budget. The operation funding does not come within the MoD’s defence budget; the £1 billion over five years, within which there is a three-year deployment, comes from the reserve.
There is no question of the military being restricted to flying so many hours. It is about managing and planning the operation so that the availability of aircraft, flight crews, spares and logistics is managed coherently, taking into account the fact that we expect this to be a long campaign. This is about sustainability and managing our resources effectively. I say again that, if we require additional resources to do the job, they will be provided.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. It was certainly needed, because of the printed media, television and radio coverage over the weekend. From this side of the House, I entirely endorse the sympathies that we all have for the families of Corporal Thorpe and Lance Corporal Hashmi, together with the family of their interpreter. I hope that the five injured service personnel have a full and speedy recovery.
The Afghan operation received support from all round this House when it was announced. This weekend has clearly demonstrated concerns that a number of people rightly had about how hazardous it was going to be. We may well be faced with other sad stories ahead.
Many of us know the financial pressures that the MoD is under and we have just heard that this money does not necessarily come out of day-to-day budgets. Will the Minister confirm that, should our Armed Forces make a request for additional resources, they will receive not simply what they can get by with but what they absolutely need? We all know that our services have a culture of “can do, will do”, whether they are fully resourced or not. On this occasion, we must take that into account even more.
Finally, are steps being taken with the Government of Pakistan to see what they are going to do to further secure their borders? That is clearly a serious element of this operation.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving me the opportunity to confirm absolutely that we recognise that our forces have a “can do, will do” approach. That is why they are as good as they are. That will be matched by the absolute commitment that was given by No. 10 today, which was repeated in the other place and which I am happy to repeat in this House: if military commanders come to the conclusion that they require further resources, those resources will be provided.
My noble friend also asked about border security. We must recognise that the border geography of the two countries presents a challenge to our Armed Forces, but it is a challenge that—in co-operation with our coalition partners and, most important, with the developing capability of the Afghans themselves—we will in time be able to address.
I note that I did not answer the part of the right reverend Prelate’s question on human rights progress. I shall give your Lordships one example of why our forces are there, providing security for the development of vitally important human rights in Afghanistan: women. Headmasters have been taken out of their schools and beheaded in front of their families and schoolchildren for the so-called crime of teaching girls. Let us look at this country’s progress: 87 women were elected as members of the 351-person National Assembly. In September 2005, despite the level of intimidation, 40 per cent of votes were cast by women. In March 2005, President Karzai appointed the first female governor, to Bamiyan province. More clearly than anything, that tells us what role our Armed Forces are playing in providing the muscle to allow proper governance and human rights to develop in the country.