My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement about UK deployments to Afghanistan.
“On Thursday, I spoke about Afghanistan during the defence debate. I reiterate the enormous debt we owe to the British soldiers who have given their lives, and who have been injured, serving there. I also salute the bravery of all of our forces working to bring about lasting change in Afghanistan.
“On Thursday, I also said we had received requests for additional forces in Helmand and that I would announce our response as soon as possible. I will do that today. But first I want to place this response, and indeed the whole of our deployment to Helmand and Afghanistan as a whole, in its proper context.
“On 11 September 2001, a devastating terrorist attack was launched against the West from within Afghanistan’s borders. This happened at least in part because we abandoned Afghanistan to become a failed state after the Soviet occupation. And this is why it remains overwhelmingly in our national interest to ensure Afghanistan does not revert to a haven for terrorists. It is also in the interests of the Afghan people, the vast majority of whom have no sympathy for terrorism or violent extremism. There are many malign influences holding the Afghans back and we need to fight them, but we should be under no illusion about what is required to succeed. Only by rebuilding Afghanistan, by strengthening its Government, its security forces and its legal system, and by tackling its desperate poverty, will we be able to help Afghanistan make real and lasting progress. I have heard all sides of the House agree that we should help. The UN agrees. NATO agrees. Thirty-six countries are providing troops to seal their agreement. We all agree. Everything we do and say should reflect this consensus.
“It is also important to recognise where our efforts in Helmand stand in relation to the strategy for Afghanistan as a whole. NATO has been in charge of this mission for three years. It has helped generate the confidence for millions of refugees to return, and improved access to better medicine and education. It has followed a clear plan to expand security and reconstruction, from the north, to the west, and now to the more challenging south. We have been engaged in that process throughout, having until recently provided a provincial reconstruction team in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north. The southis more challenging, but this was always well understood—which is why NATO sought a firm platform of progress in the north and west first.
“Let me turn specifically to Helmand. We began deploying to Helmand in February, building up to full operating capability on 1 July. It has been said that we have been over-optimistic about that deployment, that we told the House this would not be difficult and that we sent the wrong force. None of this is true. We said from the start that this was going to be a challenging mission. My predecessor’s Statement to this House on 26 January included a sober assessment of the threat. The force package reflected this. It was designed by the military and endorsed by the Chiefs of Staff. It contained attack helicopters, artillery and armoured vehicles. We deployed tough, capable units, with robust rules of engagement, because we expected violent resistance.
“We knew that the Taliban, the drugs lords and certain tribal elements would resist any attempt to bring security to the people of Helmand. We knew that the kind of people who behead teachers, burn schools, smuggle drugs and assassinate government officials were not likely to stand by and allow progress to happen. Yes, we have taken casualties, but we have overmatched the opposing forces every single time we have faced them. They have tried to block our deployment, and failed. They will continue to try to disrupt our mission—and they will fail again.
“Let me turn now to that mission. Some say it is confused and that it is spurious to say that this is about reconstruction, when the reality for soldiers has been fighting. We always knew that there was a probability of violent resistance. That is why we sent soldiers to do this task. But that does not change our overriding purpose—which is to rebuild.
“We have been accused of naïvety by drawing a distinction between the ISAF mission to spread security and the US-led mission focused on counter-terrorism. But this distinction is not naïve at all. In both cases, soldiers will have to fight, but the nature of the ISAF mission reflects the fundamental fact that we will not reach a lasting peace simply by killing all who oppose us. We will reach it when Afghanistan has changed; when the Government have been able to deliver such security, development and prosperity that the ordinary Afghans will no longer tolerate terrorists and criminals in their midst. This is why rebuilding is our mission. Our forces on the ground understand this. The Afghans understand this. The mission is simple; it is the delivery that is complex.
“That complexity arises from the situation. Three decades of conflict have stripped the south of all signs of governance and robbed many Afghans of hope. And in that uncontrolled space, violence, criminality, narcotics and extremism have flourished. We have confronted these threats and learnt much about them since we deployed. As with any deployment, these experiences have allowed us to review our forces and our approach. That is what we have been doing in recent weeks. Let me explain why we need to adjust and strengthen our force structure in Helmand.
“The original intent was to tackle the challenges incrementally, spreading security and reconstruction from the centre of Helmand out. But commanders on the ground grasped an early opportunity. They saw the chance to reinforce the position of the local governor, the Afghan Army and police by going into northern Helmand and challenging the impunity of the Taliban there. In doing this, we moved faster towards achieving our ultimate objectives, but we extended ourselves. This is a development we must respond to. But our actions have brought about this development—our decisions and our determination to grasp the challenge. It is not, as some suggest, a failure to anticipate a violent response to our arrival. Yes, the violence has increased, but that was inevitable. We are challenging the power of the Taliban and other enemies of the Afghan Government, and they are reacting. But despite their efforts, we are spreading security.
“Our commanders have asked for additional forces to secure these early advances in the more remote communities in the north, while also being able to make progress in central Helmand. Last Monday, I said I was aware of ongoing work on additional resources. I was also aware that as part of this process, the chiefs of staff were going back to operational commanders and urging them to ensure they had asked for everything they needed. This iterative process produced a recommendation which I received on Thursday, as I said in the House on that day. I and the chiefs of staff have considered this recommendation and I have now endorsed it. I am grateful for the support and assistance of other departments, especially the Treasury, in working through the necessary detail of this process as quickly as possible.
“Let me outline the key elements of this additional force. To accelerate the reconstruction effort in the current security environment, we will deploy 320 engineers from the Royal Engineers, 28 Engineer Regiment, to start projects to improve local infrastructure. A company from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines will provide force protection for them. These deployments will take place in September. We will deploy an additional infantry company, drawn from the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, to provide more mobile forces, and two platoons, from the 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment, to provide additional force protection. There will be small increases in headquarters staff. We will also boost our medical and logistical support to reflect the increase in troop numbers.
“We will step up our efforts to build the capacity of the Afghan National Army. These brave soldiers have fought side by side with us in recent months and are the key to our eventual exit strategy. We are therefore deploying additional staff in Helmand, and to the regional Army headquarters for the south. Great strides have been made already in this essential task and, following the forthright discussions I had with Afghan Defence Minister Wardak, additional Afghan troops have been sent to Helmand. More will follow. There are also around 2,300 Afghan police and military in Helmand, building to 4,800 or so in 2007.
“As with previous deployments, there will be a requirement to deploy reservists. There are some 150 reservists serving in the joint operational area, including members of the sponsored reserves. Some 450 call-out notices will be served on individual reservists to fill approximately 400 posts in theatre. One of the main reasons for the increase in reservist numbers is the planned deployment of100 reservist personnel from 212 Field Hospital.
“These enhancements—some 870 personnel—will place additional demands on our air transport. We have already increased the flying hours available for attack and support helicopters, as requested by commanders. Today I can say that we will also be making more support helicopters and one additional Hercules C-130 available. We also plan to deploy a radar installation, provided by No 1 Air Control Centre, Royal Air Force.
“All these additional deployments will be made as soon as possible. But I also want to cover the planned changes to the force structure resulting from the roulement in October, when the units currently comprising the Helmand task force, drawn predominantly, but not solely, from 16 Air Assault Brigade, will complete their tours. They will be replaced by units drawn principally from3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, including 42 and 45 Commando, and other supporting elements including 12 Signal Regiment.
“This roulement will also involve a change to the force structure, reflecting the differences in the two brigades’ structures and equipment, including the requirement to support the Commandos’ Viking armoured vehicles. This represents around an additional 125 personnel.
“The House will also be aware that last month I announced the deployment of 130 personnel from 34 Squadron of the Royal Air Force to increase force protection at Kandahar airfield.
“This is a complex picture. Some troops will be going immediately, others in October; some will constitute an enduring addition, others are being deployed on a surge basis. But as a result of today’s announcement, the steady-state size of the Helmand task force will increase between now and October from some 3,600 to some 4,500 personnel.
“I am aware that our Armed Forces are heavily committed. As I said in the personnel debate, around 18 per cent of the Army is currently deployed on operations. This is challenging, but sustainable. Taking into account deployments in Iraq and the planned increase in personnel to Afghanistan, most of our deployable units will operate outside harmony guidelines. I do not accept this lightly, but I do believe it is necessary, and judging by comments made in this House in recent months, so do the majority of honourable Members. We will do all we can to minimise the impact of this, and we will continue to seek further contributions from our NATO partners to relieve the pressure in some of these areas.
“Some commentators have suggested that there are insufficient infantry soldiers deployed in comparison to the force’s overall size. Let me be clear that the delivery of this mission is not borne by the infantry alone, and it does a disservice to a great many brave men and women to suggest otherwise. Of the six deaths in Afghanistan since the deployment, half have been from other arms. The infantry do have a challenging task, but so do all our forces in Afghanistan. Airpower, artillery, light armour and others are involved in combat. But the work done by the provincial reconstruction team, the training teams, and those who enable the others to operate is every bit as essential to eventual success. Some more infantry are indeed deploying, but the fundamental balance of combat forces to others carrying out vital roles will not change. This is because the mission has not changed.
“There have been questions raised about the capability of NATO, and of the intentions of the US. NATO now has many more troops, to reflect the greater challenge in the south. Rules of engagement have been made more robust. This morning I spoke to Commander ISAF, General David Richards. He told me that in the south there were effectively no caveats placed by nations on the use of their forces. Across Afghanistan he was seeing a new NATO where such caveats were becoming a thing of the past. He also said he was confident he had the forces to do the job, and that he had been encouraged to see nations suchas Germany and Spain considering making additional forces available.
“I believe that NATO is thoroughly fit for this role. It has been suggested that because it does not have forces in every province, it cannot succeed. But this misses the fundamental point that we are in a stage when NATO is expanding in Afghanistan. Months ago, there were no NATO troops in the south at all, and few US troops. Soon there will be nearly 9,000 in the south, part of a total of around 18,500. NATO is building on a success that many seem determined to ignore.
“As for the US, last week I spoke to General John Abizaid, the US commander responsible for Afghanistan and Iraq. He was absolutely clear about the US commitment to Afghanistan. The US is not leaving this to NATO. It is part of NATO and is likely to be the biggest force contributor in Afghanistan for some time to come. Accusations that it is abandoning NATO are misplaced.
“Lastly, I want to address counter narcotics. I said that stability was the key to Afghanistan’s future. Part of that stability must be delivered by the Afghan Government facing up to the evil of narcotics. President Karzai’s personal commitment to this has been clear, and we must help. Again, the aim is simple, even if the implementation is difficult, and it is the same aim as for all other aspects of our task—to rebuild. We will make a lasting impact on the narcotics industry only by strengthening all aspects of Afghan life, so the economy can function without drugs money and farmers have alternative livelihoods to turn to. This will take time but the process must start now.
“Our soldiers are not narcotics police and we do not ask them to be. They are not waging a narcotics war; they will not destroy poppy fields and fight farmers for bags of opium—they are helping to create the conditions of security and development in which the narcotics industry will be weakened and eventually driven out by the Afghans themselves.
“I trust that I have made my position clear. My decisions on these matters have been shaped by what I saw and heard when visiting Afghanistan. Our people there are doing a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances. They know why they are there. They recognise the importance of their task. They have achieved a great deal already and I intend to give them what they need to secure these achievements and help the Afghans towards the stable future they deserve”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, in thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement, I am bound to express concern that what it has told us today clearly comes as more of a surprise to the noble Lord and his ministerial colleagues than to the rest of us. The defensive tone of the Statement and the confession that this deployment is outside harmony guidelines is surely an admission that we have an insufficiently large standing Army. The cuts forced through by this Government are now putting enormous strain on our troops and their families.
The Statement follows a week of confused anouncements by the MoD. It is now painfully clear that several of the planning assumptions made in preparing for this deployment have proved to be disastrously mistaken. The military strength and resourcefulness of the Taliban are considerably greater than in the optimistic scenario adopted by Ministers. The Statement points out that the mission deliverance is complex. I hope that our servicemen and women really do understand what they are supposed to be doing there.
There are a number of gaps of detail in the Statement. Will the Chancellor be funding the additional reinforcements? Will troop numbers be increased for the training of the Afghan army? The Afghan national forces, army and police, with which our troops were to co-operate, have proved inadequate and unreliable. What representations have the Government made to their German colleagues responsible for training the Afghan police, to ensure that there is a vetting procedure to prevent Taliban infiltration?
The Minister failed to answer a number of the questions that I asked in response to last week's Statement. I will therefore put them to him again. What discussions are the Government having with the Pakistan authorities about insurgents crossing from the lawless border areas of Pakistan? When do the Government anticipate the reconstruction and opium eradication can start? When will we see NGOs on the ground? Is there sufficient medical support in theatre? We welcome the extra medical support mentioned in the Statement, but is it enough?
We welcome the extra support helicopters. How many will be sent and when? Will the Minister assure me that they will not come from Iraq? The Apache has clearly been successful in Afghanistan. Will more be sent? We welcome the additional company and two platoons of infantry, but does the Minister seriously believe that this is a sufficiently large fighting force? These reserves are coming from Cyprus and form part of the essential reserve force for both Afghanistan and Iraq. From where will they be replaced? We welcome the extra engineers and logistical support to improve the local infrastructure. We have few enough resources to conduct a parallel “hearts and minds” campaign to entice the local population to back us.
The Statement says:
“We always knew that there was a probability of violent resistance”.
But it was only last April that John Reid optimistically remarked that it may not be necessary for British troops to engage the Taliban because their primary role was reconstruction, not counterinsurgency. Our Armed Forces are now having to seek out the Taliban, something that Ministers said was never part of the mission. Do the Government now appreciate what our troops are likely to be taking on?
There really must be a full debate in this House on the strategic context of the deployment of our Armed Forces in Afghanistan. We on these Benches have been asking for that for months, but the request has been rejected by the Government. Ministers have a duty, not only to Parliament, but to our Armed Forces, to bring these issues to both Houses to enable full debate on the purposes and progress of this mission. I cannot understand how the Minister responsible for defence issues in this House cannot support a debate.
This mission to Afghanistan must succeed. We will all be the losers if we are eventually forced to abandon Afghanistan. We shall have shown that we lack the will and skill to restore a failed state. All NATO members have to recognise how high the stakes are and that NATO's reputation and future is on the line.
Our troops in Afghanistan have our full support. Once again, the Government are relying on their courage to make good the shortcomings, in preparation and in judgment, of those who have sent them into action.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for relaying the Statement and providing me with an early copy of it. As I have said on previous occasions, from these Benches we support the mission in Afghanistan while regretting that the hapless adventure in 2003 into Iraq has meant that we have failed to give Afghanistan the priority that it was both promised and deserved, as the Statement tells us. While Iraq was not then a threat to the UK, even if it has now become one, Afghanistan was different. It provided a safe haven for al-Qaeda training camps, which produced thousands of terrorist graduates, some of which have already committed mayhem around the world, against British citizens, among others. To those problems, we must now add the flourishing narco-economy, which supplies the majority of heroin on our streets. We therefore have a direct and real security interest in the long-term stability of this war-torn land.
I do not join in the criticism on the definition of the mission. Unlike in Iraq, I agree that we have a coherent strategy in Afghanistan, which tries to bring together the political, economic and security dimensions. That is a good start—but making it happen is difficult and, as the Statement says, it is delivery that is complex. We focus very much on British involvement, but we must bear in mind all the time that this is a multinational effort and ensure that all components of that multinational effort keep in step in Afghanistan. It is entirely reasonable for our commanders on the ground to assess the situation, take opportunities, as the Statement tells us they did, to exploit particular openings—in this case to reinforce part of the north of Helmand province—and then to revise the force levels accordingly and change the mix if necessary. I welcome the fact that the Government have responded quickly to the commanders’ needs.
All of us who have followed what has been going on in Afghanistan have come to the same conclusion—that increased mobility for our forces is an important enabler. We have heard from across the Benches in the various debates the importance of transport helicopters. They are in demand for all operations, but are particularly important both in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Statement makes a rather vague reference to what is being provided in terms of extra flying hours and extra airframes. Does the Minister know how many extra helicopters there will be, what sort they are and what percentage of extra hours will be done? Whichever the answer is in terms of hours or airframes, it is not that that is the problem; the problem is providing the air crew to fly the helicopters. In answer to my Written Question on 24 May, the Minister showed just how hard-pressed the Royal Air Force Chinook, Merlin and Puma and the Royal Navy Sea King crews are already. What effect will the new level of activity have on our ability to train more helicopter crews, which we so badly need—if we are sending people forward, they cannot train people back at home; and on the excessive overstretch felt by this particular component, the helicopter air crew?
The phased enhancement of troop numbers is appropriate in reaction to the operational developments described in the Statement. The question there is what consequential effects there will be by having unplanned extra deployments and reinforcements going forward. What will be the effect on the training plans for those forces and on other theatres of operations? Will the Minister assure us that the Ministry of Defence is looking urgently at where it might scale back other commitments that our forces have? We keep on having the promise that things will be done, but could the Minister write to us with a series of things that will be done to reduce the load on our forces when it is possible?
I was astonished to see a month ago that we seem again to be volunteering for the guardroom by offering an enhancement to our NATO response force package for next year. We do not want to go looking for extra tasks at the moment—and when we look at the figures in the Statement, a snapshot of 18 per cent is meaningless. It is a question of what is the sustained effort that we are asking our forces to undertake—and for some specialists it is a continual load that goes on year after year, causing problems with retention, training and experience level.
I especially draw attention to the question of the reservists and the medical side. We have spoken about it before; the Statement says that we shall enhance the medical capabilities out there and we are using reservists for it. At the same time, when we dealt with reservists, the Government announced that we were reducing the number of medical reservists. Does that mean that we are going to reconsider that part of the equation now that we know that we need more?
The question of providing on-call close air support is not addressed in the Statement. The media have focused on Apaches, and there is some mention of them—although the problem with providing extra hours in that case is also a problem of providing extra crews to do it. But the Afghan veterans of the guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation do not fear helicopters as much as they fear ground attack fighters. The F16s and the Harriers can respond more quickly when our troops get into difficulty, and we have to ensure that we have an adequate number on quick reaction for that. If we are not sending more—and the Statement seems to suggest that we are not—what are we doing to generate more from our NATO allies?
That brings me to the effect that our change in the assessment of what forces we need has on our NATO allies. NATO assumes command at the end of this month in the south and some of the allied forces that we have mentioned have yet to deploy. Can the Minister tell us what briefing has been given to the North Atlantic Council to advise it of our changed perception of the requirement, and whether that has had an effect on the planned deployments by our allies? And what about phase four of this operation? We are only in phase three at the moment—the south. As the Statement says, we have done the north and the west and we are now doing the south, but we have yet to go to the east. Is that still on schedule for next year, or do we have a reappraisal of that?
Finally, I note that your Lordships seem to be establishing a routine, in that every Monday we have a Statement on Afghanistan, yet we are only two weeks from the Recess, which means that we shall not have an opportunity again until mid-October to discuss these matters. The Government in my view were very unwise to go back on their undertaking to have a debate in your Lordships' House on the overall policy towards Afghanistan and Iraq—and I am glad to see that the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, is in his place, because he needs to lead in that debate. So how does the Minister see Parliament being kept in the loop through what may be some very difficult challenges in both operational theatres—Iraq and Afghanistan—throughout the summer?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Garden, for the clear and supportive tone that he took in responding to the Statement, which was in stark contrast to that of the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, who used language that really belies the situation in which we find ourselves. To describe the series of announcements that we have been through over the past week as confused is, frankly, unfair. My right honourable friend has kept the Houses of Parliament fully apprised of the situation as it develops, and those who are aware of the way in which troop deployments are reviewed and assessed by the military through the chain of command will know that the process takes time. It is a rapid process, considering the scale of the decisions that have to take place, but it cannot be short-circuited. It has to be done by the military commanders on the ground and should not be party to interference or micromanagement by Westminster.
The process that we have been through has been perfectly clear, in that the military commanders on the ground went through a review process at the point when full deployment took place for the first time, on 1 July. They were asked by my right honourable friend to ensure that when they undertook that review they made absolutely sure that they were truly asking for all that they need. Those requests have then been reviewed very speedily indeed by Ministers, in collaboration and discussion with other government departments, notably the Treasury, and a decision has been made very rapidly. That is why I can come to this House today and update the House on this further deployment. To describe our initial deployment as “disastrous” is totally inaccurate. This is a response to a successful deployment, which has been able to move into the northern part of Helmand province earlier than had been anticipated. That requires a reshaping of the profile of the forces necessary, and that is what we are doing.
I turn to the specific questions I have been asked by the noble Lords opposite. Yes, there have been clear representations to our NATO colleagues about the vetting procedures for Afghan police. Noble Lords will note in the Statement that additional forces are being provided to support the training of the Afghan police and army.
I have been asked when reconstruction will start. We have already seen significant improvement. The reconstruction efforts that have taken place through the cross-government collaboration between DfID and the Foreign Office—as my noble friend from that department who has joined me on the Front Bench will know—are making a real change on the ground in Afghanistan. We have seen the number of functioning health clinics increase by 60 per cent. Over 11 million children have been immunised. Two thousand schools have been rebuilt or rehabilitated. This is not the first time I have given the House these data. Why am I being asked when reconstruction will start?
I have been asked about Pakistan. It has been a close ally since the operations in Afghanistan began. We have worked closely with Pakistan to ensure that our deployment and our efforts to tackle the Taliban are well co-ordinated. However, the key to long-term stability will be closer relations between the Governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although there have been differences of opinion lately, there have been some constructive visits that bode well for the strengthening of ties and co-operation.
Both noble Lords have asked about support helicopters. We have discussed that issue, particularly medium and heavy lift helicopters, a number of times in this House of late. We freely accept that we have a deficiency in the total level of helicopter capability. We in the Ministry of Defence are working hard on this. I am personally responsible for ensuring that all action is taken on support helicopters. As the House will be aware, there have been some announcements recently.
I am not at this stage able to come to the House and give the precise numbers and types of helicopters we will deploy. We discussed whether or not it was appropriate to hold back the Statement until we were in a position to do so. We will know that in the next few days, and we will inform the House at that time. I can confirm to the noble Lord opposite, however, that those helicopters will not be coming from Iraq. As I mentioned when repeating the Statement, we are already increasing the helicopter hours. The noble Lord, Lord Garden, with his great experience in this area, knows the considerable logistical crew training spares effect that such a decision has. It is important for us to ensure that all of this is coherent across our helicopter force, and that we have people focused on the matter right now. We are actively working through the implications for crew training and other factors. I will be happy to write to the noble Lord and give him full details on that once the final decisions have been made about helicopter deployment.
The noble Lord opposite asked me directly whether I believe the force is sufficiently large. Frankly, the most important thing is whether our military commanders believe that, and then it is up to Ministers to make sure they get that force and the resources to support it. I can tell the House that that is the case. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has spoken today to the commander of BRITFOR, Brigadier Ed Butler, and made absolutely sure that he is happy that the force he is getting is up to the task. We will continue to do that. The Government are committed to making sure that we win in Afghanistan, and that we are able to support that country in building a stable, democratic country and in turning its back on the Taliban and narcotics.
My Lords, did my noble friend find it as extraordinary as I did to hear the Front Bench spokesman for the Opposition say that possibly our troops do not know what they are doing there? First, that flies in the face of all the statements made by senior officers in public. Secondly, it suggests that the troops of 30 other nations also do not know what they are doing. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, our troops are extremely well trained, not least because of their experiences in Northern Ireland, in dealing with intensely complex situations, instead of the old confrontational situations that used to apply in the distant past when people like me were in the Armed Forces. They no longer apply. It certainly does not help our troops to hear it being suggested, in this House or anywhere else, that they do not know what they are doing there.
Absolutely, my Lords. I am grateful to my noble friend, who makes the point excellently. Our troops know exactly why they are in Afghanistan. The chain of command ensures that that is clear. We have every confidence that with that clarity they will succeed in their goal.
My Lords, the Minister will recognise that having got ourselves involved in Afghanistan, for reasons I think the great majority of people appreciate and understand, it is vital that we do not fail. That is important for the reputation and safety of our own country, and for the reputation and safety of NATO.
It was stated by the chairman of the Defence Committee in another place, who has just been in Afghanistan, that there is a story that the continuing activity of the Harriers—which the noble Lord, Lord Garden, has indicated are playing a hugely important role—is sanctioned by the Treasury on the condition that it is at no extra cost. I did not quite understand the Secretary of State’s reply to that question. Can the Minister categorically state that it is not true? It would be extremely serious if it were.
I think this is the first time the Government have recognised in a public Statement how very stretched the Armed Forces are. We are at a very challenging time, and the Armed Forces are heavily committed. That affects both our regular forces and our reservists. In that connection, the Minister has said that the Chiefs of Staff have been going back to the operational commanders to ensure they get what they want. That is a NATO undertaking. General Richards, to whom he referred, is a NATO commander. Will the Minister give an assurance that any requests that have been made to NATO allies have been met? What is the likelihood that we will have significant reinforcement in our own rather stretched situation?
My Lords, I am happy to provide the House with the clear confirmation that there is no Treasury cap on spending for the Harrier force or any other aspect. The Treasury has provided the funds—from the reserves, I stress, not from the defence budget—for this operation. The additional funds that have become necessary because of the re-profiling and the new forces we describe in the Statement today have been agreed by the Treasury.
The noble Lord has raised the issue of air support. It is important for us to stress that the provision of close air support, as also highlighted by the noble Lord opposite, is the responsibility of NATO overall. Part of our role is to make sure that we are making full representations to our NATO partners in the provision of resources. Close air support in the future will be one of those matters.
As has been stated a number of times recently, it is important to recognise what an important test Afghanistan is for NATO in the 21st century. There is a clear mandate from the United Nations and total international support for the mission. It is a chance for NATO to show its effectiveness. Recent progress, highlighted by the commander, General Richards, shows that we are seeing a stepping up from coalition partners to provide forces alongside our own.
My Lords, the noble Lord referred rightly to the reconstruction efforts. I believe he said that 2,000 schools had been refurbished and reopened. He may have to reply to my next point by letter, but how many of those 2,000 schools are in full and regular use? In the Statement, the Minister referred to a C130 Hercules aircraft, but it is not mentioned in my printed version, which suggests that it came rather late to his brief. Is there an explanation for that? We are all concerned about Pakistan, not merely about the sealing of the border, so far as is possible, but with the generation of support for the Taliban in many rural madrassas in the north-west and north-east provinces. I hope that the Minister will obtain from his noble friend Lord Triesman some indication of the support that is being given to the president of that country in his efforts to get those rural madrassas included in the national curriculum and thus divert them from indoctrinating young people in jihad.
My Lords, the 2,000 schools which I mentioned are operating. Part of what we are doing comprises helping to create a secure environment whereby children can go to those schools. The number of schools that are operating fluctuates day by day. There are now 6 million children in school in Afghanistan and, importantly, more than a third are girls. If I can provide further information on the number of schools operating, I shall write to the noble Lord.
The noble Lord asked about the C130. The Statement referred to the C130 and there is no reason why that should not be included in the noble Lord’s copy. I am happy to confirm that the C130 is part of the force package that we shall deploy.
The noble Lord asked about the curriculum. He made a good point about indoctrination, which has taken place. We need to focus priorities. The number one priority is to address the real deficiencies in the country’s water, electricity, roads and basic education infrastructure. We also need to push back the indoctrination to which people have been subjected.
My Lords, I am delighted to hear my noble friend’s vigorous assertion that Her Majesty’s forces will in no way be involved in operations against the narcotics industry in Afghanistan. I can imagine nothing that would make their task more difficult, were they to become embroiled in any such activities. Will my noble friend assure us that no other elements of the NATO forces there are under domestic pressure to engage themselves in the affairs of the narcotics industry in Afghanistan?
My Lords, as the lead nation, we have responsibility for counter narcotics. I am happy to give the assurance that we are clear about the importance of separating the security role from eradication efforts. Eradication is the responsibility of Afghanistan. It is our responsibility to provide the governance and security environment whereby the rule of law can flourish such that that industry can be addressed, and thus help the important efforts to provide alternative livelihoods.
My Lords, given the level of commitment which the Government are showing in Afghanistan, is the Minister happy about the general recruitment that is taking place and the training that has to follow because this constitutes an increase in the Ministry of Defence’s requirements?
My Lords, I am not satisfied that more could not be done to improve recruitment. That is an area in which we are very active. The noble Lord may be aware of the recent one-army advertising campaign, which has been very effective. The Army, as part of the Armed Forces, is seeing an improvement in recruitment in response to campaigns, which in turn are a response to the challenges that we face. However, despite the challenges which I have set out, we can cope with the situation. While recognising the very real efforts that need to be made to ensure that we meet our commitments and those challenges, it is important that we do not conflate those with our operational tasks. I am concerned that the media are doing that. We need to separate the two. We need to ensure that we modernise and reform our Armed Forces to meet the challenges that they face in the 21st century while being absolutely clear that in both Iraq and Afghanistan we will provide our forces with what they need to win.
My Lords, some years ago when people on both sides of the Atlantic celebrated the demise of, and victory over, the Taliban, I said in this Chamber that the Taliban would leave Afghanistan when it wished, that it would return when it wished, and that it would probably return stronger, having restructured and reconstituted itself. I feel that at the moment we are seeing a probing attack by a fairly small number of the Taliban and their friends within Afghanistan. As history has shown, traditionally in Afghanistan there is a measure whereby they can concentrate very large forces when they want from the safety of a position over a border or from somewhere snug in the hills, which are unapproachable.
I have nothing against what has been said from the Government Benches, but my worry in all this is that we are in a very weak position when it comes to a quick reaction force or reserves. I see very little chance of getting reserves there in time. Saying that there is another company and two platoons of infantry does not really constitute the theory of having an immediate force to go to the help of someone in trouble.
We talk about what is in Cyprus and in the UK and about what our NATO allies nearby, and particularly our American friends, can do to help us. However, I see the weakness in all this—that the UK contingent, the UK military, has no reserves. That includes fighting, heavy lift, logistic helicopters, the capability to operate at night and the capability of quickly finding a reserve when in crisis. For me, that is the weakness of the United Kingdom at present.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount, who has considerable experience of these matters. Therefore, I listened very carefully to his concern about reserve forces. I and my ministerial colleagues quiz force commanders very closely on these matters. We ask them whether they are satisfied that they have what they need to do the job. They have said yes. However, we need to monitor the situation as it develops. We need to keep on asking that question to ensure that our forces are provided with what they need to do the job.
My Lords, following on from my noble friend’s question, which I do not think the noble Lord addressed, how is Parliament to be informed about Afghanistan and Iraq during the long Summer Recess? I believe that there was to be a debate on Iraq and Afghanistan on 4 July, but it was postponed. What are the Minister and his colleagues doing to ensure that we have a debate on those countries as soon as is possible?
My Lords, as the noble Baroness will be aware, debates in this House are a matter for the usual channels. I am very happy to provide support to noble Lords in the form of briefing and information on any matters, including Afghanistan. It is for the usual channels to decide how we debate these issues and Parliament will be kept informed about them during the Recess in the usual way.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend because I am able to inform the House that today my right honourable friend the Secretary of State had discussions with his opposite numbers in both Canada and the United States, for example, and had a positive and robust response in terms of their commitment and support to this mission.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Statement and absolutely agree with him that our soldiers and servicemen out there know what they are about. However, I also agree with what the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, said about reserves; I have written to the Minister about this. I still look at what General Richards, has and he has no theatre reserve. In our discussions with NATO, I hope we are talking to it about providing a proper theatre reserve for the theatre commander.
Secondly, the Minister has outlined what I think is a hugely ambitious strategy in a country that has never been governed properly. That strategy will demand considerable forces on the ground. Can he reassure me that we have done some worst-case planning and that we know that we can reinforce at very short notice the British contingent in Helmand province?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord who really knows what he is talking about when he asks these questions. As he says, he has written to me and discussed with me his concern regarding the theatre reserve and the NATO response to it. This is an area which Ministers have quizzed commanders on to ensure that they are satisfied. I believe it is a matter which we need to continue to press and we recognise that.
It is important for us to recognise the way in which NATO is developing. It has been said that people had concerns in our initial deployments in the north and the west and about Kabul being an ungoverned area. We have seen the success of the deployment as it has moved through the country. We are now in the very challenging area in the southern province of Helmand and it is an ambitious strategy to support this country in its journey back to a stable state. However, there is no alternative for us in doing this. There is no option whereby we walk away from Afghanistan. That would be absolutely against the interests and security of the people in this country as well as being the wrong thing to do in support of Afghanistan, which, as I described earlier, has developed remarkably over the recent past. We recognise that it is going to take time to be able to help rebuild that country. It is a difficult process, and we are realistic in doing so. We will provide the resources to our forces, alongside their partners in DfID and the Foreign Office to make this support a success.
My Lords, I wonder if the noble Lord could say a little more about reservist deployment. I declare an interest as Chairman of the National Employer Advisory Board for the Reserves. It looks as though, as in Iraq, 10 per cent or so of the deployed forces in Afghanistan will be reservists. Of those 400 or so who are to be mobilised, will they be regular reserves or from the volunteer reserves? What are their roles likely to be in addition to those who are going to be deployed with the field hospital? Can he also be certain that the full 28 days’ warning time can be given to those individuals so that their employers, and hence their businesses, can prepare accordingly?
My Lords, the noble Lord, with his experience, is aware of the importance of making sure that we do everything to ensure that the employers and the reservists themselves are given every notice. I will write to him and give him details on this. I do not have the full information with me today.