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, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I should like to start by expressing my deepest condolences to the families and friends of the brave servicemen who have lost their lives since I last spoke to the House on 24 July. Five soldiers have died on operations in Iraq, all killed in action. Twenty-seven personnel from all three services have died in Afghanistan, 11 of them killed in action, and 16 have been lost in other incidents, including those killed in the RAF Nimrod crash on 2 September. Others have been wounded, and our thoughts should be with them also.
“Let me turn first to Iraq. The House will be aware of the escalation of sectarian violence in recent months, particularly in and around Baghdad. The combined Iraqi and American Baghdad security plan, which I was briefed on in Baghdad in August, just before it began, is a major initiative aimed at improving security for all the communities in the city. The security element is closely followed by co-ordinated projects to improve basic services, backed by $400 million of funding. In those areas that have so far been cleared of terrorists and sectarian gangs, with 1,700 weapons seized, citizens are reporting better security and are starting to see improvements in their daily lives.
“That said, however, the overall level of violence across the city, including sectarian killings, remains unacceptable. There was further evidence of this today. But the plan is still in its early stages and there is impressive commitment from American, coalition and Iraqi forces.
“In the UK’s area of operation in south-east Iraq, the biggest challenges lie in Basra city. Two weeks ago, Iraqi and UK forces began a large-scale operation moving through the city sector by sector, strengthening security and improving basic services. One important element of the operation is a renewed effort to improve the capacity of the Iraqi police and to address infiltration by militias. The operation also includes clean-up projects, agriculture projects and projects to improve basic services, including bringing clean drinking water to a part of the city which has never had it before.
“Elsewhere in the south-east, in September Dhi Qar became the second province to be handed over to the Iraqi authorities, following Al Muthanna in July. We should congratulate the Iraqis on this achievement and also our international partners.
“In terms of future planning for the UK in Iraq, I can confirm that the force package for the next routine roulement in November, in which 19 Light Brigade takes over from 20 Armoured Brigade, is essentially that which I outlined in my announcement to the House on 18 July. I should also draw the House’s attention to my Written Statement on 11 September, which confirmed a temporary deployment of 360 troops, including specialists such as engineers to help to deliver the Basra projects I described earlier, and elements of the Theatre Reserve Battalion to provide support during the roulement period. Excluding the temporary deployment, this will leave our force level in Iraq at approximately 7,100.
“We should be in no doubt that this is a decisive period in the future of Iraq. There is much debate here in Britain, in America and of course in Iraq about the best way forward. But all agree that military means alone will not be decisive. This is especially true now, when it is clear that sectarianism and the struggle for power have emerged as a major threat to Iraq’s security. What is required above all is a political solution. That must include a genuine effort at national reconciliation, drawing all Iraq’s communities into a political process and away from violence. Prime Minister Maliki and his Government are trying to deliver this. We and our coalition partners must do all we can to support them and strengthen their resolve—so, too, must the international community as a whole, and Iraq’s near neighbours in particular.
“Let me now turn to Afghanistan. The achievements and losses of our forces in Helmand province rightly have been the focus of our attention in the past two months. The work our forces are doing there is difficult, dangerous and exhausting. I salute them—particularly the men and women of 16 Air Assault Brigade, who are coming home, having been relieved by 3 Commando. I shall be visiting them tomorrow to thank them in person but today, on behalf of the whole House, I should like formally to record our recognition of the bravery, professionalism and sacrifice of this brigade and all those from across the three services who supported them during this tour.
“On the fifth anniversary of our intervention in Afghanistan, we should reflect on the progress our efforts have brought about: 2,000 schools built; 5 million children in school, one-third of them girls; more than 70 new hospitals and clinics; 4.5 million refugees returning home. This is not a failing mission.
“NATO, in the shape of the ISAF force, and under the leadership of General Richards, now has responsibility for the whole of Afghanistan. But as we know, the summer has seen fierce fighting. As I made clear in a speech last month, the persistence of the Taliban was greater than we expected. Such is the nature of operations: the enemy always has a vote and we have adapted. But let me repeat, the force package we deployed, and which we have strengthened further over the summer, was designed to deal with violent resistance, and in every encounter with the Taliban our forces have defeated it. Moreover, by attacking us directly, the Taliban has taken heavy losses, both in northern Helmand and against the Canadians in Kandahar. We have sent a clear message that we will not be beaten in combat, a message not lost on the local population. This has strengthened the position of local leaders, some of whom are now pursuing peaceful negotiations with our commanders and with the Afghan Government.
“In Afghanistan we have reached a key point in the campaign. On Sunday I spoke to General Richards and he described the situation as a window of opportunity. If we can build upon the blow we have delivered to the Taliban, if we can quickly deliver real, concrete changes to the lives of ordinary Afghans through development and reconstruction, then we can begin to generate the lasting support the Government need.
“So we are moving forward, but consistently I have made clear the challenges we still face. The assumption of complete military command for Afghanistan is a significant achievement for NATO, but also a significant test. There are still shortfalls in the planned force structure. Caveats on the use of some forces remain. I have been in frequent, often daily discussions with the secretary-general and fellow defence ministers to reinforce the message that as an alliance we must live up to our commitment to Afghanistan, sharing the burden and the risks. I ensured this subject was top of the agenda at the NATO summit in Slovenia two weeks ago and I will continue to press for urgent action. We have made some progress; some caveats are lifting. The Poles have confirmed they will provide a battalion, and the Canadians plan to put further troops into the south. Importantly, General Richards judges he has the forces to maintain the relatively stable security situation that now exists. But I will continue to push for his requirements to be met in full as a matter of urgency.
“In Helmand, the UK Task Force also faces challenges. The battles we have fought in the north of the province have brought us to the relative stability we have seen in recent weeks. Taliban activity is down, and engagement with local leaders is growing. But we must capitalise quickly with progress on reconstruction. We are rebalancing our forces, taking advantage of the steady improvement in the Afghan army and police to concentrate our forces on the central area surrounding the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. This should increase the scope for other government departments to act in safety, and should also increase the confidence of local enterprises and international NGOs to begin the reconstruction that is at the core of our strategy.
“Back in the UK, the main challenge for me, my department and the joint headquarters and chiefs is to give our troops the resources they need to get the job done. This is a relentless task, but we are rising to it. We have now almost completely deployed the reinforcements I described to the House on 10 July, with the last few elements due in to Afghanistan in the next few weeks. That includes: two more Chinook helicopters and more flying hours for helicopters across the fleet, more capacity to train the Afghan National Army, engineers to take forward development, and more infantry. On 24 July, I announced a new package for protected vehicles for both Afghanistan and Iraq, including 100 new Mastiff and 100 additional Vector, funded by new money from the Treasury. We continue to invest heavily in force protection, including countermeasures to protect vehicles against attack, defensive aids for aircraft and personal body armour. I believe we have shown we can be responsive to the requests of commanders and we will continue to be so.
“Of course, support for our troops is not just about numbers of people and equipment; it is also about pay, conditions, welfare and medical care. In all these areas we are constantly reviewing what more is needed, and for some weeks now I have specifically been looking at pay levels for forces on operations.
“Our forces are some of the best paid in the world. Only Canada pays more across the ranks. But forces from other countries do not pay tax when on operations, and this has led some to demand that we do the same for our people. I think we can do better.
“I am pleased to announce today that we intend to introduce a new, tax-free, flat-rate, operational bonus, which, for a six-month tour, would amount to £2,240. For an average private or lance corporal, this is equivalent to the amount of tax they would pay during a six-month tour. It means that half our people on operations will be better off than under a tax exemption, increasingly so for the lower paid. The most junior will be over £500 better off after a six-month tour than if we had simply exempted them from tax. As importantly, everyone on operations will be equally better off than they are now, by just under £100 per week, free of tax.
“I would like to thank my right honourable friend the Chancellor for making over £60 million of new money available so we can fund this new bonus, without taking any existing defence funding away from front-line needs.
“This is a complex area. I have been looking at these questions for weeks, but I can assure the House that the troops who have been fighting in Afghanistan over the summer will not lose out. The payment will be backdated to 1 April 2006, as an adjustment to pay arrangements in the current financial year. Full details of eligibility will be made public shortly but I can confirm that, besides Afghanistan, it will apply to our forces in Iraq and the Balkans.
“Let me finally deal with the issue of medical care for those injured on operations. First, I want to challenge the notion that the current system is in any way inferior to what went before. In particular, the relentless attack on the work of the outstanding medical staff, military and civilian, at Selly Oak Hospital is unfair and misplaced. I have been there twice in recent months. It is one of the highest performing and most successful hospital trusts in the NHS and provides major specialist centres for trauma, burns, plastic surgery and neuroscience.
“Our primary concern is to give our injured people the best medical care available. This is to be found inside the NHS. While some have been calling in public for a return to military hospitals, we have been quietly getting on with the job of establishing a military-managed ward at Selly Oak in partnership with the NHS. I can confirm that this will be operational before the end of the year.
“I have been open about the nature of the challenges we face in our operational theatres. I do not seek to hide from this House the difficulties we face in overcoming them, but I am convinced our strategy remains the right one.
“In Afghanistan, we have to tackle the south and the east if we are to secure what has already been achieved in the rest of the country. We have to make the comprehensive approach work, with all government departments acting together to achieve our objectives. We have to get NATO to live up to its commitments.
“In Iraq, we have to support the Iraqi Government, their army and police in taking responsibility for their own security and holding the line against sectarian infighting. We will do all these things; we cannot afford not to.
“I have spoken many times about the debt we owe to the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces and who carry out this hard and dangerous work on our behalf. I am sure the House will join me in paying tribute to them again today”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We on these Benches also express our condolences to the families of those troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during this long, hot and difficult summer. Our thoughts are also with those who have been wounded, some very seriously, and their families. We also pay tribute to those servicemen and servicewomen serving now in Iraq and Afghanistan, those who have served there and those who will be taking their turn for a tour of duty. It is vital that we do everything possible to look after the families of those on active service.
My immediate personal reaction to the wording of the Statement is that it is complacent to the point of being misleading and that it further discloses an inability by the Government to grasp what needs to be done, what should have been done and what must be done now. There is a growing sense that Ministers, in their public utterances, are living in an unreal world, quite different from that in which our troops on the ground are fighting and being killed.
In Afghanistan, we now find ourselves with a conflict out of all proportion to that promised by Ministers. Troops have been engaged in the hardest sustained fighting since the Second World War with a steady stream of casualties sustained in close-quarter battle, with many instances of real heroism. In these circumstances, our servicemen and servicewomen have a right to expect only the best treatment before, during and after combat.
It is the job of a responsible Opposition to scrutinise the Government’s conduct of these operations. We owe that to the soldiers out there. While we have always supported the Government’s aims—it is essential that we do not allow either country to become a breeding ground for terrorism—we have always held and expressed reservations over their actions. We have constantly maintained that, so far as Afghanistan is concerned, the Government were all the time basing their predictions on the best possible scenario.
The Prime Minister went on the record on Saturday to say that whatever our forces needed for Afghanistan would be found and supplied. Splendid. But how does this Statement point to specific actions to give effect to that promise?
The Government’s decision in 2004 to cut the size of the Army has now been exposed as a serious misjudgment, jeopardising both the morale and the safety of our troops. The number of soldiers dismissed from the Army for going absent without leave has nearly doubled since the start of the Iraq war. The Government are putting the lives of our Armed Forces even more at risk with ageing or inadequate equipment. There is an alarming shortage both of equipment—for example, helicopters in Afghanistan—and of personnel. We cannot persist with a situation where the Army is waging extended campaigns while relying heavily on the Reserve Forces to plug the shortfall.
One of the most striking features of both campaigns is how public confidence has been lost. There is a widespread belief that we are not being told the scale of the human cost of the conflict. We need to be honest with the public, as the US Government have been. The number of casualties is far too low for the number of fatalities, whether judged by a typical ratio of fatalities to casualties or by the discrepancy with US casualty figures, where there are eight times as many casualties as fatalities. That makes the figures simply not credible. Can the Minister tell the House how many casualties have been sustained in Afghanistan and can he give the House a definition of “casualty”?
Finally, we welcome the Statement’s objective: to give our injured service men and women the best medical care available. That will always be with the NHS. But wounded soldiers have been let down by a failure of “bedside” rather than “clinical” care. What are the Government planning to do to put that right—in particular, to provide more secure military wards manned by service nurses?
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating in your Lordships' House the Defence Secretary’s Statement. From these Benches, we join in paying tribute to our brave men and women in the Armed Forces serving under very difficult and challenging circumstances.
Looking first at the Statement’s reference to Iraq and Afghanistan, I again regret that we are having to respond to developments in those two difficult and important operations through the process of a Statement rather than full debates, as we should have. On Iraq, there is much optimism in the Statement but no assessment of why things have been going so badly. Are the Iraqi people really, as it says, seeing,
“improvements in their daily lives”,
when they now die violently at the rate of about 100 per day? Does the Minister agree with the assessment of his colleague, Jack Straw, that the situation is “dire”? Does he agree with the US Marine Corps Colonel Devlin’s intelligence assessment sent to the Pentagon about al-Anbar province, in which he said that there were no functioning central Iraqi government institutions in the province and that local governments were under the “control of the insurgents”?
In our area of responsibility, can the Minister tell us in more detail what has been the trend in the security situation? The Statement refers to the handing over of responsibility in two areas. How has al-Muthanna province been in terms of violence and governance since our withdrawal in June? In Basra, what progress has been made in the difficult relationships with the local police?
Most importantly, what is our strategy for the future of Iraq? The Statement talks about there being much debate about the way forward. Are the British Government involved in the work of the US envoy James Baker? What does the Minister feel about the widely discussed US strategy for dividing the country into three parts? What are we going to do if that becomes US policy?
Turning to Afghanistan, as the Statement says, the latest extension of the NATO mission is to cover the whole of the country. That means that NATO is now responsible for all of Afghanistan, but there are still 8,000 US-led troops operating under Operation Enduring Freedom and all their air power is retained under American control. The Pentagon press statement issued at the same time as the NATO press statement states:
meaning the US—
“will continue to lead the counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan, train and equip the Afghan national security forces and assist with reconstruction”.
So we now have both NATO and Operation Enduring Freedom doing the same jobs in overlapping geographical areas. Can the Minister share with us the military logic behind that arrangement?
Next, how are the Government responding to General Richards’s assessment reported yesterday morning that we must improve the lot of the Afghans within the next six months if they are not to turn to the Taliban for support? It is also clear that there is a turf war between the military and development agencies in helping Afghanistan—I trust that we shall explore that more deeply when we debate the Unstarred Question this evening. Can the Minister assure us that the Ministry of Defence is totally content with the work that the Department for International Development is doing and does not have its eyes on the department's funding?
Turning to the pay proposals in the Statement, from these Benches we welcome the tangible recognition through a flat-rate, tax-free operational bonus that the services are not just working in challenging circumstances but have also been operating beyond the defence planning assumptions year after year. We agree that a straight payment is better than trying to introduce some complex tax regime through taking them out of the tax bracket when they are away. However, it will take us some time to consider the detail, which is not in the Statement, to decide how different service men and women are affected and it will be very important that it is seen as a fair system by all members of the Armed Forces and the reserves. Can the Minister assure us that there will be an opportunity for the MoD to change the arrangements when anomalies surface, as they certainly will over the coming months? I also want to know how the Armed Forces Pay Review Body will treat this allowance. It will be bad if we end up having the X factor reduced next April because of the allowance that is now being implemented. Let us hope it is exempted from that.
I welcome in the Statement the assurance that the defence budget will not have to fund this extra money from the current budget. I trust that that will remain the case into future years.
Finally, more generally, what are the Government doing about the degree of tasking that our Armed Forces are now experiencing? They need either more people or fewer tasks. The Government must do something soon.
My Lords, I am grateful for the support that Members on the Benches opposite have given for the aims of our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for the challenges that our forces face in those theatres. The points that they have made have focused on the implementation of these operations, and on criticisms about the way in which we have gone about it.
First, as a Defence Minister, I do not accept the assertion of the noble Lord, Lord Astor, that Ministers are living in an unreal world, unconnected with what is going on on the ground. I came back from Afghanistan on Sunday having spent some considerable time with our troops at Camp Bastion, at Kandahar and at Kabul, ensuring that I absolutely understood the challenges that they have faced in the past six months, to learn the lessons that need to be learnt about the way in which we respond to the threat that we have encountered and to ensure that we in the Ministry of Defence do absolutely everything that we need to do to support our forces. As the noble Lord said, the Prime Minister made a statement on Saturday that our forces will have everything that they need to carry out these operations.
Being the Minister responsible for defence equipment means ensuring that our processes for delivering urgent operational requirements into theatre are as effective as possible. I spent a considerable amount of time ensuring that I understood what we need to do to learn from the situation on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan and to respond to that. That is working. The defence procurement reforms that we have introduced have led to a more responsive system that is delivering the equipment. There is no doubt that we have issues—the noble Lord opposite has mentioned helicopters several times—and we accept that our helicopter capacity is deficient. As I said yesterday in this House, we are implementing several measures to improve the situation urgently. We have found that helicopters are an important force-multiplier, particularly in Afghanistan, and there are several areas of development that we are undertaking to put ourselves in a position to ensure that, at the next roulement, we have the helicopter capacity to meet any potential threat.
Noble Lords made a point about ageing and inadequate equipment. It is simply not the case across the piece. I accept that there are examples of equipment that has been very hard worked. The WMIK vehicles, which the Parachute Regiment has been using, are being replaced by Viking vehicles, which are new and, I must say, impressive vehicles, which the marines will be taking into theatre. We need to get the WMIK vehicles back and ensure that they are repaired and replaced quickly. We are seeing an improvement. I am monitoring closely the delivery of urgent operational requirements into theatre to ensure that we are delivering what our troops need. I simply do not accept that our procurement process is not responding in the way noble Lords describe.
The noble Lord, Lord Astor, asked specifically about casualty figures. Between 1 January and 31 July 2006, which are the latest figures that I have—I should add that a Question will be asked in the House on Monday about the specifics of casualty figures—four UK personnel were categorised as very seriously injured from all causes excluding disease, five UK personnel were categorised as seriously injured from all causes excluding disease, and 125 UK personnel were aero-medically evacuated from Afghanistan as a result of all causes. I am happy to write to the noble Lord. During my visit last week, I spoke to the commander of the field hospital in Camp Bastion, who gave me some figures from the experience that the hospital is having. He mentioned specifically the ratio of troops killed in action to casualties and I would be very happy to expand on that.
On the use of Reserve Forces and general overstretch, we must recognise that it is the policy of this Government to change the way in which our Reserve Forces are now used with our Regular Army on operations. We have found that that has been very effective. It is not a case of using the Reserve Forces because we do not have sufficient Regular Army to do the job. It is a part of the one-army approach which we are now adopting.
Today, in a Question, we debated clinical care of our military and what is being done. As the Statement said, we do not accept that we do not have sufficient medical care for our Armed Forces. I have visited the field hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our facilities in Selly Oak, Birmingham; I have spoken to soldiers about this issue. Our level of care on operations is first class. Selly Oak has delivered in a major hospital the necessary care for the cases coming back from operations. We cannot go back to the past and military hospitals. Frankly, they are unable to provide the appropriate level of sophistication and equipment to care for our people properly. We must recognise that the numbers of people in the military for whom we have to care is relatively small. As the Statement said, the best way to ensure that there is proper care is to provide it under the NHS.
On our strategy in Afghanistan, last Friday, General Richards made clear to me that the recent change in the command and operation, and the way in which the Afghan Government are focusing on development zones in the country, was a positive development. The progress made by the military in the past six months gives us a tremendous opportunity, which we must take now. One concern made to me by our military commanders in the field is that the pace of reconstruction, which takes place now and during the winter when traditionally the fighting is less, is established by next spring. I know that there is an active effort in discussions on how we can accelerate that.
In answer to the noble Lord’s question on whether I am content with what DfID and the FCO are doing, there is room for us to further leverage the work of the military in partnership with and together with the work of DfID and the NGOs. I have heard from military commanders that additional resources on the ground would be very effective and complementary to the work being done by DfID and the FCO.
We have a clear strategy for Iraq. It is true that the situation in Iraq is very difficult, which we accept. However, there is a strategy of developing a security framework in the provinces. When we feel that we have got to the point where the Iraqi police and army have the capability to take over a province we hand it over. During the summer, we successfully did that in two provinces. As regards the level of violence in those provinces, it is low. The operational over watch which we are providing has been effective. No doubt, the real challenge is in the cities; mostly in Baghdad, but also in Basra. The military strategy taking place locally is to go block-by-block through those cities to establish law and order, clear out the gangs who are killing people, stop sectarian violence and establish reconstruction. As the Statement said, it is early days to see whether that will be effective. The early indication is that it is. Operation Sinbad in Basra aims to do that and it will take many months. By the end, we will see whether it has been successful. Its success depends on whether local political support becomes further established in the city. As that is established, our strategy will be then to withdraw and provide operational overwatch in the way that we have in the other provinces.
It is not true to say that we do not have a clear strategy. In both countries we know absolutely what our plan is, but these are difficult circumstances requiring the support and development of local government and law and order in parallel with it.
I shall take away the noble Lord’s point about potential anomalies in pay proposals. I do not know the process by which we will deal with anomalies should they arise, but I am sure that we will undertake to address them if they are found. I can confirm to the House that the X factor will not be reduced as a result of these proposals. This is in addition to the present pay structure, and I am sure that the pay review body will take it into consideration. I expect the pay review body to fully take into account the enduring pressure that our Armed Forces are under, the fantastic response they are making to the challenge of operations, and the local market conditions which exist. I spoke to a lance corporal in 3 Para last week going back to Colchester. It is important that that young corporal knows that he can get on the property ladder in Colchester, and we are committed to providing a pay package which allows him to do so.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I notice the generally positive tone of what he is saying and I am delighted to see that some of the deficiencies are now being gripped—perhaps some of them belatedly. All that is good news, as is the additional money going to those on operations, but I have raised more than once in the House my concern about the commitment of this country and its Armed Forces on two fronts, and we remain heavily committed, not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq.
It had been forecast some months ago that by this time our commitment in Iraq would not be as demanding as it clearly is and looks like remaining. We are seeing reports of the Iraqi police, up to brigade strength, proving inadequate for the job which we expected them to do. So I repeat my question to the Minister: is he satisfied that this country and our Armed Forces are capable of continuing to maintain the level of commitment on these two fronts, with the ability to react more strongly should either front—or, indeed, both fronts—become subject to greater pressure than they are under at the moment?
My Lords, I cannot put it more accurately than how the Chief of the General Staff recently described it in saying that things are running very hot, very hot indeed. That reflects the sustained level of commitment that our troops have to manage at the present.
The answer to the point made by the noble and gallant Lord is that it depends very much on how long these operations will continue. We need to be realistic about the requirements that they will place on us if they are sustained in the long term. We must not travel in hope; we must always make sure that our Armed Forces have resources to meet that challenge. We are looking at our equipment plans to ensure that they have the appropriate balance, taking into account the operational focus in the long term, for example, and, as the noble and gallant Lord is aware, we are carrying out a spending review. As we look at those plans, we need to ensure that we have the resources for any level of sustained commitment into the future.
My Lords, perhaps I may come back to a question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Garden. Is it not perfectly clear that there is now intense reconsideration going on in Washington of the strategy that should be pursued in Iraq? What input do Her Majesty’s Government hope to have in that reconsideration and, particularly, what input do we hope to have in the consideration by James Baker, the former Secretary of State, of this topic? All sorts of ideas are being floated in all sorts of quarters, particularly in Washington. I hope that we will not be pursuing one strategy suddenly to discover that the Americans have changed their ground.
My Lords, as my noble friend would expect, we have close and multiple levels of discussion with the United States on the strategy in Iraq. However, we must take into account the views of the people of Iraq and their elected Government. The Government of Iraq do not want to see a partition of Iraq. They are clear on that point, and Her Majesty's Government support the Iraqi Government in their decision.
My Lords, it has been reported that there are restrictions on German behaviour in Afghanistan and that the Luftwaffe will not fly at night. There have also been reports of other members of NATO being bound by rules that do not apply to us or the Canadians. Will the Minister please make representations to the heirs of Scharnhorst, Blücher and Gneisenau that they should behave like proper soldiers and not ban flying at night?
Secondly, has the policy of platoon garrisons dotted about north Helmand province been altered? One platoon, or its equivalent, tied up in one fort, surrounded by a lot of screaming Afghans shooting at them does nobody any good whatever and just causes casualties and mayhem all around. That seems to have been what is happening.
My Lords, with regard to our coalition partners such as Germany and the caveats they place on the operations that they undertake, those caveats are a matter for the Government of the country concerned, in the same way that we would expect the rules of engagement to be a matter for us. There is no doubt, as I have said in this House only today, that NATO is not fully stepping up to the challenge we face in Afghanistan. The requirements which the NATO generals have asked for have not been fully met. We in the United Kingdom are providing a significant contribution to Afghanistan; we are also putting clear pressure on our coalition partners to provide the resources that the commanders need in the field.
With regard to the noble Earl’s comments about the platoon garrison, I do not believe that he has fully understood the strategy that has been undertaken there. To say that it is not doing anyone any good is to do a disservice to the brave men who have fought and died in those platoon garrisons.
The purpose of having those platoon garrisons was to make sure that in the important towns in the northern part of Helmand province, the rule of law and, in particular the influence of the local governor, Engineer Daud, were maintained at a time of pivotal security within that province early in the summer. The garrisons were defended by the British troops because it was essential to the maintenance of the operation of the local government. If the local government does not operate effectively, reconstruction cannot take place, the Afghan National Army does not get paid and the Taliban would secure a local victory which would have a propaganda effect on the local population. The fact that our brave soldiers went into those very dangerous platoon houses and, greatly outnumbered as they were, fought the Taliban and won decisively, has established in the minds of the locals that the British are serious about helping the local democratically elected Government to secure security and the rule of law in the province. It has led directly to the establishment of the cessation of hostilities in those areas and is something upon which we can build.
Our strategy is then to allow the Afghan army and police, which we have trained, to take over in those platoon houses. This will allow some of our troops to leave those platoon houses—not all of them, but some of them—and to be freed up to patrol the areas around them and ensure that reconstruction can take place. We have a clear strategy. It has worked and we shall build on it.
My Lords, I welcome much of what was in the Statement and thank the Minister for it. Does he have confidence that the good work being done by the Secretary of State for Defence in pleading every day with the Secretary General of NATO and other defence Ministers will yield anything? I do not hold my breath. What is the alternative strategy if it does not?
Will the Minister say how confident he is about the preparation and training of the composite headquarters which will take over from General Richards’ headquarters in the near future? My understanding is that it will not have the sufficient training and preparation that a core headquarters would have, along the lines of the ARC which is there at the moment.
Will the Minister say what interaction we have with Pakistan and what contribution it is making to controlling the Taliban from its side of the border? Does it still have troops on its western border? Is it still working on the problem on our behalf?
I share the rapture of the noble Lord, Lord Garden, about the bonus for our servicemen, but like him, I qualify it until we see the details. I hope that it will not be divisive across the Armed Forces. We need to remember that there are many people in the Armed Forces, across all three services, who are on long operational tours, which are not just in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan.
My Lords, I thank the noble and gallant Lord for his points relating to the practicalities of the bonus. I will take them back to the department and make sure that they are taken on board. The noble and gallant Lord is right that it is vital that it is not seen as divisive, but, at the same time, it is very important that we take steps—and this is a positive step—to address this issue, as he and others have recognised.
The noble and gallant Lord asked about NATO. The track record so far is mixed. Despite the pressures we have put on NATO through our requests, there are deficiencies. It is therefore important for us to be realistic. We must go forward on the basis of our troops being on operations as partners in the coalition. We must ensure that our troops are provided with the equipment that they need to do the job. If there is any doubt about the provision of that equipment, we need to take responsibility to make sure that our troops are properly equipped.
The noble and gallant Lord asked about our confidence in the composite HQ which will take over from ARC. I have not heard any queries about it. I will probe the matter and write to the noble and gallant Lord.
The key issue in respect of Pakistan is the border and doing as much as possible to reduce its porosity. We have seen Pakistan make considerable and increasing efforts in that area. Our engagement with the Government of Pakistan has had an effect.
My Lords, the situation in Iraq appears to depend largely on the unity, the purpose and the policy of the Iraqi Government. Will the Minister enlarge a little on the difficulties being encountered there? He has not told the House. It would be useful to know what they are.
My Lords, the key difficulty at this stage in the development of Iraq exists within the cities, particularly Baghdad, but also, to some extent, Basra. It is the sectarian violence between the various gangs of militia which have been established on behalf of the Shia and the Sunni groups in those cities—they are establishing zones of territory which they are defending—and the gangs who are kidnapping and murdering people from the other sectarian groups. The key is for us to establish, in support of the Iraqi Government, police and army, a security environment in which that sectarian violence cannot take place.
A key challenge, which we recognise, has been the level of corruption that has taken place within the Iraqi police. There has been involvement in these killing squads from the Iraqi police. We have to be engaged in support of the Iraqi Government to stamp that out within the Iraqi police, and that is proving to be a very difficult job.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s proposals regarding pay. We shall have to look at the detail in due course, but the aim is a very good and proper one. I also support him on the medical proposals. The high cost of sophisticated medical care means that it is the only way in which what we need to do can be undertaken. Having said that, he also commented that the persistence of the Taliban is greater than we anticipated. Has that not been the same right through history and is it not a masterly understatement from John Reid’s original comment?
Lastly, has NATO not failed in the role that it should play? The Minister mentioned caveats in the use of some other NATO countries. Can we have a detailed list of those caveats? What can we do to get NATO to play a proper role?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his comments relating to pay and the strategy that we are following for medical care. He is absolutely right that it is important for that to be done within the NHS structure.
There has been a lot of commentary in the press relating to the statement made by my right honourable friend John Reid, when he was Defence Secretary. In fairness to him, I feel that we should all read the statement in full and listen to or read the transcript from the “Today” programme. When one reads it in full, one can see that he did not simply make that statement relating to going into Afghanistan and hoping that no shot would be fired. He said that we hoped that that would be the case but that we were preparing for a very difficult mission. He went on to say that we were sending significant fighting assets in the 16 Air Assault Brigade because we recognised the challenge of what we were going to come up against from the Taliban.
We have found the resistance from the Taliban stronger than we expected. We have been forthright in saying that. However, despite it being greater than we expected, our forces have met that challenge with courage and determination and have inflicted a clear tactical defeat on the Taliban this year, which speaks to the competence and effectiveness of our Armed Forces, their tactics and their equipment. None the less, we need to look at, and are looking at, what additional resources are needed.
With regard to NATO, I am happy to write to the noble and learned Lord and set out further detail relating to the NATO commitment, what has been requested by NATO commanders and what is still outstanding. We need to continue to push our NATO coalition partners to provide the full list of equipment that NATO commanders in the field are requesting. It is vital that they do so now, because we have a window of opportunity, as General Richards has said, in Afghanistan today. We need to build on that opportunity.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement. A lot has been heard today, both now and in the earlier Question, about the medical support being given in Selly Oak hospital. However, not much has been heard about the operations of the Defence Medical Welfare Service, which the Minister will know was set up at the time of the Gulf War to provide psychological and psychiatric support to people after they had left hospital. In particular, I am concerned about the degree of support being given to members of the reserve forces, who do not remain under regular military observation when they return to the community, because there are disturbing stories that they are not being well supported in view of the strain, and other things, that they have been under during operations.
My Lords, the noble Lord, with his experience, is absolutely right that we must make sure that the level of support that we offer our Armed Forces is related not only to their physical but to their mental well-being and that it fully takes into account the subtle but very important differences between the needs of our reserve forces and our regulars. One thing that we have learnt is that by the very nature of reserve deployment, returning from operations—and not as part of a regular unit—provides additional stress for which people need support. We are taking action, as part of our initiatives in welfare support, to provide that support to our reserve forces.
The investment that we have made in support for our service people, based on an independent review that was undertaken a couple of years ago, led to a recommendation that support in terms of mental health was best done on a more regional and local basis, such that people had local support. That is being done through the use of the Priory, which has provided us with a series of centres of support to underpin our approach for mental healthcare.