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Afghanistan: NATO Forces

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 12 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What progress has been made by the NATO force in Afghanistan.

My Lords, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force—ISAF—has helped the Government of Afghanistan extend their authority beyond Kabul and into the provinces. This, in turn, has created the conditions under which Afghanistan has transformed from a pariah state into an emerging democracy with a legitimate government and parliament and enabled economic development, including improvements in education and healthcare provision.

My Lords, a couple of days ago my noble friend Lord Onslow drew attention to the fact that German planes in Afghanistan were not allowed to fly at night. The noble Lord said in reply to his point that those restrictions, of which there are many from different countries, were matters for each country separately. Does not that make matters much more difficult for commanders in the field who have to make those distinctions? Also, am I right in understanding that the response of member countries to the recent appeal of commanders for reinforcements has been at best lukewarm? Are these matters being considered by the NATO ministerial council so that they do not harm the effectiveness of NATO as a coherent organisation?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct to say that the national caveats that some countries place on their forces create additional complexity that needs to be managed by NATO force commanders. That has always been the case in NATO operations; it is not a new situation. If we go back into history, this has always been an issue that NATO commanders have had to manage. However, there is no doubt that, if we can move to a position where those caveats become more harmonised, it will lead to a significant force-multiplier effect across NATO.

On the issue of support, NATO operates under a process whereby force commanders set out a list of their requirements for undertaking an operation and NATO countries then volunteer to provide resources to meet those requirements, and it leads to some capabilities not being provided. That is of real concern to us. As the noble Lord indicated, we are lobbying very hard at a number of levels to address that issue. As I said in the House 24 hours ago, it is important that in Her Majesty’s Government we recognise our responsibility as a NATO coalition partner to provide our forces with the equipment that they need to do their job.

My Lords, has the Minister read the history of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, and why does he think that history will not repeat itself on this occasion?

My Lords, I am not clear about which particular history of Afghanistan the noble Lord is referring to. However, I have studied Afghanistan’s history and think the important point is that the Soviet campaign and the campaigns of the British Empire were absolutely different in nature from what we are undertaking. We, with our coalition partners, are supporting the development of a democracy in Afghanistan, with the complete support of the people of Afghanistan as expressed in their democratic elections. That is completely different. That point was made clear to me recently when I met the defence Minister of Estonia, who mentioned the people of his country who were sent to Afghanistan as a form of punishment under the Soviet empire. That small country of a million people is making its contribution to the NATO force in Afghanistan because it absolutely understands the importance of this mission and why it is right to be there.

My Lords, I have twice this week in our discussions on Afghanistan raised the question of overlapping areas of responsibility. Ministers gave no answer in those debates, so perhaps I may ask the question again. Will the Minister explain how NATO can have authority over the whole of Afghanistan while 8,000 Operation Enduring Freedom US-led forces and their supporting air power continue a different agenda over the south and the east of the country?

My Lords, since the noble Lord has raised the question I have made sure that I fully understand the point. He raises a good question as the command structure in Afghanistan is changing. Let me make it crystal clear: we have an operation where ISAF, the NATO force under the command of a four-star general, General Richards, is responsible for the efforts to support the Afghan Government in reconstruction and the establishment of security. Running in parallel is Operation Enduring Freedom, which is under the United States and consists, as the noble Lord says, of 8,000 troops. The majority of those troops are engaged in training and developing the capability of the Afghan national army, which is the US lead. A small proportion of those troops are engaged in security operations to hunt terrorists. I am confident about the way in which the command structure operates. Last Friday I was speaking to General Richards, and he said he believed that this system would be robust. It is deconflicted and will work.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the operation in Helmand province, as distinct from the improvements around Kabul, was entered into without sufficient forethought or consideration of the threat inevitable with the consistently turbulent history of that area, initially without enough troops on the ground, and with an ongoing shortage of helicopters and logistic backing to allow even those the requisite flying hours? Is it not clear that those shortages have been the result of cut-backs made over the past five years? Will the Minister, with all his expert knowledge of funding and procurement, tell us how soon—when the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister airily promises everything that the troops want—these blockages and shortages can be corrected, provided and deployed in the operational area where they are so badly needed?

My Lords, I recognise the noble and gallant Lord’s experience in this area. Earlier this year we discussed the concerns that he and other experienced ex-chiefs had about this operation. I do not believe that the planning for the operation was done incorrectly. I was there at the time and saw the way in which it was done. I do not believe that there was a deficiency on the part of the Ministry of Defence. I believe that we have been up against a more determined and persistent enemy and, despite that, that we have inflicted a tactical defeat on it. It is not about cut-backs. As I have said, the budget is provided from the Treasury reserve.

In response to the noble and gallant Lord’s question about how soon, I can say that the next roulement will be in May of next year. It is my focus as the Minister for Defence Procurement to make absolutely sure that the force generation and equipment needed by May next year is provided.