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Afghanistan: UK Forces

Volume 689: debated on Monday 26 February 2007

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Defence Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, on 1 February I announced the forthcoming rotation of our troops in Afghanistan. At that time I undertook, once I had spoken with my fellow NATO Defence Ministers at Seville, to update the House on any further changes to our force structure. That is what I am here to do today.

“First, however, I want to highlight the progress and achievements in Afghanistan during 2006. NATO has continued its expansion of responsibility for this vital campaign into the more challenging south and east of the country. We have faced down the Taliban in its own backyard, delivering security and bringing the reach of the Afghan Government to places that have hardly seen it before. We have unified the military mission under the leadership of General Richards and the British-led Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. Across Afghanistan we have built schools, mosques, roads, wells, and markets. We have defended and reinforced five years of progress, including the first elections in decades, remarkable improvements in education, and the return of 5 million refugees.

“I say this because, before we talk about what more we must do, we should understand what is at risk if we do not continue to live up to the collective commitment we have made to Afghanistan and its people. I am not here to herald this as a job done. I am not painting a glossy picture; our mission in Afghanistan faces serious challenges and the country faces serious problems. But I am here to explain why we must keep working to meet these challenges and secure Afghanistan’s future.

“I have said many times from this Dispatch Box that there is no purely military solution to Afghanistan’s problems. What military forces can do, as has been shown right across the country, is increase security. But unless we can help the Afghan Government to bring security to all their people, and convince them that they and NATO are going to defeat the Taliban and others who try to block or destroy progress, everything else we have achieved in Afghanistan will remain at risk. At Seville, NATO’s senior military commander, SACEUR, reminded NATO members that it is in the south and east where the security challenge is most acute. He identified a further need for robust, flexible, manoeuvrable combat forces to strengthen NATO commanders’ ability to tackle that challenge across these regions.

“We believe that every NATO partner should be prepared to do more to meet this need. At Seville, some announced they would do so. America promised an additional 3,000 troops. France has offered more close air support. Germany has pledged six reconnaissance Tornados. Lithuania has pledged additional troops. All these contributions are welcome. They build on earlier commitments made at Riga in the autumn, principally by Poland, which committed a battalion to the east. But we must be realistic about how many nations have the ability to take on the tasks facing NATO in the south and east. I have lobbied our partners consistently for more help in these regions, and I will continue to do so. But it is increasingly clear that at present, when it comes to the most demanding tasks in the more challenging parts of Afghanistan, that only we and a small number of key allies are prepared to step forward.

“This is why we have decided to commit additional forces to Afghanistan. Put simply, the alternative is unacceptable; it would place too great a risk on the progress we have made so far. This is a risk we simply cannot afford to take, both for the sake of Afghanistan and for the sake of our own security. We may be shouldering a greater share of the burden than we might like, but so are others, and we do so in the knowledge that this is a vital mission and one which is directly in our national interest.

“I now turn to the details of what this decision means in practice. The UK has decided to fill one of SACEUR’s most pressing requirements: a manoeuvre battalion for Regional Command (South), an area which covers Helmand—the base and responsibility of the existing UK task force—and the strategically vital neighbouring province of Kandahar, plus the further provinces of Uruzgan, Zabul, Nimruz and Daykundi.

“We propose to deploy a battle group comprising elements of an infantry battalion, the 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh—The Royal Welch Fusiliers—which will be augmented with a company of Warrior infantry fighting vehicles from 1st Battalion Scots Guards. It will include additional artillery, including a regimental HQ and a battery of light guns from 19th Regiment Royal Artillery, a brigade surveillance group drawn from 5th Regiment Royal Artillery and a troop of guided multiple-launch rocket systems from 39th Regiment Royal Artillery. We shall also deploy additional reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities, four more Harrier GR9s to provide close air support, four Sea King helicopters from 846 Naval Air Squadron to increase our support helicopter capacity and another C-130 Hercules. Some of the forces deployed will be reservists, although I am not yet in a position to inform the House of how many. I will write to confirm that.

“Overall, that adds up to nearly 1,400 additional personnel. Some will deploy from the roulement in May, but the majority will deploy during the course of the summer. They will be based mostly in Helmand, with some at Kandahar airfield, although they will provide NATO commanders in RC (South) with a flexible capability for use across the southern region. In total, our forces in Afghanistan will increase from about 6,300 to settle at about 7,700 personnel. The current planning assumption remains that those forces are committed until 2009.

“I am well aware of the pressure under which that will continue to put our Armed Forces. I have made clear in the past that the Government clearly recognise how much we are asking of them. I want to take the opportunity to say again on behalf of the Government how much we admire the professionalism, skill and bravery with which they do the hard and dangerous work we ask of them. I repeat that ensuring that they have the support and equipment they need remains my highest priority. I also want to make clear that we would not make the decision to commit extra forces unless it was in accordance with unequivocal military advice. I and the Chiefs of Staff agree that this additional commitment is manageable.

“Before closing, I want to address some misconceptions about this decision which have circulated over recent days. The first is that our recent decisions on Iraq were driven by our desire to do more in Afghanistan. That gets things the wrong way round. Our planned drawdown in Iraq, announced by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister last week, is driven by conditions on the ground. It is the situation in Iraq that determines what we do there, not the situation in Afghanistan. But of course our plans for Iraq and our other operational theatres, including the Balkans, affect our ability to do more in support of NATO in Afghanistan. In that context, our decision last week on Iraq makes today's decision that much easier.

“The second misconception is that that enhancement reflects poor planning in the first place. That is simply not true. As a general point, it is wrong to suggest that any enhancement must reflect poor planning. Inevitably, much is learned during a deployment, especially in the early stages, and the force structure should adapt. That is what happened last summer. But it is a straightforward error to interpret today’s decision as implying anything about the adequacy of the Helmand task force. That force is clearly up to the job: it overmatched the Taliban in every engagement last summer, and over the winter it has been able to take the fight to the Taliban on our terms, while at the same time securing the area around the provincial capital, and also securing vital reconstruction projects such as the Kajaki Dam. Today’s decision is a commitment to the southern region as a whole. These additional forces will meet NATO’s requirement for troops who can work across the region, in Kandahar and elsewhere. They provide commanders with greater flexibility, and greater capacity to support the Afghan military while they develop the skills and confidence to do this vital work for themselves, which remains, as I have said before, our long-term exit strategy.

“I assure the House that, in announcing this significant additional commitment, my resolve to secure contributions from others to share this burden remains undiminished. But I put it to the House that we must protect the progress we have made so far, and protect the Afghans’ own hope and determination. That is this Government’s intention. We believe in this mission, we believe in the international community’s aims in Afghanistan, and we are proud to play our full part in achieving them”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. This announcement comes as no surprise to us; it has long been clear that more forces are needed in Afghanistan to maintain sufficient security levels to allow redevelopment and to withstand the offensive of a rejuvenated Taliban. Indeed, General Richards requested more troops this time last year but was denied them. We on these Benches share the Statement’s admiration for the professionalism, skill and bravery with which our Armed Forces do the hard and dangerous work in Afghanistan. Indeed, the fighting there has been the fiercest since the Korean War. Can the Minister confirm that our troops will get the resources and equipment they need? Some of the equipment there is now very tired, and helicopters are flying at the limit of their hours. Most of these new troops are earmarked for Helmand, where the fighting is at its fiercest and most dangerous. This is hardly a reduction in the overall workload of the Armed Forces, notwithstanding the Government’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Only a few weeks ago, the Government announced that they would be sending 600 extra troops to Afghanistan. Today, this figure has more than doubled. The Government have failed to get our NATO allies to pull their weight and help to supply the extra manpower needed. This country and a small number of allies are already contributing more than our fair share, both in numbers and the dangers faced. At this point, I unreservedly compliment the Canadians, whose ongoing efforts in Kandahar in very hostile conditions are essential to the success of the NATO mission. However, I refer to some of our European allies, who, in the words of one Army officer to whom I spoke, are offering a mere “ornamental presence”. This very public show of indifference on the part of powerful nations has encouraged the Taliban’s resurgence. This is the third or fourth time that British troops have had to reinforce since the war began, while some of our allies remain reticent. What are the Government doing to address this imbalance? Are we going to continue to carry the can for our NATO partners, who are accepting the benefits of the NATO security guarantee but leaving it to our taxpayers to meet the financial burden and our troops the military burden?

Given the current levels of overstretch, our concerns must be for the safety of the troops already deployed and that their efforts are neither compromised nor wasted. Senior officers have commented over the weekend that, even with these reinforcements, troop levels are still unlikely to be enough. If, after sending these reinforcements, commanders on the ground request extra troops at some point in the future, will the Government be able to find them, and will they send them? One result of the shortage of troops is the increased reliance on airpower, which has caused higher civilian casualties. Indeed, last year this led to the highest casualty figure since 2001. I myself have spoken to several soldiers of all ranks who have returned from Afghanistan, and they told me how effective they found the Apache helicopter. Can the Minister reassure the House that there will be no reduction in either the number of Apaches or the budget for the vital job of training Apache pilots?

The Afghanistan campaign can be considered a success only if there is lasting reconstruction in the area. Hearts and minds can be won only if the local people see real and visible benefits arising from our continued presence. I was heartened to hear a brief mention in the Statement of rebuilding projects, but have the Government appreciated the significance of reconstruction, and can they support their words with actions? Soldiers returning from Afghanistan say that they have the impression that DfID has effectively pulled out of the area. Can the Minister confirm whether this is the case? If DfID has pulled out, it is essential that the Government seriously consider other options. Will they consider giving the Army a larger reconstruction budget with which it can help to rebuild the area? Further, can the Government persuade their NATO allies, who are so reluctant to commit troops, instead to commit to the reconstruction effort? If the good work of our troops, not to mention a death toll of 48, is not to be in vain, there simply must be an effective reconstruction campaign. We have spent 10 times as much on military operations as on reconstruction. Only when there is evidence of successful reconstruction will there be local support.

My Lords, I add my thanks to the Minister for repeating the Statement; however, I am absolutely astonished that we are only being told this today. On Tuesday of last week the Minister came to the House to talk about military matters, on Wednesday the Leader of the House repeated the Prime Minister’s Statement on troop reductions in Iraq, and on Thursday we had a five-hour debate on Iraq, with the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, answering for the Government. By that evening the media had wind of this announcement and all our phones were ringing. Afghanistan changes were not mentioned by any of the Ministers last week, and the Statement argues that the decrease in Iraq and the increase in Afghanistan are unrelated. That is a totally disingenuous argument. As the Minister knows, noble Lords from all sides of the House have been greatly exercised about the over-tasking of our military over a very long period. Any small relief that might have resulted from reductions in Iraq will now be negated by the increase in Afghanistan. The argument that the Chiefs of Staff believe that this is “manageable”—the word used in the Statement—it simply does not wash. It is the responsibility of the Government to set the commitment of the Armed Forces at a level which is sustainable for the resources they have been given. The Government have exceeded that level for the past eight years and seem not to care.

Members on these Benches support a focus on the Afghanistan operation and believe that the forces needed to do the job must be provided if we can. We do not enter into the counterproductive abuse heaped by some on our NATO allies. Indeed, the Statement this time is more critical in that regard. They held the fort in Afghanistan while we were away invading Iraq. Those forces are there still in the north and the west, and they are present in much larger numbers in the Balkans, while European forces are in Lebanon when UK forces are not. If we end up in an arguing match with our NATO allies, we will damage the alliance.

We were very much in the lead in our enthusiasm for the new plan in the south and east of Afghanistan and we therefore had a duty to ensure that we had adequate forces on call before starting. At least now we are trying to establish the appropriate force with the reserve that we should have had in the first place.

I too have a number of questions for the Minister. The Statement talks about four extra Sea King helicopters to support this manoeuvring force over most of the south of Afghanistan. I shall not go into the technical capabilities of the Sea King helicopter, but it seems a fairly massive task for the very small and inadequate force which will be asked to manoeuvre around. We still need more helicopters, and these will not be the answer to the problem, particularly in the summer. How is the Minister getting on with his longstanding task of procuring extra support helicopter capability? What effect will all this have on the air bridge? Has that been looked at? How is he getting on with procuring more for the air bridge?

It seems strange that we do not have any breakdown in the new force structure between reserves and regulars, but we will learn about it later. How is it that we have put together a force where we do not know which are regulars and which are reserves?

What effect will the problems with the Nimrod force, which is currently in difficulty, have on our operations in Afghanistan?

With regard to the morale of our troops, this may sound as if it is a long way from operations in Afghanistan, but it will be important to them: when will the Armed Forces Pay Review Body report be published? It is now more overdue than it has ever been, and it will be taken by the troops as a signal of how much the Government value what they are doing.

How do the Government reconcile the claim that we should be operating within the defence planning assumptions by the end of this year with the new announcement? Has that gone back as well? When was this new level of force decided? What notice did the Government have that they had to increase the forces to this level?

Has there been any progress between the US and the UK on agreeing an appropriate strategy for the opium harvest? That affects what these troops will be engaged in. Has there been any progress on control of the Afghan-Pakistani border?

There are many questions that need to be answered. While we support this deployment, I repeat what I said in Thursday’s Iraq debate: dividing our assets between two campaigns is not a recipe for success in either. We need to withdraw from Iraq and concentrate on Afghanistan. Today’s Statement has strengthened my view that time is running out, and it is the British Armed Forces that will suffer.

My Lords, I am grateful for the general support the noble Lords opposite have given to this announcement on the decision to strengthen our forces. A number of specific questions have been asked, which I aim to answer quickly where I can.

On the general theme, we agree with the point the noble Lord, Lord Garden, made about the difficulty of the two enduring medium-scale operations carrying on at once. We accept that we are operating beyond the planning assumptions. However, we believe that this has to be done. We have looked carefully at these pressures. The Secretary of State has gone into considerable detail in reviewing the capacity of our Armed Forces to cope with that pressure, and we have concluded, on the basis of military advice that we have considered, that we can do this. When we say the situation is manageable, we believe that it is, but we accept that it cannot continue indefinitely. The balance between the resources and the commitments of our Armed Forces is a point that we take on board. We are not ignoring that; we are working on it very carefully.

This deployment is in response to the requests made by NATO commanders at the summit in Seville in February, when it was made clear that those commanders required additional resources. It is impressive that this country is able to respond in this way and to provide these significant extra resources in a timescale where troops will begin deployment in April and stay through the summer until the end of the year.

I take on board the points made about the way in which certain of our NATO allies have provided significant resources and have lost people in this campaign. It is right that we recognise the contribution made and the losses suffered by our NATO partners while expressing the clear need for NATO to come together to deliver the resources for which its commanders are asking. We, and others, are showing leadership; we are doing our bit.

It is not right for me, standing at the Dispatch Box, to speak for other nations. I believe that all of us in this House are fundamentally clear that we support the NATO alliance. It has its difficulties but it is not failing. We need to support it, and Afghanistan is probably its greatest test. Making the decisions we have taken today and clearly supporting the NATO alliance is clearly the right thing to do. Despite the fact that some of our NATO partners are not doing so, we need to continue to press them behind closed doors.

The decision was in response to the request made at the Seville summit in February. The announcement has been made to the House at the first opportunity since the decision was made by the Cabinet.

I confirm that our troops will be provided with the resources they need. The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and I, as Minister for Defence Procurement, have said that we will ensure that our troops get the resources they need. But it is not for Ministers to second-guess what military commanders require; it is for the military commanders, through the chain of command, to decide what is needed.

A point was made about pressure and the fact that some of the equipment being used is getting tired. That is a fair point. The recuperation of equipment is towards the top of my agenda in terms of my responsibilities as Minister for Defence Procurement.

There will be no reductions in the number of Apache helicopters. It is interesting that in a pretty controversial defence procurement project, a number of people criticised the investment in Apache helicopters and mentioned their cost but, my goodness, they have been shown to be a formidable and effective piece of military equipment.

On the four extra Sea Kings, the noble Lord, Lord Garden, with his extensive experience in helicopters, will know about the operation limitations presented to helicopters operating hot and high in Afghanistan. We have addressed that in the changes we have made and are making to the Sea King helicopters. They will primarily work on medical evacuation tasks to release medium-lift and other helicopter duties. That is the thinking.

We have recently had a discussion about the challenges we face regarding the air bridge. As I have reported to the House, we have an increased focus on improving the service which is being undertaken under the air bridge and believe that we will be able to carry out this deployment effectively.

I am concerned about the Nimrods. Ongoing concerns about certain aspects of the fuel system on board are getting very careful attention. As I speak, the Nimrods have been able to be released to carry out their duties in Afghanistan.

I do not have an update for the House on the timing of the pay review report. If I can get some information, I will write to noble Lords with an answer.

Finally, I should like to say a few words about reconstruction. It is correct that the key to strategic success in Afghanistan is for our forces to provide the military capability to take on and beat the Taliban to create the security situation in which the rule of law, democratic governance and reconstruction can take place. We must make the comprehensive approach, as it is called, work effectively on the ground. It is difficult; we are having to adapt in terms of our relationship with our partners in DfID and the NGOs. Frankly, it is important to recognise that the troops often have to do certain short-term reconstruction projects under fire so that they create an environment in which the longer-term projects, led by DfID and so forth, can take place. However, there is no truth in the claim that DfID has pulled out. This remains a partnership that is extremely important in the short and the long term, and in its ability to carry out reconstruction under fire, which, for example, our engineers are undertaking in Afghanistan. We are committed to that approach in the long term.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for the extensive responses to the questions and points made from the opposition Benches. I do not think that it is any surprise that there has been this need for further deployment of front-line troops into Helmand province. General Richards, at his handover, and many experienced observers, have been convinced of the need for additional effort to face down the Taliban.

Can the Minister reassure the House that the commanders in theatre have not been requesting more than the 1,400 or so extra forces mentioned in this Statement and that it is not the intention of Her Majesty’s Government to increase yet further the number of forces deployed to Afghanistan before there is a considerable reduction in those deployed in Iraq? As the Minister has observed and acknowledged, we are extremely extended by having to mount operations in two theatres for this much extended period. Therefore, it would be very reassuring to know that there is no intention to increase further in Afghanistan before we have achieved on the ground considerable reduction of our effort in Iraq.

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord has asked a question which reinforces one asked by the noble Lord opposite, which I did not answer initially. In answer to this question, I shall be as clear as I can on the two related aspects of the theatres and the decision that has been taken. It is clear to me that of course at one level we must consider the operational pressure of our Armed Forces in the round, across the world, in all operational theatres, which we do. It would make no sense for us in the Ministry of Defence to do otherwise: you have to look at your commitments in totality. But we must not confuse that with a sense that we make decisions on one theatre related to what is taking place in another. Frankly, we cannot do that. We have to recognise that the situation in Iraq and the conditions on the ground require us to make decisions based on those circumstances. The pace of change in Iraq and Afghanistan progresses, and co-ordinating the two is not practical. We have to face the conditions in each theatre separately. But we need to make decisions about the deployment of our resources and be very mindful of the effect on our Armed Forces over the long term. We cannot go on operating beyond the planning assumptions indefinitely. As the noble and gallant Lord said, we are starting to see the effect on wear and tear of equipment.

On where we stand today, a lot of careful consideration has gone into thinking about whether this extra deployment in Afghanistan can be made taking into account the situation in Iraq. We will have to respond to Afghanistan based on what happens through this year. We cannot say that being able to respond to Afghanistan will be done in a way which is linked to Iraq, much as we would like to be able to do. However, we can make absolutely sure that these decisions we take in the round can be managed by our Armed Forces, but we need to make sure that they have the resources in the long term for the commitments which we require them to face.

My Lords, the Minister referred, rightly in my view, to our bearing a greater share of the burden than we might like. This is a NATO enterprise, unlike Iraq. Should the British Government not seek to establish for this venture and future NATO ventures a convention that all members of NATO contribute to the financial cost in proportion to their GDP, including of course the countries that are providing military operations or facilities, and that those countries that are providing military facilities for such NATO operations should be reimbursed 100 per cent from that central fund? It is totally unacceptable for us to have more not only of the military burden but of the financial burden than other members of NATO.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an interesting suggestion, and I shall go away, think about it and discuss it with my colleagues. It would raise difficult ethical questions in considering how to balance those countries that provide troops and assets and that are in harm’s way, taking losses and casualties, against those that provide finance. However, I shall take away and consider the noble Lord’s suggestion with regard to practicalities, and respond.

My Lords, this morning a number of us were privileged to hear and take part in a discussion with a most able and talented young woman called Clare Lockhart, who has recently returned from being an adviser to General Richards. Before that, she worked for the UN in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2005 and was an adviser to the Afghan Government on reconstruction.

Some very interesting subjects came up during the discussion. One was the fact that there did not appear to be one overarching strategy for progress in Afghanistan. The UN had a programme, the EU had a programme, NATO had a programme, the United States had a programme and we had a programme—and none of them came together.

Another hugely interesting subject came up during the question of reconstruction—that there did not seem to be any co-ordination of regional support for reconstruction, such as what the Gulf states might contribute, what Iran with its asphalt might contribute to road-building, or what Uzbekistan or other countries might do. In this House, we tend to talk in penny packets about little bits of military reinforcement and little bits of what we or DfID might do. That does not seem to be really satisfactory. Unless there is an overarching strategy within which each contributor can see its part and where it is going—especially in the field of reconstruction—we shall go on having this discussion over and again as little bits are added or taken away in the years to come.

I know that it is not specifically in the Minister’s patch, but does he feel that this addition to our forces, which is enormously welcome—although not to the forces themselves, because they are overstretched—is part of something overarching, or is it just a one-off effort?

My Lords, the noble Lord highlights a very important point. However, surely it should be—and is—the role of the Afghan Government to provide that overarching clarity. We are there with the NATO mission of 36 countries in support of the Afghan Government.

When I last visited Afghanistan, I got the impression that there was more clarity than the noble Lord has been told, because I saw how the Afghan development zones had been identified. That seemed to me an effective structure for aligning definite areas—or taking areas in the country and applying a comprehensive approach of reconstruction with military effect and establishment of governance, and then spreading out from those zones. That seemed an effective and pragmatic way in which to effect change.

The progress is regional. We have seen good progress in the north and west, but it is more challenging in the south and east. We are now addressing those issues, but this is a difficult project in some areas. The international community is learning how to carry out this type of coalition effort effectively as part of the comprehensive approach.

My Lords, I support my noble friend on the Front Bench in paying tribute to our troops in Afghanistan, whose performance has been absolutely magnificent. I am glad that he mentioned the Canadian performance. I believe that, proportionately, the Canadians have suffered as many casualties as we have—I declare an interest as a former Canadian soldier—which is in the Canadian tradition. But the performance of NATO in general has been profoundly disappointing. Many of the NATO countries, which could have been expected to do better, are not pulling their weight. Are some of them still exercising caveats about what their forces are allowed to do? I remember that on a previous occasion we were told that the German planes were not allowed to fly at night. This is particularly relevant since the Minister has announced that they are providing more aircraft. But my main point is: if there is a continuing lack of performance by NATO, will not the Americans in due course lose interest in it and will they not resort to coalitions of the willing, which is what happened for a while in the Yugoslav campaign?

My Lords, certain nations still exercise caveats as the noble Lord described. We are pressing our NATO partners to have close alignment of rules of engagement for NATO commanders for the obvious reasons that we have discussed in this House. The noble Lord reiterated the recognition of the Canadians’ performance. He is right: the Canadians have done, and are doing, an absolutely outstanding job, but so have a number of other countries. I shall not get into the business of specifying partners within the NATO alliance. We need to build on the successes that we have had, persuade those who are not contributing as much as they should and together support the alliance to rebuild Afghanistan.

My Lords, I apologise for not having been here for the Statement and also apologise if it covered the question that I ask. Has serious thought been given to using some of the poppy crop for pharmaceutical purposes in order to reduce the hardship that undoubtedly follows from the destruction of the poppies?

My Lords, on the face of it, it seems ridiculous that that should not happen when there is a shortage of pharmaceutical-grade narcotics. However, the matter has been looked into very carefully indeed. It is the policy of the Afghanistan Government not to support such an initiative because of the practical challenges that it would present. I sympathise with the noble Lord’s suggestion. It should be possible to do what he suggests.

Thank you, my Lords. Further to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and because I am not quite clear on this, will the Minister clarify exactly what the primary purpose of the campaign in Afghanistan is? If it is to get rid of the Taliban, as some people say, how many decades does he think that will take?

My Lords, as we have said from the very beginning, its purpose is to support the transition of that country to become a stable and democratic state where its people feel free of the mixture of terrible wars, the narcotics trade, which has infiltrated the country, and the decades of despair, which created an environment which allowed the Taliban and others to launch attacks—for example, that of 9/11. Our policy is clear: to support that country in its journey to become an effective democratic state. We do not know how long it will take, but under the UN mandate, as part of NATO, this is clearly a campaign that we can be effective in, and we can be successful. As part of it, we have to beat the Taliban. We have shown a capability to do that over the past year. We are taking the fight to the Taliban now, and that is one part of the support that the country needs to return to democracy.

My Lords, what is being done about closing the border crossings, which are being used by the Taliban to get here and there and escape? Is that a matter for the Afghan Government? Can we do anything about it? What is the position?

My Lords, that is a very important point, but we need to recognise the geographic challenges in the nature of the territory and the borders. It is very difficult to police those areas. It is the responsibility of the Afghan Government supported by the Afghan forces, with the coalition partners in support, and also of those countries that border Afghanistan.

My Lords, can the Minister now respond to the request of my noble friend for reassurance that there will be no reduction in the budget for the vital job of training Apache pilots?

My Lords, the noble Lord said that he did not know how long we were going to be in Afghanistan to do the job that we think we are doing there. Does that mean that there is a complete open-ended commitment to stay in Afghanistan and occupy Afghanistan for so long as the Afghan Government themselves cannot control their own country and their own borders? If so, how many troops will eventually be involved, and what cost will there be to the British taxpayer?

My Lords, we are not occupying Afghanistan; you cannot occupy a country with 7,700 troops. The answer that I gave to the noble Baroness was that we do not know how long it will take for Afghanistan to make this transition, as I called it, to democracy. I am being realistic with the House. At the same time, that is not saying that there is an open-ended commitment. The two are separate. The operation that we are embarked upon is one that we set out for three years, going through to 2009. We need to be realistic about the challenge that the United Nations and NATO have undertaken. It is a challenge that we can be successful in, but it would be unrealistic to predict the timescales.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement, and I welcome it to an extent. Does he agree that there are two disappointments in the Statement? First, we have been unable to secure an agreement with the United States to reduce our forces in Iraq much more, to be able to increase in Afghanistan, where we can be successful. We have no troops available elsewhere. Secondly, many other NATO nations are not contributing in the way that we have discussed, and I will say more about that later. Does the Minister agree that by the end of this year the situation will not be much different from what it is now? It is not a question of just one more push; this campaign will have to be sustained for several years. We must be patient and not expect instant results in some decisive battle with the Taliban.

The Statement refers to engagements with the Taliban. Does the Minister agree that the Taliban body count is not a measure of success? Success will derive from the comprehensive approach that he mentioned, which should eventually make the Taliban irrelevant. Does he agree with the point made by my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever about reconstruction, funds and facilities for our military forces? At present, it is extremely difficult for NGOs to access certain parts of Helmand province. It may be necessary for our forces to do more reconstruction directly themselves, especially following damage caused by combat operations.

Finally, the Minister has commented upon air trooping. If we are to keep large numbers of troops deployed on overseas operations, we must have modern wide-bodied jets to get them to and from theatre and to take them on leave when they expect to be on leave. I have written to the Minister on that point and I look forward to his reply in due course.

My Lords, I will try to rattle through answers to the noble Earl’s questions. I absolutely agree that we need modern jets, and as quickly as possible. The jets that we have are too old, which puts a lot of pressure on the air bridge. I agree that we need to be patient, which is why I answered the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, in the terms that I did. The noble Earl is absolutely right—it is not about body count; it is about the effectiveness of the comprehensive approach, and about the military providing the security to enable reconstruction to take place. He is right to say that in certain areas it is not possible for the NGOs to operate—it is too dangerous. In those circumstances, however, it is important for reconstruction to take place and that then puts pressure on our combat engineers to be able to do that.

I have already touched on questions relating to other NATO partners not contributing enough, but there is no disappointment relating to the securing of an agreement with the Americans on our forces in Iraq. We are responding to the situation on the ground in Iraq in a way that is appropriate to that theatre. We need to, and are, doing the same in Afghanistan. The two are linked in the sense that we have to make sure that we have the force balance that we need and that we can sustain it. We recognise the pressure that we are under—this cannot carry on indefinitely.