Skip to main content

Afghanistan: NATO Forces

Volume 694: debated on Wednesday 25 July 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What measures they have taken to encourage other NATO countries, such as France and Germany, to deploy extra troops to Afghanistan.

My Lords, my right honourable friends the Prime Minister, Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary have spoken with their counterparts in France and Germany in recent weeks. These discussions included the need to ensure that commanders on the ground have access to the resources that they need to carry out ISAF’s mission. Military advice on force and capability requirements is provided by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. The issue was most recently discussed at the Foreign Ministers’ informal meeting in Oslo in April and by Defence Ministers in Brussels in June.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that response. I speak at meetings and seminars, and often the subject relates to foreign affairs. My Question was prompted by my feeling that our military capability is not in line with our present overseas commitments. The UK, the US and some other countries shoulder a disproportionate amount of the burden in Afghanistan and there seems to be little sign of other NATO countries providing more substantial troop movements.

My Lords, have we examined carefully our deployment in Afghanistan and the need to increase the strength of our forces generally and provide them with adequate resources?

My Lords, the noble Lord’s concern is shared by many in this House. This is the third time that I have risen to discuss Afghanistan during my short tenure here. As the noble Lord knows, the UK is the second biggest troop contributor—second only to the United States—providing some 7,000 troops. However, we work continuously with our partners in ISAF to try to raise the deployment numbers of our allies in this endeavour.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that, in spite of the commitments made in Riga and Seville, there is still a worrying and significant shortfall in capability on the ground in Afghanistan? Given that some of our NATO allies are unable to secure the political authority to back up their military commitments, what action are the UK Government taking to change or modify the resources, commitments and deployment of our troops in Afghanistan to mitigate the extra risks that they may well face?

My Lords, the noble Lord points to a concern we all share. It is extraordinarily important for all of us that our troops be as secure as possible. Efforts are under way to improve their equipment and to strengthen NATO support to them.

My Lords, is it not a fact that some countries will not involve their troops in areas of greatest danger? Apart from the numbers, there is the question of how and where they are deployed. Will the Government publish a list of the restrictions that some of our NATO partners place on the use of their troops in Afghanistan?

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord makes an important point. There are indeed caveats operating on many of the troop deployments in Afghanistan. They were most recently discussed at the summit in Riga, and many were removed or liberalised, but others remain. Some are already in the public domain, but, out of respect for our allies, it would not be possible to produce a fuller account than that which is currently available.

My Lords, does the Minister share the very deep concern that I felt when I read the report on Afghanistan of the Defence Select Committee in another place? It demonstrates clearly that despite our most valiant military efforts in Afghanistan, we lack the resources to hold on to, exploit and maintain the temporary advantages we can get. Does the noble Lord not think that the time has come to switch resources from Iraq, which will sink or swim without us, to Afghanistan, which probably depends on us to swim?

My Lords, I am pleased to hear that the noble Lord still interests himself in the reports of the other House. Her Majesty’s Government and our representative in Kabul have made clear that this will be a long effort and that we shall need to continue to reinforce our diplomatic and military presence in Afghanistan, as will all our ISAF partners. However, we must also bear in mind, as I am sure the noble Lord does, that many parts of Afghanistan are now much safer and more secure. The difficulties are concentrated in the southern region of the country.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm reports that the major problem with the German troops is that they will not fulfil their responsibilities after dark?

My Lords, I regret that I cannot cast light on my noble friend’s view. I do not know whether they are equipped with torches.

My Lords, can my noble friend make clear that the Government are telling all our NATO allies that the credibility of NATO is on the line here and that there cannot be a two-tier membership system for NATO? We know the difficulties and sensitivities, but that message needs to be loud and clear.

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point, as did the previous noble Lord who intervened. We shall continue to try to remove or reduce the caveats so that all forces deployed operate under similar rules of engagement and a two-tier operation does not develop.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that it would have been better to have dropped aid and not bombs on Afghanistan in the first place?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will recall the very difficult circumstances in the immediate aftermath of the events of 9/11 which led to the intervention in Afghanistan. I think that there was broad support for that intervention in this House, in this country and in the other House. In that sense, there was a need to secure the fall of the Taliban regime; but that does not remove the equal need for heavy investment in reconstruction and development.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Earl is aware that the PRTs operate in different ways throughout the country. In the north, where there is now stability, there is a great evolution in their operation, and they have become broad-based but also integrated with government in their activities. In the south there are still some restrictions on their movement, and therefore their functions; we hope that those restrictions will be reduced as we succeed in restoring stability to Helmand.

My Lords, will the noble Lord acquaint himself with the effect on civilian politics in Afghanistan of the use of cluster munitions on military targets, as residue from those weapons has an enormous impact on civilian populations?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very important point. As something of a student of nation-building and reconstruction, I think that indiscriminate civilian casualties have terrible consequences for building legitimacy and support for a Government. We continue to press to minimise civilian casualties.