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Afghanistan: UK Forces

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 5 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether the United Kingdom Armed Forces deployed to Afghanistan are receiving full support and co-operation from the Afghan authorities.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will join me in welcoming the noble Lord back to his rightful position on the Front Bench.

The United Kingdom Armed Forces continue to receive the full support and co-operation of the Afghan authorities as we work together to expand the writ of the Government of Afghanistan, to increase the capacity of the Afghan national army and to dismantle the insurgency.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for those kind words. I am also, of course, very grateful to the paramedics who saved my life and the wonderful doctors and nurses who looked after me so well in East Surrey Hospital.

Does the Minister agree that it is rather dispiriting for our troops, who, after all, are fighting and dying in Afghanistan, when President Karzai rejects the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, as the UN special envoy and publicly denigrates our Armed Forces and their achievements, even though their departure would inevitably see the return of the Taliban?

My Lords, there were remarks attributed to President Karzai that received significant publicity, remarks which I think none of us would wish to see anybody in that situation make. However, when President Karzai visited this country at the end of January, at a press conference he restated his respect and his gratitude for the British development and military assistance that we were offering in Afghanistan. He has also said that he was misquoted in some of the remarks.

My Lords, we were very sorry indeed about the blackballing of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown. However, on a separate matter, may I ask whether the Government’s intention is to deploy the Eurofighter Typhoon into Afghanistan? If so, what is the likely timing, and how many aircraft are likely to be involved?

My Lords, at present there are no plans to deploy Typhoon to theatre. So far as that aircraft is concerned, we are focused on developing its air-to-ground capabilities in order to optimise its potential. It is a world-class aircraft, and we think we can make further improvements. The Harrier is there at the moment and is performing well. Close air support is very important to our operations and we will continue to assess what capabilities can best achieve it.

My Lords, why is it necessary for Afghan national army battalions to have attached to them more Europeans than the Frontier Force Rifles or the Baluch did European officers in the days of the Indian Empire?

My Lords, I cannot say that my knowledge of the Indian Empire is perhaps what it should be, but I can say that the assistance being given to the Afghan national army has been very significant. In the recent operation in Musa Qala, the Afghan national army took the lead. It was able to do so because of the training and assistance it has been given by a wide range of nations.

My Lords, the reply given by the noble Baroness was much more optimistic than I had expected; she is obviously talking to different people from those I am talking to. Is there nothing she thinks President Karzai and his Government could do to help the British Armed Forces in Afghanistan?

My Lords, I think that my reply was realistic; I was simply reporting what President Karzai said when he was in this country. However, I think that the Afghan Government have to face some significant issues and challenges, in particular the extension of good governance throughout the country. That is one of the areas on which we are trying to assist, because we are very well aware that there is still a great deal to do in that respect.

My Lords, do the Government think that we have enough Chinook helicopters deployed in Afghanistan? If not, when we are going to get some more there?

My Lords, we have enough helicopters to do the key tasks but we would always like more. We recently had an agreement with NATO that it would supply provide significant helicopter lift in Afghanistan. That would be very helpful to us, particularly in southern Afghanistan, because we think it will free up some of our helicopters for operational use. However, this is one of the areas where we are continuing to try to make improvements.

My Lords, we are getting good reports about the Afghan national army, but what can be done to improve the Afghan national police?

My Lords, at the moment 76,000 people have been recruited into the Afghan national police, another area in which much of the work we have undertaken on training and reorganisation has been very important. Some of the countries that are not willing to perform in other operations are willing to undertake training and mentoring in areas such as this one. That mentoring is important and ongoing and a wide range of contributors are helping with it.

My Lords, can the Minister say what steps the British Government have been taking to encourage the Afghan Government to impress upon other nations the need to make a contribution—in addition to those of the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries—in the defence of their own country?

My Lords, it is correct that the International Security Assistance Force’s operations in Afghanistan are conducted at the invitation of the democratically elected Government of Afghanistan and with the authority of the United Nations. It is incumbent on those who stand by that organisation to try to do what they can. We have been trying to use our influence within NATO to get greater contributions. We have had a degree of success but would certainly like more.