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Volume 704: debated on Monday 6 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their assessment of the current military situation in Afghanistan.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of those service personnel who have lost their lives in operations since the House was last in session. On the Question, UK force levels remain at around 8,000 and continue to improve security in Helmand. The Taliban continues to use intimidation and violence against the local population, and expanding Afghan-led security remains key to our success. Sixty thousand Afghan national army troops have been trained and are increasing their ability to operate alongside ISAF. In Kabul, Afghan national security forces have begun the process of taking over responsibility for security.

My Lords, I associate these Benches with the earlier tribute. We all praise the bravery and skill of our Armed Forces in Afghanistan in an extremely complex and dangerous mission but, given the comments of Brigadier Carleton-Smith, voicing what many of us believe, that this is a war that probably cannot be won in a traditional sense and that ultimately negotiations will have to take place with the Taliban, and given last week’s reports that President Karzai has asked King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to help to broker a settlement with the Taliban, apparently with significant assistance from British intelligence, what is Her Majesty’s Government’s attitude to negotiations with the Taliban and does America share their approach?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his statement about the bravery and skill of our Armed Forces, which we have seen demonstrated very well this summer, not least with the good work in regenerating the Kajaki dam. Brigadier Carleton-Smith’s comments should not come as a surprise to anyone in this House. In a Statement in another place on 16 June, the Secretary of State said:

“The military know better than anyone else that this is a campaign that cannot be won by military means alone”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/6/08; col. 676.]

That has been said for some time and is something that everyone should agree with. President Karzai has had a reconciliation commission set up for some time for individuals previously associated with the Taliban. It is hoped that disaffected Afghans involved in insurgency or other activity can be brought into the mainstream. However, there are provisos and red lines, which are that such people should renounce violence and accept Afghanistan’s constitution.

My Lords, from these Benches we, too, send our condolences to the families and friends of the servicemen killed in Afghanistan. Will the Minister confirm that adequate supplies of ammunition ordnance are now being delivered there and say whether there has been any improvement in helicopter support?

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that during the summer we signed a new agreement on the supply of ammunition. We have no reason to think that there are specific problems with that. On helicopters—and I acknowledge the interest that the noble Lord has taken in this issue for some time—we have 60 per cent more airframes than we had two years ago. We have several initiatives, including one with other NATO partners on burden sharing, and we have plans to make sure that more flying hours are available, because it is flying hours that are the essence, not just the number of helicopters. We have made plans by improving the servicing of helicopters and doing more of that in the field. While we could always use more helicopters, we have sufficient for essential operations and are discussing with allies and in our own community how best to maximise the use of those that are available.

My Lords, what is my noble friend’s assessment of how well we are doing in controlling the growth of the poppy harvest in Afghanistan? In her assessment, is that helping or hindering our military effort?

My Lords, my noble friend raised this issue at the time of the Statement. The situation with regard to the poppy crop has not changed significantly. There is a problem in Taliban-controlled areas because the growing of poppies and the trade surrounding it are closely linked to criminality and the funding of the Taliban. We are trying to tackle this, but it is a difficulty. We are working hard with development agencies to bring about the same improvements in family incomes through farming other crops and we are working in other development areas such as getting more youngsters, especially girls, into school and increasing healthcare generally. These are all challenges. We must improve the development of the country, as well as just being engaged in military activity where necessary.

My Lords, how secure is Kabul from incursions by the Taliban? Has there not been a worrying deterioration over the past year? Surely no wider military or other strategy can succeed unless confidence in Kabul’s own security is achieved beyond question.

My Lords, as I mentioned in my Answer, the Afghan national security forces began the process of taking over security in Kabul on 28 August. It is not surprising that some insurgents wanted to test their ability and to challenge their control in that area. That is part of what we are seeing at the moment. We have not walked away from the situation; training, mentoring and support are ongoing. The situation was considered sufficiently secure for the Afghan national security services to take that significant step forward. It is not surprising that those forces are being tested, but we are trying to help them.

My Lords, are the Government satisfied that co-operation with the Pakistan military is sufficient and that all those involved in Afghanistan are co-operating with Pakistan?

My Lords, co-operation between Afghanistan and Pakistan is important and significant. Discussions, sometimes involving third parties and sometimes direct, are ongoing. There is general recognition on both sides of the need for proper co-operation and discussion before there can be any calmness in the area.