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Volume 705: debated on Monday 24 November 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What representations they are making to other member states of the International Security Assistance Force to increase their contributions to the campaign in Afghanistan.

My Lords, the ISAF is a NATO-led force. Formally, it is NATO's responsibility to ensure that the ISAF has all the resources it needs. However, as the Prime Minister said in another place last year, there is a need for,

“greater burden sharing by all partners and allies”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/12/07; col. 303.]

Therefore, the UK maintains a vigorous dialogue with ISAF partners and the wider international community on burden-sharing.

My Lords, I admire the continued gallantry of our troops, but does not history show that, for more than a century, no invading country has won enduring success in Afghanistan? Will the Minister comment on the candour of NATO’s General Craddock that there are more than 70 national operational restrictions or caveats demonstrating, in his words, that their national will is somewhat wavering? The most recent, by Belgium, states that its potential reinforcements will not operate to the south of the country.

When I asked the Minister a similar question last year, he preferred not to give a fuller account out of respect for the allies. General Craddock seems to have no such inhibitions, and while there are more than mere numbers involved, would it not be better to have an open discussion on these matters?

My Lords, there are two reasons why we are reticent about commenting on this. The first is respect for allies which are, after all, putting their troops at risk—even with caveats. The second is that we do not wish to give away to others comprehensive battlefield intelligence about the conditions under which different troops will operate. Let me assure the noble and learned Lord, however, that we are working hard to get as many of those caveats lifted as possible.

My Lords, one country that has put its troops at risk is Canada, but it is due to withdraw most of its personnel by 2011. What discussions have the Government had with our NATO counterparts about making up that specific shortfall?

My Lords, there were plenty of discussions with Canada before it arrived at that decision; I, and others, gave evidence to the Canadian commission looking into it. The noble Lord is correct that the decision to set a date by which it would withdraw will create a future gap. At the moment, President-elect Obama has made it clear both that there will be a major surge deployment into Afghanistan, and that he will expect more from his NATO allies. It is through that leadership, which we strongly support, that that gap will be covered.

My Lords, in Bucharest the member states agreed to establish a trust fund so that those countries which did not wish to contribute forces could contribute equipment or cash. Will the Minister update us on its progress?

My Lords, I am glad to be able to report that the trust fund, which was established in April, is doing quite well. It is for purchasing equipment and other support for the Afghan national army, so that it can start to play its proper role in this strategy. Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, Norway and the Netherlands have all contributed to that fund.

My Lords, will the Minister not accept that the caveats to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, referred apply mainly to our European allies, which are not prepared to commit their troops? Indeed, by putting on those caveats they are contradicting the rules of engagement that they, as nations, have signed up to. Does that not make a complete nonsense of the idea of European defence and the European army, as floated by President Sarkozy the other day?

My Lords, those caveats are, unfortunately, becoming a disease across many peacekeeping operations around the world. They have a terrible and contagious dimension: in the Congo last week, I saw caveats operating as regards contributors to that force. We need to tackle them conceptually, as they deeply affect the operational competence of peacekeeping wherever it is done and whichever armies apply them.

My Lords, the Minister has told us—and we are encouraged—that the Government are actively and robustly seeking to reduce the number of caveats. How many have been removed in the past 12 months?

My Lords, touché, I think; I cannot say. I would be delighted to try to respond if an answer existed.

My Lords, what are the views of those countries which are not making a sufficient contribution about the link between development and security? It is the UN’s view that one cannot have development without security. Various opposition groups in Afghanistan know that, which is why they kill not just our troops but women and employees of non-governmental organisations. Do states, particularly those in NATO, understand that the UN link between development and security is critical to the outcome in Afghanistan?

My Lords, my noble friend is correct that obviously they are linked. The difficulty is that some countries, while they do not doubt the link, remain concerned about putting their soldiers’ lives at risk in this very dangerous environment, and they have chosen for whatever reason to conclude that the candle is not worth the wick.

My Lords, Afghanistan was a failed state that had produced the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States on 9/11. I think that we are all aware that around the strategic purpose of this operation, which is to build a stable Afghanistan able to keep itself free of such threats in the future, is a global objective that we should all share and be committed to.

My Lords, when British troops operate alongside American troops in Afghanistan, do they operate on British or American rules of engagement, and are there any aspects of British rules of engagement which are more restrictive—let us say, “caveatish”—than the American?

My Lords, we operate without restrictions under NATO rules of engagement, to which we have made no limits, as does the United States in its ISAF operation. There is a second US operation which has its own rules of engagement and the very different task of hunting down al-Qaeda.