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Afghanistan: Helmand Province

Volume 707: debated on Wednesday 4 February 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the strategic objective of operations in Helmand province; and how they will inform the public when it has been achieved.

My Lords, on 12 December 2007, the Prime Minister announced in another place a long-term framework for security, political, social and economic development for Afghanistan, setting out our strategy and objectives. Military operations in Helmand support the implementation of this approach. My right honourable friend also announced on 3 December 2008 a review of this strategy. That review is ongoing and we will report to the House at the appropriate time.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. The noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, said of the Afghan Government:

“Corruption is a terrible cancer in that Government”.—[Official Report, 8/7/08; col. 628.]

Therefore, will Her Majesty’s Government be backing the re-election of President Karzai for effectively a third term in the presidential elections later this year? Also, can the Minister assure the House that talks are being undertaken by the international community with tribal leaders and even the Taliban to try to build a stable Afghanistan?

My Lords, it is certainly the case that corruption has been a significant problem in Afghanistan. One of the objectives set out by the Prime Minister in the Statement that I mentioned was the need for good governance and the rule of law to be established in Afghanistan. So far as the elections are concerned, our main concern is to get the process right and to ensure that they go smoothly. The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan has lead responsibility and the Afghan national security forces are responsible for security there, but we are assisting. Our concern is with the process more than with the outcome, because that is a decision for the Afghan people. So far as talks with the Taliban are concerned, it is clearly the case that there has to be a comprehensive solution, not just a military solution. The Karzai Government have already made it clear that anyone involved in talks will have to renounce violence, sever any links with al-Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the continual build-up of the Afghan army, especially the 205th Corps covering Helmand, is a vital way forward in achieving our strategic objectives, as is the concentration on the new shift, coinciding with the arrival of General Petraeus, towards far greater protection for civilians in the south?

My Lords, my noble friend is correct. One of our basic objectives is to build up the strength of the Afghan army. We have put considerable effort into that with a large degree of success. We also have to build up the Afghan national police force, on which there is still some way to go. Everyone is now agreed that we need a comprehensive approach where we concentrate on ensuring that people in Afghanistan are able to provide security for themselves to maintain that situation and to operate under a rule of law with good governance. All those things combine as the objectives of everyone involved.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness comment on reports that Lieutenant-Colonel Owen McNally, while working with ISAF in Afghanistan, has been arrested by the Royal Military Police and is being brought back to this country to face charges of leaking details of civilian casualties to a human rights organisation? Are we in the business of covering up the tragic statistics of civilian deaths?

My Lords, we all regret civilian deaths whenever they happen and we take as much care as possible to avoid them. It is of course extremely difficult to comment on the particular case that the noble Lord mentioned, which is very active. All that I can do is confirm that a British Army officer has been arrested in Afghanistan on suspicion of breaching the Official Secrets Act. He is being returned to the UK for questioning and the investigation has been referred from the MoD to the Metropolitan Police. It would be improper for any further details to be discussed at this time.

My Lords, in the desperately difficult situation that our forces face in Afghanistan, a further major challenge faces our supply routes and has done well before the recent announcement of the destruction of the bridge in the Khyber Pass. What further discussions are taking place with the Government of Pakistan to try to improve the security of our supply lines?

My Lords, there is a Question specifically on this tomorrow, but I can say in general terms that we have more than one supply route and it is important that we are not overdependent on just one route. There has been an incident with the bridge; the Pakistanis have been providing emergency assistance to alleviate that problem and we continuously review with our allies the situation in terms of the airlift. There are problems, but there are no immediate difficulties that cannot be overcome.

My Lords, given the importance of the military contribution to achieving the Government’s objective in Afghanistan, what are their plans to increase the forces to ensure that objective?

My Lords, the Prime Minister announced in December a very modest increase in forces on a temporary basis. We keep that force level under review, but at this stage there is no further announcement to be made.

My Lords, am I right in thinking that there is a gap of several months between the expiry of President Karzai’s term of office and the elections for his successor? Do Her Majesty’s Government believe that he has the right to continue in office during that gap?

My Lords, again, that is an issue for people in Afghanistan and one of the reasons why we set such great store in having a proper system of governance and a proper legal framework. There is a gap, which is being addressed by Afghanistan’s people; it is basically an issue for them.

My Lords, may I gently tempt the Minister to give a slightly more substantive answer to a question that I have asked previously? The United States has a volunteer corps of post-conflict reconstructors who can move straight in after troops have taken a town such as Musa Qala. That is good, because it capitalises on the success of the soldiers. However, DfID has to wait sometimes weeks, even months, until the situation is safe. That is bad, because it fails to capitalise on the successes of the soldiers. What is being done to put this right?

My Lords, there is a difficulty in moving from one stage of a conflict to another. I do not think that there is a simple answer, although I am sure that that is not what the noble Lord is suggesting. We have to take an area and then we have to hold it in order to make it safe for those who want to participate in reconstruction to move in. That is the basic strategy and people across all departments in government are working well together to try to ensure that it happens. The review that I mentioned earlier will further look at that work to make sure that we maximise the efforts of all government departments and co-ordination between them.