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Afghanistan: UK Forces

Volume 707: debated on Thursday 5 February 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the robustness and security of lines of communication and supply to British forces in Afghanistan.

My Lords, our lines of communication for logistic support to British troops serving in Afghanistan are robust and reliable, and we have an effective air bridge. The security of the routes used to supply UK Armed Forces in Afghanistan is continuously reviewed.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply, but the destruction of the bridge in the Khyber region illustrates the vulnerability of our supply lines. How long might it take to repair or replace that bridge, and what progress has been made in negotiations with Afghanistan's northern neighbours, particularly in the light of Kyrgyzstan’s efforts to close the US base in that country?

My Lords, the destruction of the bridge in the Khyber Pass at Jamrud was a serious incident. The Pakistan authorities have been extremely helpful in finding emergency alternative routes and are working on construction of an alternative—a Bailey bridge, I think. We are not by any means totally dependent on that route and, at the moment, we do not think that that is having or will have a significant impact. We always look at the possibility of strengthening other routes and, fortunately, we are not totally dependent on the Khyber Pass, and nor is NATO.

My Lords, the likely increase in American forces in Afghanistan and the closure of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, which has just been referred to, is likely to make it extremely difficult to supply fuel to the increased Allied forces in Afghanistan. How concerned are the Government about that?

My Lords, clearly, keeping supplies available at the appropriate level is very important when anyone is considering increases in force levels there, be it the Americans or anyone else. We are enacting a number of measures to ensure that we can continue to support our troops by the strategic air bridge. We have some short-term measures using additional lines of communication, using chartered aircraft to fly to the Middle East and then using our own aircraft to fly into Afghanistan. We are looking at a variety of methods and we are absolutely determined that we should not be dependent on only one supply route for anything vital.

My Lords, bearing in mind that the additional use of aircraft will require greater refuelling in Afghanistan, will the Minister say something about the adequacy of fuel provision there?

My Lords, we are satisfied that we have adequate fuel supplies available in Afghanistan. One advantage of using the Middle East as a stopover is that we can use airports other than those in Afghanistan for refuelling for return journeys. That is proving very helpful and something that we may explore further.

My Lords, will the Minister say more about the closure of the American airbase in Kyrgyzstan near Bishkek, which was not a complete surprise? What alternative arrangements can be made to make up for that loss?

My Lords, I did say that we keep all our approaches and possible supply routes under review, as does the United States. It is important that no one is dependent on a single route, be it through the Khyber Pass or anywhere else. That is why, together with our NATO allies, we have considered a range of novel suggestions and contracts—for example, using civilian helicopters to airlift in non-essential supplies that can be taken on civilian aircraft. We are mindful of the need to keep a variety of routes and options open. We review this continuously and liaise with allies, so that we can review it with them.