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Afghanistan: Improvised Explosive Devices

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 24 June 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to counter the threat of improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan.

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Major Sean Birchall from the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, who was killed on operations in Afghanistan this past week. Our thoughts are also with the families and friends of the five Britons taken hostage in Baghdad in 2007, particularly those of Jason Creswell and Jason Swindlehurst.

On the Question, the safety of UK personnel serving in Afghanistan is of paramount importance. We constantly monitor the evolving threat, including that from improvised explosive devices, to ensure that our personnel have the protection that they need to operate effectively. We use a range of skills to detect, dispose of and exploit improvised explosive devices and to prevent them from being laid, and we keep these under constant review.

My Lords, our thoughts are obviously with the families of the five hostages taken in Iraq and our condolences go to the families of the two who were killed. We also send our condolences to the family of Major Sean Birchall of the Welsh Guards, who was killed by an IED. Indeed, IEDs have killed 10 of the last 11 soldiers to die in Afghanistan and have left many other soldiers with life-changing injuries. In the light of that, is the Minister satisfied with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s programme and budget to counter urgently this ever increasing problem? Do we have sufficient community outreach programmes in Afghanistan to encourage locals to report IEDs to the coalition forces?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises significant points about how to deal with these threats because it is not the case that just one solution is available. We take seriously and appreciate the work of the DSTL, which has done a great deal to advance our knowledge of the IEDs that are being used and, indeed, in some cases to anticipate future developments. The issue is difficult, ever changing and challenging, but a lot of good work is done on it domestically and, indeed, in theatre. On the reporting of IEDs by people in Afghanistan, we try to get information from and we try to build bridges with local communities. People are fearful of giving information, but we try to establish a situation where, if it is at all possible, such co-operation will exist.

My Lords, against the background that seven out of every 10 British and coalition troops killed in Iraq are killed by Iranian-made roadside explosive devices, with Iran training the people to deliver them and smuggling them across 58 routes into Iraq, of which the MoD has details, can the noble Baroness give an estimate of how many of those devices are now beginning to be used in Afghanistan?

My Lords, my noble friend is correct to say that many of the devices—and, indeed, some of the training—may well come from Iran. This concerns us greatly and is one of the reasons why we have to maintain our efforts on all fronts and be very alert to the sophisticated threat, which does a great deal of damage. We are aware of those concerns and we try to act on them wherever possible.

My Lords, I enjoin these Benches in the earlier tribute and condolences. Apart from service personnel killed and injured by IEDs, my understanding is that around 86 per cent of those killed are Afghan nationals, so it is a serious problem. Given that the Americans apparently spend about £4 billion a year on working on countermeasures to IEDs, will the Minister assure the House that there is maximum co-operation between us and the US in the exchange of information on countermeasures to these ghastly devices?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lee, is quite right that the Afghan population has suffered significantly because of the IEDs that have been laid. This shows the callousness of the insurgents, who are quite willing to kill their fellow countrymen and to disregard the needs of local communities. He is right also that the United States is extremely concerned about IEDs and has suffered casualties because of them. It invests a lot in the development of counter-IED work, as do we. Both countries regard this as a high priority. We co-operate a great deal both inside and outside theatre.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how much per annum the war in Afghanistan is costing and when she expects that British troops will be able to withdraw?

My Lords, I remind the House that the cost of operations is met from the reserve fund and not from the MoD; we should bear that important fact in mind. Setting a date for withdrawal could be counterproductive. We all have an important task and responsibility in Afghanistan, because unless we tackle the problem of insurgency there, it could well become a safe haven for terrorists and insurgents as it has done in the past, which is directly relevant to the security of people in this country.