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Volume 712: debated on Monday 13 July 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the future role of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces in Afghanistan.

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Trooper Christopher Whiteside of the Light Dragoons, Rifleman Daniel Hume of 4th Battalion, the Rifles, Private John Brackpool, serving as a Rifleman with the Prince of Wales's Company, 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards, Corporal Lee Scott of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, and Corporal Jonathan Horne, Rifleman William Aldridge, Rifleman James Backhouse, Rifleman Joseph Murphy and Rifleman Daniel Simpson, all from the 2nd Battalion, the Rifles. They were killed on operations in Afghanistan during this past week. I am sure that our thoughts are with not only those families but all those involved in current operations.

Turning to the Question, our troops are in Afghanistan alongside those of more than 40 countries under United Nations Resolution 1833, reaffirmed in September 2008. Our aim is to stop Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for those who plan terrorism that can threaten security in the United Kingdom. We are there to help Afghanistan become an effective state, with a view to transferring responsibility to the Afghan security forces over time, with international forces moving to a training and supporting role.

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches, I pay tribute to all those young soldiers. The death of so many young men shows the extent of the sacrifice that military families are making on our behalf. Ministers say, rightly, that it is vital that we succeed in Afghanistan, yet, despite promises that our troops will be supplied with everything they need, why do they still fail to provide sufficient helicopters in a country with the most dangerous roads on earth? Far too many troops are being moved by road and being killed by IEDs. Can the Minister tell the House why the Government turned down the request by commanders for 2,000 British reinforcements for Helmand?

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House agrees with the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord. Our thoughts are with military families.

I hear what the noble Lord says about helicopters. We have to be clear that helicopters are not a panacea. They are not a simplistic solution to the problems that our forces are facing with IEDs. We have increased helicopter numbers by 60 per cent since November 2006. Helicopter flying hours are up by 84 per cent. We cannot take and hold ground with helicopters; we have to use whatever means of transport or whatever tactics are appropriate at any particular time. In respect of troop numbers, the Prime Minister announced earlier this year the increase that we are making up to 9,000, particularly to provide security for the elections. It is important that other countries also do their part and increase their numbers.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is she saying in that answer that therefore she believes that we do not need any more helicopters or any more soldiers on the ground in Helmand province?

My Lords, the numbers that we have, not just of soldiers but of members of all the forces, are kept under constant review. Were we to change our tasking, we would have to look at that. I am not saying that we do not need any more helicopters; I am saying that helicopters are not the simple answer to countering the problem of IEDs. I mentioned the increase both in the number of helicopters and in flying hours, but we are doing many other things such as deploying RAF Merlins that have been in Iraq and providing more powerful engines to Army Lynxes so that they can operate in that atmosphere.

My Lords, my noble friend referred to the fact that operations in Afghanistan are under the aegis of the United Nations. Will she consider reminding the BBC and ITN in MoD press releases that that is the case and that 40 other nations are fighting alongside us in Afghanistan under the United Nations’ remit?

My Lords, that point is very well made. Sometimes this is presented as being only the United Kingdom and the United States. Obviously we are trying to convince more of the partners there to provide more armed forces to do their share there. Burden-sharing has improved slightly, but there is still a long way to go and we still press the matter. This is an international commitment, because the threat from terrorism is international and could strike anywhere.

My Lords, may I express the deep regrets and condolences of those on these Benches to the families and friends of those who were so tragically killed last week? There is no doubt that overambitious aims and under-resourcing have played a part in the position that we are currently in in Afghanistan, but is not another cause also this: that we have learnt through bitter experience that unless the international community can act to a single plan in a unified manner and speak with a single voice, we cannot succeed in these matters? Will the Minister explain why, after eight years and so many deaths, this is not possible to achieve in Afghanistan? Is not at least one reason for the sacrifice of so many young lives without success being delivered that the leaders of the international community have completely failed to get their act together under a unified policy in Afghanistan?

My Lords, the mission has changed over time. When troops first went into Afghanistan, they were operating more in the north to get to Kabul to stabilise the situation there, but the real threat from terrorism has always been al-Qaeda, which was centred around the Kandahar area. It is true that not everyone has always realised that threat, and many nations operate with caveats of the kind that neither we nor those who are working with us in the south have. It is difficult in an international situation to get proper co-ordination, but we are working well with our allies in the south and we are happy with co-ordination there.

My Lords, we on these Benches too send our condolences and our prayers to those who have lost their lives. Perhaps we in the House might also remember those in the Chaplaincy Service, for whose services there will be considerable demand as a result. Is not one of the difficulties that we face in a situation such as this that the presence of large numbers of particularly American and other western troops in Afghanistan can add strength to the radical Islamist argument that this is about western imperial ambitions? Will the Minister accept that, unless we are absolutely clear about the purposes of this operation and the boundaries of what we are seeking to achieve in a very different and distant culture, hopes for success will be undermined?

My Lords, I am very happy to pay tribute to the Chaplaincy Service. In the present circumstances, it will be strained, but it has worked well with those who have been bereaved and its contribution is very welcome and much appreciated. On the radicalism of people in that country, it is important that we try to work with the people in Afghanistan: hence the comprehensive approach and the great deal of care that is taken in developing our tactics and holding territory and working with people there. However, I remind the House that the terrorism that most shook people on 9/11 happened long before anyone went into Afghanistan or, indeed, Iraq.