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House of Lords Hansard
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12 October 2009
Volume 713

Question

Asked By

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government how Her Majesty’s Armed Forces are contributing to the overall strategy in Afghanistan; and what progress their military action is making to that end.

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My Lords, before turning to the Question, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of those killed in operations since the House last met: Guardsman Christopher King, 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards; Bombardier Craig Hopson, 40th Regiment Royal Artillery; Warrant Officer Class 2 Sean Upton, 5th Regiment Royal Artillery; Trooper Phillip Lawrence, Light Dragoons; Craftsman Anthony Lombardi, The Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers; Private Kyle Adams, The Parachute Regiment; Lance Corporal Dale Thomas Hopkins, The Parachute Regiment; Corporal Kevin Mulligan, The Parachute Regiment; Private Jason George Williams, 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment; Rifleman Daniel Wild, 2nd Battalion The Rifles; Lance Bombardier Matthew Hatton, 40th Regiment Royal Artillery; Captain Mark Hale, 2nd Battalion The Rifles; Private Richard Hunt, 2nd Battalion The Royal Welsh; Sergeant Simon Valentine, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers; Fusilier Louis Carter, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers; Fusilier Simon Annis, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers; Lance Corporal James Fullarton, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers; Private Johnathon Young, 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment; Serjeant Paul McAleese, 2nd Battalion The Rifles; Fusilier Shaun Bush, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers; Sergeant Lee “Andy” Houltram, of the Royal Marines; Private Kevin Elliott, The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland; Sergeant Stuart “Gus” Millar, The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland; Lance Corporal Richard Brandon, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers; Private Gavin Elliott, 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment; Corporal John Harrison, The Parachute Regiment; Kingsman Jason Dunn-Bridgeman, 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment; Trooper Brett Hall, 2nd Royal Tank Regiment; Acting Serjeant Stuart McGrath, 2nd Battalion The Rifles; Acting Sergeant Michael Lockett MC, 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment; Private James Prosser, 2nd Battalion The Royal Welsh; Acting Corporal Marcin Wojtak, 34 Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment; Guardsman Jamie Janes, 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards; Lance Corporal James Hill, 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards.

I am sure that the thoughts of all of us are with their families and friends and with all those serving in that conflict on our behalf.

Our Armed Forces in Afghanistan are operating under United Nations resolutions and with over 40 other nations in support of and alongside the Afghan national security forces against the insurgency as part of a wider international civil-military effort to help Afghanistan become an effective and accountable state. To this end, over the summer, British forces along with Afghan and ISAF allies undertook Operation Panther’s Claw, which extended governance into the Babiji area of central Helmand.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, and for reading out and honouring before us the large number of fallen in this campaign. I associate myself with that, as many of them were from my own regiment. Does she agree that, if our Armed Forces are highly relevant to our strategy, it is vital that the public are kept fully informed of the continuing purpose of those military operations and the progress being made? Otherwise they—particularly the bereaved—will find it so much harder to come to terms with the very considerable casualty list, which of course does not include all those seriously wounded? Can the Minister also assure the House that in the immediate future the Government will really give this campaign their very best shot in terms of resources, aid, intelligence, co-ordinated direction and dynamic diplomacy, so that before too long there can be a chance to achieve that extra stability to enable us to hand over the bulk of security to indigenous forces? As a famous Chief of the General Staff in the First World War once said, “I’ve ’eard different”.

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My Lords, I indeed think that the list of names is a salutary reminder of the price being paid. As the noble and gallant Lord says, it is important that we should remind the public from time to time exactly why we are there, which is why I mentioned the United Nations resolution and the fact that 40 other countries are also involved in the campaign in Afghanistan. We are there for our own security, because Afghanistan was the heart and centre for those who sought to participate in and plan terrorism, which has affected this country and many others. It is right that we should be totally committed to that campaign. The number of people that we have there and the resources that we are spending show that we have a very significant commitment. The absolute objective must be to get to a situation in which Afghans themselves can take control of a country that can be free from terrorism and not a safe haven for those who seek to do us harm.

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My Lords, we on these Benches also pay tribute to the memory of all those 34 brave soldiers. Our thoughts are with their families and friends and also with the many soldiers who have received life-changing injuries.

As the noble Baroness said, the sooner we get Afghan security forces trained and on the front line, the faster we can begin to bring our own troops home. With that in mind, does the Minister agree with General McChrystal’s assessment that the Afghan National Army can be increased to 134,000 by this time next year?

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My Lords, we will respond to General McChrystal in due course, but the basic aspect of this in terms of getting the Afghans themselves to take control is a significant priority. The word “Afghanisation” has become current in recent weeks, but for a long time we have been trying to build up the capacity of the Afghan national security forces—both the army and the police. At the same time we have tried to develop better governance in Afghanistan by creating institutions that are capable of taking on responsibility. That remains our objective and that is the basic intention of our strategy there.

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My Lords, first, I enjoin these Benches in the earlier tribute to the tragically long list of those who have fallen in Afghanistan in this ghastly and complex conflict. I have a question for the Minister about the wounded. We all acknowledge the outstanding work that is done at Birmingham Selly Oak Hospital in the treatment and care of those who are seriously wounded and brought back from conflict, but are we making maximum use of all our other centres of national medical excellence where, in appropriate circumstances, specialised treatment would be made available? Is there any fast-track mechanism for those wounded to have that opportunity?

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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lee, is right to mention those who have been injured, as have others. I know that many Members of this House have visited Selly Oak and Headley Court and seen the fantastic treatment available there. It is possible, where appropriate, for those who have been injured to be transferred to other parts of the health service, and that is done when it is in their clinical interests. It is important to remember that we should also make provision for their families. Therefore, when we have to transfer someone to a hospital other than Selly Oak because there is more expertise elsewhere, we try to create a military bubble so that the injured person has support from military colleagues but also has the facility to have their family with them. We provide for injured personnel to go elsewhere if that is where the expertise is, but we also try to make sure that the military and family bubble that we support at Selly Oak, which has been most successful, is there if someone is transferred.

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My Lords, does the Minister recall that she replied to a Written Question that I put to her in the Recess about the fatalities of our partners and allies in Afghanistan? Her reply, in terms, was that it is not the British Government’s practice to list other than British fatalities. Does she agree that it might be appropriate for the Government and certainly for the press occasionally to pay tribute to the many sacrifices that our allies and partners are making in Afghanistan?

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My Lords, as I mentioned earlier, this is a commitment that is supported by more than 40 other countries. There have been significant casualties from the major contributors. It is totally appropriate to pay tribute, particularly of course to those who are working alongside us in Helmand, such as the Danes and the Estonians, both of whom have taken considerable casualties.

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My Lords—

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My Lords, it is time for the fourth Question.