Skip to main content


Volume 719: debated on Monday 14 June 2010


My Lords, with permission, I would like to repeat a Statement that is being made in another place by the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on Afghanistan. First, I am sure the whole House will want to join with me in paying tribute to Private Jonathan Monk from 2nd Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, and Lance -Corporal Andrew Breeze from 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment, who have died in Afghanistan. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and friends. Their service and sacrifice for our country must never be forgotten.

This was my fifth visit to Afghanistan, but my first as Prime Minister. I held talks with President Karzai and visited our troops in Helmand. I want to set out for the House how this Government will approach our mission in Afghanistan and how that mission is progressing. But, first, let me stress the importance of such updates. The whole nation is touched by the heroism of this generation of our Armed Forces who are fighting to protect us in harsh conditions far from home. And I believe that the country, and this House, is entitled to the facts. That is why this Statement will be the start of a pattern. There will be regular updates to the House, with quarterly statements by the Foreign or Defence Secretary and we will on a monthly basis publish much more information on the progress we are making. This will include updates on the security situation, recruiting, training and retaining the Afghan security forces; on progress in appointing and supporting provincial and district governors; and on progress in terms of development work, including health and education.

Our main focus will be on the security situation. For example, in the six months to March 2010 the Afghan National Army grew by almost 20 per cent with over 17,000 joining the ranks. But, at present, the Afghan police are assessed to be ineffective or barely able to operate in six of the 13 key provinces in General McChrystal’s plan. Good news or bad, we want to take the country with us in what is this Government’s top foreign policy priority.

Let me address the first question people are asking: why are we in Afghanistan? I can answer in two words: national security. Our forces are in Afghanistan to prevent Afghan territory from again being used by al-Qaeda as a base from which to plan attacks on the UK and our allies. Of course the al-Qaeda training camps and the Taliban regime that protected them were removed from Afghanistan in the months after 9/11. But the presence of NATO forces prevents them from returning.

Afghanistan is, however, not yet strong enough to look after its own security. That is why we are there. Together, with the greater efforts of the Pakistanis to hunt down al-Qaeda in its own country, al-Qaeda is now under pressure on both sides of the border. Eighteen months ago, the then Prime Minister told this House that some three-quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against Britain had links to the border area. Today, I am advised that the threat from al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and Pakistan has reduced. But I am also advised that if it were not for the current presence of UK and international coalition forces, al-Qaeda would return to Afghanistan and the threat to the UK would rise.

The next question is: how long must we stay? The Afghan people do not want foreign forces on their soil any longer than necessary and the British people are rightly impatient for progress. Our forces will not remain in Afghanistan a day longer than is necessary and I want to bring them home the moment it is safe to do so. The key to success is training and equipping the Afghan security forces at every level to take on the task of securing their country, so that Afghans can chart their own way in the world without their country posing a threat to others and our forces can come home—the job done and their heads held high.

That is why we back the strategy developed by the ISAF Commander General McChrystal and endorsed by President Obama and NATO. That strategy involves protecting the civilian population from the insurgents, supporting more effective government at every level and building up the Afghan National Security Forces as rapidly as feasible. We want to transfer security responsibility for districts and provinces to Afghan control as soon as they are ready, but this should be based on the facts on the ground, not on pre-announced timetables.

The current year is the vital one. We are six months into an 18-month military surge and we must now redouble our efforts to drive progress. Central Helmand, along with Kandahar, has been the heartland of the Taliban. It is from here that they gave safe haven to the al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan. That is why the operation in central Helmand is crucial to the success of the whole mission.

Four years ago we went into Helmand with 3,000 troops. I do not think anyone now seriously argues that was sufficient. Today there are around 30,000 there; 8,000 British working alongside 20,000 US Marines. In total, we have more than 10,000 troops in the country as a whole. With the arrival of reinforcements and the continued growth of the Afghan security forces, we are now evening out the ISAF presence in the main populated areas in Helmand. This is a crucial point.

In the past, we have simply not had enough soldiers per population for an effective counter-insurgency campaign. Today, although the rebalancing is still work-in-progress, the situation is much improved.  The arrival of a US Marine expeditionary force, combined with additional contributions from other ISAF partners, including the UK, has given a huge boost to the resources available to ISAF in Helmand. For example, the Marines have arrived with some 80 aircraft and helicopters of their own, which are now available to support all ISAF forces in Helmand and it is clear that we have made real progress in central Helmand this year.

A degree of normal life has returned to places like Nad Ali, where the bazaar is open again and people are going about their daily business in an area that was, until recently, infested with insurgents. But the progress is not yet irreversible. Inevitably, there will be tough fighting as Afghan forces, with ISAF in support, hold the ground that we have taken and push the insurgents out of further towns and villages. But I can also assure the House that this Government will do everything in their power to make sure that we give our forces the protection and the state-of-the-art counter-IED capabilities that they need.

During my visit, I was able to announce a further £67 million to double the number of counter-IED teams to tackle the most serious threat facing our young men and women. So, with the improvements made in the past year, many of the acute shortages, which hampered us so severely in our initial deployment in Helmand, have been dealt with. But I do not pretend that every equipment shortage has been resolved. We will need to adapt constantly and to deal with problems as they arise.

I regard it as my most important duty as Prime Minister to make sure our forces have what they need to do what we ask of them, and that they are properly cared for and respected for the extraordinary work that they do. The whole country is incredibly proud of them and I believe we need to do more to recognise the remarkable men and women of our Armed Forces and to place them at the front and centre of our society.  That is why I announced a doubling of the operational allowance for service in Afghanistan, back dated to 6 May and that is why I believe it is right that we renew and reaffirm our commitment to the military covenant, that crucial contract between our country and those who risk their lives to ensure our security.

However, I do not pretend that we can succeed, either in Helmand or in Afghanistan as a whole, by military means alone. Insurgencies usually end with political settlements—not military victories—and that is why I have always said that we need a political surge to accompany the military one. We need better to align our development spending with our overall strategy and I have announced £200 million to be spent on vocational training, strengthening the police services and government institutions. And we need a political process to bring the insurgency to an end.

As a first step, this means getting individual Taliban fighters to put down their weapons, to renounce violence and to reintegrate into Afghan society. The successful peace Jirgah earlier this month should enable that process to move ahead swiftly. But it means more than that. For long-term political stability, everyone in Afghanistan, including those in the south, must feel that it is their government, their country and that they have a role to play. As I agreed with President Karzai, we must start working towards a wider reconciliation process, leading to a political settlement that works for all the peoples of Afghanistan.

We are seeing a good example of the dual approach of a political surge combined with a military surge to deliver greater security in the second city of Kandahar. Importantly, the process getting under way in Kandahar is largely Afghan-led. Alongside military operations by Afghan security forces together with international forces, it included, for example, a Shura of several hundred local elders conducted yesterday by the local governor, which President Karzai attended. And it includes a major drive by the Afghan Government, with our support, to improve public services and the rule of law.

We want to create a situation where the people of Kandahar look to their Government, not the Taliban or militia groups, to deliver security, justice and a better quality of life. From now on, what is happening around Kandahar and in Helmand will reflect a deeper understanding of the influence of the tribal structures in Afghanistan. In the past, we have simply not paid enough attention to this, and to the unintended consequences of some of our policies. I want, for example, for us to take a careful look at the contracting policy of ISAF to ensure that the money going into the local economy from the huge logistical contracts has a positive impact and does not help fund local militias or, even worse, the insurgents.

As I have stressed, this is the vital year for our mission in Afghanistan. We have the forces needed on the ground; we have our very best people, not just military, but leading on the diplomatic and development front as well. I do not pretend it will be easy. As the last few weeks have shown, I must warn the House that we must be ready for further casualties over the summer months as the so-called fighting season resumes and ISAF extends its activity. But I say to the House what I said to our young service men and women in the dust and heat of Helmand on Friday: they are fighting thousands of miles away to protect our national security here at home. There is no national interest more vital than that. Like their predecessors, they have the support and the gratitude of the whole nation.

When we have succeeded in enabling the Afghans to take control of their own security, our troops can begin to come home. But even after our troops have left Afghanistan, the relationship between Britain and Afghanistan must continue as a strong and close one. Likewise, we want to continue to build on our relationship with Pakistan. These long-term relationships, quite simply, are essential for our national security.

I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I join the Leader of the House, who has spoken on behalf of the Prime Minister, in paying tribute to the two soldiers who have been killed: Private Jonathan Monk of 2nd Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment and Lance-Corporal Andrew Breeze of 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment. Our thoughts are with their families and their grief at their loss.

I thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement today and for giving me advance notice of it. It is certainly welcome that the Prime Minister and other Ministers have visited Afghanistan so early on in the formation of the Government. I thank him for that and I welcome the decision to increase the operational allowance for our troops in the field. I also welcome the support that he and the Government have shown for our troops. All those who are serving in Afghanistan should know that they have the admiration and respect of all sides of this House and the other place, and indeed of the whole country. I welcome, too, the Government’s continuing commitment to Armed Forces Day on 26 June and make clear our continuing commitment to it.

On the question of our troops’ families, will the coalition Government continue the important work we in government were doing to support the wives, partners and families of all our Armed Forces? It is common ground that our work in Afghanistan needs to bring together security, development and diplomatic efforts. Will the Leader of the House update the House on the discussions the Prime Minister had with President Karzai? I assure him that the Government will have our support to take through a strategy that sees the Afghans strong enough to take responsibility for their own security and prosperity. We on this side of the House welcome the £200 million that the coalition Government have announced for building up the Afghan army, police and civil service. Can he reassure the House that this will not be at the expense of existing programmes? Can he also update noble Lords on discussions the Prime Minister has had with the US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and whether they addressed the proposed withdrawal of Canadian forces in 2011?

A stable Afghanistan requires a stable Pakistan. Will the Leader update the House on what discussions the Prime Minister has had with President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani of Pakistan?

I turn now to the Strategic Defence Review. Will the Leader reassure the House that the front line will not be affected? Will the Prime Minister arrange for a Statement to be made to both Houses to explain how he is taking forward this work? Perhaps he would wish to include this in the next quarterly statement.

Will the Prime Minister agree to the commitment we gave to have an annual reception in Downing Street for the families? Has he met the formidable women who lead the Army Families Federation, the Naval Families Federation and the Royal Air Force Families Federation? Will the Prime Minister and all Ministers who are going to a base in theatre find time to meet wives and partners separately?

Can the Leader of the House reaffirm that, despite the challenges we face in Afghanistan, progress has been made? Can he confirm that the Government are continuing the strategy which the United Kingdom has pursued, with our partners in the international coalition, and that it has not changed? If it has changed, can he tell us in what respects? I am sure that all noble and gallant Lords will be as vigilant in respect of the strategy under this Government as they were under the previous Government.

Returning briefly to the issue of spending, in opposition the now Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary argued for a bigger Army and for its expansion by three battalions. Are the Government going ahead with that?

The Strategic Defence Review gives rise to the statements made over the weekend by the Secretary of State for Defence on the future of the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence—statements to the media, of course, not to Parliament. Will the Leader of the House join me in paying tribute to Sir Jock Stirrup and Sir Bill Jeffrey for their public service to the nation? Will he explain to this House the reasons for their departures? Will he confirm that they will both play a role in the implementation of the Strategic Defence Review and remain until it is completed?

I restate our support for the mission in Afghanistan, which is, as the Prime Minister has rightly said, first and foremost to protect our national security. As this is the noble Lord’s first Statement to this House on Afghanistan on behalf of the Prime Minister—and, therefore, the first occasion on which we have responded as the Official Opposition—I assure him that, as the Government proceed to take difficult decisions in the best interests of our mission in Afghanistan and of our troops, they will have our full support.

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the Opposition for what she has said and for the questions she has posed. There were quite a few and I do not pretend for one moment that I shall be able to answer all of them right now. She is only too aware of the difficulties in replying on behalf of the Prime Minister, who speaks in another place, while being asked questions here. However, I shall do my very best.

I also thank the noble Baroness for the broad statement of support for what the new Government are doing. In many instances we are following the footsteps of our predecessors. As a generality, it is important to our forces abroad that they feel there is combined and united political support. I do not take that, of course, as stopping the noble Baroness from asking her incisive questions; I would be amazed if she did not continue to do so.

On the question of continuing the strategy, it has not changed fundamentally; we have very much the same interests in mind. However, there are different priorities, particularly in trying to press forward more political change. We are trying to promote a political surge at the same time as a military surge in order to win the military war and the people-and-minds war on the ground, and to encourage the Taliban to understand that the time for laying down its weapons has now come.

The noble Baroness will have seen in the newspapers this morning and over the weekend that the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence is due to retire. That was envisaged a while ago and there is nothing extraordinary in it. It is true that Sir Jock Stirrup is leaving early. However, I am informed that he will play a full role in the Strategic Defence Review and that that role will be important and significant in it coming to its conclusions.

The noble Baroness asked whether we would continue to support the families. I can confirm that we shall do so. That is why we have also announced that we should look again at how the R&R rules work in terms of travel time for soldiers returning to this country, as well as looking at the review of the military covenant, putting at the heart of that covenant the welfare of our military.

I cannot confirm that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has met the formidable women of the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force families federations, but I am sure that their interests are very much uppermost in his mind and those of the Secretary of State for Defence and his ministerial team.

The increase in funding of £200 million that we have announced is substantial. I can confirm that it is new money; it is not at the expense of existing programmes. Of course, I cannot say that in the future there may not be some reordering of it, but it is new money, to be spent during the next few years on trying, as I have explained, to unfold the strategic objective of helping the restoration of a civil society within the nation of Afghanistan.

As the noble Baroness correctly noted, the relationship with Pakistan is vital. It is extremely well understood. The sacrifice that the armed forces of Pakistan have made these past few years is equally recognised and understood, as are the close links that exist between this country and Pakistan. I am glad to say that, in general, the relationship between us and Pakistan is extremely good, and the amount of money which is spent by various agencies from the United Kingdom to Pakistan will be continued.

I am unable to tell the noble Baroness when the Strategic Defence Review will report. We are in the very early days of working out exactly how it will take place, but as soon as I have more information on it, I shall let her know.

My Lords, I thank the Leader for repeating this constructive Statement. I add on behalf of the Cross Benches to the tributes already paid to those who have died in the line of duty.

It has been persuasively argued by long-term Afghan experts that the war against the Taliban is unwinnable for many reasons, some of which have been listed by the noble Lord. One of them is that the training camps supplying fresh batches of suicide killers for export are now based largely in the tribal areas of Pakistan, which are on the whole outside the reach of the Pakistan authorities. The link between the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is almost negligible now. Nor is the Taliban centrally involved in exporting terrorism; it is concerned much more with domestic control. It would seem that the justification for the surge looks increasingly thin. Does the Minister therefore agree that a different, perhaps more limited, strategy is called for? I suggest, for example, as have others, that a strategy which focuses on protecting the main cities, together with maintaining a highly trained, mobile force to take out any remaining training camps, is possible, desirable and therefore to be recommended.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, the Convenor of the Cross-Benchers, makes some important and valid points, but it is the view of the Government that the key area for us to spend time and money on is the reintegration and reconciliation process of dealing with Taliban leaders. The noble Baroness rightly said that it is an unwinnable war if the only means at our disposal are military. It is not a war that can be won simply with guns and arms; it needs to be part of an overarching political process. That is why we are very glad that the peace Jirgah that took place early in June was a success. It was part of what we believe to be the inclusive political settlement, which is so necessary in restoring the peace and security in which prosperity can increase. We are trying to support the emergence of a strong and stable Afghanistan state. There will be parliamentary elections in September, all part of the process of creating that strong and stable state, and a great deal of work is ongoing to ensure that those elections are a success. The Prime Minister himself will see President Obama in July, when no doubt this will be uppermost on the agenda.

I share the views expressed on both sides of the House about the soldiers who have died recently in Afghanistan. Can the noble Lord say what is happening immediately to enable the Afghans to become a more effective fighting force? What programme is contemplated to give that aim practical effect?

My Lords, a key plank of the role of British forces is to help and encourage the Afghan national security forces themselves to become better able to provide the security that is required. There are currently around 120,000 Afghan national army personnel and 105,000 Afghan national police personnel. It was agreed at the London conference a few months ago to set targets for the ANSF growth by the end of 2011 of 171,000 for the ANA and 134,000 for the ANP. That means that there is a huge role not just for British forces but for our NATO allies and partners in helping, training and encouraging Afghan national security forces to take more of the burden. It is our wish that, as they do so, we will be able to withdraw.

My Lords, I welcome this Statement from the Prime Minister repeated in this House. The Prime Minister is right when he talks of the need to accelerate the process which will lead to the eventual withdrawal of Britain’s 10,000 deployment. Can the noble Lord indicate whether there is a timescale for the withdrawal? That would put an urgency on the Karzai Government to reach some sort of decisions on the basis of which they can take fuller control rather than depending on British soldiers to maintain the situation in Afghanistan. Is there any further information about the recent revelation of the news about the ISI in Pakistan collaborating with the Taliban in Afghanistan on the basis of which the insurgency seems to be gathering quite a lot of pace?

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Dholakia asked about timetables for withdrawals. The view that I have always held on these matters, which is shared by the Government, is that rather than giving artificial dates we should do what we can when we can. No British soldier wishes to stay one moment longer than needed and required in Afghanistan. The steps that we are taking and continue to take are those designed to ensure that that withdrawal can take place. We hope, as the current mission unfolds over the next two or three years, that a substantial change will take place.

I cannot comment on the question raised by my noble friend about the ISI collaboration in Pakistan, but if I have any further information I shall certainly let him know.

My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader of the House touched briefly on the point raised by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition in relation to Sir Jock Stirrup but he did not answer the specific question that my noble friend put. Will the noble Lord tell the House why it is thought necessary that the Chief of the Defence Staff be asked to leave his post at this juncture?

I think that the noble Baroness is trying to stir up trouble for the Government on this subject, but I really do not think that there is any. There are no particular reasons. I am sure that there is a series of different reasons for why this decision has been taken, but Sir Jock will be staying in post until November. That also allows me to answer the noble Baroness’s question that I did not answer before: that is around the same time as we hope the SDR will be published. Sir Jock will be playing a major part in that, and he would not be if there was any discomfort or unhappiness between the Government and him. I can confirm that the relationship is as good as it should be.

My Lords, I welcome the statement. I notice, however, that there is a lot of emphasis on the subject of our troops coming home, which is laudable in many senses but is in danger of perpetuating the uncertainty with which this whole operation has been run for the past four years. Can the House be reassured that the Government will give full and strong emphasis to this being a fully fledged campaign, something to which the noble Lord the Leader alluded in the answer before last?

Yes, my Lords. I have said that no British soldier wishes to stay in theatre a minute longer than is required, but we have a job to do. We will stay there to complete the job that needs to be done, and today was an opportunity to lay out our general strategy and priorities. We will fund and support our troops on the ground and take steps to make sure that they are given the very best of equipment, political support and everything else that they require.

My Lords, in warmly welcoming the statement made in another place by my right honourable friend, I wish to raise a question concerned not with great matters of security or strategy but rather with the emotional and spiritual problems that face our brave young women and young men who are serving in Afghanistan. Does my noble friend agree that they are greatly helped by the advice and counsel that they receive from chaplains of all sorts? I use that term generically, from Muslim via Jewish to Christian and back. Will he confirm that such spiritual and emotional support, which is so valuable to people on the front line, will continue to be available for just as long as our troops stay in Afghanistan?

Yes, my Lords. My noble friend has made a good point and asked an important question about how we see the welfare of our troops, not only when they are in theatre but also when they return to this country. I can tell him that my honourable friend Dr Andrew Murrison has been asked to carry out a study into the health of those in the Armed Forces and veterans to see what more can be done to assess and meet their needs. I would be surprised if that did not also look at their spiritual needs, which are all-important.

We want to put our Armed Forces in the front and centre of our national life again. We are going to rewrite the military covenant and look after their families. There is a key role for civil society in working with people who work in our Armed Forces and those who are retiring. We are also going to look at how to improve accommodation for Armed Forces families and channel more funding into state schools in barracks towns. There is a substantial agenda but we have a great opportunity, with so many members of the Armed Forces in theatre at the moment, to get it right. It was correct for the Prime Minister to lay this out right at the beginning of our term.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement and the intention to do more for the military covenant. The Americans and President Obama have talked about withdrawal starting in 2011, and now we appear to be talking in the same terms. Can I take it that we and our American colleagues will be moving together on this, not separately?

As I am on my feet, I should like to say how important it is that the Government’s confidence in the Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, is loudly and clearly enunciated, particularly bearing in mind the avalanche of adverse criticism that has appeared in the media—in a most co-ordinated way, it would appear—following the statement by the Defence Secretary at the weekend.

My Lords, on that point I reiterate the full confidence that we have in the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, for the work that he has done—and, indeed, for the work that he is going to do over the next few months. As for a longer-term withdrawal, that will happen in discussion and by negotiation with our military allies in ISAF. However, I repeat: there is no intention to leave Afghanistan until the job that we have set out on has been done, and done effectively. That is, not least, because we feel that we are at a vital stage of the job that we are doing there and can see the creation of a strong and stable society in Afghanistan becoming a reality.

My Lords, I welcome very much the Statement by the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister today, and the commitment to funds for the future of the Ministry of Defence. More importantly, however, there is also the commitment to the funds for development. That is extremely important for women and children in Afghanistan. We made a commitment at the London conference to assist women and children in education, not only in schools but at university. By a quota system, almost 50 per cent of the MPs in Afghanistan are women. Those women do not have access to the President or proper access to Ministers. As well as a commitment to education, we should also have a commitment to those women who are elected MPs; they should be able to meet together as a caucus and be assisted in that way, not just kept in their constituencies.

The noble Baroness is quite right. Development goes hand in hand with the work of the military and, as the Statement laid out and as I have said again this afternoon, this is very much a partnership and it must, almost by definition, include qualitative improvements in education and health throughout Afghanistan, helping younger women and young men to meet their potential. Since the London conference, good progress has taken place on commitments made there on a number of important areas: on corruption; on development and governance; and on reconciliation and reintegration. I very much echo what the noble Baroness has said this afternoon. It is uppermost in our minds.

My Lords, the Leader of the House referred to the success of the Jirgah earlier this month. Can he say in particular whether greater acceptance was manifested at the Jirgah by the people of Afghanistan of the Karzai Government as representing their interests, and whether specific measures were taken—or have been indicated—on the corruption which has been undermining the acceptability of that regime?

My Lords, it has long been well known that there are problems of corruption in Afghanistan, but a presidential decree has strengthened the high office of oversight and the refocusing of Afghan ministries on tackling corruption. I do not think that any of us would be complacent in saying that the problem faced in Afghanistan is very substantial. My noble friend mentioned the Jirgah; that is but part of a process, but it is an important part in gaining the confidence of people and thus the greatest possible acceptability of the Government to govern in Afghanistan. As I said, parliamentary elections will take place in September. That is a further step on the way. If those elections can, as I very much hope, take place well away from a background of political corruption, that will be another way of demonstrating support for the new Government through normal parliamentary means.

My Lords, given that we have little time on our side, may I ask my noble friend a personal question? His courtesy to your Lordships’ House is such that it is difficult to imagine that he could increase that courtesy but, when he is repeating a Statement made by the Prime Minister, will he contemplate rising to do so after the Prime Minister has sat down? Unless he does so, it is impossible for the Printed Paper Office to release the Statement to Back-Benchers. Alternatively, will he contemplate changing the rules of engagement of the Printed Paper Office?

My Lords, my understanding has always been—this just goes to show how you can get things wrong—that the prime ministerial Statement is issued as the Prime Minister stands up, but perhaps that is not the case. I shall certainly make inquiries, as I think that it is helpful for noble Lords to have a copy of Statements. I hope that I can encourage my noble friend by saying that I will look into this and that, if any action is required, I shall see whether it can be taken.