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Volume 720: debated on Wednesday 7 July 2010


My Lords, I am repeating a Statement on Afghanistan: Update on Current Operations.

“Mr Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to update the House on our operations in Afghanistan. As the Prime Minister has said, we intend to make regular updates to the House.

As this is a complex subject, I have made maps available to assist honourable Members and will be happy to arrange further briefings at the Ministry of Defence, should Members find them useful.

The Prime Minister reminded us today of the ongoing sacrifices made by our Armed Forces in Afghanistan.

In the face of such losses, we should be in no doubt about the importance of the mission—particularly today, the fifth anniversary of the London bombings in 2005. It is vital to our national security that we have a stable Afghanistan which is able to maintain its own security and prevent al-Qaeda from returning.

As I made clear in Washington last week, we are a committed member of the international coalition of 46 countries in Afghanistan. We have a clear political strategy, and a clear military counterinsurgency plan to support it. The focus now is on delivering. And we can be confident that General Petraeus will build upon the considerable success of General McChrystal.

We face many challenges. Progress has been slower in some areas than others, particularly on the political side. We can expect success in counterinsurgency to be gradual, cumulative and hard-won. But there has, nevertheless, been considerable progress.

Through a UK lens, it would be easy to assume that all of Afghanistan is like Helmand. In fact, many parts of the country are largely secure, with low levels of violence. In Kabul, the Afghans themselves have assumed responsibility for security, and have proved themselves capable of dealing with the localised threats that have emerged. And we are making good progress on building up the Afghan security forces, so that this pattern can be repeated elsewhere. The Afghan army has been growing steadily over the years—by 20 per cent in recent months—to around 130,000 now.

We are playing our part, and the Government have recently approved the expenditure of up to £189 million on new surveillance, communications and logistics equipment for our bases, as part of our ongoing commitment to support the effective partnering of the Afghan security forces.

In southern Afghanistan, the story of this year has been one of the Afghans themselves increasingly coming to the fore in the fight against the insurgency.

In Kandahar, and under the direct oversight of President Karzai, Afghan security forces are leading operations as part of a rising tide of security in order to set the conditions for improved Afghan governance.

In Helmand, Afghan and ISAF forces have together succeeded in expanding the authority of the Afghan Government to 11 out of the 14 districts, by driving insurgent fighters out of the population centres of Babaji and Nad-e-Ali, while consolidating previous gains in Lashkar Gah, Now Zad, Nawa and Gereshk.

The situation in Marjah remains challenging, but counterinsurgencies are about progressively winning the confidence of the local people. The US Marines are well placed to succeed.

Elsewhere in central Helmand, where our presence is more established, we have seen considerable success. In Nad-e-Ali, British troops have been operating alongside the Afghans to secure the district centre and allow unfettered use of local roads. Improved security is allowing effective governance to flourish and trade to grow. In May, for example, around 3,000 Nad-e-Ali residents elected a more representative district community council.

ISAF now intends to reinforce this success. For that reason, I have accepted an ISAF request for a temporary deployment of elements of our Theatre Reserve Battalion, the 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. The TRB is a standing force based in Cyprus which I have instructed should only be used for time-limited deployments to fulfil specific tasks. This deployment will meet those criteria. The additional forces will be used to give commanders additional flexibility to reinforce progress in central Helmand this summer. In a counterinsurgency campaign, the people are the prize. It is hugely important that we strike the right balance between the numbers of the civilian population and the size of the security forces available to protect them. The Prime Minister and I regularly argued in opposition that British troops in Helmand were too thinly spread and that we had insufficient force densities for effective counterinsurgency. That is why we welcome the arrival of over 18,000 US Marines, whose presence is allowing us to deliver a better and more realistic distribution of tasks within the international coalition.

As the House is aware, ISAF has already transferred security responsibility for Musa Qaleh and Kajaki to US forces, who are building on our achievements there. Lieutenant-General Rodriguez, ISAF’s operational commander, will today announce the next phase of this process.

ISAF intends to restructure its forces in Farah and Nimroz provinces so that it can consolidate a US Marine brigade in northern Helmand, which will assume responsibility for security in Sangin later this year. This will simplify current command arrangements and enable UK troops to be redeployed to reinforce progress in the key districts of central Helmand. The Theatre Reserve Battalion will then withdraw. The result will be a coherent and equitable division of the main populated areas of Helmand between three brigade-sized forces, with the US in the north and south, and the UK-led Task Force Helmand, alongside our outstanding Danish and Estonian allies, in the central population belt.

We have been closely consulted by ISAF and fully support this plan. In Sangin, UK forces have made huge progress in the face of great adversity. The district centre has been transformed. Helmand as a whole is a safer place as a result of our endeavours and sacrifices there. I pay tribute to those who have lost their lives in Sangin and to those who continue to serve there.

The operations in Afghanistan, although geographically distant, are of vital importance to our national security. On the ground, we continue to make progress. There will be hard days ahead, but the further changes I have announced today mean more manpower and greater focus for the key terrain of central Helmand. We have the right strategy and we are determined to succeed. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier today by the Defence Secretary, and the Government for giving us early sight of it. I set out from the beginning that we largely agree with the moves announced today: my response will be a number of questions. It is important to recognise that the moves today are part of an ongoing process of deploying British troops as part of the coalition in the most effective way.

Our troops in Afghanistan do a fantastic job every day with resilience and courage in the face of hugely difficult circumstances. They put their lives on the line to protect our national security and we must never forget that. I welcome the commitment that the Defence Secretary has made to making regular updates in the other place, and I look forward to the Minister giving similar updates to your Lordships' House.

I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to clarify whether there is a timetable for the drawdown of our troops in Afghanistan. It is crucial to the success of our efforts that the Government are clear on this issue. Will the decision on the withdrawal of our troops be conditions-based or will our Armed Forces be out of Afghanistan by the end of this Parliament, as the Prime Minister suggested? Specifically, if in five years’ time the situation on the ground is substantially similar to that of today, will British troops be withdrawn from combat?

The Defence Secretary has said that in opposition both he and the Prime Minister argued that our troops were too thinly spread. Will the Minister confirm that what he announced today is in fact a continuation of a process that we began in government? Does he accept that the uplift of American forces gave us the opportunity to improve force density and that, before that, we were limited in the adjustments that we could make? Will he also outline whether this change will bring us to the same density as our American allies? Can he also set out whether he envisages further changes to areas of operation in the near future? The Statement mentioned the deployment of elements of our Theatre Reserve Battalion to Afghanistan. Can the Minister reassure the House that this will not have an adverse effect on our capability to respond to any new contingencies that arise?

All of us on both sides of the House recognise that Sangin is one of the most challenging and difficult places in which our forces are operating. The number of losses that, sadly, we have suffered there reflect that. There will be mixed emotions from our forces and from those who have lost loved ones in Sangin on hearing the Government’s announcement today. Of course we recognise that. However, crucially we must also recognise that this is a decision made by ISAF commanders, whose responsibility is to ensure that coalition forces are organised so that they can deliver the campaign strategy that we all agree is necessary. We on these Benches will support them and the Government in the decisions that they take which enable our Armed Forces effectively to deliver that strategy.

We all recognise that for Afghanistan this is a vital year, in which we must see real progress. The Kabul conference and the September elections will be crucial for the future of the country. Will the Minister update us on progress in that regard and on discussions that the Secretary of State for Defence has had with the Afghan authorities on their prospects? Stability in Afghanistan cannot be delivered by our military alone. The problems are political and the solutions will be political. Will the Minister recognise that and update us on discussions that the Defence Secretary and other members of the Government have had with both the Afghan authorities and others in the region on the political progress that has been made so far?

As we have always said, the Government have our full support as they proceed to take difficult decisions in the best interests of our mission in Afghanistan and of our troops. Our work in Afghanistan is essential to keep us safe and we must never forget that.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and am very grateful for the Official Opposition’s broad support for our specific and general proposals. I absolutely agree with what he said about our excellent Armed Forces.

As the noble Lord will know from his time in government, there are questions that I am unable to answer from the Dispatch Box. I know he agrees that we must do everything possible not to put the lives of our service men and women at risk. However, I am happy to offer private briefings both in this House and in the Ministry of Defence, where we will be able to share with noble Lords more information than I feel comfortable revealing at this Dispatch Box. I have already written to some noble Lords from all parts of the House who I know are interested in defence, and I will be writing to others. We have two dates in the diary for briefing—one before the Summer Recess and the other immediately after we return.

If I do not answer all the questions posed by the noble Lord, I undertake to write to him. He pressed me on deadlines. We want to see the Afghans take control of their own security. They cannot do that yet, but as they are better able to do so, we will see our troop numbers come right down and our role will completely change. The process of handing provinces and districts over to Afghan control will take place on the basis of an assessment of facts on the ground, but we are clear that we need to make progress rapidly, and the coming 12 months are crucial.

The Prime Minister is very clear that there will not be British troops in a combat role or in significant numbers in Afghanistan in five years’ time. Of course, some troops could be there in a training role as part of wider diplomatic relationships, such as we have in other countries, but it will be nothing like what we are doing now. The bottom line is clear: we do not want to be in Afghanistan a day longer than necessary.

That is an internationally agreed objective. The G8 in Canada in June sent a collective signal that we want Afghan security forces to assume increasing responsibility for security within five years. I accept that in the short time we have been in office we have followed through on some of the previous Government’s work in Afghanistan. The money announced by the Prime Minister for counter-IED work is new money, as is the £189 million announced in the Statement.

The noble Lord pressed me about end of force rebalancing. As the Statement says, the force rebalancing announced today follows the additional 18,000 US troops deploying to Helmand. As the Defence Secretary has said, we were not in a position before now to make the changes without those additional ISAF troops. Further changes to what our troops are doing in Afghanistan will undoubtedly be required over time. The transition will need to take place gradually and we have already seen this with the moves started at the end of last year which saw ISAF troops work more closely with their Afghan counterparts under the embedded partnering approach. That approach is seeing ISAF and Afghan troops working together at every level, from soldier and policeman on the ground to Ministers in Kabul.

The noble Lord also asked whether we have a clear counterinsurgency plan. Yes, the plan is clear; it involves protecting the civilian population from insurgents, supporting more effective government at every level and building up the Afghan national security forces to take over that task for themselves.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to our forces fighting in the south of Afghanistan. We are told that this is a crunch year and that significant progress has to be made in Helmand and Kandahar. It is, however, difficult to know what significant progress looks like and, therefore, whether it can be achieved.

I spent last weekend in Kabul talking with a wide range of people, including MPs, academics, teachers, university students, parents, schoolchildren, craftsmen and NGO representatives. Consistently and vociferously two views were expressed: first, the fear of the relentless advance of the Taliban from the south and now in central provinces, and seemingly moving rapidly towards Kabul and the north; and, secondly, the development in the 12 months since I was last there of an astonishingly strong anti-foreign feeling. The rationale, briefly put, is that billions of dollars worth of aid has not helped infrastructure which is deteriorating by the day. I am talking about roads, schools, health and public services of any kind, while unemployment, violence and the Taliban threat are increasing day by day.

What plans do the Government have to make a serious effort to insist that all multilateral, bilateral and NGO aid is co-ordinated, accounted for and directed towards genuine capacity-building involving Afghans? Does the Minister agree that if that were achieved there would be an alternative support structure for people, particularly in rural areas, who would in turn be more likely to reject the Taliban, which ultimately would be a more productive route?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her question, and I of course share her admiration for the excellent work that our Armed Forces are doing. Why are we there? In two words: national security. Our forces are in Afghanistan to prevent Afghan territory from again being used by AQ as a base from which to plan attacks on the UK and our allies. Because Afghanistan is not yet capable of securing its territory without the presence of UK and international forces, al-Qaeda would return to Afghanistan, and the threat to this country would rise.

What are we trying to achieve? Afghanistan is not yet strong enough to look after its own security. The presence of NATO forces is preventing al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime from returning while we train Afghanistan's own security forces to take over that task themselves. The noble Baroness made the point that we need to do much more about redevelopment and leaving a legacy in the country. I absolutely agree. I can confirm that DfID, the FCO and the MoD are stepping up their efforts to discuss those issues together, along with our ISAF partners and the Afghans themselves.

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that there is a great welcome for his offer of briefings on these matters? We face a critical situation, and if there is one duty that we owe to our Armed Forces and those engaged in Afghanistan, in the extremely challenging task that they are conducting so courageously, it is to ensure that Parliament and the people back them to the hilt. People must understand what is happening. No one in this House was under any illusion, even before the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza: we are at a critical moment. There is definitely a balance here. We must ensure that we move speedily on the counterinsurgency strategy, to make that as effective as we can, with the additional United States reinforcements and what my noble friend has announced today, and couple that with political progress. Time is not on our side, and we need to move fast.

My Lords, on the latter issue, of course I agree with my noble friend. It is important that Members of this House, as well as of the other place, are properly briefed on difficult issues in Afghanistan, especially when our strategic defence and security review is taking place. I mentioned that, after the Statement, I will have a series of briefings in the Ministry of Defence. I have asked the Chief of the Defence Staff and the three other chiefs to come to give noble Lords the benefit of their wisdom. We will do that on a rolling basis. My door is always open to any noble Lord who wants to talk to me about Afghanistan or any other issue.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement, and particularly the implication that there will be an increased counterinsurgency effort. The redeployments make sense in achieving that. I am, however, concerned about the additional redeployment from Cyprus. The Minister mentioned that that would be temporary. Bearing in mind the extreme stresses that there have been on the Armed Forces, can he indicate what “temporary” means and whether those ground forces are being supported by additional air and other assets, which will be essential to their role?

My Lords, I thank the noble and gallant Lord for his question. I asked officials the same question, but I was told that I could not say more than “temporary”. I assure the noble and gallant Lord that it will be temporary. I add that there is still a company of our Armed Forces in Cyprus, so there will still be soldiers in reserve out there. They will be supported by a number of additional support troops, but I do not think they will be supported by aircraft.

I am also in favour of briefings, and I welcome that offer. What plans do the Government have to combat the assumption that is already creeping into some aspects of the British media that British troops have had to leave the area because of casualties and so on? The barely hidden implication is that these casualties have been in vain because we have had to leave. This has happened before. We need a powerful media strategy to convey to the British media that when these military changes take place, there are good, rational reasons for them and they are not about being driven out, having to move out, giving in to the Americans or whatever. We need to get that message over. It may be one of the things the Minister ought to consider in his offer of briefings.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. As the Secretary of State said in his speech in the other place, he is inviting the editors of all the national newspapers and other media to his office to give them a briefing in the hope that they will take a more positive line on the responsibilities we have out there. I look forward to seeing the noble Lord at some of the briefings that I am looking forward to having. I remember the happy times we had together in Afghanistan last year.

My Lords, in relation to building up Afghan capability, in a Written Answer, my noble friend indicated to me that something like 129 UK personnel were involved in training an embryonic Afghan air force. Is any of that training being done in the UK? Secondly, we know of the tragic loss of life among our service personnel in Sangin. Can he indicate how many have been severely wounded in that province?

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord those figures, but I will get hold of them and write to him. The international community, including this country, is helping to develop the Afghan National Army, which includes the ANNAC, so that they are able to provide security for their own country. It includes the UK-led international combined airpower transition force, which is working to build a 3,300 member, 48-aircraft ANAAF as part of a long-term effort to give the country a self-sufficient air force. The UK’s contribution to NTNA is currently approximately 129 personnel, with one attached to the ANNAC as a rotary wing mentor. There is a small number of Afghans in this country on staff training courses, supported by English language training.

Can the Minister give the House some comfort by pointing to a precedent where it has been sensible for a Government, when their soldiers are at war, to indicate their intention to withdraw at a pre-stated date and to examples of where that has been in the best interests of our fighting forces?

My Lords, I point out to the noble Lord that we are part of an international ISAF organisation and we have done this with the agreement of our partners. I feel comfortable with that decision.

Was the Minister responding to the last point made by the noble Lord, Lord King, when he spoke of the need to pursue a political track? He spoke of the need to win the counterinsurgency and to pursue political progress. In the light of what the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, told us, it seems very important to envisage serious contacts and negotiations with all parties inside Afghanistan and a framework that involves all the regional powers and Afghan’s neighbours, including the Chinese, the Russians, the Kyrgys, the Kazakhs, the Iranians and the Pakistanis.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. We will not bring about a more secure Afghanistan by military means alone. Insurgencies usually end with political settlements, not military victories. As the Prime Minister said, as for talking to the Taliban, a process of reconciliation and reintegration is taking place where Taliban who are prepared to stop fighting and accept the basic tenet for the Afghan constitution can be reintegrated back into society. That should happen. That political track which runs alongside the training of the Afghan Army and the military surge is vital, as is talking to the neighbours surrounding Afghanistan.

My Lords, from a British perspective progress in Afghanistan is often measured through the lens of Helmand. Will the Minister give us a view as to whether he considers that this is a fair reflection of the security situation across the whole of the country?

My Lords, it is easy to look at Afghanistan as just Helmand province, but large parts are at peace without any problems. We have to look at the country as a whole.

Let me bring the noble Lord back to the point made by my noble friend Lord Myners. I do not think that my noble friend was referring to the current arrangements, which we all understand are ISAF arrangements on which there has been a broad area of agreement in your Lordships’ House. My noble friend was asking what precedent there is for announcing a withdrawal by May 2015. It is that that is causing so much worry because it is thought to give people on the ground who are harming our troops—al-Qaeda, the Taliban and others—a target date by which they know we will be gone. It is that precedent that we would like the noble Lord to address.

My Lords, there are always events. What the Prime Minister has said was an aspiration, to which we very much hope that as a country we can keep, although we could be overtaken by events.

My Lords, since 2001, and certainly over the past four years, despite shortages of manpower and helicopters, the courage, stamina and commitment of our troops and our allies are beginning to bring peace and stability to the people of Afghanistan. As Sir Richard Dannatt said this morning on the “Today” programme, for at least some years to come, we require a critical mass of fighting troops to sustain our contribution to the alliance. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that the strategic defence review will not lead to cuts in numbers of our essential fighting troops; namely, the 3rd Commando Brigade Royal Marines from the naval service and seven infantry brigades from the Army. The policy of restraint is undoubtedly correct. It is, however, easier to preach than to practise. It demands heroism, self-discipline and patience of the highest order. It also demands considerably more manpower.

My Lords, the Secretary of State has made it clear that Afghanistan remains our top priority and that our people in theatre will get the best possible support. A counterinsurgency needs strategic patience and we are committed to seeing the mission through to resolution, thus creating a stable enough Afghanistan to allow the Afghan people to manage their own internal and external security.

My noble friend mentioned equipment. We are providing an additional £189 million from the Treasury reserve for equipment, together with up to £67 million for the counter-IED campaign announced by the Prime Minister. With regard to helicopters, as mentioned by my noble friend, we now have the upgraded Lynx helicopters, which have been fitted with increased fire power and more powerful engines to cope with the hot and high Afghan flying conditions. They join the Chinook, Merlin, Apache and Sea King helicopters out there.

My Lords, the Statement contains the sentence:

“In a counter-insurgency campaign, the people are the prize”.

Quite rightly, my noble friend Lady D’Souza has drawn attention to the impact of what is happening now on the Afghan people. There was a well publicised operation to replace and repair equipment on the Kajaki dam. The electricity supply in Kandahar is said to be worse now than it was under the Taliban. What is being done to put these right because that sort of progress—making things better—must convince the people that what we are doing is helpful and right?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that question. As I understand it, work on the dam, although it is of a high priority, is now considered a lower priority than other work. It will be taken on, but maybe not for another year or 18 months. However, it is very much in the sights.

My Lords, I apologise for speaking when I was not able to be here for the Statement, but is the noble Lord aware that there are two precedents which I think the noble Lord, Lord Myners, and the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, were seeking? One is Aden, which is a very unhappy precedent, and the other is the withdrawal of our forces from the Persian Gulf at the end of 1971. A precise date was given and it actually ended very happily.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that history lesson and for being able to think on his feet more quickly than I was able.

My Lords, we all want to see the Afghan Government take more control over their own decision-making and, crucially, to earn the respect and confidence of the Afghan security forces so that the Afghan Government can exercise effective leadership and command over their own forces. Will the forthcoming conference in Kabul be able to make a contribution to this?

My Lords, the Afghan Government will set out the further steps they will take to build upon this momentum at the Kabul conference. They will present their priorities, which are to bring about improved security, economic development, better governance and development for Afghanistan. This will enable the international community to ensure co-ordinated assistance in common support of the Afghan Government and will be a further step in the ongoing process of robust and public monitoring of the progress made.

My Lords, what efforts are being made to encourage the Pakistani armed forces to take greater responsibility for Taliban activity south of the border with Helmand?

My Lords, Pakistan is fully engaged in a military campaign, although its efforts have been focused in the main on quelling the Pakistan Taliban. We are using key leader engagement at the most senior military level—the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Chief of the General Staff and CINCLAND—to develop relations with the military leaders of Pakistan with a view to increasing our influence and to establish a mutual understanding of the wider impact of security challenges in south Asia. At the request of the Government of Pakistan, this country is assisting in developing the capacity of the frontier corps in the north-west of the country via some targeted training under a US-led programme.