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NATO Summit

Volume 722: debated on Monday 22 November 2010


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to repeat a Statement on NATO which the Prime Minister has made this afternoon in another place. The Statement is as follows.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the NATO summit in Lisbon. No one can doubt that NATO has played a critical role in preserving peace in Europe since it was founded in 1949. But the test for NATO now is whether it can meet the challenges of the present and future. That means real change—not just signing communiqués about change but showing real political will to bring those changes about.

I believe that NATO can be just as relevant for protecting our security in the future as it has been in the past and my interventions were focused on that future. There were effectively three summits: a meeting of all the coalition countries involved in Afghanistan, a summit on the planned reform of NATO and a NATO-Russia council. Let me take each in turn.

The first is Afghanistan. The summit with President Karzai, the UN Secretary-General and countries from across the world is a powerful visual reminder that Britain is part of an international coalition of 48 nations in Afghanistan. We are there because the Afghans are not yet capable of securing their own country from terrorists and these terrorists threaten the whole world. So it is for our own national security that we help them.

At the NATO summit, each and every one of the 48 nations in the coalition reaffirmed its ‘enduring commitment’ to the mission in Afghanistan. Britain is the second-largest contributor to that mission, with more than 10,000 troops risking their lives in the most dangerous parts of the country. The arrival of additional ISAF troops in the south has allowed us to transfer Musa Qala and Sangin to the US Marines. That, in turn, has allowed us to focus our forces in central Helmand, sharing the burden more sensibly and removing the overstretch our forces have suffered since 2006. Working alongside Afghan forces, this has helped us to drive the insurgents out of population centres in central Helmand.

We want to transfer security responsibility for districts and provinces to Afghan control as soon as the Afghan security forces are ready. The summit reached important conclusions about the timetable for this transition. It will begin in early 2011 and meet President Karzai’s objective for the Afghan national security forces to lead and conduct security operations in all provinces by the end of 2014. This commitment on transition is entirely consistent with the deadline of 2015 that we have set for the end of British combat operations in Afghanistan.

By 2015, Britain will have played a huge role in the international coalition and made massive sacrifices for a better, safer and stronger Afghanistan. We will have been in Helmand, by some way the toughest part of Afghanistan, for nine years, a period almost as long as the First and Second World Wars combined. Last week, we lost the 100th member of our Armed Forces in Afghanistan this year. This is the second year running that we have reached such a tragic milestone. The bravery and sacrifice of our forces is making this country safe. But having taken such a huge share of the burden and having performed so magnificently since 2001, the country needs to know that there is an endpoint to all this. So, from 2015, there will not be troops in anything like the numbers there are now, and crucially, they will not be in a combat role. That is a firm commitment and a firm deadline which we will meet.

The NATO summit also committed to a long-term relationship with the Government of Afghanistan, and Britain will be at the forefront of this commitment. Beyond the end of combat operations in 2015, we will go on having a relationship with Afghanistan based on aid, development, diplomacy, trade and, if necessary, military training and support.

On the reform of NATO, we agreed a new strategic concept to equip NATO for the security challenges of the 2lst century. Just as in our new national security strategy, NATO will shift its focus and resources still further from the old, Cold Wars of the past to the new unconventional threats of the future, including counterterrorism, cybersecurity, failing states and the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Crucially, NATO agreed to develop a new ballistic missile defence system for Europe. This will help protect the UK and our other European allies from the growing threat from countries like Iran which are developing ballistic missiles. It will be in place by the end of the decade, paid for within NATO’s existing resources.

And just as Britain’s strategic defence and security review set out plans to make the Ministry of Defence much more commercially hard-headed in future, and to adopt a much more aggressive drive for efficiencies, so this summit has agreed significant efficiencies for NATO. These include cutting the number of command posts from 13,000 to less than 9,000, reducing the number of NATO agencies from 14 to three, and ensuring that all decisions taken at this summit are funded from within NATO’s existing resource plans. These changes will save Britain tens of millions of pounds and will allow NATO to focus its efforts on the front line.

There was also discussion at the summit on co-operation between the EU and NATO. It is crazy that, because of procedural wrangling, the only security issue these two organisations can discuss when they meet together is Bosnia. Everyone wants a solution to the Cyprus problem, but we simply should not allow it to go on holding up practical co-operation between the EU and NATO.

It was a very powerful sight to see countries which came together to protect themselves from the Soviet Union now sitting down and discussing sensible co-operation with Russia. And while the Soviet Union broke up years ago, relations between NATO and Russia had been strained in recent years. Two years ago, missile defence for Europe caused a major split in relations with Russia. Now, it is an issue on which we are working together. The NATO-Russia council also agreed practical co-operation on Afghanistan, enabling NATO to use routes through Russia to support our forces on the ground and working together to develop and sustain improved helicopter capabilities for the Afghan security forces.

There will remain challenges in working with Russia. President Obama and I both raised Georgia. Two years after that conflict started, it is time for Russia to abide by the ceasefire agreement and withdraw its troops from Georgian territory. But I judge it right that we do not let this and other bilateral concerns prevent us from working together where it is in our interests to do so. So we will work with Russia on countering drug trafficking, on tackling Islamic extremism, on countering proliferation and in the G8 and G20. The summit also praised the courage that President Obama and President Medvedev have shown in agreeing a new START treaty and agreed that early ratification would be in all our interests.

In 1949, the alliance first said that an attack against one is an attack against all. Today, the threats that we face are different and the world is more uncertain but NATO remains the bedrock of our collective defence. The future of this alliance is vital for our own national security. This summit was focused on that future; on securing an Afghanistan able to look after its own security, reforming NATO for the 21st century, and establishing co-operation with Russia on our vital security interests. Above all, this summit has shown that our alliance remains rock solid and that Britain's commitment to it is as strong as ever. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by the Prime Minister. As the main part of today’s Statement concerns our future role in Afghanistan, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all of our troops, including the 345 who have died during the conflict. They have all shown extraordinary courage and we honour them. I also pay tribute to the thousands who have been wounded. They cope with the most serious injuries with an extraordinary bravery and courage. In April I had the privilege of meeting some young men who had sustained horrific injuries and I was humbled by their dignity and their determination, likewise by the dedication of the staff who cared for them.

The best way that we in this House can support our troops is by at all times seeking to build unity of purpose. We therefore support the outcome of the NATO summit on Afghanistan. We also strongly support the Afghan security forces taking full security responsibility in 2014, which was agreed at the London conference at the beginning of this year and reiterated at this NATO summit. We support the Prime Minister’s objective to end combat operations by British troops by 2015, which is a logical counterpart to this plan. He is right to say that our troops have made an enormous contribution and paid a heavy price.

However, I have three sets of questions that I would like to ask the Leader of the House. First, the point is not simply to set a timetable but to make sure that it can be met. We must do all we can to improve the conditions on the ground to make the transition possible. Helmand and Kandahar may well be the hardest provinces to hand over to Afghan control. What milestones will the Government use to track progress in the transition plan for Helmand? Clearly, key to this will be building up the Afghan army. Does he recognise in particular the need for a more representative Afghan army, including the southern Pashtuns who are currently under-represented?

Secondly, can the Leader confirm that by providing training to Afghan forces, our troops could continue to play a role after 2015? Given that the training of Afghan forces often involves front-line exposure, can he tell us whether any troops will effectively still be in a fighting role beyond that date?

Thirdly, it is clear that a political settlement is essential to achieving a stable Afghanistan by 2015. We warmly welcome NATO’s endorsement of the Afghan-led reconciliation programme. Does the noble Lord agree that this requires reconciliation with those elements of the Taliban who are willing to abide by Afghanistan’s constitution, as well as engagement with Afghanistan’s neighbours, including Iran and Pakistan? What discussions have taken place with President Karzai about ensuring that reconciliation and wider talks move forward more rapidly during the next 12 months?

I welcome the determined attempt to improve relations between NATO and Russia. The Prime Minister is right that we should both seek to improve our relationship with Russia and continue to raise concerns where they exist. We welcome the joint work on the new missile defence system. It is a development that shows how the world has changed since the Cold War, as it will involve co-operation with, rather than isolation of, Russia.

Britain is, of course, a nuclear power, and in our view it will remain so in a world where others possess nuclear weapons. But this brings with it responsibilities. Does the noble Lord agree that the starting point for discussion on nuclear weapons should be a serious multilateralism, with the ambitious, long-term aim set by President Obama of a world without nuclear weapons? I therefore join the Prime Minister and the noble Lord in giving support for START, the new treaty with Russia. What is the noble Lord’s position on the aim of removing tactical nuclear weapons, a Cold War legacy, from continental Europe and Russia?

Finally, the new strategic concept for NATO is also to be welcomed because it understands the new threats that the world faces. The post-war Labour Government were founder members of NATO, and our belief in the importance of multilateral co-operation has not diminished—indeed it is enhanced. Does the Leader agree that the lesson of Afghanistan is that while NATO is a military alliance, when it comes to dealing with fragile states and preventing terrorism, it must pursue its objectives in the knowledge that military means can be successful only alongside political, civilian and humanitarian development?

We welcome the outcomes of the summit. We will co-operate with the noble Lord’s Government when they seek to do the right thing, working through NATO, for British security and international peace and stability, most importantly in Afghanistan.

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the Opposition for her constructive approach to this Statement and for her warm words and best wishes for continued co-operation not just with our NATO allies but particularly with Russia. Those of us who witnessed developments over the weekend felt that the summit was a great step forward in the building of that relationship in particular.

I thank the noble Baroness also for beginning with a tribute to those who have served and for a very personal tribute to those who have been injured. I sometimes feel that we concentrate too much on the number of those who have died. There are also those who have come back, some of them with terrible injuries, and we must do everything we can to make sure that they live a full life back in the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for saying that she and her party support the 2015 end date for combat missions. It was important to us to have set that end date, and the support of the Opposition is much appreciated. The noble Baroness asked questions about our timetable and milestones. The whole purpose for us giving a timetable is to maximise the pressure on the ground to be able to do the area-by-area, district-by-district transfer of power from coalition forces to the Afghan army. We will have to see how that develops over the course of the next two years. However, I am hopeful that, even next year, we will see a gradual start of a reduction of combat forces of British troops in Afghanistan. The noble Baroness also asked a question about post-2015 training. I can confirm that it is the intention where required that British troops will still be available to help train the army, the security forces and the police in Afghanistan. I cannot say exactly what their role would be if they came under attack but it is not the intention for these troops to be used in any way as on the front line. The intention is to train the Afghan troops to deal with any problems they encounter themselves.

I agree with the point made by the noble Baroness on reconciliation. We have always said that there is no sole military solution to what is happening in Afghanistan. There needs to be a process of reconciliation. We very much support what President Karzai has said about his willingness to reach out to all of his countrymen, provided that they cut ties with al-Qaeda and violence, and pursue their aims peacefully within Afghanistan’s constitutional framework. We believe that that is the right approach.

Turning to Russia and Russian relations, I am glad that the noble Baroness was able to welcome the new strategic concept and missile defence. On the question of removing tactical nuclear weapons, as the strategic concept makes clear, the greatest responsibility of the alliance is to protect and defend our territory against attack. Deterrence based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities remains a core element of NATO’s overall strategy. As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance. The UK’s national nuclear deterrent is assigned to the defence of all nations in NATO in accordance with our NATO Article 5 obligations.

This summit was an important step forward. I hope that I have covered all the questions raised by the noble Baroness. If there are any that I have missed, I will follow up in writing.

My Lords, although it must be right that we do not let bilateral concerns prevent us from working closely with Russia, does my noble friend the Leader of the House agree that, at all costs, we must not reduce pressure on Russia with regard to Georgia and the continued occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which the Russians justify by the absurd suggestions that those are two independent states? We must keep up our pressure on that.

Secondly, with regard to the START treaty, again it is welcome that the summit agreed that early ratification would be in all our interests. Will the Government do everything they can to encourage all members of NATO to make those views known in the United States where the President is currently experiencing some unfortunate difficulties with the Congress?

My Lords, on that last point, not only is START important, it is vital to our interests. So I can respond positively and say, yes, we will encourage all members of NATO to make representations to make sure that that treaty is ratified.

On the question of Georgia, I agree with my noble friend that it is still an outstanding and difficult issue. We will not do anything to make Russia believe that this is not still an important issue for us. There are a number of other bilateral issues as well. However, we also believe that we should not allow those to hold up these very important talks and the summit. That is why we have gone ahead with them. My noble friend should not be overly concerned, however, that we have forgotten the plight of Georgia; we have not.

My Lords, we have come a long way since President Reagan’s star wars concept and President Bush’s proposal for interceptors in Poland and radar installations in the Czech Republic. That is an important matter, as is the improvement in relations with Russia two years since the conflict in Georgia. The Minister said that Russia should withdraw from Georgia, but is that not a pipe dream given the evidence that Russia is militarising part of Abkhazia on the Black Sea? What is being demanded by Russia on missile defence? What will be the decision-making process? Will Russia have some form of veto over the intercepts? Equally, what is being said about Georgia and Ukraine’s membership of NATO? As a result of the agreement, have we decided to put back very indefinitely the applications of Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO? What, if any, movement was there at the summit on the “frozen conflicts”?

My Lords, I am not aware that the last aspect of the noble Lord’s question was discussed. On his key point that the whole situation vis-à-vis Georgia is a pipe dream, we do not share that view and we believe that to be unduly pessimistic. Obviously, discussions are ongoing. In 2008, NATO and the UK condemned Russian military action in the break-away territories. Two years on, Russian troops remain in both separatist regions in considerably higher numbers than before the war. The UK Government strongly support the Geneva talks, which remain the only forum in which all parties to that conflict meet and which help to keep open the prospect of addressing unresolved security and humanitarian issues. We firmly believe that Russia should respect the territorial integrity of Georgia and other states as well as international law and human rights. That is why we call on all parties to play a constructive role in the continued efforts to resolve the conflict. Others may well have argued that we should have used the Georgia talks not to make progress on the greater issue, but that is not the view that we took. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, Georgia is not an issue that we have forgotten.

Will the Minister accept my thanks for the Prime Minister’s expression of impatience about the blockage in the relationship between the EU and NATO? That blockage has gone on for far too long, so I am not surprised that he is impatient about it. Does the Prime Minister, or the noble Lord, discern any indication that those who have been causing this blockage—on one side Turkey and on the other side Cyprus—are thinking of changing their tune? If not, will we deploy our efforts to persuade them to do so?

Secondly, will the noble Lord respond to the question put by the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition about tactical nuclear weapons in Europe? While not disputing for one minute what he said in reply about the alliance maintaining the appropriate mix of conventional weapons and strategic nuclear weapons, I do not think that that is the same as working for the removal of tactical nuclear weapons from both sides in Europe. Will the Government support that process—of course, that will require co-operation from the Russian side, too—in the NATO committee that has been set up to look at that? Will the British Government put their weight behind that?

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, is right to refer to the Prime Minister’s impatience on the issue of EU-NATO talks. On how we will take those matters forward and whether we can expect some progress, the summit declaration calls on the NATO Secretary-General and the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, to present proposals for progress before the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in April next year. Ultimate resolution of the EU-NATO impasse is likely to require a settlement in Cyprus, but we believe that practical co-operation can be improved in an incremental and sustainable way, led by Mr Rasmussen and the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton. We are working with NATO allies, EU partners, Mr Rasmussen and the noble Baroness to ensure that this happens. The point about this is that there is a fundamental change of view, or focus, on this issue, which I very much hope will bear fruit.

I have nothing more to add in response to the noble Lord’s extra question about tactical nuclear weapons. Perhaps it is something that I could follow up in a letter.

My Lords, there is clearly much to welcome in this Statement, particularly the greater co-operation with Russia. I have two questions of detail. First, on the drive for greater efficiency within NATO, the cutting of a number of command posts and the reduction of a number of agencies, is there any agreed timescale for those reductions? Secondly, on the question of the additional routes through Russia to support our forces on the ground in Afghanistan, particularly given the attacks on convoys through the Khyber Pass, is the increase in the number of routes significant? Is less fuel and equipment going to come in through Pakistan? Could my noble friend elaborate a little on this whole question?

First, on the question of reducing the number of command posts, the announcement was this weekend, and the intention is that the drive for efficiency should start at once. I believe that we will see progress within a few months. It is important that we should keep the pressure on and that progress should be made. Secondly, the important agreement with Russia that we should have a new overland route for convoys and other aspects of military support is extremely welcome. I cannot add any more to what I have already said on that, and it may not be possible to do so at this stage.

My Lords, first, I apologise to noble Lords and to the Leader of the House for not being present at the beginning of this Statement. I am finding it difficult to adjust to the rhythm of the business in this House.

In welcoming this Statement broadly, I press the Leader of the House on one specific issue. On 19 October, on the publication of the strategic security and defence review, following a review of the declaratory policy for nuclear weapons, the Government made a very welcome announcement that they would give assurances to non-nuclear weapon states in broad compliance with their NPT obligations that they would not use nuclear weapons against them. That was broadly welcomed in this House and beyond and brought us into line with the United States. However, in the strategic concept, that assurance is absent from statements on the use of NATO nuclear weapons. Can the noble Lord explain to the House how that came about, as our nuclear weapons and those of the United States are assigned to NATO? We now have two descriptions of when we will use these weapons which are contradictory. Can we expect the Government to press for alignment of declaratory policy in the process that has been signposted in the strategic concept of a further review?

My Lords, the noble Lord has my sympathy about his having a little difficulty in getting to grips with the rhythm of business, but I am sure that he will get used to it. He is a good attendee, and I am sure that that will happen very soon.

The thrust of the noble Lord’s question is that there is a tension between declared UK government policy on states that do not hold nuclear weapons and that of the strategic concept launched this week by NATO, which does not hold such a position. I do not know whether this tension is cosmetic or real, and I am unable to resolve that at the Dispatch Box. Perhaps I could consider the issue and give a little more thought to it before responding to the noble Lord.

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord the Leader of the House for this Statement and for this early opportunity to talk about the NATO summit in the light of the strategic defence and security review. The question I want to ask has been focused by those who have raised issues about Georgia. Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to have a meeting with Giorgi Bokeria, the Deputy Foreign Minister in Georgia. It was, I would say, a combative engagement. He was sharp and intelligent. He was critical of the western nations’ response but he was a realist. The point he was really making was that it was not that he expected us somehow to come and invade Russia with him, but that he expected us to be a little clearer on what we were prepared to do in response.

This brings me around to the strategic concept as we now see it. That now has three sections in it, which are about corporate security, crisis intervention and co-operative security. One of the issues in past years has been—we see this in Afghanistan in particular—that crisis intervention and corporate security can stretch the resources of NATO, putting us in a position where it is difficult to know precisely how we move forward. Can the Minister reassure us that the Government are confident that, with the new strategic concept, we can respond effectively in each of those three ways and be clear that we have a response to the sort of questions that the Deputy Foreign Minister was putting to me?

My Lords, I understand very much the position that the right reverend Prelate found himself in when talking to those who have a clear government interest within Georgia. I, too, have met and discussed the situation with Georgians who feel strongly about it—unsurprisingly, if I may say so. However, like the right reverend Prelate, I have found Georgians with whom I have spoken have a realistic understanding of the West’s role, which is why in answer to an earlier question—I think it was from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay—I explained the case of the Geneva talks. That is the best place to resolve these issues, because all those most affected by them are represented in those talks.

The right reverend Prelate also asked whether I was confident that we can deal with our objectives in NATO and that the new strategic concept can deal with them. I am bound to say yes we are. We feel that this is an important step forward, not least in that the summit included so many different countries that are not officially members of NATO but are either supporting us in Afghanistan or, as the Russians themselves did, were playing such an important and distinguished role in the conclusions of this summit.

My Lords, while we must always keep up the military pressure in Afghanistan, is it not the case that, now that we have established a deadline of 2015 for the end of combat operations by NATO forces, the weight of our activities should shift to finding a political solution? If that is, as I believe, the policy of the United Kingdom Government, what steps will they take to ensure that Washington is persuaded that it should be their policy too?

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Ashdown is right. We have long said that the solution to the conflict in Afghanistan is not military. There has to be more to it, combining politics within Afghanistan itself with the support of aid, trade and all the other things that make up creating and building up a country in the modern world. I would not read it as such a difference between our own objectives and those of the United States. In fact, our objectives are not far away from those of NATO and, this weekend, there is an aspirational target for NATO to have achieved the end of conflict by 2014. The fact that we have taken this position on 2015 will not be missed by other countries, which will be asking their own leaders whether it is appropriate that they too should set a similar target.

Will the Minister reinforce the point made by my noble friend Lord Ashdown, in his perceptive article in the Times today, that if we are to honour the tremendous sacrifice of many of our young men who have committed themselves to the future of Afghanistan, the need for urgency in the political drive is critical? The countries that need to be involved in this undertaking—Britain, India, Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia—all have their own angle and their own interests in what might happen there. Who is really going to drive this forward? Every one of those countries has an interest and will be disappointed if the conflict there turns into civil war. Who is going to reconcile the situation and drive the political initiative forward?

In the first instance, my Lords, it will be NATO, supported by its key members. My noble friend is right in mentioning all the countries that have a direct interest, including the people of Afghanistan itself. As I said in response to an earlier question, we have all been clear, including the Afghanistan Government, that members of the Taliban and many other groups who want to talk, to play a part in government and to be part of the process of reconciliation are the ones who need to renounce violence, reject al-Qaeda and support the constitutional framework. It is in all our interests that that should be so.

My Lords, I welcome the reference in the Statement to failing states. Is there any further information that the Minister can provide on the discussions that took place with reference to the importance of failing states to NATO’s overall security position? Might action to help rebuild and reconstruct failing states be one of those areas where there could be more detailed co-operation in future between the European Union and NATO? Was that issue discussed at the summit, or might it be part of the discussions that will lead up to the Foreign Ministers’ meeting in April?

My Lords, I am sure that, on closer examination of the final communiqué, I would be able to find some reference to the subject of failing states. I know that that is an important issue for the noble Lord, and he is right to raise it. That was not the primary purpose of the summit, though; as we have been discussing over the past few minutes, that was to deal with the issue of the new strategic concept and with Afghanistan as well as rebasing the relationship with Russia. Just because these issues were not of primary importance, however, does not mean that they are not in themselves important. NATO is as keen as the rest of us to sort out these problems.