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Volume 729: debated on Wednesday 6 July 2011


My Lords, I would now like to make a Statement that was made earlier today by the Prime Minister in another place about his recent visit to Afghanistan.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on Afghanistan. From the outset, this Government have sought to take a more hard-headed, more security-based approach to our mission. As I have said, we are not there to build a perfect democracy, still less a model society. Yes, we will help with the establishment of democratic institutions. Yes, we can improve infrastructure, develop education and encourage development. But we are in Afghanistan for one overriding reason: to ensure our own national security by helping the Afghans take control of theirs. This means building up the Afghan security forces so we can draw down British combat forces, with the Afghans themselves able to prevent al-Qaeda from returning and posing a threat to us and to our allies around the world.

This is particularly poignant today on the eve of the sixth anniversary of 7/7—an attack that was inspired by al-Qaeda and executed by extremists following the same perverted ideology that underpinned the September 11 attack in 2001. Three hundred and seventy-five British service men and women have died fighting in Afghanistan to help to strengthen that country and to keep Britain safe from another 9/11 or 7/7. Thousands more—including many civilians—have risked their lives, and hundreds have been injured fighting for the security of our nation. They have been part of an international coalition involving 48 countries with a specific UN mandate, working at the invitation of a democratically elected Government. Though there have been many, many difficult times, we should be clear about what has been achieved.

In 2009, my predecessor as Prime Minister told this House that some three-quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against Britain had links to Afghanistan and Pakistan. We must always be on guard, but I am advised that this figure is now significantly reduced. International forces have been bearing down on al-Qaeda and its former hosts, the Taliban, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, Osama bin Laden has been killed and al-Qaeda significantly weakened. In Afghanistan, British and international forces have driven al-Qaeda from its bases. While it is too early to tell for certain, initial evidence suggests that we have halted the momentum of the Taliban insurgency in its heartland in Helmand province.

We are now entering a new phase, in which the Afghan forces will do more of the fighting and patrolling, and our forces more training and mentoring. As President Obama said in his address last month, the mission is changing from ‘combat to support’. When we arrived, there was no one to hand over to—no proper army, no police force. In many places across the country, the Afghan national security forces now stand ready to begin the process of taking over security responsibility.

Success in Afghanistan requires a number of critical steps. The first is making sure that the Afghan security forces are able to secure their own territory. I know there have been well known problems, especially with the Afghan police, but there has been real progress in the last two years. General Petraeus went out of his way to praise the recent performance of Afghan forces in a number of complex and dangerous operations. The Afghan forces are growing rapidly. They are ahead of schedule to meet the current target of 171,600 Afghan army and 134,000 Afghan police by the end of October this year. They are now deploying informed units and carrying out their own operations. There have been some real successes.

The Afghan national security forces have prevented insurgents from reaching many of their targets. And just eight days ago, when a major hotel was attacked in Kabul, the Afghan forces dealt with the situation. This was a major, sophisticated attack. The Afghan forces dealt with it professionally and speedily, only calling in assistance from a NATO helicopter to deal with insurgents on the roof. As General Petraeus stressed to me, the Afghan forces acquitted themselves very well. It is this growing strength and capability which will allow us over time to hand over control of security to the Afghan forces and draw down our own numbers.

We remain committed to the objective shared by President Karzai and the whole of NATO that the Afghans should assume lead security responsibility across the country as a whole by the end of 2014. Last month President Obama announced that the US will withdraw 10,000 of its forces from Afghanistan by the end of the year and will complete the removal of the US surge of 33,000 by the end of the summer of next year. At the time of the US surge, the UK increased its core force levels by an extra 500.

For our part, I have already said that we will withdraw 426 UK military personnel by February 2012. Today I can announce that the UK will be able to reduce its force levels by a further 500—from 9,500 to 9,000 by the end of 2012. This decision has been agreed by the National Security Council on the advice of our military commanders. These reductions reflect the progress that is being made in building up the ANSF. Indeed, it is worth noting that for every US soldier who leaves as the surge is removed, two Afghans will take their place.

This marks the start of a process which will ensure that by the end of 2014 there will not be anything like the number of British troops there as there are now, and they will not be serving in a combat role. This is the commitment I have made, and that is the commitment we will stick to.

Having taken such a huge share of the burden and having performed so magnificently for a decade now, the country needs to know that there is an end point to the level of our current commitment and to our combat operations. This decision is not only right for Britain; it is right for Afghanistan too. It has given the Afghans a clear deadline against which to plan, and has injected a sense of urgency into their efforts.

While there is a clear end-point to our military combat role after 2014, the UK will continue to have a major, strategic relationship with Afghanistan—a development relationship, a diplomatic relationship and a trade relationship. Above all, we have a vital national security interest in preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for international terrorism.

So although our forces will no longer be present in a combat role, we will have a continuing military relationship. We will continue to train the Afghan security forces. In Afghanistan I announced plans for a new officer training academy. This was something President Karzai specifically asked me for; and I am proud that Britain is able to deliver it. We intend to lead the academy from 2013, in addition to maintaining our current role in the officer candidate school, which is due to merge with the academy in 2017.

So we will continue our efforts to help Afghanistan build a viable state. But our support cannot be unconditional. In my meeting with President Karzai, I made clear the Afghan Government’s responsibility to ensure that British taxpayers’ money is spent well and spent wisely. I emphasised to President Karzai just how important it is that he personally grips the problems around Kabul Bank and the need for a new IMF programme. I also urged him to support due democratic process and tackle corruption. And I made it very clear that while Britain wants to stand by Afghanistan beyond the end of our combat mission, we will only do so on the basis that Afghanistan must help itself too.

Almost all insurgencies have ended with a combination of military pressure and political settlement. There is no reason why Afghanistan should prove any different.

As we strengthen the Afghan Government and security forces, so we will also back President Karzai’s efforts to work towards an Afghan-led political settlement. The death of bin Laden presents the Taliban with a moment of real choice. Al-Qaeda is weakened; its leader is dead. Last month the UN adopted two separate sanctions regimes, creating a clear distinction that separates the Taliban from al-Qaeda. Local peace councils have now been established in almost all Afghanistan’s provinces. These have already allowed more than 1,800 people from 17 provinces to be enrolled on the scheme for reintegration. So we should take this opportunity to send a clear message to the Taliban: now is the time to break decisively from al-Qaeda and to participate in a peaceful political process.

In this task, we need Pakistan’s assistance. As I discussed with President Zardari last week, this is now as much in Pakistan’s interests as Britain’s or Afghanistan’s, as the Taliban poses a mortal threat to the state of Pakistan as well.

There is no reason why Afghanistan should be destined to remain a broken country. It has abundant mineral wealth, fertile agricultural land and stands at the crossroads of Asia’s great trading highway. It has succeeded in the past, when not wracked by conflict.

Afghanistan still has many challenges ahead. There are real security issues and a lack of government capacity. But 10 years ago Afghanistan was in the grip of a regime that banned young girls from schools, hanged people in football stadiums for minor misdemeanours and banished radios and any form of entertainment, all the while incubating the terrorists who struck on 9/11 and elsewhere. For all its imperfections, Afghanistan has come a long way.

Today, Afghanistan is no longer a haven for global terror; its economy is growing; it has a parliament, a developing legal system, provincial and district governors and the basic building blocks of what could be a successful democracy. In Helmand province—which, we should remember, with Kandahar was a stronghold of the Taliban and the insurgency—there is now a growing economy, falling poppy cultivation and many more effective district governors. The fact that President Karzai has been able to choose Lashkar Gar as one of the areas to include in the first phase of transition is a sign of the transformation that we have helped to bring about there.

As we enter this new phase of transition, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to our service men and women who have made such incredible sacrifices to protect our national security. While we have been going about our daily lives they have been are out there, day and night, fighting in the heat and the dust, giving up the things that we all take for granted. That is the true character of the British Army, and it is why we are so incredibly proud of all our forces and the families who support them, and so grateful for everything that they do for us. I commend the Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, as we prepare to remember the victims of the attacks of 7/7 tomorrow, we are all reminded of why we are engaged in Afghanistan—to secure our security at home. That is why we on this side of the House continue to support our forces in Afghanistan. We will also continue to support the intention to end the British combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. It is right that we make clear to the Afghan Government and their security forces that they need to step up and take responsibility for the future of their country. It is also right that we make clear to the Afghan people, and indeed the British people, that this is not a war without end. This year and next we must maintain the combination of military pressure, the accelerated build-up of the Afghan security forces and the work on basic governance and justice. So we support the Government’s plan to maintain British troop levels above 9,000, as they have been for the last two years, for this fighting season and the next. We will give our forces the best chance to consolidate the situation before the process of transition to Afghan control starts to accelerate in late 2012 and 2013, when our forces can start to come home in greater numbers.

Can the Leader of the House assure your Lordships that if our reductions go slower than those of other countries, particularly the Americans, that will not cause British forces to take on a disproportionate share of the burden in Helmand? Can the Government ensure that detailed plans for troop drawdown will always be based on military advice and on conditions on the ground?

We ask our troops to do a difficult job in testing circumstances, so can the Leader also assure the House that our Armed Forces will continue to receive all the equipment that they need in the months ahead, including the 12 Chinooks which the Prime Minister promised but for which the order has yet to be placed?

The bravery and professionalism of our Armed Forces deserves to be given the best chance of success. That will be realised only if we also see political progress in Afghanistan. We believe that just as important as the Americans’ decision on troop numbers and military strategy is their decision to start talks with the Taliban representatives who are ready to renounce violence. It is right that those talks have been started in parallel with the military effort, and it is encouraging that both Pakistan and India are taking a more positive attitude to the process, but these are still talks about talks, and much work needs to be done between now and the Bonn conference in December if we are to make the most of that crucial opportunity.

Will the Government press the UN urgently to appoint a senior figure, preferably from the Muslim world, empowered by the Security Council to mediate between the Afghan Government, ISAF and the Taliban? Such a figure could also help to secure the commitment of the countries in the region to supporting a new political settlement reflecting their shared long-term interest in a stable Afghanistan.

Although it must remain a red line that the Taliban and others must commit to a peaceful political process, the current constitution need not be set in stone. Will the Government press the Afghan High Council to consider constitutional reforms, including allowing for a less centralised Afghan state? Those steps need to be taken now, so that by the time of the Bonn conference in December the ground has been prepared and real progress can be made.

As we look to a stronger Afghanistan, we all recognise that issues of governance and the rule of law need to be addressed. I therefore ask the Leader of the House about the ongoing scandal over the Kabul Bank. We welcome the fact that the Prime Minister raised the issue with President Karzai, but that problem symbolises the inability of the Afghan Government to distance themselves from corruption that threatens to undermine the Afghan economy and international development assistance, as well as grievously undermining the faith of the Afghan people in their Government. Can the Leader of the House tell us more about what role Britain is playing in getting the Afghan Government to take the necessary steps to tackle the crisis and allow the IMF to resume support?

Finally, I turn to Pakistan. We all accept that long-term stability in Afghanistan depends on stability in Pakistan. We recognise the hard work and sacrifice of the Pakistani security forces in tackling violent extremism in the north-west of the country, but the situation in Pakistan continues to be serious. There is a danger that bringing bin Laden to justice, which ought to have been welcomed on all sides, will usher in a greater era of mutual suspicion rather than co-operation. What steps are the Government taking to put British support for counterterrorism in Pakistan back on track?

We all want British troops to come home at the earliest opportunity, as do their families, but we also want to see the campaign concluded in a way that ensures that their service and sacrifice have not been in vain and that Afghanistan and the wider region moves to a stable future, rather than once again posing a serious threat to our security. We on these Benches welcome today's Statement as a step along the path, but we urge the Government to redouble their efforts to support a new political process for Afghanistan as the greatest priority for the months ahead.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition for her support for today's Statement, which I very much welcome. She asked a number of questions, which I shall try to answer. First, I thank her for her support on the end date for the combat mission at the end of 2014. It is important to have set a deadline to encourage all participants in the negotiations and, indeed, to apply a little pressure on the Afghans themselves to encourage them to raise their game in terms of the army and the police. All of those things are happening. The noble Baroness was right to say that it should not be a war without end—we very much agree with her—and the Afghanistan national security force has an important role to play over the next few years.

The noble Baroness asked about the reduction of the UK forces and whether they would be asked to take a disproportionate share of the burden as the US Army withdraws. I can confirm to her that there is no intention to take up any disproportionate part of that burden. Indeed, the drawdown takes place very clearly on the back of British military advice and is being done at a similar pace to the Americans, given that we did not have the same surge as the American army did.

On the question of equipment, it has been recognised for some years that British Armed Forces on mission in Afghanistan do have the equipment that they need. That has been widely welcomed. Of course we will continue to give the Armed Forces what they need while they are in the military zone.

The noble Baroness asked a most interesting question about the role of the United Nations and the possible creation of a figure from the Security Council who would help in those negotiations—help in mediation, I believe, is the phrase that the noble Baroness used. It is not a bad idea, but we feel that the moment for that has passed, because there is every indication that the two sides are already beginning to talk to each other without the need to add the ingredient of mediation. We would be unwilling to introduce a new ingredient into the process at this stage and, indeed, can see some potential undesirability in doing so. It is an Afghan-led process and we hope that it will continue to be.

The noble Baroness also asked a question about constitutional reform and a decentralised state. Our view is that we should not get hung up on every element of the constitution. We have no secret agenda to carve up the country. The people, the parliament and the president of Afghanistan need to work this out to their own timescale.

Perhaps even more important is the Kabul Bank scandal, which has been a shocking event. We are very keen that the Afghan Government and the IMF should reach an agreement on a new programme of support, which must include finding a resolution to the Kabul Bank situation. We very much support the view that there needs to be a recovery of assets, and indeed prosecutions, and that there should be a forensic audit of the Kabul Bank and any other banks that are involved. We also believe that the Afghan parliament needs to vote and agree to recapitalisation of the bank. We have been encouraging both sides—the Afghan Government and the IMF—to reach a satisfactory outcome as soon as possible. We have urged President Karzai to take the necessary action, which includes strengthening future bank supervision in Afghanistan as well as resolving issues relating to wrongdoing at the Kabul Bank.

Finally, the noble Baroness raised the all-important question of the relationship with Pakistan, such an important regional player, important to Afghanistan and particularly important to the United Kingdom. The bonds of the relationship between the United Kingdom and Pakistan are many and varied. They are also extremely strong. We have worked closely with Pakistan to try to achieve a unified view for Pakistan. The threat from the Taliban there is at least as clear as the threat to Afghanistan. However, I confirm to the noble Baroness that the links and the relationship between ourselves and the Pakistani Government continue to be strong, and we will continue to work closely together.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement in your Lordships’ House. I associate these Benches with the tributes paid to our servicemen who are serving us so well and to those who are no longer with us.

I want to pursue the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, the Leader of the Opposition, made about identifying someone who can act as a catalyst in this process. I raise this because one of the successes of the Northern Ireland talks was the involvement and assistance of external elements. I particularly have in mind the former chief of the defence staff in Canada, General John de Chastelain. The Prime Minister was right to say recently when talking about the Taliban that the process of talks needs to proceed, although there will be differences of opinion from time to time. We should remember that there are deep-rooted differences between the Taliban and the Government of Karzai, and therefore, as the Prime Minister said, an external element coming from the Muslim community in that part of the world, free from any suspicions relating to western powers, might be able to assist in this task. It is in all our interests to have peace and stability in that region.

My Lords, I warmly welcome the tribute to British servicemen that my noble friend Lord Dholakia has made. The question of mediation is really interesting. My noble friend used the word “catalyst” and made a comparison with Northern Ireland. One of the problems with Northern Ireland was that no one was willing to talk to anybody. The Afghanis have made it clear that preliminary contacts are taking place and we should all welcome that, although of course I am not in a position to go into operational details about it. It must be an Afghan-led process and, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, at this stage we would be nervous about putting in place another ingredient when talks have already started and contacts have been made. There seems to be a very positive air about progress and we should wish it success.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Leader for repeating the Statement and, indeed, I associate the Cross-Benchers with the tributes that have been paid to our courageous soldiers in Afghanistan.

I think it is widely accepted that women in Afghanistan have had a pretty bad time over the past centuries and particularly during the era of the Taliban. The Afghan Women’s Network, which is a very respected organisation, wishes to carry out, through many of the women’s groups that exist throughout the country, a nationwide survey of their hopes and fears with a view to bringing those views to the hugely important conference that is to take place in Bonn in December this year. Unfortunately, the Afghan Women’s Network does not have the resources to carry out the survey. We all know that the British Government are giving an enormous amount of aid to Afghanistan—aid that, in particular, is hugely supportive of women and women’s networks. Unfortunately, much of the aid that goes via the Government does not trickle down to the Afghan Women’s Network or similar groups. It is deeply important that this survey should be carried out because it means that the views of millions of women across Afghanistan can be brought to the conference in Bonn in December and that their views will be at the centre of the conference rather than just on the margins and can form part of the agreement that is reached following that conference. Can the noble Lord the Leader of the House try to ensure that the funds are made available to the Afghan Women’s Network so that they can carry out this survey?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Convenor of the Cross Benches for what she has said. She is right about the problems facing the people of Afghanistan. Over a third of Afghanistan’s people live in poverty, and Afghanistan remains 155th of 169 countries on the UN’s 2010 Human Development Index. But—it is a small but, because it is good news—the UK Government through DfID will commit £712 million to Afghanistan over the course of the next four financial years; and in 2010-11 5.7 million children are attending school—nearly half a million more than last year—and 37 per cent of those attending are girls.

None of that solves the issue that the noble Baroness raised on the Afghan Women’s Network, which wishes to carry out this survey. I am sure that it is an extremely good idea. Perhaps the best way for me to proceed would be to draw the noble Baroness’s words to the attention of the Secretary of State of DfID to see whether, through his organisation, this is something the department would see some benefit in.

My Lords, no one wishes to keep British troops in Afghanistan for a moment longer than is necessary. Nevertheless, I am very disturbed by the Statement that the noble Lord the Leader of the House has read out today. Surely it makes no sense to engage in negotiations with the Taliban while announcing in advance a deadline for withdrawal, irrespective of progress in those negotiations. Of course it is necessary to keep the Afghan national army and police up to the mark by continuing to confer additional responsibilities and duties on them to see how they cope with those and to keep them challenged, but that could be done without making what I fear is going to be a very fundamental mistake in these negotiations.

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord’s point but, with the deepest respect, his is an outdated view of the negotiation process. I also understand why he holds it. What has changed in the last couple of years is that the Afghan armed forces and police are in a much better position to take over the role currently held by different European, American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. That is the first point. The second point is that there has been a growing realisation that to some extent the Taliban is motivated by the fear that foreign troops will remain in the country indefinitely. We wanted to send a signal that that was not the case. These things are always hard to forecast but we believe this is the right way, not just for Britain but for Afghanistan. It will encourage Afghanistan to negotiate seriously and to raise the professionalism of its armed forces and police. If we get it right, we will have achieved our aim of providing long-term stability for the people of Afghanistan.

My Lords, will my noble friend convey our congratulations to the Prime Minister on having made such a timely and important visit to Afghanistan, and on the comprehensive nature of the Statement that he repeated to the House? While the talks with the Taliban are obviously welcome, can we have some assurance that representatives of the Taliban who are engaged in these discussions will actually be in a position to deliver? Is it not important that, while there are talks with central government, there are also discussions with provincial and other leaders in the regions beyond the centre, for it is there, on the ground, that the small steps of progress will carry the most significant impact?

My Lords, I shall certainly pass on my noble friend’s congratulations to the Prime Minister on the timeliness of his visit and the comprehensiveness of his Statement. On the substantive point of my noble friend’s question on talks with the Taliban, I broadly agree. We are at the earliest stages of those discussions. Contact has been made, and it must be up to the Afghans to progress the talks. It is an Afghan-led process. I do not suppose there is ever a guarantee that the people with whom you are discussing these issues centrally have the ability to deliver, but I am sure that over time the talks must include provincial leaders, too. If I have any more information to add, I shall write to my noble friend.

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. In it, reference is made to the importance of equipping our forces in Afghanistan. A commitment was made in the strategic defence and security review to order more helicopters. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, asked whether those helicopters had yet been ordered. If they have been delayed, is there not a fear that the Treasury will argue that they could not be in theatre before our withdrawal is started?

My Lords, I can tell the noble and gallant Lord that the position has not changed since the announcement in the SDSR. We plan to buy 12 additional Chinook helicopters as well as a further two to replace those lost in operations in Afghanistan in 2009. The Ministry of Defence is working towards the main investment decision on these helicopters.

My Lords, we welcome the Statement, particularly its emphasis on reconciliation, but it does not mention that reconciliation is possible only within a framework where the minimal guarantees in the Afghan constitution that women’s rights, education and some of the other things that we believe are so important will be delivered through peace negotiations. I fear that if we signal to the Taliban that we will respect it in high office without its renouncing its ideology or making any change to reflect adherence to the constitution, we will not be able to undertake the major strategic relationship that the Prime Minister seeks after 2014.

On the matter of helicopters, can the Leader tell the House whether NATO will continue to provide air support after 2014?

My Lords, I cannot give my noble friend an answer about NATO and air support post 2014. All I can confirm is that it is the intention of the British Government that British service men and women should not be in combat roles after 2014.

My noble friend’s first question was entirely different, being about the role of the constitution in negotiations. It is sometimes nice to believe that we, sitting or standing here, can micromanage this process of negotiation, and I am sure that my noble friend will agree with me that we cannot. We have to believe that those who are most involved in the Afghan-led process can work—for example, by making the preliminary contacts, as they have done—so as to try to deliver a settlement that is inclusive and that addresses the political and economic aspirations of all Afghan citizens, including women, who have been treated so badly in the past, and to try to promote security and stability in the wider region. The process must be actively supported by Afghanistan’s neighbours and international partners, including us. My noble friend is not wrong to raise these issues, but it is important that we should not micromanage them.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating that Statement. All of us in this House are very aware of the commitment of our troops and of the civilians working for us in Afghanistan. I would like to point out that one always refers to troops, soldiers and whatever, but the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force are very deeply involved as well and I think I am right in saying that more Royal Navy personnel are involved there at the moment than the other two services.

We are in danger of deluding ourselves. We are a minor partner, albeit an important one, in an alliance, but the key driver of what is happening in Afghanistan is the United States. Does the noble Lord the Leader of the House agree that once the United States decided that it was going to go and to a certain timetable, we had to fit in with it? It is right for us to be getting out of there, but there was no alternative other than to fit in with that. It is wrong to pretend that we are setting an agenda, which is how we have deluded ourselves in the past.

My other point is that I have real concerns about categorising Afghanistan as of major strategic interest—I think the Leader said—to this country in future. I produced the first national security strategy. A country that is of major strategic interest to us demands from us considerable resources and a willingness to intervene again to do all sorts of things, and I do not believe that, looking to a long-term future, we can afford to make countries such as Afghanistan of major strategic interest. There are areas of major strategic interest, but we cannot go on like this or we will find out that we are involved across the whole world.

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord West, reminded the House that the combat role in Afghanistan is not limited to the British Army. My noble friend Lord Astor of Hever reminded me that there are also marines, Royal Navy and RAF personnel in Afghanistan. Indeed, the whole spectrum of the British Armed Forces has been working hard, as have many civilians. It is right that we should support every one of them in the work that we do.

The noble Lord, Lord West, is also right, inevitably, when he says that the key driver is the USA. However, the links between us and the USA are extremely strong. I do not think there is any sense of delusion that the British would carry on operations in Afghanistan without America.

On the point about us having a major strategic interest in Afghanistan, I hope the noble Lord would agree that we may have such an interest not just in Afghanistan itself but in a region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given the history of terrorism in the last 10 years or so, there are reasons why we should maintain a major strategic interest in the region. I also agree with him about not deluding ourselves—to use his words again— and I do not think we should delude ourselves about our ability to change as much as we think we would like to. We work in partnership with our NATO allies and our American allies to bring as much peace and stability to the region as we can.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his diplomacy in handling your Lordships’ questions. I understand exactly what he says about the importance of the internal talks being an Afghan-led process. I know that he is not ruling out the possibility that they could be facilitated and assisted by outsiders.

However, I go back to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, who stressed the importance of proper preparation for the Bonn conference. She is absolutely right. I know that the noble Lord agrees with her and I am sure that he sees a role for the UK in trying to ensure that all those in the region with the greatest interest in the future stability of Afghanistan are properly involved in preparations for Bonn, and that includes not just the Chinese, Russians and Indians but the Iranians.

My Lords, the noble Lord is entirely right. He offered me some praise, which is deeply flattering, and I thank him for it. It is an Afghan-led process and it is important that it should be seen to be so. However, this House knows better than many other houses of parliament how important regional influences are. I would have thought that all those involved in the process understand the need to bring in as many international stakeholders as possible in order to give the long-term peace, stability and potential for growth that the people of Afghanistan crave.