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Volume 729: debated on Monday 11 July 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their current assessment of the military situation in Afghanistan.

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Highlander Scott McLaren of The Highlanders, 4th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, who was killed in Afghanistan on Monday 4 July. My thoughts are also with the wounded, and I pay tribute to the courage and the fortitude with which they face their rehabilitation.

Turning to my noble friend’s Question, the Secretary of State for Defence recently visited Afghanistan and reported back a clear sense of progress being made. While recent weeks have seen an increase in activity as insurgents seek to regain lost ground, it is judged that the insurgency is under pressure and ISAF retains the momentum.

My Lords, these Benches join in the tribute to Highlander Scott McLaren. It is obvious from my noble friend’s reply and the Prime Minister’s Statement on Afghanistan last week that there is a huge question mark over the future of Afghanistan. I shall ask my noble friend two specific questions. First, how can he justify the rules of engagement that apparently prohibit our forces from firing at the Taliban or insurgents if they are seen to be laying IEDs or similar, leaving them free to continue their murderous activities? Secondly, looking to the longer term, the build-up of Afghan forces, police and army to around 300,000 will clearly result in sizeable annual expenditure of several billion pounds a year. Who will pay for those forces? Will we contribute?

My Lords, we do not comment on the specific rules of engagement but any use of force in Afghanistan must comply with the laws of armed conflict. However, commanders take the threat of IEDs very seriously. Since June last year, the Government have spent £330 million on equipment to help them tackle that threat.

Turning to my noble friend’s other question, the Afghan economy has been growing at an impressive 9 per cent, on average, each year since 2003. It now collects almost $2 billion in revenue. We are optimistic about Afghanistan’s economic prospects but recognise that it will need the support of the international community for some time to come. We, alongside our allies and other international institutions, stand ready to support Afghanistan for the long term.

My Lords, on this side, we also offer our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Highlander Scott McLaren, who was killed in Afghanistan last Monday. His death is yet another reminder of the harsh reality that our Armed Forces put their lives on the line in the service of our country.

In her response to the Statement on Afghanistan last Wednesday, my noble friend Lady Royall of Blaisdon asked whether our Armed Forces would continue to receive all the equipment that they need in the months ahead, including the 12 additional Chinooks, which the Prime Minister promised but for which the order has not yet been placed. No direct answer on when the order would be placed was forthcoming. Will the Minister tell the House when the Ministry of Defence will have completed working towards the main investment decision on these helicopters; when it is expected that the order for the 12 additional Chinooks will be placed; and when they are expected to be operational?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord and the Official Opposition for the cross-party support for our Armed Forces and for the mission in Afghanistan. On the question about Chinooks, as we announced in the SDSR, we plan to buy 12 additional Chinook helicopters as well as a further two to replace those lost on operations in Afghanistan in 2009. The Ministry of Defence is working towards the main investment decision on these helicopters.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, despite the courage, professionalism and sacrifice of our soldiers, the consequence of the myriad mistakes that we have made in Afghanistan is that, sadly, a victor’s peace is no longer within our reach? We shall have to take the best peace that we can negotiate. The longer we leave that, the more difficult it will be. Will that peace not have three key ingredients? The first will be a role for the Taliban, who will accept the Afghan constitution in the government of the country. The second will be a constitution that runs more with the grain of a decentralised Afghanistan than the present one. The third will be a regional context that enables the country’s neighbours to play a part.

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point. We are not living in a perfect world but we are doing our very best. As for the ANSF, it is becoming much more professional, much better trained and bigger. We are about to begin implementing the security transition process by which the Afghan forces will take the lead. It will be a gradual, condition-based process that is on track to put the ANSF in security lead in all provinces by the end of 2014.

My Lords, would the Minister care to comment on the improving situation, in Helmand in particular, with regard to the poppy harvest? Does he agree that we are never likely to have a more stable Afghanistan while its economy is largely based on the illegal activity of growing the poppy for opium? Can he comment on the progress that we have made in changing farming practices and, therefore, the economy in the country over the past two, three or four years?

My Lords, yes, we are making progress on that point. The noble Lord mentioned corruption. Our support for the Afghan Government cannot be unconditional. The Afghan Government must ensure that British taxpayers’ money is spent well and wisely, and President Karzai must personally grip the problems around the Kabul Bank and the need for the new IMF programme.

My Lords, I am sure that it slipped his mind, but the Minister failed to answer my noble friend’s question. When is the delivery of the Chinooks anticipated and when will the order be placed? The need is urgent.

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Baroness an exact day. This is a matter on which the Ministry of Defence is working very hard, and as soon as I have some information, I will report it to the House.

My Lords, when the US finishes ground-force combat operations in Afghanistan, which it clearly intends to do by the end of 2014, will it still be providing air support and, if it is, will NATO be providing air support? If so, will the United Kingdom be involved in that and, if it is, will it be based at an air base in Afghanistan?

My Lords, the Prime Minister has stated clearly that there will not be significant numbers of British troops in a combat role in Afghanistan by 2015. However, we still expect to have some troops there after 2015—for instance at the officer training academy—as part of the enduring NATO and bilateral partnership, at the request of the Afghan Government. The exact size and role of this commitment will be developed over time, taking account of conditions, military advice and the broader security and political considerations.