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Afghanistan: Troop Levels

Volume 736: debated on Thursday 26 April 2012


My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Captain Rupert Bowers, 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment; Sergeant Luke Taylor, the Royal Marines; Lance Corporal Michael Foley, the Adjutant General’s Corps; Corporal Jack Stanley, The Queen’s Royal Hussars; and Sapper Connor Ray, 33 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), who were all killed in operations in Afghanistan recently. My thoughts are also with the wounded, and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude in which they face their rehabilitation.

The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, with your permission I would like to make a Statement on future UK force levels in Afghanistan.

Let me begin by paying tribute to the commitment, professionalism and bravery of the men and women of the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces deployed in Afghanistan. Since UK forces first deployed to Afghanistan in 2001, more than 100,000 personnel have served on operations there, many for more than one tour, and many more, military and civilian, have supported the mission. Since the surge in the international commitment to the mission as a whole in 2009, which boosted the forces available to ISAF by 30,000, the United Kingdom has maintained an enduring level of conventional forces in Afghanistan of 9,500, the great majority of whom are now in the UK area of operations in central Helmand.

This has been a critical period for the mission, for UK Forces, for ISAF and, significantly, for the Afghan national security forces—ANSF. Our combined efforts have arrested the momentum of the insurgency, diminished its capability, and weakened its strategic position. But it still represents a threat to the people of Afghanistan and to the security of Afghan territory. It retains the ability to launch significant operations, as the attack on Kabul on 15 and 16 April demonstrates. The response of the ANSF to that attack demonstrated just how far they have come in terms of their capability and their ability to undertake major operations autonomously. They are justifiably proud of their performance.

Our aim in Afghanistan is to build Afghan governance and security forces to the point where they are resilient in the face of any residual threat from the insurgency; confident in their ability to protect their own citizens; and able to deny safe haven to terrorists who seek to use Afghan territory as a base from which to threaten international security.

Significant progress is being made across Afghanistan, and the monthly progress report for March, published today by the FCO, DfID and the MoD, sets out more details. Nowhere is that progress more obvious than in Helmand. There are now 12 district governors in Helmand’s 14 districts, up from just five in 2008. Thirty extra schools have opened since 2010, with another 46 currently being built. Twenty-nine extra health clinics have opened. There are more roads and more bridges. Bazaars are reopening, meaning more commerce and opportunities for ordinary Helmandis. In the past year alone, income levels in Helmand have increased by 20 per cent. Prosperity will be a critical weapon in the battle against the insurgency.

All of this social and economic progress has been made possible by the improvements in security across the province. This has been facilitated not just by the surge in ISAF troops but by the increasing number and quality of Afghan national security forces. The size of the Afghan national army in regional command south-west, which includes Helmand province, has increased by 30 per cent in the past 18 months. Two of the three districts in Task Force Helmand’s area of operations have now entered formal transition. The security situation in those districts is unrecognisable compared with the start of British operations in 2006.

The whole of Lashkar Gah district and the most populous 60 per cent of Nad-e Ali is now completely under Afghan control. The ANSF has demonstrated repeatedly its ability to provide security in these areas and, as a result, 36 of Task Force Helmand’s checkpoints, patrol bases and military positions have been handed over to the ANSF in the past six months, while a further 16 new posts have been constructed and occupied by Afghan forces. This has enabled Task Force Helmand to reduce its basing footprint by 50 per cent and, as circumstances allow, UK and ISAF forces are progressively moving towards the support role of training, advising and assisting.

During 20 Armoured Brigade’s recent tour, the campaign moved to being run on an Afghan-formulated campaign plan, written in Dari by the Afghans and executed by them. Seven major operations were carried out in central Helmand over the six-month period of Herrick 15—a pace that, in the words of the UK brigade commander, ‘sometimes left us running to catch up with our Afghan colleagues’.

In the recent Operation Now Roz, over 1,000 members of the ANSF, supported by British forces, cleared insurgents from a key heartland within the Helmand River valley. While UK forces secured the flanks, the Afghans cleared more than 200 compounds, made safe 44 IEDs, found seven bomb-making factories and confiscated over 145 kilograms of homemade explosives. This is the fourth major ANA operation in central Helmand in four months, and the largest and most complex so far. The success of the operation further demonstrated the ANSF’s increasing professionalism and capability.

Helmand remains difficult and challenging, and the insurgency remains a constant threat, but the progress we have made demonstrates that we are on target to meet the transition objectives agreed by President Karzai and the international community at Lisbon in November 2010. Maintaining that momentum will be the challenge of the transition process between now and the end of 2014. There is no room at all for complacency, and much work needs to be done to maintain the momentum of progress in building ANSF capability. But the reality on the ground is that Afghan forces are increasingly taking the lead. This allows ISAF, including UK forces, to gradually reduce force levels and to change their role.

The Prime Minister announced in July last year that we would be drawing down UK forces by 500 to 9,000 by the end of this year. The Chief of the Defence Staff has now provided military advice on how these reductions will be achieved. The House will understand that it is not appropriate to go into exact operational details or to talk about specific capabilities, but I am able to give the House a general overview of how the manpower reductions will be achieved.

First, I can confirm that, reflecting the reduction in the need for ISAF ground-holding capabilities as transition progresses and the Afghans take over positions, the majority of the 500 being withdrawn will be combat troops. Secondly, we will merge the UK Forces Headquarters in Nahr-e Saraj North and Nahr-e Saraj South to better align with the increasingly important Afghan administrative boundaries and the civilian control structure. This will deliver efficiencies and manpower savings.

Thirdly, there will be a reduction in support personnel and enablers commensurate with the changes I have set out. Finally, we will withdraw some combat support capabilities for which there is no longer an operational need as a result of the availability of alternative weapons systems in theatre. These measures will reduce the United Kingdom’s enduring conventional force levels to 9,000 and will be completed by the end of this year.

I can also inform the House that, in addition to the overall reduction in numbers, a further 200 combat troops will be transferred from a ground-holding role to security force assistance teams working with the ANSF. For avoidance of doubt, I should be clear that, whatever role is being fulfilled, including the training of ANSF forces, British forces in Afghanistan will retain combat capability until the end of 2014.

The details I have announced today are consistent with our intention to move out of a combat role by the end of 2014. They demonstrate our commitment to the process of transition, and the increasing capacity and capability of the ANSF, reflecting its real achievements on the ground. As it grows, and gradually takes lead responsibility for security across the country, ISAF’s military footprint will reduce further, including that of the United Kingdom, and we will keep the House informed of future plans for further reductions in UK troop numbers as conditions on the ground permit.

Our combat role will end by December 2014, but the United Kingdom’s commitment to Afghanistan is for the long-term. This is demonstrated in part by the announcement I made last week at the NATO ministerial meeting that we will commit £70 million per year to the future funding of the ANSF after 2014, and by our commitment to run the Afghan national army officer training academy, which we are currently building outside Kabul.

Each nation has its own constitutional processes in which to consider its contribution as transition moves forward, but all agree that ISAF cohesion must be maintained. The UK will continue to work and plan closely with our ISAF partners, particularly those operating alongside us in Helmand, including the United States, which provides the bulk of coalition forces. As the Prime Minister told the House yesterday: ‘The speed of the reductions between now and the end of 2014 will be in accordance with the conditions on the ground and with what is right in terms of transitioning from allied control to Afghan control—and at all times, of course, paramount in our minds is the safety and security of our brave armed forces’.

That safety and security will be best assured by working with our allies in a co-ordinated drawdown as responsibilities are handed progressively to the ANSF. That is the way to honour and protect the legacy of our involvement in Afghanistan, and of the sacrifice made by the 409 service men and women who have given their lives, and the thousands who have suffered life-changing injuries.

I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I start by associating these Benches with the condolences extended to the families and friends of the five soldiers who died recently in Afghanistan. I thank the Minister for reading out the five names. This has been a long and expensive mission, but above all we must bear in mind when we discuss these matters the enormous price paid by those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in this campaign. I also join the Minister in his reference to the wounded who will be paying for this mission for the rest of their lives.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and join unambiguously in the tribute contained in it to the commitment, professionalism and bravery of the men and women who have served, are serving or are yet to serve in Afghanistan. I also repeat unambiguously the consistent support of these Benches for the mission in Afghanistan and, indeed, our general support for the careful reduction in forces that this Statement touches upon.

I want to touch on three areas on which I think the House needs reassurance. The first is the safety of our troops in this period of withdrawal, the second is the planning for the transitional period and the third is something that we must continue to bear in mind, which is: what sort of Afghanistan are we trying to create?

Touching first on the safety of our troops, the Statement states that,

“reflecting the reduction in the need for ISAF ground-holding capabilities as transition progresses and the Afghans take over positions, the majority of the 500 being withdrawn will be combat troops”.

I do not have an in-depth knowledge of the military, but from my experience, it seems very difficult to withdraw from combat and to hand over not to troops that you have trained with or of the same philosophy but to a brand new army. It seems to me that this is an area where a flank is exposed and where there is real risk. Can I have an assurance from the Minister that we have meticulously planned this transition from our securing the combat situation to the Afghans securing it and are doing it in a way that does not expose our people to new dangers?

The Statement speaks of withdrawing some combat capability. Will the Minister outline what combat capability is being withdrawn and assure us that the withdrawal of that combat capability in no way endangers the troops we will be leaving behind and that appropriate combat support capability will remain so that the 9,000 troops still there will be properly protected?

The Statement also speaks of 200 combat troops being transferred from ground-holding roles to security force assistance teams working with the Afghan National Army. Can we have an assurance that proper procedures are in place to protect those people from the very unfortunate incidents that have occurred with troops working with the Afghan army? Do the Afghans have the right procedures in place to make sure that there are no rogue individuals putting our people at risk?

Can I have an assurance that our people are not going to be unreasonably exposed by the proportionately more rapid rundown of other ISAF nations’ troops? One particularly thinks of the US, but in France there is about to be a presidential election and there is every possibility that as a result of that there may be a discontinuous commitment from the French. Is that taken account of? Are our people going to be secure?

Moving into the transitional period, we have put a great deal of money into Afghanistan and a significant amount of the equipment of the Army, in particular, is in Afghanistan. How advanced are the plans to withdraw that equipment, particularly in the light of the delicate and fragile relationship with Afghanistan’s neighbours? Are routes being secured? Will they be robust? Is there sufficient diversity to make sure that that considerable investment in equipment can be safely withdrawn?

Turning to the future of Afghanistan, the Statement says that we are going to run—quite a strong word—the Afghan national army officer training academy. That sounds like a very considerable commitment. Will the Minister give us some feel for just how big a commitment it will be? At first sight, it seems like building Sandhurst in Kabul. Is it a commitment of that order? If so, we welcome it because this army has to take over a very difficult task when ISAF withdraws.

Although I am not suggesting the policy is wrong, there is another area of concern. Will the Minister detail what combat support capability will be left from ISAF and the UK after the end of 2014? Is it none, and do the Afghans have appropriate high-technology support capability to support themselves—I think particularly of air power, other precision weapons and other technically difficult areas—or will we have a remaining role in that area?

An area about which there is widespread concern in the wider debate on Afghanistan is whether we have done enough on governance. We have clearly done a pretty good job on the army by now. We and our allies have worked at that, and it seems to be bearing fruit, but the root of the Afghan problem seems to be a wider issue about governance. Have we done enough to help build governance? Will the systems of administration and law be robust enough against the slings and arrows that will inevitably be thrown at them when ISAF withdraws from its combat role?

An even bigger question is whether we have done enough, or has enough been done, to secure a political solution, a political agreement, between the parties in Afghanistan, which have to be more than just the present Government, to secure agreement? It is seen as a prerequisite that this must be achieved before ISAF’s combat withdrawal. Particularly, it is seen as a prerequisite that such a political agreement must not only take account of the Afghan Government and the Afghan people who are not presently in the political regime—almost inevitably drawing in the Taliban—but the key relationship with Afghanistan’s neighbours that must be secured if we are to have stability in that country in the future.

Finally, I agree with the Minister that in all these deliberations, we must have regard for our brave men and women who are serving in Afghanistan now and those who will serve between now and the end of 2014.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Opposition’s continued support for the Afghan mission. It is hugely reassuring for our Armed Forces to know that they have cross-party parliamentary support.

I was in Afghanistan in late February, and I was able to see for myself that real progress is being made in Helmand. The morale of our Armed Forces was very high and there was a tangible sense of ongoing progress. Our goal will be to leave Afghanistan looking after its own security, not being a haven for terror, and without the involvement of foreign troops in combat roles.

Turning to the noble Lord’s questions, he first asked about the safety of our troops in this period of drawdown. The safety and well-being of our Armed Forces is at the forefront of our military strategy and will never be compromised. The decision to reduce our force levels by 500 was taken on the basis of military advice and reflects the security situation on the ground. I can confirm to the noble Lord that we have meticulously planned the drawdown.

The noble Lord asked about the 200 troops who will be working with the ANSF and, I imagine, the issue of “green on blue” attacks. It is important to note that these tragic incidents involve only isolated rogue elements within the ANSF, the vast majority of whom continue to demonstrate strong commitment to their partnership with ISAF. Nevertheless, a range of security measures has been taken to reduce the threat, including steps to improve the vetting of recruits and more assiduous monitoring of those returning from leave, especially in areas where there is greater insurgent influence. The Afghan national army has committed to making substantial improvements to its counterintelligence capabilities.

The noble Lord asked whether UK forces will be put at greater risk as the US and other allies draw down. There are no plans for UK forces to take on new combat tasks outside our area of operations during the transition process. We and our allies are reducing our forces as transition progresses and, where it is appropriate to do so, we, like our ISAF partners, keep our force levels in Afghanistan under constant review. I can confirm—and I saw it for myself—that Afghan forces are increasingly taking the lead as transition progresses. This is creating the conditions to allow the United Kingdom and other ISAF partners gradually to reduce our force levels.

The noble Lord then asked about exit routes and how we are going to get our equipment out. A range of exit routes from Afghanistan are subject to continuous review and development. While the ground lines of communication through Pakistan remain closed, sensible planning to identify alternative ways to move our freight, equipment and supplies into and out of Afghanistan continues. This includes negotiations with the central Asian republics to further improve our resilience.

The noble Lord asked what we might leave behind. Planning for the recovery of our equipment is at an early stage. Decisions have not yet been made on what equipment will be retained. Therefore, it is too early to state what the value of our recovered equipment might be. Work is ongoing to ensure that the redeployment of equipment from Afghanistan is conducted in a way that represents value for money.

The noble Lord then asked about the officers’ academy. As part of our enduring commitment in Afghanistan, the United Kingdom will lead coalition support at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy. At the peak, approximately 120 coalition troops will work at the academy, providing leadership training to the officer cadets—although I understand the normal figure will be more like 90. The UK expects to provide roughly three-quarters of this manpower. In addition to this, there will be a number of personnel working in a force protection and support role.

The noble Lord then asked what combat support capability would be available after 2014. This is a very good question, although I have to be very careful how I word my response. The Prime Minister made it clear that there will be no United Kingdom forces in a combat role in Afghanistan post-2014. NATO’s strategic plan will be discussed in Chicago next month, and we are in regular discussion with NATO and our other ISAF partners about the role that NATO will have in Afghanistan after 2014. NATO allies have agreed that NATO’s post-2014 role should focus on training, advising and assisting the ANSF.

The noble Lord then asked a very good question about good governance. I went to Kabul in February, and having been there last February and the year before, I can say that there is marked improvement in the feeling of good governance. Diplomats I spoke to feel much more optimistic about that. There is obviously the issue of corruption, which is of concern to everyone. The United Kingdom is helping the Government of Afghanistan to tackle corruption across a range of areas, including improving public financial management systems to reduce the scope for misuse of public funds, and giving support to law enforcement. We are also helping to strengthen Afghan civil society organisations to enable them to hold the Government to account.

Finally, as I understood it, the noble Lord asked whether a political settlement involving regional partners was a prerequisite for withdrawal. We will adhere to the strategy agreed by ISAF nations in Lisbon in 2010 and gradually hand over responsibility to the Afghans, who will have security responsibility for all provinces by the end of 2014. In parallel with this, we need a political process that ensures that all Afghans, if they give up violence, can play a part in building a strong and democratic country. We of course hope—and where possible will work to ensure—that Afghanistan’s neighbours and regional partners support this process.

My Lords, first, I join these Benches in paying tribute to those who have fallen in Afghanistan recently and also, of course, to the wounded.

In the Statement, my noble friend lauded the progress that has been made by the Afghan security forces. However, this huge investment that we have collectively made in the expansion and training of the Afghan security forces will be put at risk if it is not properly financed post-2014. The £70 million that it is intended we will be contributing seems to be a very small figure indeed relative to the amount that in these final years the whole Afghan operation is costing us, let alone all the investment we have made in terms of finance and human sacrifice over the years. How has that £70 million actually been arrived at, and what total commitment are the allied countries guaranteeing for the future resourcing of those very sizeable Afghan security forces that we have built up?

On the question of the withdrawal of equipment, I read very recently that it is estimated that it will cost the Americans around £16 billion to bring back the vast majority of their equipment. As I understand it, presently they have about 50,000 vehicles in Afghanistan; I believe we have about 3,000. Has any broad estimate—obviously it has to be a broad estimate at this stage—been made of the total costs of the equipment that we will be bringing back post-2014?

My Lords, first, I agree entirely with my noble friend how really important it is that enough money is raised to keep the Afghan national security forces as a strong and potent force. The Statement mentioned the figure of £70 million. I understand the aspiration to be discussed in Chicago is a figure of $4 billion a year, which will be needed to keep the Afghan national forces going.

My noble friend’s second question was about the withdrawal of equipment and whether we have a broad estimate of the value of all this. There is still a lot of work going on in my department and it is really much too early to say how much kit will be brought back and how much will be left. A lot of the cost of this will depend on the route and whether it comes out through Pakistan or through the north. It is much too early to answer that question.

My Lords, I join others in extending my personal condolences to the families of those who have bravely lost their lives in the Afghan campaign. On that matter, are the deaths of civilian staff who are part of the UK contribution reported to Parliament? If so, in what form are they reported? I ask that question in the light of reports in the weekend press that that is not the case. I am sure the Minister would wish to clarify that position.

Will he also tell us what proportion of all UK personnel involved in the Afghan campaign are involved in front-line operational combat duties at any time? Is there a rough percentage? In addition, to what extent are the comments of Frank Ledwidge in his book Losing Small Wars an accurate portrayal of what is happening in Afghanistan? Has the Minister read that book? Have departmental officials studied its comments, some of which may need denial?

My Lords, first, I agree with the noble Lord about the terrible price that a number of members of the Armed Forces have paid with their lives and the tribute we should pay to their families. I am not sighted on the number of civilians who have died and whether their deaths are reported to Parliament but I will undertake to write to the noble Lord and to put the letter in the Library. Again, I do not have figures in terms of a percentage or a proportion of the number of civilians working on the front line but when I was in Camp Bastion recently I saw quite a number of them. I do not have the slightest idea of the percentage, but, again, I will write to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord’s third question about Losing Small Wars was interesting. The answer is no and yes. Interestingly, while I was being briefed on this Statement, an official asked me whether I had read this book and I said that I had not. He had just read it and said that I must read it. Certainly before the next Statement I will have read that book.

From these Benches, I also express our continued concern for those who have lost their lives in this conflict, and for those who are suffering as a consequence and will do so for the rest of their lives. Perhaps I may advise the Minister that as a church we are committed to the well-being of service personnel and all others who are working in the Afghan scene. In my own diocese, when troops from all the departments come home, my colleagues are very much involved with them, as well as with their families during their periods of deployment and so on. It is our continued prayer and hope that this war will be brought to a conclusion satisfactory to the well-being of our service personnel and that we will take very great care in making decisions about where we should engage ourselves in times to come.

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for what he said about the church’s commitment to the well-being of the Armed Forces. All my life I have had great respect for Army padres and likewise for the Navy and the Air Force. When I was in the Army I was married by my padre for whom I had the highest respect. I share exactly the feelings of the right reverend Prelate.

My Lords, it is a matter of some regret to me that for an important Statement such as this we do not have more representatives from our Armed Forces in this House. Perhaps the opportunity will come when we get to the Chicago meeting. Considering the size of the problem and the commitment of our Armed Forces, we are all personally touched. I have friends who as young marines have been out two or three times. In the House, we do not give enough attention to Afghanistan. We are slipping away even as our troops are being withdrawn. I hope we can keep up the momentum that there was at the beginning of this exercise, which was now nearly 10 years ago.

To follow up on a question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, about co-ordination with regional allies, what efforts are being made to inform Pakistan and India of withdrawal and how will that fit in with their own programme? Will they be able to step up support even as we are withdrawing?

We have had a recent serious attack in Kabul and many international and national organisations are under threat. We were closely targeted and could have suffered casualties. Has anything been done to improve the situation in Kabul? The airport has always been vulnerable and rockets have been fired. Is it still at risk, as it was in the past, or has something been done to improve the situation?

First, the noble Earl was sorry that noble Lords with Armed Forces connections are unable to be here today. I am confident that a large number of them will speak in the Queen’s Speech debate on 17 May. Secondly, I can assure the noble Earl that discussions are taking place with Pakistan. It is vital that ISAF and Pakistan, and Afghanistan and Pakistan, have good relations. The noble Earl used the word “withdrawing”. We would prefer to use words such as “transition” or “draw down”.

Thirdly, the noble Earl asked about Kabul. I was in Kabul in February and I am assured that incidents are very rare. Of course, when they happen they get a huge amount of publicity but on the whole it is fairly safe. There was an incident the other day. The Afghan national security forces dealt with it very quickly and competently. As was said in the Statement, they are hugely proud of what they did.