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Afghanistan

Volume 741: debated on Wednesday 19 December 2012

Statement

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I am repeating a Statement made in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on Afghanistan. Let me once again pay tribute to the brave men and women of our Armed Forces serving in Afghanistan. Theirs is a difficult and dangerous job; they operate in the most demanding of environments, displaying courage and heroism on a daily basis.

Since operations began in 2001, 438 members of our Armed Forces have made the ultimate sacrifice, 11 since my right honourable friend the International Development Secretary made the last quarterly Statement on Afghanistan on 13 September. In the face of such sacrifice, we should be in no doubt about why we are operating in Afghanistan. It is for one overriding reason: to protect our national security. Atrocities on the scale of September 11 2001 must never be allowed to happen again.

We seek an Afghanistan able to manage its own security effectively and prevent its territory from being used as a safe haven by international terrorists to plan and launch attacks against the United Kingdom and our allies. This is an objective shared by our coalition partners in the ISAF and by the Afghan Government.

We in NATO fully support the ambition of the Afghan Government to have full security responsibility across Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Our strategies are firmly aligned. The phased process of transition of security responsibility, agreed at the Lisbon summit, is well advanced and on track.

In accordance with ISAF planning, by the end of 2013 we expect that UK forces will no longer need to routinely mentor the Afghan national army (ANA) below brigade level. This is a move up from our current battalion-level mentoring. It is a reflection of rapidly improving Afghan capacity and capability, and in line with the Chicago milestone.

As the Prime Minister recently announced, a progressive move to brigade-level mentoring will also allow us to make further reductions to our force levels from the 9,000 we will have at the end of this year. Our current planning envisages a reduction to around 5,200 by the end of next year. This number is based on current UK military advice and is in line with the NATO strategy agreed at Lisbon and the emerging ISAF planning. It also reflects the real progress being made in Helmand. We will keep this number under review as the ISAF plan firms up and other allies make draw-down decisions in the new year. Let me be clear; this reduction is possible because of the success of the Afghan national security forces in assuming a lead role.

Across many parts of Afghanistan, security is already delivered by the Afghan national security forces. Today the ANSF have lead security responsibility in areas that are home to three-quarters of the population, including each of the 34 provincial capitals and all three districts that make up the UK’s area of operations. Across Afghanistan, the ANSF now lead over 80% of conventional operations and carry out 90% of their training. They set their own priorities, lead their own planning, and conduct and sustain their own operations. By the middle of next year—marking a moment of huge significance for the Afghan people—we expect the ANSF to have lead security responsibility for the whole country.

This national picture is replicated in Helmand. The ANSF are now firmly in charge in the populated areas of central Helmand, with increasing ability and confidence to operate independently. As the ANA’s confidence in its own ability grows, it is showing an appetite to conduct Afghan intelligence-led raids and we are focusing our advisory effort accordingly.

The focus of our assistance to the ANSF is increasingly switching from company-level activities to mentoring at battalion level. Kandaks from the ANA’s 3/215 Brigade in Nad-e Ali and Nahr-e Saraj have already moved on to the new model, working alongside the UK-led Brigade Advisory Group, and further Kandak advisory teams will be in place shortly. The reaction of the leaders and commanders at all levels in 3/215 Brigade has been one of pride based on self-confidence. This phased transition has allowed the UK-led Task Force Helmand to reduce its footprint significantly. Since April, nearly 50 permanent British base locations have been closed or handed over to the ANSF.

While progress on security has been real and meaningful, partnering is not without risk. The attacks on our forces, including so-called insider attacks perpetrated by rogue members of the ANSF, remind us how difficult this mission is. We are working at every level to suppress this threat. However, we are clear that we will not allow these terrible incidents to derail our strategy or our commitment to the Afghan people.

The insurgents remain committed to conducting a campaign of violence in Afghanistan. They continue to represent a threat to the future stability of the country. The ANSF, supported by the ISAF where necessary, are taking the fight to the insurgents and pushing them away from the towns, markets, key transport routes and intensively farmed areas towards the rural fringe. As a result, the Afghan-led security plan is increasingly able to focus on disrupting the insurgency in its safe havens.

While we cannot be complacent, the picture as a whole is of an insurgency weakened. Enemy-initiated attacks have fallen by an average of more than 10% in those areas that have entered the transition process, demonstrating that the Afghans are capable of managing their own security. More importantly, the geographical pattern of enemy-initiated attacks shows a significant reduction in impact on the local population.

While our combat mission will be ending in 2014, our clear message to the Afghan people remains one of firm commitment. On the security front, at the Chicago summit in May the international community agreed to provide funding to support the continued development of the Afghan national security forces in the years after 2014. NATO has also agreed to the establishment of a new, non-combat mission after transition completes. The UK will support this, including through our role as the lead coalition partner at the new Afghan national army officer academy.

In terms of supporting the Afghan Government as a whole, the Kabul conference in June sent a clear message of regional engagement, and at the Tokyo conference in July $4 billion per year was pledged to meet Afghanistan’s essential development needs. The UK’s combined funding commitments from Chicago and Tokyo are almost £250 million a year.

For the value of this support from the international community to be fully realised, the Afghan Government will need to address the corruption that remains rampant and could become a real threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan. The Afghan Government now need to deliver on their commitments through the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework (TMAF) to establish a legal framework for fighting corruption, improving economic and financial management, and implementing key economic and governance reforms, including elections.

Democracy is taking hold in Afghanistan. Not in the same shape as here in Britain, but Afghan voters can look forward to a future of their choosing, rather than one that is imposed on them. Afghan women enjoy a level of participation in their society and its politics that few could have envisaged even half a decade ago. DfID will continue to provide funding and support to further advance this agenda.

In Helmand, the process of local representation has seen marked improvements. Voter participation during 2012 for district community council elections in the traditionally challenging districts of Sangin, Nahr-e Saraj and Garmsir has been impressive by comparison with levels during previous presidential and parliamentary elections in the same areas. October’s announcement of the 2014 presidential elections is another important milestone in Afghanistan’s history. Many challenges remain, but an inclusive and transparent electoral process will be a real sign of progress.

Ultimately, the best opportunity for a stable and secure Afghanistan for the long-term lies in a political settlement; one that draws in those opponents of the Afghan Government who are willing to renounce insurgency and participate in peaceful politics. Any process will, in the end, require the Afghan Government, the Taliban and other Afghan groups to come together to talk and compromise. We appreciate how difficult this is for the respective parties, so we are working with our international allies to help bring all sides together—in particular, through the engagement of Pakistan in the process. Our aim is to generate confidence and dialogue. Our message to the Taliban is that reconciliation is not surrender; it is an opportunity for all Afghans to sit down together and help shape their country’s future. Common ground can be found, focused on the need for a strong, independent and economically viable Afghanistan.

The future of Afghanistan can be seen in the increased level of economic activity across the country. Bazaars that had been deserted are re-opening and commercial investment is evident in the towns. Basic public services are available to increasing percentages of the population. Nevertheless, Afghanistan, although rich in culture and natural resources, remains one of the poorest countries in the world—a legacy of 30 years of conflict. Its people are proud and hospitable, yet they have suffered unimaginable brutality and deprivation.

Over the last 11 years, we have been helping to ensure that Afghanistan’s past is not inevitably its future. As we move towards full transition at the end of 2014, it is clear that there remain huge challenges ahead for the Afghan people. Our combat mission is drawing to a close but our commitment to them is long term. Progress is clear and measurable, and our determination to complete our mission and help Afghanistan secure its future remains undiminished. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier today in the other place by the Secretary of State. These updates on the situation in Afghanistan provide us with a welcome opportunity to express again our continuing appreciation of the bravery and commitment shown by our Armed Forces. It is also a sombre opportunity, particularly as we approach Christmas and prepare to celebrate it with our families, to remember and reflect on the sacrifices made by members of our Armed Forces who have lost their lives or suffered life-changing injuries, whether physical or mental, in the service of our country.

The commitment to success in Afghanistan runs deep on all sides of the House, and while we on these Benches will scrutinise government decisions we will support the intentions with which they are made. Afghanistan has seen significant but not irreversible progress. Al-Qaeda has been dispersed, we have overseen elections, the army and police forces are being trained and the rule of law is evolving. None of these tasks, however, can be said to be complete. There are immense challenges to overcome. Facilitating free and fair presidential elections, tackling green-on-blue attacks, improving the representativeness of the police and the army, developing an education system and, above all, helping to deliver political reconciliation are all issues which necessitate our commitment up to and beyond 2014.

We all want to see our troops home as soon as possible and we welcome today’s announcement. When will the Minister be able to tell us which units will leave and from which part of Helmand? We are all concerned about the continuing risk to UK personnel who will remain, so can he say whether any force protection capabilities will be drawn down as a consequence of today’s announcement? Can he give an assurance that the full current range of facilities and amenities available to our forces in Afghanistan, including medical facilities, will continue to be provided for our remaining Armed Forces once the reduction in the overall size of our forces in Afghanistan commences?

The Minister spoke in general terms; however, can he be more specific about how the capacity of those departing can be sufficiently replaced by Afghan forces? Can he give the House more detail on the capability of the Afghan forces, specifically on what capacity they have in providing an air bridge, aerial surveillance and intelligence? He told us, in repeating the Statement, that 3,800 of our forces will leave by the end of next year. Does he currently envisage most remaining until the end of the fighting season and does he now expect the remaining UK forces, post-2013, to be withdrawn throughout 2014 or to remain until the end of combat operations?

Can the Minister say whether he envisages any circumstances that might lead to the decision announced today being changed or reversed? The co-ordination of the military coalition is essential, so is this part of a synchronised set of announcements? Once the reduction in our Armed Forces in Afghanistan begins, will our remaining forces continue to undertake their current roles and responsibilities—albeit on a scaled-down basis—or will the roles and responsibilities of our Armed Forces change from what they are at present?

There are currently some members of our Reserve Forces in Afghanistan. Will it be the intention to continue to deploy Reserve Forces as our Armed Forces in Afghanistan are reduced, or will members of our Reserve Forces no longer be deployed once the reductions start? Can the Minister also say whether all those who will be returning from Afghanistan, whether in 2013 or 2014, will be exempt from any future tranche of compulsory Armed Forces redundancies?

While the focus is rightly on withdrawal, it is also necessary to consider the post-2014 military settlement, which was referred to in the Statement. The Chief of the General Staff is right when he says that our commitment to Afghan institutions must be long-term, but we need more clarity on the nature of that commitment. Can the Minister therefore be more specific about the role of non-combat personnel? Is it current thinking that our trainers will be embedded with the ANSF and, if so, who will have responsibility for force protection?

It is still unclear how many UK forces will remain post-2014 or from which services they will be drawn. When will the Minister be in a position to give us greater detail on this, as well as on the UK’s equipment legacy to Afghanistan? I appreciate that firm decisions may almost certainly not have been made on these aspects, but if he is able to provide some more detail it would be extremely helpful. I accept that if he is able to do so, it may well be in writing subsequently.

We all know that a long-term settlement for Afghanistan will be achieved through politics rather than just military might. There have been recent reports of a “road map to peace” from Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, outlining plans for talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban early next year. What confidence does the Minister have that such talks may indeed take place, and can he say whether he believes talks between the Taliban and US officials will recommence in Qatar in the new year? Can he also comment on the significance of Pakistan releasing a number of Afghan prisoners, and whether he sees that as marking a potentially significant shift in the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship?

One of the main measures by which we will judge progress in Afghanistan will be the progress of women, to which the Minister referred in repeating the Statement. Sadly, a detailed recent UN report showed that Afghan women remain frequent victims of abuse. What efforts are the UK Government making, beyond those that the Minister referred to, to ensure that women’s safety does not deteriorate once ISAF forces have left? In particular, what are the Government doing to bring more women into the political process, the police and the judiciary?

Finally, as we enter what I believe to be the 12th and penultimate year of UK combat operations in this bloody but unavoidable conflict, there will rightly be lessons and consequences from Afghanistan. The time will also come for us to reflect as a nation on how we mark in a lasting way our commemoration of the fallen and injured. I look forward to the Minister’s replies about how NATO achieves withdrawal while maintaining the stability that so many have fought for. We need to get this right, since none of us has any intention of there ever being another conflict in Afghanistan.

My Lords, in the lead-up to Christmas time, I join the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, in remembering all those who serve in the Armed Forces and all those who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. We remember particularly the members of the Armed Forces serving in Afghanistan now and their families. I agree with the noble Lord in commending their bravery and commitment.

I agree that we face a huge number of challenges to overcome. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, for his and his party’s support for our intentions and for the thrust of the announcement today. We are in Afghanistan to protect our national security by helping the Afghans to take control of their own. We are not trying to build a perfect Afghanistan, rather one that does not again provide safe haven for international terrorists.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked me a number of questions. I may not be able to answer them all, but I will endeavour to write to him. The first question was about the number of units replaced. Planning continues to refine the detail of our force levels throughout 2013, but our drawdown will be gradual, responsible and in line with operational needs. As ANSF capability continues to improve and it takes on increasing responsibility for its own security, the focus of our efforts will gradually shift from one based primarily on combat to a training, advisory and assistance role. By the end of 2013, we expect that UK forces will not need routinely to mentor below brigade level, and this will allow us to reduce our military footprint in central Helmand accordingly.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked me about the capability of the Afghans. I know that a number of noble Lords and noble and gallant Lords have been to Afghanistan and seen for themselves the huge progress that the Afghan forces have made. I have been out there four times now. Each time I see substantial progress.

Developing the ANSF is obviously a key part of our strategy. It has an essential role in providing security and governance in Afghanistan. Transition of security to Afghan control, as agreed at the Lisbon conference in 2010, is well advanced and on track to be achieved by the end of 2014. Seventy-five per cent of Afghans now live in areas where the ANSF has the security lead, including all 34 provincial capitals and the three districts that make up Task Force Helmand. By mid-2013, we expect all parts of Afghanistan will have begun transition and the Afghans will be in the lead for security nationwide. This will mark an important milestone in the Lisbon road map.

Building the capacity and capability of the ANSF will allow the Afghans to take increasing responsibility for their own security. While it has been critical to achieve the quantity of forces required, work continues to ensure that the quality of the forces steadily improves. There has been real progress since the NTM-A was established in 2009. The capacity and capability of the ANSF have improved significantly over this time. It is deploying in formed units, carrying out its own operations and, as the transition process demonstrates, it is increasingly taking responsibility for security in Helmand and across Afghanistan.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked me about capabilities in particular. Artillery, close-air support, medevac, intelligence, surveillance and bomb disposal are areas in which we are working hard to try to build up capability. He asked me if there is any chance of today’s announcement being reversed. A lot of discussions are going on between us and our ISAF allies, but I am not aware that there will be a reverse on this. He asked me whether this is synchronised with our international allies. We have regular and routine discussions with a number of our NATO and ISAF allies on our force levels in Afghanistan.

On the specifics of our drawdown plans in 2013, we have spoken to a number of our key ISAF allies and to the Afghan Government. With our allies, we remain firmly committed to the strategy and timescales agreed at the NATO Lisbon summit in 2010 and to the principle of “in together and out together”. This announcement is entirely consistent with what we have previously said about our force trajectories in Afghanistan, and there should be no cliff-edge reduction at the end of 2014.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, also asked if the role of our Armed Forces will change. As we work with the Afghan forces we will be taking much more of a mentoring and less of a combat role. He also asked me about reserves. As part of our overall drawdown plans, a small number of reservists, who would have expected to deploy to Afghanistan in 2013, will no longer be required to serve there. Reservists still form an important part of our deployment planning and will continue to play a crucial and valuable role in the mission in Afghanistan. The Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985 requires employers to re-employ reservists when they are demobilised. As the reservist has to be re-employed, there is no reservist entitlement to compensation.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked me about our future commitment to Afghanistan. The UK and the international community are committed to Afghanistan for the long term. The Prime Minister has stated that we will maintain a relationship with Afghanistan post-2014 based around trade, diplomacy and military training. We are clear that in 2015 the UK contribution will not take the form of a combat role. After the end of 2014, we will have some service men and women there to ensure that all of our kit still there—we hope most of it will come back—comes back. We will have troops on the ground helping the Afghan national army officer academy and getting it off the ground. No decisions about the numbers have been made, but as the noble Lord rightly surmised many discussions are taking place.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked me whether the Taliban could be persuaded to return to the Qatar negotiations. I cannot answer that. I will write to him. There was also the question about Pakistan releasing prisoners. That country is key to the future of Afghanistan, and it is important that we have positive discussions with Pakistan.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked me about women’s rights. The British embassy in Kabul will continue to monitor threats of violence towards human rights activists, with a particular focus on women. Where appropriate and useful to do so, the embassy will issue statements condemning violence and will raise concerns with senior interlocutors in the Government of Afghanistan. Embassy staff will maintain a regular dialogue with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and other leading human rights and civil society organisations, offering support, sharing views and building understanding.

My Lords, I join my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, in their tributes to our Armed Forces.

We welcome the significant drawdown that is planned for 2013. Can my noble friend reconfirm that our forces during 2013 and 2014 will be focused increasingly on training and mentoring and less on combat missions?

There are four questions that I would like my noble friend to answer; I appreciate that he may well prefer to write to me rather than answering at the Dispatch Box. First, he referred to the discussions with our allies. Does he have any idea of the percentage reductions in the US forces during 2013, compared with our reductions? Secondly, there is no mention in the Statement of equipment withdrawal. Will he indicate the latest thinking and timing regarding our equipment withdrawal? Thirdly, allied military expenditure clearly represents a significant percentage of Afghanistan’s GDP—something like 15%, I believe. Is the Minister aware of any efforts being made by the international community to stimulate or encourage the Afghan economy post-2014? Fourthly, and the Minister will probably prefer to make this statement in writing, will he please confirm and make a clear statement on the Government’s attitude and responsibility towards interpreters and their dependants, where quite clearly we have a considerable degree of moral responsibility?

My Lords, I reconfirm to my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford that more and more members of our Armed Forces will take on a training and mentoring role. As the Statement said, 80% of operations are now led by the Afghan national security forces. I have been out there and seen for myself the mentoring and how successful our Armed Forces and our allies are in training up the Afghans.

I will write to my noble friend but, in answer to his questions, so far as I am aware the US forces’ reduction discussions are still taking place. I understand that the Prime Minister spoke to President Obama yesterday, but I will write to my noble friend on this as I am not aware of the exact figures.

Equipment withdrawal is an issue that has come up a lot in the House. We are making quite good progress on the different routes through which equipment would be withdrawn; it will not just be through Pakistan or the northern routes. Obviously some would come back directly by air, while some would go directly by air to countries in the Middle East. A lot of work is going on regarding this issue. Decisions about gifting and what to do with equipment will be made on a case-by-case basis, using the principle of operational priority and value for money to the UK taxpayer. We are reviewing our policies of gifting to ensure that any gifted equipment is appropriate and follows parliamentary, Treasury and National Audit Office rules, but obviously a number of bits of kit will be gifted. Work on managing the recovery of UK equipment is under way. Redeployment began in earnest, and as planned, on 1 October.

My noble friend asked me about efforts to stimulate the economy post-2014. I know that the international community, as the Statement said, has donated a great deal of money to the Afghan Government for that very end, and DfID has a number of different initiatives in Afghanistan.

With regard to the attitude towards interpreters, I have the line on that somewhere, but I assure my noble friend that we stick by our interpreters and will do everything to safeguard their security.

Does the Minister recognise that there will be general agreement in this House, and widely in the country, that 11 years at this level of military commitment in Afghanistan is quite long enough? I welcome the announcement of this withdrawal since the real threat to our national security, which was Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, has long since ended. We should pay tribute to all those who have lost their lives and the enormous number who have suffered life-changing injuries in this very long campaign.

Is the most important part of this Statement not the recognition that it will not be by military means but through political discussions that a better future for Afghanistan will be achieved? I welcome the content of the Statement regarding the efforts that will be made in this respect. That will be very important, if the political discussions move well, as we move towards the extremely difficult exercise of withdrawal of men and materiel from that area. The noble Lord leading for the Opposition referred to the fact that we have been there before and our withdrawals have often been the most difficult part of the exercise. I hope that that will not be repeated in this situation.

We are now committing ourselves to considerable financial support. The Prime Minister said that we are in for the long term, but nothing could be more damaging to that than if there are continuing allegations of corruption. We are aware that certain UK funds ended up in real estate development in Dubai in the hands of certain private individuals, and any suggestion of continuing corruption would be enormously damaging to the national will to continue to support the Afghan people and to carry on the work that has been carried forward so far with the courage, resilience and good spirit of our Armed Forces.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that it is now time that our Armed Forces started to come back. We have done a very good job in building up the capability of the Afghan national security forces. As my noble friend did, I pay tribute to those members of our Armed Forces who have lost their lives and to the large numbers of members of our Armed Forces, as we heard in a Question earlier, who have had life-changing injuries and wounds. As my noble friend said, it is not just by military means that Afghanistan will end up in a better place. I know that those in the Foreign Office and our ISAF allies are in deep discussions with the Afghan Government and Pakistan. As my noble friend said, we are certainly in this for the long term, and we must do everything possible to try to get on top of the corruption.

With the leave of the House, I will answer the question asked by my noble friend Lord Lee about the interpreters. People who put their life on the line for the United Kingdom will not be abandoned. Locally engaged Afghan staff working for our Armed Forces and civilian missions in Afghanistan make an invaluable contribution to the UK’s efforts to help to support the spread of security, stability and development in their country. We take our responsibility for all members of staff very seriously and have put in place measures to reduce the risks that they face. Precautions are taken during recruitment, and staff are fully briefed before taking up employment about any risks involving their work. We regularly encourage staff to report any security concerns immediately. We follow an agreed cross-government policy in considering cases of intimidation or injury on a case-by-case basis. This policy ensures that we take into account the individual circumstances of each case and allows us to decide a proportionate response.

My Lords, in the absence of any political settlement after 2014, security will be essential to international development, as it is at the moment. What conversations has the MoD had with DfID about the overlap of funding? There will be projects that are close to defence, such as the Sandhurst-type academy, and other, more general humanitarian programmes that will need protection. What provision has the MoD made for that? I have one further question: the road into Pakistan now being open, will some collaboration on the defence front be visible at the time of the handover?

My Lords, I must make it clear to the noble Earl that our Armed Forces will be out of the combat role in Afghanistan at the end of 2014. Any security for international development efforts will be the responsibility of the Afghan national security forces. We are confident that we have built up their capability to take this on. It is still early days. There is a lot of discussion still to take place about how we can develop all these very important development initiatives that will be taking place in Afghanistan.

I think some equipment has started to leave Afghanistan for Pakistan to make its way home—not a lot, but it will start to flow quite soon. Obviously, as I said earlier, relations with Pakistan are key to the future of Afghanistan.

My Lords, the Minister replied to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord King. I ask him what work will be done for the many post-active-service service men and women and indeed ex-service men and women around in the country in 2013 and 2014. I am told that those who suffer a life-changing experience sometimes have trouble adapting to civilian life and end up in trouble with the police. Is there any way that the MoD could provide a service so that those whose behaviour brings them to the attention of the police can be referred to the MoD for the support that they need? Some of those—not all of them, I appreciate—who end up in trouble have suffered enormously because of the work that they have done on our behalf.

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very important point. Indeed, the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, asked a similar question earlier on. This is a really important issue. I want to take it back to the department and dwell on it. I will write to the noble Baroness when I have had a chance to consider it.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his civil replies to the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, on the question of interpreters. Can he confirm that in Afghanistan these people and others who have served our forces will be treated no less generously than those who were in a similar role in Iraq? I think in most cases it will involve either compensation or refugee status in this country, but in all cases will the Government endeavour to make sure that Afghan families are not split up as a result?

My Lords, as I said to my noble friend, people who have put their life on the line for the United Kingdom will not be abandoned. We will honour that commitment.

My Lords, I would first like to thank the noble Lord for his great kindness in keeping your Lordships appraised of matters of defence and the meetings that he has within the MoD. This is a new development and it is much appreciated by everybody in your Lordships’ House.

I would like now to come down on to the ground and talk for two seconds or so about this land line. In a withdrawal, people become very defensively minded. I myself have been in one or two. It is vital that we keep the offensive spirit going during this period. Many attractive items will go out on the land line which the Taliban would like to get their hands on. The same goes for Bastion. Therefore it is not only defence of the convoy, but a proper offensive force that is going to disrupt any attack at all that is made. In Afghanistan, even in the old days, when there is a very attractive target those who are disagreeing among the tribes can come together. They might well think of this. In this event, one would be dealing not with the couple of dozen who were infiltrating into Bastion. The force levels of the Taliban—and there are quite a number waiting—would give us something to think about. The offensive spirit has to be maintained to disrupt the problem as it comes. I hope that, in planning the withdrawal, the ground air support that the army needs so much will not be thinned out to a state where it is not at full strength and in support of our forces. Withdrawal is very difficult and dangerous. The best way to handle it is not to be defensive-minded all the time and to retain a proper offensive force.

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for his kind words about the briefings. These are two-way briefings. I learn a lot from noble Lords who have a lot of experience, like the noble Viscount, of Afghanistan and other areas. Certainly I, my officials and the military who attend these briefings have learnt a great deal. I am very grateful for what the noble Viscount said.

The noble Viscount made a very important point about the drawdown of equipment. We have had a number of discussions about that. We are on the case. I can assure the noble Viscount that it will be properly defended. There will be ground air support and whatever else is necessary to make sure that we get these attractive bits of kit out.

Will my noble friend first accept my congratulations and thanks for what he has given us today and, as far as I can remember, over the entire campaign in Afghanistan, or at least most of it? The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, has said virtually everything that I would want to say, but my noble friend will know that the House of Lords defence group receives marvellous professional and detailed briefings on a constant basis from my noble friend. Could I possibly look at one more accountancy-style problem that will almost certainly be affecting my noble friend? Of course we want to bring back—and will bring back—the brave men and women, the forces and the equipment. Please will he accept that when everybody is safely back here we on all sides of the House want to see that they are first of all appreciated and that all the work that my noble friend spoke about this morning at Question Time in medicine, health and above all welfare is continued? I hope that he will be able to do that in 2013. I thank him, his officials and each and every person who is in Afghanistan.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind words. In return I commend him for all the work he does as secretary of the House of Lords defence group. He asked whether we will ensure that the work of our Armed Forces is fully appreciated. As he knows, all the brigades that return from Afghanistan are invited to march into Parliament. They march in through Westminster Hall, have their photograph taken, and then go downstairs for tea—which invariably ends up as drinking a lot of beer as well as tea. I have spoken to a lot of the officers and other ranks who come in, and they appreciate it enormously. They feel that what they are doing in Afghanistan is fully appreciated by Members of Parliament who send them out there.