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Afghanistan Update

Volume 792: debated on Wednesday 11 July 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made earlier today in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence announcing an uplift to UK troop numbers in Afghanistan. The Statement is as follows:

“The UK will never forget the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the thousands of innocent women, men and children killed in this atrocity. This barbaric violence prompted the UK, alongside our NATO allies, to enter Afghanistan to ensure that terrorists could never again use it as a base from which to attack our citizens at home or abroad.

Before I continue, I want to pay tribute to the efforts of tens of thousands of brave British men and women who have served in Afghanistan stretching back 16 years. We will never forget what they did there—particularly those 456 brave men and women who paid the ultimate price, as well as those who suffered life-changing injuries in the line of duty. Their service and sacrifice was not in vain.

As I saw for myself when I visited back in March, not only do millions of ordinary Afghans now have access to clean water, vital medicine and education, which would not have seemed possible less than 20 years ago; not only have they enabled the Afghan people to take charge of their own security; and not only is the capability of the Afghan national defence and security forces growing, but elections are giving a voice to the people of Afghanistan, who are increasingly calling for peace—something that would have seemed unthinkable a short time ago.

Our commitment to Afghanistan remains an enduring one. Although UK combat operations ended in 2014, our troops are playing a key role in NATO’s Resolute Support Mission by leading the Kabul Security Force. They are performing a vital role training, advising and assisting the Afghan army and air force, developing the nationwide security structures that will strengthen Afghanistan’s democracy. They have a Quick Reaction Force, which works alongside the Afghan national army to provide urgent help in Kabul when required.

They continue to work alongside their Afghan, Australian, New Zealand and Danish partners at the Army Officer Academy to mentor staff. Since opening in 2013, it has held its 11th graduation. More than 3,000 high-quality officers have passed out of this great institution, modelled on the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. They are making a genuine difference in helping the Afghan national defence and security forces maintain security and keep their citizens safe.

The momentum is with the Afghan forces, and the Taliban cannot militarily win. Ultimately, in the long-term, Afghanistan’s only chance for a better future is through a peaceful negotiation that is Afghan-led. Significant progress is already being made. The UK welcomes the Government of Afghanistan’s offer to start a discussion on a political process with the Taliban, supported by the recent ceasefire. It is encouraging to see bilateral relations with Pakistan improving, which helps build wider stability in the region. Critically, over the coming 12 months, parliamentary and presidential elections are planned, giving ordinary people the chance to shape their nation’s destiny for the better.

But despite the growing confidence of Afghan forces, atrocities such as the appalling attack against the Intercontinental Hotel at the start of the year, which killed 42 people, demonstrate that the insurgency has proven resilient. It still controls parts of Afghanistan and it continues to conduct brutal suicide attacks, killing innocent civilians. Of equal concern is the fact that terrorist groups such as Daesh are seeking a foothold in the region in order to conduct operations against Britain and other nations.

Given the upcoming elections and efforts by the Afghan Government to reach a political settlement, NATO has recognised that now is a critical time to give extra support. So today, in response to a NATO request, and in recognition of the professionalism and competence of our forces, I can announce that we will be increasing the number of troops to support our existing mission, sending an additional 440 personnel in non-combat roles to take the total UK contribution to around 1,100 personnel. This will make the UK the third largest troop contributor to the NATO operation. Around half of the 440 additional personnel will deploy in August; the remainder will follow no later than February 2019. The additional troops will initially deploy from the Welsh Guards, who already currently provide the UK’s contribution to the Kabul Security Force.

Today’s decision underlines our commitment to the people of Afghanistan. It will help strengthen the institutions that preserve Kabul’s security and enable the Afghan-led peace process to develop. It will send a signal to the Taliban that we will not abandon this proud nation; nor can they simply outwait our departure. It shows our commitment to NATO, which in a darker, more unpredictable world must remain the corner- stone of our defence. Above all, it reiterates Britain’s commitment to strengthen the security of our nation. History teaches us that the prize for a more secure Afghanistan is peace and security for all.

I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, and join him in paying tribute to those who have served in Afghanistan. We remember in particular the 456 service personnel who died and those who have suffered life-changing injuries.

I too believe that Afghanistan is a better place as a result of our efforts. We have achieved this through co-operation with our NATO allies. Nevertheless, a further commitment of 440 personnel is significant, and it is our duty to probe this. Noble Lords will understand that 440 on the ground will involve many times that number, as personnel are trained, deployed and rested.

It is appropriate to pause at this point. We will be sending people into harm’s way, and we civilians do not really understand what that is like. This place is enriched by the number of people who have done that; we even have one who has been in harm’s way. Afghanistan is a dangerous place, and NATO personnel were killed in the early days of these training missions. I wonder whether the Minister can give us a sense of the risk involved by telling us how many NATO personnel have been killed since the end of NATO ground operations, which I believe was at the end of 2014.

I shall now turn briefly to the Chilcot inquiry, if I may. I am told that it contained 2.4 million words, but I felt that it really had only two key recommendations: first, that the decision to commit military personnel should be taken by due process; and secondly, that before taking the first step one should have a plan for the second and subsequent steps.

On the first step, can the Minister explain the process by which the decision was made? Who was involved? Was the FCO or DfID part of the decision? Was the Prime Minister? What criteria were set to measure success? How were the risks to our troops’ lives assessed? Can the Minister assure us that the risks are indeed minimal, and that there are no scenarios in which our people will be drawn into combat operations?

Secondly, how long will the deployment last? Is there an end date, or at least a set of criteria to measure success and, hence, lead to withdrawal? Have all scenarios been considered?

We all hope and pray that the mission is successful but, sadly, history is littered with limited military interventions turning into full-scale war. Can the Minister assure us that in no circumstances will that be allowed to happen? I have complete faith that our people will be able to help the Afghans fight more effectively, but could the Minister give us more detail on the training that will be provided? Will it be complemented by softer essential skills such as policing, particularly with respect to corruption, and governance? Will the further input to produce those skills come from the FCO and DfID, or will our allies provide the resource?

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, and I echo the words of the Secretary of State and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, on the commitments that this country has made to Afghanistan and the tributes paid to the service men and women who have given their lives in Afghanistan.

This is clearly a serious decision that is being announced today. As the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, pointed out, 440 service personnel is a significant number. It increases the personnel that we currently have in Afghanistan by two-thirds. It is noticeable that the decision has been made, we are told, in response to a NATO request, at the time of a NATO summit and on the eve of a visit by the President of the United States. What is not clear is when the request was made. When was the United Kingdom asked to make this additional commitment and when was the decision actually taken? Is the confluence of timings just ahead of the NATO summit intentional? Is it intended in any way to send a signal to the President of the United States that the United Kingdom at least is keeping up to its NATO targets?

There is a whole set of other issues associated with the nature of the contribution and some of the key decisions that need to be considered, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, has pointed out, have not necessarily been answered in the Statement. How long is this additional deployment intended to be? We have been told that about half the troops are due to be deployed in August 2018 and the rest by February 2019, but we are not told how long this is intended to last. The more deployments that we have, the more questions there are about the sustainability of deployments and the pressures put on Her Majesty’s services. While we pay tribute to the service men and women who are deployed to Afghanistan and everywhere else around the world, there is a question of the impact that this will have on forces morale. Is the Minister content that the resources are there to ensure that this additional deployment can be managed? Can he tell us a little bit more about what the Government’s exit strategy might be?

Finally, the Secretary of State commented that this shows our commitment to NATO, which,

“must remain the cornerstone of our defence”.

Nobody in your Lordships’ House would disagree with that, but does the Minister think that the President of the United States feels similarly? What discussions might the Prime Minister have with the President to try to ensure that, by the end of this week, the United States’s commitment to NATO is strong as that of the United Kingdom?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for their support for this announcement and, indeed, for their well-directed questions. Some of the questions from both noble Lords coincided, and I shall attempt to address them all in turn.

The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked me about the process that led to this decision. He is absolutely right to remind the House of the lessons from Chilcot, and that there needs to be a formal deliberative process across government for a decision as momentous as this—and that is indeed what happened. The UK was initially asked to consider this additional deployment in March of this year—that request came from NATO itself. We subsequently did so; that is to say, the Ministry of Defence considered the feasibility and a decision, following a discussion, was taken formally by the National Security Council on 26 June. It was then endorsed formally by the Treasury and by No. 10.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, was again correct to make the point that the decision to do this was based not only on the fact that we thought it was the right thing for Afghanistan, for the UK and for NATO, but that it was intended—as I hope it will—to underline our commitment to NATO and the fact that Britain has particular skills that it can offer in a context such as this. I am sure that that message will not have been lost on any of our NATO partners.

The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, made the perfectly fair point that we will be sending troops into harm’s way. I would, however, just qualify that by making clear, as the Statement does, that the roles that are being and will be performed by our personnel in Afghanistan are non-combat roles. They are therefore quite distinct from the kind of role that we saw being performed under the ISAF banner before 2015, when our troops were very definitely on the front line against the Taliban. Chiefly, our troops will be charged with supplementing the Kabul defence force within Kabul itself. We have to remind ourselves that the NATO mission operates under the banner of “Train, Advise, Assist”. The UK contribution will therefore be to support that NATO mission but—to come back again to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe—the safety and security of our troops remains, as it always will, our key priority. We keep the protection measures for our personnel under constant review and will not hesitate to adapt those measures to the changing threats. They are benefiting from bespoke equipment, such as the Foxhound armoured vehicle, which is suited to the streets of Kabul. Essentially, as far as force protection is concerned, our personnel are equipped and mandated to protect themselves, as well as to protect coalition and diplomatic personnel. It is the Afghan national defence and security forces which are responsible for maintaining security in Kabul.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the timescale. I hope that they will understand that it is not possible to put a timescale on the deployment of our troops within the NATO mission in Afghanistan. All NATO allies are agreed that we will continue to support the Afghan national defence and security forces until the conditions are right for our collective withdrawal, which includes the ability of the Afghan forces to protect the people of Afghanistan without support from international forces, and when progress has been made on a peace process.

The noble Baroness—and, I think, the noble Lord—asked what kind of training we are delivering in Afghanistan. As I have already said, the mission goes under the strapline “Train, Advise, Assist”. The UK is mentoring and advising Afghan personnel, helping to develop capable and independent Afghan government and security structures, and working in the mission headquarters and the Afghan security ministries. An example of this is at the Afghan national army officer academy, where we are working alongside our NATO allies and Afghan partners to produce the next generation of Afghan military leaders.

Finally, the noble Baroness asked about the messages that we wish to deliver this week at the NATO summit. We have a number of objectives for that summit. Essentially, they can be summarised as making NATO more modern and adaptable. NATO continues to adapt to ensure that it is less bureaucratic, better at prioritising its activity and more capable of taking and implementing decisions quickly. The principles for all those things were largely agreed at the NATO summit in Cardiff and endorsed at the subsequent summit in Warsaw. We are confident that allies will agree ways to deliver those objectives, with the aim in view of strengthening deterrence and defence against Russia, increasing our efforts on tackling terrorism and addressing the threats presented by cyber and hybrid warfare. That very much relates to how we can improve readiness so that we can make sure that we have the right forces in the right place so that they can act when needed to protect our people. I believe that the UK already has an important part in that process, supporting the design of a new NATO command structure, and I think that we can be very proud that we will be committing an extra 100 posts to that structure, taking our commitment to over 1,000 UK service personnel.

My Lords, recent research begins to suggest that certain kinds of assistance can have the effect of stabilising communities, even within the context of war and conflict. I am talking about investments in infrastructure such as roads, sewerage and water. Can the Minister tell us something about whether the Army will be involved in working with the Afghan army in trying to further infrastructural projects in the interests of creating some kind of stability in local communities?

The noble Baroness makes an excellent point. I can tell her that the UK is supporting the Afghan people by helping to provide them with greater access to healthcare, education, safe drinking water and many things that a few years ago they were unable to enjoy. But it is also about building a better basis for the Afghan economy to function: helping to create jobs, boosting economic development, and, importantly, tackling corruption, which I am afraid has been endemic in many parts of the country. To that end, the UK has pledged to spend up to £750 million in aid to Afghanistan between 2016 and 2020, depending on security conditions and Afghan government performance.

As I understand it, our Armed Forces are not directly involved in that civilian type of work, although they could be called on if needed, as indeed could personnel from any of the NATO allies—but on the whole our focus is on enabling the Afghan agencies themselves to undertake that work with financial support.

My Lords, I think that I visited Afghanistan five times while at the Ministry of Defence, and every time I went there I was sure that things were getting better. The House should remember that we first assisted in getting rid of the Taliban Government in Kabul in 2001, nearly 17 years ago, yet it does not appear that the Taliban is defeated in any way. There is a vexed history between Britain and Afghanistan which, as people will know, dates back to the first Afghan war and the appalling slaughter and retreat from Kabul of 1842. Will the Minister take back to his Secretary of State and indeed to the Government as a whole that we must work towards getting an Afghan Government taking control? I fear that this is just another step along the road that has not achieved very much in the last 17 years.

I very much respect my noble friend’s views on this, but I do not share his pessimism. The NATO-led ISAF combat mission was completed at the end of 2014, as noble Lords are aware. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces are now taking the lead in the security of Afghanistan, and I believe that they have repeatedly proved that they are capable of carrying out their responsibilities. President Ghani himself has said that he believes that we have now turned an important corner. The momentum is definitely with the ANDSF and, as the Statement said, the Taliban cannot now win militarily. However, I acknowledge my noble friend’s point to the extent that significant challenges still exist in Afghanistan; we cannot get away from that. That is why the international community remains committed to the future of Afghanistan, and why NATO is clear that it is vital to continue to train, advise and assist Afghanistan’s forces through the means that I have referred to.

My Lords, as the person who invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, from which the Afghanistan mission derives, I commend the Government for this further reinforcement of our troops in Afghanistan. We cannot too often pay tribute to those who died or were injured and to the tens of thousands of British troops who have served in Afghanistan over these long years. However, I do not think that we do nearly enough to explain to the public in this country why we went there in the first place, how much we achieved when we were there and why it is of continuing importance that we maintain our commitment there. It is important that we get that message over and do much more about it.

I will just say to the Minister that Gordon Brown as Prime Minister made one speech in the House of Commons about Afghanistan. David Cameron made one speech in the House of Commons about Afghanistan. Mrs May has yet to make a speech about Afghanistan, yet our forces have been committed over that long period and have substantial successes behind them. Therefore, will more efforts be made in the information war to get out to the British public why their security and the security of the alliance, which is being questioned today in Brussels, depend on the resolution and unity of the North Atlantic Alliance?

I pay tribute to the noble Lord’s distinguished role in the early stages of our involvement in Afghanistan and to the support that he has given since leaving ministerial office through his various other commitments and responsibilities. He makes an extremely good point. I think that many of us at ministerial level appreciate that we do not say enough to the public. We do not tell the story sufficiently often and sufficiently clearly of why this mission is so important. We certainly should look for every opportunity to step up that effort. I shall take that advice back to my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and see that it is relayed further up the chain.

My Lords, can the Minister explain the legal status of our forces in Afghanistan? Is there an MoU with the Afghan Government? Do they work entirely under a NATO umbrella? What is their position? If they were to get involved in hostilities, what further legal protection would be required?

My Lords, as I have said, the Resolute Support Mission is NATO-led. The legal framework for Resolute Support is provided by a status of forces agreement signed in Kabul in September 2014 and ratified by the Afghan Parliament later that year. The status of forces agreement defines the terms and conditions under which NATO forces are deployed as well as the activities that they are authorised to carry out. The mission is also supported by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2189, which was unanimously adopted in December 2014. The Resolute Support Mission provides training, advice and assistance in eight key areas: multiyear budgeting; transparency, accountability and oversight; civilian oversight of the Afghan security institutions; force generation; force sustainment; strategy and policy planning, resourcing and execution; intelligence; and strategic communications.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for repeating the Statement and welcome the UK’s enduring commitment to Afghanistan. I have been to Kabul twice this year and welcome the progress that has been made there. Although I, too, acknowledge that there are many challenges, I especially welcome the progress that has been made there for women. Today I had the pleasure of welcoming the woman cadet from NMAA who won the Sword of Honour, Somaiya Haidari. She is outstanding and is spending this year at Sandhurst. Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of welcoming and hosting the Afghan First Lady in this House, who has done so much to speak out about the importance of supporting women. She has held five symposiums, gathering women from all over the country. As my noble friend says, ultimately we need an Afghan-led peace process. Is the UK encouraging the Afghan Government to ensure that women are taking part in preliminary talks and that they will be at the peace table? If not, there is a threat that this peace process will leave half the population in danger, because we all know about the Taliban’s attitude to women.

I am grateful to my noble friend for raising this important issue and I thank her for her part in flying the flag for female representation in the Armed Forces. This issue is very much on the agenda in Afghanistan. I remember that my former colleague in the MoD, Penny Mordaunt, when she was Minister for the Armed Forces, visited the training academy, which we are mentoring in Afghanistan, came back with the news that there were an encouraging number of female officers going through the academy at that time. There is no doubt that President Ghani takes this issue as seriously as we would like him to. The equality agenda is being promoted in Afghanistan, which is, as my noble friend said, a vital piece of the jigsaw in countering the philosophy and ideology of the Taliban. If we can get that pattern well established in Afghan society, it will be difficult to reverse.

My Lords, the noble Earl will know that I am firmly on public record as supporting our invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Indeed, as commander-in-chief on the ground there, I was able to see how huge the training camps were that sent terrorists around the world. They had various laboratories where they were trying to develop anthrax and things like that.

I am also firmly on public record as saying that after six months, when we had totally thrashed al-Qaeda and pushed it into the FATA, we should have cobbled together some agreement in Afghanistan and got out. We stayed there and lost sight of what we were really there for. In the interim, we invaded Iraq and there is no doubt whatever in my mind that we became part of the problem on the ground because we lost sight of what we wanted to do. Did we want women’s rights and clean water? Did we want to help the poppy fields not to be there? All those things were thrown up as options, but that was not the reason we went in.

I am very concerned about this announcement that again our numbers are creeping up in Afghanistan. The Statement mentioned that the Taliban “outwaits our departure”. The Taliban has been outwaiting our departure for 17 years, as the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, said. I am very concerned that it can outwait our departure because this is an open-ended commitment. We have to be very careful that we do not end up sending more troops and more people there. Yes, it would be lovely to have a nice, calm, polite Afghanistan. All my experience of Afghanistan over many years is that it is not that sort country. It is not like Belgium, I am afraid. It is different. I am very worried that we are putting our people in harm’s way—because that is where they are. This could grow yet again. I am not sure exactly what we will achieve.

Again, I very much pay tribute to the noble Lord’s experience and first-hand knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan. I am not as pessimistic as he has just sounded; recent events have shown some encouraging signs that a peace process is possible. As the Statement made clear, only a political settlement will finally secure the safety and peace of that country. President Ghani’s offer of peace talks without preconditions and the recent ceasefire were steps in the right direction, as I hope the noble Lord will agree, and a definite sign of progress. We now want and have to build on those historic steps taken by the Government of Afghanistan. I believe that the uplift in NATO representation will provide the right climate for those peace initiatives to continue.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, touched on an important point about the contribution of infrastructure. I am reminded about the region at large, not least Tajikistan, which has water and therefore energy that could be supplied to the north of Afghanistan and would make a big contribution. Also, the Uzbeks should be commended for the railway down to Mazar, which has also played a role.

The noble Lord, Lord West, touched on poppies. To what extent is it believed that the opium industry continues to be a root cause of the conflict in Afghanistan? Will the Minister urge those who are minded to look for a long-term solution to take account of this, not least the need for access into markets? Farmers can have a market for agricultural products, rather than the need to supply or cultivate poppies.

I am grateful to the noble Viscount for his pertinent insights. As he will know, the whole issue of the poppy harvest has been near intractable since we became involved in Afghanistan. I am not in a position to offer ready solutions, but I can tell him, from a political point of view, that the need to resolve the endemic problems arising from the poppy harvest and the opium trade in Afghanistan is high on the list of political imperatives. It is undoubtedly the source of great corruption in Afghanistan and a source from which the Taliban derives funding. We therefore need to hit the supply side, not least by means of a peace settlement. If we can achieve that, there will be far less incentive for the proceeds of the poppy harvest to be used for nefarious ends.

My Lords, I am bound to say that my nephew was one of those junior officers who set up the new academy. I am delighted to hear that so many officers have now been trained.

We are used to hearing tributes being paid, quite rightly, to the soldiers who fought and lost their lives. Can the Minister mention also the many hundreds of aid workers who have been in Afghanistan, among them many who have lost their lives as well? They do not receive sufficient tribute. Are aid workers among those who have been offered close protection from our soldiers?

I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for that point, which is well made. My noble friend Lord Bates, who sits beside me here, will be all too aware of the role played by aid workers, many of them from this country, in Afghanistan and of the risks and dangers that they face there. The noble Earl is right that some have paid the ultimate price for their selflessness.

Protecting those aid workers is of course an important part of the work done by the Afghan national defence force when required. It is its responsibility, as I have explained, to maintain the security of the country, but I am not aware that it has been lacking in either commitment or effectiveness in that way. If I can find out more about the topic, I will be happy to write to the noble Earl.