Business of the House
Douglas Alexander (Shadow Foreign Secretary; Paisley and Renfrewshire South, Labour)
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it. Of course, the context of this discussion is the number of British personnel currently serving in Afghanistan—almost 10,000—who are harnessing their professionalism and expertise to the task of securing a stable Afghanistan that will not threaten this country’s security again. Their bravery is rightly and regularly praised in the House, but each time it is a genuine and sincere reflection of the admiration on both sides of this House for the work they do on our behalf.
The Foreign Secretary knows that we supported the mission in Afghanistan in government and continue to do so in opposition. We are keen to discuss these issues in a spirit of shared support for the mission, but it is also the Opposition’s job to scrutinise, and that task is especially important when the lives of our servicemen and women are at stake. I hope that he will see my questions in that spirit.
I will divide my questions between the security situation and the diplomatic effort. On the security situation, the Foreign Secretary has just told the House:
“British and ISAF troops will continue to perform combat roles until the end of 2014.”
How is that consistent with the comments of the American Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, who only last week said:
“Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advice and assist role”?
Incidentally, that comment was confirmed by the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, but there was no statement to the House. Given the integrated nature of ISAF’s work, both in Helmand and across Afghanistan, is the Foreign Secretary seriously suggesting that British military personnel will be involved in combat operations for potentially between a year and 18 months after our American allies have transferred from combat operations to providing training, advice and assistance?
What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the military implications of America’s decision to wind down combat operations more than a year before the previously stated deadline for withdrawal? What is his assessment of the impact on the ISAF mission’s timetable for transition of the announcement in January by the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, that French troops will now leave Afghanistan by the end of 2013?
The statement comes shortly after the publication of a leaked NATO document cataloguing the depth of links and assistance between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani security services. The report also details widespread collaboration between the insurgents and the Afghan police and military, so what is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the findings of the report, and how does he reconcile its bleak findings with his description today that
“we are making steady progress”?
The Foreign Secretary has just told the House:
“For the first time since 2006, year on year violence levels decreased across Afghanistan in 2011.”
How does he reconcile that statement with the report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan only last week that indicated that the number of civilians killed and injured has risen for the fifth year running, with the majority of deaths caused by insurgents? The report documented 3,021 civilian deaths in 2011, compared with 2,790 in 2010 and 2,412 in 2009.
The Foreign Secretary said in his statement that 120 British troops will be based at the Afghan national academy. Will he reassure the House that all necessary force protection measures will be in place for them at that time? He stated that the Afghan national army now numbers 170,000. Will he confirm how large the British Government now expect the Afghan national army to be at the time of transition in 2014 and say a little more about how these force levels are to be financed in the light of the deficits he spoke of?
Let me now turn briefly to the diplomatic effort. We have expressed our concern in the past that there was not an oral statement to the House following the Bonn conference in December and that, despite the intense effort required in these critical months, the Prime Minister has not made a statement on Afghanistan to the House
for many months. It is vital that the scale of our military effort is matched by diplomatic efforts. The Foreign Secretary spoke of November’s Istanbul conference, but will he set out for the House what sustained efforts are being made to co-ordinate the regional players, such as China and Pakistan, and bind them into the work of securing a stable and durable peace?
The Foreign Secretary spoke of the Taliban’s willingness to participate in a political office in Qatar. While it is suggested that only talks about talks are now under way, what progress is being made on the broader and more inclusive political settlement needed within Afghanistan for a stable state post 2014? Specifically, will he update the House on what progress has been made by the Afghan High Peace Council, established at the London conference in 2010, on reaching a consensus on constitutional arrangements and how it is ensuring that women have a proper role in Afghanistan’s future?
Finally, given the timetable for transition, will the Foreign Secretary provide the House with the British Government’s assessment of the capacity of the Afghan state to undertake, as is planned, free and fair presidential elections during 2014?
We now have an end date in Afghanistan, but it is through urgent diplomatic work that we can also have an end state worthy of the sacrifice endured during this long decade.