With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the deployment of our armed forces to Afghanistan.
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That will not be achieved by military means alone. Therefore, although today's statement deals with the military elements of the deployment, the British Government have undertaken an unprecedented degree of cross-governmental co-ordination to ensure that this is a fully integrated package addressing governance, security and political and social change. I am grateful for the involvement of my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Secretary of State for International Development.
Last September, I visited Afghanistan. I saw for myself the real hope that the international community has brought to a new generation of Afghans: the hope that at last the Afghan people can rebuild their country, the hope that Afghanistan can take its rightful place as a country where men and women alike can live in peace and freedom, the hope for a better future.
We cannot risk losing those achievements. We cannot risk Afghanistan again becoming a sanctuary for terrorists. We have seen where that leads, be it in New York or in London. We cannot ignore the opportunity to bring security to a fragile but vital part of the world, and we cannot go on accepting Afghan opium being the source of 90 per cent. of the heroin that is applied to the veins of the young people of this country. For all those reasons, it is in our interests, as the United Kingdom and as a responsible member of the international community, to act.
In helping Afghanistan, we cannot look to resolve just one of those issues. Everything connects. Stability depends on a viable, legitimate economy. That depends on rooting out corruption and finding real alternatives to the harvesting of opium. That means helping Afghanistan to develop judicial systems, her infrastructure and the capability to govern herself effectively, which in turn brings stability and security.
That is where there is a clear role for the military: helping to create and to maintain a framework of security on which legitimate Afghan institutions can grow and thrive. NATO, through its leadership of the international security assistance force, itself under the auspices of the UN, has a major role to play in making that happen.
Thanks to NATO's leadership, ISAF has already expanded its activities to cover the north and west of Afghanistan, at the request of the democratically elected Afghan Government and with the authorisation of the United Nations. It now stands on the brink of expanding its operations into southern Afghanistan as part of a planned, pre-envisaged and phased expansion—stage 3. I believe NATO is now in a position to take those plans forward.
Our allies are playing their part in ISAF. In the north we shall hand over responsibilities to Germany, Finland, Sweden and Norway; in the west Italy and Spain lead ISAF, and Lithuania and the US also provide forces; and in the south the US, Canada and Romania already have troops stationed, Estonia has pledged forces, the Danish Parliament is examining a proposal to send forces—I spoke to its Minister this morning—and we are optimistic that the Dutch, whose Minister I also spoke to this morning, will also deploy forces. In addition, Australia and New Zealand may provide forces. This truly is and will be an international, multinational effort. On the ground and in the air, this is a truly multidimensional, international force. The US, for example, has offered to provide attack helicopters and support helicopters, and we know other countries are considering providing fast jets and transport aircraft.
We need that broad level of international support as the context in which to commit our British troops. We need the capabilities and the forces because ISAF expansion is no easy or small task in stage 3. Southern Afghanistan is undeniably a more demanding area in which to operate than either the north or the west. The Taliban remains active. The authority of the Afghan Government—and the reach of their security forces—is still weak. The influence of the drugs traffickers, by contrast, is strong.
ISAF must be prepared to meet these challenges. It means different forces and it may mean different tactics—not because we want to wage war: that is not our aim. Provincial reconstruction teams, building up Afghanistan's capacity, will remain at the core of ISAF's expansion into the south, just as it was in the north and west. But just as the threat is greater, so must be our ability and willingness to deter and defend ourselves against attack. The capabilities and experience of our armed services, to whom I again today pay tribute, make us well placed to help ISAF do both.
We have previously announced our decision to deploy the headquarters group of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps to lead ISAF from May 2006 to February 2007. ISAF, via NATO, will be under a British commander, General Richards. It will be supported by elements of 1 Signal Brigade, including troops from 7 and 16 Signal Regiments and the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps Support Battalion. This alone means a commitment of over 1,000 troops towards the headquarters based in and around Kabul.
We are also preparing for a deployment to southern Afghanistan. Next month 39 Regiment, Royal Engineers will deploy to Helmand province to build an encampment for our main deployment. A company from 42 Commando Royal Marines will provide protection and three CH-47 Chinook support helicopters from 18(B) Squadron, Royal Air Force, will offer essential lift and mobility in Afghanistan terrain largely without roads. All told, between now and July we shall send some 850 additional personnel to help prepare for our main deployment. That main deployment will have at its heart a new British-led PRT at Lashkar Gar, the capital of Helmand province. As in the north, the PRT will be based on a triumvirate of the British military commander, and officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and from the Department for International Development respectively. So we are working to ensure that we provide Afghanistan with a seamless package of democratic, political, developmental and military assistance in Helmand. All of that is necessary to ensure that international terrorism never again has a base in Afghanistan.
We are also working to make sure that our goals are Afghan goals, too. Assisting Afghan counter-narcotics initiatives is an obvious example. If we help them, we help ourselves at the same time. As I mentioned earlier, 90 per cent. of the heroin injected into the veins of young people in this country originates in Afghanistan. Helmand province is the largest single source of opium in Afghanistan. We can help to train Afghan counter-narcotics forces and support their operations, and we can provide intelligence. We can assist the Afghan Government in explaining their policies to the people. Above all, we can, along with the support of the Afghans, create the environment in which economic development and institutional reform—I again emphasise that both are essential to the elimination of the opium industry—can take place.
So the range of tasks for the provincial reconstruction team is large. It will form part of a larger, more than 3,300-strong British force providing the security framework. That force will itself come under a new Multinational Brigade (South), which will initially be under Canadian, alternating with British, command. Our contribution, the Helmand taskforce, will include elements of the headquarters of 16th Air Assault Brigade, and an airborne infantry battlegroup. Based initially around the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, it will incorporate a force consisting of eight Apache attack helicopters, provided by the 9th Regiment Army Air Corps. That will be the first time that we have deployed this impressive new capability on an operation. The 9th Regiment will also supply four Lynx light utility helicopters, while 27 Squadron Royal Air Force will provide a detachment of six Chinook support helicopters.
Other major units and capabilities include Scimitar and Spartan armoured vehicles from the Household Cavalry Regiment; a battery of 105 mm light guns from 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery; a battery of Desert Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles from 32 Regiment Royal Artillery; 13th Air Assault Regiment and 29 Regiment Royal Logistics Corps; 7th Battalion Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers; and 16 Close Support Medical Regiment. We shall also deploy four additional RAF C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. It is a substantial package—one that the chiefs of staff have agreed is necessary in order to maximise our chances and minimise our danger.
We aim for these deployments to be fully operational by July this year. The total number of our troops in Afghanistan—those already there, those at the new ISAF headquarters, the Helmand taskforce and the temporary surge engineering capability—will fluctuate over the next few months. It will peak, briefly, at some 5,700, before reducing to fewer than 4,700 as— according to current plans—the engineers building the encampments return home from Helmand in July, and our Harrier GR7 detachment withdraws in June. Our forces will then comprise those needed to command ISAF, some 300 troops engaged in support and training tasks in Kabul, and the Helmand taskforce. Predominantly, they will consist of regular troops. There will, however, be a small number of reservists, most of whom will be drawn from the Royal Rifle Volunteers or from the 4th Battalion Parachute Regiment.
I want to make a few things clear. The size and structure of the task force has been guided by a careful assessment of the likely tasks and threats that it will face. What matters is that we put the right forces in to do the job and to do it safely and well, and I make no apology if that requires more soldiers than some people initially envisaged.
Attack helicopters are certainly formidable, but they are also necessary. The roads in Helmand are very poor, and that means that support helicopters are essential. They in turn need attack helicopters to protect them and the forces that they deploy. Let me stress once more: we are deploying this potent force to protect and deter. The ISAF mission is unchanged. It is focused on reconstruction.
The resources for this deployment will be made available. This will be a three- year deployment, and it will cost around £1 billion over a five-year period. The resources will be made available, commencing in this financial year.
As I said earlier, we have a clear strategic interest in the renewal of Afghanistan. Obviously, that informed our decision. Equally, we have similar interests elsewhere, and an interest in maintaining effective and capable armed forces. We took careful account of those factors as well, including our other commitments. This deployment is manageable alongside those other, wider commitments, including Iraq. It does not require drawdown in Iraq. As we have said continually, that will be based on conditions in Iraq itself.
The House will be interested to hear about the command and control arrangements. To begin with, the multinational brigade as it arrives in Afghanistan in transitional format will come under the coalition. That is a necessary transitional measure, and is what happened when we established our first PRT in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif in 2003. Of course, Canadian, Romanian and US forces are already serving in the south of the country. However, other allies, such as Denmark, Estonia and, I hope, the Netherlands need time to build up sufficient forces in southern Afghanistan to implement ISAF's expansion into the region, just as we do. I therefore anticipate that later this year, at the earliest opportunity after the transitional period, ISAF will take control of the forces in the south from the coalition. That will happen during our command of ISAF. The Kandahar headquarters of the Helmand taskforce will alternate between Canadian and British command, but will ultimately come under the command of the ISAF headquarters. In turn, the ISAF headquarters will be commanded by the British general in command of the allied rapid reaction force headquarters that is moving there.
All of this has but one aim—a secure, stable, prosperous and democratic Afghanistan, free from terrorism and terrorist domination. The House will be concerned about the risks and dangers of the deployment. Whatever the difficulties and dangers— and I do not hide them from the House or the country—those risks are nothing compared to the dangers to our country and our people of allowing Afghanistan to fall back into the hands of the Taliban and international terrorism.
We will not allow that, and the Afghan people will not allow that. They have already made great strides towards achieving a new future. They have a democratically elected President and Parliament, and democratically elected assemblies. Their legitimate economy is growing. Children—both boys and girls—are back at school, and refugees are returning home.
I am the first to accept that there is a long, long way to go. Extending ISAF into stage 3 in the south is a small but hugely significant step on the journey. This country has pledged to help the Afghan people as they continue on that journey. I am convinced that that is something that we should do to help, and that it is something that we will do.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his necessarily long and detailed statement, and for making a copy available to the Opposition in advance. He was right at the outset to remind the House why we are in Afghanistan. We are there as part of the NATO response to the 9/11 attacks on the United States and as part of a wider coalition seeking to prevent Afghanistan from collapsing into a security vacuum that could so easily be filled by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. It is right to state in the House that we have a duty to stand with our allies—nations large and small that have joined the war on terror.
There are two unacceptable outcomes in Afghanistan—to fail to act or to act and fail. The slaughter in New York and London reminds us that our national security is best served by denying a breeding ground to those who are opposed to our way of life. So failure to act is not an option, but if we must act decisively, we must act effectively, since strategic failure would be a disaster. We need to know exactly what the mission is, what its objectives are and how success will be measured. Especially after Iraq, it is essential that the House asks detailed questions of the Government about the proposed deployment, and that the Government respond with clarity.
Let me begin with risk assessment. Our troops will be deployed to Helmand province, focusing on anti-narcotic and reconstruction activities. The Government have already described the situation as less benign than the norm, and the situation can worsen rapidly. Insurgents are mobile and may move to where ISAF troops are located. What assessment have the Government made of the current security status in the south of Afghanistan and in Helmand province specifically? How do the Government believe that the threat to our troops would change in the event of the appearance of either new insurgents or insurgents displaced from Iraq or other areas? Do the Government have any evidence that al-Qaeda is transferring operatives from other areas, notably Iraq, to Afghanistan, and what assessment have the Government made of the degree of interaction between insurgents and Iran, given that the Iranian border is only 150 miles away from Lashkar Gar, where the British troops will be stationed?
Let me ask about reconstruction. It would be wrong for the House to regard the reconstruction element as the easy road. Reconstruction will be a difficult task, as the tribal areas and the Afghan warlords do not share our view of how society should be constructed. Traditionally, successful Afghan Governments have been those with a light touch. What risk is there of our trying to apply a model of government suited to Kabul but unsuited to the southern provinces, and so creating resentment and hostility?
Let me ask a number of questions about the deployment. There is widespread support in the House for the strategic objectives—anti-narcotic, anti-insurgency and anti-terrorist—set out by the Government, but the Secretary of State will be well aware of widespread anxieties that the level of resources committed by ISAF may not be sufficient to achieve the stated objectives, and that we may consequently be drawn into an escalated conflict. How confident is the Secretary of State that the total complement of ISAF troops in Afghanistan is or will be sufficient to achieve the Government's objectives? How sure is he that all the necessary equipment will be available? Both the National Audit Office and the Defence Committee have identified a shortage of helicopter lift capacity. Has that been addressed? If so, how, and with what effect on other operations?
Then we come to the issues of command and control dealt with by the Secretary of State later in his statement. ISAF is a stabilisation force and as such is not geared for combat operations. Operation Enduring Freedom, however, is a counter-terrorism combat operation, and British troops will serve under both commands in Afghanistan and therefore operate under different rules of engagement. For example, under OEF, attacking insurgents can be shot at and pursued, but under ISAF rules of engagement, insurgents will not be pursued because that constitutes counter-terrorist activity. Even within ISAF, individual national contingents may operate their own specific rules of engagement different from ISAF's.
The Secretary of State said that we are deploying this potent force to protect and deter, but can he confirm that that does not include a counter-terrorism role? Does not that send dangerously mixed signals? Can he tell us what arrangements have been made for increased NATO-ISAF command integration with the US-led OEF? Is he satisfied with the clarity of the chain of command under which British troops will operate?
I said yesterday that we would want to know about the issue of prisoners. Can the Secretary of State tell us what powers of arrest and detention are available to British troops engaged in peacekeeping in Afghanistan, and how do they differ from those available to those acting under OEF command and those operating under ISAF command? What is the policy of NATO on the rendition of terror suspects detained by ISAF? What agreement, if any, has been reached between NATO and the Afghan Government relating to arrest and detention of suspects in Afghanistan? What assessment has he made of the effects of ISAF being integrated more closely in the longer term with OEF?
There are many other questions for the Government to answer on the tension between the anti-narcotic and anti-terrorist objectives, or training, or the overstretch effects on the British armed forces generally. For clarification, can the Secretary of State tell us if the £1 billion cost that he mentions will be met from reserves? Can he tell us how much money will be specifically earmarked to compensate the farmers he mentioned for decreased poppy production?
If the Secretary of State is unable to answer specific questions today, the House will expect clear answers before any deployment takes place. Every precaution must be taken to minimise the risk to our forces, whose courage and professionalism we salute today. The defence of our national security and the construction of a free and democratic Afghanistan are noble ideals. We cannot fail to act, but we cannot act and fail. It is in that respect that we will hold the Government to account, as is our duty.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supportive posture, which is balanced by legitimate and critical questions. It is important that we examine those questions. I hope that I have examined most of them, but one of the benefits of a dialogue on the issue is if someone identifies questions that I should have asked, but have not. I do not regard that as a point scored, but a benefit, especially to the armed forces, because our questions should be searching. Therefore, if I have missed any of the hon. Gentleman's questions—I tried to scribble them down—I will write to him and, if he wishes, place the answers in the Library for other hon. Members to read.
The hon. Gentleman asked about whether the resources available are from the reserve, and the answer to that is yes. He asked why there is a five-year plan when we are looking at three years, and the answer is because just as there is a build-up period, there is also a run-down period with preparations for people coming out. We have chosen an envelope that encompasses the envisaged three-year stay.
The hon. Gentleman asked an important question about resources for indirect build-up of infrastructure, including alternative livelihoods. That will be a long task. In the first instance, we will consider compensatory transitional payments and alternative livelihoods in the medium to longer term. I am grateful to the Department for International Development and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State who has spent so much time on this. A sum of the order of £20 million a year will be allocated to that specific area, some of it directly and much of it through Afghan Government projects. In addition, some $100 million is being spent a year and we have received assurances from the United States that that will continue for at least 18 months, so that is an additional amount. I am satisfied that the financial resources, which will complement our military intervention, are sufficient. However, how they are applied in terms of human beings working on the projects is, of course, dependent to some extent on the security situation, which is one of the reasons why we are there.
The hon. Gentleman asked how we handle prisoners at present and how they will be handled. At present, we hand prisoners over to the Afghanistan Government and we envisage that that will continue. We have done a considerable amount of work to examine the threats to the security situation that face us, which is why the task force is so configured, but, of course, we update it. We have taken account of developments in places such as Iraq, such as the changing nature of the improvised explosive devices that have been used there, so that we can reallocate resources. There has been small—some would say significant—cost growth precisely to allow for contingencies and to compensate for new threats that come in.
I confirm to the hon. Gentleman that the role is not counter-terrorist. However, I also confirm, as the House would want me to do, that if we are attacked while pursuing our reconstruction objectives and providing the framework for others so to do, including the Afghans, we will respond robustly. That is why we make a distinction between insurgency, or terrorist attacks on us, and a primarily counter-terrorist role. That role is a task for OEF.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the possible synergy between the ISAF role in stage 3 in the south and stage 4, which will attempt to bring together American forces and our armed forces. There are several ways of achieving that. One is to have a chain of command that results in a double-hatted commander under whom there are two single chains of command: one on anti-terrorism, which would be mainly led by the Americans, and the reconstruction one in which we are involved. Another alternative would be that as we successfully exclude the terrorists, compared with some years ago, American forces could transfer over to reconstruction and join ISAF in helping to rebuild the nation of Afghanistan. There are thus several options open to us, but we will keep clear lines of command.
The hon. Gentleman asked for clarity on numbers. I hope that we have given that clarity today. The total number of troops in Afghanistan through ISAF when stage 3 is completed will be about 18,500. The number of NATO troops in the south, including ours, will be 9,000. That is a hugely significant increase from the number of troops who are there are present.
I hope that I have covered most of the main points that the hon. Gentleman made—I have done so at some length I know, Madam Deputy Speaker—but as I said, I will check the record and if I have missed others, which are equally important, I will write to him.
The Secretary of State will be aware that our forces will face not only a resurgent Taliban, but a network of warlords throughout the whole of Afghanistan, many of whom are deeply involved in the pernicious heroin trade that exists in every province. He will also be aware that that trade has gone up by a factor of 20 in the past four years. That is why I am somewhat worried about the exact objectives when our troops are being deployed as a relatively small force—including the international component—in a country that has defied the US, the Russians and, historically, ourselves. How and when will he be able to measure whether the outcomes are successful? I do not expect anything specific, but on what criteria will he judge the success of our forces, who will be concentrated in one province of the huge country?
I would make three points to my hon. Friend. He is quite right to point to the historical precedents, but as I said on Monday, there are two big differences between the Russian and previous British interventions, as well as those of other nations. First, we have been invited in by the Afghans themselves, including the country's democratically elected President and Government, which makes a big difference. Secondly, we are not there for imperialist reasons, unlike the situation during the several previous interventions, which Sir Peter Tapsell continually and correctly brings to our attention.
We are addressing not only one area because there is an incremental approach. Stage 1 was in the north and stage 2 is in the west. Stage 3 means that three quarters of Afghanistan will be covered. I fully accept that not every metre of it will be covered, but the more we go round the clock on the stages, the smaller the chances that we will end up just squeezing a balloon so that the air—the corruption and narcotics in this case—goes to another area.
I do not envisage that building a modern Afghanistan—which lacks a central corporate governance, in tradition and structure, unlike Iraq; which lacks a developed middle class, unlike Iraq; and which lacks the mineral resources of, say, Iraq—will be an easy or a short process. It will not be done during the three years in which we are there because there will be a continuing process for the Afghans themselves over many decades. I hope that we will be their friends and that we will support them over that period. I have no doubt that there will be other occasions when they will ask us for military assistance. We can make a significant difference in the south over three years by extending the writ of central Government, starting the development of alternative livelihoods and, at the end, having a force of the Afghan army and police in the order of 2,500 to 3,000 trained people, which would be similar to our numbers in Helmand. I think that my hon. Friend was asking whether there is an exit strategy for the deployment. Yes there is, and that is it.
As I made clear yesterday, Liberal Democrats continue to back the international consensus of support on Afghanistan and agree with the aims set out by the Secretary of State in his comprehensive statement and the answers that he has given us thus far. Sadly, we cannot escape the fact that the country remains in a parlous state and that the new mission will be fraught with danger, especially in the south. We, like others, pay tribute to the bravery, professionalism and commitment of all the people who are to be deployed.
The Secretary of State has made it clear that the deployment will go ahead only if it satisfies three key criteria. The British contribution represents a huge deployment. As he said, it is bigger than we had been led to expect. Given our ongoing commitments in Iraq and elsewhere, how will we avoid serious overstretch in the armed forces? With the contributions from other NATO partners still not resolved, has he put a limit on the British forces that will be made available, or are we committed to plugging any gaps? As for economic and other assistance, is he saying that ahead of the London conference, commitments are in place to ensure that the country's next five-year development programme will be delivered?
On the last point, I am sure that there will be commitments in place and I hope that further commitments will be made at the conference of which the hon. Gentleman speaks. The international community has a vested and enlightened self-interest in seeing Afghanistan prosper to such an extent that it is no longer a failed state that terrorists can use as a base for attacking the west.
The hon. Gentleman asked about plugging gaps over and beyond the troop numbers that I mentioned. No, we will not plug any gaps for others. I have spoken in the past 24 hours to Secretary Rumsfeld, the Secretary-General of NATO and my colleague the Dutch Defence Minister to tell them what we are planning and to say that we count on NATO. I am sure that NATO will provide all the means to fulfil the operational plans, including on numbers, but we will not fill the gaps for others.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the state of Afghanistan itself. I have been sombre in my statement to the House, not because I think that we should lack resolution or will, but because it is right not to approach these matters with a gung-ho attitude, or any bravado. Such pessimism when studying the situation should not diminish our resolution when we decide to go in. We need 100 per cent. support for our troops and 100 per cent. will to carry this through. That will be there from the Government, and I am sure that it will be there among the vast majority of hon. Members.
Order. I note that the Front-Bench spokesmen have taken about 40 minutes, and that many Back-Bench Members seek to be called. I ask that supplementary questions and the answers to them might be kept as short as possible because of the limited time that is available.
As regards counter-narcotics, I know that there are no simple solutions. However, has my right hon. Friend examined the feasibility study prepared by the Senlis Council, a reputable think tank, on the possibility of growing opium under licence for the international medical market, as happens in one or two other countries, as an alternative to the search and destroy method that is favoured by our American allies?
Yes, we have considered that possibility, but our conclusion is that it would be hugely difficult—it would be too difficult to police legitimate and illegitimate commerce in that area. We consider all such proposals, but that one has been examined and thus far rejected.
The Secretary of State will recall that I asked a specific question yesterday. I feel that in part he has answered it and that in part he has not. I have a real concern that there is now a divide—and an artificial one—between the activities that we are about to undertake in Afghanistan. In part, our strategic view is the restitution of civil authority and so on in the province, but I think that the terms of our rules of engagement should be set around what the threat is rather than our strategic aims and objectives.
What concerns me distinctly is that the rules of engagement may lead us to be far too restrictive. On the ground, people will see our soldiers deployed as part of the programme of enduring freedom. If they are unable to act in line with that, they will be in deep danger. I say this as someone who has deployed and has often been concerned about the rules of engagement. I urge the Secretary of State to look again at this matter. Such confusion is deeply dangerous.
It is because I know that that I listen to the right hon. Gentleman with such respect.
We are convinced—that is my military advisers, the chiefs of staff and so on—that our rules of engagement are sufficiently robust. They are not the same rules of engagement as those of everyone else in Afghanistan. We do not have the same caveats as everyone else in Afghanistan. I can understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern. As I have said, we think that the rules of engagement are sufficiently robust. Given the right hon. Gentleman's experience and his previous position as leader of the Conservative party, I would be more than happy if he wanted to visit the Ministry of Defence and to discuss the matter in detail with some of my military advisers, if he wants to reassure himself on this point. I repeat that we think that the rules are adequate and robust. If they prove not to be, we will strengthen them.
As my right hon. Friend will know, I visited Afghanistan last November with colleagues from the House. I had the privilege, under the armed forces parliamentary scheme, to visit 16th Air Assault Brigade and the various other elements of the battle group yesterday, and to see their planning and preparations for the deployment.
I also saw the Estonian troops and even the Dutch military, who are quite happy to engage in this deployment should their politicians allow them to do so.
I was told that the Air Assault Brigade were happy to test their new air manoeuvre capability. They felt that in this way they could dominate the ground sufficiently in order to carry out the task, but they wished that to be reviewed on a constant basis so that they would have adequate support in terms of helicopters in particular. In the event that the Dutch do not arrive, our personnel were also concerned to ensure that there was requisite combat air support in the form of fixed-wing aircraft and other assets.
Yes, there will be. That is what we are insisting on. I am glad that my hon. Friend was at Operation Herrick yesterday. I will be there tomorrow. I am glad that he is able to convey to the House the morale and the resolution of our troops, which we would expect, and that of our allies.
I thank the Secretary of State for his announcement today because it will relieve the concerns of many members of our armed forces and those of their families. That is an important point at this time.
Is it still the intention, as part of the ISAF deployment, that the Dutch troops will deploy to that part of Afghanistan between Kabul and Helmand, which I think is called the Oruzgan province, which is where many of the remnants of the Taliban reside? What would be the effect on our deployment, which the right hon. Gentleman has announced today, if the Dutch decided, either ministerially or through their Parliament, not to make that deployment, or if later, having made it, they decided to withdraw?
The Oruzgan province is to the north. As I said, the Dutch Cabinet have unanimously decided that they wish to go ahead. The matter has to be discussed in their Parliament, although formal power does not actually lie there. However, there will be a discussion and a debate, in the way that we are having today. I believe that the Dutch will take a decision, but it is a sovereign decision for them. If they decide that they do not want to deploy there, we will have to find another way of doing that. I am confident that we will do so. We will not be plugging the gap, but the gap will be plugged.
Recognising, as my right hon. Friend has said, that the choice at this moment is between the continuing military role of the international community or the return of the Taliban fanatics, will the United States, in particular, be extremely careful over their intelligence, bearing in mind that some two weeks ago there was a bombing raid, and all the evidence seems to suggest that the victims, including young children, were innocent? Hearts and minds are involved in this campaign, and that includes the way that prisoners are interrogated by the Afghan authorities. I hope that all that will be very much borne in mind.
I am sure that it is by the United States. It is always a dreadfully difficult task to balance the fight against a dreadful enemy who is unconstrained by any morality, any conventional norms of international standards and any Geneva convention. They will demean people, degrade them and show them publicly, and they are increasingly behaving in that manner. At the same time, we are fighting to a set of standards under scrutiny by the media, under international legalities, under human rights and other standards. It is always difficult to get the balance right. I would merely say that we and our allies, the United States and others, try to get the balance right continuously. I know that it is always on our mind, but we try to ensure that it does not unduly constrain our troops. In the long run, the maintenance of such standards strategically is a source of legitimacy and strength to us, and that is why we take such care.
The invasion of Afghanistan, unlike the invasion of Iraq, was necessary and right, and the Government deserve our full support. Will the Secretary of State recognise that the distinction between NATO's reconstruction efforts and the counter-insurgency efforts that are led by the United States, which was always difficult to reconcile and always seemed artificial and implausible, is now infinitely more difficult to sustain if NATO troops are to be deployed to the south of Afghanistan? As the right hon. Gentleman has recognised, they may have to deal with insurgency attacks upon them. Will he therefore give slightly greater urgency than his initial remarks implied to working with our allies to try to ensure as quickly as possible some form of unified command?
Obviously, I do not accept the premise of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks, but I think that beyond that premise and his comments about Iraq he makes an important point. I do not think that it is impossible to distinguish between a mission that is led by a counter-terrorist objective and one that is led by rebuilding and re-capacity provincial reconstruction team-style objectives.
Of course, it is impossible to distinguish absolutely between the two objectives, especially if terrorists are attacking and there are insurgency attacks. I reassure the House that if terrorists and insurgents attack us, we will defend ourselves. They would be attacked back. There is no question about that. That is not a matter of caveats. We are not going there to be the armed wing of Oxfam or anything of that nature. If we are attacked, the British forces will defend themselves. On the other hand, their primary task or main task is not to seek and destroy terrorists—the United States are leading that mission. I think that as they successfully exclude terrorists and the reconstruction task force, ISAF—NATO—moves round the clock of Afghanistan, there will be a closer synergy. How that is done is a matter for discussion. However, I will discuss the matter continuously, as I have been doing, with our allies. Some are more reluctant than others to see that achieved.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, especially ahead of the London conference on Afghanistan next week. Does he agree that in developing its peace-building strategy, the United Nations has emphasised the need for the task of maintaining security to go hand in hand with development and reconstruction? Will my right hon. Friend therefore assure the House that the troops that are sent to Afghanistan will not only maintain security, important though that is in the difficult terrain of south Afghanistan, but assist in reconstruction, and will he join me in reminding the House that it is important that we see though our commitment to Afghanistan and to the new democratically elected Government, as they seek to carry out the difficult task of building the country's infrastructure, services and employment base?
Absolutely. As I said earlier, military means, though a necessary condition for success, are not a sufficient condition. We will provide the security framework within which the reconstruction of Afghanistan can take place. That is why, if we are countering narcotics and withdrawing some of the income, it is so important that there should be alternative livelihoods. People do not willingly starve to death in a state of grace. There must be something more at the end of it to allow them to maintain their families, so we must complement the intervention of the Afghan military with alternative means of livelihood.
As the Secretary of State knows, 3,000 troops from 16th Air Assault Brigade are taking part in Exercise Herrick Eagle, although less than two weeks ago the Minister of State for the armed forces stated that
"it does not mean that these units . . . will be committed to Southern Afghanistan in 2006."
The announcement from the Secretary of State today confirms that that will happen. When will the deployment commence? How long will the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment and elements of the headquarters of 16th Air Assault Brigade be based in Afghanistan? Does that not yet again illustrate the overstretch? When will the right hon. Gentleman address that principal problem?
First, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to say so, that was a classic case of a series of non sequiturs, each of which was intrinsically mistaken, and which, compounded together, were one big mistake. Because people start contingent preparations, it does not mean that it is inevitable that a decision will be taken to deploy them. The decision to deploy 16th Air Assault Brigade was not taken when we started the contingency preparations. It was taken this morning. Matters could have been otherwise, even as late as the past week or two. Secondly, there is no contradiction between our other commitments and those in Afghanistan. It is challenging, but there is not overstretch to the extent that the hon. Gentleman suggests. Thirdly, I dare say that the morale among the troops, with whom the hon. Gentleman continually tells me he mixes, is superbly higher every time I or anyone else meets them than his morale often is on these matters.
The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his view. When I meet those soldiers on exercise, they are prepared to meet the challenge. It is to their eternal credit that their morale and resolution is superior to that of most commentators in the United Kingdom.
As one who supported the involvement of British troops in Afghanistan and continues to do so, may I ask two quick questions? First, on our power to arrest suspected terrorists and hand them over to the authorities, does that also apply to suspected terrorists who are not of Afghan descent? What do we do after they are arrested? That is an important question that arises every so often. Secondly, the United States of America spends millions, if not billions, of pounds on reconstruction and development in the south and on discussions with the warlords. Will that money continue to be made available once the British troops go in?
On the second matter, with reference to about $100 million, I am informed that the United States will continue to make that available, at least for the foreseeable future—18 months or so. On the first matter, which involves important but complicated questions about prisoners, at present we hand such prisoners over to the Afghan authorities, but there is an existing memorandum of understanding. We would take account of that in the light of the circumstances that we discover through our preliminary operations team that has been sent out to Afghanistan, and we will develop our plans and procedures accordingly with the Afghan Government. Perhaps I can write to my hon. Friend about that.
The harmony guidelines are, from memory, around 21.1. They should be around 24. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the specific change because of the deployment, but if I may write to him, I will tell him exactly what effect it has had. At around 21.1, the harmony guidelines are not satisfactory. They should be around 24.
Can my right hon. Friend assure me that given a situation in which there are two different commands, one devoted to reconstruction and the other to security, there will be no security or counter-terrorist operations in northern Pakistan without the knowledge and approval of British forces and British commanders devoted to the task of reconstruction? Can my right hon. Friend also assure the House that if there is a deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan or Iraq in the period leading up to July, he will reconsider these matters and come back to the House?
I do not think I can give my hon. Friend the assurances that he seeks, if I understood his request correctly. Of course, where we are operating in close proximity, even though there are two different operations, there are enough overlapping relationships and intelligence to ensure that we work towards one common objective, but I cannot give my hon. Friend a specific assurance. However, I can assure him that we keep these matters under constant review, not least because of the potential requirement to try and achieve closer synergy between the two operations or a transfer of personnel between the two operations as we proceed.
Would the Secretary of State mind if I asked a detailed question of key concern to my constituency? In his statement before Christmas on the loss of the Hercules, the largest single loss of life in Iraq, he stated that the only thing that he could find that was wrong was that the Hercules did not have foam retardant systems in the wings. Will he give the House an assurance this afternoon that the four Hercules aircraft to be deployed in Afghanistan will have full air defensive suites of all kinds supplied to them, as I am sure they will? Also, I know that he is in discussions with Marshalls of Cambridge about the fitting of foam retardant to the wings. Will those discussions have achieved some kind of outcome by the time of the deployment?
Other than to say that we will have full defensive suites, it is not our policy to go into detail about the protective measures. I invite the hon. Gentleman to come and discuss that matter with me outside the Chamber.
My right hon. Friend's statement indicates clearly that the main task for the deployment will be the implementation of the Afghan Government's anti-narcotics strategy. I noted that he referred to a medium to long-term strategy. Does he agree that we are not considering crop spraying, and that the emphasis will be on bringing new economic opportunities to the farmers who previously grew poppies, which will be a long-term project? Does he believe he has the resources for that long-term commitment?
First, the effort will be Afghan-led. That was implicit in my hon. Friend's remarks. Secondly, there will be a heavy emphasis on the proverbial carrot—on attracting farmers away from poppy production. Thirdly, I do not rule crop spraying in or out, although it is not on our agenda, but the stick is present too, in terms of risk, not for the farmers, but for the mafia bosses who run the trade. The intention is to render the trade riskier than it currently is, while offering an alternative to the farmers. No one in the House would be particularly concerned about greedy, corrupt, nasty mafia warlords who are making a great deal of money from pumping that poison into the veins of their own people and our people, but we all have 100 per cent. sympathy and empathy with the farmers, so we must get that balance right, as my hon. Friend suggests.
May I repeat the support of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru for what has always been an expressly sanctioned United Nations mission in Afghanistan? In reiterating our concerns about overstretch, may I highlight the problem of transport for service personnel, which, yesterday, the Secretary of State gave a commitment to consider? Will he tell us today what plans have been put in place to deal with the overstretch of transport flights identified by the Chief of the Air Staff?
I mentioned in my statement the deployment of support helicopters and, indeed, of four Hercules aeroplanes in theatre. That deployment, along with the other assets that I mentioned, is assessed as appropriate and sufficient, subject always to the findings of the preliminary operations team, which we are sending out in order to gain further information and intelligence about the situation on the ground. As that develops—if there is any change in the configuration—I will speak to the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman indicates from a sedentary position that he also referred to the transporting home of soldiers from theatre. It is always a concern to us, given the challenges that we face and the harmony guidelines of which we were speaking earlier, to ensure that when the roulement tour is finished, soldiers get home properly and quickly—subject, always, to conditions on the ground. The Chief of the Air Staff is trying to ensure that that is the case.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the United Nations auspices under which we operate in Afghanistan. He will not need reminding of the fact that we are now operating under United Nations guidelines—the second resolution—in Iraq as well, and I take his comments as an indication of support there, too.
Like my hon. Friend Mr. Havard, I visited 16th Air Assault Brigade yesterday, and all of us were impressed not only by the unique training simulator for Apache, but by the morale of Brigadier Butler and all his troops. The Secretary of State referred to the fact that this is the first deployment of Apache for British troops and it is being used very differently from the tradition over the past 10 years. Will he keep under review the way in which that air assault works, because there might be things that we can learn for deployment in other countries?
Yes. We always have pretty critical studies post-op and sometimes during operations. We will certainly do that. I thank my hon. Friend and every other hon. Member who has given support for their kind comments about the troops on exercise yesterday.
Fifteen years ago today I was deployed on active service as adjutant in my regiment; indeed, that regiment is one of those that the Secretary of State listed in this deployment. Then—as now—we deployed with the threat of a regimental reorganisation hanging over us, and I have to say to the Secretary of State that it was immensely destabilising. Will he give the House a guarantee that no serviceman or woman on that operation will be deployed with a similar threat hanging over them, and better still, will he agree to suspend the reorganisation until this period of operations is completed?
The hon. Gentleman knows that that assurance cannot be given by anybody, because we are in the middle of the reorganisation. After six months, there will be roulement on many of these posts, so I cannot indefinitely extend such an assurance to the end of the period.
All I would say about the reorganisation of the armed forces, particularly the Army, is that I fully understand the sentiment and morale elements associated with cap badges, regiments and so on, but I am fully convinced that the Chief of the General Staff and the chiefs of staff have embarked on a reorganisation under the supervision of the Minister for the armed forces in order to make our armed forces more capable than ever before. That means that they protect to a greater extent those who serve in the Army and increases their chance of victory. That, in sentiment and substance, is why we have done it. Despite the attachments to pre-existing organisational formats, which I fully understand, that is a move for the better.
Like others here today, I had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan and 16th Air Assault Brigade as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme and I concur with the remarks about readiness. Does my right hon. Friend accept that this is a very difficult mission and that we need an exit strategy in the short run as well as in the long run, particularly for troops who will be assigned to duty? It would be good to know that the House will be kept regularly informed of how the troops will be brought home, as well as about how other troops will replace them.
I have raised with my right hon. Friend before the relationship with the Pakistani authorities. I was led to believe from last summer that the Pakistani authorities would mount their own campaign to deal with the insurgents on their own territories, but since then we have had the problems with the earthquake. Will he say something about that, because it is particularly apposite given such a porous border?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is absolutely essential that our colleagues in this struggle—particularly nations which border Afghanistan—make the maximum possible effort to ensure that terrorists cannot use their country as a base from which to attack our forces or others in Afghanistan. Even in times of great difficulty President Musharraf of Pakistan has been making such strenuous efforts. The entire House was happy to see us contributing something towards dealing with the terrible events following the earthquake. We sent helicopters and commandos not only because of the humanitarian plight, although that was sufficient, but because of the knowledge that, despite all those problems on his plate, President Musharraf had maintained troop levels at the border in order to counter terrorists. That was an indication of his resolve, and I trust that that will continue on the part of everyone in Afghanistan.
It comes from the reserve. When we have embarked on unexpected deployments—and over a period of years until 9/11, Afghanistan was unexpected—the Chancellor has been prepared, sometimes under very difficult circumstances, and in addition to the money spent on maintaining the defence posture, to support Her Majesty's armed forces in the tasks that this House asks them to carry out. If everyone supports the armed forces as the Chancellor has done in resources—and I am sure will continue to do—we will be better off. I am glad to respond in such emollient form. Perhaps I was unduly unemollient to Bob Russell; if I was, I apologise.
The Secretary of State quite rightly outlined the fact that this would be a coalition operation. I do not think that any Members are necessarily blaming the British Government, but many of us are concerned about his talking in his statement about the Danish Parliament examining the proposal, and about being optimistic that the Dutch, Australia and New Zealand may also provide forces. At such a late stage, the fact that those Governments are still looking at that proposal is very worrying. He made the point that British forces will not plug any gap. If, to speak pessimistically, any of those Governments fail to provide those forces, who will plug the gap?
The commensurate and roughly equivalent force levels will be engendered through a NATO force generation process. We have spoken to the Supreme Allied Commander, and we are committed to doing this. I believe that all those nations will, at the end of the day, be part of this, but one waits on the others to make the deployment announcement. The Canadians have already done that, and they will be about 2,500 strong in Kandahar. The British have, in a sense, led on this and made our position known by saying, "We will not wait any longer, because of events on the ground. The Afghan people, the new governor in the area and our troops expect us to make a decision on this; let's make it." I hope that that will be a catalyst for these decisions.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his very full statement. May I assure him, the Government and, more importantly, our troops and service personnel, of our full support as they seek to prevent the return of the terrorist-supporting regime in Kabul? On the issue of counter-narcotics initiatives, will the Secretary of State tell us how he is going to measure progress in that area over the next three to five years?
We have a series of measures, which has been one of the benefits of having several months more than we envisaged in which to consider this matter. There are fairly detailed plans of how we might judge the progress, including a list of criteria by which such judgments may be made. An example is the acreage of poppy cultivation, but there are several others. These will make it possible, although not with perfect scientific accuracy, to make a judgment after several years, certainly about the trend and not only the relative but probably the absolute success.
The Secretary of State says that the reconstruction and provision of alternative livelihoods will be Afghan-led. Is he aware, however, that, on a number of occasions, President Karzai has prevailed on farmers in Afghanistan, including in Helmand, to destroy their crops, only for the promised compensation from the international community not to be paid in time for the farmers to plant an alternative crop the next year? If this plan is going to work, two things must happen. The international community must deliver on its promises, and we must build up the capacity of the Afghan Government and President Karzai to deliver. If that does not work, it would not be fair on colleagues in the Department for International Development to come back and say that DFID had failed. We must give that capacity to the Government of Afghanistan. That has not happened in the past; if this is going to work, it must happen now.
I agree with every word the hon. Gentleman has said, and I know that these matters are high among the priorities of our excellent ambassador and embassy in Kabul.
Notwithstanding the points that I made to the Secretary of State at Defence questions earlier in the week, I supported the original intervention in Afghanistan to clean out the al-Qaeda training camps in the Tora Bora mountains. I would remind the House, however, that Ministers assured us at the time that it was a temporary intervention and that we had no intention of occupying the country. The situation in Afghanistan, and in the middle east as a whole, is now very different. Now, al-Qaeda is able to train all over Iraq, which was formerly closed to it, as well as over large areas of the Islamic world. The Secretary of State says that we have been invited into Afghanistan by a democratic Government, but the sad truth is that President Karzai's writ runs only in the immediate environs of Kabul. Most of the country is governed by the so-called warlords that the Secretary of State has described. In Afghanistan, we face terrain that is vastly more difficult than that of Iraq or Vietnam, and a people who are far more war-like than the Iraqis or the Vietnamese. I have known Afghanistan well over a long span of years, and, in my judgment, we are asking the British Army to go into a country in pursuit of unobtainable objectives.
The hon. Gentleman has made many points. Obviously, I do not accept his equivalence of the rag-tag international terrorists and former fascists in Iraq with the national liberation struggle of the Vietnamese people. I do not put the two in the same category. Furthermore, we do not intend to be in Afghanistan as an imperialist power. I would have thought that a man of such wide reading as the hon. Gentleman would see the differences, as well as the similarities, between the Afghan interventions. I do not think that he really believes that we have any long-term colonial ambitions in Afghanistan.
I would not say that the writ of the democratically elected President ran no further than the borders of Kabul. For instance, he has just moved the Governor in Helmand and put in a new one, Engineer Daud, who is pursuing with some robustness the policies that we all want to see being pursued. That is one reason why we should not leave the governance there without the necessary military support. Those are among the reasons why I have made my statement today. It is true that the central governance of Afghanistan, which was a pre-feudal society, does not run to every area of the country. That is one of the points of our being there. We want to help the democratically elected Government to extend such governmental control.