Afghanistan

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 3rd November 2008.

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Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West 2:30 pm, 3rd November 2008

What estimate he has made of the area of territory in Afghanistan under the control of (a) the Afghan Government, (b) the Taliban and (c) warlords in each of the last three years.

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Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The deployment of additional forces under NATO in 2006 in support of the Government of Afghanistan has led to a significant expansion of the area under their control. UK forces have enabled the Government of Afghanistan to expand control across eight districts in Helmand province, from Kajaki in the north to Garmsir in the south. We should remember, though, that the key to success is winning the allegiance of the Afghan people.

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Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I am not grateful for that evasive answer—

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Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Order. The hon. Gentleman will withdraw that remark. No Minister would be evasive on the Floor of the House. He should be a little more temperate.

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Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I withdraw that remark, but American intelligence tells us that after a war that has lasted longer than either of the two world wars, we are now in a position where the Taliban and the warlords control far more territory than the elected Government. More of our brave British soldiers have died in Afghanistan than were killed in the charge of the Light Brigade. Is it not true that the only way to consolidate the gains made would be to admit that a military victory is unattainable, and seek a negotiated peace settlement?

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Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My hon. Friend and I have talked about this subject before, and I know how upset he gets at my views. Reconciliation is an important part of what is needed in Afghanistan, but we can only reconcile the reconcilable. Nobody has ever suggested that it is a purely military matter, or that there is no political part to be played in any settlement in Afghanistan, and it is plainly wrong for my hon. Friend to suggest that we think that there is.

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Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I thank the Minister for his response, and I disassociate myself from the remarks of Paul Flynn. Does the Minister agree that the reconstruction work that Her Majesty's armed forces are carrying out, particularly in Helmand province, means that for the first time in 30 years, the people of that province at least have the chance of a future in a democratic society?

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Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In February, I saw at first hand some of the work that our troops were doing in Musa Qala, and some of the thinking going into their operational planning. It was not about killing the Taliban, but about rebuilding the town and building schools—only seven weeks after the town had been taken. That is what is in the minds of our forces. At every level, they know that it is a matter of winning over the people and making progress in Afghanistan. It is not purely a matter of the military effect, although in dangerous environments that effect is absolutely vital.

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I would never make such a base suggestion as that Ministers are evasive—but bewildered, they are. When I tabled a parliamentary question asking how many of the 13 districts of Helmand are controlled by NATO and the Afghan Government, the Minister's reply referred to the "presence" of British troops. There is a world of difference between presence and having control. Which districts of Helmand are controlled by the Afghan Government and British or NATO forces, which are held and controlled by the Taliban, and which are indeterminate?

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Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I must say to my hon. Friend that we are running a counter-insurgency operation in Afghanistan, not a straightforward war in the traditional sense. It is about winning the hearts and minds of the people, and controlling territory is only part of that. We have a significant presence the length and breadth of Helmand province. That is not to say that the Taliban are incapable of operating in those areas: they are an insurgent force, and there are no straightforward front lines.

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Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Transport)

Does the Minister of State accept that the welcome news that he announced on better armoured vehicles for protecting conventional forces are no substitute for ensuring that all our special forces have proper cross-country vehicles? Will he take the opportunity to offer the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Davies the chance to apologise at the Dispatch Box to Major Morley for his remarks at the weekend?

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Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

What we must try to do—my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was trying to say this, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows—is to provide a full suite of vehicles for our commanders in Afghanistan so that they can use the most appropriate vehicle at the most appropriate time for the job in hand. My hon. Friend was trying to explain that, and we will do that—more so with the new vehicles that we plan to provide for Afghanistan.

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Photo of Gisela Stuart Gisela Stuart Labour, Birmingham, Edgbaston

The Minister referred to winning the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is more than Helmand province, and there has been increased control by the Taliban in the past six months. Will my right hon. Friend therefore work a bit more closely with troops from the Gulf states, because it seems clear that working with only the US and NATO is not sufficient to win the hearts of the people of Afghanistan?

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Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

There are contributions from non-NATO members—my hon. Friend may know that the United Arab Emirates provides some support for our forces in Afghanistan. Of course, we welcome any assistance that people are prepared to provide. I do not accept my hon. Friend's assertion that the Taliban are developing increased control over Afghanistan as a whole.

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Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

How secure does the Minister believe that the area around the Kajaki dam is, and will be when the third turbine produces electricity? It is one thing to produce electricity and another to ensure its safe transmission over 150 miles through rough terrain, where it would be open to attack from terrorists and terrorist organisations. Are we making progress on that?

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Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I think that the hon. Lady would agree that the operation to get the new turbine up to Kajaki was a fantastic achievement by our troops, but the Taliban know how important it is to stifle development and prevent us from being able to provide the improvements that ordinary Afghans want. It is therefore vital that, having got the new turbines to Kajaki, we protect the capability and the ability to supply electricity to Helmand that the new turbines will give us in generation capacity.

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