With permission, Mr Speaker, I will report to the House the Government's assessment of progress towards UK objectives in Afghanistan. This is the first of the quarterly reports that the Prime Minister announced in his statement to the House on
Making progress in Afghanistan is the top foreign policy priority for the Government, linked closely of course to our foreign and development policy towards Pakistan. We think that it is right, therefore, that Parliament is able to scrutinise the mission in Afghanistan in detail. From the beginning of the new Government, we have given full attention to Afghanistan in the National Security Council. We have ensured that Government Departments and Ministers are working together at the highest level and that the necessary resources are being devoted to the difficult task in Afghanistan. We have doubled the operational allowance for our troops, sharply increased our development aid and rebalanced the deployment of our forces in Helmand. In addition to these reports and regular updates by Ministers, we will also make more information available to the House in the form of written ministerial statements each month from November. I will make a further statement when the investigation into the tragic death of Linda Norgrove is complete.
Members of all parties will join me in expressing gratitude to our courageous armed forces. They are the finest that any nation could hope to have. We should also remember the families of the 341 men and women who have given their lives and the many who have been wounded. For nine years, thousands of Britons have served in Afghanistan in both civilian and military roles in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and we owe them a great deal.
It remains vital to our national security that Afghanistan be able to maintain its own security and to prevent al-Qaeda from returning. NATO's strategy is to protect the civilian population, support more effective government at every level and build up the Afghan national security forces as rapidly as is possible. The strategy also requires the Afghan Government to meet the commitments on governance and security that they made at the Kabul conference in July this year. My report today will cover all these areas. It represents the combined assessment of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, and the next quarterly report will be delivered by the Secretary of State for Defence in the new year.
On security, we assess that steady progress is being made across Afghanistan, and specifically in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. International forces now number 130,000, and the Afghan national security forces will reach 260,000 by the end of the year, exceeding their target size for 2010. Afghan forces and the international security assistance force have checked the momentum of the insurgency, and the area under the control of the Government of Afghanistan is increasing. However, the situation remains extremely challenging. One of the effects of increased military activity is that the number of security incidents, particularly those involving direct fire, has increased sharply, so we should not underestimate the highly difficult task that our forces continue to face.
ISAF's military effort is currently focused on Kandahar. Afghan and international forces continue to clear the insurgency out of areas adjacent to the provincial capital. Afghan security forces are taking an increased role in planning and executing the current phase of these operations and make up well over half of the forces involved. In the coming weeks, operations will focus on holding the ground that has been gained and providing a secure environment for local Afghan governance to develop.
In Helmand province, UK forces continue to train the Afghan national security forces and conduct operations against the insurgency. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced on
The Government are confident that we have the right military strategy in place and the right number of troops in Afghanistan. However, we must expect levels of violence to remain high and even increase as Afghan and ISAF forces tackle the insurgency. The murders by insurgents of the governor of Kunduz province and a district governor in Nangarhar province remind us of the violence that still exists even in the more secure areas of the country.
The Prime Minister will attend a NATO summit in Lisbon on
On governance, we assess that the Government of Afghanistan are making some progress on their Kabul conference commitments. The human rights support unit in the Ministry of Justice has been opened; the Afghan national security adviser has approved a revised national security policy. The Government are finalising a 100-day report, which will highlight progress and areas where further action is needed. But more still needs to be done, some of it more quickly.
Last month's parliamentary elections passed without serious security incident. However, the independent Electoral Complaints Commission has confirmed that more than 1 million votes-almost a quarter of the total-were disqualified on grounds of irregularities and fraud. The Electoral Complaints Commission will investigate allegations against candidates and disqualify those found to have committed fraud before final results are issued. That is an important process to build Afghan confidence in the country's institutions.
Corruption continues to be a serious problem in Afghanistan and there has been only modest progress in anti-corruption efforts. In the past year, the criminal justice taskforce convicted 440 people, including serious narcotics dealers and corrupt officials. New mining regulations have been introduced to increase transparency and accountability. The UK is helping the Afghan Government to strengthen accountability and prevent corruption through financial management reforms and to build institutions with the ability to tackle corruption and enforce the rule of law. We are pressing for the anti-corruption monitoring and evaluation committee, which has been appointed, to start work as soon as possible.
In early September, Afghanistan's central bank was forced to intervene to stabilise the Kabul bank after allegations of corruption. The Afghan authorities must now work with the International Monetary Fund to conduct a proper audit and take any necessary action. Weaknesses in the banking regulatory system must be addressed if Afghanistan is to maintain domestic and foreign public confidence. The Afghan economy grew last year by a rapid 22.5% and tax revenues have risen sixfold in six years. The IMF predicts that the Government of Afghanistan will be able to cover non-security running costs by 2015 and all their running costs by 2023.
The House will recall that on
The deployment of British armed forces abroad is one of the gravest of responsibilities of Government, along with that of protecting the security of British citizens and territory. In Afghanistan, the two go hand in hand. The Government understand how important it is to retain public confidence in our mission and to ensure democratic scrutiny of it. We will continue to provide regular and frank assessments to the House. Above all, we will do our utmost to ensure that NATO's strategy in Afghanistan is seen through with rigour and determination and that the extraordinary efforts of so many thousands of our armed forces serve to enhance the national security of the United Kingdom.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement today and welcome this opportunity for the House to be updated and for us to show our full support for our men and women fighting in Afghanistan. They are the bravest and the best of British and they are fighting to protect our country. We are all immensely proud of their fortitude, their professionalism and their commitment.
It has been a very difficult summer for our armed forces. We have already paid tribute today to Corporal David Barnsdale, and it continues to be hard for our soldiers' families and their communities. In my own constituency, we have lost Rifleman Jimmy Backhouse and Bombardier Craig Hopson in recent years. I pay tribute to them and their bravery, but also to every one of the 341 service personnel we have lost in Afghanistan. We must pay tribute, too, to their families, who have given so much and done so much to support our troops and our country. We should also make clear our gratitude to the aid workers and other civilian staff who take such great risks to complete important work in Afghanistan.
We are part of the international coalition in Afghanistan, with a UN mandate to prevent the country from becoming once again a safe haven for al-Qaeda to plan and launch attacks on our population and that of our allies. That central task is unchanged, and our armed forces will have the full support of Labour Members in achieving that goal-as will the Government. The people of Afghanistan do not want to return to misrule or to harbouring what are foreign terrorist groups. That is what makes the civilian and political elements, alongside our military effort, so important.
I would like to ask the Foreign Secretary first about the military operations. When I met General Petraeus on his visit to London two weeks ago, he said that considerable military progress was being made in targeting the Taliban leadership, but he warned, as has the Foreign Secretary, of the risk of increased security incidents as a result of the increased military activity. I welcome the Foreign Secretary's update on the development of Afghan national security forces, but may I ask what progress has been made on the hold and build exercise in Marja? Will he also tell us whether Afghan capacity in Kunduz is being prioritised following the recent insurgency attacks, including the death of Mohammad Omar, the governor of the province, to which he referred in his statement?
Will the Foreign Secretary comment on the recent report from the Overseas Security Advisory Council, which stated that 18 aid projects worth $1.4 billion would have to be shut down by the end of the month because of the Afghan Government's policy on private security contractors? General Petraeus has told the Afghan Government that pursuing that policy too quickly could harm the aid effort. ISAF is agreed on the need for a gradual phasing out, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that engaging in the process too quickly could harm development efforts?
We agree that there is no purely military solution to the war in Afghanistan. What is required is a political settlement built on trust, ownership and democratic rights. The Foreign Secretary will be aware that in Helmand there were comparatively few complaints about electoral fraud in the recent parliamentary elections, and that does credit to the professionalism of our forces and election officials on the ground. However, the Foreign Secretary is right to be concerned about the high levels of fraud nationally, and about the problems involving corruption to which he referred. He also referred to the disqualification of 1 million votes. Has he any evidence of particular difficulties experienced by women in participating in the elections, and can he tell us whether that is being investigated as part of the work of the Electoral Complaints Commission?
The Foreign Secretary is aware of the centrality of the political process and good governance to a more peaceful and stable Afghanistan. Can he tell us what progress is being made in the development of secure local political institutions, as well as sustainable public services such as schools and hospitals? He referred to the growth in the Afghan economy. Can he also tell us what plans there are for a wider economic strategy for the area to sustain that progress for the future?
On the broader issue of a political settlement, can the Foreign Secretary update the House on the progress of the reintegration programme for former Taliban fighters in Helmand? I agree with him that the process leading to a political settlement must be Afghan-led and, where possible, given international support. Crucial to Afghanistan's security and long-term stability are its neighbours. Can the Foreign Secretary tell us when the next trilateral meeting between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan will take place? Has he discussed with the Pakistan Government the security situation in the north of Pakistan and the operations in the border regions? Can he also update us on the discussions that are taking place between NATO and Russia, and on how he is taking account of the sensitivities arising from recent history?
We want our troops to be able to come home as soon as possible: I know that there is agreement on that throughout the House. We also support the international agreement that Afghan security forces will be able to be in the lead by 2014, following agreement at the Kabul conference, and will argue consistently for a political settlement to accompany the increase in the Afghan police and army that is necessary for a stable and secure Afghanistan.
Will the Foreign Secretary say a little more about his approach to troop withdrawal? He has proposed a timetable for the withdrawal of combat troops, but with continued support to develop the Afghan police and army expected beyond that date. He and other Ministers have also spoken of the importance of conditions for our troops on the ground in driving decisions. He will be aware of the paramount importance of the safety of any remaining troops who are continuing in a support and training role. Can he tell the House what flexibility he attaches to the timetable that he has set out, and what consideration he will give to the safety of the remaining troops in Afghanistan in deciding the timetable for the withdrawal of combat troops?
Since operations began in Afghanistan in 2001, 341 British military personnel have died, giving their lives in service of the country. We owe it to them, to their families, and to the men and women serving today to be clear in our approach and resolute in our support. We will continue to provide strong bipartisan support for our mission.
I strongly welcome the right hon. Lady's questions, and, indeed, the spirit of those questions. She has expressed the unity that is felt in the House about the purpose of our mission and the support for our armed forces. I think that that matters enormously. It was always our view in opposition that it mattered enormously, and I am delighted that that is the view of the Opposition now. It matters to our forces and, indeed, to our enemies that the strong unity in the House on what we are doing is maintained, along with the recognition throughout the House of the work of our armed forces.
The right hon. Lady mentioned her constituency, some of the casualties affecting families there, and the role of families. My own constituency contains Catterick garrison, and I am very conscious of the immense supporting role performed by the families of the armed forces. In more than one tragic incident this year, we have seen how dangerous and difficult the role of aid workers can be, and the right hon. Lady was right to draw attention to that as well.
The right hon. Lady asked a wide range of questions against that background of unity. I agree that an over-hasty withdrawal of the ability of private security companies to operate, particularly in supporting development efforts, would be a serious mistake and could have a damaging effect on those efforts. Our ambassador in Kabul has conveyed that message strongly to the Afghan authorities and to President Karzai personally; so has the United States. Negotiations have taken place over the past few days about the matter, and we hope that a reasonable compromise can be found enabling the excesses of illegal private security companies to be curbed and dealt with, while those that are making it possible for embassies and some companies to function and development operations to take place can be maintained.
The right hon. Lady asked about progress in Marja on hold and build. I think that progress has been made since the military process. More than 400 shops are now open in six different bazaars in Marja, and more than half the 15 schools are open, with hundreds of students involved. There has been distinct progress in the hold phase, and in beginning the build phase. The right hon. Lady drew attention to the need for more Afghan capacity in Kunduz, and I believe that that is being addressed.
The right hon. Lady asked about allegations of electoral fraud, the large numbers involved and the possible difficulties experienced by women in participating in the electoral process. We would expect any particular difficulties experienced by women to be addressed by the Electoral Complaints Commission, but it is right to draw attention to the role of women in Afghan society and the importance of continuing to build it up in the future. It was good to see the participation of hundreds of women in the peace jirga. While we were holding the Kabul conference in late July, a parallel meeting took place of 200 Afghan women from all the provinces of Afghanistan. They too played their part in determining the future of Afghanistan.
As for economic strategy, I referred to the rapid progress that is being made in the Afghan economy. The potential is considerable. Let me say-as long as it does not embarrass him-that the Finance Minister is one of the most capable of the Afghan Ministers. He is a very impressive Minister, who presented extremely good plans for the Afghan economy at the Kabul conference in July. The mineral wealth of Afghanistan is immense, and if it can be developed even to a small degree Afghanistan could have a bright economic future, provided that it also has the necessary security.
Of course we discuss with the Pakistani Government-we do so every time we meet Pakistani Ministers-the inter-related issues of security in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I will update the right hon. Lady and the House on the issue of trilateral meetings when they occur.
A model for reintegration in Helmand has been developed in Nad Ali, and the district reintegration committee has received 60 to 70 initial approaches from people who were previously fighting for the Taliban. A dozen have already been through the formal process, and have been assessed by the committee. We expect that formal process to be extended to other districts in Helmand now that Afghan officials have the authority granted by President Karzai's decree of
On Russia, I discussed and indeed issued a joint statement on Afghanistan with the Russian Foreign Minister, Mr Lavrov, on my visit to Moscow two weeks ago, so there is a good deal of unity with the Russian Government about what needs to be achieved in Afghanistan. We can certainly expect to see a larger proportion of NATO's supplies coming from a northerly direction over the coming months.
We are very clear about the issue of timing, and the Prime Minister has been very clear in his statements about our intentions: there will not be British troops in a combat role or in the present numbers in Afghanistan by 2015, although some troops could play a training role or be part of wider diplomatic relations, as they are elsewhere. We think that it is right to make that absolutely clear. It is in line with the goal of Afghan forces leading and conducting military operations in all provinces by the end of 2014. It is a clear message to the world, and indeed to the Taliban, that we are building rapidly and quite dramatically the role of the Afghan national security forces, as detailed in my statement. I hope, therefore, that what we have said about the draw-down from combat operations by 2015 will be another aspect of our policies in Afghanistan that will enjoy wide support across the House.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his clear statement. He started by saying that the object of the statement was to look back at our original objectives and to see how far they had been achieved. May I remind him-not that he needs reminding-that those objectives were to defeat the Taliban, to abolish the poppy industry, to get rid of corruption in government, to get the girls safely back to school, to establish a democratic and peaceful Government, and to make our streets safe in Britain. How many of those objectives have been achieved after nine years of bloody warfare?
My hon. Friend has long-standing opinions on this matter which are-and should always be-listened to with respect in the House, because there is a legitimate alternative view about our presence in Afghanistan. I think that the great majority of the House support what we are doing and our objectives. However, we should always respect an alternative view, and that is what he has always put forward. We have not yet achieved our objectives in Afghanistan, but he can see from much of what I have said that life has improved for many people in Afghanistan. It is true that, in matters of health care or schooling, life for the Afghan population has improved dramatically, and that many of them are living in more secure areas. However, we have not yet achieved our central objective, which is our own national security. That is why we have to continue to work at this, even though it is very difficult. Therefore, I will not claim to my hon. Friend that we have achieved swathes of our objectives. Our central objective has not yet been met and we have to continue to work at it.
Order. A very sizeable number of Members are seeking to catch my eye. I would like to accommodate everyone, but we must have short questions and short answers.
The Foreign Secretary tells us that ISAF levels are now at 130,000 and that the level of Afghan security forces will be at 260,000 by the end of the year-2:1. He and the Defence Secretary will know that the ratio in Helmand, for example, is the other way around; there is probably a greater disparity in the inverse proportion. The Foreign Secretary will also know that there is great reluctance among the Afghan security forces and many of our allies to go to some of the most difficult areas of the country. As we draw down-the Americans have made statements about draw-down as well-how will we manage the cohesion of the alliance if we are struggling to get the Afghans to take control and if some of our allies will not go to those most difficult areas? He claims that there has been a lot of progress there, which is good news. We must try to handle the process so that we maintain the cohesion of the alliance during the draw-down period.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point and we will of course be very conscious of that over the coming months and years. There are now 48 troop-contributing nations and at the Lisbon summit we hope to agree the process of transition to Afghan security control in selected districts and provinces. It is important that allies deployed in provinces where Afghan forces are able to take over do not then just say, "We are able to leave Afghanistan altogether." There will be a continuing role in other parts of Afghanistan for those forces. Therefore, that is one message in response to his question.
The other message is that the right hon. Gentleman can see from my statement that the Afghan forces are beginning to take on some very difficult tasks in difficult areas. He would not expect the ratio to be 2:1 in their favour in Helmand, where we have so many enormous challenges, because they are still in the fairly early stages of building the ability to sustain and lead their own operations, but they are beginning to show that ability and the increase in training is now a prime requirement. That is why my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has shifted several hundred forces into a training role and why other countries are doing the same. The number of non-commissioned officers trained by the Afghan national army over the past year has gone up by 700% and the number of officers by 175%, so the right hon. Gentleman can see that the training of those forces is beginning to grow exponentially.
May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for his determination to keep the House regularly updated? As Chair of the Public Administration Committee, I welcome that evidence of better governance of our effort in this conflict, but what exactly is the role of the National Security Council in the governance of the conflict? Why did the Government drop the proposal that I suggested to my right hon. Friend, then Leader of the Opposition and now the Prime Minister, that there should be a war cabinet-a smaller group of Ministers meeting more regularly on a cross-departmental basis-to ensure daily supervision of the conflict?
I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome. I have made it clear that we intend to make these regular and frank assessments of the situation throughout this Parliament and throughout this conflict-for however long is necessary-so I am glad of his welcome for that. The National Security Council has spent an enormous amount of its time, in the first five and a half months of this Government, on Afghanistan. Our first meeting, on our first day in office on
Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that 14 Squadron from RAF Lossiemouth is serving with bravery and distinction in Afghanistan and that with its Tornados it is saving the lives of UK service personnel on the ground? Does he agree that, in those circumstances, it would be totally inappropriate to endanger the squadron and its home base through disproportionate defence cuts in Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman had a reply earlier from the Prime Minister about that, and he is absolutely right to draw attention to the indispensable work of our Tornado squadrons in Afghanistan. Our experience in Afghanistan is one of the reasons why it was decided in the strategic defence and security review to maintain the Tornado in our armed forces over coming years, so that is an important factor. Decisions about basing have not yet been made and he will be able to discuss that and question my defence colleagues on other occasions.
Soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade based at Colchester garrison are currently on their third deployment to Helmand province, and I thank the Foreign Secretary for what he said about the military presence and his warm words about the families; I also thank Yvette Cooper for her words. Bearing in mind that there is a three-pronged approach-military, political and economic-and that progress is being made on all three, will the Foreign Secretary ask his officials to have words with the Marquess of Reading, who heads the charity POM354, which encourages Afghan farmers to switch from growing poppies to cultivating pomegranates? That highlights an additional way to boost the Afghan economy, and to the benefit of this country's products as well.
I thank my hon. Friend for his suggestion, and I will make sure that my officials have a word about it. There are alternative crops and livelihoods to narcotics, and pomegranates is one of them. In other parts of Afghanistan, such as Herat, which I visited in July, saffron is a very good, and a very high value, alternative crop. A lot of the work being done by provincial reconstruction teams is dedicated to getting Afghan farmers to grow these crops instead.
The Foreign Secretary should know that his commitment to giving regular and frank reports to the House is important in maintaining a national commitment to our mission in Afghanistan. In his statement, he rightly drew attention to the essentially Afghani nature of any peace process. It is right and proper that it should be Afghan-led, and it is not proper for even Afghanistan's allies to load too many conditions on to the process. However, does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is absolutely vital that both President Karzai and his Government-as well as, perhaps, our allies in Washington-recognise that we are not prepared for the conditions of human rights and the rule of law to be thrown out of the window in any peace process?
Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the idea of giving these statements. One reason why we have introduced them is that it is important that we do not discuss Afghanistan in this House only when there is a sudden crisis or there are heavy casualties. Rather, we should discuss it regularly so we are able to see things in the round without there being an atmosphere of sudden drama. That is what we are trying to achieve by making these statements.
I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question on political reconciliation. It is very important that there is a political process. The political authority for that now exists in Afghanistan, and in my statement I took care to refer to the importance of the Afghan constitutional framework, which guarantees human rights, including women's rights. I am sure that all hon. Members will strongly support maintaining that in any future political settlement.
Does my right hon. Friend remember that when General Sir David Richards took over as Chief of the General Staff only last year he predicted that the current strategy would take 30 or 40 years to work? Given that prediction, with which I broadly concur, what will we do if we still find ourselves in what my right hon. Friend describes as an "extremely challenging" situation in three or four years' time? Will we still be committed to withdrawing militarily and operationally before the next general election?
To be fair to General Richards, I think he was talking about the efforts that will be required to sustain reconstruction, economic progress and regional stability in Afghanistan. I do not think he was talking about a large British military presence or involvement in combat operations for 30 or 40 years. Again, I know that there are legitimate alternative points of view, but we consider it to be right and best to make clear our position that we will draw down from combat operations by 2015. That means that the Afghan Government know that, and it goes alongside our determination to build up rapidly the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces. It also leaves our allies in no doubt about our position. It should be remembered that if we are still there by 2015, we will have been involved in Helmand for much longer than the second world war lasted. British troops will have made an immense contribution therefore, and, in line with the goals for the Afghan forces by 2014, we should be able to speak confidently about 2015.
As the Secretary of State has said several times in the last hour, human rights and women's rights are important aspects of our work in Afghanistan. Everybody will agree that the empowerment of women has proceeded-women have returned to the professions and girls have returned to school. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that in any settlement talks, particularly with the Taliban, if there are arguments for an extension of extreme Sharia law-which would, of course, disempower women-he will continue to fight for progress in women's rights in Afghanistan, and that there will be no sell-out on those issues?
In this country and across the House we will always stand up for human rights-of which women's rights are an indivisible part-all over the world, including in Afghanistan. We all strongly welcome the much more extensive involvement of women in Afghan civil society and political life, of which I spoke earlier and to which the right hon. Lady just referred. We are not laying down the terms of a political settlement, however; we are not remotely near that stage. There is no political settlement currently being discussed around a table, whether by the Afghan Government and the leaders of the Taliban or anybody else. That is not the stage that we are at, so it is premature to talk about what might emerge from any such discussions, but the conditions set out by President Karzai include adherence to the Afghan constitutional framework, and we should continue to give that robust support.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the recent revelations that members of the Karzai Government had received bags of cash from a dangerous rogue state compromise not only the chances of future peace in Afghanistan but the confidence of the people who are sending their young men and women to support a state that is clearly corrupt?
I drew attention in my statement to the fact that although some progress on corruption has been made, it is by no means enough. We want to see a lot more progress on tackling corruption. That is very important, and the recent revelations about the Kabul bank have provided the most dramatic illustration of the need for that. In the absence of such progress, international confidence is undermined. It is true that a number of countries provide funding in certain forms to the Afghan Government, and it is important that that is transparent and used for legitimate Government functions and that it is not the basis of interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. I reiterate, however, that some progress has been made: 27 of the Afghan Ministers have now declared all their assets, and new mining contracts are being undertaken in a transparent way, published on the web so that everyone can see them. My hon. Friend is right, however, to reinforce the fact that for there to be international confidence, an intensified effort to tackle corruption is required.
Unsurprisingly, I would like an earlier date for the ending of the combat role for British troops. At least a date has now been set, but I would like it to be at least two years earlier than 2015. Is it not encouraging that the Government, and presumably my party's Front-Bench team, now accept that NATO will not win an outright military victory and that, as Mr Gorbachev has just said-and he should know-a political settlement can only really be decided by the political forces inside Afghanistan?
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on a couple of points. To say that we will draw down from combat operations at an earlier date than when we can expect the Afghan national forces to be able to sustain and lead their own operations would be a mistake, and I would resist his call to set an earlier date. Indeed, to be fair to his party's Front-Bench team, I do not think they have ever maintained that there is a purely military solution to the problems of Afghanistan, and neither have we. We have always stressed that a political process is important as well, and I have often heard the former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and the former Defence Secretary, Mr Ainsworth, who is sitting just in front of the hon. Gentleman, say that. The difference between what Mr Gorbachev has been talking about and what is happening now is that this is not the Soviet Union imposing its will on Afghanistan: this is 48 troop-contributing nations, with more than 70 nations assembled to give various support at the Kabul conference, operating under a United Nations mandate to liberate the people of Afghanistan from what happened before, and also with the important goal of maintaining our own national security. It is a different situation, therefore, and I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis of it.
With a clear date set for a military draw-down, is the Foreign Secretary aware of concerns in the development community that that could lead to less political interest in Afghanistan and, therefore, less commitment to long-term development aid? Can he reassure those working in development that there is a long-term recognition of how much we need to maintain that commitment to development aid?
There is a very strong recognition of that, as my colleagues from the Department for International Development are saying from the Front Bench. Development aid to Afghanistan is being increased and for the long-term future we will have a major national interest in the stability and prosperity of Afghanistan and of Pakistan next door. Pakistan is on its way to becoming our largest recipient of development aid in the world, and we put in huge and greatly increased resources there to try to bring stability to the whole region. So, yes, our work in Afghanistan will have to continue in that form long into the future.
Our thoughts and prayers are certainly with our soldiers who are standing in daily danger in Afghanistan. We pay tribute to their gallantry, especially that of the Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House whether our coalition forces are receiving the co-operation that they need from the Government of Pakistan in their efforts to fight the terrorism from within their borders?
Yes, we have many discussions with the Government of Pakistan and with military leaders in Pakistan. The first thing to note is that relations have improved sharply in recent times between both the political leaders and the military leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan-this is with each other-and that greatly assists such co-operation. Huge quantities of supplies for NATO also pass through Pakistan. The House will be aware of recent interruptions to the passing through of those supplies, but that matter has now been dealt with and we hope that it will not recur. I do not wish to stand here complaining about the Government of Pakistan, who have sustained enormous casualties. The Pakistani military have sustained enormous casualties in fighting insurgencies within their own country and they ensure that very large quantities of the necessary supplies pass through their country. We are getting a lot of co-operation.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary's statement and add my tribute to Corporal Barnsdale, who received a full tribute from the Prime Minister. Corporal Barnsdale was part of 61 Field Squadron, 33 Engineer Regiment, which is based at Rock barracks in Woodbridge, as is 23 Engineer Regiment, which is currently deployed abroad. I welcome the statement that the Afghan security forces are starting to do more things such as countering the improvised explosive devices. Is there a strategy to prioritise some of the operations that are transferred to the Afghan forces, as opposed to geographical provinces?
I have listed some of the geographical areas where the Afghan forces are taking on an increased role. The Afghan forces are building up in size. The army, for instance, was 134,000 strong this year-it is slightly larger now-and is meant to become 171,000 strong next year. The challenge now is to increase their specialist capabilities, particularly their intelligence capabilities, engineering, logistics and military police functions. Of course, those sorts of things are more difficult to build up, because they require a great deal more training and expertise than the training of what one might consider to be the pure infantry. That is an important part of the strategy going forward.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for his commitment to report regularly to the House, which is extremely welcome. I was, however, very disappointed in his reply to my hon. Friend Mr Winnick. President Gorbachev and his country suffered more than anyone else, apart from the Afghan people, because of the military activities of the red army in Afghanistan. He has called for a political solution and a withdrawal, and countered strongly against any Russian involvement. Is it not time that we faced up to the reality that after nine years in Afghanistan, with a lot of lives and billions of pounds lost, no solution, either immediately or in the long term, is in sight? Is it not time to pursue the political road, rather than the military road, rapidly?
The important point to make is that the political and military roads, as the hon. Gentleman calls them, go necessarily together; there would not be much of a political road without the military pressure. He has called for a political solution and he can gather from everything I am saying that we want a political settlement in Afghanistan; we want a political process that leads to that. But we will get that only from an effective military campaign, from intensifying the pressure on the insurgency and from doing all the work that we are doing to build up the capacity of the Afghan Government. If we and our allies were to withdraw now, all that work would come to an end and there would be another round of great bloodshed, including among the civilian population, and not a political solution. I ask him to see those things as going necessarily together.
It is another of those challenges that I speak about. Clearly, democratic processes are now taking place. A parliamentary election has just taken place in Afghanistan with far fewer incidents, although there was still a lot of fraud. From an international viewpoint, this election was conducted in a more respectable way than aspects of the presidential election, given some of the accusations made about that. Progress has clearly been made. The role of independent members of election commissions is being more widely respected and understood, and I think that democratic principles are making inroads into Afghanistan. This will take time and it is something on which we need to have patient effort and persistence. It is a huge challenge, but some progress is being made.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware of the British public's concerns about the welfare of our troops returning from Afghanistan and, indeed, that of veterans in general. I welcome these regular reports, but will he consider including in them details of progress on how we can further support our troops after they return from Afghanistan and as they become veterans?
That is a very important point, and my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will include that subject in his assessment when he gives the next of these reports.
There is no place in our policies for the mistreatment of detainees, and we have been very clear about that as a Government. We have, of course, published the guidance we give to our intelligence officers and announced an inquiry into previous allegations. But I do condemn the unauthorised release of information, which can endanger our forces and people who have worked with our forces, and which gives a one-sided propaganda gift for insurgent, so I condemn those leaks. It is our forces who are engaged, above all, in protecting the civilian population in Afghanistan, often having to accept casualties because of the work they do to protect that civilian population. The people who indiscriminately attack the civilian population and do not care whether women, children and other people are blown up by their improvised explosive devices are the insurgents and the terrorists.
For all the reasons that I have given, I think that this is the right thing to do. As I said, there are legitimate differences of view, but considering the subject in the round and the length of our deployment, as well as the need to emphasise the building up of the Afghan national security forces-to concentrate on that over the next few years and to be clear with the Afghan Government that that is our intention-we think that it is right to say what we have about 2015. Of course, it does not mean that forces fighting for stability in Afghanistan are at any point leaving the battlefield. There are now more international security assistance forces and Afghan forces deployed than at any stage in the past nine years. Given the huge increases that are envisaged in the size of the Afghan national security forces, there will continue to be an increase in the number of forces available for years to come. The forces of security and stability in Afghanistan are not leaving the battlefield.
As chairman of the all-party group on Pakistan, I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said today, particularly about working closely with that country, as well as what he said at the launch of the British Pakistan Foundation two weeks ago. May I have his assurances that we will continue to work even more closely with Pakistan to address the security situation in the region?
Yes, absolutely. That is critical for the security of the region and for the prosperity and stability of Pakistan, which is a prime national interest of this country. One thing that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have been busy doing over the past few weeks is trying to ensure that it is commonly agreed across Europe that the future prosperity and development of Pakistan, and our working closely and strategically with the Government of Pakistan, are absolutely essential and in the vital interests of the whole of Europe and the western world, not just of the United Kingdom. For instance, our achievement recently of trade concessions for Pakistan, which we secured at the last European Council last month, is a good illustration of that work.
The Foreign Secretary mentioned the success of the criminal justice taskforce and the 440 convictions in the past year. Is he satisfied that those convicted actually served their sentences, and will he also update us on the progress made on the number of secure prison places in Afghanistan?
We will have to satisfy ourselves about those things as we go along. The hon. Lady is quite right to draw attention to that. Where people are sentenced, we will want them to serve their sentences. We want more prosecutions to take place under the same procedures. We do not yet have enough secure prison places in Afghanistan and we are very careful about the terms under which we transfer prisoners to Afghan control. There is a need for more secure places and we will keep the House updated about that, too.
I would like to thank the Foreign Secretary for these regular updates and you, Mr Speaker, for allowing these statements to run for such a long time. It will be particularly welcomed by the families of our servicemen and women who are serving abroad. Many in this House will know the concern when their loved ones are either about to go or when they are out there. They carry on with their normal daily lives, but they never forget their loved ones. We should pay tribute to those people.
Absolutely. Across the House, we pay tribute to them. I know that that is a heartfelt question from my hon. Friend, because his son is about to go to Afghanistan for the second time, serving in Chinooks. All of us who have flown around Afghanistan in Chinook helicopters marvel at the work that those people do. We can all be in absolute accord with what he has said today.