Afghanistan

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:56 pm on 27th October 2010.

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Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 12:56 pm, 27th October 2010

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 14 June.

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 14 October, we are increasing by over 320 the number of UK troops directly involved in the training and development of the Afghan national security forces. That increase is part of the rebalancing of UK forces in the province and has been made possible by the handover of security responsibility for Kajaki, Musa Qala and Sangin to our US allies in order to concentrate British forces in the key population centres of central Helmand.

On 17 October, units of the 3rd brigade of the Afghan national army's 215 corps launched a significant operation to secure settlements near Gereshk. This operation is building on the success of previous ANSF operations, which have cleared the insurgency out of former safe havens in central Helmand over the course of the summer. Planning and implementation are being led by the Afghans, with British mentors from 1st Battalion Irish Guards providing support. For the first time, engineering, artillery, countering improvised explosive devices and reconnaissance are being conducted by the Afghan national army itself. US Marines, who now form the majority of ISAF troops in Helmand, continue the hard-fought struggle against the insurgency in Sangin, while in Marja they have continued to carry out operations alongside the Afghan national army and police.

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 19 November when we expect NATO to agree the process of transferring lead responsibility for security across Afghanistan to the Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. It will be a phased transition, with the Afghan security forces gradually taking the lead-as they have in Kabul-in jointly selected districts and provinces, as the conditions on the ground are met. British forces will be drawn down from combat operations by 2015.

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.

On 7 October, the high peace council was inaugurated, fulfilling a key request of the Afghan consultative peace jirga in June. It marks an important milestone for the Afghan peace and re-integration programme. It is for the Afghan people to shape a political settlement that reflects the needs, culture and aspirations of all the Afghan people. The UK will support a settlement that gives Afghanistan stability and security, that is representative, that gives no one group disproportionate influence, that upholds human rights and the rule of law, and that is in accordance with Afghanistan's constitutional framework. The UK will work with individuals and groups who genuinely share those aims and who accept the conditions laid down by President Karzai's Government: insurgents must renounce al-Qaeda, give up armed struggle and work within the constitutional framework. We consider on its merits any request for the UK to play a role in support of this Afghan-led process. At the same time, ISAF will continue to exert intensifying pressure on the insurgency throughout the country.

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 21 July the Secretary of State for International Development announced a £200 million increase in UK funding for Afghanistan to stabilise insecure areas, stimulate the economy and improve essential services. Early progress is being made at the Afghan Ministry of the Interior where the new Minister is keen to develop a more capable and accountable police force that will help sustain the transition of security responsibilities to the Afghan Government.

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.

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