With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the NATO summit in Lisbon, which I attended at the weekend.
No one can doubt that NATO has played an absolutely critical role in preserving peace in Europe since it was founded in 1949, but the test for NATO now is whether it can meet the challenges of the present and of the future. That means real change-not just signing communiqués about change, but showing real political will to bring the necessary changes about. I believe that NATO can be just as relevant to protecting our security in the future as it has been in the past, and my interventions were focused on that future.
Effectively, there were three summits: a meeting of all the coalition countries involved in Afghanistan; a summit on the planned reform of NATO; and a NATO-Russia Council. I want to take each briefly in turn.
First, on Afghanistan, the summit with President Karzai, the UN Secretary-General and countries from across the globe represented there was a powerful visual reminder that Britain is part of an international coalition of 48 nations in Afghanistan. We are there because the Afghans are not yet capable of securing their own country from terrorists, and those terrorists threaten the security of the rest of the world. So, it is for our own national security that we help them.
At the NATO summit, each and every one of the 48 nations in the coalition reaffirmed its "enduring commitment" to the mission in Afghanistan. Britain is the second-largest contributor to that mission, with over 10,000 troops, many of them risking their lives in the most dangerous parts of the country. The arrival of additional international security assistance force troops in the south has allowed us to transfer Musa Qala and Sangin to the US Marines. That in turn has allowed us to focus our forces in central Helmand, sharing the burden more sensibly and removing the overstretch our forces have suffered since 2006. Working alongside Afghan forces, that has helped us to drive the insurgents out of population centres in central Helmand, and, as hon. Members have heard in the House from reports by my right hon. Friends, we are making good progress.
We want to transfer security responsibility for districts and provinces to Afghan control as soon as the Afghan security forces are ready, and the summit reached important conclusions about the timetable for this transition. It will begin in early 2011 and meet President Karzai's objective for the Afghan national security forces to lead and conduct security operations in all provinces by the end of 2014.
This commitment on transition is entirely consistent with the deadline we have set for the end of British combat operations in Afghanistan by 2015. By 2015, Britain will have played a huge role in the international coalition and made massive sacrifices for a better, safer and stronger Afghanistan. We will have been in Helmand, by some way the toughest part of Afghanistan, for nine years-a period almost as long as the first and second world wars combined. Last week, we lost the 100th member of our armed forces in Afghanistan this year. This is the second year running that we have reached such a tragic milestone.
The bravery and sacrifices of our forces are helping to make this country safe. But having taken such a huge share of the burden, and having performed so magnificently since 2001, I believe that the country needs to know that there is an end point to all this, so from 2015 there will not be troops in anything like the numbers there are now, and, crucially, they will not be in a combat role. That is a firm commitment and a firm deadline that we will meet.
The NATO summit also committed to a long-term relationship with the Government of Afghanistan, and Britain will be at the forefront of this commitment. Beyond the end of combat operations in 2015, we will go on having a relationship with Afghanistan based on aid, development, diplomacy, trade and, if necessary, military training and support.
On the reform of NATO, we agreed a new strategic concept to equip NATO for the security challenges of the 21st century. Just as in our new national security strategy, NATO will shift its focus and resources still further from the old, cold wars of the past to the new, unconventional threats of the future, including counter-terrorism, cyber-security, failing states and the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Crucially, NATO agreed to develop a new ballistic missile defence system for Europe. This will help to protect the UK and our other European allies from the growing threat from countries such as Iran that are developing ballistic missiles. It will be in place by the end of the decade, paid for within NATO's existing resources.
Just as Britain's strategic defence and security review set out plans to make the Ministry of Defence much more commercially hard-headed in future, and to adopt a much more aggressive drive for efficiencies, so this summit agreed significant efficiencies for NATO itself. These include cutting the number of command posts from 13,000 to fewer than 9,000, reducing the number of NATO agencies from 14 to just three and ensuring that all decisions taken at this summit are funded from within NATO's existing resource plans. These changes will save Britain tens of millions of pounds and will allow NATO to focus its efforts on the front line.
There was also a discussion at the summit on co-operation between the EU and NATO. It is crazy that, because of procedural wrangling, the only security issue these two organisations can discuss when they meet is Bosnia. Everyone wants a solution to the Cyprus problem, but we simply should not allow it to go on holding up practical co-operation between the EU and NATO.
It was a very powerful sight to see countries that came together to protect themselves from the Soviet Union now sitting down and discussing sensible co-operation with Russia and with the Russian President. While the Soviet Union obviously broke up years ago, relations between NATO and Russia have been strained in recent years. Two years ago, missile defence for Europe caused a major split in relations with Russia, but now it is an issue on which we are actually working together.
The NATO-Russia Council also agreed practical co-operation on Afghanistan, enabling NATO to use routes through Russia to support our armed forces on the ground and working together to develop improved helicopter capabilities for Afghan security forces.
There will remain challenges in working with Russia. President Obama and I both raised the issue of Georgia. Two years after that conflict started, it is time for Russia to abide by the ceasefire agreement and withdraw its troops from Georgian territory, but I judge it right that we do not let this and other bilateral concerns prevent us from working together where it is in our interests, so we will work with Russia on countering drug trafficking, on tackling Islamic extremism and on countering proliferation, and in the G8 and the G20. The summit also praised the courage that Presidents Obama and Medvedev have shown in agreeing a new strategic arms reduction treaty, and agreed that early ratification would be in all our interests.
In 1949, the alliance first said that "an...attack against one" is "an attack against...all." Today, the threats that we face are different, and the world is more uncertain, but NATO remains the bedrock of our collective defence. The future of this alliance is vital for our national security, and the summit was focused on that future: on securing an Afghanistan able to look after its own security; on reforming NATO for the 21st century; and on establishing co-operation with Russia on our vital security interests. Above all, I believe that this summit has shown that our alliance remains rock solid and that Britain's commitment to it is as strong as ever. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. As the main part of it focused on Afghanistan, I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all our troops, including the 345 who have died during the conflict. They showed the most extraordinary courage, and we honour them. I also pay tribute to the thousands who have been wounded; they cope with the most serious injuries with an extraordinary bravery and courage.
The best way we in this House can support our troops is by seeking at all times to build unity of purpose, and I am determined to do that on the issue of Afghanistan. In that context, we support the outcome of the NATO summit on Afghanistan. We strongly support the Afghan security forces taking full security responsibility in 2014, which was originally agreed at the London conference at the beginning of this year and was reiterated at the NATO summit. I also agree with the Prime Minister that his objective of ending combat operations by British troops by 2015 is right, and indeed is a logical counterpart to the plan that was set out for full security responsibility.
I do, however, have three questions to ask the Prime Minister about Afghanistan. First, as I am sure he will agree, the point is not simply to set a timetable but to ensure that it can be set successfully, so we must do all we can to improve the conditions on the ground. He mentioned the difficulties in Helmand province and said it was one of the hardest provinces to hand over to Afghan control. May I therefore ask him to tell the House what milestones he will use to track progress in the transition plan for Helmand? Clearly, key to that will be building up the Afghan army and, indeed, making it more representative. That has been a particular issue in the south, including the under-representation of the southern Pashtuns.
Secondly, the Prime Minister said after the summit that we might continue to play a training role for Afghan forces after 2015. May I ask him to say a little more about that? As he will know, the nature of training in Afghanistan is such that it often involves front-line exposure, so perhaps he will say more about whether troops may effectively be in some fighting role beyond that date.
Thirdly-I know the Prime Minister will agree with this, as well-a political settlement is clearly essential to achieving a stable Afghanistan by 2015. We warmly welcome NATO's endorsement of the Afghan-led reconciliation programme. Does he agree that that requires reconciliation with those elements of the Taliban willing to abide by Afghanistan's constitution, as well as engagement with Afghanistan's neighbours, including, of course, Iran and Pakistan? What discussions has he had with President Karzai about ensuring that that reconciliation moves forward rapidly over the next 12 months?
I turn to the other major item of discussion at the summit, the relationship between NATO and Russia. The Prime Minister is clearly right that we should seek to improve our relationship with Russia but continue to raise the concerns that he mentioned, including on Georgia. We welcome the joint work on the new missile defence system, and he is right to say that that development shows how the world has changed since the cold war, as it will involve co-operation with, rather than the isolation of, Russia.
Britain is of course a nuclear power, and in our view will remain so in a world in which others possess nuclear weapons, but that also brings responsibilities. Does the Prime Minister agree that the starting point for the discussion on nuclear weapons should be serious and committed multilateralism, with the ambitious long-term aim, originally set out by President Obama in 2009, of a world without nuclear weapons? May I not only invite the Prime Minister to give support to the new START treaty with Russia, but ask him what his position is on the aim of removing tactical nuclear weapons-essentially a cold war legacy-from continental Europe and Russia?
Finally, the "new strategic concept" for NATO, as it is called, is also to be welcomed, because it understands the new threats that the world faces. The post-war Labour Government, as the Prime Minister indicated, were a founder member of NATO, and our belief in the importance of multilateral co-operation is enhanced, not diminished. Does he agree, though, that the lesson of Afghanistan is that although NATO is a military alliance, when it comes to dealing with fragile states and preventing terrorism, it must pursue its objectives in the knowledge that military means can be successful only alongside political, civilian and humanitarian development?
I end by saying to the Prime Minister that we welcome the outcomes of the summit and will work co-operatively when he seeks to do the right thing, working through NATO for British security and international peace and stability, most importantly in Afghanistan.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions and for the way in which he put them. He is absolutely right to pay tribute to our armed forces and to mention the wounded. It is absolutely clear that people are coming back from Afghanistan with very bad injuries-often they have lost one, two and, sometimes, three limbs. We must not just look after and rehabilitate them now, but be thinking now about how we are going to help these people for the rest of their lives. They want to lead extremely active lives, and so they should.
The right hon. Gentleman said that he wanted to have unity of purpose on Afghanistan. I hope that we can keep that up. I will do everything I can to try to help make that possible. It is very powerful, when we go to speak to our troops in Afghanistan, and in maintaining public support, that there is genuine bi-party consensus.
The right hon. Gentleman asks three questions; let me try to answer each of them. First, on the milestones for progress between 2011 and 2014, there are, effectively, three different things. We have to look at the build up of the Afghan army and police, and check that that is on track. We have to look at the progress of governance in the districts and provinces of Afghanistan. We also have to ask ourselves whether what we are about to transition is genuinely irreversible. What we do not want, and why I have avoided setting short-term deadlines, is to make a move that is then somehow reversed.
On the future training role, we have done very well to staff up the training mission-allies made a lot of commitments on that at the NATO summit. Britain has added another 320 trainers. I very much see this as training and not combat. By that stage, we will be looking at something that is much more a training mission, and not quite as much embedding, as we have now.
Reconciliation is vital. Almost all insurgencies the world over have been ended by a combination of military means and a political settlement. It is the moment at which one is hitting the nail very hard in a military sense that one should be taking steps towards reconciliation. This is for the Afghans to lead. The three vital things are that anyone who wants to reconcile must break with al-Qaeda, must renounce violence and must accept the broad outlines of the Afghan constitution. I discussed this with President Karzai at some length. He is enthusiastic about this agenda. If we follow those guidelines, we can make real progress, and that is exactly what we should aim to do.
On Russia, yes, I think we should be serious and committed to multilateral disarmament. The statement spoke about moving towards a world without nuclear weapons. I have always believed that Britain should not give up weapons in the hope that it might somehow unlock this process and make it come about. We should be absolutely clear: we are a nuclear power for very good reason. We should work towards that goal, but we should not be naïve in throwing away our weapons in the hope that others will do so.
In terms of Afghanistan, there are many lessons to learn, but one of the points that the right hon. Gentleman made is absolutely right: we need to make sure we are effective militarily, but at the same time we always have to look at development, governance and political processes. I think NATO is quite well equipped to do that. We should be thinking also about how we can make sure that we reform what we do so that the battalions that we send in are able to do so-called "hot" development, as well as actual war fighting. It is the early days when the military goes in that it can form a real impression that it is going to be digging wells, building schools and making a country more pleasant to live in, at the same time as securing it from terror. That is one of the big lessons to learn, as the right hon. Gentleman says.
Order. Understandably, there is much interest, but there is also pressure on time, so economy, both in questions and answers, is vital if we are to make some progress.
While we can warmly welcome the NATO-Russia agreement to co-operate on ballistic missile defence, is it not disappointing that NATO and Russia have not yet decided to begin talks on the multilateral disarmament of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe? Does the Prime Minister recollect that it was the previous Conservative Government who abolished British tactical nuclear weapons on the grounds that they had become militarily useless? Is it not now time for NATO and Russia to look at that at the European level?
I think that is possible. The problem has been, as my right hon. and learned Friend well knows-he has great expertise in this-that relations between NATO and Russia have been extremely strained in recent years. At the weekend, I observed a proper thawing of that situation, with President Medvedev happy to sit down and discuss what NATO and Russia could do together. I think his view is very much that this should be an expansive agenda whereby we can look at more and more areas that we can discuss.
I agree with so much of what the Prime Minister has said, but there is one area about which I continue to be concerned. Why did he feel he had to say publicly that there would be a deadline of 2015? A timetable for 2014 had already been set, and he knows that some Government Members, including even some Ministers, have struggled and still struggle to use the same words as he does. Why did he feel that he had to say publicly that there is to be a complete end to the combat mission in 2015?
That is absolutely the right question to ask; let me answer it as clearly as I can. I think that the British people, having paid such a high price in Afghanistan, want some certainty that there is an end point. That is the first reason. I wanted to be clear that the operation will not go on for ever. I am confident that we will succeed in our goals by 2014, which will enable end-of-combat operations and much lower numbers in 2015, but I wanted to make it clear to people so that they can see that there is an end point.
There is a second reason. I think the alternative to having that deadline is endless pressure to set very short-term deadlines for transitioning this province or district at this time. I would rather we had a proper, worked-out process and plan to deliver that. I think that the 2015 deadline helps us to do that and that it gives people confidence that, 14 years after going into Afghanistan in 2001, there is an end point. I am glad I think I heard support from the Labour Front Bench for that.
May I press the Prime Minister again on the deadline? Can he conceive of any circumstances in which he would modify or depart from the deadline for the withdrawal of British combat troops that he has again confirmed today?
No, I do not see any reason to modify it-that is part of the reason for setting it-but I am confident, looking at the tactical progress that we are making on the ground, where the concentration of forces in central Helmand has made a real difference, and with the increased number of US forces and the great commitment made by the 48 ISAF partner countries, that we will be able to complete that transition between 2011 and 2014. However, the deadline is a deadline.
The Prime Minister rightly emphasised that NATO is committed to a world without nuclear weapons, if that is achievable, but he also mentioned biological and chemical weapons. Is NATO as seized of the importance of getting rid of those weapons systems because, in many ways they-certainly biological weapons-are far more likely to fall into the hands of terrorists?
I can give that assurance, and not just NATO but the G8 has a good programme on that front. That is vital, and it is exactly the sort of forum in which such weapons can be discussed.
Please will my right hon. Friend clarify the extent of the agreement between Russia and NATO on ballistic missile defence, because having a jointly developed and jointly deployable system would be a major breakthrough?
Let me clarify this point. For some time, NATO has wanted a defensive system, partly because of the threat of new ballistic missile states such as Iran. We believe that it is in NATO's interest to provide that territorial defence for our own countries. That was a great source of tension with Russia, but now it is a source of co-operation. Russia has its own ideas for combining its system with ours, and we have our own ideas on what co-operation should take place. Those sets of ideas are still some way apart, but the positive thing is that discussions are under way on how we can work together.
I am a little bit more optimistic than the hon. Gentleman. The case today is that Afghanistan ground is forbidden to al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda training camps. Post-2001, there were training camps in Afghanistan, but there is none now because of the action that the allies and the Afghan security forces have taken. The question is this: if the allies withdrew now, would the Afghans be able to sustain that? The answer today is no, but the answer by 2014 should, we believe, be yes. Of course there is a lot more help to be given and a lot more capacity to build, and a lot more troops and police need to be trained up, but we can see some success already, because the number of plots that we face from that part of the world has declined, partly because of the action we have taken.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on the positive outcome of the summit and, in particular, on the fact that the United States has moved away from 2011 as the date for withdrawal, and towards 2014. However, is not Iran the elephant in the room? It does not appear in the declaration-at least not in substance. What is right hon. Friend say what the attitude of his partners is towards Iran and, in particular, towards sanctions, which, at the end of the day, is the only weapon that we have?
There has been good progress on that. The UN Security Council resolution on Iranian sanctions was helpful. The European Union went beyond that and introduced further sanctions. When you look around that room, with all those NATO partners and ISAF partners, you see that there is a pretty good consensus on the need for sanctions and the need to apply them properly. There is a conversation that we go on having with allies such as Turkey about the importance of not seeing any slippage in the sanctions. There are some early signs that they are having some effect on the Iranian regime, but we have to keep that up. As my hon. Friend says, we do not have many other weapons to force a change of mind on the Iranians. The sanctions are a weapon that we have, and we should use them to the best of our ability.
Does the Prime Minister not agree that the greatest causes of problems in this world are poverty, instability and the competition for resources? The NATO summit has set itself on a path of nuclearisation, a missile defence system and an alliance that includes virtually all the major industrial countries of the world. Should we not be looking in the other direction, towards peace, disarmament and a stable world based on those objectives, rather than towards vast expenditure on new nuclear weapons and missile defence?
Let me be clear about where I think the hon. Gentleman is right and where he is wrong. He is right that we should be doing more to tackle poverty the world over. That is one of the reasons we have committed to spend 0.7% of our gross national income on aid. Britain has very effective aid programmes, and we should be encouraging other NATO allies to do the same. However, where he is wrong is to believe that all conflict and problems come from poverty. Some of the problem of Islamic extremism is related not to poverty but to ideology. We have to recognise that we have to confront and defeat that ideology.
The Prime Minister said that every one of the 48 nations in the coalition had reaffirmed its enduring commitment to the mission in Afghanistan. On sharing the burden and removing the overstretch of our forces in Helmand province, which of the other 46 countries, apart from the United States, have service personnel serving alongside our personnel in Helmand?
In Helmand, there have been very courageous efforts by the Estonians and the Danes, who have fought very effectively alongside our troops. The Canadians, as someone mentioned, were stationed in Kandahar, and they will be moving from a combat role to a training role. It was not that long ago that France had an uplift in its troop numbers, so I do not think that it is right to cast too many aspersions about other NATO allies. We are certainly the second largest contributor by quite some way. It is important that we encourage others to do what they can, even where countries are pulling back from a combat role. It was quite notable that the Canadians invested more in a training role than people were previously expecting. There is a good spirit among the ISAF nations, as we want to see this through successfully and everyone has to play their part.
Is the Prime Minister aware that there will be widespread support in the country for the deadline-the end time-that he has fixed for the conflict? However, even if we can successfully withdraw after four years, for British troops that means another four years of bloody fighting in what he himself calls the most dangerous part of Afghanistan-Helmand. I appreciate that we cannot push him on the details now, but over those four years will there be a continued effort to see, rather than a military outcome, an overall political accommodation with the Taliban?
There are two elements to the reconciliation process. There is what is called reintegration, at the lowest level, where tribes that have perhaps taken up arms against the Afghan national army and the allies are being encouraged to put down those arms and join a political process. Sometimes tribes took up arms not because they were Taliban supporters, but because of local conflicts. The higher level-reconciliation, as it were-is much more like a political process. That has to be Afghan-led, and, as I said, it has to be based on de-linking from al-Qaeda, giving up violence and accepting the basic tenets of the Afghan constitution. In the end, those people want the same as everyone else, which is an Afghanistan that is not stationed full of foreign troops, so I hope that we can make progress on the political front, as the hon. Gentleman says.
Like any serviceman or woman who has spent time in Afghanistan, nothing would make me happier than seeing a speedy resolution to this conflict. Does the Prime Minister agree, however, that if we are to meet this ambitious timetable, we must focus on capacity building in the provinces, which is key if we are to have a sustainable future in that country?
My hon. Friend has served in Afghanistan and knows the country well, and he is completely right. As I have said, there are two elements involved. The first is the security forces training the police and the army, but on its own that does not provide enough capacity. We also need good governance, and one feature that we should look at closely is the progress of better governance in Helmand province itself. Governor Mangal has done an extremely good job there and is well supported by the British, and it is important to have good governors in place to ensure the stability that will enable us to leave.
There was a very lively exchange at the NATO leaders' dinner on this issue. I am a pragmatist, and it just seems to me that, given that there is an EU mission to train the police in Afghanistan and a massive NATO mission to train the army and the police there, the fact that NATO and the EU cannot talk to each other on these issues because they do not have permission to do so, apart from in Bosnia, is simply crazy. One of the reasons for this problem is the fact that the issue of Cyprus is used by both sides in the debate, and the EU-NATO relationship is used as a proxy for that. I am sure that everyone in this House wants to see a settlement of the Cyprus dispute, but we should not allow that to completely bung up relations between the EU and NATO. An outbreak of pragmatism is required and, because this was discussed at the dinner, we all instructed our NATO ambassadors to go back and try to do better, so that we can try to unfreeze that conflict.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on setting such a firm deadline for the ceasing of combat operations but, given the problems that we had in Basra in 2006, how will we use the next three years to ensure that we pin down the United States and British military to facilitate the transition?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who knows a huge amount about that country-I do not want to give an advert to his book, because I am sure that it has sold well enough already. The point is that by setting the deadline early, we are giving a clear signal to our friends and allies in NATO about the role that Britain has played-we should remember that we have played a very big role and taken a very large number of casualties-and about our intentions. The key to a successful transition is focusing on training the Afghan army and police, as well as the governance that I have spoken about, and being clear about our intentions. We cannot make it up with only six months to go; we need to say now what Britain's commitment is and what it will be in the future.
The new NATO strategic concept approved at Lisbon rightly states that, as long as other countries have nuclear weapons, so will the NATO alliance. Some of us would like to see the same thing apply to the United Kingdom. What reassurance was my right hon. Friend able to give to our NATO allies that Britain's Trident replacement programme will go ahead after the next election, given that, if the Liberal Democrats were again to hold the balance of power, that would almost certainly not happen?
My hon. Friend and I go back years on this issue, to the time when we almost shared an office. At that time, we were fighting a very unilateralist Labour party that wanted us to give up our nuclear weapons and get nothing in return. The assurance that I can give my hon. Friend is that I believe that, while others have nuclear weapons, we should retain ours. That is why I said what I said in the statement. He is being a little unfair, however, because in this Parliament, we will be spending many tens or even hundreds of millions of pounds on the preparation for our Trident replacement-which is on schedule to go ahead-to ensure that there is continuous at-sea deterrence and no capability gap between the deterrent that we have now and the deterrent of the future. The Government, including the Liberal Democrats, are fully committed to that.
I warmly congratulate the Prime Minister on raising the matter of Georgia with President Medvedev. When the right hon. Gentleman visited Tbilisi in 2008, he said that this was an illegal invasion. It certainly was, and it still is today. May I urge the Prime Minister to be a bit more robust in some other respects with the Russians? Corruption is so endemic at the very highest level in Russia that British businesses find it very difficult to do business there. Will he expressly raise the human rights issues, particularly in respect of the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev?
I take what the hon. Gentleman says very seriously. We are trying to have better relations with Russia-that is, I think, in our interest-but without trying to gloss over the bilateral impediments to those relations. When I have met President Medvedev, I have raised the Litvinenko case and other concerns, which is also right. At the same time, we must try to overcome some of these problems and raise the cases that the hon. Gentleman mentions. The impediments to relations between Britain and Russia are well known, but that does not mean that we should fail to speak about those and other things and try to have a slightly better relationship than we have had up to now.
The Prime Minister rightly touched on the importance of guaranteeing Afghanistan's northern distribution network. Does he agree that security in Tajikistan is particularly important if we are to have any prospects of withdrawing within a reasonable time frame, and that it is also important in developing NATO's relationships with Russia?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. If we want to leave behind a secure and stable Afghanistan, relations with its neighbours are crucial. Many people make the point that NATO and ISAF are making a tremendous effort in Afghanistan and that many of the country's neighbours will benefit from a stable Afghanistan, but are not making a contribution. I think it is up to them to contribute, but also up to us to try to bring the neighbours together to make sure they demonstrate the equity they have in a stable Afghanistan for the future.
Is it not apparent that the number of trainers for the Afghan police and army is woefully inadequate? Will the Prime Minister tell us what the timeline will be and what priority will be given to increasing the number of trainers by all the countries concerned?
We are making very good progress in training up the Afghan police and army. We are a little ahead of schedule. The key thing about this NATO summit was to get other countries to commit to adding to the training mission. There were some very welcome developments, such as the Canadians who, in pulling back on the combat forces front, committed to the training mission. As I said, Britain added another 320 trainers. I think we are on target to deliver the sort of Afghan national security forces we need to complete our drawdown by 2014.
I think it incentivises the Afghan Government to recognise that we are serious about handing over a country for them to run. It also shows the Afghan security forces that they are going to have to learn to stand on their own two feet. Let me make two additional points. First, there is a serious amount of time to elapse between now and the end of 2014 when all this has to be completed. This is not some rapid deadline; there are a lot of years between now and then to make it work. Secondly, Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary has said about the US forces:
"I think anything that remains after 2014 would be very modest and very much focused on the kind of train and advise and assist role".
So I do not think we are putting ourselves apart from the consensus on this matter.
I should be happy to place that information in the House of Commons Library or write to the hon. Gentleman. In the run-up to the summit everyone was asked to make extra contributions, and my understanding is that we made ours and that a number of other countries did the same. However, I should be happy to provide the information so that the hon. Gentleman can see exactly how we will secure the size of Afghan security forces that we need.
My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue, which is a difficult one. Not only has there been an insufficiency of Pashtuns in the security forces, but there has been an insufficiency of Pashtuns from Helmand and elsewhere in that part of the country. That means that we must make a greater effort to recruit and retain them, but I think that as they see progress on the ground they will be more likely to want to serve.
Let me make clear that we are on track to achieve the 2011 goal of 171,600 in the Afghan national army-the current force is 138,000-and to reach the October 2011 target of 134,000 in the Afghan national police, who currently number 120,000. Plainly, those are not unrealistic objectives, but the point about the ethnic make-up is important.
The Prime Minister is right to say that the country has paid a tremendous debt to Afghanistan in terms of the cost to our country. He said earlier that he would send a message to our friends and allies by setting a deadline, but he also sends a message to our enemies by setting that deadline. What impact does he think the deadline will have on al-Qaeda and the Taliban? Does he think that it will make them more likely to want to negotiate?
The point is that the Taliban have suffered huge reverses in Helmand and southern Afghanistan, particularly over the past year, and a serious attrition in their numbers. As for what I have said, I have not been talking about 2010, as my predecessor did, or about 2011; I have been talking about 2015.
I think the Taliban know that they are losing militarily and suffering huge attrition in their numbers. They should also know that, as well as the military hammer that is hitting them, there is the option of a political process allowing them to reintegrate at a low level, and that, with the Afghan Government, there are opportunities for reconciliation at a higher level. If we look across the world at the way in which counter-insurgencies have ended, we see that they have normally ended through a combination of military might and a political process, and I believe that the same applies in this instance.
Turkey has always been important to the defence of NATO's southern flank, and, given the ongoing concerns about Iran's intentions, it will continue to be so. Does that not confirm that it is in all our interests for the United Kingdom to be the best possible friend to Turkey in Europe?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. I think it important for us to send a message to the Turks that, as far as we are concerned, they should be sitting in the tent as well as guarding the camp, and I therefore believe that, as well as being good NATO members, they should be encouraged into the European Union. They are a key ally-a key NATO ally. Given our relations with Iran, it is important for them to be staunch in terms of sanctions and trade with Iran, because that will send the clearest possible message to their neighbour.
Order. Any Member who was not present at the start of the statement should not expect to be called to ask a question. That is the position in the House, and it is important that we adhere to that standard.
Sometimes the Prime Minister just cannot win. If he sets a deadline, they say that he is encouraging the Taliban; if he does not set a deadline, he is accused of drift. Does he agree that our brave men and women in Afghanistan will warmly welcome his statement?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. There is another point to be made. The Taliban trade on the idea that foreign forces will never leave Afghanistan. By setting a deadline such as this and being clear about transition, we are saying to Afghans throughout the country, "We want good relations with your country-we think that it is an important country for Britain to have strong relations with-but we do not want our forces to be there for ever, and neither do you." That is a very important message.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. NATO was for years focused very much on territorial defence of Europe against the Soviet Union and, sadly, when we look at the defence postures of different countries in NATO, including our own to some extent, we see that there is still too much legacy-asset thinking about tank battles in Europe, for instance, rather than securing sea lanes, fighting cyber-attack, combating terrorism and securing failed states on the other side of the world. So a big shift needs to take place in NATO, and I think this weekend's summit was important in helping bring that shift about.
I discussed that issue with President Obama and others at the G20 summit in the Republic of Korea, because obviously that country is so close to the line of control that what happens in North Korea is very much on everybody's minds. What we want is a return to the six-party talks and to put pressure especially on North Korea's neighbours to try to get that country to go down a more sensible path.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that no amount of skill and courage by our troops at the sharp end can substitute for muddled command and control structures especially at the military-political interface, and that to avoid the kind of mistakes that disfigured the early years in Afghanistan we need the kind of reforms that he introduced nationally with the National Security Council and which he is now pressing for, and got a first stage for, at the NATO conference?
My hon. Friend has huge expertise in this area. I think that NATO in Afghanistan did initially suffer from having a slightly divided command between an ISAF mission to secure Afghanistan and Operation Enduring Freedom to combat al-Qaeda, particularly in the Tora Bora. It has taken some time to have a more unified command and a greater focus on what was necessary not only militarily, but politically and diplomatically. I think that the whole process is now much better run and managed, but we must make sure we make the most of the remaining few years that we have in order to ensure we can hand over a stable and secure Afghanistan.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister and all colleagues for their co-operation.