I regularly discuss a number of security and defence issues with my counterparts in the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The death of Osama bin Laden is a positive development in terms of our counter-terrorism effort, but it does not change our strategy in Afghanistan. We remain committed to our military, diplomatic, and development work to build a stable and secure Afghanistan.
The head of the snake may have been removed, but the bombings in Pakistan at the weekend show that there is still considerable al-Qaeda activity in the region. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that the Prime Minister’s potential announcement of early withdrawals of troops in the summer is of concern, particularly given the fears expressed publicly by defence staff for the safety of British residents at home and abroad as a result of that policy?
We are committed to maintaining the level of troops that we need for our main effort in the southern part of Afghanistan. The number of combat troops that we have had in Helmand has been at a consistent level, our force densities have improved and we intend to make no changes to those numbers until we see an improvement in the security situation there.
Is it not rather depressing that after everything that has happened in Afghanistan and, in particular, to the former Taliban regime there, people in the Taliban have not learned their lesson that al-Qaeda is poison to them? That was shown by the demonstrations against the death of bin Laden on the part of the Pakistani Taliban. If the Taliban want to be part of a settlement, is it not time that they realised how poisonous the al-Qaeda connection has always been?
My hon. Friend makes a truly excellent point. We need to recognise that al-Qaeda involves violent political extremism that will guarantee no country and none of its people’s safety and security. The quicker that those who have previously dallied with the Taliban recognise that that cannot be a route for peace and reconciliation in the long term, the better.
Further to the question raised by my right hon. Friend Mr Hanson, I fully agree that any troop withdrawal should be based on sound military advice and that the lives of our brave servicemen and women, and civilians, should not be put at risk by any kind of premature withdrawal. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will resist the temptation to make any announcements about early withdrawal that may coincide with the visit of President Obama?
As I have pointed out in the House before, we maintain a core force of some 9,500 troops in Afghanistan. The number has risen to as high as 11,000 over the past year, partly due to temporary surges. It is a normal part of the process in Afghanistan that that number will rise and fall but, as I said, the important element in respect of that number is that we maintain our core commitment to the south of Afghanistan and our combat force there.