Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 12:42 pm on 9 February 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 12:42, 9 February 2012

Mr Speaker, with permission I will present a quarterly review of our progress in Afghanistan since October last year, representing the combined assessment of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development.

As always, I begin by paying tribute to the brave men and women of our armed forces. They have borne the brunt of the immense difficulties and dangers that Afghanistan has presented each and every day of the last 10 years and which it still presents in so many ways today. Three hundred and ninety-seven British service personnel have lost their lives since 2001, and 14 since my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary made the previous statement on 18 October. This House and our nation will never forget the sacrifices they have made to protect Britain’s national security.

Our Government’s objective in Afghanistan is shared by the Afghan Government and all 50 nations that contribute forces to the international security assistance force. We all want an Afghanistan that is able to maintain its own security and prevent the country from being used as a safe haven for international terrorists. Our strategy is to help the Afghan Government to build capable Afghan national security forces; to make progress towards a sustainable political settlement; and to support the building of a viable Afghan state.

Central to that is the gradual handover of security responsibilities from international forces to the Afghan national security forces by the end of 2014, as we agreed at the Lisbon summit in 2010. British and ISAF troops will continue to perform combat roles until the end of 2014. Our commitment in terms of aid, trade, investment and close diplomatic ties will of course last far beyond 2014. It was reflected in the enduring strategic partnership agreement signed by the Prime Minister and President Karzai on 28 January, and will play a crucial part in securing our long-term objectives.

No one in this House should underestimate the scale of the challenges that remain, but we are confident that our strategy in Afghanistan is the right one to maintain our national security, and we are making steady progress towards our goals. In December, the National Security Council reaffirmed that strategy, and agreed our objectives for the year ahead: 2012 will be an important year to consolidate progress in Afghanistan. The NATO conference in Chicago in May and the Tokyo conference on development in July will build on pledges made at the international Afghanistan conference in Bonn last December, with the aim of securing concrete financial, development and security commitments for Afghanistan beyond 2014.

The process of transition made considerable progress last year. The House will know that this is the means by which responsibility for security across Afghanistan is progressively transferred from the international community to Afghan national security forces, up to the end of 2014 when international troops will withdraw from a combat role. Transition is based on conditions on the ground; it is phased, it is gradual and it can take up to 18 months in any one area. In December 2011, transition began in the second group of areas. Approximately half the Afghan population lives in areas now in the process of transition.

The progress made in Helmand by Afghan, UK and ISAF troops is illustrated by the inclusion of Nad Ali, alongside Lashkar Gah, early in the transition process, which began in July. The security situation in these districts is unrecognisable compared with the start of British operations in 2006. Violence levels have fallen dramatically. Afghans have freedom of movement in Lashkar Gah and in all five central Helmand districts. Pupil enrolment for both girls and boys is rising, and the Afghan Government are able to provide services to the province.

British forces continue to conduct operations in Helmand, but are supporting a growing number of Afghan-led operations. In December, more than 280 British service personnel joined forces with 550 Afghan troops on Operation Winter Success. The operation was planned and led by the Afghan national army with ISAF mentoring and support. It succeeded in clearing insurgents from the area where three Helmand districts meet—Nad Ali, Nahri Sarraj and Lashkar Gah—before building new checkpoints, manned by Afghan forces, to increase security and extend the governance and development footprint of the Afghan Government.

The success of such operations allows us gradually to focus our efforts on mentoring and training. We will help to create an Afghan national officer academy to produce the Afghan army officers of the future, and it will open its doors in 2013. It is expected to accept 1,350 recruits annually, and approximately 120 British troops will be based at the academy to provide training and related support.

At the end of December, the Afghan national police were more than 143,000 strong and the Afghan national army numbered more than 170,000. They are deploying in formed units, carrying out their own operations and planning complex security arrangements. Last year, they responded to a series of high-profile attacks promptly, professionally and increasingly independent of ISAF support.

For the first time since 2006, year on year violence levels decreased across Afghanistan in 2011. This is a good indication of progress. However, the regional picture remains varied: in the east in particular the number of security incidents rose. We cannot be complacent, as gains are fragile and not yet irreversible, but we are firmly on track for the ANSF to have lead security responsibility by mid to late 2013. The ANSF will have full security responsibility across Afghanistan by the end of 2014. This means that plans for British combat troop draw-down by the end of 2014 also remain on track. The Prime Minister has indicated that there will be a steady and measured draw-down between now and then, and that British forces will be reduced by 500 to 9,000 by the end of this year. The rate of reduction will be determined by the progress of transition on the ground.

We have also seen progress on the political track. In December, I attended the international conference in Bonn. The conference signalled that our commitment to Afghanistan will continue beyond the completion of security transition and will be reinforced at this year’s Chicago and Tokyo conferences.

The Afghan Government also made commitments at Bonn. They include further efforts to tackle corruption and improve the capacity of Afghan institutions. The Government committed themselves to upholding international human rights obligations and to protecting women’s rights as enshrined in the Afghan constitution. Respect for women’s rights is a fundamental obligation, and is important for Afghanistan’s future. We agree with the Afghan Government, and regularly impress upon them, that the rights of women must not be sacrificed as part of the political process. This was emphasised at Bonn by the Minister for Equalities, the Government’s ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls overseas.

Britain supports an Afghan-led political process to help to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. We know that this will take time and will require support. The Afghan Government’s approach received broad endorsement from the Loya Jirga in November 2011 and from the international community at Bonn.

There have been a number of important developments in the political process already this year. Last month, the Taliban expressed their willingness to participate in a political office in Qatar. We welcome any steps towards reconciliation but recognise that they are at an early stage and that more work will be needed to move forward. Nevertheless, the Taliban leadership have accepted the need to engage in a political process, and this is significant. If they are willing to renounce violence, break links with al-Qaeda and respect the Afghan constitution, there can be a place for them in their country’s future. A political office provides an opportunity for all Afghans to work together towards a sustainable peace, for it is only with the engagement of all Afghans that we can hope to see a durable settlement. Britain will continue to support the Afghan Government in these efforts.

In November, the International Monetary Fund agreed a new three-year programme of support with the Afghan Government, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development helped to secure. This has helped to get back on track the internationally agreed set of Afghan development and governance commitments known as the Kabul process. It also allowed donors, including Britain, to resume support to the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund, which is helping the Government to deliver vital basic services, including education and health care.

None the less, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest countries and its financial future is uncertain. A World Bank report published in November showed that the Government budget shortfall might still be $7 billion by 2021. At Bonn we agreed in principle to provide long-term financial support in line with the Afghan Government’s priorities. These plans will be discussed further at the Chicago and Tokyo conferences. We will continue to support the Afghan Government’s efforts to increase tax revenue and economic growth in order to reduce the budget shortfall and aid dependency. Our support to their Revenue Department is helping to exceed IMF revenue collection targets. In November, quarterly revenue collections increased to £322 million, an increase of 23% over the same period last year.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development launched a major new civil society programme to strengthen the capacity of Afghan civil society bodies during his visit to Afghanistan in October. This, too, will have a strong focus on women’s rights. The first call for proposals has resulted in over 200 applications, which are now being assessed.

These developments in Afghanistan are essential to the country’s future. So, too, are the actions of Afghanistan’s neighbours. At last November’s regional conference, hosted by our Turkish partners in Istanbul, Afghanistan’s neighbours gave their collective backing to the Afghan Government’s efforts to promote an inclusive political process. They also agreed to work together through a detailed set of confidence-building measures, and a follow-up meeting will be held in Kabul in June. In March, the fifth regional economic co-operation conference on Afghanistan will also take place, aiming to further economic integration. Britain will continue to support these efforts while recognising that they must be led by the region.

Finally, Pakistan has a crucial role and much to gain from improved stability in Afghanistan. It already suffers more casualties from terrorism than any other country in the world. Both countries need to work together to stem the flow of militants, who undermine the sovereignty of both democratic Governments and remain intent on killing their citizens and destabilising the region. The best way to achieve this is through regular, frank and honest dialogue. We welcome Pakistan’s participation in the Istanbul conference and its support for the commitments that were agreed. The recent visit to Kabul by the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, is a positive indication of improving relations between the two countries and signals the resumption of the Afghanistan-Pakistan dialogue. I look forward to receiving the Foreign Minister in London on 21 February, when we will discuss Afghanistan and the region as well as our strong bilateral relations.

Serious challenges remain in Afghanistan. There will undoubtedly be setbacks and difficulties ahead, but we are making steady progress. This will be an important year to consolidate this progress and to strengthen the international commitments to Afghanistan and long-term partnership with its people.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Shadow Foreign Secretary 12:54, 9 February 2012

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it. Of course, the context of this discussion is the number of British personnel currently serving in Afghanistan—almost 10,000—who are harnessing their professionalism and expertise to the task of securing a stable Afghanistan that will not threaten this country’s security again. Their bravery is rightly and regularly praised in the House, but each time it is a genuine and sincere reflection of the admiration on both sides of this House for the work they do on our behalf.

The Foreign Secretary knows that we supported the mission in Afghanistan in government and continue to do so in opposition. We are keen to discuss these issues in a spirit of shared support for the mission, but it is also the Opposition’s job to scrutinise, and that task is especially important when the lives of our servicemen and women are at stake. I hope that he will see my questions in that spirit.

I will divide my questions between the security situation and the diplomatic effort. On the security situation, the Foreign Secretary has just told the House:

“British and ISAF troops will continue to perform combat roles until the end of 2014.”

How is that consistent with the comments of the American Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, who only last week said:

“Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advice and assist role”?

Incidentally, that comment was confirmed by the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, but there was no statement to the House. Given the integrated nature of ISAF’s work, both in Helmand and across Afghanistan, is the Foreign Secretary seriously suggesting that British military personnel will be involved in combat operations for potentially between a year and 18 months after our American allies have transferred from combat operations to providing training, advice and assistance?

What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the military implications of America’s decision to wind down combat operations more than a year before the previously stated deadline for withdrawal? What is his assessment of the impact on the ISAF mission’s timetable for transition of the announcement in January by the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, that French troops will now leave Afghanistan by the end of 2013?

The statement comes shortly after the publication of a leaked NATO document cataloguing the depth of links and assistance between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani security services. The report also details widespread collaboration between the insurgents and the Afghan police and military, so what is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the findings of the report, and how does he reconcile its bleak findings with his description today that

“we are making steady progress”?

The Foreign Secretary has just told the House:

“For the first time since 2006, year on year violence levels decreased across Afghanistan in 2011.”

How does he reconcile that statement with the report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan only last week that indicated that the number of civilians killed and injured has risen for the fifth year running, with the majority of deaths caused by insurgents? The report documented 3,021 civilian deaths in 2011, compared with 2,790 in 2010 and 2,412 in 2009.

The Foreign Secretary said in his statement that 120 British troops will be based at the Afghan national academy. Will he reassure the House that all necessary force protection measures will be in place for them at that time? He stated that the Afghan national army now numbers 170,000. Will he confirm how large the British Government now expect the Afghan national army to be at the time of transition in 2014 and say a little more about how these force levels are to be financed in the light of the deficits he spoke of?

Let me now turn briefly to the diplomatic effort. We have expressed our concern in the past that there was not an oral statement to the House following the Bonn conference in December and that, despite the intense effort required in these critical months, the Prime Minister has not made a statement on Afghanistan to the House for many months. It is vital that the scale of our military effort is matched by diplomatic efforts. The Foreign Secretary spoke of November’s Istanbul conference, but will he set out for the House what sustained efforts are being made to co-ordinate the regional players, such as China and Pakistan, and bind them into the work of securing a stable and durable peace?

The Foreign Secretary spoke of the Taliban’s willingness to participate in a political office in Qatar. While it is suggested that only talks about talks are now under way, what progress is being made on the broader and more inclusive political settlement needed within Afghanistan for a stable state post 2014? Specifically, will he update the House on what progress has been made by the Afghan High Peace Council, established at the London conference in 2010, on reaching a consensus on constitutional arrangements and how it is ensuring that women have a proper role in Afghanistan’s future?

Finally, given the timetable for transition, will the Foreign Secretary provide the House with the British Government’s assessment of the capacity of the Afghan state to undertake, as is planned, free and fair presidential elections during 2014?

We now have an end date in Afghanistan, but it is through urgent diplomatic work that we can also have an end state worthy of the sacrifice endured during this long decade.

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. He rightly pays tribute to the bravery of our armed forces and reflects how sincere those tributes always are in this House, particularly from those of us on both sides who have travelled in Afghanistan and seen the work of our armed services and what happens in field hospitals. We recognise the extraordinary commitment of all involved. He is quite right to point out again—I am grateful to him for it—from the Opposition Benches that those operations enjoy support across the House, and I certainly take his questions in the spirit in which they are obviously intended.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about reconciling what I have said today with what the US Defence Secretary has said over the past couple of weeks. The US Defence Secretary has stressed that US forces will remain combat-capable and ready in Afghanistan to the end of 2014, and he has also said very clearly:

“We’ve got to stick to the Lisbon strategy. The United States has a very strong commitment to Lisbon and to the strategy that was laid out there.”

That strategy involves withdrawing from a combat role after the end of 2014.

Sometimes, in the reporting of different comments, there is confusion between lead responsibility and full responsibility. As I said in my statement, however, we expect Afghan forces to have lead responsibility throughout Afghanistan in mid to late 2013, and I also reflected on how they have lead responsibility for many operations now in Helmand. Full responsibility—that is, full transition to Afghan security control—is from the end of 2014, so we are not conscious of any difference between the approach of the United States, and its intentions for its armed forces, and ours; nor would we want there to be any difference. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to express alarm at the idea of such a difference, which is not something that the Government intend or would accept.

The leaked document to which he refers should not have too much importance attributed to it. It was actually a collection of the views and various opinions of Taliban detainees held in custody, and it should not be taken as a necessarily accurate reflection of the overall strategic situation. I do not accept, therefore, that a leaked document of Taliban views contradicts everything I have said in this statement about the steady progress that is being made—steady progress always qualified by my saying how fragile it is in some areas, and how the picture has been varied.

That brings me to the right hon. Gentleman’s next question, because he asks about the number of incidents. It has risen over the past year in Regional Command East and Regional Command South West, but it has gone down in Regional Command South, down particularly sharply in Helmand, our own area of responsibilities, and down on average throughout the country. It is true also, nevertheless, that some of those incidents have been considerable attacks and cost civilian lives. About 80% of civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by insurgent activity, and that is why the civilian casualty figures are as he cites—something, therefore, that we cannot at all be complacent about.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the academy, and I can of course assure him that the necessary protection will be in place. The academy will be on the same site as the United States academy, and full protection will be afforded to it.

On the strength of Afghan national security forces, they will be built up, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, to a total strength of 352,000. Decisions will be made—probably at the NATO summit in Chicago, which the Secretary of State for Defence, the Prime Minister and I will attend—about the strength of Afghan national security forces in later years, and about what the international community’s financial contribution will be. We certainly expect the United Kingdom to make a significant contribution to those forces after 2014.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about oral statements, but I must gently point out that we introduced the quarterly statements on Afghanistan, having called for them for a long time during the previous Parliament, and indeed a monthly report to Parliament. We will always consider requests for further statements, but we have a great deal more statements on the matter than was the case in the previous Parliament.

On regional efforts, the Istanbul meeting was important, and the forthcoming economic co-operation conference that I mentioned will be important also in binding in the partners, but at the Bonn conference it was striking how the regional partners were committed to economic and development co-operation with Afghanistan, as well as all of us who make such a large security contribution.

It would not be fair to say that a consensus on the future, which the right hon. Gentleman quite rightly looks for in Afghanistan on constitutional arrangements, has yet been reached, but the meeting of the Loya Jirga was important progress, as is the establishment of the Taliban’s political office, although that is at an early stage. It does not indicate necessarily that they have signed up to the idea of reconciliation overall, nor that they are united on it, but it is one indication of progress.

The conduct of forthcoming elections, including the presidential one, will be a very important factor in Afghanistan’s political future and in its stability. We saw in the most recent round of elections—the presidential and parliamentary elections in Afghanistan—an improvement in the holding of free and fair elections conducted in an orderly way. We look for another improvement in the next presidential election.

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. I share his approach to the draw-down of troops, which depends on the conditions on the ground, and I note that the cost of the ANSF post-2015 is still to be resolved but will, I hope, emerge after the NATO summit. Will he say a little more about the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar? Those discussions are clearly very important. Is there anything that we can do to give them more impetus?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

As I just said, it is too early to say very much about those negotiations, but the United Kingdom has, as my hon. Friend knows, for a long time supported the concept of reconciliation in Afghanistan, including the involvement of the Taliban, provided ultimately that the conditions of their breaking with al-Qaeda and accepting the constitution of Afghanistan can be met. The negotiations are at an early stage and do not necessarily indicate that the Taliban are in favour of reconciliation or have decided collectively to pursue it. It is the possible beginning of a process. We will have to see how that goes, but it is too early to say anything more than that about it at the moment.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that, while we pay tribute—I certainly do—to our armed forces, as I have said previously, and to all the innocent victims of war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the overwhelming majority of British people want to see an end to our combat role as quickly as possible and, we hope, before the end of 2014? All the indications are that the sentiment in Britain is shared in the United States, France and Germany.

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

British people do want their own—our own—national security to be secured, and, yes, they very much support our troops whenever they are sent overseas into combat operations. This country has a very strong tradition of such support, but what we are doing now—setting a clear timetable, whereby by the end of 2014 we will have withdrawn from a combat role, or from having our troops there in anything like their current numbers—is something that meets the approval of the country. But we would not be doing a service to the country or, indeed, to the sacrifices of our forces there over recent years if we indulged in a precipitate withdrawal that left a far more difficult situation than the one that we hope to leave.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Liberal Democrat, North East Fife

I hope that my right hon. Friend will excuse me if I return to the issue of the attitude of the United States and of the French, but there is a common background. Each country is in the throes of an acrimonious presidential election, and it leads me to the conclusion that statements may be made for political rather than military reasons. If some of the predictions, based on what Mr Panetta has said and has never withdrawn, were to be fulfilled, the military position of British troops would be substantially altered. Can we be satisfied that both my right hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for Defence are aware of that and are ready to take steps if necessary to protect the interests of British forces?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I understand the anxieties in the House on this issue. The US Defence Secretary clarified any doubts, certainly to my satisfaction and that of my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary, in saying, as I quoted earlier:

“We’ve got to stick to the Lisbon strategy.”

The United States has a strong commitment to that. Of course, part of that strategy is that in 2013, Afghans will have lead responsibility across much of Afghanistan, as I indicated in my statement. Increasingly, the role of ISAF is to provide mentoring, training and support. I gave examples of that from Helmand. The United States and the United Kingdom have the same strategy, as do all the ISAF nations.

It is true that France has announced a change in its withdrawal. President Sarkozy has announced the withdrawal of French troops by the end of 2013, rather than 2014. No other ISAF partner, among the 50 nations, has announced accelerated withdrawal plans. The clear consensus at the NATO Defence Ministers’ meeting on 2 and 3 February was that we should stick to the Lisbon time lines, with staged troop draw-down up to the end of 2014.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

The Foreign Secretary has referred to the crucial role of Pakistan vis-à-vis Afghanistan, and to the fact that Pakistan suffers more from terrorism than any other country. Will he give a detailed assessment of Pakistan’s current commitment in terms of tackling terrorism? What is Pakistan doing with ourselves and others to take forward the situation in Afghanistan?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Pakistani leaders are determined to tackle terrorism. We will have a detailed discussion about that when the Pakistani Foreign Minister comes here in two weeks’ time. I have seen for myself on recent visits to Pakistan how much Pakistanis mourn the loss of tens of thousands of lives to terrorism. We have to accept that Pakistan is in an almost uniquely difficult situation. Its Government are not wholly in control of all their own territory and their writ does not run in all their territory. There is a long history of terrorist activity. This is an enormous challenge for Pakistan. We work with it in many ways, and we use that work to encourage its fight against terrorism. We will continue to do so, but it will remain a difficult struggle.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

Unless western forces retain some strategic reserves in one or more strategic bases in Afghanistan after the end of 2014, the highly optimistic portrait that my right hon. Friend has painted will not long survive that date. Will he confirm that America, regardless of pre-election statements, is actively considering retaining some form of significant military presence in one or more strategic bases in Afghanistan?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

That is a matter to be concluded between the United States and Afghanistan. It is a pertinent question. The answer will depend on the definition that those countries together have for their future strategic partnership. Of course, the long-term presence of United States forces is a controversial subject in the region. The matter has not been settled. I stress to my hon. Friend the growing size and capability of the Afghan national security forces, which are building up to a total of 352,000. They are equipping themselves extremely well in the current conditions.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Labour, Feltham and Heston

I thank the Secretary of State for his reference to the welfare and rights of women in Afghanistan. However, he will be aware of the growing concerns highlighted in The Guardian last week that improvements for women will see a reversal. Women for Women International has asked that the allies do not pull out without insisting on guarantees for women’s rights in Afghanistan. What specific commitments are the British Government and our allies calling for to ensure that the support for women’s rights is not rhetoric and that women will stay safe in Afghanistan in future?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

We are continuing to press the Government of Afghanistan, who made important commitments at the Bonn conference on this matter, to deliver on their human rights commitments, including on the elimination of violence against women law and the implementation of the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. As the hon. Lady will know, we are taking a lot of other action to entrench the concept of women’s rights and women’s involvement in Afghan society and leadership. We have funded a project to provide support to female parliamentary candidates and parliamentarians; supported a women’s legal aid centre in Kabul; and provided funding for the elimination of violence against women special fund and for a five-year women’s empowerment programme, implemented by the non-governmental organisation, Womankind. Across the board, the United Kingdom has a good record on this subject.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

My noble Friend Lord Ashdown has written a highly critical account in the The Times this week of the international community’s record in Afghanistan over more than a decade. He concluded, with typical military bluntness, that only the poor bloody infantry, with all their courage and determination, can expect to march out of Afghanistan with their heads held high. Although I do not expect the Foreign Secretary to endorse that statement precisely, does he agree with my noble Friend that alongside the political process, it is critical that we leave behind an Afghan army that is robust, professional and non-political? Does he agree that that, and not the attempted eradication of the Taliban, is the key security objective from now on?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

That is very important, as are all the things that we have talked about, such as building a viable Afghan state and creating a sustainable political process. Those things are important, as well as the security gains. Lord Ashdown is right to draw attention to the extraordinary role of our Army and other armed forces in making it possible to make progress in other areas. It is right that building up the Afghan national security forces, not only in numbers but in quality, is critical. One pleasing thing has been the literacy training programme, which 125,000 members of the security forces have passed through, greatly improving their capabilities. Such work on quality has to continue, as well as building up the size of the forces.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitutional Reform), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

Now more than ever our armed forces need to know that we are supporting them. Will the Secretary of State ensure that soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan will not be made redundant as part of the latest tranche of armed forces job cuts?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Yes. Soldiers will not be made redundant while serving in Afghanistan or within six months of coming back from service in Afghanistan, as my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has indicated.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

Will my right hon. Friend set out the extent of Iranian influence in Afghanistan and the support that Iran is giving to the insurgents?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My hon. Friend is assiduous in pointing out the malign influence of Iran on its neighbours in several directions. We are concerned about that in Syria at the moment, but it also applies to Afghanistan. There have been clear incidents of practical Iranian support for insurgent activity. We absolutely deplore that. Afghanistan will succeed most effectively if it is free of such influence. We have made that point to the Government of Afghanistan.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Withdrawal in contact with an enemy is most difficult and delicate, and must be extremely well planned. I am mindful that when we went into Helmand in 2006, we had difficulties and stirred up a hornets’ nest. It is possible that the same will happen as we withdraw. I ask the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary to ensure that the generals who are planning our withdrawal are meticulous about the withdrawal plan, so that we minimise the casualties. I hope that there will be none.

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Of course my hon. Friend is quite right, and my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary, myself and the whole National Security Council will certainly be very conscious of that. Of course, in this case it is not the withdrawal of all forces that is ensuring that there is space for political and economic development in Afghanistan, since the Afghan national security forces are being built up all the time. That is different from a complete withdrawal, but of course we will be very conscious of his point.

The upside of saying that we will have come to a certain point by 2014 is that it concentrates the minds of all others concerned. Our experience is that when we say to the Afghans that they will take security responsibility in a particular town or province on such a date, it is a forcing mechanism to encourage them to organise themselves to take that responsibility. We have to ensure that it has the same beneficial effect across the country.

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

Having recently visited Afghanistan, I know that one of the key issues in the transfer of security responsibility to the ANSF is the alarmingly high churn of up to 30% in individual Afghan national army units. What plans does the Foreign Secretary have to address that, for example by ensuring that better leave arrangements are in place for ANA service personnel?

Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

This is still an issue. The attrition rates among the Afghan national army are still too high. The average is 2.6% a month across the army, so let us get it in perspective, but it is still higher than we would like it to be. The target is 1.5%. Afghan national police attrition rates have come down to more or less the 1.5% target, but they are nevertheless still too high. They show the importance of the better training arrangements that are now in place. Better pension arrangements are also being introduced, so a range of measures are being brought forward to deal with that very problem.