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
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
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
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.