Order. I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman, but at this stage all he has to do—we look forward to hearing his mellifluous tones erelong—is request a statement on this important matter. We will not have to wait long to hear his views.
I know that the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the bravery of those who have been killed in action over the past few days in Afghanistan: Lance Corporal Duane Groom of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, who was killed in action on
The security of our deployed forces in Afghanistan, or anywhere in the world, remains a defence priority. The safety of our service personnel is an issue that all in the Government and the military chain of command take extremely seriously. In recent days, we have again been reminded of the difficult and challenging environment in which our armed forces operate.
Our servicemen and women are doing vital work protecting the UK from the threat of international terrorism. Our strategy is clear. We are mentoring and training the Afghan army and police to deliver security to their own people. This will allow our forces first to withdraw into a support role and then to come home. The Taliban hate this strategy and seek to wreck it through insider attacks. They aim to disrupt the collaboration with Afghan forces, which is at the heart of our strategy. We cannot and will not allow the process to be derailed.
Our partnering with the Afghan national security forces involves risk, but it is essential to success. At 15.45 local time on
I was in Afghanistan last week, and the insider threat was at the top of my agenda in meetings with Afghan leaders and with UK and international security assistance force commanders. I recognise that we cannot eliminate the risk entirely, but I was reassured that President Karzai and the rest of the Afghan Government and military hierarchy clearly recognise that confronting and defeating this threat is pivotal to the future success of the campaign. The Afghan Government, ISAF and the UK national contingent commander have taken significant steps to tackle the threat. We are all united in the view that we cannot let these few terrible incidents derail the steady progress in preparing the Afghans to take responsibility for their own security and thus secure our long-term objectives.
The weekend also saw a significant and well co-ordinated attack on Camp Bastion. The base is one of ISAF’s main sites in southern Afghanistan and acts as the main UK operating base in Helmand. It is a base the size of Reading with a perimeter fence nearly 40 km long. It is difficult to defend a site of this size—a challenge made all the harder when faced with a suicidal enemy. The attack began just after 10 pm local time on Friday night, when approximately 15 insurgents penetrated the camp at one point of the perimeter fence to the eastern side of the main runway. They were dressed in US army uniforms and armed with automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and suicide vests. They attacked coalition fixed and rotary-wing aircraft parked on the flight line, aircraft hangars and other buildings. Six US Marine Corps Harrier jets were destroyed and two were significantly damaged. However, at no stage did the attackers get near to the accommodation areas where the vast majority of the international forces reside.
UK and US forces responded to the incident. The UK Force Protection Wing quick reaction force, which is made up from 51 Squadron the RAF regiment, deployed immediately and engaged the insurgents, killing 14 and wounding one, who has been taken into custody. Two US Marine Corps service members were killed and 13 coalition personnel—12 military and one civilian—were wounded in the attack. None of the injuries is considered life-threatening. There is no denying that this is a significant incident. Immediate measures have been taken to enhance protection of the base and a full investigation is under way, led by the deputy commander of ISAF, UK General Adrian Bradshaw, to ensure that lessons are learned and that such a perimeter breach does not happen again.
Our force protection posture, including the protection of our bases, is routinely assessed and kept under constant review by military commanders to reflect the situation on the ground. I am sure the House will understand that for operational reasons I am unable to discuss force protection measures in fine detail.
Order. There is understandably much interest in this urgent question, but the House will be conscious also that there is a statement by the Secretary of State for Education to follow, and I have to take account of the likely level of interest in that and in the subsequent business. I intend to run the urgent question for approximately half an hour from now, but there will be a premium on brevity from Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, which has allowed the Secretary of State to make a full statement. Since last the House met, as the Secretary of State has recorded—I exchanged some words with him about my question before asking it—two men from the Yorkshire Regiment and one from the Grenadier Guards have died.
My question is simple: why, why, why are we still allowing our soldiers to be sacrificed to no evident purpose? Just after the Prime Minister entered No. 10, he went to Afghanistan and reported to the House. I urged him then, and I think he agreed, that elected Ministers had to take back command and control from the unelected military-Ministry of Defence nexus that had dictated policy. Since then, 146 British soldiers have died, more than one for every week for which he has been in office. They have died in an unwinnable conflict for an unattainable end, to no strategic benefit for our country. It does no honour at all to those who have sacrificed their lives to heap more bodies on the funeral pyre. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori—or pro Britannia mori—is, again, the old, old lie.
I am not urging scuttle. I am urging a drawback to a position in which our men will no longer be killed before they can come home. We have done all the good that we can do. It is time to say, “It’s over.” Frankly, if any more of our brave young boys of barely 20 die, their mothers, fathers and families will ask, “Why, why, why?” The Secretary of State is an honourable man, as are my Front-Bench colleagues. None of us wants to be where we are, but it is over, and we will have no answer if any more of our people are sacrificed.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and for the measured way in which he has made his point. I remind him that we went into Afghanistan to protect our own national security and ensure that the territory of Afghanistan could not be used by international terrorists to mount attacks on our towns and cities and those of our allies and partner nations. We have announced our intention to end our combat role in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, but to protect our legacy and ensure the continued achievement of our goal of denying the territory of Afghanistan to international terrorists, it is essential that we complete the task of training the Afghan national security forces and increasing their capability so that they can take over the burden of combat as we withdraw. That is what we intend to do, and we will not be deterred from it by these attacks.
It has been a terrible weekend indeed, and all our hearts go out to the families and comrades of the people who have been killed. None the less, I stood in mourning as 300 bodies were carried down the high street of Royal Wootton Bassett in my constituency, and it seems to me that we would dishonour their memory if we were simply to say that because of this terrible weekend, we must now pull out somehow or other. We have been sent there to do a job, and we must do that job and leave with our heads held high.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I think none of us disagrees with the proposition that we now need to extract ourselves from the combat role in Afghanistan. We have set out a timetable for doing that and a clear strategy for replacing the role that our forces play with ever more competent and capable Afghan national security forces. That is the strategy, and we will continue to deliver it.
I begin by joining the Secretary of State in paying tribute to Sergeant Gareth Thursby and Private Thomas Wroe, both of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, and Lance Corporal Duane Groom of 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards. Our thoughts and prayers are also with those who were wounded over the weekend. Although we in this House take decisions concerning national security, it is the actions and bravery of such people that determine the safety of our country.
Labour Members have been consistent in our support for the mission in Afghanistan, and we will ensure that the best course of action is taken for our forces and for the stability of Afghanistan. The increasing frequency of green-on-blue attacks demands a response of proportionate strength. I start by saying, then, that we welcome the measures that have already been announced regarding recruitment and vetting, and agree that Britain’s resolve should not be shaken by recent events. Green-on-blue attacks are not new, and it is a concern that additional measures were not put in place earlier. When the issue was raised in March, the then Minister for the Armed Forces, Nick Harvey, said that
“we have changed our procedures in the light of events”.—[Hansard, 26 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 1148.]
Events have proved that any changes that were made were clearly insufficient. I therefore invite the Secretary of State to confirm that he has confidence in the new measures, and that they are making a lasting difference.
What does the Secretary of State consider to be the principal motivation behind the attacks? To what extent does he believe that they are co-ordinated by the Taliban? That is not to be taken as a given, but it should be taken into consideration as we advance the political process. Do recent events change the Secretary of State’s view that it may be possible to draw down further troops in 2013, as he articulated in recent press articles? When will he be in a position to give the House the details of those withdrawals?
As ever, we offer our support to our armed forces and the Government’s mission, which remains a national priority.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the Opposition’s continuing, unstinting support for the strategic objectives in Afghanistan, which are very much in the UK’s national interest.
I should make it clear that, as we understand it at the moment, the attack on Camp Bastion was not an example of a green-on-blue attack. Our current understanding is that Taliban operatives dressed in US army uniforms were responsible, so that attack should be distinguished from the earlier attack, which killed the two members of the Yorkshire Regiment at the Afghan local police base.
The hon. Gentleman asked about my confidence in the new measures that have been taken. I have confidence in them, but they will not all have an immediate impact. The ANSF has grown quickly and it is clear, with the benefit of hindsight, that some of the vetting processes that were used during that fast expansion phase may not have been entirely adequate, so a re-vetting process is now being carried out. Sixty individuals have already been expelled from the Afghan national army, and hundreds more are under investigation.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the motivation for the attacks. I believe that there are four groups of attack motivators. Infiltrations, which the Taliban organise, are certainly going on. There is radicalisation, and last week’s events, with the distribution of the inflammatory video across the Muslim world, did not help. Some attacks are clearly motivated by personal or cultural factors in a society where relatively petty disputes are routinely resolved by resort to violence. Some of the attacks are by Taliban operatives, who have stolen or obtained uniforms.
The hon. Gentleman asked about my comments in Afghanistan about draw-down profile. Military commanders on the ground are telling me, in sharp contradistinction to what I was hearing from them only four or five months ago, that they now believe that their force requirements during 2013 will allow scope for draw-down from current numbers in 2013 on our way to our objective of complete draw-down by the end of 2014.
Several immediate actions have of course been taken on Bastion security: increase of patrols in depth outside the wire; full manning of all watchtowers; increased patrolling inside the base; and additional deployment of intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance assets. Notice has also been given to a number of settlements that have grown up close to the wire that they will be removed so that we have a clearer field of fire outside the base perimeter.
Order. To accommodate the maximum number of colleagues, I appeal to hon. Members to put single, short supplementary questions, preferably without preamble.
I shall try to meet your stricture, Mr Speaker. My right hon. Friend has painted a sombre picture. Vigilance will obviously be extremely important in endeavouring to prevent such issues from arising again. Will he give the House an assurance that, if extra resources are necessary, those, too, will be provided?
If additional equipment is required, commanders will ask for it; they are never backward in coming forward when they think they require additional equipment. My initial assessment is that the issue is not one of resources but about rethinking our posture to deal with the enemy’s change in tactics, which is itself a response to the success of the partnering programme with Afghan forces.
Does not this terrible tragedy reveal a central fault line in the Government’s strategy, the same one that was apparent in the Government in whom I served—namely, the inability to engage beyond President Karzai’s Government to the wider fiefdoms at local and regional level, and to the Taliban themselves? Until that is done—until a political strategy is successfully pursued—our forces will continue to be attacked, killed and maimed in this fashion, and that cannot be right.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the long-term solution to the problem in Afghanistan must involve a political solution, and the pressure is very much on Afghan political leaders, and those in neighbouring countries, to bring that progress about. In the meantime, our task is to ensure that Afghan national security forces provide the security envelope within which any such political settlement can be deployed.
Given the extensive training that is already carried out over several years, why not end combat duties for our troops now, let the Afghans learn the remaining lessons by experience, and get most of our troops home for Christmas?
My right hon. Friend is ignoring the realities of the situation on the ground. UK trainers and mentors have a dual role with Afghan forces. Not only do they enhance the preparedness of those forces, they act as a bridge to enablers such as indirect fire, and helicopter and medical support, which are still necessarily provided by ISAF forces. We have a clear plan to draw down our engagement over two years, and we are steadily withdrawing from combat. To give my right hon. Friend an example, at the beginning of the current six-month tour, we operated 81 separate patrol bases, checkpoints and forward operating bases in Helmand province. That number is now down to 34. We are withdrawing quite quickly from the combat role, but we have a job to do and we will carry on doing it.
Is this not an example of the folly of giving the enemy notice of when we are going to withdraw before reaching a political solution? I have a specific question for the Secretary of State: was there any evidence of inside help for the insurgents who attacked Camp Bastion, particularly from Afghan nationals?
I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words about my constituent Sergeant Gareth Thursby. Does he agree that his widow, Louise, and children, Joshua and Ruby, can be proud of the work done by Gareth Thursby and his colleagues to protect our national security?
Indeed they can. As I said, our work in partnering, training and mentoring Afghan forces necessarily involves risk. Those brave servicemen put themselves in harm’s way in order to carry out that vital work, and we will be eternally grateful to them for that sacrifice.
The soldiers are indeed brave and I pay tribute to those who died. Is the Secretary of State aware that hardly any Members on either side of the House believe that the security of our country depends on military involvement in Afghanistan? It is an unwinnable war. The Taliban will not be defeated and the troops should come home as quickly as possible.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. When we end our combat role in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, it is likely that it will not be an entirely peaceable country. The point, however, is that ISAF and Afghan national security forces are containing the insurgency and, critically, denying the use of Afghan territory to international terrorists. That is the bottom line for the UK’s national security. If we turn the clock back 10 years, Afghanistan was the principal base for international terrorists who sought ungoverned space from which to plan their attacks on the west.
Last Thursday, in a statement on Afghanistan by the Secretary of State for International Development, the importance of nation building was stressed. When visiting troops in Afghanistan, the Secretary of State for Defence rightly made the point that our troops’ lives should be put in danger not for the sake of nation building, but only to protect British security interests. Which is the Government view? The importance of the distinction is that the first requires defeat of the Taliban, whereas the second does not.
I am not sure I agree with the last part of my hon. Friend’s analysis. Building the capacity of the Afghan state is and has been an important part of winning the overall battle. Afghans in Helmand in particular are now enjoying substantially better health, education and transport services, and access to justice, than they enjoyed a couple of years ago. There is lots of evidence to show that that reinforces their tendency to support the Government and diminishes their tendency to support the insurgency. It is clear to me that building the capacity of the Afghan Government is an important part of the overall equation, but our forces are there to protect our national security. That is their principal task and the basis on which we should judge the wisdom of their engagement.
The hon. Lady will know that we have not yet made any commitment beyond the commitment to lead the Afghan national officers academy just outside Kabul. We have made no further commitment to troops beyond 2014. The National Security Council and the Cabinet will reach that decision in due course. There is no need for us to make a decision at this time.
I should also say that there are a significant number of green-on-green incidents as well as green-on-blue incidents. Afghan national security forces—this is partly a cultural issue—regularly turn their guns on one another. It is not clear that this is entirely about ISAF forces being singled out; a cultural issue is asserting itself.
The Secretary of State knows my concern that, after the end of the combat role, any mentoring teams left in Afghanistan will become top targets for the enemy. Is this vulnerability one of the reasons why the US is beginning to take seriously the idea of long-term containment using strategic bases? Will our Government begin to take that idea seriously too?
Clearly, the US is looking at long-term containment using strategic bases precisely because it recognises the importance of denying Afghan territory to international terrorists. As I said in reply to Ms Stuart, we have made no decision yet on a post-2014 presence in Afghanistan. Clearly, one factor that will influence us is decisions taken by other ISAF member states.
Congratulations to the Minister, who is saying that there is no way we can allow our soldiers to risk their lives when there is no British interest involved. That is the situation since al-Qaeda was defeated in Afghanistan. When our soldiers are killed by their allies, it is not warfare, but murder. We should take the decision to bring our troops home, as the Canadian and Dutch Parliaments have—their troops have been home for two years. The French are going home early, as are the New Zealanders. There is absolutely no reason why we should not do what the country wants and bring our brave soldiers home by Christmas.
There are lots of reasons why we should not and could not bring our brave soldiers home by Christmas. We have a legacy in Afghanistan, and it has been won at a great cost. Four hundred and thirty British service personnel have given their lives, and we intend to protect that legacy—[ Interruption. ] We intend to protect that legacy by ensuring that the UK’s national security interests are protected in future by training and mentoring the Afghan national security forces to take over the role we are currently playing—[ Interruption. ]
Order. Hon. Members should not shout, but I look to a very senior figure on the Treasury Bench not to get over-excited. I knew Mr Francois when he was a very calm and rational 23-year-old. Now he is 48 he should be even more calm and rational. That is what we want to see.
Can we not just be calm and rational, and concentrate on our national interest, which is our own defence? Given that the old Liberal Imperialist dream of making Afghanistan safe for democracy is dead and that, after 2014, the Taliban will be in control of large areas of the country, why do we not concentrate on our national security, on the use of special forces and drone attacks to keep the heads of the Taliban down, and not pretend that we are in there to fulfil our national destiny of promoting democracy in Afghanistan? It will not happen.
I have said very clearly that the role of British forces there is to protect Britain’s national security interests. In my judgment, and that of the Government and the military command, that will best be achieved by ensuring the capability of what is now a substantial Afghan security force to hold the ground after 2014, and to contain the insurgency—I do not live in a world where I imagine the insurgency will be defeated by military means—and to create the space for an inclusive, or semi-inclusive, political solution.
I send my condolences to the families of the fallen soldiers from the 3 Yorks.
Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that all possible measures are in place to ensure that the most effective vetting takes place of those who seek to serve in the Afghan national security forces? I appreciate the difficulties and complexities of this specialised work but seek his assurance that sufficient resource has been made available to ensure that, where possible, those intent on causing our soldiers harm are not given the opportunity to do so.
I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The Afghan Government have doubled the number of National Directorate of Security investigators assigned to the Afghan national army and introduced processes of re-vetting Afghan soldiers returning after going AWOL and of re-vetting soldiers when they return from prolonged periods of leave. Our commanders in theatre tell me that, on every occasion, they have accepted concerns expressed by allied commanders about individuals and have, without hesitation, detained them and begun an investigation. We are satisfied that the Afghans are doing everything that needs to be done on their side; we are taking further measures on ours.
In his statement, the Secretary of State suggested that we were rethinking our posture. Could we rethink our posture towards those responsible for the mentoring, reduce the number of young officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers at the front line involved in mentoring, and restrict it to command and control at kandak—battalion—level? That would, at least, stop some of our men being put into danger?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. One of the issues that will be considered is the appropriate level at which to do it. At the moment, we are mentoring at kandak and tolay company level. We certainly keep these issues under constant review. I remind him, however, that we are not only mentoring army units; Afghan local police units also have to be trained. The Afghan local police and uniformed police units constitute an extraordinarily effective force against the Taliban. He has my assurance, however, that we keep these matters under constant review.
Can we do more to protect those working with British forces? Twenty one Afghani interpreters have been killed in the past five years, and 90 seriously injured. Can we better protect not only those in Afghanistan but those who come to this country, such as Mr Hottak, a constituent of mine, who should not have to wait a year and a half for his asylum claim to be considered?
We have a programme for the protection of Afghans working for UK forces, particularly interpreters, and are working on a programme to ensure their protection post-2014, when we withdraw from our combat role.
The coalition’s path towards handover to the Afghan forces is right. One of the most important contributions that the Afghan forces can make is to counter-intelligence. Has the Secretary of State received any assurances from Mr Karzai and his Government that effective Afghan counter-intelligence is being developed?
The Afghans are developing capabilities such as counter-intelligence, but they are still, at this stage, heavily dependent on ISAF support for technical advice and technical enablement. The strategic plan envisages that that support will continue for another two years as we draw down from the combat role.
The attack on Camp Bastion showed a new level of sophistication and skill on behalf of the Taliban. May we have an assurance that there will be close monitoring of Taliban infiltration of our security forces, so that access to uniforms, for example, is protected in order to prevent this sort of attack from taking place in the future?
The attack was a sophisticated one, but I have to say to the hon. Lady that it is not that difficult for someone to cut through a fence and attack what is on the other side of it when they have absolutely no intention of getting out alive. Most of the sophisticated operations that we are involved in are based on protecting our own forces. All these people clearly expected to die; there was clearly no plan for extracting them after the attack.
On the question of uniforms, I believe that the people involved in the attack on Friday night were wearing US army uniforms. It is probably fanciful to suggest that we can create a situation whereby US army uniforms or a passable imitation of them are not fairly freely available.
Eighteen-year-old Private Thomas Wroe attended the high school in my home village of Honley, and I pass on my sincerest sympathies to his family and to that of his Yorkshire Regiment colleague, Sergeant Gareth Thursby. Will my right hon. Friend assure me and all the families that everything is being done within the Afghan high command to change its recruitment procedures in order to eradicate these cowardly insider attacks on our forces?
As I have said, we believe that the Afghans are doing everything that is appropriate. They have done everything we suggested that they should do, so we have no complaints at all. I can tell my hon. Friend that President Karzai has made it clear at the highest level to his military commanders and his Cabinet that this is a pivotal issue and that they have to resolve it and step up to the plate.
Is it not the case that in every military campaign where the departure of troops has been preannounced, it has been as dangerous to leave as it was to arrive in the first place? Will the
Defence Secretary make it absolutely clear to military leaders in the field that they need to do everything in their power to ensure force protection as we leave?
Of course. Our military commanders are absolutely clear that force protection is our No. 1 priority and that it will remain so during the draw-down. As the hon. Gentleman rightly suggests, during the draw-down of a force there is a very careful balance to be struck between the speed of extraction and maintaining adequate force protection. Much of the debate taking place inside the military about the trajectory of draw-down is about how to maintain adequate force protection during that period.
Our military are doing an incredible job, which is being made all the more difficult by these insider attacks, which have increased from three ISAF deaths in 2008 to 51 this year. Will the Secretary of State comment on reports that suggest that the policeman who killed the two British soldiers was actually related to a Taliban leader? What is being done by the Afghan recruitment process to make sure that this does not happen in the future?
I have seen no intelligence myself to suggest that the policeman in question, who was killed, was related to a Taliban leader. I am afraid that the facts of life in Afghanistan, with its huge extended families, mean that we will often find that members of the security force are distantly related to people who are on the other side of this fight. That is just the nature of the country.
The indications are that the Afghan strategic plan is to hold the ground in the crucial areas—the major towns, the major routes of communication and the major economic areas, including the Helmand valley. The assessment of our military commanders on the ground—I have no better information than that—is that they are likely to be able to do so, with some compromises at the margins.
I can understand hon. Members wanting to bring our troops home, but does the Secretary of State agree that those who have given their lives have not done so in vain? They have protected our national security, as is their prime purpose, and enabled an entire generation to access education for the first time, giving that country the best chance of peace and prosperity. Given its history, that is in our national interest.
The presence of our troops over a prolonged period has done two things. It has stopped international terrorists using Afghanistan, and has thereby protected our homeland security. It has also created the space in which the Afghan Government have begun to deliver the kind of services that a civil Government are expected to deliver in the 21st century. Helmandis have enjoyed better healthcare, better transport systems, better justice and better education. That is a major step forward and will stand Afghanistan in good stead for the future.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I associate myself and my party with the expressions of sympathy for the families who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan. Early indications show that the weapons used by the terrorist insurgents were proximate to the fence that surrounds Camp Bastion. Will the additional measures that he mentioned include the introduction of CCTV cameras, so that security can be improved around Camp Bastion?
A number of sophisticated surveillance devices are in operation and additional surveillance capabilities have been deployed over the weekend. I cannot comment, for obvious reasons, on the detailed nature of those surveillance methods, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that additional surveillance of the perimeter fence is now in place.
The use of unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct strikes is always the subject of careful scrutiny before it is authorised. There are circumstances in which that is the most appropriate way of executing a target in Afghanistan. I agree that it is better to use manned aircraft or ground forces when it is practical and can be done without undue risk to coalition forces.