With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement on Afghanistan.
Let me begin by offering my condolences to those who were killed and injured in today’s attack, including, sadly, two British Embassy staff. It is a tragic reminder that there are some who still seek to undermine the progress that has been made towards peace and security in Afghanistan. I also pay tribute to the courage and commitment of our armed forces, 453 of whom lost their lives, and to the many others who have suffered life-changing injuries in the service of our country. Their legacy is that terrorists have been prevented from using Afghanistan as a launch pad for attacks on our streets. The Afghan security forces whom our armed forces have helped to mentor, and who are now securing the country’s future, have played a major part in that. The sacrifice of our servicemen and women will never be forgotten.
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The Afghan national security forces successfully secured the elections this year, with more than 7 million people voting. The forces have performed well against a determined enemy. Despite prolonged fighting over the summer, the Taliban have failed to take any district centres, or to capitalise on small and temporary tactical gains in north Helmand and the taking of significant casualties, but they remain a potent force. Afghan forces continue to conduct clearance operations against the Taliban, and their strong performance this year should serve them well in the next fighting season.
The UK had the second largest force in Afghanistan, and our troops undertook some of the heaviest fighting, but it is important to remember that we were only one part of a coalition of 51 nations that helped to build the Afghan national security forces from scratch to a force of over 330,000, which is capable of battling the insurgency and sustaining progress in the removal of the terrorist threat. There can be no guarantees, but the sacrifices made by coalition and Afghan forces have given Afghanistan the best possible chance of a stable future.
The UK has taken a leading role at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy, and I addressed the graduates of the first battalion at their graduation ceremony during my visit in September. We will continue our role there next year with around 470 troops as the United Kingdom contribution to the NATO Resolute Support mission, a coalition of 35 nations. Our contribution will focus principally on mentoring in the officer academy. We have committed ourselves to providing about £70 million a year to help to sustain the Afghan forces, thus reaffirming another element of the enduring international commitment to Afghanistan.
The redeployment of matériel has been a challenging process, but, notwithstanding the scepticism expressed by many people, it is now almost complete. The redeployment from Iraq in 2009 was conducted predominantly through Kuwait, across 130 km of relatively permissive lines of communication. In Afghanistan, the land routes to the nearest port were 900 km long, and included areas of significant threat. Despite that, about three and a half times as many containers and about four times as many vehicles have been redeployed from Afghanistan as were returned from Iraq.
I want to put on record my praise for the efficiency of our military planners and logisticians, as well as that of our combat troops. All our major matériel has now left Afghanistan. At the height of our involvement, we had some 137 bases; more than 120 have now been handed to the Afghan authorities, and the rest have been dismantled. Earlier this week, our troops left Kandahar airfield for the last time, following our departure from Camp Bastion in October.
As we face new terror threats, we are learning the hard lessons of our Afghan campaign. First, to take on an insurgency, armed forces must gain the trust and support of the local population. That support must be inclusive, crossing political lines and bridging tribal divides, and it must also involve early training of local security forces. Secondly, the increasingly complex nature of 21st-century conflict means that we must build strong international military coalitions—alliances that are ready to act, and capable of sharing resources. Our experience of forging partnerships in Afghanistan provides a model for the sort of agile and effective rapid reaction forces that NATO countries pledged to develop at the recent NATO summit in Wales.
Thirdly, military action can only be one part of a wider solution. In Afghanistan we pioneered a cross-Government approach that combined defence, diplomacy and development via our provincial reconstruction teams. They were deployed in the Afghan provinces, and combined military and civilian organisations to strengthen local political institutions, empower local leaders, and improve social and economic progress.
When I visited Helmand, I saw the difference that has been made by the United Kingdom, including our armed forces. Most citizens in Helmand now have access to health care, household incomes have risen by 20% since 2010, and more than 120,000 students are enrolled in Government schools across the province—including nearly 30,000 girls, compared with none in 2001. We will continue to support that development, and our continued support will include maintaining our contribution of £178 million a year in development aid until at least 2017.
Next week, the London conference on Afghanistan will be led by our Prime Minister, President Ghani, chief executive Abdullah, and other leading international figures. It will focus on the future development partnership between the international community and the new Afghan Government to build on the foundations that we have laid over the last 13 years, and will reaffirm our enduring commitment to supporting the future of Afghanistan.
There remain significant challenges ahead for Afghanistan, but we have helped to develop Afghan security forces who have proved that they are able to take the fight to the insurgency. Tackling the drugs trade remains a considerable and generational challenge, but we and our international partners are committed to helping the Afghan Government to combat it. The international community is working with the new Afghan Government to secure long-term fiscal sustainability, and we are pleased to see the new efforts that are being made to tackle corruption.
We fully support the Afghanistan Government’s promotion of prosperity through jobs, growth and investment, which builds on the sacrifices made by our armed forces. That campaign was long, but it was worth while, and we believe that we have given Afghanistan the best chance of a safer future.