Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 12:59 pm on 27th November 2014.

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Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 12:59 pm, 27th November 2014

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for his courtesy in informing me earlier in the week that he would be making it today. I concur with both the tone and content of his remarks, and was particularly pleased to hear about his discussions with President Ghani, the good progress of the draw-down and the continuing work on development issues.

We are all shocked by this morning’s despicable terrorist attack on a British embassy vehicle in Kabul. People have lost their lives. It reminds us of the dangers still faced and the challenges that remain. Can the Secretary of State give us any further details about that incident?

Like the Secretary of State, I pay tribute to our armed forces. Our servicemen and women perform their duties with bravery, honour and distinction. Nowhere has that been more evident than in Afghanistan. I think in particular of the 453 members of our armed forces who gave their lives serving our country, as well as the many who were injured. They and their loved ones are in my thoughts and, I am sure, the thoughts of all Members of this House. As the Secretary of State knows, we support efforts to have them commemorated in a national memorial in London, and will work with the Government and others to bring that about. Can he update the House on the progress on that?

I say with sincerity that the United Kingdom’s role in Afghanistan in the past 13 years is one we can be proud of. Does the Secretary of State agree that our combat mission was a success? It has been hard fought and we have paid a heavy price, but the consequences would have been far worse had we, in 2001, left Afghanistan to those who subjugated that country and its people and used it as a base to launch terrorist attacks on other countries and their peoples. In a world that is of course still dangerous and unpredictable, the UK armed forces in Afghanistan have enhanced our safety and security in Britain by assisting the Afghans to take charge of theirs. Does he agree that those of us in positions of leadership have a responsibility to explain to the public the complexities and success of our role in Afghanistan?

The Opposition are convinced that the UK along with our allies must remain involved in assisting the fledgling Afghanistan as it takes important steps to manage its own security. Only with the international community’s enduring support can we work to ensure that hard-won gains in Afghanistan are not lost. Therefore, I want to focus my remaining remarks on the future and the role the United Kingdom will play.

The Afghan national security forces did not exist in 2001, but are making steady progress. Can the Secretary of State update us on the strength of the ANSF and the work being done to sustain and professionalise the army, police and air force? What specific work will be done by British armed forces in continuing training and support, and how many personnel will be involved? Can he tell us whether any of that work will involve helping with the removal of unexploded ordnance? Does he believe that sufficient numbers are being committed for the task that they have?

I and my shadow Cabinet colleagues are committed to a cross-Government, multi-agency approach, which the Secretary of State mentioned. The key tenet of that will of course be the relationship between the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence. Can he tell us how many staff from each Department, excluding the armed forces, will remain in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014?

To that end, I welcome, as the Secretary of State did, the forthcoming London Afghanistan conference, which will have the full support of the Labour party in seeking to chart a plan for security, socio-economic and development gains. He may know that the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, has called on the Government of Afghanistan and the international community to adopt sustainable measures to address the causes and consequences of gender-based violence in the country. Can the Secretary of State confirm that violence against women and girls will be a priority at the London conference? Can he tell us how many women will be invited to take part in the main conference as well as the private sector and regional co-operation side events? Does he agree that the conference communiqué should commit to the full implementation of the national action plan for the women of Afghanistan and the elimination of violence against women?

The conference will no doubt receive an update on progress towards a political settlement. Several weeks ago, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani invited the Taliban to join national reconciliation negotiations and earlier this month Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif backed Ghani’s initiative. Can the Secretary of State give a commitment that the UK Government will work and support those involved to help to make those negotiations a success?

I hope the message that the Government, our allies and the people of Afghanistan take from what the Secretary of State and I have both said is that the UK is committed to ensuring a peaceful, stable and, in time, prosperous Afghanistan. We in the UK stand by Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy and we will do all we can to help it on its journey to a brighter, better future.

We owe that to the 453 brave service personnel from our armed forces who gave their lives to allow it to happen. It will be their legacy.