My Lords, I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, for bringing these important issues to the House and for the even-handed and calm way in which he made his points, which he expressed with tremendous authority. I welcome the opportunity to respond to the points that he and other noble Lords have made. It is very important for us to consider these issues in a balanced way. There is no doubt that there are considerable challenges in how we meet the threats that this country faces, but to say that there is a crisis is simply not correct. It is important for us to focus on the specific issues, and I will attempt to do that in answering noble Lords' points. Before I do so, I add my voice to those of other noble Lords who have rightly paid tribute to the men and women of our Armed Forces in the tremendous job that they do. I completely disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Dykes; it is very important for Ministers to continue to do so at every opportunity.
A number of noble Lords, such as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, raised concerns over the image of the Armed Forces and the role of the public relations offices in the Ministry of Defence. It is important to look at the data. The latest MORI polling on the public's view of the Armed Forces says that 80 per cent of people in this country regard each of the services as among the best in the world, and 3 per cent of the population do not. That suggests that there is no crisis in the confidence in which our Armed Forces are held, which speaks to the effectiveness with which the Ministry of Defence handles its public relations. I stress that the changes to the handling of media relations made by the previous Secretary of State led to a coherent, single voice and involve active participation of serving officers in all the services to provide that voice.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, raised questions about morale, which also led to the question of a defence federation. It is important, again, for us to look at the data. There is no evidence of worsening morale in the Armed Forces. Recruiting is steady and manning remains overall in balance; we have more than 98 per cent of the troops that we need. The figures for personnel going absent without leave are steady. It is important for us to focus on the areas where we recognise and have evidence of serious problems. We have the existing mechanisms for personnel to express their views. I absolutely agree that we must do nothing to undermine the chain of command, but we must be open-minded about, and look at, modern ideas of how we can find and facilitate new ways for people to do so.
I want briefly to highlight the fact that we recently had in this country the first Veterans' Day, which was an opportunity for us all to honour those who have served in our Armed Forces in the past and the contribution that they make today. This weekend we will commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Somme. As so often in the past, our servicemen and women are helping people less able to help themselves—as they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan—and some of them have made the ultimate sacrifice, including the two soldiers who died in Afghanistan this week. We owe them a great debt.
I remind the House why we are in Afghanistan. We have about 4,500 service personnel there in support of a UN-authorised, NATO-led mission, ISAF, and are part of the US-led, international coalition that involves 40 countries. We are there to help the Afghan people to rebuild their country to prevent it from again harbouring terrorism. We believe that we have the force package necessary to carry out that task as part of that coalition.
The mission is clear. There can be no security or stability in Afghanistan unless the Taliban and other illegal groups are tackled. Without international help, democratically elected government in Afghanistan will not take root. We are sending 3,300 personnel to Helmand province as part of the long-planned expansion of ISAF into the south, where government authority and rule of law today do not run. That force will reach its full operational capability this weekend.
The noble Lord, Lord Garden, raised a concern, highlighted last week, about fears that the ISAF expansion would lead to a US withdrawal. We are confident in the United States' commitment to Afghanistan, NATO and ISAF. We believe that that confidence, based upon continuation of the United States' provision of key and often unique capabilities to the alliance operations in Afghanistan, will continue.
The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, asked me when Her Majesty's Government knew that no theatre reserve for Afghanistan would be put in place. Initial discussions, scoping the deployment of forces into southern Afghanistan, took place in 2005. We believe that we can make the greatest contribution in that area; it makes the ISAF expansion possible, but within a collective NATO framework. The provision of a reserve within Afghanistan is a decision for NATO.
The noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, asked whether we were there to keep the peace or to defend drugs farmers. I wish to be absolutely clear that we are there to ensure that the rule of law and democratic government can be established in that country. This is a country that depends absolutely upon the drugs trade. We must pursue our aims in partnership with NGOs and other government departments to ensure that those people are provided with an alternative livelihood. This is a form of international development. Because of the nature of Afghanistan's environment, that has to be fairly muscular international development, but we believe that we have the combination across the three government departments to deliver that.
The noble Lord, Lord Owen, said that there had been an extraordinary degree of incompetence in Iraq. I respect the noble Lord's great experience, but that is simply not correct. It is important to look at the progress taking place today. We have a real opportunity to build upon the fact that Iraq has a democratically elected Government. We now have a strong relationship with the governor in Basra province. People who live in southern Iraq today will tell you that the proportion of the time for which they have electricity has gone up significantly. The data on oil production in Iraq show that it is improving. The Iraqi security forces are strong. Progress is becoming established. That is not to say that we are complacent or that we are underestimating the challenges; the changes are really having an effect and there is no doubt that, by continuing our efforts, we are transforming the country.
It is not correct to say that we rampaged into Iraq with no proper explanation, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, said. The Government would not have taken that action unless we were satisfied that it was lawful. It was taken as a last resort, due to Saddam Hussein's continued defiance of UN resolutions, and the United Kingdom obviously takes its own decisions based upon our security needs.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, asked me to clarify the Government's strategic goals in Iraq. He and other noble and gallant Lords, with their deep experience as ex-chiefs of staff, know how important it is for us to be clear about our strategic goals. We are absolutely clear: we are in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi Government under a United Nations resolution. We are there to do a number of things: training and equipping the Iraqi security forces, and supporting the Iraqi Government with their political and economic reform, which has clearly been done. We are there for as long as the Iraqi Government need us to be there and we are achieving that by working with the coalition and the Iraqis. The evidence that that is taking place is there.
Of course we recognise the challenges. In Basra there has been a deterioration of late, due to a vacuum in the period taken to form a Government of national unity. In that period, sectarian rivalries and strife in the area have increased. However, now that we have a Government of national unity and a good working relationship with the governor in Basra, we believe that that together with the Basra security plan and the establishment of a state of emergency there by the Government will make a significant difference. We are beginning to see that.