My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Private Matthew Thornton, 4th Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment; Lance Corporal Peter Eustace, 2nd Battalion The Rifles; Lance Corporal Richard Scanlon, 1st The Queen's Dragoon Guards; Private Thomas Lake, 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment; Rifleman Sheldon Steel, 5th Battalion The Rifles; Sapper Elijah Bond, 35 Engineer Regiment Royal Engineers; Captain Tom Jennings, Royal Marines; Squadron Leader Anthony Downing, Royal Air Force; Private John King, 1st Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment; and Rifleman Sachin Limbu, 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles, who were all killed on operations in Afghanistan recently. My thoughts are also with the wounded, and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude with which they face their rehabilitation.
UK force levels in Afghanistan will reduce from 9,500 to 9,000 by the end of 2012. By the end of 2014, British troops will no longer be in a combat role and will not be in Afghanistan in the numbers that they now are. Some UK troops will remain after 2014, including in training roles at the UK-led Afghan national army officer academy. The UK and the international community are committed to Afghanistan in the long-term.
First of all, I join these Benches in the earlier tribute. It is clear that we have in Afghanistan at present a very substantial amount of equipment. Clearly, some will be left for the Afghan forces, and some will no doubt be retained for our onward training role. However, bringing out the majority will be a major, complex task. Could my noble friend tell the House which routes are planned to be used in this pull-out? What is the speed of the pull-out likely to be? Are we going to hire extra heavy airlift? Finally, is he satisfied that the Ministry of Defence will have the systems and software in place to record all that equipment being brought out?
My Lords, planning is still at an early stage, and the exact speed of recovery has not yet been set. It is too early to say what equipment we plan to retain, or its value, and what we will gift to the Afghans. We currently use a combination of surface and air routes to support operations in Afghanistan; work is ongoing to increase these to ensure that our drawdown is conducted in good order, and all equipment is consignment-tracked using an asset tracking system.
My Lords, on this side we also wish to express our sincere condolences to the families and friends of the 10 brave members of our Armed Forces who in the service of our country have been killed on operations in Afghanistan recently. British military personnel will continue to be in Afghanistan in a non-combat role after the withdrawal of our combat forces in less than three years' time. Who will be responsible for their security, particularly in the light of the recent killing of four French soldiers and wounding of 15 others by an Afghan force soldier, when this was by no means the first such incident of this type? What test will the Government apply to determine whether or not the Afghan national security forces are able to provide the necessary level of security for our non-combat personnel in Afghanistan after 2014?
My Lords, UK and international forces are helping to build the strength and capability of the ANSF to allow them to lead security across Afghanistan by the end of 2014. They have responded professionally and effectively to several high-profile attacks and are ready and willing to take on increasing levels of responsibility. After 2014, UK troops will continue to support the ANSF by providing training at the new Afghan national army officer academy, and we will work with other NATO nations to ensure that the necessary force protection measures are in place.
My Lords, that is a very important question. The deployment of Danish tanks has proved essential to our activities in Helmand, and the commander of Task Force Helmand cannot sing their praises enough. We and our allies in Regional Command Southwest welcome the Danish decision to retain this tank capability in Helmand until 2014.
My Lords, successful disengagement of NATO and partner nations in combat roles depends upon the existence of a political and security situation that can be managed by the Afghan Government. With that in mind, can the Minister say whether the United Kingdom is being consulted on the talks that are taking place between the United States and the Taliban, and if these talks are aimed at an outcome that can be managed by the Afghan Government or are a cover for a precipitate drawdown of US forces before 2014?
My Lords, we are clear that military means alone will not bring about a more secure country. We have always supported an Afghan-led political process to help bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, and we continue to encourage all parties to take forward reconciliation. We will continue to engage with our US colleagues on these important matters.
My Lords, would the Minister like to comment a little further on some of the equipment issues arising from our withdrawal from Afghanistan, in particular noting that many of the vehicles we use to provide protected mobility have been bought under the urgent operational requirement scheme specifically for Afghanistan? Would he comment about future protected mobility for the infantry in particular, given that the FRES utility programme has slipped from 2012 to about 2022?
My Lords, there never was an intention to deploy FRES to Afghanistan. The Government have deployed a range of protected mobility vehicles, including the Mastiff, which is highly valued by our troops. The new Foxhound lightweight protected vehicle is being delivered for training purposes now so that those deploying shortly will be able to use it on operations in Afghanistan from the spring.
My Lords, I am sorry that my noble friend thinks that it was not a very full answer. I did say that we are in full discussions with our American allies, and I do not think that I can add anything to that.
My Lords, I know that the Afghans have helicopters which have been very effective. They were deployed in direct support of troops recently in a very effective way.