I should point out that the dress code for this Chamber is the same as that for the main Chamber, I am afraid, so jackets must stay on except in exceptional circumstances. I do not think that we are quite at that, although the temperature and humidity do approach what is common in Kabul.
Mr. Taylor, it was good of you to arrange such conditions to add authenticity to the debate. I am glad that we have this opportunity to debate Afghanistan and the Government's strategy and objectives, particularly as we have not had a statement from the Prime Minister on the subject since December. I think—this is a point that I hope the Minister will take back—that there is a desire in the House for more regular statements on what is happening in Afghanistan, particularly as the news about what is happening there seems rather gloomy. I pay tribute to the magnificent work done by our armed forces in Afghanistan, and I honour their sacrifice, as I know everyone in this Chamber does.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, and for rightly honouring the valour and effectiveness of our forces in Afghanistan. Does he agree that it is also important to recognise the contribution of the reserve forces there alongside the regular forces, and the particular contribution of specialists?
I am happy to do so. A number of Members and hon. Friends have had that role and been to Afghanistan. We all admire what they have done.
From the beginning of this year, we have heard a series of gloomy reports from Afghanistan. Four reports came out at the beginning of 2008 from reputable think tanks questioning what progress we were making in Afghanistan, and in recent days a series of further reports have caused a great deal of concern. First, of course, was the national intelligence estimate leaked in America, which talked about a downward spiral in Afghanistan. We know that the White House ordered a major review—General Lute went to Kabul—and we are waiting to know the outcome. I hope that our Government have been closely involved in that process, and that we too are having a review. If there are changing circumstances on the ground, it is not good enough if our Government are not prepared to order the same sort of serious review as Washington.
A series of generals have also made remarks in recent days. General Craddock, speaking a few days ago to the Royal United Services Institute, said that he felt that we needed far more troops on the ground and fewer restrictions on them so they could be used more effectively. General Sir David Richards said recently that we need more men and should move towards a negotiated settlement. Brigadier Carleton-Smith has warned against ideas of a decisive military victory, saying:
"If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement...that's precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this."
Yesterday, we heard in the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that an Afghan diplomat in New York said that in Helmand province we control only one district. That was disputed, but reports are coming in from many respected sources suggesting that the situation is going backwards, that more troops are needed and that it is urgent. What are we doing to address that set of reports, and will we have a major review?
Some of the emerging concerns involve our objective. As I saw it, the objective in 2001 after the atrocity at the twin towers was to get rid of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, because that was where they were training their people. I imagine that our objective now should be to keep al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan and prevent them from training there, but is the Minister prepared to concede that that does not mean necessarily that we need to impose in Afghanistan a westernised form of government that might be inappropriate to its history, traditions and culture? Also, I accept the point made yesterday that it is a good thing to bring people together to hold elections, but perhaps the Minister will tell us his view on what sort of government might be acceptable there, granted that it will none the less be elected.
On the border issue, the Afghan Foreign Secretary, Dr. Spanta, has pointed out that neighbours are important. In his words, Afghanistan is a land bridge between central and south Asia. He has made the point that the border with Pakistan is porous, and more needs to be done about that. The Pashtun lands in south Afghanistan and north Pakistan extend across the border. Local people do not recognise the border; they just ignore it. In fact, some communities are right on the border, and there is no sign that it exists.
In that environment, what is the way forward for security? Does the Minister think that the yesterday's mini-jirga, which involved Pashtun tribal leaders from both sides of the border as well as Muslim clerics, might, with the support of the new President, Zardari, lead to joint patrolling of the border? Is there some way forward in tackling that long-standing issue of the porous border?
Because the Afghan Government came substantially from the Northern Alliance, one long-standing problem has been that not enough Pashtun tribal leaders are involved in the process of government in Afghanistan. I welcome the fact that King Abdullah had a breakfast meeting in Mecca with the Afghan Government and with Pashtun leaders, some of whom are aligned with Taliban officials, but how credible a process is that? Do the Government feel that there is some prospect of sitting down with Pashtun tribal leaders who may be aligned with the Taliban and reaching the sort of political compromise that generals have been talking about recently? General Petraeus said today that he feels that American military negotiators might get involved in that process.
Why has progress been so slow in expanding the Afghan national army? It looks like an army that knows how to fight, and it has 60,000 men, but it needs 120,000; I understand that the plan is to double the size. When will that happen, and how will it be achieved?
One point made to us when we were in Afghanistan was that Iraq has roughly 600,000 security forces of one sort or another, is smaller than Afghanistan in both population and area and is a less complex problem. That implies that 120,000 troops are far too few. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?
I always respect my right hon. Friend's knowledge of such matters; I do not claim for a moment to be a military man or an expert in them. The geography of Afghanistan is rather different. My right hon. Friend will recall that Afghanistan is divided by a central mountain range, the Hindu Kush. North of that, the area populated by the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras is fairly peaceful. [Interruption.] Some may disagree, but I understand that it is relatively peaceful at the moment. The area of concern is to the south and east, where the Taliban are effective in the fighting season. That area has a limited number of roads and communities, so the military effort might be about a smaller number of concentrated communities and roads than in Iraq, but my right hon. Friend will, I hope, have a chance to outline his thoughts on that.
One point keeps coming up—indeed, this is the point that my right hon. Friend made: we need more troops on the ground. Yesterday, Lieutenant-General Wall said that he did not believe that having a lot more troops was the answer until it was possible to have an immediate reconstruction effort following tactical victories. Does the Minister have a plan that brings together those elements in a comprehensive way so that if we were to put in more troops—and, I would hope, more helicopters—reconstruction efforts could be made almost immediately, perhaps with a substantial separate budget for the military? I understand that the Americans have tried that in Iraq successfully, so the Minister might like to address that issue.
My next point concerns the bureaucracy and dishonesty of public administration. We know that the national intelligence estimate has talked about Government corruption as being a major problem in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, a village leader was quoted by the BBC as saying that people who go to the Administration for help with a problem
"have to give a lot of money in bribes and then they get stuck there", and that the least one could say about the Taliban was that they were reasonably efficient and honest. Does the Minister recognise the problem of corruption, and does he have any thoughts on how it might be dealt with?
What is to happen about the lead nation approach, under which countries were given a role at the beginning of the process? I shall give an example of a problem. The Germans were given the role of training the police, but the Americans have spent 50 times more than the Germans and have trained many more police. So, some police were trained in a German way of policing and some in an American way, and I understand that there was no co-ordination with the Italians, who were introducing the new laws. They ended up with a police force with either a German flavour or an American flavour, but none of the officers knew the new laws that they were to enforce. If there is a problem with having lead nations, how is it to be resolved? Is it not a question of having much better co-ordination between the countries involved?
In those last two comments, my hon. Friend has identified an inherent difficulty in the Afghan situation, has he not? Either we help the Afghan Government to get greater capacity, which means having fewer lead nations but a risk of greater corruption, or, if we are concerned about corruption, we impose more control on the Afghan Government, which gives the impression that we are occupying forces and thus alienates the towns. We cannot have it both ways; we have to decide. We cannot simultaneously enhance capacity and seek to run Afghanistan; it has to be one or the other.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. However, one of the reasons why the generals are talking about trying to reach a negotiated settlement is that if more of the Pashtun leaders were involved with the process and supported the Government rather than the Taliban, many of those problems would be less important because there would be the sort of security that allows civil administration to build and to have the sort of principles that we wish for.
I do not want to speak for too long, because many colleagues want to speak, so I shall conclude by asking the Minister some questions. What are the Government doing about the review that the Americans are conducting? Are we having a review, too? Is the force size adequate and do we have the equipment that we need? How does he reconcile the comments of one set of generals with what Lieutenant-General Sir Peter Wall said yesterday? What hope is there for our NATO partners? Are they going to do more, and really put their shoulders to the wheel? Are there any signs of improved commitment? What hope is there for reconstruction almost immediately after tactical victories, so that we gradually win hearts and minds by showing that a victory means something good for the Afghan people? Will our armed forces have a substantial budget to enable that to happen? That is important, given that voluntary and non-governmental organisations might be too frightened to come in and do the reconstruction work speedily.
What is to happen about bureaucracy and corruption? Do our Government have any leverage with President Karzai and his team? How are we to get effective peace talks, and will we and the Americans be involved as negotiators, as has been mentioned in the news today? On poppies, does the Minister have any idea how we should tackle narco-terrorism? Finally, will he give a commitment that we will have the regular statements from the Prime Minister on this very important area—after all, it is a war we are conducting—to which we are entitled?
Order. Eight Members are seeking to catch my eye, and I intend to call the Front-Bench speakers in 45 minutes, so five or six minutes each will be about the right length of time.
I congratulate Mr. Heald on securing the debate, which is timely because we are at a tipping point in Afghanistan. The last tipping point was in March 2006, and we had a debate in Westminster Hall about what the position would be. Then there was almost unanimity in support of the Government's actions, which were to move into Helmand province. The then Secretary of State for Defence said that he hoped that that operation would last for three years at the most, without a shot being fired.
In that debate, a comparison was made between the movement in Helmand province and the charge of the Light Brigade. It is significant that we remember what was said then. To paraphrase the words of the poet, there was, "Bush to the right of them, Blair to the left of them, who Holler'd and thunder'd. Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die. Someone had blunder'd. Into the mouth of Helmand, Rode the five thousand. "
At that time, things were peaceful in Helmand and throughout Afghanistan, and only seven of our soldiers had died—five in accidents and two as the result of military action. I pay tribute, as everyone does, to their valour and professionalism. They do a magnificent job there. Now, the number of soldiers who have died is 121—three more than the number killed in the charge of the Light Brigade, but the operation has, in common with that charge, the futility and stupidity of those who gave the orders at the time. Clear warnings were given that going into Helmand would stir up a hornets' nest, and we are now seeing the truth of that. We are in a far more dangerous position than any that we have experienced in the seven years that we have been in Afghanistan.
Is it sensible to send in more troops? Our ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, has made it clear that what we are doing—sending in more troops—will
"identify us even more clearly as an occupying force and multiply the number of targets".
That is precisely the role that they will have. He went on:
"The current situation is bad. The security situation is getting worse. So is corruption and the Government has lost all trust".
The Government are rotting from the head down. The only reason why Karzai remains in power is because of the presence of NATO troops.
It is foolish to believe that the number of NATO troops from our fellow European countries will increase. I have spoken to Hungarian Ministers and a member of the Western European Union's defence committee, and I have been in many debates with French, German and other members. They clearly see no future in sending their young men to die in Afghanistan. I asked the chairman of the committee on defence in the Hungarian Parliament—the Hungarians were talking at one time of replacing the Dutch in Afghanistan—whether his people were prepared to accept the casualties on the scale that we have suffered here, in the Netherlands and in Canada. He said emphatically that his people were not prepared to accept that.
Can we look and find any hope? I do not believe that there is any chance that we can do what has been suggested and is still being suggested, which is putting in troops and having a surge that would be successful. That idea demonstrates misunderstanding of the success of the surge in Iraq, which was mainly due to the skills of General Petraeus and the fact that there were talks between the two groups. The talks, not military might were, responsible for bringing peace. Military might will not solve the problem in Afghanistan; it never has.
On a visit to the Pentagon in July, we received briefings from different people there. Some of them were the crazies who really believed the Bush line that victory was possible and that all we needed to do was send more troops to sort out the opposition; they saw the situation in Afghanistan in very crude terms. However, other people at the Pentagon were intellectuals or military strategists. They gave us histories of insurgencies and said that, in almost every case, the insurgents win; if troops go into a country as an alien army, whatever happens the ultimate outcome is a victory for the insurgents if they have the support of the rest of the population.
We are in a very dangerous situation now. When we went into Afghanistan in 2001, much of the Afghan population were really hostile towards the Taliban; they were fed up with the restrictions that the Taliban had imposed. The position now is that the Afghan people have a new fear; they are afraid of the words that are coming from Washington—words that we have heard here. A think-tank in Washington said that we would be in Afghanistan for generations. We have also heard talk in this House about having a war in Afghanistan that will last for 38 years. The Afghans are saying, "What on earth are we doing? We have got these people in our country and we are suffering war eternal." They would prefer to have the Taliban back in control than continue with warfare in their country.
I do not want to deny that there have been improvements and gains made in Afghanistan, in schooling and around Kabul. I believe that it is possible for us to consolidate those gains and reach some kind of deal, but it has to be a political deal and not a military one. We must resist the presumption that Iraq and Afghanistan are the same and that we can repeat in Afghanistan what happened in Iraq. Iraq and Afghanistan are not similar; they are very different.
The Government in Afghanistan are deeply corrupt. That is nothing unusual in Afghanistan; corruption has been the lubricant for running Afghanistan for centuries.
Another figure is terrifying, but accurate. If we compare the number of our troops who have died—121—with the number of new millionaires in Kabul, the likelihood is that the number of new millionaires is very similar, if not greater. We know that for every British soldier who lays down their life, a new millionaire is created in Afghanistan, because of the money that we ourselves are pouring in. We were putting in small amounts of money between 2002 and 2006, but the figure is now up to the scale of a billion a year, and more money is being poured in by the Americans. Huge fortunes are being made by the corrupt oligarchy in Afghanistan, many of whom are in government and some of whom are related to the President.
Sadly, although we look to our soldiers and say that we want to honour their lives and honour their sacrifices and we believe that there is nobility in the cause that they are fighting for, I am afraid that the truth is very different. We will see more inquests; there is already a backlog of inquests, the findings of which are now coming out. I believe that each one of those inquests will show to the country that the blame for the deficiencies that led to lives being lost, often in very difficult circumstances, will be spread everywhere.
As we see the cost in terms of the lives lost and we dwell on those fatalities, the clamour from the public for a change of policy will be intense, and I believe that a change of policy is the right thing to do. We cannot go on making decisions like before; decisions have been made not in Washington but in this place, which have sent young men to die, I believe, in vain in a war that is impossible to win.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Heald on securing this very important debate, for reasons that I will come to in a moment.
First, I want to say that Paul Flynn will find it disturbing that I agreed with quite a lot of what he had to say, until the very last part of his speech when he unfortunately linked the deaths of our servicemen in Afghanistan with the increase in the number of millionaires in Kabul. The two things are quite clearly not related and, frankly, I think that it was rather distasteful to have made that link. However, I agreed with much of the rest of his speech, for a reason that I will explain.
I do not speak here as any kind of expert on Afghanistan or on defence, and I am looking forward to hearing contributions from a number of my colleagues who have been to Afghanistan more recently than I have and who know far more about the country than I do. I think this debate is so important because it makes me think back to the time of the Iraq invasion, when I resigned my post as shadow Defence Minister because I was very much opposed to the invasion; I regret the fact that I did not vote against it and instead abstained, when I should have voted against it. At the time, I was deeply unhappy about the invasion. Since then, in my constituency and elsewhere, I have gone to great lengths to seek to justify what we are doing in Afghanistan; no one will find a more robust supporter of our strategy in Afghanistan than me.
Increasingly, however, as I have listened to some of the people who have already been quoted in the debate today, I am finding myself beginning to ask the questions, "Why are we in Afghanistan? What on earth are we trying to do there? And is there any chance that we can achieve the great aims that people are laying down for us?" I must say that I find the quotes that are emerging about Afghanistan deeply worrying. I know that our ambassador has denied the quotes that are reported to have been contained in a secret memo to President Sarkozy, quotes that said that it was not possible that we could win in Afghanistan and that showed that he was extremely negative about the situation there and that expressed the hope that there might be dictatorship there within four or five years. He denies that he said all that, but none the less it is worrying that it has been reported that he said it to President Sarkozy.
It has also been reported that Brigadier Carleton-Smith has said that he has been misquoted as saying that we cannot win in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, if one looks at both his interview on Sky Television and in The Times, the words that he used are very precise and very specific and he is not a person who would use language that could be misquoted. So a lot of people are saying that things are not going quite the way that they should be in Afghanistan. Having followed these matters for a number of years, I do not know why we are there.
It seems to me that the purpose of today's debate ought to be to come up with some kind of grand strategy for what we are doing in Afghanistan, if we can do that. There seem to me to be six possible reasons for our being there. The first reason, of course, is counter-insurgency. However, counter-insurgency means putting down insurgents, and who are the insurgents against? They are, of course, insurgents against us. The memo from Sherard Cowper-Coles, our ambassador, says very specifically that he thinks that we are now becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution. If we were not in Afghanistan and if Afghanistan was as it was before we went there, would there be an insurgency? No, of course there would not, because there would be nobody to "insurge" against. There has to be an invasion force to have an insurgency against, so I doubt very much whether counter-insurgency works as a justification. What about counter-terrorism? Of course, that was the 9/11 justification.
Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that the insurgents spend at least as much time attacking the Government of Afghanistan and their institutions as they do attacking the troops of the international security assistance force?
"The Government of Afghanistan" is, of course, rather an odd expression. President Karzai's writ does not run much further than Kabul. The notion that there is some kind of Government rather akin to our own running across the whole of Afghanistan, which these awful people in the Taliban oppose, is an odd one. Incidentally, the Taliban were our allies in Gulf 1. The Taliban fought with us against Saddam, so they are not necessarily all bad people at all; many of them are quite good people. However, as I was saying, the notion that somehow or other we have a Government of Afghanistan who are being "insurged" against by the awful Taliban is, frankly, nonsense. Afghanistan does not work that way. I do not necessarily believe that there is really a counter-insurgency role for us in Afghanistan.
Counter-terrorism is a possible justification, but it is well accepted by everybody that most of the al-Qaeda forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan and are now in the tribal areas in north-west Pakistan. Perhaps we should have a presence in Afghanistan to prevent those forces from coming back, but if so, how the heck are we going to do that? The border is porous; there are vast numbers of al-Qaeda forces, and the more that we are in Afghanistan, the more they come across, so I am not certain that a counter-terrorism role necessarily works very well either.
Are we seeking to establish some kind of western-style democracy in Afghanistan—a sort of Guildford lookalike in Kabul? No, we are not. That is totally impossible and it would be absurd to seek to do it. We often hear from those on the Labour Benches about the notion of gender balance in the Afghan Parliament, and all of that—it is nonsense. Afghanistan is not like that. The notion that, if we were there for years and years, we might establish something that looks a bit like this great Parliament seems to me, frankly, nonsensical.
Are we in Afghanistan to reconstruct the nation through aid? Yes, I hope that we are and the fantastic operation that was the guarding of the Kajaki dam is a good example of precisely what we could do in the future. The more that we can conduct operations such as the Kajaki dam and provide electricity for the people of Helmand province, the better the situation there will be and the more likely it will be that they will say, "We like peace, we like democracy and we like the west." Frankly, at the moment, there is not much reconstruction going on; we are mostly warfighting, and I am not certain that that works.
Finally, are we there as some kind of springboard into Pakistan? Certainly, the United States of America seems to believe that aggressive operations across the border into Pakistan are justifiable. Just as I did not believe that our invasion of Iraq was justifiable under international law, I do not believe that any intrusion into Pakistan's airspace or land is justifiable under international law, so I do not accept the argument for our presence in Afghanistan as some kind of springboard for intervention in Pakistan.
These are difficult questions to which I do not have the answers. There are people in this room who know far more about the situation than I do, but, speaking on behalf of the people of North Wiltshire, I must say that these are the questions that people are asking. People are saying, "Why are we in Afghanistan?" I hope that my colleagues will shortly be able to enlighten me.
I returned from Afghanistan on Monday evening. I was there for four or five days and had the opportunity to meet President Karzai and General Wardak, the Defence Minister. One of the success stories of Afghanistan has been the creation of a disciplined and effective Afghan national army, but I agree with hon. Members that the army needs to be increased in size, so I am glad that there is now approval, including funding approval from donors, to double its strength to about 135,000. There are political risks in having a long-term foreign military presence in the country, and also huge cost implications. It costs $50 billion a year for the NATO and allied military presence in Afghanistan, but when the Afghan national army reaches its full strength, although funded largely by donors, it will cost about $3.5 billion.
I met General McKiernan, several other senior military commanders, the international security assistance force senior civilian representative, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Governor Atta in Balkh province and others, and I fundamentally disagree with my hon. Friend Paul Flynn, who said that the Afghan public would rather have the Taliban back than have conflict. Absolutely nobody to whom I spoke—none of the women and none of the women MPs—wants to see the Taliban back. There is a danger that they will get back into power if the Afghan Government, who—let us get the facts straight—have a presence way beyond Kabul, do not provide the security that people desperately need, or deal with corruption, especially within the police, who prey on, rather than protect, the people of Afghanistan.
One positive thing that I saw in Afghanistan, however, was last week's presidential decision to sack the notoriously corrupt Interior Minister and replace him with the capable former Minister of Education. It will not be long until the election—probably in September next year—and it is extremely important that President Karzai's Government make real and tangible progress that people can see on dealing with corruption. That means getting rid of the vast majority of the police chiefs, because they have bought their jobs at $200,000 a piece. They think that they can extract a rent from the people in the provinces where they are chiefs, and that has to end.
I visited the country about a year ago with the Select Committee on International Development, and we published our report in February. My impression from my recent visit is that the security situation has certainly deteriorated. The Taliban and other insurgents have turned more to terrorism and away from straight-on fighting with allied troops. They know that they cannot defeat ISAF or the Afghan national army, but then neither can ISAF defeat the insurgents militarily; the best that it can do is to provide conditions of sufficient order to find a political solution. That will include talking with elements of the insurgency. I am not sure that I agree with Mr. Gray, who said that there are some good guys in the Taliban with whom we ought to get together, but there are some guys who have support, and it is important to try to do the politics and align as many tribal leaders—it is a tribal country—as possible with the Government.
Our capable ambassador in Kabul was recently reported, through a French leak, to have said that he does not believe that the war in Afghanistan can be won militarily. That is not a new view; he expressed it to the International Development Committee a year ago. The point of the military presence is to provide the conditions for economic development that improves the material welfare of the Afghan people, so that they see some benefit from President Karzai's Government, and to provide security until such time as the Afghan forces can provide it themselves. The comprehensive strategy, which ISAF follows, of providing security, working with the Government to improve governance and providing development assistance to address the material needs of the people is the right strategy.
I welcome the thrust of my hon. Friend's argument. When he was in Afghanistan, did he get a clear idea of the constraints on a more rapid expansion of the Afghan army? Is that not an essential path to establishing the security that we both want?
That is absolutely essential. It is an effective force because it is well trained, disciplined and well recruited. There are people in this room with military experience, which I do not have, but if one were to try to wave a magic wand and create that situation in three months, one would fail. One has to work to provide the skills and the command structure to enable a larger army to do the job that the smaller Afghan national army does.
Owing to time, I shall not talk about the difficulties that I saw with the caveats and other differences of policy between partners in NATO, but I am happy to talk to colleagues outside the Chamber about those difficulties, although I am sure that most people are largely aware of them.
On development assistance, however, it is as important to co-ordinate development strategy among the donors as it is to co-ordinate military strategies within ISAF. The International Development Committee, when we were writing our report, received from the Peace Dividend Trust and others evidence that was reinforced by my meetings with UNAMA over the weekend—evidence that when aid is spent directly, it produces substantially less per dollar than when it is channelled through the Afghan trust funds to enable the Afghan Government to deliver to the people benefits such as schools and wells in villages.
It is important that the Afghan Government provide those benefits. In Helmand province a year ago, I saw some of the many wells that the Department for International Development had funded. However, the work is done by the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development. If they were sunk by a British contractor with a Union flag on the top, the Taliban would blow them up the following day, but if the Afghan Government provide them, it is very difficult for the Taliban to blow them up, because they are also fighting a battle for hearts and minds.
There is a huge problem with corruption in the Government, and we have to address it, because if they remain a corrupt Government who are unable to deliver improvements in basic welfare for their people, the project will fail. Although people express doubts about what is happening in Afghanistan, and I certainly came away from my visit with some doubts that I had not had before, fundamentally, what is the alternative? It is one of the poorest countries in the world. We, as a development donor, would need to work with partners in Afghanistan for 30 to 50 years whether or not the current security situation existed. We have a responsibility to stick with Afghanistan. The problems are great, but I have confidence in our military and civilian teams in Afghanistan.
Time prevents me from talking about the new anti-drugs strategy that ISAF will follow, which has been authorised by NATO Defence Ministers. The situation is, I accept, not an easy one, but it is not a situation that we can walk away from.
It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate. I am delighted to see the Minister here, although I was hoping to see a Foreign Office Minister, to explain the strategy. Our soldiers are working extremely hard on top of the hill to try to protect what is happening down in the village. My concern is that not enough is happening down in the village; that is why our soldiers on top of the hill are being shot. That is the fundamental issue with respect to what is going wrong in Afghanistan. I hope that the Minister is taking notes, because we are keen to learn what has happened. There has been a huge amount of mission creep since we first went in to try to deal with al-Qaeda. Now we are, as I heard a few months ago, dealing with counter-narcotics. We need to understand exactly what our mission is, and the end game.
I am very concerned. I visit the country every five to six months, and I predict that there will be civil war there unless there is a turnaround in four key areas. The first of those is a review of the constitution. The idea that the one-size-fits-all approach with Kabul and President Karzai at the top should suddenly work for the whole of Afghanistan is fundamentally flawed. It ignores the wonderful celebration of ethnic mixes, alliances, allegiances and tribes that makes up Afghanistan. It is not really a country; it is a wonderful tapestry of different alliances. That should be celebrated and recognised in the constitution, instead of everything pointing to Kabul. If one speaks to someone in a village in Sangin district, they do not really look to Lashkagar, let alone Kandahar, and Kabul is another country away. That is ignored in the constitution and I am afraid none of the provincial leaders is given the autonomy or operational funding to enable them to conduct their activities and allow the local system of governance to grow. That was the first, and fundamental, error, which has meant that we will be there much longer than we should have been.
The second key area is improving local security capability. I bet that we will hear again the numbers that are thrown out about how large the Afghan army is, and how it will double in size, along with the police force. I am afraid that in reality the operational effectiveness of both is very weak. The police force is 70 per cent. illiterate and most officers have a day job in the police and at night are involved in counter-narcotics.
Absolutely—they are involved in narcotics; I stand corrected.
Helmand province has been mentioned, and yes, we are making a fantastic job of teaching and training a new Afghan army, but there are four battalions based in Helmand province and just one is of operational effectiveness. That means that there are just 400 people we can work with in the whole province. Those are minuscule numbers, which is why we need to be able to train much faster. It should have happened. I am angry with the Germans about that; they were the ones who put their hands up in 2001 and said that they would train the police force. Did that happen? No, it did not. That is why the Americans have had to come in.
The third key area is to do with the vision of the country itself. There is huge agricultural potential in Afghanistan. At the moment there is only one market—the black market—and everyone is engaged in the poppy trade. The only way we will change that is by improving infrastructure and allowing the three main arterial routes to be improved. No one is working on railway lines, or, really, to improve the dual carriageway system, to get the produce—whether that is apricots or dried fruits—to the Indian ocean or, indeed, on to the Trans-Siberian railway. Everything must be flown out, which is far too expensive, and because of that there is no market. Therefore, the only market people rely on is the black market, which is why everyone is involved with poppies.
Fourthly, I want briefly to talk about Helmand province—I am trying to stick to your guidance on time, Mr. Taylor. The province is a British affair. We can criticise and be upset about the fundamental lack of co-ordination between our NATO allies, but what is happening in Helmand province is a British responsibility, and I am afraid DFID does not do danger. It does a wonderful job in places such as Africa and in other parts of the world, but when it comes to working in an insecure environment, it does not happen. We need a revolution in the way we approach our reconstruction and development works. That happened with respect to the way our armed forces operated when we moved from a cold war scenario to counter-insurgency operations, and it worked well. The same has not happened as far as dealing with reconstruction and development. I want to state firmly my desire that the British Army should take over that responsibility. There is a window of opportunity of about six months to a year, on going into an insecure environment, in which to create and build the necessary hearts and minds projects, until it becomes safe enough to allow DFID and the other agencies and contractors to come in and take over. Until that happens, what is going on in Helmand province will continue: that is very little, while the locals get frustrated because their life has not changed enough to have an effect.
I am very concerned that the police do not have the necessary ability, and I think that we should listen to General Rose's comments and have a debate about whether to follow the line that we took in Iraq—the awakening process, under General Petraeus, by which we allowed local militias to grow. That happened in the UK 500 or 600 years ago, and in America during the revolution. It happened all over the world. That is how police forces develop in poor and underdeveloped countries—not by shipping in people with no alliances or allegiance to the local area. We need a debate about that; it would expedite the security process, which is so fundamental if anything else is to happen.
There are some serious questions, to which I do not think we will hear the answers today. I should like a regular debate to be held in the House of Commons, not in Westminster Hall and not just with the Minister who is present today but with the Secretary of State for International Development and the Foreign Secretary. All three of them are tied in to what is happening in Afghanistan and we do not get enough feedback, and cannot contribute to debate on those important issues. I hope that the Government have the strength to listen to what is being said today, recognise what is not working and be brave enough to take a new direction.
Order. There are now five hon. Members who wish to speak, and 14 minutes available, so if hon. Members could keep their comments brief it would be most helpful.
I shall be very brief. The House owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Heald for obtaining the debate. Both he and Mr. Ellwood have made an important point: there is insufficient parliamentary scrutiny of what is happening in Afghanistan, insufficient time for debate and an insufficient number of statements.
No one who has so far spoken in the debate has shown great optimism or confidence about what is happening or is likely to happen in Afghanistan. The policy clearly does not enjoy universal support in the Chamber, or, I suspect, among the British public. The last opinion poll showed that 54 per cent. of the population of the country want the troops to be brought home. I suspect that those opinion polls are mirrored all over Europe and in many other parts of the world. There is, however, a degree of unity in the United States about continuing with the policy. Both Barack Obama and John McCain are pursuing essentially the same policy on Afghanistan. It is a question of who would put in the most troops the quickest, and who would bring about a solution to the war quickest. I would caution both of them to think back a little to how we got involved in the mess in the first place.
Only nine days after 9/11, President Bush made a blood-curdling statement to Congress, demanding all sorts of things of the then Afghan Government, led by the Taliban, which he decided were not delivered. A war was therefore unleashed against Afghanistan. Many thousands of wholly innocent ordinary Afghan people died as a result of high-level bombardment from the west. Their families have not forgiven or forgotten what happened then. The war was meant to solve the problems of 9/11 and teach the world that the US was in charge, after which all would be well.
It is now seven years since that happened. The war has taken considerably longer than the second world war, and has cost a vast amount of money. It has not brought about the peace or justice it was supposed to bring about. One should not forget that the behaviour of US forces shortly after they arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 led to imprisonments at Bagram air base, the establishment of Guantanamo Bay and the gross abuse of human rights by a country that claimed it was defending them.
First, the Taliban have not been got rid of; they are clearly still there. Otherwise, I suspect the war would be over. I also think that the whole philosophy and strategy were fundamentally flawed from the beginning. However, it suited the purposes of President Bush at that time to pursue the war. We have thus suffered a serious loss of liberties. That applies not just to the people who unfortunately ended up in Guantanamo Bay, but to every country that has pursued the absurd war on terror.
These things are dangerous, and they go on for a long time. The war has now actively spread over into Pakistan and we have the ludicrous situation that occurred a couple of weeks ago: because unmanned aircraft are bombing villages in Pakistan, people are now fleeing across the border into Afghanistan to avoid the US bombing, and then when the US starts bombing villages in Afghanistan they go back across the border. We should put ourselves in the position of the Pakistan; Government, who are in a complicated bind. Do they pursue a war in support of what the US wants, knowing that it is unpopular with a majority of the Pakistani people, or do they nothing about it and allow the US to invade their country, when they are supposed to be allies of the US? These are dangerous times that could well lead to a political crisis and collapse in Pakistan—a country that possesses nuclear arms. The situation is not simple; it is in fact very dangerous.
I urge an end to the fiction that there is going to be a military victory in Afghanistan, or that western-style government covering the whole of Afghanistan is going to be imposed. Everybody knows, including the braver people in the military, that to end this war, there will have to be political dialogue—yes, with the Taliban and yes, with elements of the Taliban. The Taliban are not a seamless whole. One cannot go to Kabul, knock on the door of the Taliban head office and ask to see the general secretary of the Taliban to have a discussion; it does not work like that. There are lots of different factions and elements. There has to be that dialogue process; otherwise, we will end up with the most terrible loss of life among British soldiers, coalition forces and civilians in Afghanistan, and we will see the extension of the war way beyond the borders of Afghanistan. This is a time for reality check and a time to look for peace, not an expansion of this ghastly conflict.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Heald on securing this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow Jeremy Corbyn. All I would say in response to his comments is that I do not think that anyone but a fool would think that this campaign, war, policy, insurgency—call it what we will, although the language is important—can be won by military means alone. I am sure that the Minister would agree with that.
I was brought up with tomes of counter-insurgency documents, such as Frank Kitson's books or Robert Thompson's books, based on the British and American experiences of counter-insurgency. I was surprised, therefore, after Baghdad fell, when I spent some time on the Iraq-Iran border at a relatively benign time, to be told by the locals, "Listen, get your reconstruction right, because if you don't, you're going to have a Shi'a uprising, you just are. Iran is going to be drawn into this conflict, as sure as eggs is eggs." That comment was clearly made to me. Thompson, Kitson and the higher command and staff course all teach that counter-insurgency is not fought by bombs and bullets alone.
I do not mean to patronise the Minister in any way, but I hope that he will allow me to reflect some of the comments of a certain infantry battalion—its name he can probably guess—which returned from Afghanistan recently with nine dead and more than 30 injured, and which is due to return in the near future. I shall set out what my former comrades are telling me of their deepest and most grave concerns for their return to Helmand next spring.
The first has been touched on by a number of different people. My former comrades are not clear in their minds what the relationship is with the Pakistani Government, what the position is of the Inter-Services Intelligence—the Pakistani intelligence service—or exactly what is being done to control the movement of foreign fighters to and from the border. They are happy, and I hope the Minister believes this, to kill those people, but by golly, every time that they knock one down, three more seem to spring up. They are not clear about that. That has a major impact on their morale, particularly for men who are now seasoned fighting soldiers.
The second point is an unlikely one to come from a military mouth, or at least I thought that it was. They are unclear about where the future lies for the process of security sector reform and reconciliation in particular. I was asked, for instance, what exactly was the position with Michael Semple and the United Nations official Mervyn Patterson? What were they trying to achieve? If they were doing what it is said they were trying to do, which was broadly praised by my former comrades, why were they arrested? Why were they ejected? What is the position on reconciliation? Going back to Thompson and Kitson, reconciliation means talking to the enemy, trying to turn the enemy into our friends, and heavens above, that was the secret to our supposed, or at least our partial, success in Northern Ireland. Where do we stand on reconciliation?
The next point, which I thought was absolutely crucial, was the question of why we are so poor at communicating our views with the world through the national and international media. They made the point that all that the Taliban have to do is to pick up a mobile phone and speak directly to al-Jazeera to allow their particular bit of poison to drip into the world's ear, yet if a military public information strategy is being thought up it is "staffed to death"—their phrase, not mine. Nothing is agile about how we put our views, or our propaganda, into the world arena. It is slow, cumbersome, risk averse and too often, it is politically correct. The enemy are defeating us with propaganda just as surely as they are damaging us with bombs and bullets.
The next two points fall under one generic heading, which concerns the key to local success. I am not of the school that believes we will ever see an established democracy with universal peace in Afghanistan, any more than we did in the 19th or 20th centuries—it is not that sort of country. None the less, the key to that peace lies in two places: the Afghan national police and the Afghan national army. I will not repeat the points that have been made much more eloquently by my some of my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Islington, North. If we wish to have a competent police force, and not, to quote a former colleague of mine, one that is
"seen by the Afghans as corrupt and narco-ridden" and if we are to have a reliable army, we must provide the right number of instructors, trainers and mentors, in a benign environment in which training can occur. If the trainers and the operational mentoring liaison teams keep getting killed and shot, and if that job is seen as the single most dangerous military job in Helmand province at the moment, we are simply not progressing.
On a point that is more wide-ranging, but which is really the same argument, if redevelopment and reconciliation occur and if security sector reform generally occurs and an area is pacified—although that is a relative term—and it becomes as benign as Kabul or Lashkagar have been, the rules of counter-insurgency dictate that there must be enough troops, police, or paramilitaries, whatever they are, to hold those areas and to keep them benign. We cannot have the sort of operations springing up behind our front lines that we have already seen.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister to address those specific points and to add his weight to the argument that if we are going to try to contain the situation, if not triumph in this area, there have to be enough troops properly equipped with enough transport, aircraft and resources.
I shall be brief, and not inflict my dreadful voice on everyone for too long. Clearly, we will win this only with a political settlement. People have spoken about increasing the capacity of the Afghan national army. That is probably a much more important way forward than increasing the number of foreign troops, apart from those with niche capabilities. We are always told that it is hard to generate an army quickly, but Afghanistan is probably the one country in the world where one can generate large numbers of men under arms quite rapidly. What is happening at the moment and what has happened in history teaches us that in Afghanistan, foreign troops are a problem.
On the subject of the police, we have spoken about police mentoring teams. Actually, what we need more than mentoring teams teaching people how to be good detectives or gather evidence, is political commissars, in terms of the appointment of police chiefs.
Finally, we talk about corruption, but we are supporting a deeply corrupt Government. If we do not deal with that, we will be finished. If we cannot ourselves deal with corrupt senior officials, we can use our intelligence services and police forces to put together dossiers with incontrovertible evidence for the President and thereby get high-profile prosecutions of a few of those people.
I want to try to give a positive, upbeat message after what we have heard over the past hour. I have visited Afghanistan twice this year, most recently last month, to meet members of 16 Air Assault Brigade from the Colchester garrison, which I have the pleasure and privilege of representing. I am delighted to say that the last of the 2 Para soldiers returned as recently as Monday, as a big spread in the local newspaper reported. I want to home in on comments made by the commander of 3 Para, Lieutenant-Colonel Huw Williams, who said that the insurgency in Afghanistan will go on for a long time. He said that the international community would not let go, and that it would be wrong to desert the Afghan people now, especially after what has been achieved.
It is in that spirit that I want to quote the words of Victoria Bateman, who contacted me. She is the young widow of James Bateman, one of the young soldiers from 2 Para who lost his life in June. She stated:
"The one wish that I have now is that James' work is not forgotten and his memory is preserved in a positive manner, and I will do everything that I can to ensure this."
Tomorrow, Victoria Bateman will be joining other members of the families of 2 Para at a regimental church service at St. Peter's church, Colchester, where they will remember the nine soldiers from 2 Para and four others attached to 2 Para who have lost their lives in the past six months. They are among the 32 in total from 16 Air Assault Brigade who have lost their lives.
It is in the spirit of remembering good work in a positive manner that I want to inform Members of the visit to the House of Commons early in the summer by the chairman and deputy chairman of the Helmand provincial council. They were accompanied by two women members of the council, and of course that would not have been possible if the Taliban were still running Afghanistan. Mr. Anwar Khan thanked Britain, especially our armed forces, for all that this country is doing to help his country and its citizens, whom he explained wanted once again to be part of the civilised world after experiencing some 30 years when their country was systematically destroyed. He mentioned the positive role of the help given to provide security against insurgents, the training being given to the Afghan police and army, and reconstruction work, including the building of schools, hospitals, clinics, houses and roads.
As we heard, the Afghan national army is expanding. It will virtually double in size over the next four years to about 130,000 or 135,000 soldiers, and, as I witnessed when I was in Camp Bastion only last month, it is increasingly playing a role in the security of the country. It is losing more men than the allies are.
Having heard the upbeat message from the chairman of the Helmand provincial council, I hope that it is in that spirit that we in the British Parliament look at Afghanistan. The solution cannot be a military one only—I believe that that is accepted—but our military personnel are making a huge difference to the lives of ordinary Afghan people, ensuring that the country does not return to being a haven from which terrorism is exported around the world.
I must confess that he did not say that, but I would like to move on to how I see Afghanistan in the future. It has to be decentralised, with province-led governance and administration. Yes, there must be a national umbrella, but the reality of tribal loyalties and allegiances must be recognised. Taking that line and bringing in the various factions would be the way forward. The solution cannot be a military one only—politicians and the military have to work together.
As I have indicated in the Chamber in the past, and in Prime Minister's questions not that long ago, there is a problem, and it is the failure of our European NATO allies to deploy sufficient troops to support the effort. For example, there are 70 caveats which result in other European NATO countries finding it difficult, to put it mildly, to play their part. That is not acceptable.
I endorse the words of Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, whom I met at Camp Bastion. I am sure that it would be difficult to disagree with the top man in Afghanistan when he says that there will not be a military solution. He said that the British troops had taken the sting out of the Taliban in 2008, but that it would be necessary to engage with the Taliban in the future governance of the country.
I appreciate that time is against all of us who would like to contribute to the debate. There is another example of the British military playing a crucial role in the redevelopment and reconstruction of Afghanistan: their incredible achievement only a few weeks ago in taking a turbine through 50 or 60 miles of hostile Taliban country to the Kajaki dam. That was the biggest military effort since the Falklands war. I am told that it was the first time since the second world war that all four battalions of the Parachute Regiment have engaged on a single mission. We should celebrate such achievements.
I regret observations that could be misinterpreted not only by the British people and Her Majesty's armed forces but by the people of Afghanistan. I cannot speak for the whole of the United Kingdom, but I can certainly speak for the garrison town that I represent, where there is considerable pride in what has been achieved and a certain knowledge that lives have not been lost in vain. It is in the interests of this country and the whole democratic world that Afghanistan does not return to what it was six, seven or eight years ago.
I hope that the Minister will accept that there is a message of hope, and that the British armed forces are doing a good job. That is recognised by many people in Afghanistan. I can only repeat what was put to me by the chairman of the Helmand provincial council. He does not want his province to revert to what it was—a place in which women had no say, girls did not go to school and society was run by tribal warlords. It is important to bring everybody together, and the way forward is to engage the Afghan people more, decentralise, have provincial governance and assist our troops, who need more support from our European NATO allies.
It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor, and to hear so many luminaries speak this afternoon. It is a pity that we could not get everyone in. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Heald on securing this extremely important debate.
It is a great pity that, six or seven years on, we are here with a Defence Minister. I like the Minister very much indeed—he is a great man—but it is a pity that he is not a Minister from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or from the Department for International Development. That would have been a mark of where we might have been but, sadly, we are not.
Arguments about Afghanistan being a proving ground for NATO, for being an exercise in facilitating the ability of Afghans to cast a ballot, or for the lifting of a country out of poverty are supplementary. Although worthy, they are intermediate goals that are admissible because they facilitate the reduction of the threat of terrorism on Britain's streets, and the desolation and criminality caused here by Afghanistan's chief export. That should be our lodestar.
In 1936, the sociologist Robert Merton published "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action", which I am sure the Minister is familiar with; he will certainly be familiar with the law of unintended consequences, which is the guts of it. In Iraq, all five contributing factors that Merton identified as likely to lead to unexpected and perverse outcomes from Government action were satisfied. I suspect that Merton would have been less alarmed by Afghanistan. However, a jaw-dropping failure to understand what was going on was evidenced by the estimation of one of the Defence Secretary's predecessors, which was that we could do whatever he then had in mind without a single shot being fired. We see it also in a complete failure to get to grips with the nature of the Taliban.
Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith has had to write 32 difficult letters during his six months in command of 16 Air Assault Brigade in Afghanistan. His view is:
"We're not going to win this war".
If winning means establishing a Jeffersonian liberal democracy in Afghanistan, he may be right. The brigadier says that, at some point, we will have to sit around a table with the Taliban. Well, it is their country; they are not going away. This appears to have dawned, belatedly, on the Kabul Administration. Having laid into western leaders for parleying with insurgents, we now find that Karzai is opening up lines of communications with Mullah Omar. That is good. But we really should have no truck with the conceit of not treating with those we define as terrorists. Indeed, the Government have more experience than most of dealing with those at what we might call the fag end of statecraft, both at home and abroad. Already, the Government are having to hold their nose while dealing with the fragile, corrupt and potentially capricious regime in Kabul and, at the same time, training up their army and police force. Without tackling endemic corruption, there can be no chance of success in Afghanistan by any measure.
During the ultimately successful counter-insurgency war in Dhofar, it was necessary in 1970 to secure regime change: the sultan had to go. But in Afghanistan, in wondering how much progress we will see under the current management, we have to ask—no doubt Brigadier Carleton-Smith has—whether the alternatives would be very much better.
We talk about winning the battle of hearts and minds in a fairly loose way. In total war, the attitudes of civilian populations are of secondary importance to the need to secure military advantage and military victory. The reverse is the case in the sort of counter-insurgency operations we have seen since 1945. With the United Nations reporting that Afghan civilian deaths as a result of coalition action have risen by 40 per cent. this year, I wonder whether the Government have had sufficient regard to the primacy of heart and minds in the ultimate outcome of the two major conflicts that have occurred on their watch. Hearts and minds means aid and development. The UK has chosen to channel its aid largely through the Afghan Government. Will the Minister say whether, in retrospect, he feels that this has been wise?
United States aid is always clearly badged; we see on our television screens buckets of gear going out, clearly marked with the stars and stripes. That helps to paint America in a favourable light and helps give it mitigation in the eyes of many Afghans. The drug barons and the Taliban are building schools and hospitals in the south of the country and making it abundantly clear to the population who they are indebted to. Surely, we should also be shouting our philanthropy from the rooftops.
Government strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan is underpinned by the extraordinary service of the men and women of our armed forces. Last week, I had the great privilege of visiting our troops in Iraq, most of whom seemed to have recent experience of Afghanistan. All of them reckon that this will be their last tour of Iraq; all of them reckon they will be going to Afghanistan in the fullness of time. My trip to Iraq allowed me to inspect our range of quaint airborne antiques, which are part of the problem and about which the Minister and I have corresponded. I know that he has also corresponded with my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron on this issue, in respect of rest and recuperation leave for our troops.
It is important to understand that our troops are first rate. They are doing the bidding of the Government. They must not be taken for granted and I know that the Minister does not intend that they should be, but it is clear to me, having spoken to our troops in Iraq and having had a range of correspondence on this topic, that one of their chief bugbears at the moment—I suspect that this also applies in Afghanistan—is a problem with the airhead, which cuts into their rest and recuperation leave. I hope that the Minister is able to reassure me on the subject of troop transport aircraft and that he will also say categorically that troops are not being delayed at airheads because of the want of aircraft anti-missile kit, which makes service aircraft incapable of operation for trooping flights in Iraq and Afghanistan.
May I also press the Minister on equipment in general? The good news is that the message I am getting is that the new kit coming on line is good, albeit belated. I welcome the Minister's statement today on the protected mobility package, which looks like it will help to improve safety and security in Afghanistan, particularly. But—there will always be a "but" from me—not all of these are new orders. It would be useful to hear him say how the total of £700 million that is cited is arrived at: whether it is £600 million for the mobility package plus £96 million for Talisman, which is what I think it means, or something different. Perhaps he can say whether we can assume that the element of the mobility package not funded by the reserve will, at £100 million, have to be paid for by the Ministry of Defence or whether it will be in excess of that. In addition, is the £500 million to be taken from the reserve already included in the latest reserve estimates? The Minister will know the implications of that if is so.
May I also press the Minister on training on this new kit? I heard from people in theatre that it is all very well having kit—I saw a lot of it when I was in Iraq—but it is no good if they have to train on it when it is in theatre; they need to train on kit when they are in the UK. Of course, we are cutting back on training because of overstretch, but it is a pity that that appears to be impinging on vital training on the new kit being introduced.
The platoon house strategy has been tried and found costly. If it is the Government's intention to avoid search-and-destroy operations in favour of "clear and hold", would the Minister agree that we must find more soldiers? Training and recruitment of the Afghan national army, particularly senior officers, have been slow and our European so-called allies have been found unwilling. That leaves, for practical purposes, ourselves, the US, the Dutch and the Canadians, and at least three of those countries will continue to be over-committed, even post-Iraq.
We may have to start thinking outside the box. General Sir Michael Rose argues that irregular Pashtun militias might be conscripted as force multipliers, citing experience in Oman in the 1970s. A combination of collateral reduction and force multiplication could be crucial as we reach a tipping point at which the uncommitted majority in the south and east of Afghanistan start to decide which side looks like a winner and therefore which one they should back.
More in hope than expectation, I must press the Minister on countries that are not pulling their weight in the coalition, despite being signatories to it. It is accepted that our role in Afghanistan is to protect the home front. If that is so, the same goes in France, Germany and Italy. How long must we indulge national caveats that mean, in the words of one soldier I met last week, that many coalition troops in theatre are about as useful as a chocolate fireguard? It is not just an aversion to losing soldiers. Britain alone has given £600 million in aid to Afghanistan since 2001 and has been at the forefront of what redevelopment has been achieved. Yet the Germans and Italians, for example, having undertaking responsibility for police and judicial reform respectively at the Tokyo conference of 2002, have left both chaotic and inadequately funded. How odd then that our newly minted Defence Secretary should think that the solution is a European army and that those who oppose it are "pathetic" and
"don't understand the nature of the modern world", since a European force would, apparently,
"project power, strength and conviction around the world."
Not, it seems, in Afghanistan.
I congratulate Mr. Heald on securing this important and timely debate. We have 8,000 military personnel and 400 civil servants and contractors in Afghanistan, and we have lost 121 people in that benighted country since 2001. During 16 Air Assault Brigade's recent six-month tour—it has just arrived home—we lost 32 people, and a further 30 were seriously wounded. In recent days, the murders of Gayle Williams and David Giles by militants in Kabul reminded us that the country's capital remains a dangerous place. I am sure that we all pay tribute to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, and to all those who take such a risk on our behalf. Our thoughts are with the families of those we have lost, and our eternal gratitude belongs to all those who serve our country.
Such investment in blood and sweat, to say nothing of pounds and pence, rightly raises challenging questions. Why are we doing this? Is it worth it? Should we continue and, if so, for how long? A further key question, which I have heard only my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley ask so far today, is: what are the consequences of our not continuing? A related question is: how much is our effort in Afghanistan in our self interest? My hon. Friend Paul Flynn said that we should never have gone in there in the first place because were stirring up a hornets' nest, and it is all terrible. That presumes that if we had not stirred up the hornets' nest, the hornets would have remained quietly buzzing in the corner, and would not have stung us hard.
My hon. Friend complains and worries about the furore at the loss of life, and at the inquests into the loss of some of our people, which will continue. But what about the furore if we have another 9/11 or 7/7? We cannot say that the country is over there and unconnected with our national interest and security. Yes, I want us to open schools, I want women to be able to participate in education, and I want Afghans to be relieved of the mediaeval tyranny of the Taliban, but that is not my main motive for allowing our people to go to, and sometimes to die, in a faraway place. My main motive is the protection of our people back home. If I did not believe that our involvement in Afghanistan was inextricably tied up with our security back home, I would not support our involvement in Afghanistan.
I think we all agree that we shall be in Afghanistan for some time, so perhaps I could bring the Minister back to that debate. I understand from my visit to Helmand recently that the Americans are building a second runway at Camp Bastion, and are introducing 9,000 combat troops. That will dwarf the British presence there at the moment, and change the dynamics considerably. Will the Minister explain why that move has been made, and how command and control will work?
The move has not yet been made, but it is under consideration, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Several hon. Members have said that the Americans are having a review, and asked whether we are having one and should have one, and the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire made that a central point. I sometimes think that when we have review after review, we are in danger of pulling up the plant to see whether the roots are growing. Of course, the Americans are having a review. They will shortly have a new President and a new Administration, and they will want a completely fresh look at what they do, how they do it, and so on. We will be involved in that. We will have our people there, and we will try to exercise whatever influence we can over American interests, but our policy is still totally and utterly justified in my opinion, and I have heard nothing today to suggest that it is not.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West said that we must move away from the fiction of military victory, but I do not know where that fiction comes from. It is not a fiction that the Government have ever spread around. It is not new when people say that the military alone cannot win in places such as Afghanistan. Everyone understands that, from the Prime Minister down to Defence Ministers, commanders on the ground, and right down to captains. They know that the operation is about winning the people; it is not about killing the Taliban. Patrick Mercer understands the military procedures and doctrines better than I do. The operation is counter-insurgency. That is well understood at every level in our military, and is built into our thinking.
The troops have been in Afghanistan for seven years, and the Ministry of Defence talks openly of their staying there for another 30 years. How much longer does the Minister honestly expect us to bear the cost of deploying the troops and suffering the loss of life in Afghanistan before there is any political settlement?
We have never tried to say, and no one has ever suggested, that our involvement in Afghanistan would be short-term, or an easy and quick win. I return to the question: what if we were not involved? Bob Russell asked the question, as did my hon. Friend the Member for City of York. There is no easy way of walking away and turning our backs on the situation.
The hornets' nest that we stirred up was the incursion into Helmand province. Our decision to invade Afghanistan was originally supported by every member of the House, including me, on the basis of reducing the threat of terrorism by weakening the Taliban and removing al-Qaeda's safe base from which to operate against us, but the Taliban have been greatly strengthened, and Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda have an even safer base in Pakistan, so the threat of terrorism is the same.
The heart of the insurgency is in southern Afghanistan, in Kandahar and Helmand. To suggest that one can go into benign parts of the country, but not the dangerous parts, and somehow deal with the insurgency is not reality.
The situation is far from perfect. There is much to be done and there are major challenges ahead, but we should not allow the fact that the situation is difficult make us defeatist. We must be strong and determined, and we must remain unflinching in our commitment to Afghanistan, because our vital national security is at stake. This is a question of our national interest. Unless we are happy for those who seek to wreak havoc on the streets of our country to be free to train in the ungoverned space that is there, as they were doing before 2001, our involvement is inevitable.
The right hon. Gentleman makes some eminently sensible points, but it seems likely that, with either new President, we will be asked to take part in some kind of military surge in Afghanistan. This debate has shown that all parties are very concerned and that there needs to be considerably more debate, understanding and confidence that the Government will support a policy of engagement with the tribal leaders to promote local governance in the provinces to ensure that this campaign is effective. Will he undertake to have a debate on the Floor of the House, before those decisions are made?
The hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot promise debates on the Floor of the House. He knows that we have five defence debates every year and that Afghanistan features significantly in those. We have Defence questions next Monday and we will have debates here in Westminster Hall. In addition, the Opposition have their own opportunities to raise these issues.
Reconciliation has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Newark and other hon. Members. Our policy has always been that we are not against reconciliation. It is part of our strategy in Afghanistan, but one can reconcile only with the reconcilable. One cannot reconcile with the top end of al-Qaeda who have shown no propensity to talk to anyone, and one cannot reconcile with the hard-line end of the Taliban leadership who are totally and absolutely at one with al-Qaeda. We will reconcile where it is possible as part of our strategy.