This is a very sombre moment, Mr. Chope. We have heard of the unprecedented deaths of seven of our soldiers within seven days. All our emotions are churned up by that, and there is sadness at the brutal deaths of seven unique young men. There is admiration for their bravery and professionalism, which we all salute, but there is also anger at some of the political decisions that have been made, which have led us to the carnage of NATO and Afghan civilians on a scale that was not anticipated.
We have heard today, from the new Secretary of State, that he will be resolute in the face of the situation. I believe that we are on the point of change in public opinion, in the same way that there was a change in public opinion in America when the body bags were returning in large numbers from the Vietnam war. I believe that public opinion will be tested and that the public will ask why this country should pay a disproportionate share of what is known as the blood price in Afghanistan. That, I do not believe, will be tolerated, and I believe that other questions will be asked about whether we can continue and tolerate deaths on such a scale.
The Secretary of State today said: For Britain to be secure, Afghanistan must be made secure. That is a repeat of comments made by past Secretaries of State, meaning that there is somehow a threat of terrorism to Britain because of the Taliban. That is part of the canard that it is much easier, or more plausible, to repeat old myths than to reveal a new truth. That is a myth: there has never been any Taliban plot against any western European city. There have been al-Qaeda plots, and the two are conflated, but there is no risk to us from the Taliban.
As was vividly revealed in James Fergussons book A Million Bullets, the Taliban are fighting us because we are the farangithe foreignersin their country; they are fighting a jihad to expel us from their country. James Fergusson tells a story about a conversation he had with a top leader of the Taliban, who told him, Ive got three small children, but I dont visit them very often because I dont want to love them, or for them to love me, because if they do itll be a greater loss when I die. James Fergusson asked him, Do you want to die?, to which he replied, Of course I want to die; I want to die like my father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather died, fighting in a jihad against the farangi. That is why they are fighting us. Their ambitions and their antagonism to us do not stretch beyond their own lands. They also made the point to James Fergusson that, We are fighting you. They would not kill him because of their tradition of hospitality and courtesy to strangers, but they asked him, Wouldnt you fight people who came to your land and killed your wives and children? That is the reality of the position that we are in.
I shall concentrate on Helmand, because I believe that what happened there was a great turning point. I am grateful to see here in the Chamber my right hon. Friend Mr. Ingram, who was the Minister answering a debate on this subject in March 2006. I am not one to attack him or any other Minister, but having gone through the wonderful pack that the Library has prepared for the debate, which gives details of all the debates on this issue in recent years, I see one compelling truth: the Government and the main Opposition have always been wrong in their forecasts, and the critics have nearly always been right.
The intervention in Helmand took place in 2006, at which time the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend John Reid, said that he hoped it would last for only three years and that not a shot would be fired. That phrase will be part of our history for a long time. To be fair to him, he pointed out the dangers, but his view was that the British should go there to ensure that reconstruction could take place, and that if there was any shooting to be done, it would be done by the Americans. However, others took a different view at that time. In a 2008 debate on this issue, it was said that what we were doing was as futile and as dangerous as the charge of the Light Brigade. This time it was
Bush to the left of them,
Blair to the right of them,
Hollered and thundered,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die,
Into the valley of the shadow of death
Into the mouth of Helmand
Drove the five thousand.
Those words were described as an exaggeration, but we now know that, since Helmand, more people have died there than died in the charge of the Light Brigade. At that time, the war, or intervention, in Afghanistan was going fairly well. Only seven British soldiers had died in five years, and five of those were in accidents, but since Helmand, 176 British lives have been lost. It was said then that we were stirring up a hornets nest, and that is what happened, but the Government blundered on, and the lives of our British troops have been sacrificed because of that.
No doubt the hon. Gentleman heard Prime Ministers questions today; did he notice that the Leader of the House refused to call the engagement a war, and twice called it a mission instead? Would he, like me, feel more comfort if there was a definite, well-planned exit strategy for this war? Does he agree that other NATO countries, particularly our European neighbours, are not sharing their part of the burden in front of the fire?
We do not have wars any more; we rarely declare war, so the nomenclature that we use is misleading. But, certainly, by any standards, this is a war. We have always had an excessive share of the burdenquite unreasonably. We are not the policemen of the world, and our young men are not there to be slaughtered in order to correct every injustice that takes place in the world.
I am a member of the Western European Union, and I have spoken about this issue in Hungary and several other countries in Europe, including France and Germany. The view there is that they will not go to Afghanistan to do the dying. They will go there to do police work and other jobs, but they will not put their young soldiers at risk of being killed in a war that they know to be futile. I think we should accept that view. Some people did not accept that a year ago, but I believe that everyone accepts it now.
In 2006, there were voicesnot just politicianssaying that what was being done would be a calamity, and was a mistake that would rank in British history as having been as bad as Suez and the UKs decision to join Bushs war in Iraq. Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, who led 16 Air Assault Brigade in Helmand, before the real trouble began said:
There is not to my mind an insurgency in Helmand. But we can create one if we want to.
It was a peaceful area, and we created the insurgency by our presence there in 2006. Ministers sleepwalked into the hornets nest of Helmand and changed what was a manageable situation in Afghanistan into one that is now unwinnable.
After eight years, what progress have we made? What is this brave new world of Afghanistan that we are now asking our soldiers to die for? Certainly, there have been advances, for example, worthwhile advances in education, particularly in the education of girls. There is a frail embryo democracy and there has been some reconstruction, but the democracy itself is so frail and fragile that the Economist Intelligence Unit classified it as the 134th least democratic nation out of 167 countries. Progress has been painfully slow.
Corruptionto clean out the statewas one of the reasons that we went in there. Integrity Watch Afghanistan tells us that of the $25 billion given in aid to Afghanistan only $15 billion have been spent and for every $100 that have been spent, only $20 reached the Afghan recipient. However, there has been an extraordinary increase in the number of millionaires and billionaires in Kabul and those two events are connected. Transparency International UK points out that Afghanistan has slipped from being 119th in the international table of corruption to 154th out of 159 countries. So, we have gone backwards in that area.
President Karzais half brother, Wali Karzai, is head of Kandahars provincial council and is widely believed to be the source of drug trafficking and trade eastward beyond Kandahar. Many people in the Afghan Government and many of the provincial leaders are up to their neck in the drugs trade. What progress have we made in human rights that justifies us calling our young men to go to Afghanistan to die? Karzai refused a pardon to a young man who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for accessing an article on womens rights on the internet. However, Karzai did pardon a group of young men who were found guilty of gang-raping a 13-year-old girl. Those trials are very rare in Afghanistan because if such a case comes before the courts, it usually means the disgrace of the victim. Yet, he pardoned those who gang-raped a 13-year-old girl. A law to legalise rape in marriage was approved by Karzai in spite of western protests, and a father murdered his daughter for having a passing acquaintance with a NATO soldier. The Afghan Government refused to intervene because it was an honour killing.
The very distinguished woman MP in Afghanistan, who has now been suspended from Parliament, Malalai Joya, visited this country last year to accept a human rights prize. Her judgment is that the rights of women in Afghanistan now are worse than under the Taliban. Is it really sensible to ask our soldiers to die for those human rights, which are the result of eight years of our presence there?
On drugs, Tony Blair was fond of saying that Afghanistan was a terrible state because 90 per cent. of the drugs on the streets of Britain came from there. I have heard almost every Secretary of State down the years say exactly the same thing. In some years, we have spent £90 million of our taxpayers money and in some years, up to £260 million of taxpayers money to eradicate drugs. That is British money. We led the field in the elimination of drugs. However, the result is that we have had the three biggest harvests of drugs ever in Afghanistan and the money spent has made no difference. There has been no reduction; the only reduction that takes place is when the price of wheat goes up and there is a higher market for that. The market for heroin is flooded throughout the world. There has been one change as a result of the misuse of taxpayers money: the price of heroin on the streets of this capital and every capital in the world has gone down and it is much easier for people to become drug addicts.
When David Loyn recently gave evidence to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, he said that 60 per cent. of the police in Afghanistan are heroin addicts and virtually all members of the Afghan army use cannabis. Those are our allies in our war against drugs. Afghanistan drug exports are worth £3.4 billion. For a cut of that, the Afghan officials and the police allow free passage along their roads. They allow public land to be used for growing drugs and they protect the drug dealers. The main source of the Talibans funding, which is certainly hundreds of millions of dollars, comes from the drug barons. They come to the Taliban and the money is used to buy weapons to attack our troops. Does anyone seriously believe that such an anti-drugs policy can ever change or be successful? Such a policy has failed for everyone during the past eight yearsin fact, the money has had no effect whatsoever. The market out there is untouched by our interventions and activitiesit is a hopeless cause.
We could all acknowledge that we cannot win by military means in Afghanistan, and that we have to win by persuading the Afghans that we are there for their own good. We need to win the battle for hearts and minds. I have received a reply today from the new Secretary of State for Defence that points out that we do not collect statistics on the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan. However, as far as we can, we should do that because every one of those deaths is a problem to us and every one of those deaths means a family that is hostile to the mission of NATO. Happily for us, the United Nations calculates that just last year, 826 civilian casualties resulted from NATO activity and 1,160 civilian casualties resulted from the activities of the insurgents. We know that all those deaths are a defeat to us. Will we now learn the lessonperhaps the Americans havethat hearts and minds cannot be won by bombs and bullets?
Another independent source of information on Afghanistan is UNICEF, which points out the sad fact that hundreds of schools have been closed in the south and that most of the countrys polio cases are in the same region. Where there is a lack of security, vaccination dives. Afghanistan has the worlds third highest child mortality rate, with 257 in 1,000 children dying before they are five. Only two other nations in the world are worse. Afghanistan also has the worlds second highest maternity mortality rate with around one in eight women dying because of child birth and, according to UN figures, most cases are preventable. Those are horrific pictures. Considering the amount of moneythe great tsunami of dollars and pounds that have been poured into the countrythings have not got better; in many areas they have got worse.
We have discussed the terrorist threat before, but we need to call on the Government to provide the proof. Where is the evidence that we are protected against terrorist threats in Britain because we are in Afghanistan? I can think of none and I have not seen any produced, but that canard is repeated again and again as if it were a truth. Today it was used as a justification for the loss of seven lives in seven days. I press the Minister to tell us what he thinks the evidence is for that claim, which I am sure will continue to be repeated.
Our present position is very interesting because, just a year ago, there were signs that we would have to adopt a different policy. Exactly a year ago, I was in the Pentagon and I was told by the religious right and the old neo-cons that we will be in Afghanistan for generations. Others said that no invading alien army has ever won a battle against a local insurgencya very chilling argument to make. The only possible exception is Malaya, but that insurgency did not have any popular support; it just represented a small tribe.
The way that these things go, we are likely to end up with one of two possible outcomes. One is that a deal is done: something happens and negotiations take place which will give us a chance to consolidate and preserve the gains made in education and reconstruction while making concessions on government concerns and the NATO presence. I believe that that is achievable. The alternative is that we run out in the same way the French did from Dien Bien Phu, the Americans did from Saigon and the Russians did from Kabul. In 2001, a fellow member of the Council of Europe, a Russian, slapped me on the back and said, Ah, you British, you are very clever. Youve conquered Afghanistan. We Russians did that. It took us six days. We spent billions of roubles there. We had 120,000 troops there. We killed 1 million Afghans and lost 16,000 of our own soldiers. We ran out, and, within a short period, there were 300,000 Mujahedeen around Kabul. It will happen to you. That was in 2001, and the Russians are now looking at us and saying that we are making the same mistakes as they did.
American strategy is destined to fail, and warned that increasing troop levels would serve only to
identify us even more clearly as an occupying force and multiply the number of targets.
He urged the presidential candidates not to get bogged down in Afghanistan. Americas top general at the time, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, said:
Were not going to win this war.
He went on to state:
If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then thats precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this.
There are hopeful signs in the election of President Obama. He was committed to the surge by an election promise. On
As I said earlier, we are at a turning point today and this week. Public opinion will suddenly become aroused. There are exact precedents for that in other parts of the world. We know of the anger that was expressed about our reasons for going to Iraq. There was virtually universal approval of the reason for our going to Afghanistan in the early stages, but, in my view, if there had been a debate and a vote in this House, there would not have been approval for the incursion into Helmand province. That was the disastrous turning point that turned a manageable situation into what we have now: one in which it is impossible to win.
I conclude by paying tribute to the soldiers. I speak as the proud son of a soldier who faced the enemy on many occasions. This House sent those young men and women to Afghanistan. It was our decision, and we should confront it. I was called on Friday by a reporter from the Wales on Sunday newspaper who asked whether I was proud that there were more Welsh troops in Afghanistan than there have been in any British operation since Malaya. I said that, yes, I was proud of their bravery and professionalism, but that I worried that the outcome would be the loss of more Welsh lives.
I recall the words that are on the side of the beautiful Welsh war memorial in Cardiff:
Dros ei wlad fe rodd ei lw,
Dros fôr fe aeth i farw.
For his country, he gave his oath, over the sea he went to die. Let us for a moment recall the names of those who went over the sea to die. They all have families and relatives who are now suffering a wound that will never heal. They are: Ben Babington-Browne, Dane Elson, David Dennis, Robert Laws, Rupert Thorneloe, Joshua Hammond, Sean Birchall, Paul Mervis, Robert McLaren, Cyrus Thatcher, Nigel Moffett, Stephen Bolger, Kieron Hill, Robert Martin Richards, Jordan Rossi, Petero Suesue, Jason Mackie, Mark Lawrence Evison, Ben Ross, Kumar Pun, Adrian Sheldon, Sean Binnie, Tobie Fasfous, Dean Thomas John, Graeme Stiff, Christopher Harkett, Michael Laski, Tom Gaden, Paul Upton, Jamie Gunn, Stephen Kingscott, Darren Smith, Daniel Nield, Richard Robinson, Tom Sawyer, Danny Winter, Travis Mackin, Chris Reed, Liam Elms, Benjamin Whatley, Robert Deering, Stuart Nash, Aaron Lewis, Steven Fellows, Damian Davies, John Manuel, Marc Birch, Tony Evans, Georgie Sparks, Alexander Lucas, Krishnabahadur Dura, Neil David Dunstan, Robert Joseph McKibben, Yubraj Rai, James Munday, Nicky Mason, Jason Lee Rawstron, Gary Gaz ODonnell, Justin James Cupples, Barry Dempsey, Wayne Bland, Peter Joe Cowton, Jonathan Mathews, Kenneth Michael Rowe, Jason Stuart Barnes, James Johnson, Dan Shirley, Michael Norman Williams, Joe John Whittaker, Sarah Bryant, Sean Robert Reeve, Richard Larkin, Paul Stout, James Bateman, Jeff Doherty, Nathan Cuthbertson, Daniel Gamble, Charles David Murray, Dale Gostick, James Thompson, Ratu Sakeasi Babakobau, Robert Pearson, Graham Livingstone, Gary Thompson, John Thornton, David Marsh, Damian Mulvihill, Damian Stephen Lawrence, Darryl Gardiner, Lee Johnson, Jack Sadler, John McDermid, Jake Alderton, Alexis Roberts, Phillip Newman, Brian Tunnicliffe, Ivano Violino, Craig Brelsford, Johan Botha, Damian Wright, Ben Ford, Christopher Bridge, Aaron James McClure, Robert Graham Foster, John Thrumble, David Hicks, Tony Rawson, Michael Jones, Barry Keen, David Atherton, Alex Hawkins, Daryl Hickey, Dave Wilkinson, Sean Dolan, Thomas Wright, Neil Downes, Paul Sandford, Mike Gilyeat, Darren Bonner, Daniel Probyn, George Russell Davey, Simon Davison, Chris Gray, Michael Smith, Benjamin Reddy, Ross Clark, Liam McLaughlin, Scott Summers, Jonathan Holland, Mathew Ford, Thomas Curry, James Dwyer, Richard J. Watson, Jonathan Wigley, Gary Wright, Paul Muirhead, Luke McCulloch, Mark William Wright, Craig ODonnell, Steven Johnson, Leigh Anthony Mitchelmore, Gareth Rodney Nicholas, Allan James Squires, Steven Swarbrick, Gary Wayne Andrews, Stephen Beattie, Gerard Martin Bell, Adrian Davies, Benjamin James Knight, John Joseph Langton, Gary Paul Quilliam, Oliver Simon Dicketts, Joseph David Windall, Anare Draiva, Jonathan Peter Hetherington, Bryan James Budd, Sean Tansey, Leigh Reeves, Andrew Barrie Cutts, Alex Eida, Ralph Johnson, Ross Nicholls, Damien Jackson, Peter Thorpe, Jabron Hashmi, David Patten, Paul Bartlett, Jim Philippson, Peter Edward Craddock, Mark Cridge, Steven Sherwood, Jonathan Kitulagoda, Robert Busuttil, John Gregory, Darren John George, and a solider who is yet to be named who died yesterday. May they rest in peace.
I begin where Paul Flynn finished. He reminded us of the ultimate price paid by so many of our soldiers in Afghanistan. I join him and others in paying tribute to those brave service people who did what they believed in and paid a terrible price for it. I pay tribute to everybody else who has fought in Afghanistan during the eight years that we have been there. I salute their courage, their professionalism and their determined perseverance in difficult circumstances at every twist and turn.
The hon. Gentleman made an interesting, powerful speech. He made some good points and some with which I do not agree. He strung his points together and came to a conclusion that I do not share, but he convinced me that we should have had a more substantial debate at the time at which the deployment into Helmand took place. Looking back, I do not think that there was enough understanding in Parliament, or among the public or the media, of quite how significant the change in our deployment from that point forward was going to be. I do not agree that, if there had been a full-scale debate and a vote, the House would have voted against going into Helmand. Perhaps if we had known then what we know now we might have done so, but we did not and could not know then what we know now.
With the benefit of hindsight, I wish that the Government had shared with the House, or at least with the Defence Committee, some of their background papers and risk assessments and some of the considerations that they weighed in the balance when they decided, as part of a NATO strategy, that we should go into Helmand. I wish that that had been so, because I wish that Parliament had gone into it with its eyes open. The task of bringing public and media opinion with us would have been easier if more of these things had been brought out at the time. All of that being said, and NATO having embarked on that strategy, I would still have voted to go ahead with it, but a debate over the fundamentals, in that sense, is rather overdue. To the extent that this short debate has begun to serve that purpose, it is welcome.
No doubt the hon. Gentleman would pray in aid his decision to go ahead the fact that the education of girls in Afghanistan has increased perhaps tenfold during this period. Would he not also agree that, had the money that we spent on the war been spent instead in other ways to promote understanding and education and restructuring in that country in a peaceful way, without the loss of the 170-odd lives, we may have done even better in securing that objective without the loss of life and without quite as much money being spent?
That is an interesting point. I do not think that anyone should say that no progress is being made or that nothing is being achieved, because that is not so.
There are things to which we can point that are achievements, but whether, in principle, it would have been right to have committed British troops and put their lives in danger to achieve the objective of securing girls education in Afghanistan, I am not so sure. To that extent, the hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point; there might, in ideal circumstances, have been other ways of trying to bring about that objective. That brings me to the point that I wanted to make about the assertions made by the hon. Member for Newport, West about the Taliban. He was developing the point that the Taliban represented no threat to the UK and that, if we had left them alone, the UK would have faced no threat and would have been under no threat. I do not think that that assertion is correct, and I do not sign up to the challenge that the hon. Gentleman threw downI listened to John Humphrys throwing down a similar challenge to the Defence Secretary this morning on the Today programmeon proving that terrorism would have been the consequence. On many occasions in armed conflict, people have to make their best guess as to what the enemys response would be to any particular situation.
We weigh up all the evidence that we have and arrive on the balance of probabilities at what we think the enemy is likely to do. With respect to the hon. Gentleman and John Humphrys, it is not up to those of us who think that the action in Afghanistan is justified or logical to prove that terrorism would result from having the Taliban back; it is up to those of the hon. Gentlemans view to prove the opposite, given Taliban-run Afghanistans history as a haven for international terrorism. It is a perfectly reasonable working hypothesis to say that if the Taliban reasserted control in Afghanistan, the same things could and would happen again as time went on.
One has to look at Afghanistans history. Since 1974, Afghanistan has been unstable and has progressively deteriorated. There have been 35 years of hell for the people of Afghanistan, and it is many decades since we could view the country as anything other than a failed state. In that vacuumthat is what a failed state amounts tointernational terrorism was able to secure a haven for itself. Only when we have used whatever means we can to put Afghanistan back together as a viable and stable state that is capable of functioning on its own termsnot necessarily as one built on some idyllic western concept of what constitutes a democracycan we say that we have reasonably reduced the likelihood of international terrorism once again finding a safe haven and a home in Afghanistan. That is a perfectly logical conclusion to draw from the history and from an assessment of the current situation, and I simply do not believe that it is incumbent on anybody to prove that terrorism would follow the return of the Taliban. One has only to look back a short number of years to see that that was indeed what happened.
That said, it is perfectly clear that we are arriving not quite at the tipping point that the hon. Gentleman suggested, but at some sort of strategic stalemate in Afghanistan. One cannot say in all honesty that NATOs current strategy and tactics are setting us on course to achieve success, victory or the goal of stabilising Afghanistan, and they are certainly not setting us on course to do that in any reasonable time frame. The longer progress does not seem to be made and the longer we continue in this stalemate, the truer the hon. Gentlemans observation will become that the key rallying point for the insurgentsif one wants to use that wordis the simple fact of foreigners being in the country. That is why continuing to pursue our current strategy and vowing just to stick at it however long it takes is no longer a viable way forward, and I believe that President Obama has arrived at the same conclusion. His surge is not something that he feels bound to implement as a prisoner of his election promises, but something that he is doing with conviction, in the belief that something must be done to get over this impasse.
There is no guarantee that the surge will succeed in the terms that he has set for it. A surge into the large, rural, thinly populated areas of Helmand province is a very different proposition from a surge in the city of Baghdad, and I do not know whether it will be possible to achieve even what President Obama wants, but he is right to have embarked on that course, because it is perfectly clear that we simply cannot go on as we have been. We have had a remarkably small number of western troops in Afghanistan all along, given the size of the population and of the country that we are trying to stabilise. In comparison with other international engagements in which stabilisation was the objective, we have lacked boots on the ground from the word go.
There are other problems that we have debated many times before. The Government have set about trying to address the problems with armoured vehicles, but there is still a chronic shortage of helicopter lift capacity. Some of the dangers to our troops would be obviated if we could move them about more in the air and less on the ground. Our strategy has also fallen into disarray, because we have not managed to keep the reconstruction effort, the war fighting and the conflict prevention together as one. In his book, Swords and Ploughshares, Paddy Ashdown talked about the need for a seamless garment, with conflict prevention, war fighting and reconstruction drawn together as interwoven strands.
This is the fourth Army that we have had in Afghanistan in our history. One emerged with just one of our soldiers alive. All our Armies ran out of Afghanistan defeated and our troops were generally slaughtered. The Russians had 120,000 troops in Afghanistan, but the Russians, too, ran away. It is calculated that up to 500,000 troops would be the right number to get some control over the country. How many troops does the hon. Gentleman think should be sent there to guarantee a military victory?
But the Russians objective was completely different. They were trying to take over the country and run it. We are not trying to do that in any sense. The objective of the NATO presence in Afghanistan is to help the elected Government stabilise the country to the point where reconstruction can take place and Afghanistan can retake its place in the community of nations. That is a totally different objective from bringing in an invasionary force to take complete control of the country and run it.
The difficulties in what we are doing are all too clear. The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed up the shortcomings in the emerging governance of Afghanistan. There are shortly to be elections, and it is dearly to be hoped that something more viable will come out on the other side of them, but there are not necessarily grounds for optimism. None the less, we were right to go in at the beginning. The change of strategy in 2006 was agreed in NATO, and we have done what we undertook to do in Helmand to the best of our ability. Equally, however, the hon. Gentleman is right to have sought a debate about the overall strategy, because we will not achieve the undefined goals that we have set ourselves by carrying on as we are at present. I very much hope that the change of tempo that President Obama has signalled is the beginning of a complete change.
The hon. Gentleman is right that a deal would be struck in the end and that a political solution would have to be found. Everywhere where we have been involved over a very long time, we have denounced people as terrorists and said that we would have nothing to do with them, only to end up having to sit down and talk to them. There is no doubt that that will ultimately happen in Afghanistan, but we must ensure that what emerges enables Afghanistan to rebuild itself over a long period, so that it can become a stable country and not a haven for terrorism. I very much hope that we will get to that point sooner rather than later. Previously, I might have believed that we could carry on as we are doing for 20 years and achieve the outcome that we seek, but I can no longer accept that as valid.
I thank Paul Flynn for providing the House with a timely opportunity to consider again the developments in Afghanistan. I am disappointed that more hon. Members are not here for the debate, as there is no doubt that the nation is following closely the progress of military operations in Afghanistan, saluting the extraordinary courage and commitment of Her Majestys armed forces, and grieving at the loss of so many fine men and women, whose names the hon. Gentleman read out.
I have a particular reason to grieve, because the Welsh Guards are based in my constituency and they have already taken a pretty heavy hit, not least in the loss of their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, whom I had the privilege of meeting when he gave a cocktail party on the regiments arrival in Aldershot and prior to its deployment. Therefore it touches us greatly. Today, the funeral of Major Sean Birchall took place at the Guards chapel a few hundred yards from where we are having this debate. Lieutenant Paul Mervis was also the son of friends of ours. The issue touches the entire nation, and it is appropriate that Parliament should debate it with all seriousness.
Although it was not by any means a sure-footed performance, the Secretary of State tried on this mornings Today programme to set out the reasons for NATO forces being in Afghanistan. They are, first, to prevent the country lapsing back into a failed state that provides a safe haven for those who have plotted the bombing of western citiesa point made admirably by Nick Harvey; and secondly to enable the Afghan Government to deliver a reasonably stable country, providing economic and social benefits to its people according to their customs. The Secretary of State did not allude to drugs, and it is extremely disappointing that we have made so little progress in dealing with the drugs problem, because there is no doubt that those drugs are reaching the streets of our towns and cities, killing our young people and destroying lives. I know that the hon. Member for Newport, West has some interesting ideas on how that might be approached, and perhaps the Minister will want to say something on it.
With the number of British fatalities approaching the level experienced in Iraq, we have a duty to check how well our national strategy is working. The British Army spokesman on the radio this morning, Lieutenant-Colonel Richardson, set out some of the successes, such as the increase in educational and medical provision in Helmand province, to which he might have added the repair of the Kajaki power station, which has done a great deal to improve the lot of ordinary people in the Helmand valley. The focus is now clearly on the military operation, Operation Panthers Claw. Helmand is the key battleground, suffering twice the number of insurgent-initiated attacks as neighbouring Kandahar province since January. It is important to record that it is not just in fighting the Taliban that British forces are working hard; their commitment to the winning of hearts and minds is central to their understanding of their role in theatre. We should pay tribute to the ability of those men and women, many of whom are very young indeed, to switch from close-quarter combat to metaphorically putting their arms round local people, and trying to help them to improve facilities and their lives, in the face of attack by the Taliban.
I hope that I did not give the impression that I thought our British soldiers were primarily responsible for the deaths of civilians. It would certainly be untrue. They have been on course to win hearts and minds from the time they were first there. The great majority of the collateral damagethe killing of civilians, including women and childrenresults from American bombing.
I was not attributing an indifference to the hearts and minds policy to the hon. Gentlemanfar from it. However, he is slightly wrong in singling out the Americans with respect to attacks on civilians. The overwhelming majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan arise from the actions of the Taliban. They are the people responsible for killing so many Afghan civilians. However, those unfortunate, tragic incidents of collateral damagethat rather euphemistic expression that we all useshow why we must invest so much money in high-technology precision equipment that reduces collateral damage. That enables us to look our constituents in the face and say, We have done everything possible to ensure that our armed forces seek to carry out their mission clinically, and take great care not to inflict casualties on civilians.
Some of our key concerns were set out by the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Dr. Fox during the Defence in the World debate on
as the US moves in, we will over time shift the balance of our operations away from front-line combat and towards an enhanced contribution to training both the army in Afghanistan and its police.[Hansard, 29 April 2009; Vol. 491, c. 870.]
We wanted to know the timetable for that shift. Clearly, the emphasis today is concentrated on intensive front-line operations, with no sign of the shift signalled by the Prime Minister. It would be helpful to know whether there is any timetable for that.
Secondly, we need to know what the change in operational emphasis means for British troop numbers and how the UKs mission will or may change following the ramping up of US forces, which are being bolstered, with an extra 10,000 men being committed to Helmand. There is an issue of command and control. At the moment, the United Kingdom is essentially in charge of operations in Helmand, but the dynamics are bound to change if the overwhelming majority of forces in that part of the theatre are American.
My hon. Friend expressed fears that Britain could end up with a Charge of the Knights syndrome whereby the UKs contribution would be deemed too small to accomplish the military task, inflicting damage on the Anglo-American relationship and tarnishing the reputation of our armed forces. That concern has been exacerbated by reports that requests by British military commanders for an increase in troop numbers have been rejected. As Con Coughlin wrote in The Daily TelegraphI apologise to some hon. Members for mentioning that newspaper, but there we go; I do not think that he was involved in other matterson Friday:
If British commanders had got their way, an extra 2,500 of our troops would have been sent to Afghanistan this summer to do precisely what the Americans are now doingtaking the fight into the heartland of the insurgency. But Gordon Brown...refused the request on grounds of cost. As a consequence, British forces find themselves in the humiliating position of having to watch as the Americans do their job for them.
The Minister says it is not true. Let me just say that it is of course true that the Prime Minister has never shown any interest in providing the support necessary to fund the core military budget. That is evidenced by the fact that there has never been proper funding for the strategic defence review of 1998, let alone a proper budget on which to fight two wars. However, our force of 9,000 is actively participating rather than watching. I would not want to give the impression to anyone that British forces were somehow not participating, but there is no doubt that the Americans are probably the spearhead in Operation Panthers Claw.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to say whether it is Conservative party policy to increase the number of troops sent to Afghanistan, and what the numbers might be? Has the Conservative party set out what it would see as an exit strategy, with timings?
If I may, I shall come on to the matter of an exit strategy. I have a passage in my speech on that; the hon. Gentleman and others have mentioned it and it is a critical issue that I want to return to.
My third point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring during the debate last month when he asked the Secretary of State to update the House on how many of the 5,000 NATO troops promised at Strasbourg had arrived in Afghanistan. We still have not had an answer to that question, and I hope that the Minister will respond to it.
I want to raise two further issues, including the exit strategy, which the Minister should deal with today so that the British public are clear about the Governments intentions. First, there is a real imperative to meet the here and now. I understand that the budgetary difficulties that the Ministry of Defence is suffering are leading to battles between each of the services for resources. Some people, particularly those who are Army-orientated, are saying that we must scrap this, that and the other to concentrate on the main endeavour, which is to win in Afghanistan. I understand that argument, but there are other issues that we as politicians must address. There are other potential threats to our nation that we must address. We cannot simply devote everything to the here and now.
Having said that, the here and now is important, and it is our duty to ensure that our armed forces have what they need in theatre to do the job that we have asked them to do. There is no doubt that the introduction of new vehicles, such as the Mastiff and the Jackal, have helped, but there are insufficient numbers of them. The US has ordered 10,000 Mastiffs, but the UK has ordered just 235 with delivery already delayed. Furthermore, heavily armoured vehicles are not the universal solution because the enemy increases the power of its mines and roadside bombs to defeat whatever new armour we provide. It is important that people understand that. One cannot simply bolt on more and more armour. That will undoubtedly protect troops, but it will inhibit their wider operations. Some people believe that our only duty is to ensure that troops can travel with impunity in armoured vehicles, and that has been the case so far, but a soldier told me at the Aldershot Army show last Saturday that one reason why troops like the Jackal, which has no top, it that it gives them situational awareness and they can see what is going on. Troops in the back of a Mastiff, and even the driver, have a very limited view outside. I have always said that we should concentrate on the range of kit that commanders in the field need.
The Governments decision five years ago to cut £1.4 billion from the helicopter budget was an unmitigated disaster. I understand that we have no spare capacity to increase the supply of helicopters, and those that are deployed are being hammered by the tempo of operations, and the inhospitable environment. Although the number of UK forces deployed to Afghanistan has increased to 9,000, the number of helicopters has not changed since late 2006, when the UK had just 4,500 troops in theatre.
The Leader of the House, standing in for the Prime Minister at Prime Ministers questions today, claimed that the number of helicopters in theatre had increased by 60 per cent. She must know that it is not the number of helicopters that has increased so dramatically, but the number of flying hours, which subjects the machines to vastly increased wear and tear. As long ago as October 2006, an RAF Chinook pilot, Flight Lieutenant Stuart Hague, was reported to have said:
We feel exposed and we have so few machines; we need more helicopters and newer ones.
Such reports make the public believe that their Government have not delivered what the troops in theatre require, and such reports betray the meaninglessness of the assurance given by Tony Blair that commanders in the field could have whatever they need. The Minister, who is a good man, will undoubtedly refer to the six Merlin helicopters acquired from the Danes and to the re-roling of the eight mark 3 Chinooks, which have been gathering dust in a hangar for the past 12 years.
It is not the Tories fault. The Government have had 12 years to put it right, and they have been very slow about it. None of those Chinooks is available now, so what are the Government going to do to increase the immediate availability of helicopter lift, and what has happened to the NATO commitment at Bucharest to create a pool of helicopters available for deployment?
My second point, which Bob Spink wanted me to address, is the exit strategy. I do not detect any discernible exit strategy from Afghanistan. As the hon. Member for Newport, West said, we all know the history of British military involvement in that country in the 19th century, and we need to be reassured that history is not about to repeat itself.
That is not an attack on the Government; it is, I hope, a sober challenge to all of us to understand the magnitude of the issue. To know where we are going, it helps to know where we have come from, and there is no doubt that our experience in Afghanistan in the past does not augur well, although the hon. Member for North Devon was entirely right in pointing out that our mission is very different from that undertaken by the Soviets. I hope that the Minister will tell us what state of transformation in governance and self-sustaining Afghan military capability will constitute success, and at which point it will be safe for Britain and NATO to withdraw.
For sure, there is no way in which we can sustain this tempo of operations for an extended period, let alone the 30 years mooted two years ago by the then British ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, with whom I breakfasted, as did the Minister, at the British embassy at Kabul prior to his going on the Today programme to explain his view. Nor is there any way in which we can create a benign sort of Hampton-in-the-Helmand in the society described by a friend of mine who is a former brigade commander in Afghanistan. When we were discussing the general situation, he said: If you want to understand this place, Gerald, just go back to the 15th-century Scottish bordersthat is where I am half fromand you will then have some idea of what this country is like. We must be realistic about what we can achieve.
There is widespread acceptance that the battle in Afghanistan must be won, not least because NATOs credibility is on the line, but also so that those who have given their lives in this cause will not have done so in vain. However, we must recognise that it is part of a much larger picture involving al-Qaeda and Pakistan. I suggested to General Richards some time ago that there was a risk that Helmand province would act as a magnet to Islamic fundamentalistsforeign insurgentswho are keen to exploit the chance to hit the West. I believe that I was not wide of the mark, although few agreed with me at the time. That is another issue. We must consider the extent to which it is becoming, as the Leader of the House said, a crucible that is acting as a magnet for those forces who perhaps failed to deal with us in Iraq and are now looking to deal with us in Afghanistan before they reject everything that we stand for.
Yesterday, the Government announced their intention of beginning work on a new defence reviewan announcement that, given its serious implications for the nations entire defence strategy, should have been made on the Floor of the House so that all hon. Members could have the opportunity to question the Secretary of State. That review must be foreign policy-led, not Treasury-led and, above all, it must factor in lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the likely impact that continuing operations will have on our foreign policy and military strategy. That is the very least that we must do, and I hope that the Minister will respond to the key issues that have been raised during this debate.
I pay tribute to the people who have lost their lives. It was sobering to hear my hon. Friend read out the list of names one by one. A difficult job for any Defence Minister is to take the phone call, usually late at night or early in the morning, informing one that yet another person has been lost in Afghanistan, and the first thing I always think about is their families. Last weekend was particularly poignant because of Rupert Thorneloes loss in Afghanistan. Rupert worked on the fifth floor of the Ministry of Defence and many of the staff knew him well. I had met him and I agree with the hon. Member for Aldershot that he was a tremendous individual.
I am pleased that Her Majesty the Queen last week announced the creation of the Elizabeth cross. As a Back Bencher, I campaigned for such an award, to recognise the sacrifice that families have made in the defence of this country. It is also important to put it on the record that our thoughts are with those who have been injured in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. My area of responsibility covers the Defence Medical Services, and I regularly meet very brave individuals who now have very challenging lives because of the sacrifice that they made.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman on another matter. I have visited Afghanistan on five occasionsfirst in 2002 and most recently about three months agoand the one thing that always heartens me is that morale is very high. Like him, I pay tribute to the servicemen and women. British youth get a bad name, but the best of British youth can be seen taking a huge amount of responsibility in Afghanistan.
As I said, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West on securing the debate. However, I fundamentally disagree with his approach, although I respect his right to hold that view. He asks why we are in Afghanistanwhat the reasons are for our involvement. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State outlined those this morning in his speech. First, it is to prevent the return of the Taliban, which would allow terrorism to flourish. We cannot forget that. Nick Harvey reiterated that point. Secondly, this year, it is to ensure that there is the right environment for the elections to take place. The hope is that they will be free from intimidation and the insurgents will not deny the free will of the Afghan people to decide who governs them. Another reason is, in the long-term, to make space for civic society to develop and to ensure that the security of Afghanistan can be taken over by the Afghan people themselves.
My hon. Friend and others ask what the strategy is. As I said, I have been visiting Afghanistan since 2002 and I have always been very clear on the strategy. We cannot, as some people naively try to do, separate reconstruction from security. The strategy is clear. It is about ensuring that we achieve security and then bring in reconstruction and governance building, which is taking place. Certainly on my visits to Kabul, I have seen tremendous progress being made. People ask, Has progress been made? Yes, progress has been made not only on education, which was mentioned, but on governance and the reach of the Afghan Government across the country. People ask, Why are we there? One of the interesting things is that Kabul today is very different from the city I first visited in 2002. It is important that we continue that strategy.
People are rightly anxious about what is happening in Helmand. We have to recognise why, before 2006, there was not a great deal of violence or action in the south of the country. It is because NATO troops, the Americans and we did not go into that areait was a safe haven for the Taliban. I totally disagree with my hon. Friend when he suggests that somehow our moving into the province has created the problem. I do not think that it has. Our action was about ensuring that we took the fight to the Taliban to secure those areas for the Afghan people, but also to ensure that the Taliban did not have a free haven from which to attack our troops and the Afghan people in Afghanistan and to go over into Pakistan.
I cannot accept the argument that no progress has been made in Helmand. When I first went there in 2006, I flew into Lashkar Gah. Our control in Lashkar Gah extended to the provincial reconstruction team compound and that was it. I went there a few months ago and I also went there last year with the Select Committee on Defence when we went into Lashkar Gah to have lunch with Governor Mangal. The writ of the Afghan Government and our security is growing. On my most recent visit, I went to Garmsir, which was a no-go area only 12 months ago. In many of the villages and towns, commerce is coming back. People genuinely want the peace and security that we all need. There is clearly advancement in relation to school attendance and, for example, the Kajaki dam project, which was mentioned. Has progress been slow? Yes, progress has been slow. Has this been a tragic week, in which we have lost seven people? Yes, it has, but we then have to consider what is actually going on.
I do not accept either what has been said about President Obamas position. He is very clear on what that position is. The person leading the Americans is General McChrystal. The strategy is to ensure that we secure ground and bring in the development and governance behind that, and that is what is happening at the moment. Is it an intense time? Yes, it is. Is the momentum being maintained? Yes, it is. To say at this stage that we should change strategy is not right; I do not agree with that. Clearly, the Americans, with their uplift of 17,000 people, have made a big difference to the footprint.
I also want to dispel the nonsense that somehow Britain is in Afghanistan on its own. We are not; we are working in a coalition with some very brave individuals and other nations, who have lost quite significant numbers. I refer to the Dutch and the Canadians, among others. A few months back, I met the Estonians, who are doing a fantastic job. We must not forget that it is a coalition effort. Sometimes we think that it is just a UK operation; it is not. The hon. Member for Aldershot asked about the command. The Dutch are the lead at the moment. In terms of the overall footprint, it is definitely a coalition operation. I would hate anyone to go away with the impression that the Americans have arrived and the UK troops are not involved in current operations. They are very much involved in operations, along with the troops from those other nations, ensuring that we can get peace and reconstruction.
Again, a lot of nonsense has been talked about that. I have read in the newspapers that the military wanted increased numbers and the Prime Minister denied them that. That is just not the case. Decisions on numbers are an operational matter. We have increased the numbers for the election, and that includes improvised explosive device specialists, who are needed. The fact is that we are doing a good job in Afghanistan, working very closely with our American allies and others. The idea that there has been a great disagreement between the military and the politicians on that is not correct; there has not. The previous Secretary of State and the present one work very closely, as I do, with our senior military, and it is operational reasons that dictate such decisions.
The issue of equipment was raised. We heard not unusual sniping from the hon. Member for Aldershot at the Prime Minister, but my right hon. Friend, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, ensured that the urgent operational requirements for equipment were put in place.
I certainly acknowledge that other NATO countries, particularly in the EU, increased their burden in April this year and I welcome that, but can the Minister confirm whether the British Governments position is now that the burden sharing is well balanced and at an appropriate level, or do they still feel that other NATO countries should take a greater share of the burden?
We have always made clear our position that other nations should do more, and they have done more. If we consider the numbers of Canadian troops as a proportion of the total, it is quite high. The most senior Dutch general lost his son in Afghanistan. Estonia is a very small nation, but the Estonians are doing a fantastic job in Afghanistan. We should not underestimate that. It does not help the debate or what we are trying to do in Afghanistan to try to apportion blame.
May I turn to the subject of drugs?
Before the Minister turns to the matter of drugs, may I ask him to respond to my question on helicopters? It goes to the heart of the problem. For the reasons that I gave, we cannot always rely on up-armouring our vehicles. If he could deal with that point, I would be grateful.
I shall come to that point in a moment. I want to deal first with drugs.
The impression is being given that no progress has been made on drugs, but Governor Mangal has run an effective narcotics programme in Helmand, working with the coalition force in providing grain for local farmers. Overall, more than half of Afghanistans provinces are now are poppy-free. We started with six in 2006; there are now 18. The question is whether it will be a long, slow process. It may be, because we must ensure that we bring in alternative lifestyles behind the poppy eradication.
I shall now pander to the hon. Member for Aldershot and his question on helicopters. I have to say that I agree with him about protected vehicles. Even if all our vehicles were highly protected, we still would not get rid of the potential for injury. We are dealing with a dangerous situation and clever opponents are always changing their tactics. That is why our counter-IED teams and others are working hard to look at the different techniques that are used.
Our approach is clear. The Government not only put in the money, but we make a wide range of vehicles available. However, it is for commanders on the ground to decide when they are used, not politicians. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that using a Mastiff vehicle in parts of Helmand province is not on. First, it would not move; it would sink into the sand in certain areas. Secondly, he is right to say that winning hearts and minds cannot be done from inside a vehicle. Our people will be exposed, and it is important to ensure that we get the training tactics and techniques right. The way to win hearts and minds and influence the local people is not to fly everywhere: there is a case for getting out on the ground.
We have increased the operating hours of helicopters by 84 per cent. We have also brought in some capacity, with our coalition partners, for commercial helicopters to do some of the heavy lifting. Again, we should get away from the notion that Britain is out there on its own, using its own helicopters for its own use. It is a coalition approach, and helicopters are being sharedas we learned this week, when a British soldier was tragically killed in a Canadian helicopter. It is all about pooling our resources and using them in the most appropriate way.
As for the next move, the hon. Member for Aldershot will know that when the Merlins come out of Iraq, they will be moved to Afghanistan. When I was there, I had to share helicopters. People were asking whether we have the helicopters that we need. Yes, we have. The next question is whether they could do with more. Someone said, We will always ask for more. However, for the operations going on at the time we have the helicopters that are needed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West asked what is the alternative. I see one weakness in that approach. It is the question, What would you do differently? What other conclusion could be drawn? It is clear that if we leave Afghanistan, it will become a safe haven, as the hon. Member for North Devon suggested. I pay tribute to the Pakistan army, which is taking the fight to the Taliban in the north of that country and is having great success in bearing down on safe havens for terrorists. The Pakistan army should be congratulated on that and we recognise the sacrifice that they are making. I do not agree that we are at a stalemate position in Helmand. We are at a turning point, given the surge of Americans and our strategy. It is all about keeping the momentum going. Is it going to be tough? Yes it is; no one would say that it is not a difficult situation.
I was asked what the end game is. The end gamewe are moving in that directionis to ensure that the Afghan national army, and the police and the Government, can take over security. I pay tribute to them; they are taking an increasing role, including in the successful operation at Musa Kala. The Kajaki dam convoy was supported by the Afghan national army, and it is taking a clear role in providing security for the Afghan presidential elections later this year. We need to train the Afghan national army to ensure that it can continue in that role.
The hon. Member for Aldershot asked about our exit strategy. It has been clear from the start that it is about ensuring that we put in security, bring in development, and train the Afghan national army and the Afghan police to take over security. We also need to put government structures in place that will lead to the sustainable development that is needed. I do not accept the analogy with the Russians drawn by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West. They took a very different approach to occupation. We should not think that the lessons of history can necessarily be used in modern-day Afghanistan or in other situations.
My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. He has inadvertently overlooked one point in his reply, but he will be finished in a few moments. Will he give us the evidence behind what he and the Secretary of State for Defence have said today, that there is some link between our presence in Afghanistan and a reduction in the threat of terrorism on British streets?
I must agree again with the Liberal Democrats. The hon. Member for North Devon asked what the challenge is. The challenge is clear in terms of 9/11 and
My hon. Friend asks about Osama bin Laden. The fact of the matter is that we cannot leave a failed state and its entire infrastructure. The Taliban are not only persecuting the people of Afghanistan but exporting terrorism and ideology around the world. It would be nice if they were peace-loving people, but I do not believe that that they are.
My hon. Friend spoke about reconciliation. That is already happening in Afghanistan. When I was there last year and met Governor Mangal, some members of the provincial council were Taliban but had come over. However, that is a matter for the Afghan Government. The clear position laid down by President Karzai is right: if people want to renounce violence and contribute to the peaceful prosperity and growth of Afghanistan, they will be welcomedbut not if they continue to support the Taliban in their horrendous persecution of the Afghan people or their terrorism. The process has to be Afghan-led and some progress is being made.
Is it a hard task that we ask of our people in Afghanistan? Yes, it is; we are asking them to do a difficult job, but we can be proud of them. The influx of the Americans, the work that is happening in Pakistan and the continued commitment of our British forces will make a difference, and we can be proud of that. I have met our forces, both in Helmand and in Pakistan, and they know that they are making a difference. They are proud of what they are doing. If that means not only bringing prosperity to Afghanistan but ensuring that there is no threat against the UK mainland, it is a cause that is well worth fighting for.