Once again can I echo the Secretary of State's comments about the sacrifices of the military. As a society we are lucky we have those who are willing to volunteer.
Three events dominate today: Afghanistan, the Gray report which I think we should not be spending time on in this debate because members have not had time to read it. It's fairly well known in Whitehall that the Ministry of Defence did want to publish it, but that Number 10 refused to let them. And the third issue is the TA and the severe, utterly inexplicable cuts to training.
Over the past three years the Conservative Party has called on this Government to accept our proposals for regular, quarterly reports to Parliament on our objectives in Afghanistan, the benchmarks by which progress is measured and the success or otherwise in meeting those objectives and benchmarks.
We still don't have that, but we welcomed the PM's much needed statement on Afghanistan and Pakistan yesterday. However, there are still many questions left unanswered.
The first is conditionality. Pertaining to troop numbers. I understand the need to place conditions on deploying more troops, but by what standard will the Government use to determine if their three conditions are met?
What is the timeline for these conditions to be met?
I only ask this because if commanders say they need these troops now, but the Government's three conditions are not meet for several weeks to come, isn't the Government putting out troops at danger by not giving our commanders what they are asking for?
In particular, regarding the announcement of an increase "in principle" to 500 extra troops. From where will these troops come?
For example, are they infantry or engineers? What will there mission be in Helmand-combat ops, training the ANSF, counter IED? We need clarity because there are still too many uncertainties.
In December 2008 the PM announced "a temporary, until August" increase from 8,000 to 8,300 troops to Afghanistan. These troops were sent from the theatre reserve in Cyprus.
Are they still in Afghanistan?
In April this year the PM announced a further increase from 8,300 to 9,000 troops "until the autumn" to increase security of the Afghan Presidential Elections.
Are the extra 1,000 troops sent since last December going to be made part of the permanent establishment figure?
On a final matter dealing with troops numbers, the PM alluded to the fact that 500 troops normally based in Kandahar as a RC-South reserve force will be permanently shifted to Helmand Province.
This is welcome news but I must ask who is replacing the reserve capability in Kandahar? Is a coalition partner now filling this role or will it be left unfilled?
I hope the minister will address these questions in his wind up.
We all wait for the outcome of President Obama's decision regarding the way ahead for strategy in Afghanistan.
Regardless of the outcome, no one can blame General McChrystal for failing to breathe new life and debate into the Afghan campaign after eight years of stagnation.
General McChrystal's 66 page assessment was a very telling document.
However, one of the most important sentences in the whole document went largely unreported and states that:
"Inadequate resources will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced."
We can talk about more troops, more helicopters, and more armoured vehicles but with out a new strategy additional troops and resources will only have a short term and localised effect.
They can win the tactical battle; they can buy politicians time; but ultimately unless something fills the gap they have created, their sacrifices and efforts risk being in vain.
The surge worked in Iraq, because it was fundamentally more than just an increase in troops. It was part of a bigger solution, designed to suit conditions on the ground and built around a revitalised political process which included the re-engagement of the Sunni minority. To secure this result we will need a sound political plan moving alongside any military plan. A sound political strategy will help undermine the insurgency.
It is vital that we maintain the public's understanding and trust if we are to have the will and resilience to see it through. We must set realistic goals and expectations to avoid disappointment at home and abroad.
A comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan must include clear, tightly-drawn, realistic objectives that are regularly reviewed; more rapid development of the Afghan security forces as the Secretary of State sad; and ensuring that the gains won by British forces on the battlefield are swiftly followed by reconstruction.
In the early days after the 9/11 attacks there were two main objectives in Afghanistan:
First, to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven to plan, train and launch terrorists attacks on a global scale.
Secondly, to remove the Taliban regime from power as punishment for not cooperating with the international community and for harbouring terrorism.
Both were accomplished with relative speed, but the subsequent picture has been confused with vague notions of state-building and reconstruction based on U.N. Millennium Goals and a plethora of strategies: an EU strategy, an American strategy, a UK strategy, an Afghan strategy, a NATO strategy, a World Bank strategy and multiple NGO strategies-none of which share a common vision, baseline from which to build, or definition of success.
Consequently, our inability to produce tangible and achievable results eight years on has disappointed public opinion at home and frustrated those in Afghanistan who are finding it difficult to build on the ground.
Public disillusionment with the mission in Afghanistan is exacerbated in the UK because of the Government's failure to define our objectives clearly in national security terms and because of the widespread belief that our forces have not been fully resourced.
The Government has also failed to explain what failure in Afghanistan would mean in a broader geopolitical context, and I was pleased that the Secretary of State started to do that today.
The consequences of failure are relatively easy to elucidate.
First, were we to leave Afghanistan prematurely it would be a shot in the arm for every jihadist globally. It would send out the signal that we did not have the moral fortitude to see through what we believe to be a matter of national security.
The impact of this would be felt beyond the Hindu Kush and the Durand Line-and would extend across the region into the Middle-East and North Africa in one direction, and South East Asia in the other.
And be under no illusions-it would fuel latent fundamentalist sentiment within the UK, and other European countries, imposing even greater burdens on our domestic intelligence and security forces.
Second, it would suggest that NATO, in its first major challenge overseas to combat terrorism did not have what it takes to see a difficult challenge through. This would be deeply damaging, if not catastrophic, for NATO's cohesion and credibility.
The European countries in NATO that are failing to engage in proper burden sharing in Afghanistan might like to reflect on what the collapse of NATO would mean.
Thirdly, failure in Afghanistan today would increase threats to the United Kingdom tomorrow.
At best, Taliban success could force the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities in Afghanistan, many of whom have done well since the fall of the Pashtun dominated Taliban, to take up arms again which, in turn, could encourage a Pashtun Nationalist insurgency or civil war.
At worst, terrorists could come back in droves to use Afghanistan as a base. Either of these scenarios would leave a nuclear armed Pakistan exposed- further destabilising the region.
But if we can describe failure, can we describe success? What does our idea of winning look like?
Success in Afghanistan will be achieved when we have a stable enough Afghanistan, able to manage its own internal and external security to a degree that stops interference from outside powers and allowing the country to resist the establishment of terror bases and the training camps that were there before.
We are not trying to apply, or we should not be trying to apply, a Jeffersonian democracy to a broken 15th century state. There are noble ideals for development, human rights and democracy. They are complementary to the military mission but they are not the same.
To achieve the objective of security in Afghanistan today we need a counterinsurgency strategy to prevent the future need for a counter terrorism strategy.
Make no mistake, in Afghanistan we are dealing with an insurgency. An insurgency with a diverse set of motivations across a wide reaching cross section of the Pashtun population.
Any strategy in Afghanistan needs to include renewed and serious focus on reconciliation and reintegration with elements of the insurgency.
As has been pointed out, part of the political process of improving governance will be to deal with those in the Taliban who are reconcilable, even from among those who may have fought against us in the past.
But we have to recognise that some will be irreconcilable-and the only way to deal with them will be in military terms.
There are questions we should be asking. Would low to medium level Taliban involvement in the Afghan political process prove to be an existential threat to the government in Kabul?
Even if elements of the Taliban did gain a degree of power or influence in Kabul though legitimate political means as a result of reconciliation, would this mean that groups like al-Qaeda could operate freely in their country as they did prior to September 11th?
As retired Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb, who is now working as an adviser to General McChrystal in Afghanistan, said recently:
"We need to take a good look at the people we consider to be our enemies...They have anger and grievances which have not been addressed. The better life they expected has not materialised; these are the people we must talk to, but we must make sure we have something to offer them."
We also need to explore the idea of using auxiliary forces in Helmand Province in support of our counterinsurgency operations there.
Since security is our definition of success, the sooner we get the Afghan Security Forces trained and on the front line the faster we can bring our own troops home.
However, we need to remember that the ANA is a national army-not a provincial army. It is recruited from across Afghanistan and from all ethnic groups.
We need to understand that more British troops for training the ANA does not automatically translate into more ANA troops being sent to Helmand to fight alongside British troops.
Consequently, when, where, and if possible in Helmand, we need seriously to start exploring ways of forming and utilising local auxiliary forces.
Auxiliary forces bring local knowledge and local ownership to local security. Something foreign troops will never be able to do.
There is already a pilot programme in Wardak Province. If possible, a similar programme may be worth exploring for Helmand. Of course, doing so would have to take into account local customs, tribal structures, views of provincial and national government, and most importantly, legitimacy in the eyes of the locals.
I do know that one would be hard pressed to give an example of a counterinsurgency campaign that has been successful without using local auxiliary forces. If we do not mobilise the locals the Taliban will. If we are serious about winning this may be one area we will have to look into further.
During his wind up could the Minister say whether or not a similar programme is in the pipes?
Assuming we get the strategy correct in Afghanistan-something General McChrystal's recent assessment suggests is paramount, the Government must ensure that our troops are properly equipped for the crucial operations they are involved in, including the earliest possible increase in the number of helicopters, armoured vehicles, and other key battlefield enablers.
To maximise the success of the mission while minimising the risk to our forces we have to have the capability of moving troops safely while maintaining flexibility and manoeuvrability.
There is no disputing that there is a shortage of UK helicopters in Helmand Province. This is a result of the Government's dreadful decision to cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 bn in 2004.
Recently two Chinook helicopters were destroyed in Afghanistan-unfortunately this is an inevitable consequence of warfare. But can the SoS give me an assurance that the attrition buy for replacing these two ch-47s will be funded from the Treasury Reserve and not the core MoD budget?
On May 1st the MoD announced that vectors were to be phased out of service in Afghanistan stating: "we intend to withdraw Vector from operations in Afghanistan."
But during the summer recess we learn that an RAF airman was killed when patrolling in a Vector. Can the SoS guarantee that the on scene commander had choice of vehicles from which to choose for the mission, as ministers promise they do, and wasn't forced to use Vectors because a lack of choice?
Can the minister confirm how long it will be before the last Vectors come out of service in Afghanistan in his wind up?
We welcome the addition of Mastiff and Ridgeback armoured vehicles. However, it has been almost two years since the 157 Ridgebacks were ordered and now only a trickle are making into theatre and we have still a shortage of lift capacity.
In his oration at his party conference, the SoS criticised my criticisms of the slow delivery of the armoured vehicles. It is shameful for the Government to say that the 10 stranded Ridgebacks in Dubai this summer were actually early for service in Afghanistan.
It makes no sense to having life-saving armoured vehicles stranded in the middle of the desert.
This is so unbelievable that I wonder if the SoS actually knew this was happening.
When troops are dying yesterday there is no such thing has being too early.
The Mastiff is a great armoured vehicle-it is a life saver. But only is it is operable and serviceable.
According to this weeks PAC report on Supporting High Intensity Operations, "only around 20% of the Mastiff fleet was classified as 'fit' in June 2008, with a further 55% able to undertake a limited role." (page 9, para 3)
My Rt Hon friend the Leader of the Opposition raised this point yesterday and today I want to seek assurances from the SoS that this situation has since been improved.
After eight years of conflict it is a sad state of affairs that we can't get this right.
The Government's performance has been shameful in regards to Iraq and an embarrassment to the proud reputation of the Royal Navy on the Gulf.
It beggars belief that the Government could not secure the necessary agreements with the Iraqi Government in time, and as a consequence, British troops have been sitting in the desert in Kuwait for more than three months waiting for final approval.
I welcome the announcement yesterday, that after so many attempts, the Iraqi Council of Representatives have finally secured the required quorum for the agreement's third and final reading. But how long will we now have to wait for the Presidency Council to ratify and sign the agreement?
The Royal Navy plays a very important role in Gulf security and is well respected-especially by our American allies. Anybody who's visited the American Fifth Fleet in Bahrain will know just how highly they regard the Royal Navy. When perhaps we talk about Iraq as being over, we should remember our sailors and marines who are still there.
Our sailors and marines played a key role in ensuring that Iraqi oil rigs and the main Iraqi port of Umm Qsar are secured before July 2009.
They have also played a vital role in the capacity building of the Iraqi Navy-this is something that needs to continue as soon as possible.
I hope that measures are in place to ensure that once the agreement is finalised UK trainers can be sent back into Iraq as quickly as possible.
Now that it appears that we will resume our training mission in the near future I would like to SoS to clear up my concerns regarding the financing of the training mission.
In the SoS's letter to me dated 25 September (I thank the SoS for keeping me updated through summer recess on this matter) , he provided an Explanatory Memorandum on the agreement for training which stated that:
The costs associated with the provision of training and maritime support for Iraqi Forces will continue to be borne by HMG under existing arrangements for Operation Telic. The Treasury has agreed in principle to fund the additional costs for these military activities from the Reserve.
Can the SoS tell the House unequivocally that the costs for any and all UK training mission in Iraq will be met by the Reserve and not from the core budget?
<h2>TA, Airborne Forces and Training</h2>
The recent PAC report I mentioned earlier also highlights this Government's failure to ensure that our troops are properly trained to carry out their tasks.
We know that there is a shortage in armoured vehicles for our troops to train on before they go to Afghanistan.
The PAC report went on to say that "there have been equipment shortages in many areas and some key equipment were missing altogether. Many troops have not had direct experience of some equipment, such as electronic counter-measures systems, before arriving in theatre" (page 14, para 15)
I'm sure the whole House can agree that no soldier should ever have to train on or see a major piece of equipment for the first time in Afghanistan.
I would like to turn to parachute training. Our Paras have a proud and gallant history.
Our troops are expected to train like they fight, but now our proud Paras are being forced to jump from civilian airplanes flown by civilian pilots, when neither would be a wartime possibility.
It is a case for grave concern that parachute training and preparedness has reached this low level.
Baroness Taylor said yesterday in the other place that "the current capability is there. The lack of parachute training is not having an effect on the mandated operational capacity."
It is only partially correct.
When you have more than 1/3 of your parachute units unable to jump from a plane-something that makes them unique from their light infantry counterparts-then you do have a lack of capability.
It may be true that the lack of parachuting isn't impacting on current operations in Afghanistan but what about our ability to react to the unexpected?
When asked in a written answer about our rapid reaction capability the SoS replied: The unit currently undertaking this role, 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, also provides an enhanced capability for the Small Scale Contingent Battle Group to undertake air assault operations.
But according to the latest figures provide by the Government more than a third of those who should be able to parachute are not trained to.
With our Reserve Forces generally, and the TA specially the situation is much worse.
18,000 members of our Reserve Forces-most of whom have been from the TA-have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002.
But the Government's treatment of our Reserve Forces is unforgivable.
In 1997 the establishment figure for the TA was 59,000. Today the establishment figure is 38,500-even though the current strength is 28,920. We learned last April that thousands more TA positions will be cut from the establishment figure.
According to the Government's latest figures 12 out of the 14 TA infantry battalions are under strength.
On 28 April the SoS said during the Oral Statement on the Reserve Forces that:
Initial training will be restructured so that new recruits receive sufficient military skills to participate in their units' collective training within six months of joining, and are fully trained and eligible for mobilisation in three years. Routine training will also be reviewed and sufficient man training days allocated to ensure that annual military competency standards can be achieved by all. (28 Apr 2009 : Column 701)
As several members have pointed out, now we learn that training for all members of the TA who are not going to Afghanistan in the next year will have their training cut. The operating budget for the TA for this Financial Year was £38m but now we hear that it has been cut by upwards of £23m.
This will have a very negative impact on the long term readiness and recruitment of the TA.
This cut in training is a slap in the face for all our brave Territorials from a Government that has lost the plot when it comes to priorities. I'd like to give one specific example from an email I received today. "I have always had an interest in the armed forces so at the Freshers fair this year I jumped at the chance to join the OTC. Not only would I be trained by the military, develop my leadership skills but I would also get paid - always a good thing as a student struggling to pay a loan!
"So after successfully getting in through the rigorous interviews and selection weekend I arrived for my first training evening, excited, keen and willing to learn! We were sat down in the hall and the Major walked out and announced bluntly - ' There will be NO pay for any training officers this year.' He went on to tell us about how the whole Army is facing a cutback. I think this is outrageous! We're fighting two large wars, and as training officers we should be seen as the next generation for the army, therefore be properly respected and paid!"
A Government willing to spend £12 billion on a pointless VAT cut to support its political reputation, but unwilling to spend £20 million to train the TA while we are at war in Afghanistan, it shows a twisted set of priorities and is increasingly unfit for office. For many in the TA, it is a habit. Break the habit, break the TA, and that is what their proposals are going to do.
Too often, this Government has simply not been up to the task on defence. We need forces that are better supplied with equipment. The TA decision has been disgraceful and penny pinching. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, whether we're dealing with equipment of other things, we're willing the ends, but not the means. Half the means will not equal half the victory.