With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Afghanistan.
From the outset this government has sought to take a more hard-headed, security based approach to our mission.
As I have said, we are not there to build a perfect democracy, still less a model society.
Yes, we will help with the establishment of democratic institutions.
Yes, we can improve infrastructure, develop education, encourage development.
But we are in Afghanistan for one over-riding reason: to ensure our own National Security by helping the Afghans take control of theirs.
This means building up the Afghan Security forces…
…so we can draw down British combat forces…
…with the Afghans themselves able to prevent Al Qaeda from returning and posing a threat to us and to our allies around the world.
This is particularly poignant today, on the eve of the sixth anniversary of 7/7…
…an attack that was inspired by Al Qaeda and executed by extremists following the same perverted ideology that underpinned the September 11th attack in 2001.
Mr Speaker, 375 British servicemen and women have died fighting in Afghanistan to help strengthen that country and keep Britain safe from another 9/11 or 7/7.
Thousands more - including many civilians - have risked their lives, and hundreds have been injured fighting for the security of our nation.
They have been part of an international coalition, involving 48 countries with a specific UN mandate, working at the invitation of a democratically elected government.
Though there have been many, many difficult times, we should be clear about what has been achieved.
In 2009, my predecessor told this House that some three quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against Britain had links to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
We must always be on our guard; but I am advised that this figure is now significantly reduced.
International forces have been bearing down on Al Qaeda and their former hosts, the Taleban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, Usama Bin Laden has been killed and Al Qaeda significantly weakened.
In Afghanistan, British and international forces have driven Al Qaeda from its bases.
And while it is too early to tell for certain, initial evidence suggests we have halted the momentum of the Taleban insurgency in its heartland in Helmand.
Mr Speaker, we are now entering a new phase…
…in which the Afghan forces will do more of the fighting and patrolling, and our forces more training and mentoring.
As President Obama said in his address last month, the mission is changing from “combat to support.”
When we arrived there was no-one to hand over to - no proper army, no police force.
In many places across the country the Afghan National Security Forces now stand ready to begin the process of taking over security responsibility.
Mr Speaker, success in Afghanistan requires a number of critical steps.
The first of these is making sure that the Afghan Security Forces are able to secure their own territory.
There have been well-known problems, especially with the Afghan police.
But there has been real progress in the last two years.
General Petraeus went out of his way to praise the recent performance of Afghan forces in a number of complex and dangerous operations.
The Afghan forces are growing rapidly.
They are ahead of schedule to meet the current target of 171,600 Afghan Army and 134,000 Afghan Police by the end of October this year.
They are deploying in formed units and carrying out their own operations.
There have been some real successes.
The Afghan National Security Forces have prevented insurgents from reaching many of their targets.
And just eight days ago, when a major hotel was attacked in Kabul, the Afghan forces dealt with the situation.
This was a major, sophisticated attack.
The Afghan forces dealt with it professionally and speedily, only calling in assistance from a NATO helicopter to deal with insurgents on the roof.
As General Petraeus stressed to me, the Afghan forces acquitted themselves very well.
It is this growing strength and capability which will allow us over time to hand over control of security to the Afghan forces and draw down our own numbers.
Speed Of Withdrawal
Mr Speaker, we remain committed to the objective shared by President Karzai and the whole of NATO…
…that the Afghans should assume lead security responsibility across the whole country by the end of 2014.
Last month President Obama announced that the US will withdraw 10,000 of its forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year…
…and will complete the removal of the US surge of 33,000 by the end of the summer of next year.
At the time of the US surge, the UK increased its core force levels by an extra 500.
For our part, I have already said that we will withdraw 426 UK military personnel by February 2012.
Today I can announce the UK will be able to reduce its force levels by a further 500 - from 9,500 to 9,000 by the end of 2012.
This decision has been agreed by the National Security Council on the advice of our military commanders.
These reductions reflect the progress that is being made in building up the ANSF.
Indeed, for every US soldier who leaves as the surge is removed, two Afghans will take their place.
This marks the start of a process which will ensure that by the end of 2014 there will not be anything like the number of British troops there as there are now - and they will not be serving in a combat role.
This is the commitment I have made - and that is the commitment we will stick to.
Having taken such a huge share of the burden and having performed so magnificently for a decade now, the country needs to know that there is an end point to the level of our current commitment and to our combat operations.
This decision is not only right for Britain.
It is right for Afghanistan too. It has given the Afghans a clear deadline against which to plan and has injected a sense of urgency into their efforts.
Mr Speaker, while there is a clear endpoint to our military combat role…
…after 2014, the UK will continue to have a major, strategic relationship with Afghanistan.
A development relationship.
A diplomatic relationship.
A trade relationship
Above all, we have a vital national security interest in preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for international terrorism.
So although our forces will no longer be present in a combat role, we will have a continuing military relationship.
We will continue to train the Afghan Security Forces.
In Afghanistan I announced plans for a new officer training academy.
This was something President Karzai specifically asked me for; and I am proud that Britain is able to deliver it.
We intend to lead the Academy from 2013, in addition to maintaining our current role in the Officer Candidate School which is due to merge with the Academy in 2017.
So, we will continue our efforts to help Afghanistan build a viable state.
But our support cannot be unconditional.
In my meeting with President Karzai I made clear the Afghan government’s responsibility to ensure that British taxpayers’ money is spent well and wisely.
I emphasised to President Karzai just how important it is that he personally grips the problems around Kabul Bank and the need for a new IMF programme.
I also urged him to support due democratic process and tackle corruption.
And I made it very clear that while Britain wants to stand by Afghanistan beyond the end of our combat mission…
…we will only do so on the basis that Afghanistan must help itself too.
Mr Speaker, almost all insurgencies have ended with a combination of military pressure and political settlement.
There is no reason why Afghanistan should prove any different.
As we strengthen the Afghan government and security forces, so we will also back President Karzai’s efforts to work towards an Afghan-led political settlement.
The death of Bin Laden presents the Taleban with a moment of real choice.
Al Qaeda are weakened; their leader dead.
Last month the UN adopted two separate sanctions regimes, creating a clear distinction that separates the Taleban from Al Qeada.
Local peace councils have now been established in almost all of Afghanistan’s provinces.
These have already allowed more than 1,800 people from 17 provinces to be enrolled on the scheme for reintegration.
So we should take this opportunity to send a clear message to the Taleban: now is the time to break decisively from Al Qaeda and participate in a peaceful political process.
In this task, we need Pakistan’s assistance.
As I discussed with President Zardari last week, this is now as much in Pakistan’s interests as Britain’s or Afghanistan’s since the Taleban pose a mortal threat to the state of Pakistan as well.
The prospects of a successful Afghanistan
Mr Speaker, there is no reason why Afghanistan should be destined to remain a broken country.
It has abundant mineral wealth, fertile agricultural land, and stands at the crossroads of Asia’s great trading highway.
It has succeeded in the past, when not wracked by conflict.
Afghanistan still has many challenges ahead.
There are real security issues and a lack of government capacity.
But ten years ago, Afghanistan was in the grip of a regime that banned young girls from schools, hanged people in football stadiums for minor misdemeanours, and banished radios and any form of entertainment - while all the while incubating the terrorists which struck on 9/11.
For all its imperfections, Afghanistan has come a long way.
Today, Afghanistan is no longer a haven for global terror; its economy is growing; and it has a Parliament, a developing legal system, provincial and district governors and the basic building blocks of what could be a successful democracy.
In Helmand Province, which with Kandahar was a stronghold of the Taleban and the insurgency, there is now a growing economy, falling poppy cultivation and many more effective district governors.
The fact that President Karzai has been able to choose Lashkar Gar as one of the areas to include in the first phase of transition…
…is a sign of the transformation we have helped to bring about there.
Mr Speaker, as we enter this new phase of transition, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to our servicemen and women who have made such incredible sacrifices to protect our national security.
While we have been going about our daily lives…
…they have been are out there - day and night - fighting in the heat and dust…
…giving up the things that we all take for granted.
That’s the true character of the British Armed Forces.
And it’s why we are so incredibly proud of them, and the families who support them, and so grateful for everything they do for us.
And I commend this statement to the House.