Speech delivered by Secretary of State for Defence to the House of Commons on Monday 14 February 2011.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will report to the House the Government’s assessment of progress towards UK objectives in Afghanistan.
Before I begin my statement, I regret to have to inform the House that two British soldiers from the Royal Logistics Corps died early this morning at Camp Bastion. An investigation is under way into their deaths, but early indications suggest that they were caused by a fire. Their families have been informed, and I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I say that our thoughts and prayers are with them at this very difficult time.
International forces from 48 nations, including the United Kingdom, are in Afghanistan to prevent terrorists, including al-Qaeda, from again using Afghanistan to plot and launch terror attacks. The contributions of each nation to the international security assistance force are listed in the supplementary written information that I have provided for Members.
Meeting our objectives requires working with Afghanistan’s neighbours, and that includes helping Pakistan to tackle the problems on its side of the border. We are acting to provide the security space required for indigenous security and governance to grow, and we are supporting that growth through diplomatic, developmental and military means. The goal is for the Government of Afghanistan to provide, on a sustainable basis, the capability and governance required to manage their own security.
Although international military forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001 and significant gains have been made, it is only since August last year that we have had the number of troops and the right level of equipment to fulfil the strategy set for them. The challenge lies in having the patience and will to see the mission through.
The Foreign Secretary reported to the House in October. In this quarterly report, I will concentrate on the security progress being made in central Helmand, where the majority of UK forces operate. That is represented by the shaded area on the map of Helmand province that I have provided to Members.
Afghanistan has 401 districts, but 60% of the violence occurs in just nine of them, and eight of those nine are in Helmand and Kandahar. So we need to remember that Helmand is not representative of Afghanistan as a whole, and that there are many places where progressively a sense of normality and security is returning. Before I turn to general progress, in keeping with our undertaking to keep Parliament better informed as far as operational restrictions allow, I should like to update the House on current force levels.
The previous Government announced on 30 November 2009 that they had increased the endorsed UK force level to 9,500. It will not surprise the House to hear that that core number of 9,500 does not fully account for the actual force numbers we have deployed, given the complex and highly dynamic current situation on the ground. As the previous Government acknowledged, a sizeable contingent of our highly effective special forces operates in Afghanistan. In accordance with long-standing practice, we do not specify the scale or nature of their activities,, but, if we take them into account with the enabling support that they need, we see that they take our numbers to more than 10,000.
For many years, UK forces have contributed to the protection of Kandahar airfield. In December 2009, it was expected that they would hand over that task to another ISAF partner within a matter of months. That did not happen, and we still have almost 200 extra troops protecting Kandahar airfield. That is constantly under review. Additionally, in September 2010, we announced the deployment of 200 personnel from the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps to ISAF Joint Command for 12 months. They will return by February 2012.
To maintain operational flexibility, we also approve temporary deployments, or surges, of additional personnel to meet specific and time-limited tasks. These include personnel to provide key headquarters functions or to prepare infrastructure for the rigours of the Afghan winter. From time to time, we also deploy the Theatre Reserve Battalion. The number of UK military personnel on the ground in Afghanistan also fluctuates from day to day, reflecting the number of personnel on rest and recuperation breaks, as well the changes that occur as we hand over responsibility between units during the twice-yearly reliefs in place. So the actual number of military personnel currently in Afghanistan is regularly well over 10,000.
We keep our force levels under constant review, and some reductions this year may be possible, dependent on conditions on the ground and implementation of the security transition process. I want every member of our armed forces deployed in Afghanistan to get the credit for the incredible job that they do, and I know that all those in the House will want to join me in paying tribute to their selfless courage and hard work.
The efforts of our armed forces are supported by the work of many hundreds of civilians from the Ministry of Defence and other Departments, including staff in our embassy in Kabul, in our taskforce headquarters and provincial reconstruction team in Lashkar Gah, in district stabilisation teams across Helmand, and in units and facilities outside Afghanistan. Again, I am sure that the House will want to join me in acknowledging the valuable work that they do and their devotion to duty.
In central Helmand, as General Petraeus has said, we have not yet seen success or victory, but we are seeing progress. It is fragile and not irreversible, but it is progress. The increase in Afghan and ISAF forces has enabled us to take the fight to the insurgency and, understandably, this has led to an overall increase in the number of violent incidents. But over the past three months, although the number is still higher than in previous years, we are seeing a trend of falling security incidents. For example, in the Marjah district of Helmand province, security incidents have fallen from a high of around 25 a day at the height of summer to just three or four a day at present. There is a seasonal pattern, as many insurgents, especially those fighting for financial rather than ideological reasons, return to their homes for the winter. This year, however, with the unusually mild weather and with winter arriving late, and the increased activity by ISAF and the Afghan national security forces, the fall in the number of incidents is more likely than in previous years to be an indicator of progress. However, I have to say to the House that casualty numbers are once again likely to rise in spring this year as insurgent activity increases.
This year will be just as difficult as 2010, but there will be distinct differences. The increased number of ANSF and ISAF forces allows us to arrest the momentum of the insurgency in more areas. Afghan forces will also begin to take the lead for security as the first districts and provinces begin the process of transition. There are now over 152,000 Afghan national army and 117,000 Afghan national police. This is on schedule to meet the October 2011 growth target to deliver 305,600 Afghan national security forces. But as the quantity increases, quality must not be neglected. One example is improving literacy to ensure that orders can be communicated in writing as well as orally, so that there is less scope for misinterpretation. Currently, around 85% of ANSF recruits are illiterate on entry. Literacy training is now mandatory for all recruits. The training is to be conducted by Afghan teachers, creating employment and boosting the economy, and significant progress is being made.
Progress has also been made in implementing the Afghan local police initiative. This is a temporary programme of village-owned security aimed at providing a security effect in areas with limited or no ANSF presence. The programme, established by presidential decree, comes under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior. Fourteen sites have been established, and 2,800 ALP have been recruited. Once the necessary security and capacity are established, these local forces will be integrated into the regular ANSF.
In Helmand, our bilateral police mission has focused on training Afghan national police at the Helmand police training centre, from which the 2,000th officer graduated in December. The UK Government have funded the building of six new police stations in Helmand in the last six months, with 10 more in construction and 28 more in design.
Following the Lisbon NATO summit, the transition process is on track. The joint Afghan-NATO transition board is set to deliver recommendations this month on which provinces will enter the transition process. President Karzai has confirmed that he will announce the first phase of transition on 21 March.
The UK Government’s development programmes work with the Government of Afghanistan to build capacity to direct and deliver their own development. Real progress is being made at the local level across Afghanistan. UK-funded teams from the provincial administration in Lashkar Gah have begun to create a district community council in Marjah, which this time last year was an insurgent stronghold. In Musa Qala, the newly elected council is developing a district plan for the Afghan Government to deliver with support from the UK. At national level, action plans have been developed for the Afghan Government’s national priority programmes, and we have seen encouraging progress in some areas. For example, revenue collection has increased by 32% compared with the same period last year, albeit from a low base. That is 9% above the International Monetary Fund target and brings Afghanistan a step closer to self-sufficiency.
The newly elected Afghan Parliament was inaugurated last month, with frictions between the Executive and legislature resolved democratically. However, we remain very concerned about levels of corruption, and in particular about the disturbing allegations about the Kabul Bank. We will continue to press the Afghan Government to translate their anti-corruption commitments into action.
The Afghan Government are taking further steps towards peace and reconciliation for all Afghans. The High Peace Council has toured Afghanistan to publicise the Afghan peace and reintegration programme. It is early days, but in some areas of Afghanistan, particularly in the north, increasing numbers of insurgents are seeking a way out of the cycle of violence. The High Peace Council recently visited Pakistan to take forward dialogue on peace and reconciliation.
Three hundred and fifty-six British servicemen and women have died on operations in Afghanistan - 15 since my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary last reported progress to the House at the end of October. In the face of such sacrifice, we should be in no doubt about the importance to our national security of the mission and our support for it. We have seen progress over the past few months but the need for strategic patience remains. To paraphrase the US Defence Secretary, we need to stop pulling up the tree by its roots to see if it is growing. There is still a great deal to do, but I believe there is also cause for cautious optimism.