With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on Afghanistan.
Let me begin by paying tribute to Rifleman Vijay Rai of the 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles, who died in Afghanistan on Saturday. His commanding officer described him as tough, loyal, utterly professional and immensely proud to have been serving in the British Army. I am sure I speak for the whole house in saying that our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.
The house will appreciate that I have not yet had an opportunity to visit our troops in Afghanistan. I intend to do so as soon as is practical. The purpose of this statement is to provide information on progress in Afghanistan since the Prime Minister’s statement to the house on 6 July. Our mission is to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for international terrorism, and the presence of our armed forces in Afghanistan to achieve this aim is supported on all sides of the house.
This mission has a cost: 383 members of our armed forces have lost their lives since operations began, eight since the Prime Minister’s statement of 6 July. I know the whole house will want to join me in paying tribute both to their sacrifice and to all those who have returned with serious injuries, and to the families who support them. I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the troops from Estonia, Denmark and Tonga who are operating under British command in central Helmand. Since 6 July, two Danish soldiers and one Estonian soldier have also lost their lives, and I am sure the house will want to join me in expressing condolences to their families.
I am clear that this is an operation to protect our national security and national interests. That view is shared by the 49 nation, UN mandated coalition. We share a common purpose: to enhance security and build the capacity of the Afghan national security forces and the Afghan government, so that Afghans themselves can be responsible for their own territory, their own security and their own affairs. We ensure our national security and the security of the NATO alliance by helping the Afghans to take control of theirs.
Our strategy is comprehensive, drawing security, governance and development objectives together. In 10 years, with international support and assistance, Afghanistan has come a long way. Governance and the rule of law are improving across the country. The Afghan government are providing increasing levels of basic services, with Afghans enjoying much greater access to health facilities, and more education opportunities, including for girls, than in 2001. We welcome the Afghan Parliament’s decision on Saturday to approve the supplementary budget to recapitalise the central bank, paving the way towards agreement on a new International Monetary Fund (IMF) programme of support in the coming weeks. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has been actively engaged with the Afghan Ministry of Finance and the IMF in support of this objective. Agreeing the new programme will reinvigorate the Kabul process, allowing donors to align themselves behind Afghan Government priorities and systems as we move through transition and beyond.
Let us not understate the tangible improvements that have taken place, but let us also not underestimate the scale of the remaining challenge. We are working from a very low base. If progress is to be sustained, the commitment of the international community, including the UK, will have to endure for many years to come, long after international troops have withdrawn from combat operations.
On the security front, progress has been real and meaningful, but it has been hard won and is not irreversible. In many areas, Afghanistan remains a dangerous place. Levels of violence vary dramatically from region to region, but the insurgency continues to be a nationwide threat. The insurgency is under considerable pressure, but its leaders remain committed to conducting a violent campaign. Over recent months we have seen them increasingly focus on high-profile attacks, such as that on the British Council in August and on the US embassy and the international security assistance force headquarters in September. The murder of former President Rabbani is a particular setback. It is important that his death does not derail efforts to engage with those willing to renounce violence and work towards peace. We will continue to support President Karzai’s efforts to promote peace and reconciliation, and are encouraging engagement to support this from all those in the region, including Pakistan.
Despite that difficult background, there is also cause for optimism. In the UK area of operations in central Helmand, there is clear evidence that the ISAF troop surge has brought security gains, limiting the insurgents’ ability to prosecute their campaign. UK troops, partnered with Afghan security forces, are having a tangible impact on insurgent activity in our area of operations. On 9 October, 20 Armoured Brigade assumed authority for Task Force Helmand from 3 Commando Brigade, who can be proud of the progress made during their tour.
The central achievement this summer has been the commencement of the formal security transition process. July saw the first group of three provinces and four urban areas across Afghanistan, covering almost a quarter of the population, begin that process. This included Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, where the Afghan national police now lead on security in this bustling community of 120,000 people. ISAF remains ready to provide support if needed, but the ANSF have been able to respond effectively to insurgent attacks and to pre-empt many. That has been a source of considerable pride, both to the Afghan security forces and to the civilian population. Here in the UK, we should remember that the ANSF have suffered very considerable losses themselves.
The process of transition is on track and will continue. The Afghan government, with ISAF support, are continuing the preparatory work needed to begin the transition process in the next set of provinces and districts. October also saw Task Force Helmand resume responsibility for the upper Gereshk valley. That follows the temporary deployment of US marine corps to the area, during which time UK forces provided security on the strategically significant Highway 1, outside the UK area of operations. UK forces will now work with the ANSF to prepare the district to enter the transition process in the future. We look forward to the second tranche of transition and an announcement later in the autumn by President Karzai outlining which areas are to be included.
Strong Afghan national security forces are key to achieving our objectives. The ANA now stands at 169,000 men and the ANP stands at 134,000, and both are on track to meet their target levels by October 2012. But progress cannot be measured in quantity alone, it must be measured in quality too, in respect of the effectiveness of the Afghan forces and the strength of their organisation. The Afghan led response to the attacks on the US embassy and ISAF headquarters saw the ANSF successfully complete an exceptionally difficult night time building clearance and, for the first time, Afghan air force helicopters were deployed in direct support of troops on the ground. Operational effectiveness rates are improving, allowing the ANSF to take the lead in many operations. Literacy rates among the ANSF are also improving. All 12 of the Afghan army’s planned specialist branches are now functioning, which will, in time, improve self-sufficiency and professionalism. Measures to improve retention rates in the ANSF have also been introduced. Such measures include a pension scheme and a work cycle consisting of periods of operations, training and leave. So the ANSF are improving but, as the recent report by UNAMA, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, shows, there remain important areas where further improvement is crucial.
President Karzai has stated his commitment to his government assuming lead security responsibility across the country as a whole by the end of 2014, which is a goal that we share and support. That means that British troops will not be in a combat role by 2015, nor will they be deployed in the numbers they are now. The ANSF will, however, still need support from the international community even after the conclusion of the transition process. We will continue to support their development: for instance, through our lead involvement in a new officers academy announced by the Prime Minister in the summer.
On 5 December, the Afghan government will chair an international conference in Bonn. This is a key opportunity to advance the political track. The Istanbul conference in November and the Chicago summit next May are further opportunities for the international community to reiterate its long-term commitment to Afghanistan. That commitment is crucial if we are to deliver on our key objective of ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for international terrorism. Our armed forces will continue to protect our national interests with the selfless devotion to duty we have come to expect. I am sure that we in this house will reciprocate by maintaining the staunch cross party support that has underpinned the operation from the outset, and I commend the statement to the house.