The Foreign Secretary William Hague said:
Mr Speaker with Permission I will make a statement as we do quarterly on our progress in Afghanistan. This represents the combined assessment of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence, and the Department for International Development.
I begin by paying tribute to the great courage and professionalism of our Armed Forces in Afghanistan. 440 British service personnel have lost their lives there since 2001, including two since My Right Honourable friend the Defence Secretary made the last Quarterly Statement on 19th December. We will never forget the sacrifice they and their families have made to protect our nation’s security, or the efforts of the civilian staff who have also served bravely in Afghanistan over the last decade.
The Government’s objective and strategy in Afghanistan are unchanged. We seek an Afghanistan that can maintain its own security and is not a safe haven for international terrorists. This requires us to help the Afghan Government to increase the capability of its National Security Forces, to make progress towards a sustainable political settlement, and to build a viable Afghan state.
Although formidable challenges remain, there is progress to report to the House on all three fronts:
First, significant progress is being made in building up the capability of the Afghan Security Forces.
Over the last three months insurgent activity in Afghanistan has followed the historic cycle of winter seasons, with a reduced level of violence nationwide. High profile attacks have been limited over this period. Recent attacks, such as those against the National Directorate of Security and Traffic Police Headquarters , have been largely dealt with by Afghan Forces, without direct support form ISAF.
Afghan Security Forces are now leading 80% of all security operations in Afghanistan, and are due to take lead responsibility for combat operations across the country by this summer, with ISAF taking an advisory role. More than three quarters of ISAF bases have now been closed or transferred to the Afghan Government, and the ANSF are on track to assume full responsibility for security in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
This progress is allowing the gradual redeployment of UK military forces and equipment. The Prime Minister announced in December that our military presence will be reduced by nearly half this year; and that the UK, along with our allies, will move steadily towards a supporting role.
The role of UK personnel is changing from a combat role to training and advising the Afghan security forces. In the short term they will continue to support Afghan operations through casualty evacuation, air support and the provision of surveillance capabilities, while working to help them develop their own suitable capabilities. In addition they provide the infrastructure necessary to work in Afghanistan, including food, medical care, welfare and transportation. Although our focus is increasingly on supporting our Afghan partners, we will maintain sufficient capability to project military force if the conditions require it until the end of 2014.
The Afghan National Security Forces currently have over 330,000 personnel and are progressing towards a final number of 352,000. As these forces become more capable and as they approach full strength, our mentoring has switched from company to battalion level, and by the end of this year our forces will no longer need to mentor them below brigade level. The vast majority of training is also now led by the Afghans themselves.
Of course our task is still a difficult one. The Taliban will continue to seek to undermine popular confidence in the Afghan authorities. And as Afghan forces assume the lead in combat operations across the country, they are likely to become the focus of Taliban attacks.
Moreover, the formation of professional Armed Forces takes time, and reducing attrition rates and improving leadership across the Afghan forces will be important priorities for years to come. So the UK is proud to take the lead in building up the new Afghan National Army Officer Academy that will develop the next generation of Afghan military leaders.
Second, we continue to help drive progress towards a sustainable political settlement and efforts by the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to strengthen their relationship.
On 3-4 February the Prime Minister hosted a Summit at Chequers with President Karzai of Afghanistan and President Zardari of Pakistan. This was the third in a series of trilateral meetings hosted by the Prime Minister in the last year. The aim was to assist the Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process, and strengthen joint Afghan and Pakistani efforts to address extremism and advance regional peace and stability.
The summit led to an agreement on co-operation between military and security services, strengthened coordination of Taliban prisoner releases from Pakistani custody, and a public statement supporting the opening of a Taliban political office in Doha. This sends a clear message to the Taliban that now is the time to take part in a peaceful political dialogue. The UK will continue to support this
Afghan-led peace process and to facilitate improved relations between the Afghan and Pakistani Governments, including supporting further trilateral meetings in the future.
Third, we continue to work to help strengthen Afghanistan’s democratic institutions. In just over a year’s time, on 5 April 2014, the Afghan people will begin voting in the third Presidential elections since the fall of the Taliban. Elections to Provincial Councils will take place on the same day. These elections must be credible, inclusive and transparent. All Afghan constituencies, including women and minorities, must feel part of the electoral process and have the opportunity to make their voices heard. And although it will be Afghan-led, the UK will continue to provide support and advice to the local authorities. We are lobbying the Afghan Government to ensure that key electoral laws, which underpin the credibility of the 2014 elections, are passed by the Parliament and not by Presidential decree.
The UK is supporting the Afghan authorities to prepare for elections through providing funding to the UNDP’s ELECT II programme which works to build the capacity of the Independent Election Commission. The UK will provide £12m between November 2012 and December 2013 to the ELECT II fund. In addition last year we provided $215 000 to the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan and we provided an additional $750 000 to the Afghan Parliamentary Assistance Programme, which supports capacity building for Afghan members of Parliament, including drafting legislation, improving budget analysis and oversight and strengthening links between parliamentarians and their constituents.
Economic growth is also vital if Afghanistan is to become a stable and secure state not dependent on foreign aid. The country has significant natural resources that must be developed including metals, minerals and hydrocarbons. On 6th March My Rt Hon Friends the Prime Minister and the International Development Secretary, and the Afghan Minister of Mines hosted a forum for representatives of the extractives industry to help attract credible international investment to Afghanistan. DFID has also agreed a three year, £10 million programme of support to the Ministry of Mines to improve transparency and accountability, so that the main beneficiaries of this mineral wealth are the Afghan people themselves.
And Mr Speaker, I want to emphasise in particular that it is critical that Afghanistan takes the necessary steps to ensure women are able to play their full role in society and developing the economy. The Foreign Office, along with other government departments, continually lobbies the Afghan Government on human rights issues. Women’s rights were an important theme of the visit of my Rt Noble Friend Baroness Warsi to Afghanistan earlier this month, and the International Development Secretary met with President Karzai to discuss the challenges faced by Afghan women in her visit to Afghanistan in December.
UK aid funding has already helped to ensure that 5.9 million Afghan children are regularly attending school, including 2.3 million girls. This compares to virtually none under the Taliban. Our aid money is also being used to recruit and train teachers, build and maintain schools, and increase the availability and quality of education. DfID has announced a further £45million for the Global Girls Education Challenge Fund, which is helping to improve education for over 250,000 marginalised girls.
The FCO and DFID are also working together to ensure the Afghan Government upholds its commitments on women’s rights, including through implementation of the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, which is a central commitment under the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework. The International Development Secretary has stated that tackling violence against women and girls will be a strategic priority for the Department’s work in Afghanistan.
So the UK will do whatever it can to increase rights for women in Afghanistan, and we must also do more to improve the lives of all the Afghan people. So we will play a key role in ensuring that Afghan commitments from last year’s NATO Summit in Chicago and the Tokyo Conference on development are implemented by the Afghan Government. And we look forward to the initial review of progress against the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework in July this year and we will chair jointly the first Ministerial review of it in 2014.
We also continue to take steps to address the immediate humanitarian needs of the Afghani people, with DfID announcing a new £12 million humanitarian programme from existing funding that will provide nutrition and food support to over 900,000 vulnerable people affected by conflict, natural disaster and harsh winters.
Mr Speaker, the end of the ISAF mission next year does not mean an end to the support provided by the international community. Planning continues for the NATO-led follow-on mission that will help to train and advise the Afghan security forces after combat missions draw to a close. The UK will continue to support governance and development in Afghanistan through the next decade – with £178m per year agreed until 2017 – helping to ensure that the progress made to date is not lost. And this is in addition to our £70 million commitment to sustain the ANSF after 2014.
The path of transition will not be easy. But progress is being made, and we will stand by the people of Afghanistan as they build a more peaceful and secure future.
Read more about the UK’s work establishing stability in Afghanistan
Read the Chequers summit joint statement
Find out about DFID’s work in Afghanistan
More information about Baroness Warsi’s visit to Afghanistan
The British Embassy in Kabul website