With permission, I will make a statement on the Government’s progress in Afghanistan.
First I would like to pay tribute to Lance Corporal James Brynin, serving with 14 Signal Regiment, who was tragically killed in action in Afghanistan on 15 October after coming under enemy fire during an operation in Nahr e Saraj. My thoughts are with his family and loved ones as they come to terms with their loss. Four hundred and forty five members of the UK armed forces have died on operations in Afghanistan since 2001. Their bravery and commitment to our nation’s security will not be forgotten.
Our objective in Afghanistan has not changed since the Prime Minister’s statement to Parliament in July. We are protecting the UK by ensuring that Afghanistan is not used as a base for terrorism against our country and our allies.
I will set out today how we are helping the Afghan Government in three main ways: to increase the capability of Afghanistan’s national security force; to make progress towards a sustainable political settlement; and to build a viable state, which helps meet the needs of the Afghan people.
Progress has been made on all three fronts. This summer, through the fiercest months of the Taliban fighting season, we have seen the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) lead the security response to the insurgency threat for the first time. This follows President Karzai’s milestone announcement in June that the ANSF has assumed lead responsibility for security throughout the country.
The ANSF has now reached its temporary surge strength target of 352,000 army, police and air force personnel and is today leading 93% of all operations across Afghanistan.
We know these numbers are having an effect on the battlefield. Despite an increase in violence levels and high profile attacks in June, the ANSF responded effectively to the majority of security incidents and launched several proactive operations to disrupt planned attacks in Kabul and elsewhere. This resulted in just one high profile attack taking place in the capital since July and an overall reduction in violence levels throughout July and August.
Crucially, the ANSF is succeeding in keeping the insurgency out of the protected communities, with the majority of violence now taking place away from populated areas.
There have been several successful operations in recent months which are notable not only for their size, but also for their complexity and degree of coordination. For example the ANSF launched ‘Operation Seamough’ at the end of July - a combined clearance, security and international aid mission in order to secure the main supply routes south of Kabul. This operation involved over 1,300 Afghan security personnel, working alongside other arms of the Afghan Government as well as humanitarian organisations.
In line with the clear progress of the Afghan National Security Forces, the UK and our ISAF partners are continuing the process of drawdown and redeployment. Today we are down to four UK bases in Central Helmand as well as Camp Bastion. This is down from 137 UK bases at the height of the conflict. On 9 August the military headquarters of the UK’s Task Force Helmand moved from Lashkar Gah to Camp Bastion, symbolising the changing UK military profile in Central Helmand.
We have also reduced the total number of UK Armed Forces personnel in theatre from 7,900 in May, to currently around 6,800. By the end of the year we will have reduced even further to 5,200 personnel, notwithstanding occasional fluctuations due to temporary surges into theatre.
We must not forget the challenges that still remain. Throughout all of this the insurgency has remained a determined and resilient enemy. However, as we approach the final year of the ISAF campaign we can be optimistic about Afghanistan’s future. Encouragingly recent Afghan polls show that 90% of Afghans feel that security in their area is fair to good, while 80% of Afghans say they feel safe travelling outside their area during the day. It is perceptions like these, within the minds of ordinary Afghans, which will ultimately determine the country’s fate. The ANSF is an essential component in achieving this, and in building a secure and viable Afghan state that can provide long-term security and governance for its people.
Progress has also been made in securing a sustainable political settlement for Afghanistan, ahead of Presidential and provincial elections in 2014. Afghans want and deserve the right to decide the future of their country and we are committed to helping them achieve this.
A constitutional, peaceful transfer of power from President Karzai to his successor will be a very significant milestone for the Afghan people. Yet we cannot underestimate the challenge of holding these elections.
We are working hard to support the Afghan authorities to make them as credible, inclusive and transparent as possible. We very much welcome the fact that two vital pieces of electoral reform were passed by the Afghan Parliament and signed by President Karzai in late July. This was an historic moment – the first time that Afghanistan has had laws of this kind debated and voted on by Parliament rather than adopted by decree.
DFID has given £12 million to support the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). The IEC has recruited and trained more than 5,600 officials for voter registration, including almost 2,000 women, as well as encouraging people to vote through public service announcements on TV and radio. So far they have helped to ensure that more than two million Afghans have registered to vote [as of 14 October], of which 31% are women.
Efforts to encourage women to participate in the electoral process will increase in the coming months. DFID’s programme to support women’s political participation will build the political capacity of female political candidates through training and mentoring.
This is part of a wider DFID programme to strengthen political governance in Afghanistan and has been fast-tracked so that our support for women’s political participation is embedded long before the elections themselves.
Viable state, meeting the needs of its people
Ahead of the election, the Afghan Government must continue to meet the needs of its people and DFID is taking an active role in supporting the lives of ordinary Afghans, be it to improve their livelihoods or exercise their rights.
Our support to the HALO Trust to remove landmines and unexploded ordnance from land in Herat province in western Afghanistan continues to deliver excellent results. Reporting from the HALO Trust and the UN High Commission for Refugees shows that, thanks to UK aid, more than 20,000 families have benefitted from the return of land to productive use in Jebrail township in Herat, many of whom are internally displaced people and Hazara refugees returning from Iran. Between April and June this year, HALO cleared over 1.6 million square metres of land in Herat Province and disposed safely of two anti-personnel mines, ten anti-tank mines, 63 unexploded ordnances and 1,609 small arms ammunition.
The UK has committed to making the whole of Herat province free from mines and unexploded ordnance by 2018.
Elsewhere, UK support to the Afghan Government’s Comprehensive Agriculture and Rural Development Facility (CARD-F) continues to help farmers in four provinces across Afghanistan improve their livelihoods by increasing the value of agricultural crops and building better links to markets for their products.
And in Helmand, UK support for technical and vocational education and training has helped more than 15,000 graduates go on to secure employment – already exceeding the programme’s 2014 target. DFID is now looking at how to strengthen the programme further to ensure that graduates get the best out of their training.
We believe DFID’s support to Afghan civil society – through the Tawanmandi programme – is having a lasting impact. One of Tawanmandi’s core partners, the Community Centre for Disability (CCD), has successfully worked to improve the welfare of disabled people. As a result of their efforts, the Government of Afghanistan has now passed legislation to ensure the rights and active participation of disabled people in society.
The second call for Tawanmandi grant proposals has recently closed and we look forward to being able to extend our support to more Afghan organisations, including those supporting women and youth groups, in the near future.
We are determined to support women in Afghanistan who continue to face severe challenges in their daily lives, including the regular threat of violence. We are already providing support for girls’ education and women’s empowerment as well as working with the Government to ensure it upholds its responsibilities and commitments to protect women.
Earlier this year I said that I wanted to go further and make tackling violence against women a strategic priority for DFID’s work in Afghanistan. My officials have consulted with experts, with NGOs and with Afghan women themselves to make sure our implementation of this reflects their needs. I will announce our revised approach in due course.
In July, DFID and FCO officials took part in a Senior Officials Meeting in Kabul, where donors reaffirmed their aid commitments of over US$16 billion until 2015. However, the international community also delivered a clear message that existing levels of aid will be at risk if the Afghan Government fails to take forward its reform commitments.
As well as ensuring credible and inclusive elections, we are particularly keen to see progress on tackling corruption, upholding women’s rights and managing the economy. Failure to deliver these reforms could jeopardise the stability of Afghanistan. During the recent World Bank Annual Meetings in Washington I met with Finance Minister Zakhilwal and reiterated the importance of Afghanistan continuing to make credible progress on agreed reforms, including the IMF programme.
Finally, the UK Government looks forward to co-chairing with the Afghan Government the 2014 Ministerial meeting to assess further progress against the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework. We expect that this will take place three to six months after the formation of the next government.
Working together, the Afghan Government and its international partners have a unique chance to set the conditions for political, security and economic transition, and we must continue to focus on that over the coming months.
I commend this statement to the house.