Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab):
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it.
Nothing unites this House more than the admiration we have for our armed forces and their service and sacrifice. Nowhere is this more evident than in Afghanistan. As the Defence Secretary said, 447 members of our armed forces have died in operations there since 2001, with many more injured. Their commitment to the United Kingdom and Afghanistan, and to our respective peoples, should never, and will never, be forgotten.
Many British civilians are also working to build peace and progress in Afghanistan, and that will become ever more important as the combat missions wind down. Does the Secretary of State share the shock and sadness at the attack in Kabul just a few weeks ago that cost the lives of 21 people, including two British citizens? Many colleagues from across the political spectrum knew Del Singh, who died in that explosion. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said:
“He dedicated his life to working with people across the world who needed his support.”
Ultimately, he gave his life, too, and we in the Labour party remember him and his work with pride and a sense of determination to continue it.
Will the Defence Secretary outline what steps the Government are taking to ensure the protection of British forces and civilians and give reassurance to them and their families as to what is being done to provide it, both now and after the military draw-down? Does he share the concern that civilian deaths in Afghanistan rose by 14% in 2013, and to what does he attribute that significant rise?
There has been undoubted, but not irreversible, progress in Afghanistan. In terms of finding a political settlement, it is clear that elections scheduled for April are an indication of both the advances and the challenges that remain. Will the Defence Secretary outline what steps are being taken by international forces to ensure that insurgents do not succeed in disrupting the elections and, by extension, the democratic right of the Afghan people? What is his assessment of the risk of increased insurgent activity in the run-up to the Afghanistan national elections this year, particularly in urban areas?
The role of external actors will, as the Defence Secretary knows, also be key. What is the Government’s assessment of the most recent peace talks between the Pakistani Government and the Taliban? How is this impacting on the Taliban’s behaviour in Afghanistan? Has he read reports that they are patrolling jointly with the Afghan national security forces, and what is his assessment of the implications of that?
May I also ask the Secretary of State some specific questions about security and the role of the ANSF and ISAF as the international combat mission ends? Will he provide specific details of what he expects the UK military footprint to be in Afghanistan beyond 2014? As the number of deployed troops falls, the level of danger for ISAF units increases, so will the Defence Secretary tell the House what is being done to maintain vigilance on force protection as UK forces wind down through the course of this year?
Will the Defence Secretary update the House on the progress of the Afghan national army officer academy and the work being done there, particularly on core anti-insurgency capabilities such as air cover, air support, medical evacuation, intelligence gathering and indirect fire support? What percentage of that training is now provided by ANSF forces themselves?
The Defence Secretary will have seen media reports today about the RAF utilising United States air force assets—namely, unmanned aircraft—when UK aircraft are unavailable. Will he confirm that those aircraft always operate on UK tasks, with RAF aircrew in control, using our rules of engagement?
Will the Secretary of State confirm that no soldier currently serving in Afghanistan will face compulsory redundancy, and will he clarify whether serving personnel who apply for redundancy will have their application accepted? What will the total cost of equipment repatriation be to the Ministry of Defence?
It is clear that, as we approach the withdrawal of British and international combat forces, the more necessary it will be for us to adopt a comprehensive approach to engagement with and in Afghanistan. The shadow Foreign Secretary and the shadow Secretary of State for International Development—my right hon. Friends the Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) and for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) respectively—and I work together closely on that and I know the Defence Secretary does, too. What action is he taking to ensure proper treatment and, if necessary, safe haven for those who have supported our forces as interpreters over the past years?
Today the US Government announced three new development initiatives worth almost $300 million. What assessment have the Government made of how UK aid will work alongside those plans?
One area of shared concern is that of the rights of women and girls after the international forces depart. Will the Secretary of State update us on what discussions the Government are having with counterparts in Afghanistan on the issues? Does he share our deep concern—I am sure he does—about the new law that will, in effect, silence female victims of domestic violence and forced or child marriage?
There can be no room for complacency about such complicated and continuing issues. There is still much work to be done before the end of our combat mission, with British troops remaining in danger, and there will be a great deal of work, albeit of a different kind, to do afterwards. Our commitment is to build peace, progress and the lasting stability that our armed services have fought so bravely to secure.