The professionalism, valour and courage of our soldiers who have served in Afghanistan and those serving there now are as distinguished as any in our long military history. Some of our allies have already decided to withdraw their troops. They are not the nations that were not enthusiastic about the war, but those that have paid huge costs in blood and treasure. Canada withdrew its combat troops after a debate in its Parliament that was supported by every party. The Netherlands has also done so, and we now know that Australia and France intend to bring their troops home early.
The United Kingdom has lost 422 troops, and we have spent £20 billion, but that is only part of the cost. We must also take into account the number of troops who return from Afghanistan broken in body and in mind. Figures from America show that more of its veterans from Afghanistan take their lives after combat than die in combat. The same applied to our figures from the Falklands war. We know that the dying will continue.
A case in Pembrokeshire involved a soldier who had suffered grievously in Afghanistan. His death is not counted among the 422 casualties, however. In Afghanistan, he was shot twice and involved in two separate incidents involving improvised explosive devices, but his loved ones explained that the experience that haunted him was holding his best friend, who had lost a number of limbs in an explosion, and watching as the life retreated from his eyes. It was that experience that drove him to take his own life.
There are powerful reasons for saying that we are continuing to order soldiers to risk their lives for the cause in Afghanistan, but I do not believe that a case can be made for doing so any more. A recent briefing said that we needed to get all our equipment out of Afghanistan at enormous cost, because we did not want to see the Taliban riding round in British tanks in five years’ time. However, having gone into Afghanistan when it was ruled by the Taliban and engaged in a civil war, the likelihood is that, by the time we leave, there will be another civil war and that it will be ruled by the Taliban once again.
For 10 years, we have heard optimism being expressed by all Governments, along with exaggerations of success and dismissals of the failures that mounted up, year after year. It was not necessarily a mistake to go there, although no British interests were threatened in 2001. It was, however, a terrible mistake to go into Helmand province. In our first five years in Afghanistan, only two of our soldiers died. Then, we provocatively stirred up the hornets’ nest in Helmand, in the foolish and mistaken belief that not a shot would be fired. Our operations in Helmand were described in the House at the time as being as futile as the charge of the Light Brigade, but we have now lost three times as many troops in Helmand as were lost in that charge.
It is a dereliction of duty for the House not to debate the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan. We know that the people of this country are strongly in favour of such a withdrawal. In a recent by-election, a candidate from a minority party with only one policy—withdrawal from Afghanistan—gained 56% of the votes and humiliated all the other parties. We also know that 80% of the public want our troops to withdraw now, yet we are being distracted by the bread and circuses of all the events taking place this year, and we cannot find a moment in our parliamentary diary to discuss whether we should bring our troops home before we reach the point that Senator Kerry described when he was an officer in Vietnam in the final days of that war. He spoke of asking the agonising question: who will be the last soldier that I will order to die for a politician’s mistake.
Alistair Burt Foreign & Commonwealth minister
The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) made a familiar but none the less passionate and heartfelt plea in relation to those who are serving in Afghanistan, repeating concerns that he has raised regularly about what he believes to be their overlong presence there. There is no doubt that when he speaks about the circumstances affecting individual soldiers and what they have experienced, either personally or through what they have observed with others, he speaks movingly and with heartfelt compassion, and no one could deny the force of what he says. He constantly raises the questions “What has it been worth?” and “Is it ever worth it?” It would be wrong for me to stand at the Dispatch Box and not give a positive answer to those questions, or rebut, as gently as I can, some of the hon. Gentleman’s worst fears.
As I have said to the hon. Gentleman before, I believe that there are genuine signs of progress. We know that there are still difficult days to come, but let me offer an answer to those who feel that absolutely nothing has been achieved. The number of district governors has risen from five in 2008 to 12. Eight of Helmand’s 13 districts, and the municipality of Lashkar Gah, are now either in transition or about to embark on it. That means that their security will be no longer the responsibility of UK or international forces but that of Afghan forces, which are gradually taking more and more responsibility for their own areas. Tranche 3 of the transition will see some 75% of the population of Afghanistan covered by their own forces, which have been trained by the international forces in order to meet the security needs of the people in the future. That will allow the UK and international forces to retreat from their international obligations in 2014, as has long been planned. I also say to the hon. Gentleman that we have no sense that we are not going to stick to that timetable, which truly matters for the future security of those in Afghanistan.
Some 145 schools are open, an increase of 79% since 2008. There are 89,000 male students in Helmand province and 29,000 female students. There are women teachers, too. All these things did not happen before, which is why the people of Afghanistan are so concerned that the progress must be maintained. We can ensure that only by sticking to the timetable.
The series of international conferences in the past year or so—Bonn, Chicago, Tokyo, Istanbul—have all been designed to demonstrate that, although combat troops will be leaving in 2014, the international community’s commitment to Afghanistan will continue. Chicago was about how the future security will be guaranteed. Tokyo was about international development support; we are committing to give the same level of support as now until 2017, after which time the situation will be reviewed. All these assurances are absolutely essential for Afghanistan’s people as they take more responsibility for their own future.
That future will have been bought by the sacrifices of the people to whom the hon. Gentleman referred so movingly. I disagree with his view that it has not been worth it, however. Each individual life lost, and each individual life ruined by wounding or pain, is a tragedy, but it has not been for nothing, and there are plenty of people in Afghanistan who recognise that and know that what they will have in the future will have been dearly bought for them by others. They are determined to make something of that.
No one pretends there will not be difficult days to come, but if we consider the protection of women, and their situation, their human rights and their opportunities for the future, we can see that they are better now than they would have been had international forces not been involved, and had UK forces not made the sacrifices they have made.