§ 3.21 p.m.
§ Lord Garden asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ What role they envisage for the six Harrier GR7s that are to be deployed in Afghanistan.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)
My Lords, the Harrier GR7s deploying to Afghanistan will provide, first, close air support both to coalition forces and to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF); secondly, a reconnaissance capability to support ISAF; and, thirdly, air presence patrols as part of ISAF's support for the security of the Afghan elections.
§ Lord Garden
My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that Answer. I am sure that we all wish the crews undertaking this task well at what is an important time in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the NATO Secretary-General, asked for more troops and more helicopters. Can the Minister tell us how many of those we have at the moment in Afghanistan supporting ISAF, and how he intends to increase them ahead of the election?
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, as I understand it, a number of other aircraft are already in Afghanistan. There are American aircraft and Dutch attack helicopters. We were also invited to provide some aircraft. As I understand it, there are two Lynx helicopters in Afghanistan at the present time. I do not think that anyone, least of all those in Afghanistan, could accuse the United Kingdom of not playing its absolutely full part in trying to bring that country back to freedom.
§ Lord Astor of Hever
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that this deployment will not delay the upgrading of the GR7s to the GR9 standard?
§ Lord Craig of Radley
My Lords, will the Minister remind the House what reductions in the Harrier force, all types, are in prospect? Are those reductions additional to the withdrawal of fast jet aircraft announced by the MoD on 20 July, which included the whole of the Jaguar force?
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, will the Minister answer the question asked by my noble friend Lord Garden; namely, are we providing the necessary increase in forces for the elections?
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, as I believe noble Lords know, the position in Afghanistan generally is fragile. Both the coalition and NATO are doing everything that is within our power to make sure that that fragility 569 does not break. That is why it is so important that the elections for the presidency of that country to be held on 9 October go ahead and are seen, as far as is possible, to be free and fair. As I understand it, all requests that have been made have been answered; certainly, the United Kingdom has done that.
§ Lord Tomlinson
My Lords, while it is right and proper that we are playing our full part through NATO in helping in the sad situation in Afghanistan, will my noble friend use his influence with other countries and other parts of government to make sure that we have a clear strategy for the destruction of the poppy harvest, which accounts for 30 per cent of the Afghan gross national product at the present time, as without that destruction there will be a continual fuelling of the warlords and a continuing financing of terrorism?
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for raising that issue. He will know that our policy is to assist the Afghans in eliminating the cultivation of opium. Our country is the G8 nation with lead responsibility for assisting the Afghan Transitional Authority in countering the narcotics industry in its country. With other nations we are providing a range of support to the Transitional Authority. This includes helping to develop Afghanistan's own counter-narcotics capabilities and institutions, to reduce drug use in that country and assisting with its economic reconstruction to provide alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers.
§ Lord Redesdale
My Lords, I estimate very roughly that the six GR7s which are to be deployed will need ground crew of about 350 personnel. How many soldiers will be needed to protect that ground crew, or are they expected to protect themselves? Will the RAF Regiment be deployed in that role? Is its future still under threat?
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, the regiment's future is not under threat. I think that the noble Lord knows that. We are deploying temporarily 53 Field Squadron (Airfield Support) Royal Engineers, who are based at Waterbeach. They will carry out some minor work necessary to operate the Harriers from Kandahar airfield. Initially, we shall deploy some 315 members of the Army and the RAF altogether, but that should eventually settle at a detachment of about 230 personnel. Of course, the protection of all those troops will he of fundamental importance.
§ Lord Avebury
My Lords, while acknowledging that the United Kingdom has done more than any other member of NATO in making the security improvements that are necessary for a free and fair election, does the Minister really consider that, bearing in mind that the international NGOs have withdrawn almost entirely to Kabul with a few in Kandahar, the conditions exist where people can go to the polling stations confident that they will be safe? Does the 570 Minister acknowledge that President Karzai has asked for many more troops on the ground than NATO has provided?
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, President Karzai made a public plea for additional forces at the Istanbul summit in June this year. The response has been two extra NATO battalions, one Spanish, one Italian, available for operations in and around Mazar-i-Sharif and Konduz respectively. A third US battalion will be held at high readiness in Europe for deployment if necessary. I have already mentioned that the Dutch have aircraft there including six F16s and a support tanker to mount air presence patrols. Our Harriers will also be able to assist. Individual PRTs have been temporarily reinforced. Coalition security assistance is less clear but will certainly include additional air sorties. Everyone knows that the elections will be difficult, but a huge amount of effort has gone into registration, a great deal of it successful.