Liam Fox Commons It's a sobering thought that after yesterday, there will probably only be two more sessions of Defence Questions before an election, after which it is highly likely that Conservative MPs will be answering questions relating to British troops serving out in Afghanistan, rather than merely askng them.

Below is the key exchange about troop levels in Helmand from yesterday with the questions being asked – for the time being – by Liam Fox of Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth:

Dr. Liam Fox: Our armed
forces value political consensus on Afghanistan when possible, so let
me begin the new year on that basis. Counter-insurgency is about
protecting the population. It requires a better force-to-population
ratio than we currently have in Helmand province—that is why the
expected uplift of American and Afghan troops is welcome. Britain is
currently responsible for two thirds of the population in Helmand, with
only one third of coalition troop strength. Does the Secretary of State
agree that that has to change? Would it not be sensible to have a
better equalisation of troop densities as the number of US troops in
Helmand increases?

Bob Ainsworth: I thank the
hon. Gentleman for his question and I welcome and agree with his
comments. As Major-General Nick Carter, who commands the whole of
Regional Command South in Afghanistan, has said, he has already had an
additional 20,000 troops. He will receive another 21,000 troops and it
would be strange indeed if he were not considering how to balance the
force in areas in the south. That is primarily a military decision. No
decisions have been made yet, but it is appropriate that he looks at
the matter.

Dr. Fox: Further to that,
does the Secretary of State agree that there needs to be a rebalance
between UK and US areas of responsibility, even if that might mean
concentrating Task Force Helmand’s assets into a smaller geographical
area in central Helmand? Does he agree that that should be interpreted
not in any way as a downgrading of the UK effort, but as representing a
better match between resources and commitments? It is essential that
the UK play a full role in Afghanistan, including a full military role,
but one that is proportionate to our force strength and configuration.

Mr. Ainsworth: I agree
with the hon. Gentleman. We have 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, the
overwhelming majority of whom are in Helmand province, and it is right,
as he says, that we currently have a responsibility for the majority of
the population in Helmand province. With the kind of inflows of troops
that General McChrystal will have, and that Major-General Carter will
have in the south, the latter is going to have to look at force
densities to try to make sure that he is properly using those troops
where they are needed. If that means that there is a concentration of
British effort in part of our current area of operations and some
handing-on to American forces, we should look at that. Major-General
Carter is looking at that, and I would encourage him to do so. I know
that he has talked to the hon. Gentleman about that, and he has
certainly talked to me about it as well.

Jonathan Isaby

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