by Paul Goodman
So much happens in the Commons that isn't picked up by the media. If you want the core of the Government's view of the present position in Afghanistan, here it is – as presented to the House yesterday by Liam Fox, in the latest of the regular and very welcome quarter reports.
"In central Helmand, as General Petraeus has said, we have not yet seen success or victory, but we are seeing progress. It is fragile and not irreversible, but it is progress. The increase in Afghan and ISAF forces has enabled us to take the fight to the insurgency and, understandably, this has led to an overall increase in the number of violent incidents. But over the past three months, although the number is still higher than in previous years, we are seeing a trend of falling security incidents. For example, in the Marjah district of Helmand province, security incidents have fallen from a high of around 25 a day at the height of summer to just three or four a day at present. There is a seasonal pattern, as many insurgents, especially those fighting for financial rather than ideological reasons, return to their homes for the winter. This year, however, with the unusually mild weather and with winter arriving late, and the increased activity by ISAF and the Afghan national security forces, the fall in the number of incidents is more likely than in previous years to be an indicator of progress. However, I have to say to the House that casualty numbers are once again likely to rise in spring this year as insurgent activity increases.
This year will be just as difficult as 2010, but there will be distinct differences. The increased number of ANSF and ISAF forces allows us to arrest the momentum of the insurgency in more areas. Afghan forces will also begin to take the lead for security as the first districts and provinces begin the process of transition. There are now over 152,000 Afghan national army and 117,000 Afghan national police. This is on schedule to meet the October 2011 growth target to deliver 305,600 Afghan national security forces. But as the quantity increases, quality must not be neglected. One example is improving literacy to ensure that orders can be communicated in writing as well as orally, so that there is less scope for misinterpretation. Currently, around 85% of ANSF recruits are illiterate on entry. Literacy training is now mandatory for all recruits. The training is to be conducted by Afghan teachers, creating employment and boosting the economy, and significant progress is being made."
I wrote recently about the difficulty of trying to create a strong central state in Afghanistan, and asked whether an effective Afghan army would be in place by 2015. Adam Holloway, who I cited in my article, returned to these points, as did others. It's well worth noting the tone of the questions –
Mr Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): There are many Afghans outside the ruling clique who believe not only that the exit strategy will not work in the long term, but that it is fatally flawed and in fact cannot work. General Petraeus's strategy has been described as "Fight, then talk". Does the Secretary of State think that we ought to be fighting and talking, and that this should include talking to all modes of the insurgency?
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and particularly for his last few words on involving the international players around Afghanistan in a final settlement. Can he say more about who will lead the political settlement around which we hope stability will be maintained as British and American troops withdraw later in this decade? May I point out that cautious optimism represents painfully slow progress 10 years after this war started, and that a lasting settlement is possible only if there is a political settlement that involves talking to our enemies?
Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): I also recently visited Afghanistan and can testify to the excellent job that our armed forces are doing in carrying out their duties. I do not believe that the same can be said of President Karzai or Members of the Afghan Parliament, and this is not just a capacity or knowledge issue: there is also too little focus on human rights and the quality of life of the Afghan people. Does the Secretary of State agree that we must address the political deficit, to ensure that in the long term the blood and treasure that this country is spending for the benefit of both our countries will not be in vain?
Not a single questioner expressed confidence in the political (as opposed to the military) strategy.