By Paul Goodman
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Even the most cursory glance at today's ConHome newslinks demonstrates that Philip Hammond had a torrid time in the Commons yesterday. I think it is worth listing a selection of the questions he was asked from his own backbenches, and I hope and believe that the one below is representative of those asked.
Readers will see that only one question was supportive, and it came from Peter Luff, who was recently dismissed from the MOD during the reshuffle. (The Defence Secretary will be grateful to Mr Luff for rallying round, especially since he was apparently expected to stay in the department: it was another curious dismissal.)
I have edited Mr Hammond's replies in order to keep this summary reasonably brief, and I think and hope, again, that the result is not unfair to him. The full Hansard record is here. Paul Waugh reports elsewhere that Rory Stewart, who knows more Afghanistan than any other MP, forced William Hague to admit yesterday that 75% of attacks on our troops are not by the Taliban.
Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay): "This announcement threatens to blow a hole in our stated exit strategy, which is heavily reliant on these joint operations continuing until Afghan forces are able to operate independently and provide their own security following ISAF’s withdrawal...What is our mission in Afghanistan? Clarity is required. If we are remaining true to our original mission of eliminating al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, should we not now be doing more to encourage the Americans to conduct non-conditional talks with the Taliban in order to explore possible common ground?"
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Hammond): "I am clear that the mission we are carrying out in Afghanistan is to protect Britain’s national security by denying Afghan space to international terrorists. That is our mission, and that is the mission we will complete."
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East): "The reason why, in opposition, the shadow Defence ministerial team opposed naming an advance date for withdrawal was the fear that the Taliban would redouble their efforts in the run-up to that date. Given that we are where we are with such a date, is it not obvious that a move towards a strategy of maintaining one or more long-term strategic bases in Afghanistan would show the Taliban the need to negotiate a solution and a settlement? Without that, it will not happen."
Hammond: "I can tell the House that the UK Government have no appetite for a long-term combat role in Afghanistan, and have made it very clear that we will be out of the combat role by the end of 2014."
Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): "The Secretary of State made the welcome comment that the international forces wished to lower their profile at a time of trouble, but then he seemed to imply that that applied only to American forces. What action has been taken to protect British forces? What is the approach to their having to co-operate with people who may intend their death, and would he not move more quickly to Afghans policing dangerous places in Afghanistan?"
Hammond: "There is much evidence that there is a much lower risk where long-term partnering arrangements are in place—in other words, where a group of troops are working with a group of Afghan troops on a daily basis—and much more risk where these partnering and mentoring activities are on an ad hoc basis, so that relationships are not built."
Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con): "Mentoring is one of the most important ways in which we have increased the capability of Afghan forces, and the Secretary of State has made it clear today that the instruction from ISAF in Kabul will not alter the British relationship to partnering. Does he not recognise, however, that the nuances between tactics and strategy can be lost on insurgents, and that the timing of this is unfortunate, so we must redouble our efforts to make it clear to the forces of terror that they cannot push our strategy off course?"
Hammond: "Of course my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is the crucial message that needs to be sent to the insurgents."
Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con): "My right hon. Friend said that the new measures announced by ISAF were prudent but temporary. In what respect are they temporary? In what respect can they be?"
Hammond: "General Allen has indicated that he intends to review the order in the light of the evolving security environment, and to return to normal operations, as he described it, as soon as possible."
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): "Will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that American soldiers who are mentoring seem to be slightly safer than our junior NCOs, young officers and soldiers, because they are not right on the front line? It worries me a great deal that we continue to allow our solders to go right to the front line, where they are seemingly in greater danger than their American colleagues."
Hammond: "I do not accept that our soldiers are in greater danger, but it is the case that our model differs from the American model, in that it includes routinely mentoring at company, or tolay, level. That is the model that we have deemed most effective."
Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): "The Secretary of State has made it commendably clear that it is in our vital national interest to stick to the strategy that has been set in Afghanistan. When it comes to the security of British troops, does he take comfort from the words of Brigadier Bob Bruce, who will be leading the 4th Mechanised Brigade in its forthcoming tour of Afghanistan, who has said that we are sending to Afghanistan“the best prepared and the best equipped…Task Force the United Kingdom has ever put into the field?"
Hammond: "I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a stalwart supporter of the policy and the strategy, which, as I have emphasised this morning, has not changed."
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con):
"The Secretary of State mentioned earlier that a motive for the attacks
was the despicable video that was published on the internet. Does he
agree that another motive, which I have mentioned to both him and the
Secretary of State for International Development, is the use of drone
strikes, which have killed nearly 1,000 civilians in Pakistan and a
higher number in Afghanistan? Does the Secretary of State not agree that
we urgently need to look at reviewing the use of drone strikes, which
is considered on the front page of The Times today?"
Hammond: "The use of unmanned aerial vehicles to carry out strikes is continuously reviewed, but I do not believe there is any need for a wholesale change to the current approach, which is that UAVs will be used where they are the most appropriate way to execute a particular operation."
A section of the Defence Secretary's statement that particularly caught my eye was another part of his answer to Dr Fox:
"As I said yesterday, the stepping up of these insider attacks is, in fact, a reflection of the success of partnering and mentoring operations."
Given the rising number of green-on-blue killings, I'm not sure that this is an argument I would have used. The chart below is from the Guardian.
Their view in a nutshell is that Afghanistan cannot be transformed into a western-style liberal democracy and that British military commitment to it should be minimal.
By Matthew Barrett
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Following on from the last few days' rolling blogs, I have below a final list of the MPs (and Baroness Warsi) appointed as Ministers for each department. I have put new appointments in bold.
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Department for Communities and Local Government
By Tim Montgomerie
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On the margins of last night's Lords vote there were a couple of unpleasant incidents and stories are doing the rounds that aren't 100% accurate.
One allegation is that four junior whips confronted Jesse Norman in a very aggressive manner and told him to leave the parliamentary estate. Norman, the 'Captain Sensible' leader of yesterday's rebels, was having a drink with colleagues and was told his presence was provocative and unwelcome. In truth the four junior whips weren't the aggressive ones. They were warning Norman and another of the lead rebels - Nadhim Zahawi - that John Randall was on the warpath. Mr Randall, the normally smooth and popular Deputy Chief Whip, had - it was said - had a few drinks and there was a theatrical suggestion he 'might do an Eric Joyce'. In reality Mr Randall had "blown his top" but was not under any influence*. Norman and Zahawi took the advice, downed their pints and went home.
The second incident is that the PM had one of his Flashman moments and angrily confronted Jesse Norman earlier in the day. My understanding from a secondary source is that Mr Cameron was "testy" but not intimidatory. The PM had objected to a communication that Norman had made to rebel and wavering Tory MPs in which it had been suggested that a rebel vote would be helping the PM (this was Paul Goodman's argument yesterday morning). This had got back to Number 10 and Mr Cameron took his opportunity to make it clear that a rebel vote was absolutely NOT what he wanted. Jesse Norman then wrote another email to colleagues affirming this fact.
That's the truth of things. Not as bad as reported but not a party of happy bunnies either.
* His dark mood should be noted by Mr Clegg. The whips really had tried to quell the rebellion.