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Liam Fox raises the issue of troop levels in Afghanistan at Defence Questions

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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