With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Afghanistan.
First, I am sure the whole House will want to join with me in paying tribute to...
...Private Jonathan Monk from 2nd Battalion the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment and...
...Lance Corporal Andrew Breeze from 1st Battalion, the Mercian Regiment...
...who have died in Afghanistan.
Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and friends.
Their service and sacrifice for our country must never be forgotten.
This was my fifth visit to Afghanistan, but my first as Prime Minister.
I held talks with President Karzai and visited our troops in Helmand.
I want to set out for the House how this Government will approach our mission in Afghanistan - and how that mission is progressing.
But first, let me stress the importance of such updates.
Mr. Speaker, the whole nation is touched by the heroism of this generation of our armed forces who are fighting to protect us in harsh conditions far from home.
And I believe the country, and this House, are entitled to the facts.
That's why this statement will be the start of a pattern.
There will be regular updates to the House, with quarterly statements by the Foreign or Defence Secretary.
And we will on a monthly basis publish much more information on the progress we are making.
This will include updates on the security situation...
...on recruiting, training and retaining the Afghan Security Forces...
...on progress in appointing and supporting provincial and district governors...
...and of progress in terms of development work, including health and education.
But our main focus will be on the security situation.
For example, in the six months to March 2010 the Afghan National Army grew by almost 20 per cent with over 17,000 joining the ranks.
But, at present, the Afghan Police are assessed to be ineffective or barely able to operate in 6 of the 13 key provinces in General McChrystal's plan.
Good news or bad - we want to take the country with us in what is this Government's top foreign policy priority.
Why we are there:
Mr Speaker, let me address the first question people are asking: why are we in Afghanistan?
I can answer in two words: national security.
Our Forces are in Afghanistan to prevent Afghan territory from again being used by Al Qaeda as a base from which to plan attacks on the UK and our allies.
Of course the Al Qaeda training camps and the Taliban regime that protected them were removed from Afghanistan in the months after 9/11.
And the presence of NATO forces prevents them from returning.
But Afghanistan is not yet strong enough to look after its own security.
That is why we are there.
And together with the greater efforts of the Pakistanis to hunt down Al Qaeda in their own country, Al Qaeda are now under pressure on both sides of the border.
Eighteen months ago, the then Prime Minister told this House that some three quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against Britain had links to the border area.
Today I am advised that the threat from Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and Pakistan has reduced.
But I am also advised that if it were not for the current presence of UK and international coalition forces, Al Qaeda would return to Afghanistan and the threat to the UK would rise.
How long we must stay:
Mr Speaker, the next question is - how long must we stay?
The Afghan people do not want foreign forces on their soil any longer than necessary, and the British people are rightly impatient for progress.
Our Forces will not remain in Afghanistan a day longer than is necessary - and I want to bring them home the moment it is safe to do so.
The key to success is training and equipping the Afghan security forces at every level to take on the task of securing their country - so Afghans can chart their own way in the world without their country posing a threat to others and our forces can come home, the job done, their heads held high.
Mr Speaker, that's why we back the strategy developed by the ISAF Commander General McChrystal and endorsed by President Obama and NATO.
That strategy involves...
...protecting the civilian population from the insurgents...
...supporting more effective government at every level...
...and building up the Afghan National Security Forces as rapidly as feasible.
We want transfer security responsibility for districts and provinces to Afghan control as soon as they are ready. But this should be based on the facts on the ground not pre-announced timetables.
Mr Speaker, the current year is the vital one: we are six months into an 18 month military surge and we must now redouble our efforts to drive progress.
Central Helmand, along with Kandahar, has been the heartland of the Taliban.
It is from here that they gave safe haven to the Al Qaeda network in Afghanistan.
That is why the operation in Central Helmand is crucial to the success of the whole mission.
Four years ago we went into Helmand with 3000 troops. I don't think anyone now seriously argues that was sufficient.
Today there are around 30,000 there - 8,000 British working alongside 20,000 US Marines.
In total we have over 10,000 troops in the country as a whole.
With the arrival of reinforcements and the continued growth of the Afghan Security Forces, we are now evening out the ISAF presence in the main populated areas in Helmand.
This is a crucial point.
In the past, we have simply not had enough soldiers per population for an effective counter-insurgency campaign.
Today, although the rebalancing is still work in progress, the situation is much improved.
The arrival of a US Marine Expeditionary Force combined with additional contributions from other ISAF partners - including the UK - has given a huge boost to the resources available to ISAF in Helmand.
For example, the Marines have arrived with some 80 aircraft and helicopters of their own - which are now available to support all ISAF forces in Helmand.
And it is clear that we have made real progress in Central Helmand this year.
A degree of normal life has returned to places like Nad Ali, where the bazaar is open again and people are going about their daily business in an area that was until recently infested with insurgents.
But the progress is not yet irreversible.
Inevitably there will be tough fighting as Afghan forces, with ISAF in support, hold the ground we have taken and push the insurgents out of further towns and villages.
But I can also assure the House that this Government will do everything in its power to make sure we give our Forces the protection and the state of the art counter-IED capabilities they need.
Mr Speaker, during my visit I was able to announce a further £67 million to double the number of counter IED teams to tackle the most serious threat facing our young men and women.
So with the improvements made in the last year, many of the acute shortages, which hampered us so severely in our initial deployment in Helmand, have been dealt with.
But I do not pretend that every equipment shortage has been resolved.
We will need to adapt constantly and deal with problems as they arise.
I regard it as my most important duty as Prime Minister to make sure our Forces have what they need to do what we ask of them - and that they are properly cared for and respected for the extraordinary work they do.
The whole country is incredibly proud of them and I believe we need to do more to recognise the remarkable men and women of our Armed Forces and place them at the front and centre of our society.
That is why I announced a doubling of the operational allowance for service in Afghanistan, back dated to 6 May.
And that is why I believe it is right that we renew and reaffirm our commitment to the Military Covenant, that crucial contract between our country and those who risk their lives to ensure our security.
But I do not pretend that we can succeed, either in Helmand or in Afghanistan as a whole, by military means alone.
Insurgencies usually end with political settlements - not military victories, and that is why I have always said that we need a political surge to accompany the military one.
We need better to align our development spending with our overall strategy - and I have announced £200 million to be spent on vocational training, strengthening the police services and government institutions.
And we need a political process to bring the insurgency to an end.
As a first step, this means getting individual Taliban fighters to put down their weapons, renounce violence and reintegrate into Afghan society. The successful peace jirga earlier this month should enable that process to move ahead swiftly.
But it means more than that. For long term political stability, everyone in Afghanistan - including those in the South - must feel that it's their government, their country and that they have a role to play.
As I agreed with President Karzai, we must start working towards a wider reconciliation process, leading to a political settlement that works for all the peoples of Afghanistan.
We are seeing a good example of the dual approach of a political surge combined with a military surge to deliver greater security in the second city of Kandahar.
Importantly, the process getting underway in Kandahar is largely Afghan-led.
Alongside military operations by Afghan Security Forces together with international forces, it included, for example, a shura of several hundred local elders conducted yesterday by the local Governor, which President Karzai attended.
And it includes a major drive by the Afghan Government, with our support, to improve public services and the rule of law.
Mr Speaker, we want to create a situation where the people of Kandahar look to their Government - and not the Taliban or militia groups - to deliver security, justice and a better quality of life.
From now on what is happening around Kandahar - and in Helmand - will reflect a deeper understanding of the influence of the tribal structures in Afghanistan.
In the past we have simply not paid enough attention to this, and to the unintended consequences of some of our policies.
I want, for example, for us to take a careful look at the contracting policy of ISAF, to ensure that the money going into the local economy from the huge logistical contracts has a positive impact and does not help fund local militias or, even worse, the insurgents.
Mr Speaker, as I have stressed, this is the vital year for our mission in Afghanistan.
We have the Forces needed on the ground; we have our very best people - not just military, but leading on the diplomatic and development front as well.
I do not pretend it will be easy.
As the last few weeks have shown, I must warn the House that we must be ready for further casualties over the summer months, as the so called fighting season resumes and ISAF extends its activity.
But I say to the House what I said to our young servicemen and women in the dust and heat of Helmand on Friday: they are fighting thousands of miles away to protect our national security here at home. There is no national interest more vital than that.
Like their predecessors, they have the support, and the gratitude, of the whole nation.
Mr Speaker, when we have succeeded in enabling the Afghans to take control of their own security, our troops can begin to come home.
But even after our troops have left Afghanistan, the relationship between Britain and Afghanistan must continue as a strong and close one.
Likewise we want to continue to build on our relationship with Pakistan.
These long-term relationships, quite simply, are essential for our national security.
And I commend this Statement to the House.