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Afghanistan (Humanitarian Situation)

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): I should like to keep the House informed about the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and my recent visit to Pakistan. As the House knows, the humanitarian situation remains fragile. Humanitarian agencies, particularly the World Food Programme, are performing impressively under very difficult circumstances. Deliveries of food and other essential relief supplies, which were halted after 11 September, have resumed, and the quantities crossing into Afghanistan are increasing. Deliveries inside Afghanistan are continuing but are very difficult. So far the refugee outflow has been smaller than expected; contingency plans are in place in case the exodus increases.

The situation is very worrying, but the House will be aware that a severe crisis existed long before the events of 11 September and is the result of 20 years of conflict, the policies of the Taliban, and the drought of the last three years. All those events have devastated the livelihoods of millions of people. Emergency humanitarian supplies have been provided inside Afghanistan and to refugees in Pakistan and Iran for many years. Immediately after 11 September all international staff were withdrawn from Afghanistan because of fears for their safety, which led to a cessation of all supplies into Afghanistan. I and others have been working since then to get supplies moving again.

Because of the harassment of humanitarian workers and Taliban restrictions on the use of telephones, it is difficult for aid agencies to communicate with colleagues inside Afghanistan. Precise information on deliveries is therefore sparse. The Taliban have looted the offices and stocks of some aid agencies. Afghan hauliers are also fearful of harassment and attack, but despite those difficulties programmes inside Afghanistan continue, thanks to the brave efforts of local staff of the United Nations, the Red Cross and non-governmental organisations who have continued to work in the face of extreme hardship and serious personal danger.

Our capacity to influence the humanitarian situation is limited. Access to many areas of the country is not possible, but the international community remains determined to do all in its power to continue to provide desperately needed assistance. We are looking at all options; for example, the World Food Programme is looking at air drops and the possibility of opening new land routes from neighbouring countries, such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Since deliveries recommenced on 11 October, the World Food Programme has continued to make progress; regional stockpiles are adequate and deliveries are entering the country in increasing amounts. The World Food Programme is moving towards achieving its target of delivering 1,700 tonnes of food a day. Over 5,000 tonnes were delivered in the past week, and when I was in Peshawar a few days ago rates had reached 1,300 tonnes a day. We need to do better, but we are making progress. We are also doing all that we can to maintain the onward distribution of those supplies from the major warehouses inside Afghanistan. Given the difficulties, the World Food Programme is now looking at delivering food direct to more destinations in the country.

We are also working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to identify and prepare sites for refugee camps in Pakistan. We continue to urge all

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neighbouring countries to adopt an open border policy and to allow those seeking refuge safe passage. Agencies are also attempting to provide assistance to those who remain on the Afghan side of the border.

As the House is aware, our aims are to bring to justice those responsible for the events of 11 September, to dismantle the al-Qaeda network and to maintain humanitarian supplies to the people of Afghanistan. It is essential that we pursue all three aims at the same time. The humanitarian effort remains difficult for all the reasons that I have outlined. It is not the case that a pause in the bombing would solve these problems. Indeed, a pause would simply encourage the Taliban to harass humanitarian supplies more than at present to prevent further military action. We all understand why that call is being made, but it would be a grave error and we must not do that.

All our objectives could be achieved much more rapidly if a new Government could be put in place in Afghanistan. Key to this process will be the central role of Ambassador Brahimi, Kofi Annan's newly appointed special representative for Afghanistan. We warmly welcome his appointment. Ambassador Brahimi is well respected and has considerable experience of the region. His is a difficult task and we stand ready to support him and his office in any way that we can and which he requests.

There is also a need for the current coalition military campaign to be fully informed about the humanitarian effort and situation. Co-ordination mechanisms have been put in place, although closer co-ordination is still required. My Department continues to liaise closely with the United Nations and our United States and United Kingdom military colleagues at both headquarters and field level to ensure that there is a shared understanding of each others' objectives and to create safe areas as rapidly as possible.

We also continue to urge other donors to turn pledges to the UN appeal quickly into actual payments. As against $600 million requested, more than $700 million has been pledged, but only $70 million has so far been received. Although immediate needs are covered, unless pledges are released soon, on-going operations will be hampered. We are working on that.

We cannot resolve the humanitarian and political crisis in Afghanistan without attention to the regional context. Afghanistan's neighbours, particularly Pakistan and Iran, have generously provided for millions of Afghan refugees for many years. Pakistan's role is of central importance. President Musharraf's Government have given strong support to the international effort in Afghanistan. We should not underestimate the burden that that places on a country that is already playing host to 2 million refugees while undergoing painful economic reform to overcome the legacy of previous misgovernment.

Last week, I had fruitful discussions with President Musharraf, Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz and other Ministers in Islamabad. The Government there remain strongly committed to the efforts of the coalition, and to economic reform and poverty reduction in Pakistan. They are also firmly committed to parliamentary elections by October 2002. There is a real prospect that that Government can achieve a much better future for Pakistan than it has experienced in recent years, but the country's economy has taken a knock as a consequence of the

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events of 11 September. Pakistan needs short-term help, debt relief and continuing support to maintain the long-term reform effort.

I reaffirmed to the Government our commitment to a new International Monetary Fund/World Bank programme of budgetary support and to writing off remaining Government debt. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is looking urgently with his ministerial colleagues at how we might best collectively agree a debt alleviation package for Pakistan that underpins its reform programme.

Afghanistan is a country that has suffered terribly for many years and faces a very severe humanitarian crises. The reason why bin Laden has his headquarters in Afghanistan is linked to the cause of the crises. Afghanistan is a failed state because of 20 years of warfare and the excesses of the Taliban regime. We must retain our resolve to bring those responsible for the events of 11 September to justice, to dismantle the al-Qaeda network and to maintain our humanitarian assistance.

Through the efforts of Ambassador Brahimi, we must also support the establishment of a representative Government in Afghanistan who will work with the international community to resolve the immediate crisis and start the long haul of reconstructing Afghanistan and offering its people a better future. Our Government remain determined to do all that we can towards that end.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): I thank the right hon. Lady for coming to the House and addressing us on this very important issue. I received a copy of her statement while the House has been sitting. As we have just had International Development questions, I shall study it in more detail later.

We were surprised to learn that the Secretary of State withdrew from an audience with the Select Committee on International Development yesterday. I understand that the date had been in her diary for a long time. Although it was originally suggested that there would be a general discussion of DFID's programme, it seemed reasonable for the Committee to request that the discussion focus on Afghanistan, especially as it decided on 16 October to conduct an inquiry into the crisis. The right hon. Lady was informed of the proposal well in advance of the final decision on 16 October. To respond by trying to limit questions on Afghanistan and ultimately to withdraw from the audience sets an unacceptable precedent for a Minister unilaterally to state the terms of such an interview. The whole House is worse off for the missed opportunity.

A Select Committee can pursue a line of questioning on its specialist subject, whereas when a statement is made, hon. Members do not get the chance to ask supplementary questions. I understand that the Secretary of State returned on Friday from Pakistan, whence we have had a number of statements in the media during the week. Again, statements were made through the media at the weekend. Is there any good reason why the right hon. Lady's statement could not have been made at the first opportunity, on Monday? If it had been followed by a Select Committee appearance, Parliament would have been given a far better basis for informed debate.

The fact that today's Order Paper contained no questions on Afghanistan for International Development questions—today's were tabled in July—made the need

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for the statement all the more urgent. We have had four debates on the crisis, but only one has been responded to in terms of international development. That has limited our opportunity to question the Government's policy on the humanitarian aspects of the crisis. [Interruption.]

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