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Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Would the right hon. Gentleman comment on what role the economy played in the Afghan elections, particularly in view of the country's utter dependence on the production of the poppy? It provides the largest source of opium in this country.

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Lady is right to discuss the drugs industry. The UK is in the lead in tackling the problem. When I was in Afghanistan, I had significant discussions with the interior Minister and others who are developing proposals to deal with the threat of destabilisation that the industry could cause. It is important to put the problem in context, however, and not to talk down the remarkable success achieved in Afghanistan. Elections were held across the country and we all saw television pictures of people queuing for hours in order to vote. Once that new Administration are in post, Cabinet and other Ministers will be appointed and we can then look to deal specifically with the opium industry.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is generous in giving way. On the issue of eradication of that harvest, what progress has been made in persuading our NATO allies that such eradication should be a central part of core NATO activity, as reaffirmed to the House by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister following the Istanbul summit in June?

Mr. Hoon: Discussions are taking place about the way in which forces committed under NATO should exercise that responsibility. We have to resolve the issue as we take forward determined plans to deal with drugs. I would stress to my hon. Friend, however, that it is not simply a question of eradication; there is also the matter of providing alternative livelihoods. There would be little purpose in eradicating this year's crop if farmers simply went back to growing opium in the following year. We need a sustained and comprehensive programme for dealing with the opium industry.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh) (LD): The Secretary of State will know from his visits that there is great concern about security beyond Kabul and about the shortage of resources for NATO and others to extend that security. It is all very well to point to the success of the presidential elections, but there is a general election to come and until such time as we have the resources in place to ensure the safety and security of the population, the overall security aims will remain in jeopardy. What discussions has the right hon. Gentleman had with our American counterparts about recovering for Afghanistan some of the resources that have been diverted to Iraq?

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman takes such a negative and pessimistic view. I heard similar comments about the prospect of holding the presidential elections, yet they were an outstanding success. He
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should be a little more optimistic as he is supposed to represent an optimistic party. [Interruption.] Unfortunately, he is talking down the real achievements not only of the international community, but of the Afghan people.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the way to deal with poppy cultivation in the long term is to build a viable economy and new institutions and to provide farmers with an opportunity to earn income from alternative sources? Does he disagree with those who are now suggesting aerial spraying as a means of poppy eradication, which is likely to undermine much of what has been achieved in Afghanistan, particularly as we are now talking about rolling out the provincial reconstruction teams?

Mr. Hoon: I certainly agree with the first part of my hon. Friend's observation. It is important, as I said in reply to an earlier question, that any efforts at eradication are put in the context of an overall process. All the evidence from other countries where tackling the opium industry has been relatively successful suggests that it is not sensible to concentrate on any one aspect of the problem. It requires a comprehensive approach.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab): On the question of security, the Secretary-General of NATO, Mr. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, has been calling firmly for increases in contributions and extensions to the provincial reconstruction teams. Can my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that NATO partners will take up those issues, which were pressed very strongly in the NATO parliamentary assembly last week, and that there will be support for making Afghanistan a priority in the next few weeks?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend tempts me to speak on behalf of a considerable number of other defence Ministers. Sometimes it is difficult enough to speak as the UK's Defence Minister. I shall not commit my colleagues in quite the way that my hon. Friend suggests, but I can assure him that the UK will use its influence in NATO to ensure that the very clear plans for the development of NATO's involvement in Afghanistan, and for a comprehensive approach to that country's problems, will be resolved.

Mr. Connarty: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hoon: I apologise to my hon. Friend but I really need to make progress. I did give way to him earlier.

President Karzai has gained a clear mandate to press on with the political and economic reform needed to deliver a stable Afghanistan. It is vital that the international community remains engaged in that country's development. Important lessons learned from the presidential elections need to be implemented for the parliamentary elections scheduled for spring 2005. The UK will be working closely with the Afghan Government and the UN to make these further elections a success.

Security during the presidential elections, provided by the Afghan authorities, by the NATO-led international security assistance force and by coalition forces, was a
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major factor in ensuring the success of the election process—and it was a blow to the efforts of terrorists that they failed to prevent them from taking place.

The UK has some 860 personnel deployed in Afghanistan. Most serve with the international security assistance force, either in Kabul or with our two provincial reconstruction teams in the north of the country. Others serve with the RAF Harrier detachment in Kandahar, under coalition command. I had the privilege of meeting each of those units in the course of my visit.

ISAF has long been instrumental in ensuring stability in Kabul. Our PRTs, together with those of our allies throughout the rest of Afghanistan, have helped the Afghan transitional authority progressively to extend its influence across the country. They are a remarkable success story. The UK is working with NATO to make ISAF operations as effective as possible, and to make its expansion a reality. ISAF now has some 9,200 troops deployed from 37 NATO and non-NATO countries.

We are playing a leading role in building up Afghan capability in law and order. The effective enforcement of the rule of law is vital for Afghanistan's reconstruction and long-term stability, as it is for tackling the hugely complex issue of the opium industry.

However, I should not finish my remarks on Afghanistan without expressing our delight that Annetta Flanigan and her two fellow hostages were released yesterday. I am grateful to the Afghan Government and our international partners for all their work to resolve this crisis over the past couple of weeks. I would like to pay my personal tribute to all the individuals involved, many of whom I met on my recent visit to Afghanistan.

I turn now to the Balkans. In recent years, the countries of the Balkans have made huge strides forward in their aspirations to join the Euro-Atlantic community, not least thanks to the deployment of our armed forces as part of international peace support efforts.

NATO has played a vital role in moving the region towards this more stable condition. Its success can be seen from the reduction in troop levels in the Balkans. In Bosnia, the original level of 60,000 troops has been reduced to 7,000, and in Kosovo NATO troop levels have been reduced from 55,000 in 1999 to the current 17,500.

NATO has taken the decision to end its stabilisation force mission in Bosnia. That is the right decision for Bosnia, which is ready to take its next steps towards self-sustaining peace and stability. The EU will support Bosnia in taking those next steps. The EU mission, which takes over on 2 December, will include a robust military element, involving numbers initially similar to those provided by SFOR.

The EU mission will take on the main peace stabilisation role in Bosnia, working in support of Lord Ashdown's mission implementation plan. The residual NATO headquarters will concentrate on defence reform and partnership for peace, and will also, together with the EU, carry out certain operational tasks, such as support for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
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The UK will lead the first military element of the EU mission, and provide the force commander, Major-General David Leakey. This NATO-EU partnership will be good for Bosnia, and will help that country further along the road towards membership of the EU and NATO.

This will be by far the largest military mission under EU leadership. It will also be the most extensive test of the Berlin-plus arrangements, which provide for the EU to draw on NATO assets and capabilities in support of an operation. The UK believes that the mission will be an important milestone in proving the capability of an EU defence and security policy that complements, rather than competes with, NATO. However, despite progress, the Balkans region remains volatile, as the violence in Kosovo during March demonstrated. We cannot afford to be complacent. NATO remains determined to ensure peace and stability in Kosovo.

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