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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 21 June 2006

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Troop Deployment (Helmand Province)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

9.30 am

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): I thank the Speaker for granting me this debate and I apologise to the Minister for trashing a second morning of his time.

The Government’s commitment to Afghanistan is brave and principled. As I am sure the Minister will point out, we cannot allow it again to become a failed state—one from which the likes of Osama bin Laden could plot the murder of thousands of innocent people. One should not invade countries and then run, leaving chaos in one’s wake. A stable Afghanistan is in Britain’s national interest. Unlike our invasion of Iraq, we had compelling reasons to invade Afghanistan, and for wider strategic reasons we had to play a part in introducing stability and democracy there.

As the Minister is aware, during the Easter recess I went to Afghanistan, and I managed briefly to visit Helmand province while there, so I hope that he will forgive me if I am not completely up to date. I do not pretend to be an expert on the subject and I do not have huge armies of knowledgeable advisers, but during my visit I conducted about 47 substantive interviews with Afghans and other well-informed people, with the emphasis on seeking the thoughts of the ordinary people of Helmand province.

The main headline that emerged from those discussions is that the British public have not been alerted by the Government to the great dangers that confront our troops and officials in the province, nor to the great risk of doing further damage to our reputation in the region. Announcing our deployment, the then Secretary of State for Defence said that he hoped, as we all did, that we would leave Afghanistan without a shot being fired. That was a somewhat optimistic observation.

At the moment, we have more than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan, and more than 2,000 in Helmand province. I am reliably informed that we would be hard pushed to get more than a couple of hundred on the ground—out of camp—at any one time. Helmand has a population of about 1 million, spread over an area the size of Wales and the west midlands. There are more than 1,000 villages. The area is dominated by the mighty Helmand river, and most of its population live within 10 km of the river banks. As one flies into the province, one is struck by the cultivation along the river banks. The guy in the next seat may shout over the noise of the aircraft, “Down there, look at that green; 80 per cent. of that is opium poppy and it will end up on your streets.”

In the 1950s, Helmand was known as little America. A huge programme to build irrigation systems opened thousands of hectares of desert to cultivation and created
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a huge farming zone. Recent wars have all but destroyed that. In 2001, about 95 per cent. of the crops were destroyed by drought, leaving many families internally displaced, in debt and destitute. There is virtually no government in the rural areas outside the traditional structure of mullahs and elders. The Government are seen as corrupt, remote—and far away.

With the exception of Helmand’s new governor—as the Minister knows, his relationship with the British is extremely close—most provincial government is completely corrupt. The last governor of Helmand was removed when opium may or may not have been found in his office, and his brother Mullah Amir remains the deputy governor. As one officer put it to me, the police are corrupt from top to bottom and police cars are the favoured vehicle for exporting the opium poppy.

In the south, Afghanistan has a 160 km border with Pakistan, but to the local population that is little more than an accident of history because it does not reflect family ties or economic activity—nor the long history of smuggling and the exchange of people. Indeed, when I first heard the word “Helmand” I was 18, and watching the mujaheddin attacking unfortunate Russian conscripts on one of their infiltration routes from Baluchistan and Pakistan into Afghanistan.

The Minister will be aware that a sizable Afghan population remains in that province of Pakistan, and that high levels of the Taliban and al-Qaeda organisations can be found there. Those groups may or may not be planning things from Pakistan, with or without the help of Pakistan’s rogue inter-services intelligence, and trying to co-ordinate attacks on NATO troops. A couple of days ago this appeared on an Islamic website:

Another entry says:

Helmand was the birthplace of the Taliban and there remain substantial numbers of Taliban in both the towns and the villages. In the past few months, so-called night letters have been distributed, calling on local people to fight the British. That would not be the first time. In 1880 the Royal Regiment was virtually wiped out in the disastrous battle that it fought along the banks of the Helmand river at Maiwand. A British officer wrote, rather pessimistically, at the time that

Well, the experiment is being repeated and the Taliban tell people in their night letters that their grandfathers are scratching at the soil in their graves to get out and kill the grandsons of the British troops they massacred.

That is the bad news. The good news is that ordinary Afghan villages badly want British troops. They want security and reconstruction. Since the 2001 invasion, opium production has increased immensely. Most families are involved in its production. It is not something with which they necessarily feel comfortable; but needs must. The opium yield per hectare is about $5,400. The yield for wheat is about a
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10th of that. People might not starve without the money from opium, but it certainly helps family finances. Attempts at eradication are seen as unequal and unfair. When I was in the country I tried to see a very senior police officer, but his deputy told me, “He’s out. He’s busy making money.” It turned out that he was in the poppy fields, directing that afternoon’s eradication programme—presumably sparing the fields of farmers who could pay.

A couple of weeks ago a special forces officer who had just come back told me, while drinking tea on the Terrace, that he had lost count of the number of times he had been to an area in which he had been told eradication had taken place, only to find that the fields that were supposed to have been eradicated were intact, but that on the margin smaller farmers who had not been able to pay had had their crops destroyed. The process is thus seen as corrupt and inequitable. It forces out smaller players and allows bigger drug producers to consolidate.

The UK seems a bit confused about what it is doing about opium. We are the G8 leader on drugs, but one feels a certain sensitivity. Sitting in the garden of the British embassy in Kabul, having a quiet chat, I asked a senior official whether there was to be any change in our policy of providing “lift, cordon and planning” for counter-narcotics operations. The official answered that he was sure that the Minister’s position had not changed—remember, this was supposed to be a friendly chat—and that he could only refer me to Hansard for what he said. That felt bizarre.

The Afghans are not stupid and we are kidding ourselves if we think that they will not notice if we get involved in the corrupt destruction of a crop that provides people with their livelihood while we cannot provide the conditions or means for them to earn a less harmful living. We will not generate good will by standing around while tractors dragging discs destroy crops that feed families. I am categorically not saying that we should do nothing about narcotics that damage vulnerable people, but I do not buy the supply side argument. Even if we could eventually destroy every poppy in Helmand there would be no resultant shortage on the streets of Gravesham. The situation is corroding Afghanistan from its people to its Government, and everything in between, but battles must be fought one at a time, at a time of one’s own choosing. Fortunately, the harvest has just taken place, which will give the British breathing space so that we do not have to get involved immediately.

The end state is unclear and the objectives are confused. Is this a matter of counter-narcotics, counter-insurgency or nation building? Inequitable counter-narcotics operations will inevitably lead to insurgency, which can only have a negative impact on nation building. One major gripe in the villages, and a huge gap in our credibility in Helmand, is that we are working not only with a police force that is seen as 99 per cent. corrupt and whose members are involved in trafficking, but with national, provincial and district governments that are floating on the stuff. I imagine that the whole region is being swamped with signals and electronic intelligence as we look for Osama and his friends, but we have somehow failed to use that
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large amount of intelligence material, which points to the involvement of an extremely close relative of the President of Afghanistan, and no prosecution has yet been made. That matters, because the individual concerned is, in effect, the business partner of the biggest trafficker in Helmand, and the locals all know it. We are seen as connected with the eradication programme, but these guys are banking tens of millions of dollars and building ornate villas.

Successfully prosecuting a large trafficker would send a positive message to the villages of Helmand. As General Ulumi, the former Communist governor of Kandahar, put it to me,

The villagers feel attacked from all sides. Jolyon Leslie, who used to run the UN development programme and who has been in Afghanistan, including under the Taliban, for about 15 years, says that

We decided to go to Afghanistan based on the assumption that Iraq would be stable by the time we did so. That assumption was pretty shaky anyway, but the conditions in which both would happen at the same time never pertained. As a result, we are carrying a large strategic risk in failing to achieve results in Basra and Helmand. When we decided to go in late 2004, we were keen to support the NATO mission and prove that it was usable, deployable and relevant.

The model that we have taken to Helmand is pretty much a first, with an unprecedented amount of planning. There is joined-up government, which is much to the Ministers’ credit. The Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office are working together to deliver the force that buys time for development and governance initiatives to take place.

However, that is all very little. The resources that have been allocated are inadequate. The military budget is £1 billion and the DFID budget was initially £10 million, with perhaps another £11 million, although that may have changed. Not only is the civil-military spend disproportionate, but the military commander is dependent on DFID for delivering his success, and it is unlikely that DFID will deliver. I have not been able to confirm this, but I think that the US has allocated $300 million for its poppy eradication and alternative livelihood programmes in Jalalabad, and the Afghans appear content with that. Even £21 million looks a bit light by comparison. This is what people call buying peace, but more than £1 billion over three years will create a fairly tiny footprint in Helmand, and I have referred to the 200 troops that we could routinely have had on the ground.

We have taken ownership of a huge problem, with the little prospect of gain. We have also not been told by what criteria the Government will measure success. One aid worker told me that

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Clearly, Afghanistan’s centre of gravity is Kabul, and our national contribution in Helmand is really a tactical activity. We must do what we can to join up central and provincial government and clean up governance and police. We must also develop the Afghans’ own apparatus to ensure that we do not leave Afghanistan as an aid state or a narco-state.

The stated objective of Her Majesty’s Government is strengthening the power of the Kabul Government, but, historically, any attempt to strengthen the centre against the periphery in Afghanistan has failed. Afghanistan is not a nation, but a loose confederation of tribes. The establishment of democracy will not replace tribalism, which Afghans prefer, but cause huge resentment between Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras.

One senior officer who has been heavily involved in some of the more interesting military operations since Labour came to power warns against unnecessarily picking fights, and says that we should guard against considering every militia man with an assault rifle as being Taliban. Troops who have their own area of responsibility may end up having fights that do not help us at all. He says:

In Iraq, we were until recently in the absolutely woeful position of conducting patrols without an Iraqi face. We must not repeat that mistake in Afghanistan. The senior officer says that we must be seen at all times to be backing up the Afghan army and the Afghan national police.

I do not know how far we have been able to go, in terms of cleaning up the police and working with reliable officers. If we do not manage to do that, the Afghan villagers will simply see us as an extension of a corrupt police force. One westerner who has lived in Helmand for over a decade believes that cleaning up the police and working with them is the key enabler. He believes that once we have done that, we can prepare Helmand for development, which will move people away from insecurity and drug production. Others cite the example of Dhofar, where a small, discrete contribution of UK forces is working with local forces to secure the environment for development. Obviously there are differences; there, the threat was external and everything was not polluted by drugs. Also, critically, we were prepared to be there for the long haul, which does not seem to be the case in Afghanistan.

There are recent reports of insurgents who have operated in Iraq arriving in Afghanistan, in Helmand province. Regardless of the veracity or otherwise of those reports, it seems inevitable that jihadists will transfer their devastating roadside bombing techniques from Iraq to Afghanistan. One British officer who served in both Iraq and in Helmand province in the aftermath of the 2001 invasion maintains that troops are getting killed in Iraq by roadside bombs because we do not have enough helicopters. He says that we seem to have forgotten the lessons that we learned in south Armagh. There, we faced devastating culvert bombs in the early 1970s. Vehicle movement was completely stopped and patrols were done on foot and by
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helicopters. Bessbrook Mill was the busiest heliport in the world. Of course, there are foot patrols in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but that is no longer the default setting, as it was.

There is another footnote to the lessons learned from Ireland. There, people in the key jobs that required continuity would serve for two years, albeit with rather different leave arrangements, in order to build up long-term relationships. Of course, Afghanistan is not Northern Ireland, where we had absolutely no choice other than to think of the long term. That point is not lost on many commanders to whom I have spoken, even if it is not axiomatic to tri-service chiefs, among whom corporate memory seems to be rather short.

At the time of the abduction and rescue of two special forces guys in Basra last year, the brigade commander’s staff are reported to have spent hundreds of hours making the case for more helicopters and more troops. That request was for the most part denied, apparently because it would look presentationally wrong. We are about to take delivery of a couple of hundred partly irrelevant air defence jets, just when the size of our battlefield helicopter fleet is proving completely inadequate to the task. Another officer who will shortly take his troops to Afghanistan rang me the other night to say that he had just heard the likely number of helicopter hours that he would be allocated in Helmand. He said:

It is not good enough to say that we do not have the air frames and the crews that the troops on the ground so desperately need. If we cannot do the job properly because we do not have the kit or the air crew, either we should not be doing it or we should start shopping, fast. Most people to whom I have spoken describe more battlefield helicopters as the urgent operational requirement. There are a number of other issues connected with the safety and effectiveness of our troops and officials in other Government agencies, of which the Minister is aware, but I do not propose to blunder into those in public.

In conclusion, the condensed view of many people with whom I have been in contact is as follows: the people of Helmand desperately want us there. They want security and reconstruction. They remember the 1950s, when they had irrigation and produced crops, and when they had proper roads and access to markets. They want those things again. They do not want endless war and opium. They want deliverance from poverty, but they also believe that there is a grave danger, given our tiny number of troops and the NATO model, of disappointing such high expectations. Of course it can be done and our troops are doing everything they can to ensure that it happens, within the constraints of the resources that they have.

The average Afghan is in his village and, metaphorically, sitting on the fence. He can either jump off it on the side of security and reconstruction or he can go the other way: the way of the Taliban and the side of insecurity, drugs and poverty. My fear is that the Taliban and external actors might be able to make the villagers feel that security is worse than it was before the British arrived. There would then be no
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development and another strategic failure, which will do nothing to make our people safer.

Several hon. Members rose—

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. It might be helpful for hon. Members to know that I intend to call the Front-Bench winding-up speakers at, or very close to, half-past 10. Approximately four Members have signalled their wish to speak, so with even a moderate degree of self-discipline it ought to be possible for everybody to make a contribution.

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