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21 Jun 2006 : Column 439WH—continued

9.51 am

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The whole Chamber owes a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) for his interesting, well thought-out, well researched and thoughtful contribution this morning.

When the present Home Secretary was Secretary of State for Defence, he said that he would deploy to Helmand only if there was full support from DFID. I want to speak about that this morning, but before I do so, I should like to give some thanks and make some comments.

Last year I was fortunate, along with the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard), to go to Afghanistan as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. May I, through the Minister of State, thank the officials in the MOD who organise that scheme? It must sometimes be a complete headache having a group of Members of Parliament lumbering around military establishments, but they look after us extremely well.

We were struck by the incredible work of the RAF in heavy lift. It has few heavy transport planes, which it is having to use in both Iraq and Afghanistan, working 24/7. It is a phenomenal task and the people involved do it incredibly well. We were also struck by the professionalism of our forces in Kabul. What a contrast we saw between UK squaddies out on patrol, making eye contact and being friendly with locals, and our American cousins, who are bunkered down in Humvees, travelling at huge speeds around Kabul, frightening the locals and causing mayhem. It is no wonder that people do not respect the United States; it is not difficult to see why that is so.

It was impressive seeing the work that was being done to train the Afghan army, but that process will obviously take a long time, particularly the building up of middle management and the relationships between sergeants and junior officers. None of us should genuinely expect much from the Afghan army for some time. That is not because they are not people who are committed and of good will; they are starting a long way back in respect of their training.

I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) has disappeared. He and I were looked after by the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment, which is being amalgamated into the Rifles. I hope that it will be able to keep its back badge. The Minister smiles, but such things
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matter in terms of the history of our nation. The regiment defeated the French in Egypt, despite the fact that the French were attacking in both directions. Despite the amalgamations, we hope that soldiers in the British Army can keep such things, which are icons.

Everyone recognises that British forces will do an extremely professional job, but in the brief time that I have left I want to talk about DFID. It has been in Afghanistan for some while, but its time has been spent almost entirely in Kabul. The work that it has been doing in Afghanistan is almost entirely about helping the machinery of government to work in Kabul—helping President Karzai and Government Ministries to work. That is not an easy post. It is an unaccompanied post. The number of DFID staff who are particularly interested in Asia is not that great; most of them are interested in Africa. I think that it has not been easy to recruit staff to go to Afghanistan for DFID, although it has had some extremely good people there.

As far as I can discover, there has never been an oral statement from DFID on what it is doing in Afghanistan, and I have tracked down only one written statement, which was made on 31 January. It talked about the 10-year development plan, but nothing very detailed has ever been provided about Helmand. The written statement reinforces the fact that DFID has felt happier or has been more focused on helping

and reducing

DFID has been focused on the machinery of government in Kabul. Hon. Members know little about what DFID is doing in Helmand. How many UK-based staff are working in Helmand? Are they working through local non-governmental organisations and other local organisations? What are they doing to seek to establish alternative livelihoods? Or are we in a chicken-and-egg situation? Is security not yet good enough for DFID and other staff to get to Helmand? We do not even know yet what work DFID is doing in Helmand.

I know that many colleagues want to contribute to the debate. It would be extremely helpful if we could have the information that I have mentioned. The Government have made it clear that in this area of policy winning hearts and minds is partially what the military are doing in bringing in security. However, the question is also what DFID can do to increase and enhance alternative likelihoods. We need to know both sides of the story. Because Helmand will be difficult for journalists to access, we are rather dependent on the Government telling us what they are doing. Perhaps the Minister of State could ensure that colleagues in DFID appreciate that they also need to be telling this story; they also need to be telling us what is going on. Alternative livelihoods in Helmand and in Afghanistan as a whole will never be easy, but we need to see the complete picture.

9.57 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I shall keep my remarks particularly short because I came into the
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Chamber a tad late. It is a delight to take part in the debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) for initiating it. It is an honour to follow my friend from the trip to Afghanistan, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), and I, too, express my respect for the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment, which hosted us in Mazar-e-Sharif and looked after us very well there and in Kabul.

I have three quick observations to make from the trip and from what I have read since. The first is an optimistic one. When we make such a trip, we realise how good our troops are, and not only at peacekeeping. The hon. Gentleman and I also saw the provincial reconstruction teams. We took a rather long journey to see how they engaged with some of General Dostum’s warlords. It was very moving as well as interesting to see them sit down and talk through issues that were arising, trying to bring about genuine peace on the ground. It was interesting to see the degree of detail that they have to go into. That just shows the commitment of our forces.

The second issue, which has been alluded to, is training. It is obvious that the real battle is training and retaining people in the army and police force of Afghanistan. That will not be a quick win; a long-term structural effort is required. The worry was that the work was being undertaken in different ways by different national entities. The French were training the officers and we were training the NCOs. There were clear tensions about the training. The fact that officers got the same level of training as NCOs and not much more than ordinary troops suggests a somewhat superficial command structure. We must keep putting effort into that.

My third point, which I make no apology for raising again, is about how we manage not just our entry to this difficult scenario—I support our having troops in Afghanistan, for reasons that I shall give in a second—but our exit strategy, inasmuch as this is an international commitment. Afghanistan is not like Iraq where, in effect, the United States and the United Kingdom are leading a peacekeeping effort.

Operations in Afghanistan are under the auspices of the United Nations, and therefore the UN must take responsibility through ISAF. We all know about the difficulties in getting clear commitments from some of the players in the lead-up to the British going into Helmand. The Dutch going into Uruzgan was a classic case. They would not go in until they had their own air cover. Thankfully, that situation was resolved, but I would like the Minister to describe the management process. We cannot keep 5,000 troops there indefinitely. We have to know how we will move through the responsibility that we have taken on, who will replace us and how they will do it, and what will happen.

The Americans continue to pursue various elements—for example, al-Qaeda and the Taliban through Operation Enduring Freedom—but in their own way will begin to reduce the number of troops that they have on the ground. We learned a simple fact about US logistical problems, in that the US uses many reservists. Come the end of their year, having paid off their mortgage, the reservists leave—I am sorry to be cynical, but it appears like that when one is out in the field—but the Americans do not necessarily have
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people to replace them. There are drivers affecting British military forces that are completely outside our control.

I wish to conclude with a question that has always worried me and which prompts my belief that we have to be in Afghanistan. What is the alternative? There is every threat that the Taliban could return and that Pakistan could be further destabilised. I went to Pakistan shortly before I went to Afghanistan. It is clear that President Musharraf is in a difficult situation with both the north-west frontier province and Baluchistan already somewhat in the grips of more extreme elements. We must recognise that the future of the whole region depends on some level of stability in Afghanistan, but that can happen only if we will the means and the minds of the people. That is why what our provincial reconstruction teams are doing is so important.

I heard what has been said about money. Perhaps the message from this debate is not for the Ministry of Defence but for the Department for International Development. If it is serious about moving through the military stage, which, sadly, we will be in for some years, substantial resources must be channelled through DFID conduits. However, the UN must recognise that this is a real test of its authority. Will it be able to engage properly in reconstructing a country that has known nothing but conflict for decades? It will be difficult to achieve that objective, but the alternative is far worse.

10.4 am

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to this debate. I would like to start by thanking and congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) on securing this extremely timely debate on the situation in southern Afghanistan. Given the seriousness of the challenges facing our troops in Helmand province and the escalating violence in Afghanistan in recent weeks, this is an appropriate time to discuss these matters.

Without wishing to ignore or downplay the importance of issues such as whether our mission there was planned with sufficient clarity as to its objectives or adequately resourced, I should like to raise another factor that will be critical to the long-term peace, stability and reconstruction of Afghanistan. That is the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which was touched on by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). My theory is that without much greater trust, co-ordination and pooled effort between the Governments of those countries, the situation will continue to deteriorate, the risks facing coalition troops will increase and the long-term success of the project will be even more difficult to achieve.

Five years ago the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan were seemingly smashed by the United States-led Operation Enduring Freedom which, although derided by many now, drew widespread praise at the time for its design and execution. Yet here we are in 2006 and Afghanistan is facing a resurgent Taliban movement that threatens to overwhelm that fledgling democracy and poses a real challenge to both coalition troops and the Afghan army.

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Given that Afghanistan shares a rugged porous border of nearly 1,500 miles with Pakistan, and that Taliban fighters have found more than a few welcoming homes in the semi-autonomous tribal areas on the other side of that border, the goal of eradicating those militants was never going to be solely concerned with what happened within the Afghan interior.

Effective security in the border areas of both countries is vital for the overall reconstruction effort, but it is not easy to achieve, given that neither Kabul nor Islamabad has ever managed to extend any meaningful authority to those parts. That was well understood by military planners from the outset. However, while—under the auspices of the tripartite commission, which involves the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan—significant steps have been taken towards achieving a co-ordinated approach to stopping the cross-border flow of Taliban fighters, the overwhelming picture is one of mistrust, finger pointing and too little effective action by the Pakistan and Afghan Administrations.

Throughout the past 12 months, the Government of President Karzai have repeated complaints that militants in Pakistan are freely crossing the border and that Pakistan is being used as a launch pad for attacks inside Afghanistan.

Two months ago, the head of the Taliban in Pakistan, Haji Omar, vowed to continue attacks against foreign forces in Afghanistan. The claim is not just that the Taliban have found a safe sanctuary in the north-west frontier province of Pakistan, where they have been able to set up a major logistics hub and training camps and to carry out fundraising and recruitment, but that they have also received help from Pakistan's two provincial Governments, from Pakistani Islamic extremist groups, and from various Pakistani criminal gangs—while the Government in Islamabad looked the other way. Such claims may carry some truth, but the way in which they have been aired publicly by senior Afghan politicians and officials—at embarrassing moments for the US and Pakistan—has done nothing to strengthen the partnership that needs to exist if the Taliban problem is to be dealt with effectively.

Not surprisingly, President Musharraf’s Government hotly deny that they are providing any kind of safe haven for Taliban fighters or that they are providing less than full commitment to the anti-Taliban cause. I believe that Mr. Musharraf has shown great courage and taken personal risks in the fight against terrorism, but it would not be surprising if some of his lieutenants were less eager to quell Afghanistan’s insurgency, given that they remain dismayed at their loss of influence over a country that, under Taliban rule, they controlled to a significant extent.

Three months ago yet another joint statement was issued at the end of a tripartite commission meeting. It said that the three sides had agreed to enhance communication and co-ordination in order to fight al-Qaeda and Taliban guerrillas in the border area. However, verbal commitments to greater co-operation have been made all too often. Back in 2003, when
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Pakistan was utilising 60,000 troops in the semi-autonomous tribal areas to seek out al-Qaeda and Taliban members, the Afghan Government angrily accused it of effectively invading their territory. Such accusations and suspicions have even led to the sporadic exchange of gunfire between Afghan and Pakistani border outposts in the past two or three years. That is not the kind of partnership that is needed if the Taliban and al-Qaeda are to be defeated.

Many hon. Members will be aware that the situation is exacerbated by the border dispute to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham alluded, which dates back to the colonial era. Pakistan regards the border as settled; Afghanistan does not. In 2003, the Pakistani Government announced that they had begun fencing the border with Afghanistan, using as a justification their need to block infiltration by Islamic militants. That served only to raise suspicions even further on the Afghan side that Pakistan was seeking to close off any future discussions about the border.

The US has tried to resolve the border issue through the tripartite commission, but so far its effort has had little fruit. It is not just about which particular rocky mountainside the border should cross; the significance of the problem lies in the fact that the colonial border divided Pashtun tribal families who now want easier access to each other. They are the very people that the Taliban are trying to enlist in their cause.

There are fears in Pakistan about the spread of Taliban sympathies within the western border and in other parts of the country. According to reports from Pakistan earlier this year, the Taliban recently opened an office in the capital of south Waziristan, one of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal areas, supposedly to help restore law and order.

As the UK shoulders an increasing burden for resourcing and leading the military campaign in Afghanistan, and as the US commitment is reduced, it is right for Her Majesty’s Government to consider what steps they can take to help neutralise the points of conflict between the Afghan and Pakistani Administrations, to encourage greater confidence-building measures and to create a much stronger anti-terror partnership between the two Governments.

Crucially, the UK needs to consider how it can strengthen and support the work of the tripartite commission, which has been led by the US and needs to become far more effective. The meeting of the commission two weeks ago in Pakistan was the first time that NATO and the international security assistance force participated as full members. It is important that our involvement with the commission is meaningful from the start. The shared interests of Afghanistan and Pakistan—security, trade and development—should be a healthy foundation on which to build a successful partnership, but that partnership seems very far off.

10.12 am

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) on securing this important debate, and I offer my congratulations and thanks to the Chairman. Mr. Bercow, it is the first time that I have come under your tutelage, and it is a pleasure. I
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imagine that you are frustrated to watch us speaking with such authority in a debate about international issues. I am surprised that you did not ask us to end early in order to hear 10 minutes of your own views on the subject. Maybe that will happen; who knows?

I am pleased to be participating in this debate. It is not very long ago that I was speaking with the Minister in this very room on the same subject. As we have heard in a number of contributions today, it is not just a military matter any more; it is much more. I put on the record my disappointment that we have received no representation from the International Development team or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office team to answer our questions.

It is always a pleasure to see the Minister here, but it has been up to the Opposition to call this debate. Large numbers of British soldiers, DFID and other organisations are working in Afghanistan. Whenever there is a threshold of interest in another country, it deserves a major debate on the Floor of the House, not a Westminster Hall debate secured by the Opposition. We are here today, however, and the debate has been useful so far.

I had the pleasure of visiting Afghanistan last week—I got back on Thursday—with General Jones, who is the NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. General Jones is overseeing the expansion of ISAF forces as ISAF takes over three of the four regions of Afghanistan.

Hon. Members have expressed concerns about link-ups and the overstretch that our forces are experiencing. Some 36 countries are participating in the international security assistance force, with 10,000 troops. That looks very impressive on paper, but the unfortunate reality is that many countries are participating with caveats—restrictions or limitations imposed by their Government on how troops can and cannot be used. A simple but stark example is that German troops cannot go into combat. They are not allowed; their Government prevent them. Obviously there are historical reasons that need to be respected, but because of the number of combat troops available to do the job, it limits NATO’s ability.

There are also concerns about incompatibility between nations. NATO forces have a lot of experience of working together in Bosnia, Kosovo and other operations. However, in Afghanistan, there are still incompatibility issues in communications and, most importantly, airlift and logistics, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham mentioned in his opening speech. The problem I discovered is that all the heavy and medium airlift capability is limited to the home country; in other words, Britain, for example, moves our own troops around Afghanistan, but we do not donate any of our aircraft to NATO. If NATO and ISAF want to move troops to react to a situation in another province or another area of Afghanistan, they have to request from the home nation the ability to use a C-130 or a C-17. That does not allow NATO to act as one. Logistically it is hampered.

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