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21 Jun 2006 : Column 445WH—continued

There is also concern about equipment. The most worrying is to do with something called blue force tracker. That is a new piece of equipment stuck on to every single vehicle, allowing HQ to monitor it via satnav. The French refuse to use blue force tracker because they want to use another system that is being
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created by Thalys. That rival system is not yet on the shelf as it has yet to be invented. Huge frustration was expressed by General Jones and by General Richards, head of ISAF, who asked why we could not agree: why cannot Governments come together and collectively determine what is needed and what is not, rather than waiting until we are out in the field to discover that there are frictions in that area?

My hon. Friend also mentioned mission creep. Many of us here have military backgrounds. But as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) pointed out so eloquently, this is a DFID situation as well. NATO is creating an umbrella of security in Afghanistan, which is fundamental. But while we have a limited period underneath the umbrella of security that we are creating, that is when DFID and other international development organisations must come in and help Afghanistan to get off its knees. Otherwise when that umbrella of security is removed we will be left with an Afghanistan in the same place as it was three or four years ago, and we will have failed.

If we go to visit the provisional reconstruction teams as I did in Helmand, we will see that there is mission creep everywhere. NATO is very much involved, and certainly the British are, working hand in hand with DFID. There is just one DFID representative in Lashkar Gah, but she is working closely with our military. In the same way, this is a G5 project, which is a military term. It is mission creep; it is not going out there providing security. It is that extra step of going down to help to build a school. That is what is happening, but it is being done unofficially. It is unco-ordinated and there is no one above making sure that one hand knows what the other is doing. The problem is that we discover that many organisations are interfering with each other. There is no overall umbrella organisation controlling the international development emphasis. That is the one lesson that needs to be learned. I encourage the Minister to speak with his colleagues in DIFD to see whether that can be rectified.

Poppy crops have been mentioned. We cannot separate them from our task in Afghanistan, much as we went out there to deal with the terrorist aspects. Unfortunately we cannot separate those from what is happening. Last year was the biggest crop ever grown in poppies: 4,100 tonnes. That is after the millions of dollars spent trying to tackle the problem: $400 million was spent last year, but it had no impact whatever because it resulted in the largest crop ever seen.

In a meeting with President Karzai—I brought this up the last time we had a debate—I suggested the idea of a pilot scheme to purchase the poppy crops in a particular area; for example, Helmand, so that they could be removed and used to make the morphine and so forth that we need due to the shortage in the world. That was dismissed last time by a number of British representatives, by the Minister of State here and by other representatives too. President Karzai agrees that it is worth pursuing; so do General Jones, SACEUR, General Richards and the PRT team in Helmand.

It is appreciated that there are problems. Will people deliberately grow poppies simply to come in on the trade? There are only about 250,000 people involved in the poppy trade, but the impact that they are having on the rest of the country is phenomenal. We should think a little wider; we could certainly say, “We will buy the
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poppy crops off you this year, but next year, you have to match your poppy crop with a wheat crop.” That way, we are weaning people off growing poppies. That would prevent money getting into the hands of terrorists, who are causing so much mayhem around the world. It would also pour money into the local economy. Some 90 per cent. of the heroin on British streets comes from Afghanistan, so we have a vested interest in challenging what is going on.

Helmand province is facing an awful lot of challenges. It has about 500 policemen, who are not trained; the whole programme of police development is about two years behind schedule. That is hindering the process because there is no overall collective responsibility in that area. Also, something called Talibanisation is occurring, and not only in Helmand. That is when locals and parts of tribes who are in debt have no loyalty to Afghanistan as a whole, but only to their family and then to their tribe. They get a large payment from organisations to come and take a pop at Americans or NATO troops and so forth. International development agencies need to help those individuals through alternative lifestyles, but I am afraid that that is not seen to be working, as a collective measure.

As has been mentioned, NATO’s footprint is actually quite small. We speak of Helmand province a lot because that is where the British presence is, but there are 30 provinces in all, and the neighbouring province of Nimroz is actually empty; there is not one British, American or NATO soldier, or one international development organisation, in that province. It is the same size as Helmand, yet there is no one there at all. If a terrorist organisation is in Helmand, and things get busy there, where do we think it will move to?

My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) eloquently illustrated the problem with the Pakistani border. When I visited it, it was clear that SUVs and other vehicles were able to drive straight through the border by paying some sort of tariff to the tribes that operate on the border. Pakistan certainly needs to do more to challenge what is happening there. There is no military presence in the 150 miles between Lashkar Gah and the border. If we are to tackle those issues, we certainly need more troops in the province.

I end on international development issues. While I was in Kabul, we met a number of agencies, and I took a look at some of the operations working on narcotics. Hon. Members will be aware that the issue is a G8 responsibility, the UK being the lead nation on that particular subject. There are six major organisations in Kabul run by the Afghans themselves, including the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, the Afghan national police, and so forth. On the NATO or military side, there are all the PRTs in the country, ISAF and the American equivalent, which is the Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, and the operational mentor liaison teams.

In addition, there are other organisations, such as the counter-narcotics trust fund, the inter-agency operations and co-ordination cell and the joint co-operation management board. They have just been created in Afghanistan. In addition, there are all the UN organisations, the United States Agency for International Development, the Bureau for
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International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the US embassy, the British Embassy, the EU mission and the EU Commission—which do not talk to each other; they have offices on different sides of Kabul. The World Bank is there as well. That is not to mention the Department for International Development and the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which I understand is now helping with narcotics, too.

That is far too many organisations for us to really achieve the mission of dealing with international development and reconstruction in Afghanistan. Everybody from President Karzai down to the head of the PRT in Helmand province agrees that there is an urgent need for a co-ordinator, a Paddy Ashdown-type character, with the power to cut through the red tape imposed by donor countries on how money should be spent. [Interruption.] I thought that might get the Lib Dems excited. What is needed is a co-ordinator with the authority to influence the international agencies. That is not happening, and money is being thrown down the drain. The consequence is the largest poppy crop ever.

If we fail in Afghanistan, it will not be due to the size of the forces that we have sent there; it will be because we have not taken advantage of the fragile blanket of security that those forces provide. I believe that we have about two years to get it right.

10.25 am

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) on securing the debate. He set out his case in a probing and thorough manner. He says that he is not an expert, but he sounds pretty knowledgeable to me, and I hope that I will be as knowledgeable as he is following my visit to Afghanistan next month.

We have a duty to support the people of Afghanistan in their effort to build a secure environment where they can thrive and prosper. I want this morning to put some questions that may assist the Minister in his thinking and planning, as we strive together to create such an environment. My remarks will focus on six aspects of the question: defining success, clarity of role, Pakistan and the threat assessment—something that has already been discussed—overstretch, non-governmental organisation support and supplies.

Afghanistan has had its fair share of invaders over the centuries, including King Darius, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British, the Russians, the Soviet Union, the United States and the Taliban. It comes as little surprise, therefore, to learn that Haji Abdul Qadr, a village elder in Helmand, recently remarked:

more than 30 years—

Asked whether the Government could help to find him a job, an unemployed Afghan man of 22, from Lashkar Gah, asked which Government: the government of the foreigners, the Government of Karzai, or the Government of the Taliban? That sets the context of the challenge in Helmand and of the debate. The Liberal Democrats continue to support
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international efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, and Britain must accept its share of the burden.

My first questions are about vision. It would be helpful if the Minister would enlighten us with a vision of success. When will we know if we have succeeded with our deployment? The Defence Committee noted ministerial

from Afghanistan. That may be understandable but I hope that the Minister will seize the opportunity today to be more forthcoming and publicly state the targets by which he will measure the success of the deployment. Has he reflected on the claim that the mission in Helmand will last for three years? There is much scepticism about the chances of completing its objectives within that time. Will the Minister set out a more realistic timetable for completion?

As to the clarity of the mission, it has been reported that British forces may seize drugs and traffickers if they are discovered in the course of routine operations. Yet the forces are not permitted to take direct pre-planned action against the drugs trade, including the eradication of the opium poppy. Does it strike the Minister that that is confusing and complex? If there is a likelihood that opium poppy and drug traffickers will be discovered during action, when our forces are planning that action, what will the role of the British troops be in such circumstances? I would welcome some clarification on the grey area between security action and anti-drug action.

While I am discussing the drug situation, I might mention that the relationship between the poppy growers, the drug barons and the Taliban is an important one. Is the Minister concerned that the effort to beat the drug exports from Afghanistan will support any fledgling alliance between the Taliban and the drug barons? Does he have any evidence that such alliances are developing? Will he outline what measures are in place to disrupt any alliances of that type that develop?

The hon. Member for Gravesham spoke about Pakistan, and I want to discuss the threat assessment. Have the Government received a threat assessment from commanders on the ground in the south of Afghanistan? A written answer put the number of Taliban in southern Afghanistan at possibly more than a thousand, and another stated that there are

It added, however, that the number of individuals involved could not be determined. I would welcome some clarity on that apparent contradiction.

The chief of staff for coalition forces in Afghanistan, Colonel Chris Vernon, says that the Taliban’s leadership is operating across the border in Pakistan, in the Balochistan provincial capital of Quetta. The Pakistan Government deny that accusation and are demanding “actionable intelligence” to prove it. The Afghan President, however, agreed with the British chief of staff and blamed Pakistan for allowing the Taliban to hide in its border areas. I am sure that the Minister will not reveal his assessment of the threat from the Taliban, but can he give us assurances that the apparent disagreement between the Pakistan Government on the one hand and President Karzai
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and the chief of staff on the other is being addressed and that a common view is developing?

On transportation, there are concerns that supplies to Helmand will be threatened by the loss of Hercules aircraft in conflict, as well as by the lack of defence aid suites and of explosive-suppressant foam in the wings. Can the Minister reassure us about the security of the supply lines? Are sufficient helicopters in play? Is he confident that the promise of helicopters from our allies will be maintained for the duration of the mission?

I turn now to NGO support. In the light of ISAF’s tougher mission in Helmand and the recent increase in violence, there is concern that civil-military relations will be complicated. Have the Government taken into account the increased threat to those working in ISAF? What discussions have the Government had with NGOs about security arrangements and the impact of bringing Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF closer together? What security has been planned for NGO staff, who may be put at risk by an increased military presence in the region?

I turn now to overstretch. As the Minister will know, the Government announced in the 1997 strategic defence review that they would be able to undertake either one major operation on the scale of the 1991 Gulf war or one sustained lesser deployment, such as the Bosnia operation in the mid ’90s, alongside preparations to mount a second, relatively small operation elsewhere. That approach was updated in 2002 to reflect the experience of having to do more small operations than had been planned. The problem, as the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and the National Audit Office said this year, is that the assumptions are always broken. For at least the past seven years, our forces have been operating at levels higher than those in the planning assumptions, even when those assumptions have been revised. Obviously, that causes overstretch and means that some equipment will wear out more quickly than planned. Resources are allocated against planning assumptions, and while occasional fluctuations above the plan are to be expected, a continuous over-tasking causes cumulative problems.

With our current commitments in a range of locations throughout the world, there is little doubt that our forces are suffering from overuse and have had to call on their reservists to plug gaps on too many occasions. The ability to respond to currently unforeseen crises will inevitably be limited. Like others, I am concerned about the likely consequences of that overstretch, which might make the armed forces less attractive to new recruits, at a time when recruitment levels are suffering, and that is not welcome. Does the increase in commitments mean that UK forces are continuing to work beyond defence planning assumptions? Have we adhered to harmony guidelines? I would welcome details of how the UK’s complex commitments around the world are to be reconciled.

The main questions in which my party is interested are these. How will the Minister define success in Helmand? Will he bring clarity to the mission and to our role in combating narcotics activity? I hope that he will reassure us that the apparent disparity of views between Pakistan, our commanders on the ground and President Karzai is being addressed. Liberal
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Democrats have long-running concerns about overstretch in our armed forces, and I hope that the Minister will address our concern about the provision of security for NGOs, which are doing vital work. Finally, we need to ensure that the supplies for our armed forces are secure.

10.33 am

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. Let me begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) for securing the debate, particularly given the on-the-ground, detailed knowledge that he brings to it as a result of the time that he spent in the country recently and in his youth. I also pay tribute to my colleagues, who have made sure that we have had a wide-ranging debate on the military and international development aspects of this issue. In addition, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who is not in his place, for his robust support for ensuring that the Glosters get their back badge. The Minister would expect me, as a Gloucestershire Member, to support that initiative, and I hope that he bears that in mind when he responds.

I am sure that the Minister will want me to give him sufficient time to respond to the many questions that have been raised, and I, too, want to ask him a few questions. Before I do, however, it is worth saying on behalf of the Opposition that the United Kingdom has a clear national interest in being involved with Afghanistan. We saw what happened when it was a failed state run by the Taliban regime. We have a clear interest in being there and ensuring that it is a successful, democratic state. The Conservative party supports that mission. The reason for asking the questions that we do is to ensure that we maximise its success and minimise the threat to our forces.

One question that has already been raised is on the resources that we have available. In response to the Defence Committee report on the UK deployment, which was published last week, the MOD stated that it believed that the force package that it was sending was

Immediately following the publication of that report, the Government had to announce that they were sending more troops to Afghanistan to secure the airfield at Kandahar.

Other hon. Members have touched on the scale of the province and the job that needs to be done there. It would be interesting if the Minister would say whether he is confident that the troops we have deployed there will be sufficient for the task in the future. The wider question has already been alluded to: given that the mission will go on for the long haul, do our defence planning assumptions need to be revised and do we need to examine our overall military resource?

On that subject, it is clear that NATO views our deployment in Afghanistan—or its deployment there—very much as a decade-long commitment. The current British mission is for three years. Given comments that the Government have made about the difficulty of that mission and the challenge that we face, it seems likely that we will be there for much longer than that. Will the Minister outline the Government’s current thinking about how long the mission will last?

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