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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 17 October 2006

[David Taylor in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]

9.30 am

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor. I thank the Secretary of State for being present. I understand that he has had to change his plans and I am very grateful to him for that.

I should start by saying that my personal experiences in Afghanistan pale into insignificance when compared with some of those that our troops in Helmand have suffered. I have certainly had my fair share of being rocketed and bombed by the Taliban, but that is nothing compared with what our troops have been going through, and it is only right that I put on record my deep appreciation of our armed forces serving in Afghanistan and, in particular, of 16th Air Assault Brigade.

I can pinpoint the exact moment when I realised that British troops would be serving in Afghanistan for a very long time. It was 09.32 on 8 September—a moment after I felt the shock wave pass through my body from probably the largest car bomb there had ever been in Kabul. The shock wave was not particularly shocking—I got used to the experience as a bomb disposal officer—but I shall never forget the sounds of agony and the smell of death that followed.

If there is one message that I want to get across to hon. Members today, it is simply this: if we are to achieve the strong and stable society that the Government want to achieve in Afghanistan, we will be there for a very long time—perhaps 15 or 20 years. If we manage to raise Afghanistan to the level of a third-world country in that time, we could perhaps pat ourselves on the back. None the less, that is the task that faces us.

In my role as a Royal Engineers officer, I was charged with delivering in a small way the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan and I travelled to the four corners of the country—to Kandahar and Helmand in the south, Herat in the west, Mazar-e-Sharif and Faizabad in the north, and Kabul and Bagram in the east. While much of the media focus is on the war-fighting in Helmand, we are making progress elsewhere in the country. In the north and the west, where the situation is much more benign, some reconstruction and development is taking place, but progress is painfully slow.

However, we must give credit where credit is due. There has been some progress in Government thinking since the disastrous days of planning the Iraq war. The three Ds—defence, development and diplomacy—now form the bedrock of the strategy for the eventual planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. The theory behind the three Ds, at least, is rather like that behind the three strands of a rope: when they are applied concurrently, their effect is far greater than when they
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are applied on their own, and they are certainly far more effective than when they are applied sequentially, as they used to be. The question, however, is whether that new approach is working in Afghanistan. Having spent nearly eight weeks travelling the length and breadth of the country trying to deliver reconstruction and development, I would have to say yes, but as I said, progress is painfully slow.

I imagine that the Secretary of State will outline Afghanistan’s commitment to the millennium development goals, although, unfortunately, we are currently implementing only four of the eight plus one goals to which Afghanistan has signed up. He will perhaps also outline what has happened since the Afghan compact was agreed in London earlier this year and how we are trying to implement the compact via the interim Afghan national development strategy. However, I am here to tell him that the theory in Kabul is one thing—the reality on the ground in the provinces is entirely different.

Far from the capital, Kabul, and the influence of the fragile central Government, in provinces such as Helmand and Kandahar, the strategy is, in theory, being delivered through provincial development committees—civilian Afghan committees made up of locally appointed provincial leaders. As a rule, however, those organisations simply do not meet, and the result is that there is little, if any, genuine dialogue between local people and coalition forces. In practice, what little reconstruction there is is delivered not via the local government, but via the military, through provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs. With few exceptions—Nimruz, which is sandwiched between Helmand and Iran is one such exception, and Daykundi, just to the north of Helmand, is another—most provinces have a PRT. Those organisations are, in effect, delivering central Government influence to the far-flung corners of the country. Having visited several of those areas, it struck me that despite the politically comforting name, the fact remains that PRTs are predominately military units designed to provide security and that the diplomatic and development elements appear almost as bolt-ons or afterthoughts.

Earlier this summer, I visited the UK-run PRT at Lashkar Gar in Helmand province with the Select Committee on Defence. Then, as now, it appeared that little if any development activity was going on because of the fighting—something that the British Government have quietly recognised with the recent deployment of 28th Engineer Regiment in an effort to fill the development gap.

In recent weeks, much has been made of the lack activity by the Department for International Development in Helmand—even the whereabouts of the DFID representative seem to be a mystery. It is clear that when representatives have been present in the province they have rarely wandered far from camp. If they had done so, they would have discovered, just 10 minutes away from the PRT, a refugee camp full of starving children who appeared to be gaining little, if any, benefit from our presence in the region. What better recruiting grounds could the Taliban want? Why are we failing to deliver food and basic medical supplies—basic hearts-and-minds stuff—to those people? Can the Secretary of State at least reassure me that poverty eradication is a priority in Helmand?

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Another area of controversy—notionally, at least, the British are taking a lead on this—is the counter-narcotics strategy, but there has been little if any progress in that area too. Opium cultivation rose by 59 per cent. in Afghanistan in 2006. Afghan farmers grow opium not because they want to, but because they need to; it is one of the few crops from which they can make any money. Many Afghan farmers would be open to growing alternative crops if they thought that that was sustainable. Among the few things that are sustainable in the long term are vineyards and orchards, but they take seven to 10 years to establish and in the main support is available for only one or two years. Subsistence farmers simply cannot take the risk of converting to vineyards and orchards unless they have a long-term guarantee of support.

One of the principal problems with the PRTs has been their leadership. In theory at least there should be a triumvirate structure, with each discipline head having an equal say. In practice, the military has led in all areas, with mixed results. In the south, where fighting dominates, the military lead has been natural, and it has been broadly accepted as a practical necessity, although it causes some resentment among other partners. The problems really start when the requirement for a military lead diminishes, as in the relatively benign northern and western regions. While attending a PRT conference in Herat, I witnessed two Spanish delegates from the same PRT almost coming to blows over who supported whom.

Even the name “provincial reconstruction team” has become controversial. At the same conference, I heard representatives from NGOs and civilian organisations argue that only they could deliver reconstruction and that the best the military could do was deliver stability. On that basis, “provincial stability team” would be a far better name. In that respect, it is interesting that the first task of the 28th Engineer Regiment, which has been sent to Helmand to deliver reconstruction, is the completion of permanent vehicle checkpoints. That work is vital to providing stability, but it can hardly be classified as reconstruction. What is in a name? I guess that the problem is political and that “reconstruction” sounds so much more progressive and acceptable than “stability”.

To be fair, some PRTs are achieving success. Shortly before I came back from Afghanistan I went to Faizabad to witness the opening of a new runway, which the PRT there had built with the help of Slovakian engineers. That runway is vital, because for the first time there is a link between Kabul and Faizabad, and that will help the economy. Local leaders were delighted that that work had been delivered. On my way back I flew via Mazar-e-Sharif, accompanied by the very first PRT commander there. He told me how, only three years before, one could not even land there during the daytime without being shot at. Now the town has quite a flourishing economy. So some progress is being made.

Frankly, though, the concept of reconstruction in Afghanistan is optimistic, because it implies that there are institutions and infrastructure to reconstruct. Some Government ministries, such as the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, are progressing fast and have offices in some provinces, but others have little, if any, capacity. After decades of war, the professional
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class simply does not exist. Almost all of that class are ex-patriots who have returned to the country, and that in itself is causing a conflict with those who stayed behind to fight.

Coalition forces are also learning fast that it is all very well building schools but little will be achieved without the teachers to put in them, such is the impact of a local lack of co-ordination between international bodies, each following its own agenda in splendid isolation. However, some progress is being made and it would be wrong of me not to highlight the good work of Colonel Pat Fryer in building the Afghan country stability picture. We now have a digital image of every reconstruction project and piece of infrastructure in Afghanistan, which will prove to be a marvellous tool in future years.

Genuine efforts are being made at provincial level to build capacity in local government, but that is proving to be a painfully slow process. I recall a member of the PRT based in Ghor province telling me that he struggles even to get the provincial council to meet. After a chaotic start, when some PRTs, NGOs and international organisations operated with little, if any, consultation with local people—for example, the magnificent new women’s centre in Qalat city remains empty because local men refuse to allow their wives to go to it—steps are now being taken to deliver provincial development plans, listing regional development priorities drawn up not by coalition forces but by local people. However, where they exist, they remain on the whole little more than laundry lists.

Rightly there is a determination that all development should, where possible, have an Afghan face to it, thereby demonstrating to the local population that there are benefits to supporting the far away central Government. The problem is that Afghan face equals Afghan pace, and very little gets done quickly. All too often, military commanders, frustrated at the concept of Afghan face, Afghan pace, use the military chain of command instead. Although that delivers much quicker results, it does little to build capacity in the provinces.

Perhaps the most striking thing is that even now the debate about how best to deliver development continues. Let us consider the contrasting approaches of the Department for International Development and its US equivalent, the United States Agency for International Development. USAID tends to use quick-impact projects, spending large amounts of money in the provinces to give its local military commanders some tactical effect. For example, in Kandahar, lots of wells have been built. A local military commander will turn up and a well will be dug. Local people can see some benefit of the military commander, but there has been little strategic thought. I talked to representatives of one of the NGOs that still operates in Helmand and discovered that so many wells have been dug in parts of the province that some of the ancient karez—the water channels which Afghans have used for centuries to bring water off the mountains—have run dry. The water table has been lowered by well digging.

DFID puts less emphasis on quick-impact projects and tends to deliver a longer-term strategic effect, trying to build capacity in the provinces. The problem is that we are not seeing much early tactical effect, so
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what is the answer? Like most things in life, the answer is probably to try to find a balance between the two approaches.

I attended a reconstruction conference in Kandahar in early September, which coincided with Operation Medusa, NATO’s largest land offensive for many years. There is something odd about discussing reconstruction and development when 200 yd away the sound of outgoing artillery might be accompanying the discussion. At the conference, one PRT commander—not a Briton, I hasten to add— confessed that he felt that the only reason why he was building so many schools and clinics was to please politicians back home, and that ultimately building four walls and a roof has little long-term effect unless we manage to get people in to run things. If we do not do that, such places will simply end up as homes for the Taliban.

Both the Afghan Government and the international community are growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress. The problem is that reconstruction and development are simply not possible without stability. The latest plan is to try to deliver stability by introducing four so-called Afghan development zones, predominantly in the south. Effectively, they are merely an attempt to reorganise the troops that we have in theatre into small lozenges to deliver stability. It might well work and it is a good plan, but we are simply redistributing forces that we already have in Afghanistan. A cynic would say that the whole of Afghanistan should be an ADZ and that the latest plan simply recognises that we do not have the troops in theatre to deliver what we need.

I am sorry if I paint a grim picture, but it is an honest assessment to colleagues of what I have experienced in Afghanistan during the past eight weeks. I believe that we are making progress, but as I have said on several occasions, it is painfully slow. The Government have called for a public debate on our role in Afghanistan. If we are to have that debate, it must be with a degree of political honesty, and if we are to achieve our aims, we will be in that country for a very long time to come.

Several hon. Members rose—

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen a little before 10.30 am. Some eight Members are standing. If people do the arithmetic and limit the length of their speeches, everyone will be called.

9.46 am

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on his speech; it is good that we get a reality check on what is happening in Afghanistan. It is an extraordinary story. I believe that there was almost universal approval of our going there in the first place both to get rid of the haven that existed for al-Qaeda and to end, as far as was possible, much of the medieval cruelty of the Taliban Government. Great successes have been achieved on education and democratic change.

Having had five years during which there were remarkably few British casualties—just seven, most of whom were as a result of accidents—we made the monumental error of invading Helmand province. The result has
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been a further 33 British fatalities, most of whom died in combat. We had a debate on this subject in February during which that was forecast. Another military gentleman, Captain Leo Docherty of the Scots Guards, resigned from the Army last month in some despair at a situation that he described as “barking mad”. He described how the military achieved a victory in the town of Sangin and pointed out that that was when some development should have gone in. He said:

In fact, nothing happened and the Taliban regrouped and attacked a few days later and there were six British casualties as a result.

I would have thought that this morning I would have heard a cry of some despair from the military in Afghanistan who have been given several impossible tasks. In the past 12 months in the Helmand province operation they have been told that their task was to eliminate poppies and that their task was not to eliminate poppies. They were told that their job was to storm the Taliban strongholds and they have subsequently been told that their task is not to do that. They were firmly told that their job was one of reconstruction, but they are now told that their job is not to do any reconstruction. They were told in a famous saying, which cannot be unsaid, that there was a hope that they could go into Helmand province without firing a “single shot” and of course they have been ordered to fire tens of thousands of shots with the result that many hundreds of Taliban and other Afghans have been killed.

We know that this battle cannot be won using military power alone; hearts and minds must be won. That is not done by using bombs and bullets, as the Americans have been trying to do in their “Operation Enduring Stupidity”, which consists mainly of aggressive search and destroy missions, usually from the air, in which many people, both innocent and guilty, are killed. That is entirely counter-productive.

Hearts and minds are not won by cheating the Afghan farmers. We paid out £21 million of British taxpayers’ money in compensation. That represents just a small part of what we have spent. The total bill for the eradication of poppies will be around £240 million. The £21 million was sent to the corrupt Karzai Government to compensate farmers and some of them received cheques for £380, but all the cheques bounced and there has been an energetic campaign to find out where that money went. The farmers are going through the courts to establish their claim for compensation. None of the money got through to them and perhaps the Minister will tell us this morning where that £21 million went.

We are dealing with a culture and a country that for two centuries at least has been run by endemically corrupt warlords. We went there as the Feringhi—that is the name they use for us now—and lost three wars. The Russians went there and I remember a member of the Russian Duma telling me with contempt, “You have invaded Afghanistan. We did the same. It took us six days to conquer Afghanistan, but we were there for 10 years.” They had an army of 120,000—not the 5,000 that we have or the 30,000 that NATO has—but they left in ignominy and 15,000 of their soldiers were killed.

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