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We are on the brink of either going forward and rethinking our operation or losing everything. Unless we have attainable objectives to consolidate the gains that have been made around Kabul in education by recasting the operation in the Helmand province, we may leave Afghanistan with the same ignominy with which the French left Vietnam after Dien Bien Phu, the Americans left Vietnam and the Russians left Afghanistan. We have forgotten the nature of guerrilla warfare.

There were vivid accounts of French soldiers standing in serried ranks with epaulets and ceremonial swords shining when they surrendered. They were the pride of the French army, but they surrendered to a rabble that came out of the bush, many of them barefooted with home-made weapons. The most high-tech equipment they had were bicycles. That guerrilla army beat the French army.

Unless we understand the hearts-and-minds argument and see the extent to which we are losing the support of the Afghanistan people, we shall enter a cauldron of grievous suffering and death. It is no exaggeration to say that we are following the same path with the same delusions as the Americans followed in Vietnam. We should reject the calls for escalation because, if we do not, we shall be in the same situation as in the past when, because of the belief in politicians here, the military are there, in Afghanistan. Great anger is being expressed on websites, and Ministers and others would do well to listen to what serving soldiers are saying.

There is an alternative for Afghan farmers. It is not to destroy the poppy crop. We know about the abject futility of trying to reduce the poppy crop. We know, as Lord Birt said in his strategy paper, that the supply side of the drugs trade cannot be destroyed. In Afghanistan, we are trying to do in five years what America has failed to do in Colombia in 20 years. Colombia is in a state of bloody chaos with three armies, two of them funded entirely by drugs. Destroying the poppy crop would make no difference whatever to the supply of drugs because, for every reduction in Colombia, more drugs were produced in Peru and Bolivia. Exactly the same would happen if we reduced the crop in Afghanistan. It would be grown in Myanmar, Laos and surrounding countries. There is no chance of preventing that and of imposing on Afghanistan a Swedish-style democracy or of ensuring that there will never be a place for Osama bin Laden to hide in Afghanistan, north Pakistan or elsewhere. Despite the might, subtlety, bribery and wealth of the American army, it has not yet found him. Nothing we can do by changing the system would ensure that there is no place for Osama bin Laden to hide. These are our unachievable objectives.

Our soldiers are right to ask what on earth the politicians are doing and what the mission is. It was said of the charge of the Light Brigade that those involved had no chance of objecting to what was an act of military stupidity. A latter-day Tennyson writing the story of Helmand might say, “Blair to the right of them, Bush to the left of them, Holler’d and thunder’d. Their’s not to reason why, Their’s but to do and die: Into the valley of Death, Into the mouth of Helmand drove the 5,000.”

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9.55 am

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on securing this debate and I thank the Secretary of State for making time to come and contribute to it. The subject is important and arguably one of the most important. I hope that in future we shall have opportunities to discuss it in the House rather than in this Chamber.

I do not think that there is any disagreement that we need to be active in Afghanistan, because it certainly requires assistance to meet the objective of peace and self-sustainability. However, views differ throughout the Chamber on the strategy and size of our commitment.

I was fortunate to visit Afghanistan recently and it was good to see the steady progress that has been made in areas around Kabul and other areas to which my hon. Friend referred. The problems that we are facing came home to me when I met some newly elected Afghan MPs who do not go to their constituencies in places such as Helmand because it is too dangerous. That quickly summarises the state of affairs there. We need much more effective and coherent co-ordination of operations in Afghanistan if there is to be progress.

I fully agreed with the decision to enter Afghanistan. The threat was real and the enemy was active. Al-Qaeda was present and the Taliban Government were sympathetic to its cause. However, five years on, I am left wondering how much more could have been achieved had the 230,000 allied forces been moved to Afghanistan instead of going to Iraq in 2002. Five years after we first went into Afghanistan, we have only just gone into the Helmand province, which is probably the heart of where the most focus is required.

I praise 16th Air Assault Brigade, which has made a fantastic effort there, but there is an issue of strategy. As a military person, I question why 16th Air Assault Brigade was sent there alone. We have huge and valuable experience of peacekeeping and war-fighting operations in Bosnia, Kosovo and so on, yet we sent out a light infantry unit for a task that required more armour, more firepower and more mobility. I encourage the Secretary of State to do what he can to influence the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that our troops are properly armoured. That includes sending out one of the seven remaining Warrior battalions in this country that are not on deployment. I do not believe that Snatch Land Rovers provide the necessary protection, and the matter needs to be addressed.

The debate focuses on reconstruction. I fully agree with the comments of my hon. Friend. My experience of the development teams was that they are in a competitive game. USAID has a different strategy from DFID. Embassies have different forms of income coming through and different ideas of where the money should be spent. A myriad of agencies are competing against each other for contracts and work. I have said before and I repeat that there needs to be a UN-mandated co-ordinator for all reconstruction activities. Otherwise there will be continued competition—not necessarily between agencies but between what the military are doing on one hand and reconstruction efforts on the other.

South of Kandahar I saw a school that had been rebuilt with international money and that was fantastic.
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Unfortunately, three weeks after it was completed there was a crop-eradication programme around the school which removed the livelihood of the community, so everyone left and there is now an empty school building south of Kandahar which no one is using.

The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) touched on the biggest issue about which we are in complete denial: the poppy crop. We try to distinguish the military front from reconstruction and from poppy growth, but the three are intertwined, and we must come to terms with that, otherwise our policy has no long-term future. Our policy on poppy crops is failing. We have a policy of eradication and replacement, and we cannot separate it from long-term factors even if we intend to remove the terrorism link with Afghanistan.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime opium survey shows that last year was the largest opium crop ever. It represented a 59 per cent. increase on the previous year’s crop, which was also the largest crop up to that point. The amount of crop exported has risen from 4,100 tonnes to 6,100 tonnes, which means that Afghanistan produces 92 per cent. of the world’s opium. Helmand province has increased its capacity by 162 per cent. right under our noses. That is where we are supposed to operate. To put it another way, Helmand province produces just under half the world’s opium.

Britain is responsible under the list of G8 tasks for counter-narcotics and the counter-narcotics programme. We are well placed to lead. Last year, the United States spent more than $780 million, the UK about $100 million and the EU about $150 million on poppy eradication and replacement programmes, but let us face facts: the money was wasted. Crops have increased, and we must find another strategy to deal with the problem.

I have mentioned to hon. Members before that a similar story took place in Turkey in 1969, when Turkey was identified as the main source of the heroin that was entering the United States. President Nixon declared a war on drugs, and he was about to impose military and economic sanctions on Turkey. There were four years of hostility between the two countries as they tried to work out how to deal with the huge amounts of heroin entering the United States from Turkey. Eventually, after trying to make the crop illegal, Turkey asked the UN, “Can we legalise it? Can we have a poppy programme in which poppies are grown under licence and distributed to the international community? There it will be controlled, it will not leak out, and it will be turned not into heroin, but into morphine and codeine—other products of which there is a world shortage.”

That was back in 1969 and the 1970s. We do not hear of an opium or heroin problem from Turkey anymore. Indeed, other countries throughout the world grow poppies under licence. There is a massive threat and challenge in Afghanistan, however. I stand to be corrected, but I believe that about 90 per cent. of the heroin on British streets comes from Afghanistan. Yet, we are in denial; we believe that we can somehow eliminate the crop. The poppies play into the hands of the terrorists. The saddest fact is that when we try to eliminate those crops we alienate the very people whose hearts and minds we are trying to win over. That is fundamental.

In refugee camps around Lashkagar, there are 10,000 to 15,000 people, and the numbers are rising because people have lost their communities. If one visits the camps, one finds that every third or fourth person
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wears a black turban. It is the mark of the Taliban. They walk around freely and recruit people from the refugee camps. So, when we talk about the enemy, the Taliban, we must be specific, because “Talibanisation” is the process whereby such people are recruited. The recruits are not Taliban sympathisers in the sense that they have a cause; they just want to put bread on their tables, feed their families and get on.

The recruits see that the international community has been in their country for five years, and that their communities have been ruined by the destruction of the crops that have kept them going. It is understandable why when someone from the Taliban gives them a rocket-propelled grenade and says, “Take a pop at a Land Rover or an American vehicle, and we will give you two months’ salary in exchange”, they would be happy to do so. We are losing the battle for hearts and minds because of that.

Organisations in Afghanistan such as the Senlis Council and others would be keen to run a pilot scheme. Let us test the water. I am not saying that it would work. I really do not know whether it would, but why not give it a try? We have discussed how long it takes to grow a peach tree, pomegranates and so on, so let us consider a five-year programme to wean farmers off poppy cultivation. Each year they could give their poppies to a UN-licensed scheme, and at the same time part of their crop could be replaced with other produce. We could tax it, so the Afghan nation benefited, too. Most importantly, however, we would deny the terrorists the chance to benefit from the money, which is exactly what happens now.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes discussed the long term. We might be in Afghanistan for 15 years, and it might be worth looking at the map of Afghanistan again. With its Pashtuns, Tajiks and Baluchis, we might ask whether the territorial line that encircles the country is ideal. Alternatively, we might ask the Baluchis, “Were you to recreate your own country, where would it be?” I think their answer would be that they would take a nice chunk of Pakistan that Pakistan does not like to talk about, and into which it does not send anybody in a uniform. We might consider that idea in the long term if we asked those people what they wanted to do. They are loyal not to Kandahar, Kabul or President Karzai, but to their families and their ethnic grouping. Until we understand that, we will never win the battles that we are fighting in Afghanistan.

David Taylor (in the Chair): There are 20 minutes left for Back-Bench speakers, and three Members are seeking to catch my eye. I hope that we can fit them all in.

10.6 am

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on raising this important subject and on his sobering speech. I intend to travel down the same road on which the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) journeyed, although not as far as his final remarks. His suggestion of redrawing the map in Afghanistan and Pakistan opens up a new can of worms, which might get us into further difficulty.

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I cannot claim any recent first-hand experience of Afghanistan, because it is more than 30 years since I travelled there. I recall a time before the earth changed places with the sky, when King Zahir Shah was in his palace, the Buddhas were in their place in Bamiyan, the markets in Kandahar and Kabul were overflowing with fresh produce and it was possible for any foreigner to travel almost anywhere on public transport—albeit on aged German buses that still had their German destinations, such as Munich railway station, on the front.

Nevertheless, I have picked up from people with recent experience of Afghanistan that things are not going well. That is the flavour of the debate. In particular, they are not going well in the south of the country, where our troops appear to be besieged in their bases, venturing out only in heavily armed convoys and patrols. As hon. Members have said, there is no meaningful contact with the locals, and we are in danger of losing the south. If we do, it will mark the beginning of a new Taliban state that may spread north whether we like it or not.

Local people are becoming increasingly desperate. They are squeezed between the Taliban and the international community. Incidentally, they believe that all the international community, whether Canadians or British, are Americans. They refer to them as Americans. Among refugee camps, which are within 10 minutes of our military bases, as hon. Members have remarked, there is hunger. Among children, there is starvation, and there is little or no sign of aid.

The pursuit of the opium eradication policy without any viable alternative strategy merely drives people into the hands of the Taliban. We appear to be destroying the crops only of those people who cannot afford to pay bribes not to have them destroyed. They are the smaller and more vulnerable farmers. For the larger farmers, who can pay the bribes, it is business as usual. Anybody who sees the new houses of police chiefs being built in the area will see where some of those bribes have gone. As hon. Members have remarked, there is little or no development activity. The aid agencies, including DFID, have more or less withdrawn from the south, and foreigners are increasingly reluctant to venture out of their fortified compounds, for reasons that I understand perfectly. It is not for me, sitting here in the comfort of the United Kingdom, to lecture the people on the ground in Afghanistan on what they should do. However, we have not the slightest hope of winning hearts and minds in such a situation. As others have said, the time has come to contemplate alternatives, unless we believe—I do not know anybody who does—that things are going so well that we can afford to ignore those who suggest alternatives. New thinking is required.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East, mentioned the Senlis Council, which has people on the ground in Afghanistan and appears to venture out where most foreigners fear to tread, including into Lashkagar. It recently published a report assessing the first five years of the international presence in Afghanistan, entitled “Afghanistan Five Years Later—The Return of the Taliban”. I have sent a copy to the Secretary of State, although he may not yet have received it as he has been away. I have also sent copies to the Secretary of State for
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Defence and to the Minister responsible at the Foreign Office, each covered by a personal note. I hope that somebody will examine the report, because it tells a somewhat different story to the one that Ministers appear to believe. Over the months in which I have tried to interest Ministers in the work of the Senlis Council, it has depressed me that it has been so difficult to engage their attention. That is particularly true, I am sorry to say, of those in my old Department, the Foreign Office, and in the Ministry of Defence. I have had more luck with DFID, as one might expect, and I took some people from the Senlis Council to meet the Under-Secretary of State for International Development.

Any alternative strategy—the report presents the one proposed by the Senlis Council—must involve local people. I wish to impress upon Ministers that they should at least consider the proposal mentioned by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East, for opium to be grown under licence for the international medical market, although I know that there are practical difficulties. The alternative is more of the chaos that already exists in Afghanistan and is writ large in Colombia, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said. We are afraid to discuss the matter because the Americans do not approve, but we must push it up the agenda. Pilot projects must obviously take place before the scheme can be considered viable, and there are practical difficulties, but they are not all that large compared with those of carrying on down the present road. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the experience of eastern Turkey. If a scheme can work there, it ought to be able to work in Afghanistan. I believe that India grows opium under licence, as do half a dozen other countries, but the Turkish experience is the best example.

The Senlis Council, which as I have said has people on the ground in Afghanistan in places where others fear to go, is offering to run pilot schemes. If I were at DFID I would be talking to it about that offer. An impressive woman named Norine MacDonald, a Canadian, is in this country at the moment. She has been based in Afghanistan for 18 months, and has just come back after three months there. I urge the Secretary of State to meet her while she is here this week: he would hear a version of events different from that which he is likely to hear from his officials.

It is clear from what has been said by anybody with even a small knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan—my knowledge is small—that our military on the ground know that the present strategy is not working. Opposition Members have spoken to them, and they are frank about its failure. They are up for change: Ms MacDonald said to me last night that our military are among the most open-minded about doing things differently. The only hope for Afghanistan, particularly the south, is a sustained effort to win hearts and minds before it is too late. The present programme, based partly on the forcible eradication of the poppy crop, which leads to hunger and in some cases starvation, will not work.

10.15 am

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): There is a distinction to be made between Afghanistan and Iraq, and I wish to return to what the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said. Although I voted against the war in
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Iraq because I believed that it was against international law, I certainly supported our intervention in Afghanistan. It was in support of international law and various UN resolutions and at the behest of the democratically elected Government of President Karzai. I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman accuses the Afghan Government of being corrupt. Those of us who have met President Karzai and his Ministers know that they are trying to do as good a job as they can in difficult circumstances, often with not many resources. Many of them have returned to Afghanistan having lived abroad and are intent on bringing security and development.

Paul Flynn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tony Baldry: I do not have much time, and my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) wishes to get in.

When, in the last Parliament, the Select Committee on International Development produced a report, we made it clear, as has every non-governmental organisation concerned, that security is a precondition of development. As Sikander Ali of Islamic Relief made clear to us, development is also a precondition of security. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) said, the two go hand in hand. On the two visits that I have made to Afghanistan, the question has struck me, “Where are the jobs going to come from?” The terrain is inhospitable at the best of times. I believe that someone once said, “When God made the Earth, he had a few rocks left over and decided to make Afghanistan.”

When the International Development Committee was first in Kabul in 2002 we asked people what they thought they could do about jobs. The Kabul chamber of commerce was interested only in importing such things as hair shampoo, and the only export seemed to be carpets. Most of the carpets were going to Pakistan, and traders in Peshawar were making most of the profit.

I am glad to say that I have made a small contribution with Chris Beales, whom I first met at the Inner Cities Religious Council and who has been involved with the Afghan diaspora in the east of London. We have set up Afghan Action, which with the help of a DFID grant from the business linkages challenge fund now has a factory and a training school in Kabul. In the next two or three years we hope to train 350 young men and women and employ 140, making carpets to be sold directly to the UK under fair trade principles whereby all the profits will go back into supporting those people. That has required a considerable amount of effort, but with the best will in the world we will train only 350 young people. Thousands need to be trained. We know that the Taliban destroyed many of the orchards and vineyards; one does not have to go far from Kabul to see the scorched earth of the Taliban. A country that used to produce much of the world’s dried fruit is no longer able to do so. Answering the question of where jobs will come from will require a lot of focus.

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