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17 Oct 2006 : Column 195WH—continued

Many of us have asked the question posed by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), on poppies. The advice of the NGOs in and around Kabul is that it would be impossible to distinguish legal, licensed poppy growing from the illegal. We have a
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duty to be in Afghanistan and we must recognise that we will be there for a long time. It does not help to take pot shots at the Government of Afghanistan, who are doing the best that they can under the circumstances. We must have more focus on where jobs will come from, because it is not a country with extractive industries or mineral wealth and resources.

10.20 am

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), whose remarks were most perceptive. I also thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) for securing this debate in the first place. The recent cover of The House Magazine said it all. I looked on with not a little envy, and would like to congratulate him on the example that he has set to many of the rest of us.

Three things have rather chilled me over the past couple of months, the first of which was my visit to Kiev. It is a little known fact but, for whatever reason, about 60 per cent. of the Soviet forces that fought in Afghanistan were Ukrainian. The beggars in Kiev are of a wholly different class from anything that we see even in London. Many of them wear their veteran’s caps, desert camouflage and Soviet orders from their times in Afghanistan, and an awful lot of them are minus limbs. Many of them are scarred horribly from the effects of bullets and shrapnel. They are an eloquent testimony to getting it wrong in Afghanistan. I wonder how closely we have paid attention to the lessons that the Soviets learned.

The second thing that worried me was a comment that was made by Mr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second in command of al-Qaeda. He said, “Don’t bother bringing your troops home, there’s no need—there’ll be no more Dr. Brydons this time”. I am looking around and wondering just how many people know who Dr. Brydon was. He was the single British survivor from the 1842 expedition. The fact that that name does not necessarily trip off our tongues, but that it does trip off the tongue of an important individual in al-Qaeda, alarms me.

The third thing that worried me seriously was my conversation with some American special forces officers yesterday, who said, “Do understand that the war in Afghanistan is all-out war. Your troops are going there to fight—nothing more, nothing less. You must understand that the only solution is the destruction and the death of the Taliban.” I do not think that that is correct and, without wishing to criticise our American allies in any way, I think that they have essentially missed the point.

We must remember that our forces—and by that I do not just mean our armed forces, but our officials, our NGOs, our effort, our treasure and our emotions—are all driven towards creating the conditions in which the Afghan authorities can govern their country properly and peacefully. We are not there as a force to invade. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes said that he had painted a bleak picture, but I am not sure that he painted as bleak a picture as he suggested. He painted a picture in which there is hope, but in which, above and beyond everything, we must maintain a sense of balance about the campaign, both military and civil.

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My big fear is that over the next few months we will allow winter to make us complacent. The fighting will die down. Very shortly we will have some wonderful stories of heroism, with serious awards for gallantry—possibly Victoria crosses—to gentlemen who have bravely fought tooth and nail. We may allow ourselves to be distracted and to think that the war, or at least the fighting along the border, is won and that things are probably back on an even footing.

Winter is when things go quiet—ask Roberts, of the British punitive expedition mounted from 1878 to 1880, which was extremely successful for a punitive expedition, inasmuch as it killed a lot of people. Ask him what happened in the winter. Things go quiet. The farmers and the Taliban retire to their deep valleys, where the satellites and the B-52s cannot get at them, let alone the special forces patrols. The farmers prepare their crops for the next season. It will be easy for the western press to say, “Yeah, things are fine, guys—let’s not worry about it”, but what happens next spring? What happens when we find ourselves without the troops, money or Government direction to take on the next phase of the campaign, both civil and military?

I am grateful for the presence of the Secretary of State, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, and I would like him to answer one or two questions. The first concerns the delivery of international aid straight to the Afghans via the Afghan reconstruction fund, which is administered by the World Bank. How cleverly are we delivering money into the hands of the Afghans? Forgive me for using that horrid phrase, but if we are to empower the Afghan politician, authority, policeman, soldier, hospital or whomever, surely they must have budgets that they can use and that they can direct right to the spot where the trouble is. We cannot empathise exactly with the problems that face the Afghans—only they can—but we can make those in power seem powerful and influential in the eyes of the Afghans only if the money goes to the right places at the right times and is administered by Afghans, not Americans, Brits or Canadians. Can the Secretary of State shed some light on that?

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) made some interesting points about what motivates the Taliban. Are they still an ideological movement or have they become a pragmatic movement? What dialogue are we trying to establish with the Taliban? I appreciate that such dialogue is probably loathed by some of our allies, such as the Tajiks and others, but we must surely be clever in the same way that we were, at times, pretty clever in the 19th century on the north-west frontier. Will the Secretary of State make it clear how subtle and sophisticated we are being in talking to the people who oppose progress inside Afghanistan?

I shall end on that point, but I roundly condemned the Government’s tactic of sending few troops and few guns to Afghanistan when I led a similar debate in February this year. I hope that the Government have realised that we sent too few men, not to do killing and military tasks, but to enable security to reign, the NGOs to do their job and proper, sensible aid to be brought to the embattled people of Afghanistan.

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10.27 am

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) both on securing this debate and on making an incredibly good start to it, by laying out issues that only someone of his experience and background could present. I found that extraordinarily helpful. I also thank the Secretary of State for coming to this debate. I want to hear what he has to say and there are important questions to answer, so I shall keep my contribution short. I want to make two comments and then ask some questions.

First, my party supported the agenda for Afghanistan that the Government set out five years ago, but implicit in that support was the commitment of the international community not only to tackle the terrorist threat to the west, but to work together to bring reconstruction and economic development to Afghanistan. We are exceedingly worried at the slow pace at which that project has advanced. Secondly, as others would agree, Afghanistan has in many ways been a victim of the misguided US-UK adventure in Iraq, which has taken military resources, distracted promised investment in reconstruction and, perhaps most importantly, diverted high-level international attention away from what should have been one of the major projects of the past five years.

Some of my questions were asked in another place by Lord Garden, so the Secretary of State will have advance awareness of the issues that we want to pursue, which are about the progress towards reconstruction and development. The Afghanistan compact was agreed in London in January and set down some benchmarks, one of which stated:

Does the Secretary of State really believe that that can still be achieved? We are all conscious that reconstruction and development are impossible without security.

The compact also says that by the end of 2010 there will be in place

Does the Secretary of State not regard that as rather optimistic when, as others have said, there has been a 60 per cent. rise in the poppy harvest in the past year, when Afghanistan produces 92 per cent. of the world’s heroin supply and when the country depends on the export of illegal opium for some 70 per cent. of its gross domestic product? What can the Minister tell us to give us confidence that there has been a genuine shift to alternative livelihoods? Others have raised questions about that and about whether we should consider the licensed growth of poppies for medicine. Will the Minister enlighten us? Can he tell us something about the overall strategy that might give us some reasonable hope?

The compact states that by the end of 2010

How will that be possible, given that the education of girls, which lies at the heart of that aspiration, is—at least in the south and the south-east—being totally undermined? It had seemed to be locked in place, but now schools, especially girls’ schools, are being closed because of pressure from the Taliban and local communities.
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What action are the British Government taking to reverse those unfortunate experiences?

The Afghan compact requires the Government to raise domestic revenues to more than 8 per cent. of GDP by 2011. It also requires such revenues to cover 58 per cent. of their recurrent budget by that year; that compares with 28 per cent. now. Given the escalating costs of security and civil service reforms, is that realistic? Corruption is genuinely an issue, in part because of how we took control of Afghanistan—not through conquest, but through alliances with people, many of whom were inherently corrupt and now dominate many of the ministries, particularly at provincial level. The compact obliges the Government to fight corruption, but does not say how. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us on that issue.

An article by Christina Lamb in The Sunday Times of 8 October discussed the turf war between DFID and the Ministry of Defence. A little like the United States Agency for International Development, the MOD wants any possible jobs for young Afghans so that they have options other than joining the Taliban, joining a militia or growing poppies. DFID is looking for sustainable development. We all read that in Helmand province DFID could mention only a few market stalls as its contribution, as it has found the situation difficult. How will that circle be squared? Will the Minister tell us more?

We also read in that article that the British military, as others have mentioned, are turning to local militias—renamed “auxiliary police”—to guard various districts and allow the redeployment of British troops for reconstruction and development. What assurances do we have that that is not a new underpinning for the corrupt and authoritarian powers of warlords?

The UK mission in Afghanistan has always been characterised as firmly centred on the reconstruction effort. The United States has never been shy of saying that its mission has been one of “search and destroy”. There has always been confusion about the agendas and their priorities. When the US takes command of NATO forces in February, which agenda will take precedence? Can NGOs operate seriously if offensive air power is being used other than as a last resort?

Other questions have been raised in the debate. I thank you, Mr. Taylor, for the opportunity to speak. I shall take my seat, because so many of those questions need to be answered.

10.33 am

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): Like other Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on securing this important debate. I join him and other Members in congratulating and thanking British troops for their bravery and commitment in Afghanistan.

This has been an excellent debate. My hon. Friend commenced it with an articulate and informative contribution, based and founded on his personal experience. I am sure that the Secretary of State will acknowledge that across the Chamber—although I emphasise the contributions from the Conservative Benches—there is real expertise and knowledge, and a genuine concern about what is going on in Afghanistan. My hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood),
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for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and for Newark (Patrick Mercer) have made significant contributions, in their own inimitable styles.

We Conservatives support the Government’s aim in Afghanistan: to prevent the recurrence of a failed state, and the re-emergence of Taliban or al-Qaeda terrorists and the effect that that would directly have on Britain’s security. We accept that preventing Afghanistan from becoming a rogue or fragile state is a complex mission, at the heart of which must be the reconstruction of the country in all its facets. The creation of a stable state is challenging, but it is fundamental for regional and global security, for controlling narcotics production, for the improvement of the capacity of the Afghan Government and for Afghan citizens.

In January, we welcomed the Afghan compact, which commits the British Government, other donor Governments—the involvement of some was surprising—the Afghanistan Government and the UN to improving conditions in the country. As other hon. Members have said, the key principle of the compact is to give more ownership of the process of development and reconstruction to the Afghan Government and their people. The other key aspect is the improvement of economic development—a point well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury. Significant benchmarks were set out in the compact, and I should be grateful if the Secretary of State said whether they were being applied and met. Does he still think that they are working and correct?

The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) made a good point in saying that he did not understand what the obtainable objectives in Afghanistan were—counter-narcotics, counter-insurgency or nation building? Will the Secretary of State set out the Government’s priorities and the order in which they put those issues?

I shall not detail the expenditure proposed for Afghanistan except to say that the Government have rightly made significant commitments, bilaterally and through multilateral channels, to enable capacity to be built. It should be put on record that it is estimated that during the past five years, since the allied forces’ intervention in Afghanistan, 2,000 schools and 70 new hospitals and clinics have been built, and that 4.5 million refugees have returned home. Those significant achievements need to be acknowledged.

However, numerous challenges remain, not only for the donor Governments, including the British Government, but for the Afghan Government, the Afghan people, the NGOs and the aid agencies. Only yesterday, there were suicide bombs in Kandahar and Kabul. Terrible atrocities are taking place on the main highway, as I am sure the Secretary of State is aware.

I am not sure that I agree with one of the points made by the hon. Member for Newport, West. We need to tackle both the supply and demand for opium production. It would not be acceptable to leave the supply side to blossom and grow unchecked. We need to strengthen the Government, civil society, the provision of infrastructure, the development of sustainable public services and the creation of a non-narco economy. All those challenging issues need to be taken head-on.

In some parts of the country there is economic activity and improvement in infrastructure, but progress is being hampered by the deteriorating security situation, persistent
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unemployment, poverty and corruption. The real key to the issue is that very few Afghans have felt much benefit from the political change of the past few years. Most still live in abject poverty; Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and is not on track to meet any of the millennium development goals—so much so that the MDGs in Afghanistan have been added to and put back by five years to 2020. There is a Government in Afghanistan, but they do not have much capacity. They have very little penetration and reach in rural areas among the traditional make-up of Afghan society and the different ethnic groups in different parts of the country.

I shall not concentrate on security, as other Members have mentioned that, but I should like to make a couple of points. The international community needs to do far more to develop faster the Afghan police force, which is two years off track. There are significant problems. The force is criticised for being fragmented; many police remain loyal to local warlords rather than the national interest. That needs to be tackled.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newark made reference to my next point. Military commanders in Afghanistan are speaking of a small window of opportunity for reconstruction and development in the next six months—during the winter, until the spring returns. Does the Secretary of State agree that that short window exists? If so, how do he and his Department intend to take advantage of it?

Will the Secretary of State confirm how many DFID personnel are in Afghanistan? How many, if any, remain in Helmand province? Under what circumstances will he allow them to return, hopefully to start the reconstruction and redevelopment process?

I should like to make a couple of points about the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. Nine provinces face a critical shortage of drinking water, and the failure of many cereal crops could leave 2.5 million people in Afghanistan facing a chronic food shortage. What thinking have the UK Government and DFID done and what contribution have they made to the latest UN drought appeal? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the situation does not escalate into another major humanitarian disaster?

We are deeply concerned that Afghanistan and the Afghan Government are not on track to meet any of their millennium development goals, which as I have said have been pushed back to 2020. What is DFID doing to improve progress towards the targets, and how many of the goals does it expect Afghanistan to reach by the revised 2020 deadline?

One of the most oppressive features of the Taliban regime is their appalling behaviour towards women. We very much welcome the freeing up and expansion of education facilities available to women in Afghanistan, but there are suggestions that up to 200 schools in Kandahar and 165 in Helmand have been closed for security reasons. DFID and the military must focus on reopening education facilities, particularly those for girls, and protecting female Government employees who work in high-risk areas. When does the Secretary of State hope and anticipate that many of those schools will be reopened?

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