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9 Jan 2007 : Column 28WH—continued

We are left, therefore, with what appears to be only one option: a slow process, which will probably take many years, of combining moral and religious persuasion, and, hopefully, a more effective system of deterrence through the criminal justice system. It will probably require a more intensive form of eradication as well, particularly through the use of ground-based
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spraying. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us whether the British Government are now willing to back such spraying as a means of dealing with eradication more effectively.

Paul Flynn: Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that if poppy cultivation in Afghanistan were reduced, production would inevitably increase in Myanmar, north Pakistan, Kazakhstan and a string of other countries, which could lead to the Colombiarisation of a large part of central Asia?

Sir John Stanley: I certainly recognise the force of what the hon. Gentleman says, in that the market is international. However, we must consider the issue in the context of Afghanistan and its relation to the UK. The overwhelming proportion of the heroin sold on the streets of our towns and cities comes from Afghanistan. Poppy production in Afghanistan is also directly contrary to our security objectives there, as it produces a lot of money for the Taliban and finances their recruitment. Against those two criteria, we must be persistent and determined in trying to effect the gradual but ultimately total eradication of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan.

My last non-security point concerns human rights, which is also of profound importance. I should like to raise one small issue initially, which concerns the memorandum of understanding, which was entered into shortly before we arrived in Afghanistan, between the Afghan Government and the British Government on the treatment of detainees—that is, persons who are detained by British forces in Afghanistan and then transferred to the Afghan authorities. There is a clear written obligation in the memorandum on the British armed forces out there to notify both the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission when they make those transfers. However, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission made a strong complaint to us during our meeting about the lack of timeliness of such notifications. I hope that the Minister will give that matter his attention. It is important that we fulfil our obligations under that memorandum of understanding.

The central human rights issue in Afghanistan applies to approximately one half of the population. That half is of course the female population. Our presence in Afghanistan will determine whether the huge progress that has been made since the days of the Taliban tyranny on giving women greater human rights, and career and employment opportunities—we were glad to meet a number of women parliamentarians—and, perhaps most critically, on providing education for girls, will be carried forward or whether it will be totally obliterated, which would be the result of allowing the Taliban to take back control.

One cannot stress too strongly either how much is at stake or the sheer ruthlessness of the Taliban in their determination to deprive women and girls of those fundamental human rights. The Taliban are people who still burn down schools in the south simply because they take girls. They have murdered teachers in schools simply because those schools give access to girls. Therefore, when we talk about human rights in
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Afghanistan, we are talking about the fundamental rights of one half of the population there.

I am in no doubt that we should be in Afghanistan. The security case is overwhelming. It is unthinkable to allow the Taliban to retake control of that country and to return it to before 9/11. There is also a fundamental human rights case for being there. I conclude by saying that we are right to have removed the Taliban and we are right to be there, but we must do more, by deploying more resources to ensure that we win on security grounds, and we must be prepared to be there for the long haul.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair): Order. I intend to call Front-Bench spokespersons from about 12 o’clock, so if hon. Members who have indicated that they would like to speak can be reasonably brief, we can, I hope, get everybody in.

11.25 am

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): We are all grateful to the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley)—I can call him my friend, because I have known him for a long time—for the wealth of his experience on the Foreign Affairs Committee and for all that he has learned on his visit to Afghanistan. He gave a sobering report. What came through some of his suggestions was the pessimism that must be the proper reaction to the situation there, particularly after our incursion in Helmand province.

To return to the beginning of our involvement, it is important that we have a Minister here who played a crucial part in the early days of the invasion and its aftermath. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in October 2001:

The hope that was shared by the Government and the Opposition, almost unanimously throughout the House, was that there could be a twin battle against the threat of terrorism and, rightly, against the Taliban and their mediaeval cruelty, to which the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling referred, while also destroying the refuge that al-Qaeda had enjoyed in that country. They were seen to be worthwhile objectives and were supported almost unanimously throughout the House. We would have a twin campaign—a double war and a double victory.

We see now, however, that we have not secured a double victory but, if anything, a double catastrophe. We have been reminded of the drugs situation. Not only has Britain taken the lead, but the spending will increase to more than £200 million—we have spent more than £100 million already, £21 million of which has disappeared without trace and greatly antagonised the Taliban farmers. It was meant to be paid to them in compensation, but it disappeared in what for the past two centuries has been the endemically corrupt system of government in Afghanistan—there is a long history of that. Freedom of information investigations have turned up some of the documents that were needed for the Taliban farmers whose crops were destroyed in
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2003 to receive the compensation due to them. They have not received that compensation and they rightly feel cheated. In fact, the efforts that we made in destroying those crops gave a further inducement to those farmers to plant more crops. We find ourselves in the ridiculous situation where our actions there have not reduced the crops—production fell by 2 per cent. in the year before last, but it is now up by 60 per cent., to the highest it has ever been.

The idea was to stop the heroin on the streets of Britain, but if we go a few hundreds yards from this place, we can buy heroin more cheaply in real terms than at any time. That is utter, abject failure. As I said in my intervention on the right hon. Gentleman, even if we had successfully destroyed the entire crop, the supply of the heroin would not be affected—it might be affected temporarily, but that would only increase the price and thereby the crime on our streets. The reaction would be an immediate increase in cultivation in Laos, Myanmar and elsewhere in that string of countries, exactly as has happened in Colombia. We should have learned the lesson: America spent billions of dollars trying to destroy the crops in Colombia. It had some success in that it reduced Colombian production, but production greatly increased in Peru and Bolivia in keeping with the “squeezed balloon” principle.

A splendid report by Lord Birt and the strategy unit, published under freedom of information legislation, clearly makes the point: we cannot destroy the drugs problem on the supply side. We can do it only in other ways. The situation is one of abject, utter failure. The lives of British troops are being sacrificed to an impossible cause. As always, I praise the heroism and professionalism of our soldiers in Afghanistan; I have met some from my constituency. Given the combat that they face, they are doing a splendid job in circumstances as difficult as anything faced by soldiers for many years.

I turn to what has been happening recently. A short while ago in the House, I raised a question with the Secretary of State for Defence about the endemic corruption of the Karzai Government—not so much of Karzai himself. I am sure that he is a good and idealistic man, but he is running the country in the only way possible: by doing dirty deals, through bribery and by using an army of provincial governors and police chiefs. I asked the Secretary of State:

We are associated with that rotten Government. There was an election, so they are a democratic Government, but as a western democracy we would not recognise them as a fair Government. The Secretary of State gave me an interesting answer. In a bit of a cheap shot, about which I later wrote to him, he decided that I was attacking one man. I was not; I was attacking the generality. He referred to the only star, the only provincial governor about whom we could talk with pride. The Secretary of State said:

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I did not mention Helmand in the question, but that is what he said. He continued:

The Secretary of State was absolutely right and entirely fair, but last month Mohammad Daud was sacked. He is no longer the provincial governor of Helmand province; clearly, in that province there is no place, certainly in the Karzai Government, for someone with idealism who is non-corrupt. Mr. Daud could not survive there. Not only was Mr. Daud non-corrupt, but he achieved what has probably been the most promising success in Afghanistan by negotiating the deal that has brought temporary peace in Musa Qala. There is an interesting set-up there, which I think gives hope for the future.

Yes, we agree that there have been great gains in Afghanistan as far as women and education are concerned. However, it would be a mistake to believe that women are educated on the finer points of Plato’s “Republic” or the writings of Voltaire. They are educated in sharia law. There is no way of altering that; it is part of the culture of Afghanistan. The Taliban attacks on the schools and their murder of teachers and others involved is wickedness on a terrible scale. Of course we have to fight to try to stop that happening. However, do we have an attainable aim? Can we really do it? I believe that we can defend the gains that we have made around Kabul. For all the control that he has, Karzai is really the mayor of Kabul. The rest of Afghanistan is farmed out to warlords and provincial governors who still run the bulk of the country.

Since our February Westminster Hall debate on Afghanistan, we have been arguing about our going into Helmand province and trying to extend there. That was mission impossible; we cannot take control in that area. We can defend the gains around Kabul and use Karzai’s influence on the warlords, but that is the maximum that we can gain. That is not just my opinion. In our February debate, I gave a very pessimistic assessment of the situation and suggested that we were heading towards a British or NATO Vietnam.

Having heard suggestions that we should escalate the number of troops in the country, I am extremely worried that such a situation will come about, in which we are fighting not a traditional war between nations but an insurgency. We know the result of that from Chinese, US and French involvement in Vietnam and the humiliation of various other western nations with great sophisticated armies. I do not want to make too close a comparison with the Russians on this issue, but what is happening now was exactly forecast to me by a member of the Duma when we invaded in 2001.

At the moment, the hope of getting out with some dignity is the Musa Qala deal. I wrote to and asked the Secretary of State for Defence about that. I suggested to him that we had withdrawn British troops from Musa Qala, and that that had seemed a sensible thing to do. He said that we had not withdrawn the troops, but redeployed them. There is a subtle difference, perhaps; I do not know.

The Taliban are still in Musa Qala; they are inactive but present. We are not there, and a deal was done by
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the people who run the place so that they could recruit their own army, which I understand we are helping to finance. All that has resulted in a period of calm, without hostility. There is hope, although there is some nervousness in the Government about whether the situation will break down. Questions have been raised about the loyalty of the army, given that many of its members are certainly former members of the Taliban. However, in the context of looking for an optimistic solution, the Musa Qala deal has been good. We should certainly try to extend it to Sangin province.

After February, when we went in, we had lost seven troops in Afghanistan, most as a result of accidents. Since then, I believe that we have lost another 35, mostly in combat. That is a sad and bitter price for their families to pay.

There is an answer. I was disappointed to hear what the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling said about the serious suggestion of using poppies for medicinal purposes as morphine. He said that the market was flooded, but it is not flooded as far as the developing world is concerned. The chance of a person in the developing world with a terminal illness or in terrible pain getting morphine is very small—only 6 per cent. Following the suggestion might well reduce the price of morphine.

In the western world, we know that if we face terminal pain we will almost certainly be supplied with morphine, that greatest of painkillers. However, there is certainly a market in the world that needs to be supplied. Médecins sans Frontières says that it has great difficulty in getting supplies and providing people with the boon of morphine and codeine. Yes, there is a great legal market supplied by Turkey, India and Tasmania, but it is not saturated. The suggestion in respect of poppies is practical. There are ways of growing them so that they go down the medical route rather than that of drugs of abuse. We should take up the proposals made by the Senlis council. There is support from Afghan farmers, who are either bribed from one side or attacked from the other.

The new governor of Helmand province, Mr. Wafa—a bit of an unknown quantity—has a plan to spray the poppies with herbicide. We can only pause to recall past experience of spraying crops. I do not know whether Mr. Wafa intends to spray them from the air, but the Karzai Government oppose the plan. However, we know that in most such cases, the decisions are taken by the United States as it exercises its influence over Karzai. Another catastrophe could take place; the people will certainly be further antagonised.

We can congratulate our troops, who recently achieved a significant military victory. Their reconstruction work has been virtually frozen for some months now. They were virtually confined to their barracks because of the ferocity of opposition from the Taliban and some of the civilian populations. Adding crop spraying to the list of what are perceived to be our crimes as the farangi in that area will further add to the difficulty of ever winning hearts and minds there.

You rightly asked us to be reasonably brief so that everyone can speak, Mrs. Humble, so I shall wind up now. There is no quick fix, but neither is there a slow fix. We must recognise that our mission in Helmand province is unattainable.

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There is another danger. As a member of the Western European Union Defence Committee, I speak to people from more than 40 European countries. I know the views of fellow members of NATO such as France, Germany and Italy. Their views are different from those of this country, Canada and the Netherlands. I do not believe that there is any situation in which they would go into Kandahar or Helmand province. They regard that as a step too far and something that would be a suicidal mission for their soldiers.

Canada, Britain and the Netherlands have lost a great many troops. One questions whether they died in vain. It would be an act of criminal folly for us to send more troops on a mission for which there is no possible victory. Our best course of action would be to consolidate the gains that we have made around Kabul and to use our influence with the Karzai Government for benign ends. We should not continue with what we are doing in Helmand but seek a dignified retreat from the province. We will not call it a retreat, of course—we will dress it up as a deal—but we must get out of there. We can work with warlords who could use their influence to bring peace, but we will not achieve some kind of Scandinavian democracy in the area, as many here claim is possible. It is unattainable.

11.42 am

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) for his interesting contribution.

What strikes me about the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly Afghanistan, is the Government’s lack of candour. A long briefing that the military gave the Defence Committee during its visit last year to Kandahar was very interesting. At the end of it, I bumped into a friend. He dragged me outside and around the back, and said, “I can’t believe it. You sat there for three hours but the military have not told you that all five of our platoon houses in northern Helmand are today in heavy contact. All those guys giving you the briefing are apoplectic because yesterday the Americans dropped a 500 lb bomb or two on children in a compound in Helmand province without the slightest reference to the British.” That culture—that lack of candour—reflects a degree of panic on the part of the Government.

It suits the Government very well that we all stand up in the House of Commons and bang on about the lack of helicopters, body armour and vehicles. Those are important issues, of course, but they obscure a much bigger picture. On 12 September 2001, we had the sympathy of the vast majority of people in the Muslim world, the middle east and the Maghreb. Today, that picture is very different. The effect of our policies and those of a US Administration that completely dropped the notion of pragmatism in foreign affairs from the lexicon has been to push tens of millions of people in the middle east—and, regrettably, a few in our own country—into the hands of al-Qaeda and the like. Previously, those people had thoroughly objected to such groups, but now they are against us. For the benefit and safety of the people of this country and our allies, this Government, during the time that remains to them, must urgently address what on earth
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they are going to do about the situation. The effect of their policies has been the reverse of what they wanted to achieve.

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The hon. Gentleman has just suggested that the Government are able to determine the content of a military briefing given to Members of Parliament in southern Afghanistan. Is he seriously suggesting that the Government would instruct the military on how to brief Members of Parliament?

Mr. Holloway: No, I am not suggesting that.

Mr. Hoon: That is what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Holloway: I did not say that. I said that the culture was the problem. I shall give another example. The Defence Committee was at the airport, waiting to leave Kabul. Along comes the senior Foreign Office official, who is a good guy. He has done great stuff in southern Afghanistan. Has he come to say goodbye to us? No, he has come, rather like a public relations man, to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, there are three key points that you must take back.” The Government created that culture, and I have many friends in the military from the time when I served in it who would agree with me.

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