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9 Jan 2007 : Column 35WH—continued

11.45 am

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I shall be brief, but I wish to make a couple of points. First, I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) for his introduction to the debate, which was well informed and measured in tone. That is the line that we must take when discussing Afghanistan.

We had a visit from a group of parliamentarians in December, and some of us took part in a video conference with Members of the Afghan Parliament, who pointed out a few things that are relevant to this debate. They asked that we not let our discussion of Afghan issues be completely overwhelmed by what is happening in Helmand province. They obviously understood that there are enormous difficulties in Helmand but asked that we bear it in mind that that situation is not necessarily typical of what is happening across Afghanistan.

The Afghan parliamentarians were also keen that we, as a group of British parliamentarians, press our Government to secure more international support for what we are trying to achieve militarily in Afghanistan and to urge NATO to provide additional support.

Afghan parliamentarians are aware of corruption in their Parliament. Those with whom we had the video conference are challenging it themselves. That is an enormous advance, and as parliamentarians we should do what we can to support them in that challenge. We had discussions with the British Council, which works with parliamentarians on language skills, and on understanding what is meant by governance and what they need to do to govern effectively. Again, that is something that we should recognise and applaud, and we should do what we can to support it.

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The Afghan parliamentarians stressed that we should get on with economic development and reconstruction. They said that although supporting additional security is obviously necessary, it should not take our attention away from the other side of the coin, which is ensuring that economic development and reconstruction continue. At the end of the day, that is the only way to secure hearts and minds. People must be able to see on the ground that things are getting better.

I hope that all Members have received a copy of the report that was sent out by the BBC World Service in the past week. It carried out a nation-wide survey of opinion in Afghanistan. Seven in 10 people are still happy with the presence of US, Canadian and UK troops, and some 74 per cent. said that, overall, their living conditions are better today than they were under the Taliban. Obviously, they still have enormous concerns about security and corruption, but the Afghan parliamentarians want us to challenge negativity and pessimism such as that in the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). They were astonished at the pessimism that is expressed in this country, not only in Parliament but by non-governmental organisations, and they are doing what they can to challenge it. That is not to say that they are not aware of the enormous difficulties, and I would not want to play them down. In essence, a country is being built from scratch, in terms not only of basic services but of principles of government, security services and the legal system. That is an enormous challenge. We should see it as a challenge and do what we can to support the Government. We should be not unnecessarily pessimistic but realistic, and we should get on with the job.

11.50 am

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is an honour to participate in the debate and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing it.

It is sad that we are not able to conduct such debates more frequently in the House, considering that Britain is at war in Afghanistan. We have 4,000 soldiers there, who are working very hard. I must acknowledge some of the comments made by my right hon. Friend. I have been to Afghanistan three times now and each time I come back with far more information than I ever glean from the Government. It is important that all hon. Members who have been to Afghanistan can come back and contribute to such debates. Sometimes we do not get the full information about the consequences and challenges, so it helps us if we visit such places as frequently as we can.

I pay tribute to the work of 3 Commando Brigade and to that of their predecessors, 16 Air Assault Brigade, in doing a difficult job. However, they do not have the technical support or the back up that they need. It is not possible to patrol an area the size of Wales with eight Apache helicopters and four Lynxes. I am afraid that that is a reflection on the commitment that the Government now show towards our military, which is seen in the many comments made by a series of generals, both retired and serving, on the state of
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our armed forces. For example, let us take the comments of General Rose on the state of our Army, those of General Dannatt—a serving officer—about the consequences of our struggling in Iraq and those of General Jackson in the Dimbleby lecture. They need to be taken seriously by the Government if we are to ensure that we are successful in Afghanistan.

If we are to be successful, we must ensure that we provide the right equipment. The Vector Pinzgauers have been mentioned, and I have been calling for some time for Warrior vehicles to be sent. The Canadians and, indeed, the Americans are now taking full-blown battle tanks, but instead, as hon. Members might remember, in July we had to rush through the sudden and hasty purchase of Vectors and Cougars, which are tougher vehicles, much better than the Land Rovers that have resulted in some 21 soldiers being killed because they are not tough enough.

Time is limited, so I shall drop many of the comments that I would have liked to make. On my last visit, I saw that huge progress has been made, particularly in the north. Schools are opening up, radio stations are developing and we are getting the bases of the communities that we so wanted. In the south, the picture is very different. The serious levels of corruption are now being exposed by the relative peace. Some speakers today mentioned that they have met Members of Parliament from Afghanistan, but those whom I have met have never been to their constituencies because that is too dangerous. We have to ask how much of a democracy that is.

We are not taking advantage of the fragile peace because of a fundamental lack of co-ordination in reconstruction activities. Who is in charge? Is it Tom Koenigs of the UN, or the head of the EU in Afghanistan, or our representative from the Department for International Development? I witnessed those organisations competing against each other rather than working together. We need one overall co-ordinator with the authority to knock heads together and work with ISAF commanders. That is absent from Afghanistan and a ton of money is being wasted as a result. Those are the issues that we on this side of Europe can get right.

I want to see the EU take a more pivotal role. One way in which the EU could do well would be in spending the tons of money that are pouring in better. There are rivers that run underground in Afghanistan that are not tapped into. Those are larger projects than the quick impact projects that the local provincial reconstruction teams can tap into. Such projects need massive co-ordination, big engineering and a huge amount of work beyond the ability of any DFID operation in Helmand province or of the German foreign ministry in the north. That is where the co-ordination must take place.

My final point is about poppy growth. We have a shortage of diamorphine in this country, and another country—the third poorest in the world—is producing poppies that could make diamorphine. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that there has to be a little co-ordination. I heed the points that have been made. Yes, it is difficult to wean people off growing poppies but let us have some five-year pilot programmes that allow us to purchase the poppies directly from the
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farmers. We can turn them into something that the world has a shortage of and at the same time introduce other programmes whereby farmers grow other crops. It takes a while to grow peach trees, so in such a five-year programme we can slowly wean farmers off their reliance on poppies. If we were to do that we would provide financial support direct to the farmer, raise taxes for the Government, cut off the clandestine links that have been established with Pakistan, and remove the link to terrorism, too.

Time is short, Mrs. Humble, and it seems so sad as I know that everybody else wants to say so much. In conclusion, we are at a tipping point. We have been in Afghanistan for five years and not a huge amount has happened in that time. We need to do so much more. The window of opportunity is closing, and we need a workable solution to the challenge of poppy growth. The Prime Minister has said that we can have any equipment that we want there, so let us meet the challenge and encourage our allies to do so, too.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair): Order. I have three people wishing to speak and five minutes left for them to do so, so I urge everybody to be extremely brief.

11.55 am

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): I shall be extremely brief. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on gaining this debate and I congratulate all hon. Members on the extraordinary analysis that has been made by members of all parties in the Chamber this morning. There has perhaps been more analysis of Afghanistan than of almost any other hot spot anywhere in the globe in the current political conflict. It has all been enlightening in many respects.

To those who say that the military or the Government are spinning, let me remind them that the first casualty of war is always truth. It is extremely difficult to get to the bottom of what is going on. I immediately disagree, however, with my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn): now is not the time to plan a withdrawal from Afghanistan. I say that in the light of a recent visit I undertook with the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling—

Paul Flynn: I did not say withdrawal from Afghanistan, but from Helmand province.

Mr. Purchase: I shall move on, because that is now on the record and that is fair enough.

Let me quote from the International Crisis Group’s report, which gets to the heart of the matter. The group, having heard the analysis and carried out significant amounts of work in Afghanistan, states:

it gives the examples of Bosnia and Kosovo—

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The report also states:

I commend the report to all who want to make any difference in Afghanistan.

I was also interested by a quote from the deputy Secretary-General of the UN, who said that unless we go to Afghanistan, Afghanistan will come to us—and, by golly, in a big way. In the west midlands and in other conurbations, the market for drugs is growing at an exponential rate. The way to tackle that is not to go for some of the poorest farmers on the face of the earth, who exist on just over a dollar a day to keep their families, but to prevent the demand here, in Europe and in America from increasing and to reduce it through education.

In Afghanistan, I saw our two old friends: poverty and his bedfellow inequality. Until we tackle those two problems in Afghanistan, as we must elsewhere, the rise and rise of fundamentalism will continue to confound us and even our best efforts will be laid waste. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West that there are no quick answers, but the long answer is education, the elimination of poverty and the reconstruction of devastated nations.

11.59 am

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on a characteristically thorough and impressive introduction to our debate.

The backdrop, of course, is the attacks by al-Qaeda on the United States on 11 September 2001 and the subsequent response by the US and others, including the United Kingdom. The Liberal Democrats supported the intervention by British armed forces in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, partly because the country was evidently a base for al-Qaeda and could form a platform for exporting militancy around the world. It was difficult to have much sympathy for the Taliban regime.

Considerable progress has been made, and I am sure others would echo the sentiment that the tales coming out of Afghanistan are not all bleak. For a start the Taliban Government have been removed; the Taliban has residual influence but it no longer controls the country as it did. Anyone who is of a liberal disposition will see huge merit in the fact that the Taliban is no longer running the country.

Many basic measures of attainment are pointing in the right direction. There is greater access to health care and an increasing number of children are being educated. We have seen progress, and I would not wish anyone to leave here with the impression that my party does not regard that as worthy of support, just as we remain supportive of the troops and the British presence in Afghanistan. However, there is much to reflect upon given the difference between the objectives and ambitions that the country had when we first sent troops there and the position today.

From the beginning, it is fair to say that there has been confusion about the purpose of the mission in
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Afghanistan. We were told that troops were intended to enhance stability and to spread the authority of the Afghan Government, but what was billed as a stability mission has rapidly become a full-blown counter-insurgency operation. One can see that in the disparity between the present position and the statements made by the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) when he was Secretary of State for Defence. He allowed the British to believe that there may be no need for British forces to engage in substantial fighting in southern Afghanistan. That is evidently not the case, and the news on our television screens and radios and in our newspapers nearly every day makes that clear.

We are trying to fight in two countries in the middle east—Afghanistan and Iraq. It is worth repeating that if the armed forces are overstretched it is due in large part to the fact that the Labour and Conservatives parties voted for us to go to war simultaneously in both countries. Many people in the Liberal Democrat party and beyond regard the invasion of Iraq as a distraction from the work being done in Afghanistan.

We supposedly invaded Iraq because of the link between Saddam Hussein and the appalling events of 11 September 2001—a link that has never been established; or because, according to the Prime Minister’s account, weapons of mass destruction posed an imminent threat to the security of the United Kingdom. Some said that that threat could be realised in 45 minutes. That, too, proved not to be the case. I leave those arguments to one side—they have been rehearsed again and again, and I wish to consider only the effect on Afghanistan.

I keep hearing about overstretch, a lack of equipment for British forces and the difficulties of retention and recruitment in the armed forces because of problems with morale and the time that soldiers and others have to spend away from home. Our presence in Iraq was the result of a conscious decision by the vast majority of Labour and Conservative Members in the House that we would commit our forces to the war in Iraq, despite the absence of al-Qaeda links in Iraq and the evident links in Afghanistan. That war has been a distraction from some of the work being undertaken in Afghanistan.

Drugs were mentioned earlier. If that is a measure of our success, it is lamentable. The Prime Minister gave the country the impression that the British presence in Afghanistan would reduce the amount of drugs coming to the UK and being used here illegally. I refer to a written answer to the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown)—I give credit where it is due—from the Foreign Office. It confirmed that in Afghanistan in 2005 4,100 metric tonnes of opium poppies were cultivated; that by 2006 the figure was up to 6,100 tonnes—an increase of about 50 per cent. year on year—and that Helmand province saw an increase of 162 per cent. in the amount of opium poppy cultivation in 2006. If that was the Prime Minister’s objective, as we were led to believe, our efforts have not been conspicuously successful.

I wish to give others more time to speak, particularly the Minister, so I finish by saying that, although our presence in Afghanistan is necessary to continue to ensure that it does not act as a base for exporting violent militancy, extremism and terrorism around the world, good things are being done there. However,
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there is confusion about our objectives. I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with these three questions.

First, what is our goal? In summary, is our aim to make the country sufficiently stable that people do not daily go in fear of their lives and that the aid agencies can go about their business reasonably unmolested, or are we instead trying to achieve the far more ambitious goal of exporting western-style liberal democracy to Afghanistan? If it is the second, laudable though it may be, the Government will have a big struggle on their hands.

The only time in my memory that power has changed hands between political parties was at the 1997 general election. That shows how infrequently it happens in Britain—or how young I am, or a combination of the two. I remember being struck by how painless the process was. One party and one Prime Minister were in charge of one of the most powerful countries in the world—a member of the United Nations Security Council, a member of NATO, a nuclear power and all that goes with that—but after the people had voted, they exited office and a newer regime, a newer Administration, came in with a new Prime Minister. We take such things for granted, assuming that they can be exported to other countries, and that others can pick them up and take things from there, but the process that took place in the UK in 1997 and which happens in other mature and established democracies takes a long time to establish. The Government are showing an element of naiveté if they think that they can export our liberal democratic systems and values as a package to other countries. Indeed, we have heard a lot about the corruption in Afghanistan that undermines those intentions.

The second question is what is the Government’s envisaged timetable in Afghanistan? They may not have one, but I would be interested to know whether the Minister thinks that we will be there months, years or decades. At the moment, it is unclear. He may say, as the Prime Minister does about Iraq, that we will be there for as long as the job takes, but that is an extremely vague basis on which to plan defence expenditure and British foreign policy.

The third question summarises all that I have said. What would the Government regard as constituting success in Afghanistan? Whether we take it from when the Prime Minister leaves office in a few months, or whether we take a longer view and consider what might have happened in 10 years’ time, what would the Minister regard as a successful outcome to our venture in Afghanistan? It would be extremely interesting to know, as it would be a basis on which to measure the Government’s policy and the achievements that had been made in the meantime.

12.09 am

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