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Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I wish you all the compliments of the new year, Mr. Pope. I thank the Minister for being here; and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing this debate. My right hon. Friend did exactly the right thing, given that we have some 6,000 troops in Afghanistan, that we are in a deep military conflict and that we have committed ourselves to about £400 million of aid for Afghanistan.
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This should not be a debate in private Members’ time; it should be a properly constituted Government debate. We should have a debate on this subject at least once a quarter and the Government should tell us what progress they are making towards the timelines and ambitions contained in the London compact signed just over a year ago. I urge anybody who has not read that document to do so. It is not an onerous document to read, but it is very interesting and contains some important information. However, in my view, the compact is vastly over-optimistic and I will come on to the aims of that document in a moment.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on what he has said. In particular, I agree that, as in many other parts of the world, a solution will not be reached by military means alone. There has to be a stable security situation in Afghanistan to achieve the other goals we are aiming for. Surely, one of those goals is the establishment of a stable and secure central Government in Kabul with an independent judiciary and a stable economy delivering improved public services for all the people of Afghanistan.

So, where do we go from here? My right hon. Friend did well to emphasise the problem of overstretching our military. We are beginning to see that in every aspect of military life, from cutting back capital resources in our Navy to the condition of the living quarters of our armed troops, which was highlighted over the Christmas break. Many different areas of the military are overstretched. The Government must decide exactly what they want from our armed forces and what assets they will provide them with. It is morally unacceptable to send our troops into danger without properly equipping them.

We, the official Opposition, believe that it is absolutely essential that we bring stability to Afghanistan and therefore, in a sense, all like-minded western democracies are in this fight together. Much mention has been made of those countries which have deployed forces to Afghanistan. Congratulations and thanks should be given to the countries that have taken the brunt on the front line—America, Canada, ourselves and the Netherlands. However, it must be said that other allies could do more, particularly considering the size of their armed forces and the number of troops deployed. I will not name names, but several of our key European allies do not commit as many troops as they should while others commit troops yet impose huge numbers of caveats. Those troops should be available to commanders on the ground in whatever capacity they wish to deploy them.

Having said that we are in this fight together, what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan and what needs to happen in the future? It is not all doom and gloom as some hon. Members have said that it is. The number of women being educated in the north of Afghanistan is certainly increasing; on the other hand, Human Rights Watch says that the overall number of women being educated in Afghanistan is not enough and that the situation has not changed as much as women in Afghanistan would want or the liberators would desire.

I have a story that will particularly appeal to the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), if not to other hon. Members, because it sums up what is taking place in the Parliament and democratic
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processes of Afghanistan today. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling met the lady my story is about when he visited the country. She is a parliamentarian in Afghanistan and her name is Malalai Joya. She is just 28 years old and is the youngest and most famous of all the women in the Afghan Parliament. Her very presence in the Parliament is a powerful symbol of change. She rose to fame in 2003 when she made a speech attacking the warlords who still hold the balance of power in Afghanistan. On that occasion, one of the men she was attacking, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, rose and told her that her speech was a crime. He announced in the Afghan Parliament that

He then asked for her microphone to be disconnected. The then Speaker of the House, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi—a former mujaheddin leader—called her an infidel and said that if she did not apologise, she could not attend the next session of Parliament. I could not imagine you, Mr. Pope, doing anything similar. However, that incident shows what is taking place in the life of Afghanistan and is an example of what we must reckon with.

The general situation in Afghanistan has been mentioned and I would like to go back to the compact that was signed over a year ago. I draw the attention of hon. Members in particular to the annex at the back. On those countries who could supply armed forces, I ask hon. Members to look at annex IV, which lists the countries that could but do not supply troops. I urge the Minister to look at that list and consider whether he could urge some of our key allies to provide more troops. As the Secretary-General of NATO has said, we need another 2,500 troops.

I draw the Minister’s attention to one or two of the timelines in the compact. First, and perhaps most important, on the international security forces, annex I of the compact states:

We are a long way off achieving that. On the Afghan army, the compact goes on to state:

On the Afghan national and border police, the compact states that by the end of 2010 a fully constituted, professional, functional and ethnically based Afghan national police will be established with up to 62,000 men. Those aims are vastly optimistic, but extremely important. That is why I repeat to the Minister that the Government need constantly to come to Parliament and update hon. Members on progress towards those goals. Some of our troops have been in Afghanistan since 2001 and the vast bulk have been there since the middle of 2006, with further troops committed towards the end of 2006. I do not believe that those aims are any closer to realisation than they were when we committed troops. Indeed, some of the
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aims in relation to counter-narcotics are further away from being achieved than when the compact was written.

Paul Flynn: Another point of view is that the Governments of Germany, France and Italy are to be commended because they have not put their troops at risk of death for an impossible cause. If the hon. Gentleman is urging the other NATO countries to send more troops into Kandahar and Helmand, will he tell us the number of troops he thinks NATO should have to achieve a military victory?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman has put it on the record in his own way, but, as I have already said, the Secretary-General of NATO has estimated that we need another 2,500 troops to improve the security situation in Afghanistan. He has named those countries that he thinks could provide more troops, and his intervention brings me on to his pet subject—counter-narcotics.

The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) quoted the parliamentary answer that I was given, but I would like to bring hon. Members’ attention to the aim stated in the compact on counter-narcotics. It says in reference to the Afghan Government that,

I am told that one of the main problems with drugs is that we are not going after the dealers or the manufacturing facilities. I do not know why, but there is a suspicion that the dealers are being kept so that we can gain more intelligence. That is unacceptable; if we know who they are, we should go after them. We should follow the American model in Colombia. I commend the Minister for looking at some of the Colombian figures because they have had great success in reducing the amount of coca-growing areas in Colombia.

Paul Flynn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way? There was a 20 per cent. increase last year.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman scoffs, but it is a fact and I am not going to give way to him. The Colombians have had a significant success. I do not agree with him that by concentrating efforts in one country the problem will merely go to another country. That is not an excuse for not concentrating efforts in a particular country. The Americans have helped the Colombians reduce coca production in Colombia and I hope that we will produce significant reductions in poppy growing in Afghanistan. That is absolutely necessary because the price of heroin on our streets has halved during the past two years—down from about £75 a gram to about £35 a gram. If that is the real reason why some of the public do not believe that we should be in Afghanistan, I believe it is cast-iron proof that we should be there.

There are other things that we should and could be doing in Afghanistan. We should be helping to establish a proper judiciary; the French are in charge of that aspect and it seems that relatively little progress has been made. It is estimated that we need to train
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62,000 police. The Germans are making relatively little progress in training the police and rooting out corruption in the police force. As with the armed forces, the police need to be given proper equipment.

I do commend the Government for one thing. They have done a good job of helping to reconstruct the Treasury, and it is now bringing in more revenue. The Afghanistan Government are now spending a little more on schools and health and beginning to build infrastructure in the north. The trouble is that Afghanistan is a country of many different parts, and while one part may be making progress, the situation in others—certainly in the south—is getting worse. We do not even hear about some of the provinces, and nobody seems to know, for example, what is going on in Nimroz, the province next to Helmand.

I urge the Government to remember that we are in this fight together and that all western democracies and like-minded nations must co-ordinate their efforts to resolve the problem, by providing human assets and training so that we can build infrastructure or providing military assets so that we can make a real effort to crack down on the Taliban insurgency. Finally, I urge the Government to make every possible effort to lobby the Pakistani Government to seal the porous border with Afghanistan.

12.21 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I shall bring the debate to a close with some observations on the current position in Afghanistan, but I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing the debate and on taking the time and trouble to visit Afghanistan with other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Given the nature of the debate, it is important to remind those who have contributed to it that when the Taliban regime fell in November 2001—a very short time ago—it left behind a fractured, impoverished, broken state. In the five years since then, the only constant for the people of Afghanistan has been change. However, with the help and support of the international community, they have effectively rebuilt their nation almost from scratch, and their accomplishments have been significant.

In 2004, Afghanistan held free, fair and democratic elections to select a President. The following year, the people elected a Parliament, and a new National Assembly was inaugurated. The key state institutions are all now in place. Afghan entrepreneurial skills, helped by inflows of reconstruction and development aid, have generated annual economic growth rates of between 9 and 14 per cent. Some 4.5 million refugees have returned to their homes. Women, who were excluded from participation in public life under the Taliban, now make up a quarter of the MPs in the National Assembly. Five million children, 37 per cent. of them girls, are now at school. The health system is functioning, with a 60 per cent. increase in the number of clinics since 2001 and a widespread vaccination programme.

The crucial fact, however, is that much of Afghanistan is at peace. The Taliban have sustained significant losses in the face of determined action by the international security assistance force. In that
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respect, NATO and British troops have made a significant contribution. In much of the country, ordinary people can go about their daily lives without being at serious risk from terrorism or crossfire. In short, Afghanistan’s rate of recovery since the fall of the Taliban has outstripped that in most post-conflict countries. I recognise, as right hon. and hon. Members have highlighted in this brief debate, that challenges remain, and I shall outline a few of them, but it is important to concentrate on what has been achieved rather than on what must still be done.

Let me emphasise that we cannot win in Afghanistan through military action alone. There is a need to extend the rule of law and the writ of the democratically elected Afghan authorities across those parts of the country where there are still challenges. The Afghan Government want and need to take responsibility for the security of their country and their people as soon as they can. However, until a new Afghan national army and a reformed Afghan national police force have been trained, equipped and fully deployed, international forces will need to remain in Afghanistan. In that respect, work remains to be done, but there has been significant progress. Nearly 30,000 Afghan soldiers and more than 40,000 police officers have been recruited, trained and given the tools to do the job. The Afghan national army has been reformed to make it more professional, accountable and ethnically balanced. More than 62,000 fighters have also been disarmed under the disarmament, demobilisation and rehabilitation programme, and a successor programme to disarm illegal armed groups is in hand.

Ann Winterton: The right hon. Gentleman talked about training the police force and the army, but when does he imagine that that will be completed, given that we heard earlier—that the countries undertaking that training appear to be dragging their feet? He describes the most fantastic progress, and there may be progress in the north, but there is certainly no progress in the south, so perhaps he should concentrate more on the difficult situation there, rather than on the rest of the country.

Mr. Hoon: If I may say so, one thing that almost all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate have overlooked is the plan that was outlined quite soon after British and international forces went into Afghanistan. The operations in the south are the continuation of a plan that has evolved over a number of years. The plan was always that effort would be concentrated in and around Kabul and then in the north, before moving progressively to the east and then the south, and progress has been absolutely consistent with that plan. We always anticipated that resistance, particularly among the criminal and terrorist elements in the south, would be one of the most difficult problems, so it is not surprising that we are facing attacks there; that was always anticipated and planned for. If I may say so, the hon. Lady needs to emphasise the tremendous success that has been achieved in other parts of Afghanistan as the plan has evolved.

Paul Flynn: Is the Minister going to use all his time to read his civil service brief or will he make any attempt to answer the points raised in the debate? That is the convention of the House.

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Mr. Hoon: I am sorry that I gave way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Ellwood: Given what the Minister knows now, and bearing in mind that we have only 30,000 troops in Afghanistan but sent 230,000 troops to Iraq after the invasion of Afghanistan, does he agree that we would have achieved an awful lot more in the past five years if we had sent those 230,000 troops to Afghanistan?

Mr. Hoon: I made it clear that what has evolved in Afghanistan was planned for and is the continuation of proposals that were set out right at the start. I should also emphasise that there cannot be a military solution alone to the problems of Afghanistan. If hon. Members had had the time, they might have looked more carefully at what has taken place in the north and, indeed, the east, where a sophisticated combination of military effort and the development of the civilian administration has resolved problems. That is particularly significant in the east, where many people said that the problems could not be dealt with. However, the warlords and others who had been in power there, who were not prepared to accept the authority of Kabul, have now done so, and a similar pattern has developed in the west. We have been able to combine the sophisticated use of military force with the skills and ability of administrators from this country and a number of other international contributors to ensure peace and stability and to create administrations in many parts of Afghanistan that are answerable and responsible to the democratically elected President and the parliamentary authorities. That is a huge achievement in a short time, and I only wish that right hon. and hon. Members had given the Afghan people more credit for what they have achieved and, indeed, for what they want to go on achieving with the support of the international community.

None the less, I recognise that there are problems, and I have mentioned some already. Corruption remains a major challenge and good governance needs to be extended. The UK hosted a conference on Afghanistan in London in January last year, which was chaired jointly by Afghanistan and the UN. The Afghanistan compact, which was adopted during the conference, dealt directly with corruption and saw tackling it as a priority for the country’s continued development. Corruption will not be eliminated overnight, but measures are being put in place to help the Afghan Government tackle it in a more effective and sustainable way. Those measures include creating a panel to advise President Karzai on senior appointments below ministerial rank that fall outside the existing civil service appointments board. The panel assesses candidates’ competence and personal integrity and seeks to exclude those with links to illegal armed groups, drug trafficking, corruption or human rights abuses. The President has also established an anti-corruption commission, which is chaired by the chief justice, and which has tasked the Afghan attorney-general with leading the fight against corruption among senior public officials. A number of officials have already been suspended. Together with terrorism, the continued involvement—

Mr. Greg Pope (in the Chair): Order. We must now start the next debate.

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