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The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): The security situation in Afghanistan remains broadly stable. However, there are regions, particularly in the south, where Government authority has yet to be firmly established. To address that, UK forces have recently engaged in a number of missions aimed at extending the authority of the Afghan Government across Helmand province. We are taking the military initiative and are capitalising on steady progress by increasing the pace of our reconstruction and development efforts in Helmand province.
Patrick Mercer: I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that the outgoing NATO commander, General Richards, described the war as being very winnable. Can the Minister tell us what circumstances will have to prevail before we can say that we have won?
Dr. Howells: That is quite a question. The ability of the Afghan security authorities to provide a measure of security in Afghanistan, which they are not capable of providing at the moment, would be one measure and a very important one. I know that the hon. Gentleman has considerable experience of Bosnia, for example. He knows as well as anyone in the House that, without that general level of security, it will be impossible for the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan to take place in the way that it should take place. I suppose the test ultimately will be whether ordinary people in Afghanistan feel secure enough to go about their daily business without fear of harassment from the Taliban or any other forces.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend comment on the proportion of girls who are currently in education in Afghanistan? Will he also comment on their security, and the security of their schools and their teachers?
Dr. Howells: Across Afghanistan, there are millions more girls in education than there were during the Taliban times. They forbade the education of females; that was one of the most atrocious acts that they committed. Any teachers who were found to be teaching femalesand, indeed, any teachers who are nowadays found to be teaching females in areas where the Taliban remain a strong presencewere usually killed, and usually killed in front of the children. That ought to be a reminder to all of us, lest we forget what kind of a regime does such things. We should do everything that we can to ensure that the Taliban do not return to power in Afghanistan.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): The Minister is right to congratulate British forces, who are doing a superb job in Afghanistan, but does he agree that the security situation will be finally sorted out only when there is much better co-operation with the Pakistani authorities? Is he continuing to talk to General Musharraf and his regime to ensure that efforts are made to bring the cross-border problems to an end as swiftly as possible?
The hon. Gentleman is right. It is vital that there be much closer links between the Pakistani and Afghanistan forces. I have been up to Waziristan,
to Peshawar and the border at Khyber, to urge the sides to co-operate more closely. It is a wild and woolly place. [Interruption.] Well, enough of the hon. Gentlemans constituents are to be found in Brecon, of courseas well as up the Khyber pass. However, I say to him that we often hear a great deal of misinformation about the ability and aims of the Pakistani Government in terms of their addressing security on their side of the border. It is a difficult border; it is one of the worst in the world to police, and they have made great efforts to do so. I am glad that there are now closer links between the Foreign Ministers of Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as between President Karzai and President Musharraf, who are trying to forge some kind of arrangement that stops the constant leakage of Taliban and al-Qaeda forces across the border.
Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister confirm that that border is extremely important, because there are tribal links on both sides and it is an open border? Does he agree that the Afghan Government need to do far more on their side of the border, in addition to the steps that the Pakistani Government have taken in recent weeks to increase the number of border posts on their side of the border?
Dr. Howells: Yes, much more can be done. It is a woeful fact that the line of the border is still a matter of dispute. Therefore offers of increased co-operation that have been made by both sides have often been rejected by the other side because that would amount to a tacit recognition that that is the actual border. It would also helpI am sure that Members know the Governments feelings on thisif many of our fellow NATO members were to put up more assets and hardware. That might well help the efforts in the south. In respect of some countries, there are helicopters that might as well be parked up in leading European airports for all the good they are doing in some parts of Afghanistan.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): The Minister will no doubt recall that on 26 January last year the then Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), announced a deployment to Helmand of up to 5,700 troops. Since then, the security situation remains very difficult, there has been very little infrastructure-building in the south in Helmand, and opium production has increased by more than 60 per cent. Does the Minister believe that the policy pursued by the British Government at that time is still correct, or is he considering revising that policy to meet the aims and timelines of the London compact?
As the hon. Gentleman knows well, the best laid plans sometimes have to be altered because of the force of events. I went to the south, to Lashkar Gah, long before British troops got down there. I visited a very small American fortress, and the Marines there were doing nothing much more than staying alive. I do not think that anybody had poked a stick into that beehive up to that point; well, we now have. Having 5,000 troops there, compared with 100 American Marines, makes a difference on the ground and causes a great deal more friction than would previously have been caused. The British forces are coping very well, and I was glad to see that they had a significant
military victory overnight and this morning, and that they feel that they are properly equipped to carry out an exercise that is designed to bring sufficient security to Helmand in order to carry on with the reconstruction process that is vital to the area.
A lot of work has been done. A lot of wells have been dug, and we are about to put new turbines into the Kajaki dam at the top of the Sangin valley, which will bring electricity to 1 million people. These are not insignificant achievements, and I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman will continue with his broad support for that policy.
Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): Peasant farmers in many areas in the south of Afghanistan are wholly dependent on the narcotics economy. Does my hon. Friend think that, as has been stated on both sides of the House, if we are to maintain security and thereby a platform to rebuild Afghanistan, any short-term disruption of that narcotics economy might create greater insecurity and drive peasant farmers into the hands of the extremists from whose grip we are trying to remove them?
Dr. Howells: This is a very easy assumption to make, but if we are to take on what President Karzai has himself described as the single most corrosive element in Afghan societythe corruption, killing and subjugation generated by the narcotics tradethis issue has to be dealt with. It is not a simple fight involving just hearts and minds. For example, more than 3,000 men have been lost on the eastern border of Iran combating drug convoys armed with anti-aircraft missiles that are bringing heroin to Europe. This industry generates huge sums of money that is used in the most nefarious ways, so it has to be tackled in every way open to us, including through military activity.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): We welcome both Saudi Arabias efforts to broker a national unity Government through negotiations with Hamas and Fatah in Mecca, and President Abbas efforts for intra-Palestinian reconciliation. We also welcome the trilateral meeting between Prime Minister Olmert, President Abbas and Secretary of State Rice. That and the Quartet meeting tomorrow illustrate momentum and the engagement of the international community.
Alistair Burt: Although any glimmer of progress is to be welcomed, do not Hamas-backed terrorists continue to hold Corporal Shalit captive after 240 days? Can the Secretary of State give any sense of international progress toward his release; and will she reconfirm that until there is acceptance of the Quartets basic principlesrecognition of Israel, denunciation of terrorism and the acceptance of previous Palestinian-Israeli agreementsthere can be no recognition of the new Palestinian Government?
Margaret Beckett: There is continual discussion of the unfortunate case of Corporal Shalit, and constant pressure on those who hold him to release him and, indeed, the other two soldiers being held. From time to time, there are suggestions that release might be possible imminently, but it does not happen. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this issue is raised continually and in a variety of forums. Everyone in the international community certainly recognises the need for the Government in Palestine to work with, and to be based on, the principles enunciated by the Quartet. People are holding a watching brief to see whether that can be delivered.
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend indicate what she believes to be Irans role in the current attempts to restart negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and does she take seriously the statement by the President of Iran that he wishes to wipe Israel off the map?
Margaret Beckett: I do take that remark seriously, and anyone must. Whether it was intended literally or meant as a throwaway remark of some kind, it is utterly unacceptable from any quarter, still less from the president of a major country in the region. Iran does not appear to be playing a positive role in its general relationships in the region, and it is less involved in the ongoing negotiations than aremore positivelysome other states in the region.
Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Following the question of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), what pressure is being put on Iran to achieve Corporal Shalits release? It is clear that Iran is implicated in that kidnapping.
Margaret Beckett: There are many stories about who might be implicated in the different kidnappings, but it is clear to everyone concerned that it is extremely unhelpful to the prospect of restarting peace negotiations that those three Israeli soldiers continue to be detained. The process by which they were detained was undoubtedly intended to derail peace negotiations and it would be good for all concerned in the regionnot least the people of Palestine, who have undergone great difficulties particularly of lateif the release were to take place soon.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Is not the reality of the situation that the international community has a choice about how it responds to the Mecca agreement? It can either see the movement that is there, and its potential for moving the peace process forward, or it can say that because pre-ordained forms of words have not been used, there is an excuse not to move the peace process forward. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if absolute and unequivocal recognition by each side of the other has to be the prerequisite for involvement in talks, the Oslo process could never have started if those conditions had been applied to Israel in 1993, because the Palestinians recognised Israel, but Israel did not recognise the Palestinians right to a state?
Margaret Beckett: Where my hon. Friend is entirely right is that there is of course a choice before the international community and indeed all the players in the talks. That choice is straightforward, but difficult. It is straightforward in the sense that there is a possibility of progress towards negotiations along the path of peace and to establish a two-state solution, which in theory everybody wants. Alternatively, people can remain mired in the same bloodshed and dereliction that has gone on for so many years. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that there have been other occasions on which there have been discussions about a peace process and in the end those talks have not succeeded. We would be wise to concentrate on achieving momentum for moves forward rather than on who let everybody down the last time. Let us try to ensure that nobody lets anybody down this time.
Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): The significant steps towards a national unity Government are very welcome, but everyone will agree that the three key principles of the Quartet must be adhered to. Following the question by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is important that the international community should show the Palestinian people that it recognises the progress that has been made? Surely this is the time for renewed efforts to sort out and extend the temporary international mechanism, so that we can deal with the growing poverty in the occupied territories, and for new efforts to persuade the Israelis to release the substantial sums of money that they have been holding back for the past year?
Margaret Beckett: May I first say to the hon. Gentleman that yes, of course, it is important that there is adherence. We have used the phrase that any such Government should be based on the Quartet principles, and I think that everyone recognises the importance of that. He will know that, of late, this Government have put in extra resourcesboth bilaterally and into the temporary international mechanismand are urging the European Union to continue to do so, because we recognise the need to continue to address the problems experienced by the Palestinian people. I can certainly assure him that there is extensive and continued engagement with all parties quite widely across the international community. I think that the House will know that there are meetings in the region today with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The Quartet meets tomorrow in Berlin.
Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): Although the Mecca accord is welcome, in that it appears to have averted a civil war in Gaza, does my right hon. Friend accept that it also appears that President Abbas was left with little choice other than to accept the terms of that agreement? I therefore welcome the comments that she has made indicating that she and our allies in the Quartet will maintain a strong line on the three principles. It cannot be right that a democratically elected Government maintain armed gangs in the streets of their own citadels.
I can only echo the last point made by my right hon. Friend, but I would also say to her that I think that it was inevitable and right that
there was pressure at Mecca to reach agreement in order to avoid what was clearly the very real potential danger of civil war, which would have been utterly destructive of everyones hopes for peace. From that point of view, we should and do welcomeas the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) soughtthe moves that have been made to stabilise the present situation, but there is still a great deal more that needs to be done.
Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): May I join the Foreign Secretary in welcoming the Mecca agreement? She referred a few moments ago to the meeting of the Quartet showing momentum and engagement with the peace process, but does she also believe that it will show unity and a united resolve? In particular, will it show a united resolve to continue to place Hamas Ministers under the maximum possible pressure to accept the principles of the Quartet and to show some credible movement in the direction of those principles before any normal business can be resumed?
Margaret Beckett: Yes, I think that we can be reasonably confident, because there have been very constructive discussions by the Quartet. One thing that I should take the opportunity to stress to the House, and of which I know the right hon. Gentleman is aware, is that, although we now have the Mecca agreement and so the basis for the formation of a Government of national unity, there is an enormous amount that needs to be done before the actual formation of such a Government, let alone before we can begin to judge their actions. There are quite a large number of ministerial and other appointments to be made and there are whole set of procedures to be gone through in appointing the Government. So there is a great deal still to be done. That is why I referred to the need to keep up the momentum and the engagement. The House may also be aware that we anticipate that President Abbas will be in this country tomorrow and we hope to have an update from him.
John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that any progress has to be underpinned by sound economic development policies and that the land ownership question is one of the biggest inhibitors to the peace process? Given the opportunity that she will have to meet Cabinet Ministers in the Israeli Government who are promoting the economic and financial benefits of Israel in this country, will she impress on them that, if they engage in meaningful, regional attempts to solve the land question, that could be the biggest boost to prosperity in the middle east?
Margaret Beckett: My right hon. Friend makes an important point and he will be pleased to know that a feature of the discussions that I have had recently with Ministers in the Israeli Government and others is indeed economic development and the recognition that, in order to hold out hopes for the future, we should not just seek to move the peace process forward, but seek economic development and a co-operative process in that context, so that people in Palestineand indeed in Israel, but particularly in Palestinecan feel that there is a real prospect of a better future for themselves and their children.
The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The German presidency will take forward work on a wide range of issues, including climate change, energy security, economic reform and the future of the European Union. The Governments approach is set out in the Command Paper Prospects for the European Union in 2007, which was placed in the Library of the House on 31 January.
Mr. Gauke: Given that the German presidency appears to be determined to revive the European constitution, at least in a revised form, would the Government support proposals for a new EU Foreign Minister, a new EU diplomatic service and a new post of EU President?
Mr. Hoon: As I have made clear to the House on several occasions, discussions are continuing about the extent to which the treaty could be revived in either its existing form, or any revised form. There is no consensus among member states at this stage. As soon as there is any such consensus, I will obviously report the matter to the House.
Mr. Dunne: I listened to the right hon. Gentlemans reply with great interest, but I am afraid that I am none the wiser. Does he agree with his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that the EU constitution is a dead parrot, or does he support the constitution?
Mr. Hoon: I am sorry that I am not able to add to the hon. Gentlemans intellectual understanding. I would be trying the patience of the House if I were to repeat my answer. However, I refer him to what I said a few moments agohe will find that I have already set out the answer to his question quite clearly.
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