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11 July 2007 : Column 420WH—continued

Mr. Frank Field: I know that the hon. Gentleman has been generous in allowing interventions and that that is preventing him from finishing his speech, but
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before he completes, I would like to mention the link between what he is saying and what the military experts in the field think is the strategy necessary to be successful in Afghanistan. As he knows, there is a small group based in the House called Poppy Relief, with which he is associated, as is the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster). That group has attracted people such as General Sir Mike Jackson for the simple reason that he does not believe that we can win in Afghanistan by thinking only in military terms.

Mr. Ellwood: Again, the right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Many military experts feel a sense of frustration. In fact, I met a colonel last night who was operating one of the provisional reconstruction teams in Mazar-e Sharif and he was frustrated because his remit was so tight and he was able simply to provide security. He so much wanted to do other things and help the communities, but was prevented from doing so by his remit and the fact that he can help only with security matters. General Jones also expressed his frustration with the situation. The absence of joined-up thinking that we have seen in Afghanistan has frustrated success and that is why we need a re-think. I pay tribute to the group with which the right hon. Gentleman has done so much work and I hope that the Government will listen to the comments that have come through, particularly from General Sir Michael Jackson. It is frustrating that we must wait until such characters retire before they can be more vocal with their thoughts.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): My hon. Friend may be aware that I have just come back from Afghanistan where I and a number of my colleagues discovered that the capacity of the Afghanistan Government to deliver is weak. Part of the problem is that only a small amount of the money that the Department for International Development has so far given for alternative livelihoods has actually got to the farmers. That is one major problem. The second is that NATO’s remit does not involve destroying crops. That will have to be done by the Afghan army, helped by the Afghan police, who are incredibly weak at the moment and rapidly need to be bolstered.

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend makes an important contribution. I had the opportunity to meet President Karzai, who said that he was not able to control the trade for the obvious reason that so many of his team are, on various levels, involved in it and there simply is not the capacity to deal with the problem. The country is too young in that respect. When I put the idea of licensing to him, he acknowledged that the country had passed a law that allows the licensing of poppy crops and that legally it can act. However, I was with General Richards and General Jones at the time, and President Karzai pointed back to us and said, “You need to do this. You need to pursue this”, and by “you” he meant the international community. He feels that on his side, much as he wants to take action, he does not have the capacity to do so. More importantly, many people would be upset if the scheme were rolled out, which is why it needs to be done carefully at a local level, rather than by a top-down approach.

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I am conscious of the time I have taken, so I would like to conclude by saying that I have had an opportunity to put the proposal to the former Prime Minister and he acknowledged the difficulties that we have had. I certainly got the impression that he was willing to consider it in more detail. [Interruption]. I do not think that that is my phone this time.

Mr. Frank Field: It is calling you.

Mr. Ellwood: It is calling me to endorse what I have just been saying. I acknowledge the work of the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), who, through his staff, was very helpful in relation to this issue, and organised meetings in the United States with various senators and representatives from the Justice and State Departments, who also expressed much interest in and general support for this idea. We need to move from talk to action, which is why I hope that the Government will listen to what I have said today. Even the Afghan embassy officials were very interested in the proposal, as were others such as Paddy Ashdown, Richard Armitage, and General Jones—to mention just a few.

In conclusion, as I have mentioned, Afghanistan was once known for its agricultural exports, particularly pomegranates and peaches, but today it is labelled as the world’s opium grower. Only a programme that is supported by the farmers themselves and the local jirgas can succeed in a war-torn country where corruption is rife. The new strategy would give a focus to all participating international organisations and non-governmental organisations that can play a part in nurturing a new market infrastructure. The poppy problem cannot be solved in isolation, but it is integral to establishing peace and improving the livelihoods of the people.

More money and troops are certainly on their way, but the poppies keep growing. The former Prime Minister has conceded that our present strategy is costing over $1 billion a year, but that it is failing and that it would be wise to consider an alternative solution. I am aware that the new Prime Minister is making a statement on his priorities for the year and I hope that he will take time to consider this proposal. The window of opportunity in Afghanistan will not be open for ever and after the six years that we have been there many of the locals are asking how their lives have changed. We must face up to the fact that unless we challenge the issue of poppies we will possibly undo all the good work that we have so far achieved. I hope that I have given the Government some food for thought.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): A number of hon. Members have indicated that they want to speak and I intend that the winding-up speeches should start at about 10.30 am. If there is not time to call those Members who wish to make a speech, I hope that they will make an intervention to enable the winding-up speeches to start on time.

9.57 am

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on his visionary, practical and courageous approach. We owe him a debt of gratitude for injecting a note of
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reality into a war that all sides have treated with an air of delusion and wishful thinking. I will not go as far as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and call the hon. Gentleman my friend, but I realise that we live in astonishing times where the walls of party tribalism are collapsing. In my party we are getting used to working with Comrade Sir Digby Jones and Comrade leuan Wyn Jones in the Welsh Assembly, and we hope that that will be productive. I find myself agreeing with a great deal of the document on drugs produced by the Conservative party because it at least acknowledges the failure of drugs policy since 1971 in this country. I am gratified to know that fellow Conservative Members of the Council of Europe are at least likely to vote for a new convention on drugs that I hope will go through the Council of Europe in Strasbourg in September.

The Minister should give a response of apology and contrition, but those are not responses that politicians usually give so I am not too optimistic about that. Instead, we will possibly hear the continuous manic optimism about the war that we have had from the Government and the Opposition for a long time. As many hon. Members will remember, we went to war for a very good reason: to ensure that the Taliban could not protect al-Qaeda, who were in the country, and that was entirely justified in my view. We also went into the war because 90 per cent. of the heroin on the streets of Britain came from Afghanistan and a solution to that was promised. That is hard to believe now. The situation after six years and after we, British taxpayers, have spent £260 million on the eradication of narcotics is that we have the highest harvest of poppies ever—an increase of 59 per cent. last year.

Furthermore, the price of heroin on the streets of Britain is the lowest that it has ever been—and still 90 per cent. of it comes from Afghanistan. In no way can that record be described as a success. There were successes on the way, but we always took three steps back. That is the bottom line now, and no one can pretend otherwise with any conviction.

We are seeing the Colombianisation of Afghanistan; we should look at what happened in Colombia when we believed that we could cut off the supply of drugs. For an argument better than anything that I can provide this morning, look to Lord Birt’s strategy unit report to the former Prime Minister, which said that it had not been done—it has never been achieved. If we did achieve a reduction in Afghanistan it would be the squeeze-balloon principle. There would be an increase in production in Myanmar, north Pakistan, Kazakhstan and so on, in the same way that reductions in Colombia, which have now been reversed, resulted in increases in production in Peru and Bolivia.

The problem is on the demand side. We, rather than the fields of Afghanistan, are sucking in the heroin and fuelling the problems on our streets in London, Chicago and so on. Afghanistan has suffered greatly because of our false policies and our delusion of omnipotence. The Minister spoke recently about this subject, so we know what he is likely to say this morning. He spoke about tackling corruption in Afghanistan—that is delusional. Anyone who seriously believes that they can eliminate corruption in Afghanistan—it is possible, but very unlikely that he believes it—should be treated and gently ushered away
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by men in white coats. It is totally unattainable. We cannot do it. Corruption is endemic; it has been there for centuries and will continue for centuries. Our other policies are very similar, and are not practical.

As I said, I support the presence of our troops in Kabul. Members present might recall a debate in Westminster Hall, in February 2006, before we went into the Helmand province. At the time, I believed that we had made great progress on reconstruction, women’s education and so on. We should consolidate that progress, which I believe is possible. However, it is not possible to ensure that Karzai’s rule extends to every corner of Afghanistan. Sending troops into the Helmand province was mission impossible, as it has proved to be.

Perhaps the Minister will reflect on his attitude when we went into Afghanistan. On 7 February, he answered a question about the progress that had been made on drugs. As always, his answer was true, but only partly so. He said:

That is absolutely right. However, we saw only a 2 per cent. reduction in production. The area cultivated was cut down, but production went down by only 2 per cent. Since then, of course, things have got worse.

On the same day, I asked the Minister probably the most serious question that one could ask about this matter:

That was a plea to think again given the risks that we were taking. The Minister’s reply was a joke. It might even get a laugh this morning:

That got some laughter in the House, but I do not think that the families of the 56 soldiers who died after going into Afghanistan, or those of the record number of people on our streets who die using Afghan heroin would find that very amusing. That was the flip response to the very serious requests and speeches being made. I believe that going into the Helmand province was a doomed mission, and said so at the time. That question needed a serious response.

Let us look at the figures. Before we were in the Helmand province, up to February 2006, we lost seven of our courageous troops, mostly as a result of accidents. Nearly all of the 56 who have died since we went into the Helmand province have done so as a result of conflict. And what do Ministers do when a policy cannot be defended? In a typical speech, I am afraid, in Washington, to an audience that I am sure was willing to be cosseted and comforted by his words, the Minister talked about an “holistic approach”, a “joined-up rule of law”, and a coherent, “comprehensive approach”—he mined deeply at the seam of clichés. Members do that. They do not come up with practical policies, suggestions for change or
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expressions of regret at the lives lost and money wasted in Afghanistan, but attack it with a barrage of jargon and clichés.

The Minister came up with one glimpse of reality. He said:

of Afghanistan—

Well, congratulations! As the hon. Gentleman knows, corruption in Afghanistan goes to the heart of Government. Not so much Karzai himself, whom we all admire, but the people he has appointed as police commanders and provincial governors are, in many cases, drug dealers, former warlords, warlords now, and, in one case, a paedophile. One man was singled out for praise last November in the House when I suggested that bad people were running Afghanistan outside Kabul. It was suggested that I was being disrespectful to Mohammed Daoud, whom the then Secretary of State for Defence described as a man of idealism on whom we could really rely. A fortnight later he was sacked and replaced by someone more acceptable.

If we really believe that we can root out corruption in Afghanistan—drugs and corruption are said to be two sides of the same coin—we are wrong. That is a mission that cannot be achieved. We must deal with the reality: we can defend the progress made around Kabul and the immediate area, but we will never succeed beyond that. There is absolutely no evidence that we can succeed. We know that in the Helmand province there is very little, if any, reconstruction, because non-governmental organisations will not go there.

Andrew George: It seems that the tribal walls are dissolving everywhere apart from in the hon. Gentleman’s own party, between himself and the Minister. I know that the hon. Gentleman agrees that poppy production can and should be redirected towards the production of diamorphine. Bearing in mind his comments about corruption in Afghanistan, with which I agree as a policy approach, has he considered the practical challenges and basis for redirecting poppy production towards more constructive uses, both internationally and locally?

Paul Flynn: Yes, indeed. That idea was first introduced to Parliament in October 2005 in early-day motion 749, which the hon. Gentleman and I both signed. It is an instantly very attractive idea because, as we know, there is a shortage of morphine and codeine in the developing world. A person in a third-world country with a terminal illness has only a 6 per cent. chance of getting the comfort of morphine. There is a case for greater production, an approach that has been successful in Turkey where there has been a move from illicit to licit production.

The Government appear to be moving on the issue, although hon. Members should not be too encouraged by that, because the Minister will turn down the idea this morning, as the Government constantly have. Nevertheless, there are signs of common sense breaking through. However, there is no justification for
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the Minister having said in Washington that there has been real progress on drugs in Afghanistan over the last five years. There has not been any real progress, and the Government must first admit the abject failure of current policies.

The approach of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East is absolutely right. The Government’s position on that, as I understand it, is that it would not be a complete success, because some of the poppy production would escape from the poppy for medicine harvest to illicit markets. So what? It will happen anyway, because we cannot stop illicit cultivation altogether. As I said earlier, if we stopped it in Afghanistan we would have a squeeze-balloon situation in which production would be taken over in other countries. So the problem has to be solved here.

However, the hon. Gentleman’s approach would at least represent a chance to have peace in Afghanistan and to win hearts and minds, rather than doing what we have done with bombs and bullets. People are right that there have been differences between ourselves and the Americans on that. We have lost hearts and minds in Helmand province, and we are going backwards instead of forwards, at the cost of 56 British lives—with more to come.

The poppy for medicine proposal is entirely sensible and well researched, and the Government should consider it. There is still uncertainty even now, when we are not making any effort to destroy poppies. When the Taliban first came they were opposed to poppy growth—the farmers know that. Later, however, the Taliban rather cynically discovered that they could use the money from poppies to buy armoured personnel carriers and rockets. So they decided that poppy growth was appropriate after all and that, like other grown substances, poppies were a gift of God—a gift of Allah—that could be used for good or evil.

We should warmly support the proposals made by the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that the Government will have the courage to follow the direction that he has signposted.

10.12 am

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on obtaining the debate. I shall use the discipline that you and I have learned in the Council of Europe, Mr. Hancock, and finish my speech in four minutes, to give other hon. Members an opportunity to speak.

My only reticence about my hon. Friend’s suggestion is that it recalls the good old days of the Tory party conference when I was young. People used to speak against motions—such as for the return of the death penalty—because they did not go far enough. In the present instance, my only misgiving is that the pilot is just for one section of Afghanistan. If it is the right approach, it seems to me to be common sense that we should roll it out across the whole country. There are no two ways about it, the problem is huge.

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