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Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): May I say to the Prime Minister that although some of the country might have views about how quickly our troops should withdraw from Afghanistan, the whole country joins him in expressing admiration for the courage that they
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show? If a single message should be sent from the House and from this country, it is the second message, not the first. I should like to take him back to his statement about the link between the poppy trade and the warlords. Does he accept that no long-term success in Afghanistan will be ours and its people’s until that trade is broken? Might I probe him on—

Mr. Speaker: Order. There should be one supplementary.

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The common message coming from the House is one of support for the armed forces, particularly on the brilliance and success of the recapture of Musa Qala. He is also right—I have talked to him at some length previously about this—that there is no future for Afghanistan’s economy as long as people hang on to the idea that Afghanistan can still be the centre supplying most of the world’s narcotics. That is why the effort that we are making with the Afghan Government to try to eradicate narcotics on the ground, but at the same time building up systems of law and order and giving alternative livelihoods to the agricultural population, is very important. I know that my right hon. Friend has views on that and I shall be happy to meet him again to talk about it.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): At Prime Minister’s Question Time and at the start of his statement, the Prime Minister absolutely correctly paid tribute to the fallen men and women of our armed services in Afghanistan. Will he turn those words into substance and honour the undertaking given by his predecessor, by allowing his Ministers to announce funding this afternoon, so that the families of those fallen can be legally represented at inquests?

The Prime Minister: This is a matter that we are looking at. I said in the House last week that the delays in inquests were unacceptable. We have put some more money in to make it possible for them to be speeded up, but we will also look at the other issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement? As someone who has visited Afghanistan three times in the past four years, I have seen progress, particularly in Kabul, but there is still a hard job to do in the south. May I caution him on the eradication of the poppy crop, which should not be done without offering alternative livelihoods, as it could drive people into the arms of the Taliban?

The Prime Minister: That is precisely why the aid budget that we are announcing will focus on agricultural livelihoods, and on increasing people’s opportunities to obtain alternative work in the provinces that we are discussing. The business leaders whom we meet in Afghanistan are well aware that it needs a far more diversified economy. When we visit the local areas, it is clear that unless we provide alternative employment it will be possible to exploit local people’s need for work and prosperity through the narcotics trade. It is therefore essential for the aid budget and the development work that we are doing to offer alternative livelihoods.

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Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): In the new year, 16 Air Assault Brigade from Colchester garrison will be deployed to Afghanistan. Can the Prime Minister tell us how many of the 38 countries that he mentioned have fighting personnel in the front line in Helmand province, and exactly what he means by burden sharing?

The Prime Minister: I should be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman, including all the figures.

It is true that many countries have sent in members of their forces in a non-fighting role. It is also true that some countries are prepared to offer troops, but cannot afford to pay their way when they are in Afghanistan. That is what I mean by burden sharing. Could we have a more equitable arrangement, whereby countries that have troops are able to send them in while others that are not prepared to send their troops are prepared to finance them? Could we have equipment from countries that are not prepared to send their forces, for which other countries could pay if the countries that have sent it cannot afford to do so? That is what I mean by moving forward burden sharing in future.

The hon. Gentleman’s constituents who are going to Afghanistan should be assured that we will do all in our power to ensure both that they are fully equipped, and that they have the support of a stronger Afghan army.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab): The Prime Minister’s speech to our troops in Iraq the other day was deeply appreciated by military families in my constituency, and I believe that the statement he has made today will be equally and widely appreciated.

Is it not the case that if the Taliban had succeeded in their aim of retrieving power in Afghanistan and turning it once again into a logistical and training base for international terrorist operations, and if the terrorists who attacked London and Glasgow in the summer had had the benefit of a six-month course in bomb-making and detonation techniques in Afghanistan under the Taliban, the results of those attacks might have been tragically very different?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right. Afghanistan is not only the front line against the Taliban. If we were to allow al-Qaeda to base itself in Afghanistan again without fear of being invaded or taken over by British or other forces, we would store up huge problems for London, for Britain and for all the other countries where terrorism wishes to make headway.

The fact that al-Qaeda has been forced across the border of Afghanistan creates special problems for us in Pakistan. As I told President Karzai, it is important for Pakistan and Afghanistan to work together to deal with those border issues, and in future years it will be important for us to secure even greater co-operation with other countries that are involved so that we can deal with the issue of where al-Qaeda is basing its operations.

Nevertheless, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think that the whole country can be persuaded of the importance of this: leave Afghanistan to the Taliban and we have huge problems; allow al-Qaeda to gain a
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base in Afghanistan and we have huge problems. That is why we make a long-term commitment to the Afghan people.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Yesterday the American Defence Secretary expressed severe and justified public criticism of the inadequate contribution of some NATO allies. Does the Prime Minister agree that the risk we face is not only inadequate performance in Afghanistan as a consequence, but severe damage to the long-term future of NATO? Will he give serious consideration to urging his fellow Heads of Government in NATO to attend a early meeting of Heads of Government—not in a crisis atmosphere, but in a spirit of constructive and measured deliberation—with the aim of agreeing on a common strategy and a fair sharing of the burden that is possible for all member states?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right. He has some experience in matters involving NATO, and this is a NATO mission. It should be borne in mind that we will meet in Bucharest in April to discuss the issues that should be on the agenda and must be addressed.

While the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that there has not been an equality of burden sharing—not only is Britain using its forces in Iraq, but it has a substantial role as the second presence in Afghanistan—it is also true that 38 countries are involved in the mission. The fact that so many countries are prepared to play a part represents an enormous success. The issue now is whether we can achieve the better burden sharing that will enable other countries to play a bigger part in future, particularly, I suspect, in the provision of equipment, if not of forces. Those are the issues that will have to be discussed in Bucharest at Easter.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): The Prime Minister spoke of the importance of constructive engagement on the part of Afghanistan’s neighbours. When members of the Foreign Affairs Committee visited Iran last month, the Iranians told us that 3,000 of their policemen had been killed while trying to intercept the heroin being smuggled into their country, which has an estimated 2 million addicts. Last year, the Pakistani authorities expressed concern to our Committee about the fact that the Afghan side of the border was almost unpatrolled. Although Pakistan is losing tens of thousands of people in those areas, there is a big problem relating to movement backwards and forwards. What discussions has the Prime Minister had with the Afghan Government to try to increase their co-operation with their neighbours, who have legitimate concerns?

The Prime Minister: As Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend takes a great interest in these matters, and is an expert on the issues that he raises.

We now need law enforcement officers to mentor the counter-narcotics police so that a far better job can be done in Afghanistan itself. I impressed on President Karzai that the failure to appoint a new counter-narcotics Minister to fill the current vacancy was
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sending the wrong signal to the rest of the world, and I hope that someone will be appointed who can control the effort effectively. The United Nations-administered Afghan counter-narcotics trust fund is also important, but some countries have yet to make the contributions that they pledged. We must work with the countries that my hon. Friend mentioned, otherwise the efforts in one country will be in vain. That is why co-operation with Pakistan in particular will be important in the future.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): While I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, which was more realistic than any statement about Afghanistan during the Blair years, will he keep it very much in mind that the basic stumbling block to all the admirable aims that he has announced is the fact that the one thing that unites all Afghans is their hatred of foreign troops in their country?

The Prime Minister: It is precisely because Afghans should be enabled to take more control over their own affairs that we are training the Afghan forces. We are talking about an army of 70,000 by next year, and a larger number of police. The biggest difficulties have involved preventing both corruption and inefficiency among the police. I think that, over time, the Afghan Government will recognise that point by building up their own security forces—particularly their army and police—and by working with the countries that are enabling them to do so, they can provide the best possible guarantee for the future of Afghanistan.

Mr. Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): When I visited Helmand last July, I saw British troops giving out leaflets saying that we did not do eradication. I welcome what the Prime Minister said about putting together a plan involving stronger governance and targeting traffickers, but may I caution him that, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) said earlier, it is not the individual producer but the big guns that we need to target? May we see the top 20 and their lands, chattels and supporters being attacked, as opposed to the ordinary Afghan farmer?

The Prime Minister: That is one of the reasons for the need to build up the infrastructure of police, courts, justice—through judges—and law and order. Only by building up that infrastructure can we deal with the very people to whom my hon. Friend refers. However, I would not underestimate the importance of giving people alternative livelihoods so that they can break free from the control of drugs barons in the area. It is a combination of both approaches that will make the difference.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I thank the Prime Minister for providing a copy of his statement in advance. On behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, I echo the sentiments of others about our service personnel, and especially their families, in the run-up to Christmas.

Here in the House we have often heard reassurances and promises about combating the drugs trade, but the United Nations has confirmed this year that heroin
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production has risen to a record level. Apparently, it represents 92 per cent. of opium production in the world. Can the Prime Minister give us a firm assurance about his target for the reduction of narcotics? How much does it involve, and by when?

The Prime Minister: We have moved from a situation in which we had very few poppy-free, or heroin-free, provinces to a situation in which we have quite a number. Our aim must be to increase that number, but the issue in Helmand is a very big one, because it is responsible for half the production. That is where we must make progress.

I am not setting a target. What I will say is that while the combination of the measures that we outlined is necessary, what is also necessary is a central Government who are prepared to take the action. That is why I am impressing on President Karzai the importance of his taking a lead.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, particularly the promise of more funding for building the capacity of the directorate of local governance. In other emerging democracies, it has been shown that where there are more women in local government, funding is more likely to be directed towards areas such as health and education. Given the low status of women in Afghanistan, particularly outside the main cities such as Kabul, will the Prime Minister do all he can to prioritise the funding towards confidence building and skills for women so that they have the confidence to put their names forward for election in local government?

The Prime Minister: In Helmand province there are already women who are playing their part in local government, but obviously the numbers and the ability to participate need to be strengthened. That is why the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will be working with people in Afghanistan to enable us to give whatever expertise we can to help build some of the systems of local government for the future. I also announced our support for local community volunteers, so that they can take more control of policing of areas. So there will be a combination of measures, but my hon. Friend is right that women being more represented and at a higher level in all the different areas of Afghanistan will make a difference to the improvement of health and education, which is crucial for the welfare of the people.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Can the Prime Minister confirm that the biggest single source of income, accounting for up to half of GDP in Afghanistan, is the opium trade, and is not therefore the central dilemma we face how to win the hearts and minds of people while promising to eradicate half their income without offering any concrete alternatives other than the following two words in the statement—“legitimate agriculture”? Does not the failure to face up realistically to this dilemma leave a black hole in the Prime Minister’s strategy?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is right on his first point: an economy that is wholly dependent on the crop he mentions is an economy that
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will not work well in the future. However, he is wrong on his second point: I did, of course, mention alternatives in agriculture, but I also mentioned building the social and economic infrastructure of all the areas through the aid and development programme that we are practising. We find that there is in Afghanistan a desire for roads and infrastructure, and then for the building of schools and hospitals, of course, but also for the creation of small businesses. Many people are operating in Afghanistan—some people have come from Britain to do so—to create microcredit finance for small businesses.

I agree that it is necessary to have alternatives to agriculture, but I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman’s other point, as we are trying our best to do more to provide those alternatives; we are going beyond simply the offer that there is an alternative to agriculture by also making that possible through the initiatives that we have in place. I may also say that in Musa Qala we will move in very quickly with the offer of jobs, which is important, and the offer of new facilities, which will enable the local economy to start to flourish again.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): On the question of encouraging a positive approach from Iran, my right hon. Friend will be aware that in February 2001 the late Member for Redcar, who then had the remit for drugs, visited Iran to come to an agreement on working together to disrupt the drugs trafficking trade. Does my right hon. Friend believe that that agreement could form the basis of encouraging a revival—perhaps we should put it that way—of a more positive approach from Iran?

The Prime Minister: The Iranians themselves have an interest in tackling this problem. I will look at what my hon. Friend says about the agreement that is still standing with Iran, but I think that it is also important to recognise that action within Afghanistan is urgently needed.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Early in the new year, the 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment, supplemented by Territorial soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, will leave for a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister has heard from the Leader of the Opposition about problems with pay. Many of those Territorial Army soldiers transferred from the now-disbanded home service battalions, yet several months after their transfer they are not receiving the proper pay. Will the Prime Minister assure me that before those soldiers leave their families to serve this country with pride in Afghanistan, they will be paid properly?

The Prime Minister: When I was in Afghanistan, I met soldiers from Northern Ireland, and their contribution is both appreciated and immense. I will take on board what the right hon. Gentleman says about the operation of the computer system in delivering the proper amounts of pay. The Secretary of State for Defence says that that is moving forward, and he will write to the right hon. Gentleman in the next few days.

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