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25 Mar 2008 : Column 44WH—continued

I am sorry to say that those words are mocked by the subsequent events. There was not one shot fired; four million shots were discharged. At the beginning of 2006, only five British lives had been lost in Afghanistan. Now the total is 89 and there have been 330 serious injuries to troops, almost entirely as a result of our mission to Helmand province, a mission that has failed in every possible respect.

There was a mission to reduce the opium being grown in Helmand province, which has utterly failed. In 2006, the production of opium in Afghanistan went up by 60 per cent. Last year, production went up again by nearly 17 per cent. Most of that increase in production took place in Helmand province. Helmand is bigger in terms of the acreage and production of illegal drugs than any country in the world and it is only a province. The mission to reduce opium growing has been an abject failure.

An alternative, proposed by the Senlis Council policy group, was to use the opium production to create morphine, of which there is a world shortage. That alternative is used for opium produced in Turkey and in India, but our Government have not argued the case for it in Afghanistan, because of opposition from the United States.

All the other missions in Helmand province have failed, too. There has been some construction, but a pitifully small amount compared with our original ambition for the mission. When we went into Helmand province, our soldiers could move around with soft hats and they could talk and fraternise with the local population. Two years on, that is not the situation. In Helmand province our troops are no longer seen as an army of liberation but as an army of occupation.

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The situation gets worse. We have fractured our relationships with most of our allies and with the Karzai Government. We are in constant disagreement with the Americans, who call all the tunes in Afghanistan, especially on the question of whether they can bomb people into democracy. We know about the terrible toll of lives that have been lost since the mission to Helmand province started. At least 500 civilians have been killed. Some of them may have been members of the Taliban or al-Qaeda, but a great many of them were innocent civilians, including women and children, and we know the reaction that has been caused by their deaths.

Our mission was to win hearts and minds. Everyone agrees that there is no military solution in Helmand province or in Afghanistan and there is certainly no mileage in the belief that bombs and bullets can be used to win hearts and minds. We have gone backwards in combating drug production and backwards in winning hearts and minds.

There has been a constant battle with the governors in Helmand province. There was a good governor—Engineer Mohammed Daoud—who was praised highly by the Secretary of State for Defence in Parliament in November 2006. In December 2006, however, he was sacked and replaced by a number of governors, in particular the Akhundzada brothers, one of whom was not allowed to take part in politics because he kept a private army and he was suspected of involvement in the narcotics trade, like many other governors and provincial police chiefs. We have had constant battles with those people.

Matters came to a bit of a head on Christmas day last year, when our ambassador to Afghanistan was summoned to meet President Karzai and told that a number of British diplomats were in contact with the Taliban. Two diplomats, who happened to be very experienced, very skilled and Pashto-speaking were expelled from the country. At about the same time, Karzai attacked our troops and said that they had made the situation in Helmand “worse”, which was an incredible thing for that ingrate President to say when 89 of our soldiers had laid down their lives for his Government.

We are in trouble as far as our allies in America are concerned, because they are convinced that the only way to deal with the opium production is to spray chemicals from the air. We are equally convinced that such a policy would lose further hearts and minds and turn a crisis into a hopeless situation.

Relations with our allies in NATO have led to a two-tier NATO. We shall hear soon that the French are sending another 1,000 troops, but they will not send them into Kandahar and they certainly will not send them into Helmand. They will send them into a safe area—or at least a relatively safe area, because few areas in Afghanistan are entirely safe now.

None of the other NATO partners has any intention of providing cavalry to come charging over the hill to help us out in the difficulties we face in Helmand province. We can see why it is so resistible. We could say to them, “You could have come into Helmand province when we did. You could have come and helped us out. It is military force that will do it”, but they can see the record—the silver record—of the deaths that we have suffered. They have suffered some deaths—Germany has suffered some deaths, and so on—but they will not be persuaded to come into the hopeless situation in
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Helmand province, where the hornets nest has produced hornets with a deadly sting.

Canada is thinking seriously about pulling out of Helmand province. Proportionally, it has suffered more than any other nation; it has 2,500 troops there and lost 78 soldiers. However, at least in Canada such matters are debated in Parliament. We have never had a proper debate in this place. We did not have a debate about going into Helmand province. We had a mini-debate in March 2006, which took place here in Westminster Hall, when warnings were given, but there was no vote and only about six or seven MPs attended. We have never had a proper debate on the situation that we are in now, which is why I am pleading this morning that we should consider the disaster more closely before we continue with it.

We can look at the situation in relation to our casualties, but it is difficult to establish the precise figures overall. However, according to The Independent, in 2007 at least 6,000 civilians died in the conflict across Afghanistan, mostly in Helmand province, and 1,400 of them were civilians. Furthermore, at least 500 of those deaths were directly attributed to NATO forces.

What can we do? We have been moving along in Afghanistan in a state of denial. We have used the fact that other NATO countries are not helping out as an excuse for not thinking and not facing up to the abject failures in every sense of the Helmand disaster. The time has come for a debate in Parliament, in the House itself, and for a decision. I plead with the Minister to tell the Government that we need a review. We already have enough reviews and we complain that there are too many of them, but we need to know about the position in Helmand province. Where is the hope? On what basis are we continuing to send young men to die?

The Americans gave their assessment of the situation a month ago, when the US director of national intelligence made his report. Where are we now, after having been in Afghanistan, having pumped in £3 billion of aid, and after the sacrifice of life? We have spent £250 million of taxpayers’ money only to increase the output of drugs, the consequence of which is that the street price of drugs in Britain is the lowest it has ever been. The situation is utterly and abjectly disastrous.

Where is the good? Where is the success? The American director of national intelligence has said that

particularly Helmand—

The situation is worse than things simply failing in Helmand. The victories that the Taliban have chalked up there have emboldened them to attack Kabul. If we had taken a different decision in 2006, and defended Kabul, we could have been in a strong position, but we believed the myth that we could somehow get all the warring factions together—the Pashtuns, Baluchis, Uzbeks and Tajiks—to form a Scandinavian-like democracy of peace and harmony. That will not happen.

In 2001, a member of the Russian Duma said to me, “You British have gone into Afghanistan and conquered it in a few days—very clever! We Russians did that in six days, but we stayed there for nine years, killing a million
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Afghans and losing 15,000 of our soldiers. When we left, there were 300,000 mujaheddin surrounding Kabul. That will happen to you.” His words were prophetic. Where are we now? Are we making progress? We shall not be staying for only three more years. No one believes that we will be out of Helmand province by next year. There is even talk of us being there for 38 years. That was the forecast of a military chief, when he was asked whether we would be there for as long as we have been in past wars. He replied, “Yes, at least as long.” One of those wars lasted for 38 years, and in one of them, only one British soldier came out alive.

There is a terrible history for foreign occupation and invasions of Afghanistan. The situation of the past few years is uncannily like that of Saigon. There are now 10,000 non-governmental organisation representatives in Kabul. They are swanning around in their bullet-proof land cruisers, going from meeting to party and from party to reception, spending huge amounts of public money, mostly on themselves, but with little to show for it. That was precisely the situation in Saigon when General Westmoreland was cheering himself on and giving hope to the nation by publishing lists of the numbers of enemy who had been killed. We are doing the same thing when we try to shore up our belief in the situation by publishing lists of the killed and saying that we are making progress, but we are not. We are going deeper and deeper into a vortex of disaster, blood, shame and failure.

The Government must realise that the disaster is continuing and they must take a stand against it. We can do something about the drug situation, but there is a practical problem with standing up to the Americans. We are in an impossible situation. We have put out a leaflet saying that we will not destroy drug crops—rightly so, to stop the attacks—and that we will not destroy farmers’ only means of production, but 16 separate organisations in Kabul deal with reducing the number of drug crops. They are achieving nothing, as few NGOs will go into the Helmand province, but we continue to be in denial.

The comparison with Vietnam is powerful. The problem is that we have Governments and Ministers who do not read history and who did not live through previous wars. They have not witnessed the past disasters that many of us have seen and lived through. The situation precisely parallels that of Vietnam. We seem to be an army of occupation, and the centre is crumbling. The American Defence Secretary set out the precise, bleak position that we are in. Less than a third of the country is controlled by Karzai, 10 per cent. is controlled by the Taliban, and the remaining 60 per cent. is run by a group of lawless, oppressive warlords, narco-barons and a range of people with whom we certainly would not want to do business. There has been oppression over many years. Karzai is looking after his diminishing empire in the centre, while we are losing lives for the cause.

I want to give the Minister a chance to reply at length, because I would like him to answer these questions. What is going right? What hope is there for the future? Why is everything that we are doing in Afghanistan, including our achievements on the number of children in school, declining under attack? There is a move to the
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harsher, Taliban view of life, which is being accepted not only in areas that are controlled by the Taliban and warlords, but in those that are allegedly controlled by Karzai.

The area for which we have the greatest responsibility is that for which we, in the House, take decisions. This afternoon, we are to debate our decision to send troops to war in Iraq, but at least that was a decision of the House. The Canadian Government will soon decide whether to withdraw their troops, which they have threatened to do unless 1,000 more go in. A thousand more will go, but not to the dangerous areas. NATO is fracturing before our eyes. That precious alliance has served us well, but the divisions are deep and growing worse. Our relationship with Karzai is at rock bottom, and it is questionable whether we should treat him as an ally, as we once did, because of his insult to our British soldiers and because of his suggestion that their sacrifices have not been beneficial and have even made matters worse. We are flooding the world with drugs. Our mission was to reduce them, but that has failed utterly.

My final point is about our feelings towards the soldiers who die. Nothing that I say on the matter should take away from my admiration, and that of the whole House, of the extraordinary courage and professionalism of our men and women who have served so splendidly, and with rare heroism, in Afghanistan, especially in Helmand. But will we number them on our war memorials in future? I think of the Welsh national war memorial in Cardiff, which is garlanded with an englyn, two lines of which recall the sacrifice of soldiers:

For his country, he gave his oath, over the sea he went to die.

The situation in Afghanistan has been compared to another Great British disaster: our mission into Helmand has been as futile, militarily, as the charge of the Light Brigade. One could bring that verse up to date by saying that when the troops went into Afghanistan, they had

12.48 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I welcome the ongoing interest that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) has shown in our mission in Afghanistan, especially in Helmand province. It is a subject of the utmost importance, which it is good to debate again today. However, the debate should take place openly and with an acceptance of all the facts, and it should not become skewed by perceptions of and assertions about particular elements of what is a truly multifaceted campaign. What our people are doing in Afghanistan is profoundly impressive—indeed humbling—to watch, and it must be viewed in the round with all its elements accounted for. I am afraid
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that my hon. Friend’s doom-laden contribution is a travesty of what is happening in Afghanistan and of our policy.

The 2004 constitution of Afghanistan begins:

Above all, our 7,800 people in that beautiful country are motivated by a determination to make a difference for the better, enable the Afghans to put right those injustices and avoid further disasters. It is difficult for us in this House to appreciate that often the more austere the conditions our soldiers work in, the more they relish the task—adversity and hardship breed camaraderie and satisfaction. That is precisely the kind of benevolent but hard soldiering that they joined the armed forces to do and that they have been trained for.

Our people are providing the secure space for our partner organisations—whether British, international or Afghan—to spread development, reconstruction, stability, governance and the rule of law. Even the most cursory glance at history reveals that western ideals imposed upon Afghanistan do not work. Only solutions of Afghan provenance and with Afghans at their centre will endure, which is precisely what we are enabling.

We have made progress. It might not look much like the Cotswolds, but there have been improvements in Afghanistan, which for so long has been one of the most lawless and troubled nations on earth. I have seen it myself. I was in Musa Qala last month, and the recent operations in that crucial town, which was previously characterised as hopeless, have confounded the most sceptical. Faced with measured and relentless pressure, with the Afghan national army in the vanguard having been mentored by us, the demoralised Taliban turned tail and fled in disarray. Despite the tragedy of a fatality on our side, it was a successful operation that maximised consent and minimised damage. The Musa Qala operation met all of its objectives in what is an infinitely complicated and ambiguous operating environment. We enabled the re-establishment of the Afghan Government’s mandate without providing those who seek to destabilise it the opportunity that they crave.

Our role is not about military operations in isolation, and every soldier whom I have met knows that. It is about what comes next, what those operations enable and what follows in their wake. Seven weeks after operations concluded, a school opened in Musa Qala for the first time in years. That was quick by anyone’s standards, but doubly so against Afghan timelines. Every soldier knew that the job was not about killing the Taliban, but about winning the people. My hon. Friend has said that it was about kill lists. I have been the Minister for almost a year, and I have never seen a kill list or seen our troops present their progress in the way in which he suggested—it is simply not true. If he has any evidence that our troops present their victories as kill lists, he had better give it to us, because I certainly have not seen it.

Paul Flynn: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: No, I will not give way. My hon. Friend took more than half the time, and I have little time to reply to the points that he has made.

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To be clear, had we not taken military action in Musa Qala last year, Taliban brutality would still be in the ascendant and the children would have no school. What I have just described is an example—just a microcosm—of what we are attempting through the comprehensive approach, and part of that approach is in counter-narcotics. That is for two profoundly important reasons. First, Afghanistan simply cannot develop and build itself as long as its foundation is an illegal narco economy. Secondly, the product of that economy, heroin, wreaks untold misery both within Afghanistan and more widely. We should remember that almost all the heroin on our streets originates in Afghanistan.

We attack that trade through a multi-dimensional and sophisticated approach. Eradication focuses on those for whom alternative livelihoods are available—the targets are the greedy and not the needy. The targets are the wealthy facilitators, financiers and traffickers, not the unfortunate poor who are forced to grow opium by the brutal landowners who lurk in the shadows, and our attention is focused on those landowners. It must be remembered that our involvement in those efforts is necessarily a supporting one: Afghans are in the lead, as they should be, from President Karzai down. Some progress has been made: in 2007, the number of poppy-free provinces in Afghanistan more than doubled from six to 13.

My hon. Friend has said that we do not raise some of those issues because of the Americans. We do not raise some of those issues because we are in a country at the invitation of its Government. Importantly, as he knows and mentioned throughout his contribution, Afghans lead on those policy areas. The Afghan Government build their own capacity, and we do not take over and dictate to them. My hon. Friend has decried American policy on aerial spraying, but knows that the Americans cannot engage in aerial spraying without the agreement of the Afghan Government. We agree with the Afghan Government that that would not be a step forward or an appropriate way of tackling narcotics cultivation in Helmand province and elsewhere in Afghanistan.

Paul Flynn: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I will give way if I have time, but my hon. Friend has left me little time to respond.

Just as no state can exist on illegal economic foundations, one cannot be built on fear. The Taliban have learnt that to their cost and are hated by the people they seek to oppress. That provides us and the legitimate Government of Afghanistan with an opportunity, and operations such as that at Musa Qala exploit such opportunities. The Taliban are a desperate and divided enemy who are increasingly reliant upon asymmetric tactics, suicide bombers and land mines. Vile though those tactics are, they represent disarray, and the atrocities widen the chasm between the Taliban and the Afghan people.

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