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I want to shoot a sacred cow. Whenever people talk about Afghanistan, they say, “It is vital that we remain in Afghanistan; we are there to stop al-Qaeda regrouping and returning to threaten us.” That is nonsense on several fronts. First, the effects of our over-ambitious and ill-resourced plan has been further to radicalise large numbers of people across the Muslim world.

We often talk about al-Qaeda and the Taliban as if they are the same thing. There is a significant difference. The Taliban are largely Pathan tribesmen with a traditional and nationalist agenda and no foreign policy. On the other hand, al-Qaeda is a loose international nihilist movement with a highly developed foreign policy and the intent, and, regrettably, sometimes the capability, to conduct mass casualty attacks across the globe. They are two completely different things.

Mullah Omar himself is reported in the late ’90s to have been perturbed at the internationalist agenda of the Arabs that Abdul Haq had invited into the country earlier. Indeed, in 1998 Prince Turki, the internal security Minister for Saudi Arabia and later the Saudi ambassador to London, landed his jet at Kandahar in order to take bin Laden away. Mullah Omar was going to hand him over. Only after a shura to discuss the matter was it decided that they would not hand him over. Some people who know these things better than I do swear blind, although it is surprising to me, with my western point of view, that the only reason why Mullah Omar and the shura decided to let bin Laden stay was the pashtunwali code under which guests are protected.

To assert boldly that al-Qaeda will return to Afghanistan in a meaningful way is almost ridiculous. It is not the same situation as in the 1990s, when we ignored the place. Whatever we do in future, we shall still have an interest there. Since the 1990s, we have had huge signals intelligence, with huge overhead assets and loitering military assets in the sky. Almost every square centimetre of the country has been mapped. If they began to return—I cannot believe that the Afghans would wish to wreak the same disaster on themselves as happened in 2003—we would be able to deal with them.

While we pour life and resources into Afghanistan, that contributes to al-Qaeda successes in the Pashtun tribal belt in Pakistan itself. Pakistan is important to the United Kingdom, as many of our citizens have one foot in there and one in the UK. It is helping radicalisation in the “-stans”, in the Maghreb, in east Africa and across the towns and cities of the Muslim world, including some of our own cities.

The trouble is that by making the link between al-Qaeda and nationalist causes around the globe, we help al-Qaeda. Last week, at a Conservative middle east council event, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) made the following observation, although he was not directly referring to Afghanistan. He said that we need to understand that

I totally agree with my right hon. Friend.

We need a realistic long-term policy for Afghanistan. Does anyone seriously believe that Britain and the west will be able to continue with this relatively large-scale loss of life and spending billions and billions of pounds for many years to come? I cannot see it happening. We know that some NATO countries are wobbling because of the cost and the lives lost. It is time to scale down from what we would like to do to what we are able to do.

I do not pretend to be a great expert, but I have spoken to a lot of people who are—I am talking about people who have been there for longer than a six-month or nine-month tour, or through the changeover and reshuffles and so on. The consensus among them is something like this: we need to accept that large numbers of people in Helmand province are deeply traditional, xenophobic and resistant to change, and that most Afghans hate the Feringhi—the foreigner—especially if they pitch up in armoured vehicles and attack-helicopters. We cannot impose democracy at the point of a gun, so we need to play the great game in a new century and urgently bring the Taliban into the process with a national programme of local arrangements for different areas.

To the Government’s credit, some of that is happening behind the scenes and through various other initiatives that I shall not raise now. However, such a strategy should be brought centre stage, regardless, frankly, of what President Karzai says. We need a sort of “You leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone” approach and a bit of pragmatism. At the same time, we need to support intensively development zones and areas of the country that are at relative peace, reduce troop numbers to those that can be supported in the long term and focus our efforts massively on training the Afghan army and police.

I am not saying that we should disengage militarily. We should have small groups of troops on the ground, working with the Afghans; but it must be their show, and we must accept that it might not be very pretty. We should also be ready, at the drop of a hat, to send in helicopter-borne men with unseasonal suntans at dead of night, and to use missiles or bombs or whatever else at the slightest whiff of resurgent al-Qaeda.

It is time to stop seeing the Afghan Government as the key channel of development. We need development at local level and to let people locally decide what they want. We should let them start to feel some benefit from the presence of all those foreigners in their provinces. I am sorry to say this, and it may not be popular, but important aspirations such as women’s rights and opium production will just have to wait until the reality on the ground catches up. We are there either to fight and defeat an insurgency and reduce poverty or we are not. In short, it is time to get a little bit of peace through reality—we could describe it as the great game crossed with ballistic missile, submarine and special-forces diplomacy, underwritten by massive development spending.

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend’s speech is most compelling, but surely the point about the great game was that, again and again, we found ourselves fighting Pashtun tribesmen who were sheltering, because of the rules of
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hospitality to which he referred, the most repulsive Deobandi extremists, who came mostly from the centres of the big cities of India. I agree with most of the things that he has said, but we must surely recognise that the country’s structure and remoteness makes it an ideal base for similar extremist insurgents to shelter, on the back of those historical rules of hospitality.

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be brief.

Mr. Holloway: What my hon. Friend said is superficially true, but there is a big difference now from the situation 150 years ago. Our intelligence picture is likely to be considerably better and we will have something resembling an Afghan state. We are making a big mistake in the so-called war on terror—I would love to think of a different name because that is not apt. There are lots of broadly nationalist movements in the middle east and we make our problems worse because we lump them together with the super-extremists. We must start to separate al-Qaeda from the Taliban and other nationalist movements in the region. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney suggested, although not directly vis- -vis Afghanistan, we must dismantle the problems one by one. Take, for example, the Israel-Palestine problem. The Government, massively to their credit, have realised that it is one of the big games in town. We must pursue that approach, because until we get rid of those problems and separate them, al-Qaeda will mix in like those Indian troublemakers in the Pathan tribal belt all those years ago.

That neatly leads me back to the wider picture. I spoke at the beginning of my speech about the drivers of radicalisation. Three years ago, no one outside Helmand had heard of places such as Sangin, Gereshk, Nowzad and Musa Qala. Today, they are clearly on the map and internet sites of the global jihad. I again assert that we are in Afghanistan for well-intentioned reasons, but how does the Minister think that TV news footage of war fighting plays among impressionable Muslims even in this country?

The primary purpose of going to war in Afghanistan was to deny al-Qaeda a safe operating base. We achieved that aim a long time ago. Our secondary objective was the destruction of the Taliban. However, frankly—let us have some realpolitik—that appears to be beyond our means. Commanders can tell us that we are winning until they are blue in the face, and that increasing numbers of suicide and roadside bombings prove that, but, at some point, as in every other insurgency historically, we will have to make a deal with the Taliban. I have some sympathy with the argument that we must beat them to some extent and make them realise that they cannot win before we can make such a deal. Does the Minister agree that now is the time for a deal?

The big strategic challenge for our generation is to win back the good will of all those people who were with us on 11 September 2001. We must do that over the next six months, or over 10 or 30 years. We must take al-Qaeda back to where it was, in terms of popular support across the world, in 2001, which was frankly nowhere. At the same time, in parallel, we must reduce its residual capacity.

What we have been doing in Afghanistan is a long-term liability for the UK. It has been ill thought out and is counter-productive, and it is a further driver of radicalisation
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around the world and in this country, all of which contribute to our wider strategic failure.

We have lost immeasurable amounts of good will since 11 September 2001 and it continues to haemorrhage away across the Muslim world and Pakistan in particular. It is time to free up resources to deal with the much more serious strategic threats that we will face in the coming months and decades. We need to win back that good will and fight the battles that really matter. When we do those things, we might be doing something to make our people safer.

10.9 am

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I am not quite sure how to follow that excellent contribution, which was rather colourful in places. Nor am I sure whom the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) was referring to when he mentioned helicopters and unseasonable suntans in the middle of the night, but he certainly added colour to our proceedings.

It feels like the old gang are back together because the hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) and I visited Afghanistan together as members of the Select Committee on Defence. Thanks to the Pakistan air force, however, I never actually made it to Helmand—that was not because of a clash between the Governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, or because of a war of words, but simply because an innocent prawn cocktail made sure that I stayed in the base in Kabul. I was disappointed not to have made it down to the south to see the provincial reconstruction teams for myself and hear from the troops about their experiences of development work.

As he has shown this morning, the hon. Member for Gravesham has extensive knowledge of Afghanistan and Helmand. He is probably the only Member of Parliament to have visited the country using his own means and to have heard about the situation in the south for himself—without spin and without being influenced by Government officials. I do not necessarily agree with all his analysis and I do not claim to be as knowledgeable as him—I simply go on the information and advice that I receive from various reports—but I am not as pessimistic as him. Excellent work is being done, although there are challenges.

The Liberal Democrats support the mission in Afghanistan, although we recognise that we should not use the grand rhetoric that Ministers have unfortunately used about it, including in the past week. The task ahead is extremely hard. We should not always talk about democracy and human rights in Afghanistan in terms of British standards, and although we should always strive to achieve the best, we should be realistic about what we can achieve.

One of my main criticisms is that we took our eye of the ball in Afghanistan when we invaded Iraq. The efforts of the great minds in the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office were primarily focused on Iraq. Massive numbers of troops were in Iraq at the time, but that was exactly when we should have been investing in reconstruction in Afghanistan, particularly in the south. We should not have started investing five years later, when we had already started to lose the hearts and minds of people in the south.

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None the less, the Liberal Democrats support and completely agree with the comprehensive strategy that the Prime Minister set out at the end of last year. There are issues about implementation, but we agree overall with the strategy, which takes a sensible approach.

Distinguishing between the different players in the south of Afghanistan—whether they are Taliban, al-Qaeda, Pashtun or tribal leaders—is difficult. That is why we need the professionals and the military on the ground to determine who is what. People will shift between the different categories at different times, but we sometimes look at these issues far too simplistically. I agree that we should be more sophisticated in our approach to identifying who is hostile and who is not. We should leave it to those on the ground to determine such things. Sometimes we will think that people are friendly, but they will suddenly become hostile again because they fear that those who are hostile will be stronger than those in our military. The answer is to use the military and the professionals on the ground to make the judgments. Foreign Office officials recently got into difficulties when they were negotiating with individuals in the south. President Karzai did not appreciate the fact that they had gone beyond what he thought was their remit. These are difficult issues, and we must be intelligent in our approach.

The Minister might be aware of the Oxfam report “Afghanistan: Development and Humanitarian Priorities”, which was published in January. Oxfam has been very critical of the humanitarian and development effort. In the summary at the beginning of its report, it says:

which is very much what the hon. Member for Gravesham said.

The report covers a huge range of issues. I do not necessarily agree with the tone of some aspects of it, but it is pretty comprehensive. It covers aid effectiveness, governance, agriculture, counter-narcotics, education, health, the protection of non-governmental organisations, community peace building, regional action and the provincial reconstruction teams, and I want to spend quite a bit of time discussing how effective the PRTs have been. However, the main criticism in the report is that the Afghans have been fed a diet of development over which they have had little say, that has been delivered by outsiders and is not good value for money. Before I look at that, however, I want to discuss how much of the aid pledged by foreign Governments has been delivered.

Since 2001, $25 billion of aid has been committed, but only $15 billion has been delivered. I am aware that more money was committed at last week’s conference, but I am not sure how much of it was new money and how much has been delivered already—only time will tell which category it falls into. According to the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief—an alliance of international aid agencies working in Afghanistan, of which the Minister will probably be aware—the US is the worst offender, having delivered only $5 billion of the $10 billion that it has committed. We should be
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generous to the US because it has committed considerable sums—much more than any other individual country—but there is a difference between pledging and committing. The UK, Canada, Italy and Japan have a good record of delivering on their pledges, but there is still a $10 billion shortfall overall compared with the amount pledged. The UK has a £200 million shortfall for 2002-08. Why has that money not been spent? What, in general, is the Minister’s response to the report?

Another issue picked up by the Oxfam report relates to value for money and local delivery. Large chunks of the aid that is actually delivered flow back out of the country simply because we use external contractors, advisers and consultants, rather than indigenous support. According to the Oxfam report, about 40 per cent. of the money spent by the donor countries, including the US and the UK, goes into corporate profits, consultants’ salaries and other costs. That vastly pushes up the cost of projects, so we get less for the money that we spend.

For example, a road between the centre of Kabul and the international airport cost the US $2.3 million per kilometre, which is at least four times the average cost to the Afghan authorities of building a road. To take another example, a classroom costs $14,000 when built by the Afghan Government, $17,000 when built by NATO, $21,500 when built by a private contractor and a staggering $51,000 when built by an international developer. I am sure that there are sometimes reasons why it is appropriate to use an international developer, but I would hope that this is an extreme case and that such things are not common. My fear, however, is that they are. Perhaps it is far too easy to opt for an international developer.

I appreciate that DFID has a good track record of trying to filter money through Afghan institutions, including the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund, but US aid is bypassing the Afghan civilian Government. What discussions have our Government had with the US Government to spread the lessons learned from DFID’s good practice and to allow the United States to benefit from our knowledge? It is important that Afghans see the money being spent wisely, but it is also important to us to ensure value for money. What monitoring measures are in place to ensure that?

There are about 25 provincial reconstruction teams, led by 13 different nations, and standards and operating practices for each PRT are an issue. Although we do not want complete uniformity, we want some consistency among the PRTs and a general working practice. According to their mission statement, PRTs should

However, the handbook also says that there should be an interim structure.

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