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17 Jun 2008 : Column 186WH—continued

Oxfam has criticised the PRTs for going well beyond their remit at the expense of the development of local Afghan institutions and Government structures. Rather than a help, the PRTs could be seen as a hindrance. Whether to use PRTs and quick improvement projects to ensure early delivery is a dilemma. Making immediate improvements to the quality of life in an area demonstrates to the individuals living there the clear benefits for their families of having the British military on site. But if we are trying to build up Afghan institutions, we must
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sometimes wait, but how long should we wait before institutions are ready to deliver their own reconstruction? Developing their skills and capabilities helps the Afghan Government to gain authority in the regions. That is another part of the parcel.

Security is obviously important. Members might be aware of the story of two Afghan decorators who were hired to spruce up a local school in Musa Qala. Refreshing the rather untidy and unkempt school was supposed to be a good-will gesture to the local community, but during the decorators’ 50-mile trip back to their house after completing the task, their convoy was ambushed. The Taliban discovered that they had been working for the British, and they were promptly hanged.

In that climate, why would any citizen of Afghanistan want to help the British? Their security is not personally guaranteed, and locals are not absolutely convinced that the British will stay there for a long time. In Musa Qala, for instance, we had control and then lost it, and now we are back in. How many Afghans in Musa Qala believe that the British will be there for the long run, and wonder how long it will be before the Taliban come back? Why would they help in those circumstances? I understand the difficulties of trying to build up local structures and local capability for reconstruction, but in that climate—again, I depart from the hon. Member for Gravesham on this point—it is perhaps no surprise that outside agencies are reluctant to enter zones where even the security of Afghanistan’s own citizens is not guaranteed. Again, that is a matter for the professionals on the ground.

It has been asked whether we are too risk-averse. Are we sending the appropriate individuals to such areas to help with indigenous reconstruction? Are we being too timid in our approach? A risk assessment needs to be done. It is not for us to make that decision in this Chamber—it must be made by those on the ground with an understanding of security and safety—but it is a problem. Indigenous reconstruction is not happening at the pace that Oxfam and others would like.

Oxfam says that we should restrict the use of PRTs to situations in which they are absolutely necessary, and the security situation prevents other development. Those are the parameters for risk assessment. The Select Committee on International Development found in its report on Afghanistan:

I think that everybody would agree with that, but exactly when does that happen? When is it safe to allow external bodies to come in and help with a reconstruction effort that is primarily indigenous? That is a decision for the commanders and professionals on the ground.

Concerns have been expressed about the lack of funds flowing through to the military when the conditions—

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to draw his remarks to a close in order to give the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman and the Minister time to reply.

Willie Rennie: Certainly, Mr. Taylor. I am coming to the end of my speech.

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There are questions whether funds are flowing through to the military at the appropriate time. Concerns have been expressed that the military do not receive funds when it is absolutely clear that they should in order to complete quick improvement projects, because DFID believes that such reconstruction projects should be conducted by locals.

I have two other points to raise. One concerns police training. We heard from the Defence Secretary yesterday about the progress that has been made on police training. The Government believe that the new format of focused district development is reforming and reconstructing the police forces. I would like to hear what the magic bullet is, because it has been difficult to get the police forces on side in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The other issue is the poppy crop. Concerns have been expressed about the expansion of the poppy crop, but we hear that it is declining this year. Is that due to food prices, or is it a result of some substantial change in the security situation that has allowed farmers to adopt alternative livelihoods?

10.27 am

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), who made an excellent speech. He covered some of the ground that I was going to cover, so I shall not. I thought that he got it absolutely right when he highlighted some of the problems of building capacity in the provinces, and I intend to touch on that matter in my speech.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) on a thought-provoking speech, much of which I agreed with, although a couple of elements I did not. He is absolutely right to say that the Conservative party’s official position is not to put DFID back under FCO control. To take his speech in the round, one of his key points, with which I agree absolutely, is that we need to start looking at the whole question of development in Helmand province from the viewpoint of the Afghan. That is simply not being done to the degree that it should be. We have talked about producing community development plans via community development councils—having spoken with some councillors on my trip there a couple of weeks ago, I shall talk about that—but the fact remains that we are still not Afghan-focused.

For my part, I have not travelled under my own steam in Afghanistan. I have travelled there with the Select Committee on Defence. I also served in Afghanistan for some weeks as a Royal Engineers major in charge of delivering reconstruction and development, so I got to see some of the work at first hand, and I went a couple of weeks ago to see the work of the stabilisation unit in Lashkar Gah. That trip was fascinating, and I shall discuss some of the points that came out of it in a few moments.

In the short time that I have, I shall discuss the role of the stabilisation unit, which my hon. Friend touched on. We in this place are always slightly suspicious when Departments change their name; it is not normally a good sign, so the fact that the post-conflict reconstruction unit magically became the stabilisation unit was a clear sign that perhaps not everything was going well. However, having been to see the stabilisation unit at work in
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Lashkar Gah, I was encouraged that finally—some would argue that it has taken far too long—we are getting on the right track. The comprehensive approach that my hon. Friend described—security, governance and reconstruction—finally seems to be coming together, and for the first time the UK has produced a UK road map for bringing together the military effect to ensure that it contributes directly to the development needs in Helmand province. We are beginning—painfully slowly—to see the positive benefits of that.

I recall during my time there visiting a PRT in Herat province, which was not experiencing the degree of conflict that Helmand was; we viewed it as the sort of province that we hoped Helmand would be in two or three years. However, I watched the Spanish military commander and the Spanish equivalent of DFID arguing over who was supporting whom and who was in control, which was a clear message that we needed to get the stabilisation unit right to try to put an end to that type of conflict between the military, DFID and the FCO. The one message that we were given—it seems to be quite genuine—is that the unit now has that under control and no longer are the military constantly arguing or vying with DFID over who is doing what and who is supporting whom. I was deeply encouraged by that. In addition, the PRT in Lashkar Gah is now commanded by an FCO official, not a military commander, so that conflict seems to have ended.

This debate is specifically about the military action in support of development, of which I have some experience, as I said, having been a Royal Engineer working briefly in Kandahar and Helmand. While in Helmand a couple of weeks ago, as I talked with some of my colleagues in the Royal Engineers, it became clear to me that great frustrations remain about the speed at which money gets to them for delivering projects that they are asked to undertake, as the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife explained—for example, road-building projects to connect the main towns of the Helmand valley.

Unfortunately, there still seems to be some rivalry over funding streams and who gets what money, and it has been argued that military support would be much greater if the process of getting money through were made faster. Indeed, yesterday in the House, I asked the Secretary of State for Defence that question, but he chose not to answer. As my hon. Friend rightly said, there is a gap between what we can realistically expect DFID operators to achieve in that difficult environment and what they ought to be achieving, given that we are entirely reliant on military engineers to deliver that effect. We have not quite managed to close that gap, but we are making progress. The gap is closing slowly, but until we close it entirely and can ensure a seamless transition, we must ensure that funding streams are available to both equally.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the police, who in any normal country are the first line in ensuring security and governance. It became pretty clear during our trip a couple of weeks ago that the police in Helmand do not have a good reputation. In fact, it was fascinating visiting the head of the counter-narcotics police, who claimed that almost every member of the normal police—if I can call them that—was a drug addict, permanently off their head on some form of drug and completely
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untrustworthy. They did not have the trust of the Afghan people. Clearly we must do an enormous amount of work in that area, because an effective police force is a key plank in delivering sustainable development in Helmand province.

My hon. Friend also spoke about finding alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers and argued that it might well have to wait until other things have been put in place. He may well be right. In fact, some would argue that very little progress has been made in that area since we have been there.

Mr. Holloway: I was not quite saying that. My point is that we desperately need alternative livelihoods to poppy farming, rather than to pick an argument with Afghan villagers by destroying their crops. Where are those alternative livelihoods?

Mr. Lancaster: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he will be reassured by what we heard during our meeting with the new governor in Helmand, Governor Mangal. He has drawn up a five-year plan—I hate to call it that, because it conjures up images of Stalinist plans—offering a clear carrot-and-stick approach to poppy farmers. By ensuring that the infrastructure is in place so that goods can be brought to market, he intends in the next few years to offer real alternative livelihoods to try to wean poppy farmers off the need to grow poppies. We were quite encouraged by the plan’s detail.

Clearly, as hon. Members have highlighted, building capacity is at the heart of what we need to do in Helmand province, and Afghanistan as a whole. From my humble experience of working in Afghanistan, I have no doubt that very good work is being done as a result of the majority of DFID’s efforts in Kabul in attempting to build capacity in the national Government, although some Ministries are doing far better than others—as ever, the Ministry for Rural Reconstruction and Development seems to be pushing along very well. However, translating that capacity building down to provincial level, where local Afghans will actually see a difference, is proving to be much more challenging.

During our trip to Lashkar Gah, we met some of the local government officials from each of the Government Departments who have been charged with trying to build capacity locally. What we heard was not very encouraging. Some three years ago, when we first became involved in Helmand, about 200 schools were open in the province, but today there are just 56. That is a direct example of what my hon. Friend was saying: our intervention has, to a degree, had a detrimental effect. Yesterday, when I argued with the Secretary of State for Defence in the House, he denied that those facts were true, but it is what we are being told, not by DFID officials—although they were present at our meeting—but by Afghans charged with delivery.

Mr. Holloway: I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the big problems is that we do not hear any Afghan voices in much of what we do. In my limited experience, the reality experienced by Afghans—on the other side of the barbed wire—is very different from what we hear about when speaking to our officials. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that. It is also very different from what we are told by the media,
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whose interest is very limited, although Sky News is now running a week-long series of programmes—not before time. We need much more scrutiny.

Mr. Lancaster: As ever, my hon. Friend makes a valuable point. When I returned to Lashkar Gah some 18 months after leaving, I was encouraged by the fact that we could get out, which we simply could not have done when he and I went with the Defence Committee. That in itself shows progress, so we should be encouraged. Let us be clear about that.

From talking with local tribesmen and members of community councils—the very people charged with coming up with the community development plans—it became clear to me that a bottom-up approach is being taken in an effort to understand what local tribesmen want, so hon. Members should be encouraged. However, progress is painfully slow, and we need to focus on where it will make the principal difference. I listened to what my hon. Friend said, and believe firmly that DFID should focus its efforts at the local and provincial levels.

Before the Minister responds to the debate, I should like to make one point about the counter-narcotics police, as that is another area in which the Government need to be a little cleverer about how they support local Afghan organisations. We went to see the head of the counter-narcotics police, who turned the air-conditioning on especially for us. They had so little diesel that they could not afford to run the air-conditioning or their local trucks. They had been funded directly by the British Government, but an artificial timeline had been set so that, from the end of March, all the funding that had come directly from the British Government stopped.

We had decided that, by that time, the necessary infrastructure and capacity would have been built up within the relevant Ministry—the Ministry of Justice, I think—and the Afghan Government, so the money was diverted to Kabul in the hope that it would filter down to the provinces and local commanders. However, capacity had not been built into the national system and the money was not coming through. All the sterling efforts of the local commander had gone to pot because he could not get the diesel through his own system, because our Government had decided, completely artificially, that 31 March was the date that funding would stop. That is a clear example of how we need to be a bit smarter when deciding how to help people in Helmand. Artificial deadlines are based on an assumption that capacity will have been built in the provinces, and that simply is not happening. We need to reconsider what is happening there, as that is only one of many examples of how we need to do better.

10.41 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Shahid Malik): It is a pleasure to engage in this debate under your stewardship, Mr. Taylor. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) on securing this important and timely debate, which has shown that Afghanistan is a country of extreme complexity that faces enormous challenges. We must not underestimate the scale of those challenges, but there has been genuine progress, to which the British armed forces and Her Majesty’s Government have made a significant contribution.

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It will be impossible to respond, in the time available, to all the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised. Time has flown; I had wondered whether there would be enough meat to keep the debate going for an hour and a half with just one or two speakers, but it could have lasted for four or five hours. I shall respond as quickly as possible, but my response will be slightly disjointed because I want to respond to the points that have been made.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman accepted that he does not know chapter and verse. At the risk of sounding slightly unkind, I must say that that was evident in part of his contribution.

Mr. Holloway: I thank the Minister for acknowledging that, but will he also acknowledge that senior people in the military have serious misgivings about DFID’s performance?

Mr. Malik: I accept that Afghanistan is an extremely challenging place for all who are there trying to make it a better place for the people of the country.

It might be useful if I get straight into the meat of this debate. Following decades of conflict and political turmoil, Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and remains off track in relation to all the millennium development goals, but there has been real progress and life has improved for many Afghans. Let me illustrate some of the achievements since 2001. About 6 million children are in school, more than a third of whom are girls. That number is up from the estimated 1 million children who were in school in 2001, of whom very few were girls as they were officially denied access to education under the Taliban. The legal economy grew by 13.5 per cent. in 2007-08, and 82 per cent. of people now live in districts with access to basic health care, compared with just 9 per cent. in 2002.

Let us be under no illusions that building on those important gains will be easy. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said last week in Prime Minister’s questions, we are in it for the long haul. Neither the Taliban nor illegally armed groups pose an immediate and credible threat to the overall authority of the Afghan Government, but in the south, in particular, security is fragile, which makes it difficult for Afghans to live and work in safety, and for aid workers to operate.

Mr. Lancaster: The figures that the Minister has given are for Afghanistan. Can he give us figures for education and health in Helmand?

Mr. Malik: I am coming to Helmand.

In Helmand, the impact of military operations is that they are setting the conditions for stabilisation, reconstruction and development to begin. The UK has invested heavily in joined-up civilian and military planning. As the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) has rightly pointed out, we have a civilian-military plan for Helmand—the Helmand road map—which is backed by the stabilisation aid fund. Last week, a senior civil servant arrived to be the UK’s new senior representative for Helmand.

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