10 July 2008 : Column 489WH

10 July 2008 : Column 489WH

Westminster Hall

Thursday 10 July 2008

[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]

Reconstructing Afghanistan

[Relevant documents: Fourth Report from the International Development Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 65; and the Government response, HC 509.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

2.35 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): The members of my Committee are pleased to have the opportunity to debate our report. Although many things have happened in the fairly long period since we began our inquiry and published the report, we feel strongly that the role of the British Government in Afghanistan is crucial to that region.

I shall open the debate by summarising in a couple of sentences what is needed if we are to secure a future for Afghanistan. The country needs improved security, a crackdown on corruption and a strong human rights culture, especially in relation to women. The international community is helping, and should be striving to help, the Government of Afghanistan to achieve those three key things.

I will not delay right hon. and hon. Members by summarising the report: they can read it for themselves, and probably have done so already. When Committee members visited Afghanistan last October, we took the opportunity to try to get as broad a view of the country as we could. For that reason, not only did we spend time in Kabul and the surrounding Shamali plain, but we divided, with half going to Helmand and the other half, including me, going to Balkh province in the north and to Mazar-e-Sharif. When we came together, we had a complementary idea of a diverse country, with a great variety of things happening in different parts of it.

I say at the outset, perhaps for the benefit of opinion and the media in this country, that Afghanistan should not be confused with Iraq: the reasons why we are there, what are doing there, and the purposes and circumstances by which we came to be there are fundamentally different.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his speech. I commend him on his report. Many hon. Members have had an opportunity to visit both Afghanistan and Iraq. On analysis, there is a clear concern that the pace of reconstruction and development under the fragile umbrella of security was not apparent in Iraq and is not apparent in Afghanistan, for exactly the same reason. There are therefore lessons for each country to be learned from the other.

Malcolm Bruce: I accept that there may be lessons to be learned on reconstruction, but my point is that often the two engagements are conflated in the British press as though they were similar in context, and they simply are not. That important point needs to be made. Whatever people’s views are on Iraq and Afghanistan, the situations
10 July 2008 : Column 490WH
in those countries should be treated as two completely separate engagements, rather than two sides of the same one.

There is evidence of strong support among the Afghan people for the international community’s engagement within their country. Indeed, we were repeatedly told that, if anything, people were concerned that we would not stay, or would not stay for long enough. That we should not be there was not a message that we heard to any significant extent.

Nobody should underestimate either the challenges, which are huge, or the uncertainty of the outcome; our report makes that absolutely clear. More than 100 British service personnel have died engaging with insurgents in Helmand. It is perhaps understandable that that has become a strong focus of the United Kingdom media, and rightly so. It is, however, encouraging to note the comment of Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, last month:

Windows open and close, but an opportunity has been created.

It is important to recognise that the aim of UK policy in Afghanistan is to assist the country to build up a viable and efficient state, and for public services to create a climate for development and poverty reduction. Although the number of competent administrators is limited—one estimate that we heard when we were there was that there were as few as 200—the education, health and rural development Ministries are markedly improving delivery of basic services. Six million children are in school, more than one third of them girls, a high proportion of the population have access to basic health services, and agricultural production has improved in some parts of the country.

Part of the international community’s work has been to train the Afghan national army, where there has been positive achievement. That was borne out in the successful NATO-supported action to recapture Musa Qala. On the other hand, training the police force so that local people can trust them is proving to be a challenge, and the general perception still seems to be that the administration of justice throughout Afghanistan is dire. There has been a shortage of police trainers. The Government, who have said that the number of UK policing experts in Afghanistan is rising, are providing support to the EU police mission to Afghanistan—EUPOL Afghanistan—and working with the US-led police training programme. Will the Minister tell us how many EUPOL trainers there are in Afghanistan, how many are UK police, and what progress has been made in increasing the number of female police officers?

Providing security, especially in the south of the country, is crucial to the future, and that makes the role of British forces key. It is important to remember that Afghanistan is a diverse country, which needs to develop national administration that is free from corruption and accessible by all, especially women. During our visit, it was disappointing how often we heard people say, “We appreciate what the British are doing in Helmand; it is a pity that you are not engaged elsewhere in the country.” In reality, the overwhelming majority of our aid and development budget is being delivered to the national Government to provide services throughout Afghanistan, yet the focus is on Helmand.

10 July 2008 : Column 491WH

On the role of women and their rights, the context is not the same as in any western country. Afghanistan is an intensely male-dominated society where women’s rights have traditionally been limited. It is disappointing that since liberation and the establishment of democratic government, the country seems to be moving backwards. When the Government were created, there were four female Ministers and between eight and 12 female deputy Ministers. Today, there is only one female Minister, and three female deputy Ministers. Apart from the deputy health Minister, the others are all in the Ministry for Women’s Affairs. In other words, women are being patronisingly compartmentalised.

Yesterday, I met an Afghan journalist, Horia Musadeq, who gave me further cause for concern. Promises that a vacancy for a senior judge would be filled by a woman have not been kept and the post has now been filled by a man. The implementation of the justice action plan is not progressing, and the human rights component of the electoral commission is being diminished, leading to concerns that perpetrators of human rights abuses will continue to dominate the Parliament. Horia also told me that freedom of expression is being restricted by the application of the new media law and the use of blasphemy laws.

I suggest that the international community should make it abundantly clear that the long-term commitment to Afghanistan depends on the country establishing international standards against corruption and upholding the rights of its citizens, especially its women. If Afghanistan is to survive and to develop as a viable state, it needs improved security, a crackdown on corruption and a strong human rights culture. Will the Minister tell us how the Department for International Development, in co-ordination with other bodies, will monitor and prioritise that, and specifically—this was mentioned in the Government’s response to our report—how it will apply the gender equality action plan in Afghanistan?

The other focus of interest whenever Afghanistan is discussed is inevitably poppy cultivation. Partly through a policy of substitution that has made 20 provinces poppy-free, and partly because of a market glut, overall production is expected to fall. It is interesting that rising prices for other crops—notably wheat—have also helped. Although it is not always understood, there is a direct correlation between poppy production and insecurity. Some people think that all we have to do is to destroy the poppy crop, but that debate has no resonance because the Afghan Government will not allow that and, frankly, I do not blame them, because it would destroy the soil’s reproductive capacity. There is no point debating destruction of the poppy crop because that is not going to happen.

It is more to the point to ask why farmers grow poppies. It is not the best crop for money, but the criminal elements who buy it come to the farm gate with cash and take the crop away, which eliminates the need to travel off the farm and thus the risk of bribery and ambush on the way to market and intimidation by criminal elements. If farmers were provided with security in the form of protection from intimidation and with access to the market at reasonable cost and safety, other crops would become more attractive.

10 July 2008 : Column 492WH

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I am impressed by what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. In paragraph 131 of the report, his Committee emphasises:

is “a necessary condition” to tackle the issue. Paragraph 80, which covers a related issue, says that

What he is saying about cultivation and security rings true in two powerful paragraphs in his report.

Malcolm Bruce: Those paragraphs demonstrate that targeting poppy farmers is the wrong approach, and that it is necessary to target the perpetrators of the traffic. It is encouraging that the new Pakistani Government have indicated that they intend to take strong action in the frontier territories to tackle the Taliban and other criminal elements. One must remember that the border is huge and infamous. It is not internationally recognised—only the UK and Pakistan do so—and has a notorious reputation in world and specifically British history. That reputation has not changed much in recent years.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): I am interested in what the right hon. Gentleman is saying about drug trafficking and so on. What impression did he get of the border with Iran? What actions are the Iranian Government taking to stop drug trafficking?

Malcolm Bruce: We received a little information in passing on that, but we did not go to that end of the country, nor did we take specific evidence. Clearly, there is a lot of traffic across the border between western Afghanistan and Iran. There was evidence that the behaviour of the Iranian Government could have a positive or a negative effect, and at different times it had had both those effects.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I endorse the right hon. Gentleman’s last point: our strong impression was that although there had been incidents on the Iranian side, stability in the relationship with Iran is crucial, and the wrong sort of activities on the other side or directed towards Iran could set up a chain of events in Afghanistan that would be far from helpful.

Malcolm Bruce: Yes. The relationship between the Governments and people of Iran and Afghanistan, and the traffic that crosses the border, are complicated. The Iranian Government do not want a lot of drugs imported into their society, so to some extent they take strong action against it, which is helpful. However, they want a relationship with those whom they consider to be their kith and kin over the border. At other times they are a little less engaging. One can tell that when they are doing the right thing in that context, the problem is diminished, and when they are not, the problem is not diminished. That is another dimension to the international problem of how to deal with Iran, although that it not the subject of this debate.

Mr. Ellwood: The right hon. Gentleman says that Iran is not part of this debate, but Afghanistan is a mixture of identities, religions, ethnic groupings and so on. Afghanistan is a patchwork quilt of loyalties, not
10 July 2008 : Column 493WH
just one country, and that is where the constitutional model has gone wrong. Does he agree that where things have gone well in the east, it relates to Iran being the only country to invest in a railway line going to Herat? That will allow the east of Afghanistan to start trading. It is trade and investment that will replace poppies.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The west.

Mr. Ellwood: Sorry, I meant the west.

Malcolm Bruce: Of course, I accept that entirely. Although we did not go to Herat, we had many reports of how successful that area was. Certainly, those of us who visited Mazar-e-Sharif saw some pretty lively economic activity. That is important, but at the end of the day, if Afghanistan is given security, good roads, a decent education system and so on, it will have the capacity to create a successful economy. However, there are a lot of presumptive buts and ifs attached to that, which is precisely why the focus of this debate is how we create the climate for it to happen.

I shall now go to the next stage and move from the subject of poppy growing to that of the agricultural support that the Committee thought was necessary. We have recently had a wider debate about agriculture and the extent to which the world community has taken its eye off the ball in supporting agriculture as part of the development strategy throughout the world. We should not suddenly come rushing back to agriculture because it is fashionable in this year of high prices; we need to deal with the matter in a way that is coherent and has been thought through.

Let me give a practical example. We visited a village in Balkh where the community had been persuaded by old-fashioned methods—namely, threats—to stop cultivating poppy. The villager had therefore started to grow water melons, of which they had no previous experience. I have no expertise in relation to water melons, but I understand that the problem is that they are prone to attack from a particular kind of flea. When the villagers’ water melons suffered such an attack, they could not find anyone to advise them on how to deal with the problem. As a result, they did not say they would be better off with poppy; what they said was, “We’ve got a crop from which we’re not deriving much of an income.” They also said, “Thank you for the support you’ve given us in providing a clean water supply for the humans in the village, but we don’t have enough water for our animals, which are dying.” The people need irrigation to feed animals and for proper extension services to be provided by the Afghan authorities—perhaps with our support and expertise—to enable farmers to switch to other produce. We also need to ensure that people know how to manage and deal with those alternatives, as it will enable farmers not only to come out of poppy growing, but to find a long-term future from alternative sources.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech and the point that is dealt with in some detail in his Committee’s report, which has been the subject of a number of interventions, leads me as a matter of courtesy to say to the Minister that it would be extremely helpful if he set
10 July 2008 : Column 494WH
out for hon. Members in the clearest possible terms what the Government’s counter-narcotics strategy is in Afghanistan. We are spending a lot of money on this important work, so it would be extremely helpful if he told hon. Members from the Committee and other hon. Members precisely how that strategy is determined and what it aims to achieve.

Malcolm Bruce: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have a question about the agriculture strategy that relates to his point. The Government have committed £345 million to development in Afghanistan in the 2008-11 spending review. Will the Minister indicate, either now or in writing, how much of that resource will go into horticulture, livestock, agriculture and rural development, and in what form? That is part of our recommendations.

It is fair to say that there are vested interests in the UK in terms of agricultural research, academia and other areas and that, of course, the people involved with that have an agenda; however, it is not one that is not legitimate. Such people say that they have underutilised expertise that they feel could help. We obviously want to build up the capacity of the Afghan Government, not import capacity from outside, but I believe that we can work alongside Afghans and train them to improve the quality of their extension services.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman will find that there is a parliamentary question in my name asking for a breakdown of DFID’s funds. It is important to remember that our Committee is the International Development Committee and not the Foreign Affairs Committee. I make that point because it is important that we focus on poverty reduction in Afghanistan and make sure that the funds—certainly those from DFID—go into poverty reduction in Afghanistan and do not trickle into other areas. Of course security is important, but if we lose that funding focus, we will not crack the problem of poverty eradication.

Malcolm Bruce: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that pertinent, timely and extraordinarily important point, which reinforces again the distinction between Afghanistan and Iraq. Iraq is not a poor country, whereas Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. We should be engaged in helping to reduce that poverty. The truth is that if Iraq were a stable non-threatening country, we would not be there, other than as a trading partner or whatever. That is a fundamental and radical difference.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to make that point and to make it clear to other hon. Members here who are not members of our Committee that our focus is fundamentally on development. However, as in so many cases, it is impossible to avoid the security, defence and foreign affairs dimensions to these matters. I will come to that point at the end of my speech. We completely understand that there are other complex reasons for our being in Afghanistan, but we should never lose sight of our development priority. It is right to ensure that development money is not diverted to other purposes that might be legitimate, but for which development money has not been provided. It is easy to be misunderstood, and people often misrepresent what is happening and suggest a rather confused idea of what the British Government are doing in Afghanistan.

Next Section Index Home Page