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10 July 2008 : Column 494WH—continued

10 July 2008 : Column 495WH

On a practical point—I do not want this to be seen as in any way ironic—when we visited Afghanistan, we would not have been able to cover the ground and see what we did in the week we were there if we had not had access to a plane that was seconded to the use of the British embassy at that time, particularly because our Committee split and went to opposite ends of the country during a very short visit. At the time, we were concerned—we have mentioned this in the report—that the plane was available only for the short term and was likely to be withdrawn. We have made a specific recommendation stating our hope that the British embassy and British development staff will continue to have access to a plane, because we feel that that would greatly assist their ability to cover the ground. We know that it is expensive, but the reality is that without the plane, those staff would essentially be confined to operating in Kabul and Helmand, and they would not be able to reach the rest of the country, especially given that many of them are on a short-term rotation for security reasons. Will the Minister say whether a decision has been taken and, if so, what decision has been made on the future of the plane or making a similar arrangement?

I reinforce the point that nobody should underestimate the challenges and difficulties of operating in the post-conflict environment of today’s Afghanistan; our Committee certainly does not. Conversely, however, nobody should underestimate the cost of failure. Afghanistan is the fulcrum of an immensely unstable part of the world. It is the source of the world’s drug traffic and the hub of the world’s terrorist training network. A stable, developing Afghanistan has positive implications for its neighbourhood; a failed Afghanistan would hugely destabilise what is potentially the most volatile region in the world. Anybody who suggests that Afghanistan is a far-away place of which we know little and that we should not be there fundamentally fails to understand why it is central to our national interest now, as it has been in the past.

Afghanistan is also a point of concern and focus because of the plight of its people, who have been battered to hell from all kinds of sources and from every different direction. Understandably, they are doubtful and frustrated at not knowing what their future might be. Time and again, we were told that because of their experience, the people of Afghanistan fundamentally do not trust anybody; they simply do not believe that anybody will stay long enough or be consistent. That is why Ministers and others in the international community repeatedly say, “This is a commitment for a generation. We will be there be 20 or 30 years.” That is not some sort of bold, post-imperialist statement; it is a real attempt to reassure the people of Afghanistan that we understand that building up a viable state is not something that will be achieved in the short term and that we are there to work with them to deliver that.

Progress is being made, as the Secretary of State highlighted in his speech in Kabul on 29 June. He also highlighted the challenges and opportunities. Afghanistan is our business in terms of both contributing to security and helping some of the poorest people in the world to lift themselves out of poverty. There will be setbacks and shortfalls, but as long as we can engage with constructive partners in the country and recognise the
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case for long-term commitment, that is what we should do. I urge the British media and the British public to understand and to recognise that what we are trying to do in Afghanistan is a noble venture, and we must stick to it.

3 pm

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I intend to talk only about DFID’s reconstruction work in Helmand. I start by commending to the Minister—who I hope is better prepared for this debate than he was yesterday upstairs—the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), who recently made an excellent speech in this Chamber on the situation in Afghanistan and the work of DFID and the Army. The key to our success, as I hope the Minister understands, is consent, and consent can be gained only if the people whom we are trying to help believe not only that we are in it for the long haul but that we are delivering on what we said we would do and on what was set out in a number of high-sounding declarations about how things would work in Afghanistan.

DFID has deployed many very good people to Afghanistan. I acknowledge that many of them are courageous and are doing a very good job, but DFID is not geared to operations in a fundamentally hostile environment. It is not a place with which DFID people are familiar. They do not do danger. They are not trained to do it. Their ethos is not for it; in fact, their ethos is wholly alien to the soldiers alongside whom they are serving, broadly speaking, in Helmand.

In my view, DFID needs to second the budget that it has laid aside for reconstruction in Helmand to the British Royal Engineers or to other people who will come in and do the reconstruction. The truth is that the British Army, taking serious casualties, will continue to take down the Taliban wherever and whenever it can and will continue to try to spread security on very dangerous operations, often without the helicopters that it needs to do that. When those personnel go out, they need to be able to hold the ground and stay there and bring in behind them people who can immediately set about reconstruction and thus deny the territory to the Taliban. If we do not fix this, all those soldiers will have died in vain, because those personnel can go on doing their best to control the military situation, but they cannot do the reconstruction. Unless DFID gets the reconstruction aid together in Helmand, we will see the failure of this operation. It will go on, because it is a very long-term operation, as the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) rightly said in his excellent report. We are in this for the long haul, and we know it.

John Battle: The hon. Gentleman raises a significant and interesting question—the relationship between troops trying to maintain security and the reconstruction. DFID does operate in situations of danger all over Africa and elsewhere. Our troops might not be there, but some DFID staff operate in the most difficult circumstances in the world. I went, as a Minister, to Bosnia after peace had been declared, and the Royal Engineers were asking me whether we could get DFID to come in to help with the reconstruction of the water and electricity infrastructure, engineering plants and the rest of it. Has the hon. Gentleman had conversations with the Royal Engineers about how that interface might work? Are they asking
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to be given the budget or to work with DFID? In Kosovo, I got the opposite message from what the hon. Gentleman is saying.

Mr. Soames: The sentiment that the right hon. Gentleman heard expressed in Bosnia among sappers would not be expressed in Helmand. It is a totally different theatre of operations and a totally different scale of danger. In Helmand—one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous, theatre of operations in the world—people will not find DFID digging wells. They will find the military taking the ground and then begging the sappers to come in to dig the wells to get things going immediately.

Mr. Ellwood: Perhaps I can answer the question. In Musa Qala, people have been calling and waiting for a mosque to be built. The locals have asked DFID. This is a question of winning over hearts and minds, but it has never happened. Guess who is building that mosque now? It is not DFID but the Royal Engineers. The international security assistance force—ISAF—is taking over. There is mission creep. Nothing is happening, and our boys are exposed. They realise that they have to win over hearts and minds. They have to get on with the reconstruction and development. There is one non-governmental organisation working for DFID in Helmand province. I agree totally with my hon. Friend that DFID does not do danger. It has tackled poverty. We need to reconstruct our whole focus and how we work in dangerous areas across the globe.

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has done a great deal on this issue. He has been to Afghanistan regularly and has the advantage of having seen the situation. As a former soldier, he understands very well that this is not a generalised criticism of DFID. The circumstances in which DFID works in other parts of the world are in no way comparable. The dangers in Africa—

John Battle: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Soames: No, I will not give way. The dangers in Africa are in no way comparable to what people are facing in Helmand.

John Battle: What is the answer to the question?

Mr. Martyn Jones (in the Chair): Order.

Mr. Soames: I repeat that, unless we get this right, we will not see a successful conclusion to the operations in Helmand. I do not know whether the Minister has ever seen this, but I commend to him the way in which the American forces regularly, in very hostile environments, use development and aid by bringing in USAID—the United States Agency for International Development—immediately behind, with sappers, to get on and do the business immediately, with force protection. That is no place for a civilian.

I know that the Government recognise that there is a major problem. I have talked privately to Ministers and others. I have talked to the generals and the brigadiers. I know exactly what people’s thoughts are, and everyone knows that the situation has to be improved. It is time for the Government to be bolder and more assertive and to understand that if we go on taking very heavy
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casualties without succeeding in pushing forward the reconstruction in Helmand, that will be a very, very bad thing for the British interest and effort in Afghanistan. The Minister needs to understand that his people cannot do it and they need to pass that responsibility to people who can and will operate in the most dreadful, difficult and hostile circumstances.

3.7 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I, too, was one of the party from the Select Committee that visited Afghanistan last year and I endorse what the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) said in introducing the report. My comments will be based partly on what was said by the witnesses who appeared before the Committee, but also on the evidence of my own eyes—I was one of those who went to Helmand. There is a health warning about that, because when we go somewhere, particularly a place as insecure as Afghanistan, we get only a snapshot. I suspect that that applies to all of us. To think that we get more than that and that when we come back we are experts is not right. We are not; we get a snapshot. However, we do see some things, and certainly I saw some things while I was there.

I will in a while express a slightly different view from that of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on the roles of DFID and the military, but the first thing to do is to endorse what the right hon. Member for Gordon, the Chair of the Committee, said about the importance of our being in Afghanistan. I was opposed to the war in Iraq; that is on the record. Afghanistan is a different situation. There are real issues about how we co-ordinate our efforts, both as the UK and with partners. There are issues about the relationship between development and military action. Those things have to be assessed on an ongoing basis, but I did not get the impression while I was there—I do not think that colleagues on the Committee did either—that anyone was saying that it was feasible to get out or that people wanted us to get out. That was true of people whose main job it was to combat poverty, those who were doing something about poppy cultivation and those who were involved in the important gender work that the Chairman of the Committee mentioned. It was also true of those involved in development, those trying to create a functioning state that is responsive to the needs of its citizens and certainly those involved in military activities. It is therefore important that we say clearly on the record that it is right that we are in Afghanistan, and that means that we will be there for the long term.

I pay tribute to all those—the military, the embassy staff and the DFID staff—who operate in the area. I saw real strength in the approach of virtually all the British personnel operating in Afghanistan, whether they were based in Helmand or Kabul. There was a sensitivity to the local situation, and those involved looked for what worked, which is not something that one finds among all the foreign countries present in Afghanistan. By and large, British personnel had a really sensitive approach to counter-narcotics and rejected the simplistic focus on eradication that comes from some other quarters. Although the guns and soldiers are a constant reminder that danger is ever present, the military and the development people whom we met understood that the development effort and the military
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effort must go hand in hand—it is not a case of one or the other. Neither of those efforts will be successful unless those involved win the hearts and minds of local people, and I think that that was understood by everybody we came across who was involved in the British effort. I am not sure that it is always understood by some of the other countries operating in Afghanistan, but I will not go into that, given the time.

I want to endorse something that the Chairman of the Committee said about our staff in Afghanistan. If they are to do their job effectively, we need to be sensitive to the conditions in which they operate and the stresses and strains of working in a highly insecure and dangerous environment. However, that takes us in two directions. On the one, people will need a regular break, but on the other, there is an issue about building expertise and experience in the country, and that can sometimes take us in the other direction. I am not sure whether we have got that entirely right yet, and we need to think about it.

Malcolm Bruce: If I may say so, the expression “DFID people do not do danger” is not something that should linger in the air for too long, because it is unfair and unreasonable. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that all DFID staff in Afghanistan volunteered to go there because they were so committed to being part of the reconstruction project? They know that there are risks, and we had the security training, even around Kabul, to prove it.

Richard Burden: I completely agree. Although the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) said that he was not criticising particular DFID staff, and I am sure that he meant what he said, he needs to understand that his words will be heard. Blanket statements such as “DFID people do not do danger” are not only empirically wrong but devalue the dangerous job that DFID staff are doing in Afghanistan. They are in danger right now, and we should understand that.

On security, there has been great progress on building capacity in the Afghan military. The Chairman of the Committee also rightly mentioned the police, and the sections about the police are an important part of our report. We certainly came away with the impression that, unless we make a concerted and successful effort to build a police force, we will not meet some of the development and other objectives that are so important to Afghanistan. The EU police mission in Afghanistan is a great initiative, but it is short of resources, and that raises another issue. When British troops or other ISAF troops are in Afghanistan, that is where they are posted—that is where the battalion or the regiment is. Individual police officers, however, are often seconded from their day jobs, so to speak, to spend time in Afghanistan. We must put some effort into building the Afghan police force and we need a more systematic way internationally of ensuring not only that sufficient numbers of international police officers are available but that their day jobs back home are fully covered so that they can do their work in Afghanistan. When my hon. Friend the Minister winds up, I hope that he will address the question, which we raised in our report, of how many UK police officers there are in Afghanistan and how we can increase the number.

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Before I sit down, I want to address the issue of security and development. I have not been to Afghanistan since autumn 2007, so I accept that my knowledge is not completely up to date. However, I did not pick up at all from the troops operating in Helmand the kind of messages that we have heard today. What I did pick up from them, however, was the clear message—this is mentioned in the report—that we need to do three things in Helmand: clear, hold and build. The troops understood that doing those three things required different kinds of expertise. Clearing and holding is a military operation, and there is no way round that. However, the impression that we got from the military, as well as from DFID staff and, indeed, from Afghans themselves—let us remember that they have some kind of say in this—was that we need a partnership if we are to do the building because that requires a combination of different kinds of expertise.

If there are delays building a mosque that is required, the problem is one of delay—it is not whether DFID, the military or someone else is involved. I agree that co-ordination issues need to be addressed, but I must tell the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex that DFID does not go round digging wells as he suggested they do. Indeed, it should not be digging wells anywhere; the people who should be doing that are the Afghans themselves, and our job is to ensure that they have the security and the wherewithal to do so. If there are co-ordination problems, that is what we need to address. Suggesting that everything will be sorted out if things can just be handed over to the Army does not connect with anything that I saw. That is no reflection at all on the troops we saw, who had a really rounded view of what was going on and an understanding of the need to work across departments.

They also had an understanding of the need to build capacity among the Afghans themselves. A constant theme that we came across was the importance of building capacity through things such as the national solidarity programme and the community development councils and by linking those to a comprehensive approach to sub-national governance. I hope that the Minister will say a bit more when he winds up about what we are doing in practice to support things such as the Independent Directorate of Local Governance so that disparate initiatives such as the community development councils, the regional councils and the local shura can be meshed together in a way that achieves results and builds confidence in the Afghans’ right to build a state of their own.

It will be difficult to ensure that we are sensitive to local traditions, history and culture, while not allowing that to become an excuse for going soft on issues of gender and basic justice, because those things all too often come into conflict with each other. However, the Committee came away from Afghanistan with the clear impression that we must do those two things side by side if we are to tackle the development and other needs of the Afghan people—children and adults, women and men.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will address the issues that I have raised when he winds up. What are we doing on sub-national governance? How are we to square the circle by tackling issues of justice and gender while being sensitive to local traditions? What are we doing to co-ordinate the work of DFID and the military? What are we doing to build the police force, to ensure
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that it has the right capacity and that it tackles corruption? When my hon. Friend sums up, I am sure that he will join me and most hon. Members present in paying tribute not only to our personnel in Afghanistan—whether DFID or Foreign Office staff, troops or NGO personnel—but, most of all, to the Afghan people, because they, not the different outposts of the British Government, are what this is about.

3.19 pm

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I want to reinforce the message expressed by the Committee Chairman and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) about the importance to development of our being in Afghanistan, to tackle poverty in one of the poorest countries in the world. We should be there, whether or not we have a strategic interest and a military purpose. However, we do have a strategic interest: 2001 showed us the dangers of a history of neglecting Afghanistan and its needs. It is rather sad that, having learned the lesson in 2001, we immediately forgot it and rushed off to Iraq to distract ourselves from continuing to understand that the needs of Afghanistan are deep and long and require a major commitment, not a short-term fix.

I pay tribute to the military, which played a vital role in trying to bring stability and security to the country, and to the civilians who brought development and change to Afghanistan. Above all, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield said, I pay tribute to the Afghan people, who are trying to take advantage of the opportunity to do something for their country—to build a country that can come away from its terrible time under the Taliban regime.

I thank DFID, embassy and military staff for all that they did to make the Select Committee’s visit possible and to support us. I particularly thank the close protection people who made sure of our security. One of the minor benefits to Members of Parliament in such an insecure environment is that life is made much easier; the close protection personnel deal with everything, not just security, and make sure that life goes very smoothly. I also thank the Committee staff for all the organisation that went into achieving what was a useful and informative visit.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) said, security is at the heart of bringing development to Afghanistan. That is a long-term commitment. The message that we must send is that the tactics now being adopted against our military are designed to undermine the morale of the population back home. A briefing from the all-party group on the Royal Air Force pointed out that, for the Taliban, injuring but not killing one’s opponent is intended to make life even more difficult for the military operation, tying it down with even more work to evacuate and support casualties and bringing suffering to families at home. The move from a tactic of straightforward engagement to insurgency is seen by the military as a sign of achievement, but it also means that great resolve is required. Therefore, there is a duty on us all to ensure that resources and information about what is being achieved are supplied to our people.

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