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10 July 2008 : Column 507WH—continued

I spent some time in Helmand talking to representatives of Civil-Military Co-operation. There is an interesting headline on their website, “It’s not pink and fluffy, it’s difficult and dangerous!” There is already a mechanism and structure to bring civilian and military groups
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together to deliver aid in Afghanistan and, indeed, elsewhere. CIMIC says that it is listening to local communities to find what they and the military can do to help each other. It wants aid to be delivered through a partnership approach. We should pay attention to that. CIMIC uses non-governmental organisations when that is appropriate, and although not many international NGOs operate in Helmand, some Afghan NGOs operate there, which we should not forget.

Delivering 80 per cent. of aid through the Government of Afghanistan has attracted some criticism. Someone said earlier that usually the criticism is that even if the money is directed through the Government, too much of it ends up being delivered by the military, which NGOs do not want. There is a balance to be struck, and we have probably got it about right. The CIMIC teams and the military, working through the PRTs and local councils, are delivering quick-impact projects and helping to reconstruct everything from electricity power stations to roads. It is not that the work is not happening, but it must be undertaken through the proper structures—in particular, structures that recognise the important voice that the Afghan people should have in setting priorities and building their country.

In terms of aid effectiveness, we could consider a greater role for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. I do not think that the United Nations has been mentioned in this debate. When I last spoke to the representative who co-ordinates UNAMA’s work in Afghanistan, the representative was concerned that UNAMA was not operating in Helmand, as it probably should be.

The Committee’s report and the Government response deal effectively with the thorny issue of lack of aid co-ordination. Sometimes that is what the problem boils down to. It is getting better, although we need to consider what UNAMA could do, but there are two major obstacles. The first is the lack of a high-level joint UN-NATO-EU co-ordinator. We can only lament the fact that no one was put into that role earlier this year, and I am keen to hear from the Minister what is being done to encourage the Afghan Government to get on with making an appointment to that post.

The second obstacle is the operation of USAID, which is another bone of contention between me and the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex. I do not deny that things are delivered through USAID, but almost everyone whom one speaks to in Afghanistan says that aid delivery would be much more effective if only the US would work with everyone else.

Sir Robert Smith: To reinforce that, and for the House’s benefit, I should highlight how important it is to engage with local communities in delivering aid. We drove in Lashkar Gah, where the British were building an extension to the road. When we discussed it, the locals said, “Please don’t copy the Americans and use cobbles. All our vegetables are destroyed on the way to market, and none of our animals can use the road.” They built six miles of lovely road for the people, but it is useless to the local community.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It demonstrates my point exactly. If aid is to be delivered effectively, it must be delivered in partnership with Government agencies and local people, and with the military where appropriate.

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Malcolm Bruce: We allude to that in the report. Our analysis was that a high proportion of US aid is spent in Washington DC rather than in Kabul or Helmand. That is part of the problem. The US Government’s refusal to participate in the trust fund administered by the World Bank means that the Afghan Government do not have control over the funds that they need to provide development to the people they want to provide it for. The point of putting the photograph we did on the front of the report is that it depicts something that cannot happen in Helmand, because the girls would be massacred by the Taliban. They need protection to go to a state-run school in safety.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I hope that DFID has renewed its efforts, as outlined in the Government’s response, to encourage the US and other donors to channel a greater proportion of funding through the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund, as parallel structures do not help to develop Afghan capacity. We could all give lots of examples of that.

Some in the UK have been making loud noises recently about the need to channel more aid through military structures. I hope that we will hear those sentiments with great caution. We should pay tribute in this debate to the armed forces, which are seeking through great sacrifice to create a more secure and stable Afghanistan, but we should also say that surely their role is to create secure and stable conditions within which development can take place rather than to take on an additional development role themselves.

For long-term development of Afghanistan, it is essential that a properly functioning state and its institutions are created, have legitimacy and develop effective economic management. To achieve that, the Government must take control of reconstruction aid and how it is prioritised and developed in conjunction with the international community, local government and local people.

We must remember that developing a state from scratch is not easy. Of course there will be setbacks—development is not guaranteed to be linear—but we must not allow our impatience to dictate a course of action that will distract us from long-term goals, particularly those set by the people of Afghanistan. Eventually, Afghanistan will have to govern itself. It will have to use its army and police to good effect, build a tax base and use the money efficiently to benefit its whole population. International security forces may be able to help to deliver infrastructure gains, but that must be seen by Afghans as a process controlled by the Afghan Government, not by those outside the country.

I could talk for ever about Afghanistan and what it needs. Suffice it to say that I think that the report is excellent. It points to the successes without papering over the remaining challenges. I am also pleased that the report mentioned some of the complexities, including the difficult issue of poppy cultivation. When I was in Afghanistan and since then, I have met a number of people who have said again and again that there are no straightforward answers. We will eradicate poppy cultivation through long-term investment in Afghanistan’s businesses and alternative livelihoods, and that is not likely to happen overnight. The solution is also linked to winning the battle of hearts and minds, which I think we are well on our way to doing.

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I finish on this point, because it was mentioned in this debate as well as in the report. It is important that we do what we can to support progressive voices in Afghanistan, including those within the Government, and let them know that they have our support for the long term.

3.58 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) for her contribution to this important debate. She is the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Afghanistan, an important group. I agree with a lot of what she said, particularly about the importance of microfinance projects, but I must say that if she did not like the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), she might take issue with mine too. I do not think that it is right that our involvement in Afghanistan, which has now lasted longer than the second world war, should have continued so long. Something is going wrong when what is happening there has lasted longer than the second world war.

What my hon. Friend was stressing was that as long as our boys are exposed at the top of the hill because not enough action is happening at the bottom, they will continue to get killed. We need to ask what can be done to rectify that situation. That was the genesis of my hon. Friend’s contribution, and that is why we pose the basic question whether DFID is the right vehicle for reconstruction and development in places such as Helmand, not in the rest of Afghanistan.

Sir Robert Smith: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ellwood: Not now; I want to make some progress. The hon. Lady made an important distinction, which has been echoed elsewhere. Afghanistan and Helmand are two completely separate scenarios and need to be treated as such because of the security differences. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Gordon, who chaired the Committee, wrote the report and has had an extremely difficult job.

I wish to ask the Minister why DFID, in relation to such an important issue that we all feel passionate about, is sending out its Select Committee to do a slice of the scrutiny when the MOD and the FCO sent people out to do their bits.

Malcolm Bruce: We sent ourselves. It is Parliament that does that.

Mr. Ellwood: Absolutely, but the old Department of Trade and Industry exports system had a Committee created to scrutinise the whole issue, so should not that sort of arrangement be adopted, rather than Departments taking their own slice of the spectrum? That means, as we have just heard, that the right hon. Gentleman can speak only about the section for which he is responsible, and that can be a little confusing. That is the point that I am trying to stress.

What is our mission in Afghanistan? What was our mission and has it changed? Originally, the aim was to get rid of al-Qaeda, which we have done. Is our aim now just to sort out the poppies or to make Afghanistan peaceful? What is the objective, how will it be measured and at what point do we say that we have succeeded or failed? Those yardsticks are missing, and where we are trying to go can be blurred as a result.

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Year after year, we send more troops, but we have to ask ourselves, six years after the initial invasion, is life any better for the average Afghan? I am afraid that optimism is being replaced by pessimism in certain areas of Afghanistan, not because of the military but because of the failure to reconstruct during the small window of opportunity after the military went in to win hearts and minds and because not enough progress is being made while the military is holding the peace.

Sir Robert Smith: The hon. Gentleman made an analogy with the length of the second world war, but Britain and the US did not decide half way through that war to stop, go somewhere else and come back later. Surely, the big mistake in Afghanistan and the reason why we missed many windows of opportunity was the mad distraction of going into Iraq. That divided our resources, and we took our eye off the ball and missed the central point that unless there is follow-through, al-Qaeda will be back.

Mr. Ellwood: I could not agree with the hon. Gentleman more.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Ellwood: I would like to make some progress, because many of the comments that other hon. Members want to make will be similar to mine. I will give way to the hon. Member for City of Durham later because I shall be particularly interested in her feedback as we progress.

We should first understand that the Afghan Government are not the great organisation that we would like them to be: a western-type, constitutional structure that can influence every single region. They are wafer thin. President Karzai’s influence is limited to Kabul, as those hon. Members who visited Afghanistan will have realised. He is often called the Mayor of Kabul because his influence in some areas is so thin. The Ministries are led by enthusiastic individuals, many of them returned exiles, but they are wafer thin. We expect them suddenly to provide results, but that will not happen without important outside influence.

The other most important point to stress about Afghanistan is that it cannot really be called a country. It is a patchwork quilt of individual alliances, allegiances and religions that have only ever come together when someone else has gone in to try to take over. Once that is finished, they get back to doing what they do best, which is fighting among each other. It is only now, after a little bit of peace, that people have bought into the plan to make an Afghanistan.

My biggest concern about the current constitution— the blueprint—is that it gives insufficient local autonomy to the provinces to develop at their own speed. When I visited Nangarhar province, I found that that was the case. The governor wanted some operational money to build three small dams—not Hoover-sized dams—to hold back the water to feed the crops during the summer months. Kabul denied him that funding because he was not allowed to spend any money himself, and that sort of error is frustrating the wish of many governors to develop their province at their own speed. The governor
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made it clear that civil war was very much a possibility in a couple of years because not enough progress was being made. Everyone is getting impatient, so weapons are cached and money is stored for when things fall apart, which would be a sad situation.

The international community is pivotal to the prevention of such a situation. We have heard that the USA has a different approach from that which has been adopted by DFID. It is absolutely right that there should be some sharing of experiences so that those differences are ruled out. More importantly, individuals following their own agendas, possibly with the influence of their host country, cause a colossal waste of money. I thought that the new UN co-ordinator in Afghanistan had an influence in that regard. I am saddened that Paddy Ashdown did not get the job, because he would have been fantastic for the post. Unfortunately, he was not corrupt enough, and if we are honest, that was the case. He was going to kick out people such as Wali Karzai, who is an adviser in Kandahar and the brother of President Karzai. He should really be given a job on an island somewhere, quite separate from Afghanistan, and have no influence in the new country that we are talking about.

There is a fundamental lack of economic vision. Let us consider what Afghanistan does well. Thirty years ago it produced crops, dried fruits and agricultural products, and it was one of the greenest countries in the region. The Soviets came in and destroyed the agricultural and irrigation systems. Consequently, much of the area is now desert. Ninety-two per cent. of the water that comes out of the ground disappears out of the country and is not harnessed. Only 8 per cent. of the water supply in Afghanistan is harnessed, and that is where things are going wrong, because harnessing the water supply will suddenly provide life and allow locals to grow things. There is no top-scale vision to implement that, which is one of the fundamental flaws in the redevelopment.

Also, if one has a widget and wants to get it to market, one needs the ability to get it from A to B. There are three main arterial routes in Afghanistan: one to the east, one to the west, which we talked about before and is now beginning to look like a railway line, and one to the south. Although those routes have improved somewhat, I am afraid that they have not improved a huge amount since 2001. Bringing in Swiss engineers to build a railway line to link up with Jalalabad, Islamabad and up to the trans-Siberian railway, and linking up a better road to the south with the ports in the Indian ocean would start to link Afghanistan to the international markets and the world. That has not happened, so the only market that works is the good old black market, and that is why local Mr. Afghan has decided to stick with what he knows best and continues to grow poppies. I believe that those two aspects are still missing from the vision. There is not enough time to talk about the issues surrounding the police, other than to say that the only way they can make money and supplement their poor incomes is by setting up road blocks.

I am afraid that failure to make progress has left our troops exposed, which is why many of them are dying. We have not learned the lessons from Iraq or the fact that going into an area creates confusion. We have about four months to get it right by sorting out local governance, winning over the hearts and minds and
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showing the locals that we mean business. If that is not done, the locals start to question what the point is. They turn around and conclude, “Life was pretty much better under the old lot.” They then start to work, support and be influenced by the Taliban, and we find ourselves in a struggle with the Taliban.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that he is putting forward a really negative picture of what is happening, even in Helmand, and that we have seen growing confidence over the past six months in the new governor’s office and the ability of the provincial council to set its agenda, which includes economic development? Does he also accept that the Afghan people recognise the limitation of what has been done so far, but are not negative about the possibilities for the future, or even the present, to the extent that he suggests?

Mr. Ellwood: The hon. Lady makes an absolutely valid point. I could stand here and list an array of improvements that have taken place and congratulate ourselves on the work that Britain is doing, but the point is that lives are being lost. As long as lives are being lost, it is important to scrutinise what we are doing and ask ourselves whether we can do it better. Indeed, Hugh Powell, who is now the Foreign and Commonwealth Office main man in Helmand, is starting to knock heads together, co-ordinate activities and move things forward. My concern is that it is very late in the day for that.

Mr. Soames: Does my hon. Friend agree that everyone involved in these operations, from Brigadier Carlton-Smith down, understands that things in Helmand are not going as well as they should, and that the only way to make them go better is to make the military and civilians work together better? Until that is done, we will be faced with very serious consequences, and British soldiers will lose their lives almost daily.

Mr. Ellwood: I fully agree with my hon. Friend, who has spoken to many people not only in DFID but in the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We speak regularly with such people, and some are concerned that we are not as efficient as we could be. Hon. Members who have jumped up and criticised the speeches made so far by the Opposition should be aware that we do not wish to dismiss DFID and what it does. We are simply saying that aspects of its work perhaps need scrutiny, which is what we are asking for.

Richard Burden: The hon. Gentleman misunderstood what we said. If I understood the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) correctly, he said that essentially the solution for Helmand is to give DFID’s budget to the military, but it is not that simple. We need effective co-ordination, and of course we need greater scrutiny. That is why we went there.

Mr. Ellwood: This is where we come to the crux of the argument. Helmand is a dangerous place. According to a parliamentary answer, we are firing 10,000 rounds of ammunition every day, which either means that our military are having a good old heyday shooting their weapons, or that it is extremely dangerous. I suggest the latter. Furthermore, they are very exposed and now involved in the very reconstruction and development that we hoped DFID would engage in two to three years ago.

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