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10 July 2008 : Column 519WH—continued

As the right hon. Member for Gordon, who chairs our Committee, has pointed out many times, agriculture has been neglected for a generation as a factor in
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development. However, agriculture should not be seen as just one element; it must be seen as an integrated community question in development. I say that because even though half the world’s population now live in cities, the other half live in rural areas, and this issue is about village support and life. That is probably more true of Afghanistan than other countries.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to get to the World Bank. The World Bank is a factor that has not been mentioned. I was tempted to interrupt the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and say, “You know, the mosque building should be part of the World Bank strategy, actually. It should be part of the pattern to have the World Bank working with the military.”

Mr. Soames: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

John Battle: I certainly will; the hon. Gentleman was generous enough to give way to me, so I will give way to him.

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Very briefly, I want to say that I agree with that point. However, the imperative in this case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) will tell him, is the speed with which military action can be taken. That is the thing—the military need to get the quick win. The Minister will say that there are quick win programmes, and there are, but there has been so much paffing around that the people are increasingly frustrated. What matters is an immediate delivery.

John Battle: I am almost tempted to say that I welcome the way in which the World Bank evokes the almost Pavlovian response that we are faffing around, as soon as it is mentioned, because it takes so long for things to happen. That applies not just to the World Bank, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point: the time gap could cost lives and not just the lives of soldiers; it can cost the lives of the people in Afghanistan itself and the lives of the people in my constituency who are dying of heroin. So it is important that we shorten some of those distances and bring people together, to have more direct strategies. That is why I welcome to some extent the “Bournemouth, East” strategy—if I can call it that—because there is a practical intent of marching down the road and getting there, rather than discussing it for ever. I take that point.

I am not convinced, however, that we have had—what was it?—the strategies and poverty reduction reports from the World Bank. I am not sure whether the World Bank is sharp enough yet, whether it really understands development yet and whether it understands development in a conflict situation, which is the situation in most of Africa, where the World Bank is supposed to be working. I do not think that the World Bank has got it yet.

Perhaps this spark of a focus on Afghanistan might lead us to ask some deeper questions, which is why I welcome the report. I respect the way in which Opposition Members have raised these issues. We need to ask some deeper and more pertinent questions and inject a sense of urgency into the debate that might push development thinking, as well as military thinking, for the future.

We do not have an international Government to walk in and out of places and sort out the Zimbabwes and the problem countries. We must try to get it together.
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However, at some point, we must get practical action on the ground, or we will continue to dribble away. It is people’s blood that dribbles away in the end, while we sit round commentating on it and we spend every Prime Minister’s Question Time regretting another death. I do not want to spend the rest of my days in this place, including every Prime Minister’s Question Time, having a count of the people who have died trying to solve these problems. We must take more serious action, and with some more urgency.

To close on this issue, local people need to get a sense of local economic community development. We should experiment with that development in Afghanistan and get the agencies, NGOs, DFID and the World Bank to push for that. The people in Afghanistan need markets and connections to get goods to and from those markets, and not cobbled roads, as the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) pointed out. They need practical answers and a range of economic options. That is also the way that we will tackle drugs on our streets, in our own towns and neighbourhoods. By ensuring that there is local economic and social development as well as political and security development in Afghanistan, we will solve some of the problems here in Britain as well. So the debate—and the report—perhaps ought to be taken rather more seriously than just taking place at the back end of the day, on a wet Thursday afternoon.

4.36 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I shall be very brief. I thank those hon. Members who have spoken for giving me an opportunity to comment.

The photograph on the front cover of the “Reconstructing Afghanistan” report is one of the most powerful I have ever seen. Unfortunately, it is not a photograph that I have seen in any of our national media, because of the confusion of Afghanistan and Iraq that still persists.

The particular reason why I wanted to speak today is that the past month has been particularly difficult for the garrison town of Colchester, which I represent, because eight soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade have lost their lives. About 3,000 soldiers based in my constituency are in Afghanistan. It is important in a debate such as this that the message goes out to the media and the people in this country that Afghanistan is not just a military exercise and that our soldiers, airmen, sailors, marines and all the people who, in varying ways, are serving in Afghanistan, particularly southern Afghanistan, know that they are valued and appreciated. For me, there is no difference between the various Brits, be they in uniform or working for DFID or for NGOs: they are all contributing to the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Like the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), who is the chairman of the all-party group on Afghanistan, I had the honour of meeting the chairman of the Helmand provincial council, the deputy chair and the two lady council members. Their message was one of appreciation: they really appreciate what Britain is doing to help to rebuild their province. They had come from Lashkar Gah, a place that I visited earlier this year with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. They had a message of hope. They asked us,
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“Please keep on helping us to rebuild our country, which has suffered 30 years of awful internal warfare.”

I share the view that if Afghanistan drifts back to what it was as recently as 10 years ago, not only will the drug culture continue to export itself to the civilised world but terrorism will be exported around the world again. It is therefore in this country’s interest that we build a settled, prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan. And yes, it will take a long time.

In paying tribute to all the members of Her Majesty’s armed forces, I disagree with recommendation 26 of the Committee’s report, which states:

The obvious continuation of that is that the tour of the brigade would also continue for a year, and I do not think that that is a reasonable option. I hope that when he sums up, the Minister will say, perhaps on behalf of his Ministry of Defence colleagues, that the Government will not pursue that recommendation.

I believe that it is in the interests of this country and of NATO that we succeed in Afghanistan. I end by repeating a point that I made at Prime Minister’s questions last week, which was made then in a military context, but is made now in the context of reconstruction. The rest of the civilised world has to make a far bigger contribution to the work in Afghanistan, because the whole civilised world will benefit from a successful outcome in that country.

4.41 pm

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): What a debate this has been. Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I have spent many an hour in Westminster Hall over the years, but few of them have been as worth while as the past two.

Let me be the latest to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), to all the members of the Select Committee who are here this afternoon, and to others who have participated in the debate. The debate has neatly summarised all the questions that are being asked about our role in Afghanistan, but I notice that nobody is questioning the role; rather, they are asking how we could do it better. We have heard contributions from both ends of the optimistic-pessimistic spectrum, but it is important to note our shared political commitment to Afghanistan.

May I also pay tribute to the people who have lost their lives in Afghanistan, as the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) did earlier? It is a sad feature of Prime Minister’s questions that almost weekly we hear a roll call of those who have given their lives on our behalf and in the service of the people of Afghanistan, Iraq and many other places.

Like others, I also pay tribute to the bravery of people working in the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the NGO sector. They leave the relative comfort of these islands to go far around the world to places of great uncertainty and great danger, however well prepared they are. I hope that we always protect them to the best of our ability. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude, and we must never forget what they do on our behalf.

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If we doubted the seriousness or difficulty of the security situation, the brutal attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul this week was a real reminder and a sign that the conflict is unusual. We are arguing today about development, but, frankly, too much of Afghanistan is still a war zone. That creates unique and difficult problems. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer many of the questions that have come up today and set out the vision that he and his fellow Ministers have for Britain’s role there.

Like many others who have spoken this afternoon, I believe that failure would be catastrophic for the people of Afghanistan. As the right hon. Member for Leeds, West said, Afghanistan was the poorest country in the world 11 or 12 years ago. There has been a little bit of progress, but it is still in the rock-bottom section of all the world’s indices and league tables in which countries do not want to feature.

The situation matters to the people of Afghanistan, but it also matters to us in Britain. The right hon. Gentleman painted a vivid, stark picture of the perils of heroin on our streets. The fact that some 93 per cent. of the world’s heroin can be traced back to Afghanistan is shocking, and it makes the conflict in Afghanistan relevant to every constituency in the land. Rural constituencies such as mine in south-east Scotland, where people might think that there is not a heroin problem, are affected by drugs as badly, relatively speaking, as many other constituencies. We all need to worry about drugs.

Equally, we will have security issues to face if Afghanistan cannot be sorted, or if Pakistan and Afghanistan become a bigger problem. The whole region will become unstable. That takes us right back to the original argument made after 9/11: we need to be engaged—this matters to us. It is not just about moral responsibilities or altruistic imperatives. It is about self-interest. The two themes coming together will make Afghanistan very important for a very long time.

I shall keep my comments relatively brief because it is important that the Minister has an opportunity to respond. He has a huge number of questions to answer. I do not want to repeat too much of what has been said already, but I would like to emphasise some themes and ask a few more questions.

Since the report and the Government response were published, other reports have flooded in. One from the World Bank struck me. It highlighted the fact that there has been little to show for the $1.6 billion of technical assistance that was offered and given to Afghanistan. There are real problems with the nature of the aid and types of assistance that we provide. The Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief spoke about poor delivery and effectiveness of the aid that has been delivered. It was highly critical of the fact that so little of what had been promised had arrived.

At a donor conference only a few weeks ago, a new series of pledges were made totalling $20 billion—well short of what President Karzai asked for, but, none the less, a significant amount. I am sure that the Minister will wish to trumpet the United Kingdom’s contribution. We should pay tribute to DFID and to the Government for their investment. What is not clear yet is the extent to which the pledges, whether from DFID or other
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parts of the international community, are new. It would be helpful if the Minister took a little time to set out how all the different amounts fit in with each other.

It is important that we focus on the effectiveness of our aid. In particular, we must look to our neighbours in the European Union. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) made an important point towards the end of his speech about military contributions, and I emphasise and echo his sentiments in that respect. Equally, however, it is important to co-ordinate with our partners in the EU the nature of the aid that we provide.

I have just spent a week in Kosovo, which, obviously, is a tiny situation compared with what is happening in Afghanistan, but the scale of the problems arising from poor co-ordination and the mismanagement of aid is truly alarming. The report and the Committee were right to focus much of their efforts on that. Again, in the follow-through from the Paris conference, it would be helpful if the Minister explained what we are doing to tackle the basic machinery and ensure that our aid is delivered as effectively as possible.

A few weeks ago, Lord Malloch-Brown provided a briefing to Members of both Houses of Parliament at the Foreign Office. Some Members who are here this afternoon were present. He spoke about changes to the complement of British military people in Afghanistan and about a matter that goes to the heart of what has become the burning question this afternoon: the interface, particularly in Helmand, between military and civilian operations. Again, it would be helpful to unpick some of the movements. I understood that there is to be a net increase of 250 Brits in Afghanistan, but that includes a mix of civilian and military personnel.

It was interesting, for many of us who were at the briefing, to learn that there was to be a new civilian role running the military-civilian headquarters in Helmand, with an increase in the headquarters staff of 60. It was put to us—it goes with the territory that some metaphor for a plug and socket-type arrangement always has to be created—that that arrangement would try to tackle some of the problems that the Committee has recognised, which my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester mentioned, about how we deal with the handover between new military detachments and civilian contributions as people inevitably move back to the UK and others come out to Afghanistan. It would be helpful to understand when that is going to take place, how it is expected to work and whether it will answer many of the legitimate questions asked by the hon. Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames).

On interdepartmental co-ordination, where the House of Commons has a major responsibility, we all need a bit of reassurance about how the three Departments are working. None of us question the motivations of the Ministers and civil servants, but it would be useful—the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East suggested it—if we had arrangements that allowed Ministers from different Departments to come before the House to be cross-examined on some of these matters. We used to have that type of facility in this Chamber. This is a perfect issue on which cross-departmental scrutiny and accountability could be brought into play. I hope that the Minister listens to that idea, regards it favourably and persuades his colleagues that it would be worth while doing here, because it matters that we have reassurance
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and can see for ourselves how the Departments are working together and that they are working for the same aims.

This afternoon, right hon. and hon. Members have rightly focused on security and the difficult interface that it sometimes has with development. In anticipation of this debate, I gathered some staggering figures that I had checked. I am told that the United States military spends $100 million per day on Afghanistan. That contrasts with $7 million a day for all the international aid contributions. I do not dispute the $100 million figure, although I questioned its accuracy and was told that it comes from Congressional Library resources—I would not question the House of Commons Library, so I will not question that source, either. Nor do I question that that sum is necessary. However, that is an eye-opener and a reminder of the scale of the military activity still required. Beyond the international security assistance force is Operation Enduring Freedom and war that still continues. However, there is a big discrepancy between those numbers and somewhere along the line we have to get the two more into balance with one another.

I should briefly like to emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) and the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) about the role of women and the importance of ensuring that we support their development and provide them with the resources that they require. We must keep to the fore of our mind the importance of balanced development, as the Committee did by putting the photograph of the young women in school on the front of the report.

Malcolm Bruce: Does my hon. Friend not think that we need to reinforce this point? The information that I gave in my opening speech about the reduction of women’s participation in the government of Afghanistan is disturbing because it gives the impression that women are effectively being shut out by the domestic Government.

Mr. Moore: I agree. I hope that in their diplomatic initiatives and in every other way, the Minister and his colleagues will ensure that that point is emphasised.

The hon. Member for City of Durham mentioned the Afghan people wanting a normal life—she was quoted by the right hon. Member for Leeds, West—and all the different things that they want to get on with to be normal. We in this country also want the positive benefits that come from that normal life and that viable state. It is important that we ensure that our efforts in Britain are co-ordinated and effective, and that we deliver on that aim.

4.55 pm

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): This has been a fascinating, worthwhile debate, as is usually the case when we discuss the reports of the International Development Committee. This report is no different from some of the others that we have discussed: it is detailed, comprehensive and deals with the key issues facing the Department for International Development in Afghanistan, where it is working in a volatile, difficult and challenging environment, as hon. Members from all parties have pointed out.

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