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10 July 2008 : Column 525WH—continued

First, I shall say a word or two about how the visit to Afghanistan that I have just completed affects my view
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of the report. Secondly, I shall comment on where we are as regards development in Afghanistan today. Thirdly, and briefly, because the Minister already has a lot of other points to argue, I want to mention 10 aspects of the report where the Committee has made recommendations, some of which have already been mentioned, and invite the Minister to give a view on those points. If the hon. Gentleman does not have time to respond to those points or if the answer eludes him, perhaps he will write to all Committee members, and those right hon. and hon. Members who have attended today, to give them the answer.

I cannot begin without paying tribute to the courage and professionalism of our armed forces in Afghanistan, from where I recently returned after a visit with the shadow Minister for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), who has served as an officer in Afghanistan. Every person I met, from the highest ranking to the lowest, is guided by an ethos of professionalism and a sense of purpose. The military clearly understands that the ultimate solution to the situation in Helmand and Afghanistan can only be political, not military. I remember standing by the memorial to the British dead at Camp Bastion. When I was there, not many days ago, there were 97 names etched on to the brass plaque, each commemorating a British soldier who had died in Afghanistan. Since then, 13 names have been added to that plaque, bringing the total to 110.

We should also remember the many hundreds of Afghan troops who have been killed in the service of their country. I pay tribute to the British civilian staff in Afghanistan, including the dedicated and knowledgeable team at the DFID offices, who are working incredibly hard in unusual, testing conditions to try to ensure that real development gains are made. We are fortunate to have such an able team from the Foreign Office, led by the outstanding Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles. We should not forget the locally engaged Afghan staff, including translators and support workers, who work for the British Government. These people often run risks in doing their work and we in Britain have a duty to offer them the maximum possible protection.

During my visit, I met representatives from the United States, all major European nations engaged there, the major donors, the United Nations and the World Bank. I also saw the impressive work done by many non-governmental organisations, including Mercy Corps, and Turquoise Mountain, under the guidance of Rory Stewart, who is doing such a good job in Kabul. I met President Karzai as well as senior members of his Government, including the Ministers responsible for education, finance and agriculture.

I visited the military hospital at Camp Bastion. Most of the patients I saw there were Afghan civilians, including children who had been injured in terrorist attacks. One man there was a mechanic who had been blinded when an improvised explosive device blew up outside his workshop. His bandaged face and the worried looks on the faces of his family who clustered by his bedside were a chilling reminder of the human toll of these indiscriminate attacks. I pay tribute to the doctors and staff at the hospital.

I flew to Lashkar Gah to meet the provincial reconstruction team in Helmand province. I met the
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new governor of Helmand, Governor Mangal, who is rightly held in high regard, but who has already survived a number of assassination attempts. He has a key role to play there. We also met the directors of various line Ministries in Helmand. The picture they painted was not optimistic: it was reported that schools in many areas of Helmand are being shut down due to insecurity. We visited DFID-funded development projects around Lashkar Gah, the counter-narcotics police, and a rehabilitation centre for Afghan opium addicts. Back in Kabul, I met leading female Members of Parliament and NGOs working on women’s empowerment issues.

It seems to me that the first question to answer today is the one posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) in his eloquent speech about the mission in Afghanistan and the extent to which we are demonstrating that mission to our fellow citizens. The answer is that international troops are in Afghanistan not as occupiers, but at the request of the Afghan Government. We are there not because of any selfish desire to occupy the country, but in an attempt to allow it to stand on its own two feet as a stable, secure and prosperous nation. Those who claim that we are there as conquerors are either malicious or simply wrong.

That brings me to recommendation No. 2 of the Select Committee’s report, which makes the point eloquently that DFID and all of us must do more to make the case for being in Afghanistan. I do not chastise the Government for failing to do that, but they must do more and explain the many other aspects of British activity to make the case in Britain for being in Afghanistan, because we will be there for many years. The Minister goes round the country, as I do, talking to communities, groups and schools. He will know from those visits that the reason for being in Afghanistan is not well understood. We must ensure that it is much better understood. No one should be in any doubt that this is a long-term commitment. I emphasise what the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) said in his opening remarks.

What is the audit of development, gain and failure in Afghanistan today? It seems to me that clear gains are being made. The number of children in school is clearly a significant gain: 5 million are enrolled, 1.5 million of them girls, signalling a complete transformation of the education and opportunities for children. Health care coverage in one form or another—it is sometimes very basic—now reaches 82 per cent. of the country. Training work with the Afghan military is successful and is going very well. We are assisting in building an Afghan army that can be effective in doing its proper job. The Ministry of Rural Affairs is making substantial gains, reaching out into many parts of Afghanistan and bringing development gain with it.

The other side of the coin is equally challenging. First, pervasive insecurity throughout large parts of the country continues to undermine everything else. The national police force is a disaster area—we were told that more than 50 per cent. of the police are drugs addicts. Very little progress has been made with the police. The Ministry of the Interior is another disaster area. There is widespread corruption and organised crime. We must face the fact that our efforts so far, which are no doubt worthy and well intended, have simply not been successful. The insecurity that I have
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described is made worse by the food crisis, which is a global problem. The audit suggests that much has been gained, but there is a long way to go in many areas, which remain challenging and where no effective progress has been made.

I turn to the 10 points that I want to make to the Minister, some of which will pick up points that have been made during the debate. First, I want the Minister to be clear to the Committee about the nature of the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund. It is often said that Britain chooses to pour its money into the Afghan state with no form of audit, unlike other principal donor nations. That is simply not true, and the Select Committee was right to welcome the British focus on working through the Government of Afghanistan via the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund. My understanding is that the money that is disbursed by the World Bank from the trust fund is paid out only on receipt of accounts that are audited by an accredited international firm of accountants. Will he set the record straight today on that important point about the way that taxpayers’ money is being deployed and accounted for in Afghanistan?

My second point relates to recommendation No. 25, which covers burden sharing and caveats by other NATO countries. One of the strengths of the international mission in Afghanistan is the multinational nature of the forces deployed there, but other NATO countries are refusing to take up their share of the burden, and national caveats restrict the effectiveness of some of their forces. What recent discussions have the Government had with counterparts in other contributing nations to encourage the relaxation of such restrictions?

My third point relates to recommendation No. 23, which covers the position of Pakistan and neighbouring countries throughout the region. A complaint that I heard frequently in Afghanistan was that the coalition’s diplomatic approach is insufficiently co-ordinated. What is the Minister doing to ensure a comprehensive, joined-up diplomatic approach that deals with all the key regional players? Too often, neighbouring countries in this region, which has been accurately described during the debate, are basically on the side of the coalition—they do not want us to fail—but do not strive over-zealously to ensure that we succeed. Will the Minister explain what the Government are doing to progress that agenda?

Fourthly, I have already touched on the police, but when I met the chief of the Helmand anti-drugs police, he explained that the majority of the regular Afghan police are allegedly addicted to various narcotics and are deeply corrupt. The Germans are in charge of police reform. What recent discussions has the Minister had with the relevant German authorities about improving performance?

My fifth point relates to staff turnover and, obviously, there are a number of different facets to this issue. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) said that he does not want the terms and length of duty to be extended. The Minister will appreciate that in DFID and the military there is a powerful argument for trying to ensure that tours of duty are extended. Otherwise, people amass great expertise but then leave Afghanistan. The DFID staff I met in Kabul and Lashkar Gah were dedicated, talented and insightful, and clearly do a very good job in difficult conditions, but it is a problem, as it
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is in the military, that as soon as a staff member has built up solid experience of life in the country, they move on.

The Government response to the Select Committee’s report rightly underlines DFID’s duty of care to its staff and the need to ensure that they do not suffer from working in such stressful situations. However, will the Minister give more thought to ensuring that talented, effective and experienced staff who want to stay on in Afghanistan are able to do so?

Bob Russell: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether the logical conclusion is that if the brigade commander’s term of deployment is extended to nine months, a year, 15 months or whatever, that should follow through to his entire brigade? If not, how can we have a brigade commander not commanding his brigade?

Mr. Mitchell: The hon. Gentleman mentions one of a number of difficulties. The argument is not cut and dried, but I hope that he accepts that it is sub-optimal if senior commanders in the field leave after six or nine months.

By and large, the DFID staff I met in Afghanistan are young and often single, and it would be helpful if the Minister explained what he is doing to try to ensure that older married and more experienced staff, whose skills we need, are encouraged to deploy there.

The Government’s response to the Select Committee’s report sets out the detailed security procedures in place for DFID staff. That is obviously right, because safety is paramount, but those constraints often make it difficult for staff to do their job. For example, following one of our meetings, a senior British police adviser trained in the use of firearms had to wait for many hours for a car to be available to take him, with security, the five-minute drive from his meeting to the provincial reconstruction team. What steps is the Minister taking to achieve a balance between security concerns and letting people do their job, so that common sense and flexibility prevail within the absolute requirement to do everything we can to keep people safe?

Sixthly, the subject of helicopters has already been raised. The lack of helicopters in Afghanistan imposes clear a limit on the manoeuvrability of British troops and other staff. The Government have pledged to increase capacity in that area. Can the Minister update us on the Government’s efforts to get more helicopters in-theatre? I do not want to rely on my own limited and dated military experience, but it seems that the whole British effort in Helmand and Afghanistan was woefully short of helicopter support.

Seventhly, the need for better aid co-ordination has been underlined. Many senior people from the international donor community whom I have met freely admit that the international aid effort is confused and poorly co-ordinated. Different donors do different things in their own areas, and often even do different things in the same Ministry. The Committee specifically mentioned that in the antecedence to recommendation 19. The whole job of getting a grip on that now falls to the new UN special representative. What recent discussions has the Minister had with him and what actions will he take to promote a joined-up international aid effort? The
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Paris donor conference signed-off additional funding. Will the Minister state clearly that that money will be well spent?

In my intervention on the right hon. Member for Gordon, I mentioned drugs. As many hon. Members have said and as is set out in recommendation No. 35, opium poppy production is causally linked to security. The Committee makes it clear that it believes greater efforts on the part of the president and donors are essential to ensure that involvement in opium poppy production is stamped out at every level of government. I hope that the Minister will state exactly what the Government’s anti-narcotics strategy is. What are the aims and benchmarks for success and what does he expect to have achieved this time next year, or in five years’ time?

My penultimate point is that the Committee makes important recommendations on justice. The Government response sets out the sensible steps they are taking to strengthen the justice sector in Afghanistan. In my meetings with the anti-narcotics police chief in Lashkar Gah, it was explained that the judicial capacity in Afghanistan is incredibly weak and that only a tiny number of prosecutions are brought every year. Will the Minister confirm that improving that situation will be a priority? Huge importance should be attached to enabling the Afghan state to prosecute those who currently enjoy impunity in Afghanistan. The system of justice needs to be developed and beefed-up, so that justice is seen to be done.

Sir Robert Smith: I intervene to reinforce the importance of trying to get some confidence in formal justice. There is a tendency to think that traditional justice will solve the problem and to fall back on that because of the failures of formal justice. However, there are concerns that traditional justice is in no way just.

Mr. Mitchell: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.

I wish to underline what the Committee said about microfinance and its importance, but in the last couple of minutes, I shall deal with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) about the distance he believes has opened up between the Ministry of Defence and the Army on the one hand, and DIFD on the other.

That matter has sometimes been reported lucidly, and I specifically sought to address it during my recent visit to Afghanistan, as it is clearly enormously important. I have been advised that the development of the PRT structure, which is often criticised for being slightly colonial in nature, has brought together the military, the Foreign Office and DFID in a way that has transformed the situation my hon. Friend described as prevailing a year or so ago. I hope the Minister will comment on that.

My hon. Friend made two specific points and made a plea that the budget be handed over—indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East argued that the budgets should be brought together. The whole structure has changed and the budgets are now brought together in the stabilisation unit. Through the stabilisation unit and the PRT, the thinking and the strategy have been brought together and that process is now working in Helmand. It would be a tragedy if the changes made
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in the past year or so were not accepted by the Committee and other hon. Members. The new structure must be given a chance to work to see if it can remedy the difficulties that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex so accurately described. My contention to him is that the position is greatly improved, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that.

My final point is this. My hon. Friend mentioned that he had spoken privately to the generals and other senior officers, who confirmed what he has said. I have spoken publicly and privately to those responsible for the strategy of DFID and the military in the PRT in Helmand and they have told me that the situation has been transformed from what he described and that much progress has been made in the past year. If that is not the case, it is the duty of the people to whom he has been speaking to speak out publicly and say so, because we are working on the basis that the problem that he described is being tackled and that effective progress has been made on it over the past year.

I hope that in its next report the Committee will continue to investigate and develop some of the arguments put in the report we are considering. It is clear that, in relation to this live conflict situation, serious questions have been raised about DFID, particularly by Conservative Members. Individuals are doing a good job within the inevitable and clear constraints, but there might be ways in which the DFID effort can be reconfigured in Afghanistan, so that it can operate more effectively in those difficult circumstances. I submit to the Chairman of the Committee that directly addressing that subject would be a good topic for a future report by his Committee.

5.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Shahid Malik): I thank the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) for introducing the debate and right hon. and hon. Members for their mainly thoughtful interventions. Many of their comments are based on informed study of Afghanistan and on first-hand experience. Simply to answer the questions posed by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) would take more than the remaining time. Many of the questions were more of a Ministry of Defence nature, and I will try to ensure that the respective Ministers respond to those.

It is a pleasure to engage in this debate under your stewardship, Mr. Jones—you will be pleased to know that next year I will not be entering the parliamentary pool championship, which I have won for the past three years. I hope that that will give others a chance—including you, perhaps—to carry the trophy and receive the £1,500, which I give to good causes each year.

I thank the Select Committee for its timely report, which has provided some helpful comments on the UK’s work in Afghanistan and made recommendations for DFID’s programme. We have accepted almost all its recommendations and will carefully consider all its comments when we make decisions about our programme over the next few months.

The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) outlined the complexity of the context and the danger that exists in Afghanistan. Suicide
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bombings in Kabul have claimed 41 lives. There have been seven bombings in Karachi and one in Islamabad. That is why I believe that the comments of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) that DFID does not “do danger” not only devalue the work of DFID, but insult the staff. Those comments have no doubt also contributed to demoralisation. The people concerned are volunteers who do an incredibly difficult job under incredibly difficult circumstances, and they deserve respect from hon. Members in this Chamber and elsewhere in the House.

I am grateful that the International Development Committee began its report by emphasising the importance of the UK being in Afghanistan, in partnership with the Government and people of Afghanistan, to help to bring peace and security to Afghanistan and to promote political reform, reconstruction and development. I am also grateful that the IDC accepts that the commitment in respect of development assistance is likely to last for at least a generation.

As many hon. Members have suggested, we must recognise the scale of the challenge and admit that there is a very long way to go. Afghanistan is desperately poor—the fifth poorest country in the world. Life expectancy is 43 years; the figure for adult literacy is only 28 per cent., and one in five children do not live to see their fifth birthday. However, we must acknowledge that some progress has been made. Eighty-two per cent. of the population now have access to basic health care—nine times the 2002 figure. Last year, the legal economy grew by 13.5 per cent. When the Taliban fell in 2001, only 900,000 children were in school, all of them boys; now there are 6 million, one third of whom are girls.

Afghans, too, recognise that there has been progress. For example, the headmaster of a school in Lashkar Gah recently said:

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