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29 Oct 2008 : Column 271WH—continued

One positive thing that I saw in Afghanistan, however, was last week’s presidential decision to sack the notoriously corrupt Interior Minister and replace him with the capable former Minister of Education. It will not be long until the election—probably in September next year—and it is extremely important that President Karzai’s Government make real and tangible progress that people can see on dealing with corruption. That means getting rid of the vast majority of the police chiefs, because
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they have bought their jobs at $200,000 a piece. They think that they can extract a rent from the people in the provinces where they are chiefs, and that has to end.

I visited the country about a year ago with the Select Committee on International Development, and we published our report in February. My impression from my recent visit is that the security situation has certainly deteriorated. The Taliban and other insurgents have turned more to terrorism and away from straight-on fighting with allied troops. They know that they cannot defeat ISAF or the Afghan national army, but then neither can ISAF defeat the insurgents militarily; the best that it can do is to provide conditions of sufficient order to find a political solution. That will include talking with elements of the insurgency. I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who said that there are some good guys in the Taliban with whom we ought to get together, but there are some guys who have support, and it is important to try to do the politics and align as many tribal leaders—it is a tribal country—as possible with the Government.

Our capable ambassador in Kabul was recently reported, through a French leak, to have said that he does not believe that the war in Afghanistan can be won militarily. That is not a new view; he expressed it to the International Development Committee a year ago. The point of the military presence is to provide the conditions for economic development that improves the material welfare of the Afghan people, so that they see some benefit from President Karzai’s Government, and to provide security until such time as the Afghan forces can provide it themselves. The comprehensive strategy, which ISAF follows, of providing security, working with the Government to improve governance and providing development assistance to address the material needs of the people is the right strategy.

Mr. Andrew Smith: I welcome the thrust of my hon. Friend’s argument. When he was in Afghanistan, did he get a clear idea of the constraints on a more rapid expansion of the Afghan army? Is that not an essential path to establishing the security that we both want?

Hugh Bayley: That is absolutely essential. It is an effective force because it is well trained, disciplined and well recruited. There are people in this room with military experience, which I do not have, but if one were to try to wave a magic wand and create that situation in three months, one would fail. One has to work to provide the skills and the command structure to enable a larger army to do the job that the smaller Afghan national army does.

Owing to time, I shall not talk about the difficulties that I saw with the caveats and other differences of policy between partners in NATO, but I am happy to talk to colleagues outside the Chamber about those difficulties, although I am sure that most people are largely aware of them.

On development assistance, however, it is as important to co-ordinate development strategy among the donors as it is to co-ordinate military strategies within ISAF. The International Development Committee, when we were writing our report, received from the Peace Dividend Trust and others evidence that was reinforced by my meetings with UNAMA over the weekend—evidence that when aid is spent directly, it produces substantially
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less per dollar than when it is channelled through the Afghan trust funds to enable the Afghan Government to deliver to the people benefits such as schools and wells in villages.

It is important that the Afghan Government provide those benefits. In Helmand province a year ago, I saw some of the many wells that the Department for International Development had funded. However, the work is done by the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development. If they were sunk by a British contractor with a Union flag on the top, the Taliban would blow them up the following day, but if the Afghan Government provide them, it is very difficult for the Taliban to blow them up, because they are also fighting a battle for hearts and minds.

There is a huge problem with corruption in the Government, and we have to address it, because if they remain a corrupt Government who are unable to deliver improvements in basic welfare for their people, the project will fail. Although people express doubts about what is happening in Afghanistan, and I certainly came away from my visit with some doubts that I had not had before, fundamentally, what is the alternative? It is one of the poorest countries in the world. We, as a development donor, would need to work with partners in Afghanistan for 30 to 50 years whether or not the current security situation existed. We have a responsibility to stick with Afghanistan. The problems are great, but I have confidence in our military and civilian teams in Afghanistan.

Time prevents me from talking about the new anti-drugs strategy that ISAF will follow, which has been authorised by NATO Defence Ministers. The situation is, I accept, not an easy one, but it is not a situation that we can walk away from.

3.10 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate. I am delighted to see the Minister here, although I was hoping to see a Foreign Office Minister, to explain the strategy. Our soldiers are working extremely hard on top of the hill to try to protect what is happening down in the village. My concern is that not enough is happening down in the village; that is why our soldiers on top of the hill are being shot. That is the fundamental issue with respect to what is going wrong in Afghanistan. I hope that the Minister is taking notes, because we are keen to learn what has happened. There has been a huge amount of mission creep since we first went in to try to deal with al-Qaeda. Now we are, as I heard a few months ago, dealing with counter-narcotics. We need to understand exactly what our mission is, and the end game.

I am very concerned. I visit the country every five to six months, and I predict that there will be civil war there unless there is a turnaround in four key areas. The first of those is a review of the constitution. The idea that the one-size-fits-all approach with Kabul and President Karzai at the top should suddenly work for the whole of Afghanistan is fundamentally flawed. It ignores the wonderful celebration of ethnic mixes, alliances, allegiances and tribes that makes up Afghanistan. It is not really a country; it is a wonderful tapestry of different alliances. That should be celebrated and recognised in the constitution,
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instead of everything pointing to Kabul. If one speaks to someone in a village in Sangin district, they do not really look to Lashkagar, let alone Kandahar, and Kabul is another country away. That is ignored in the constitution and I am afraid none of the provincial leaders is given the autonomy or operational funding to enable them to conduct their activities and allow the local system of governance to grow. That was the first, and fundamental, error, which has meant that we will be there much longer than we should have been.

The second key area is improving local security capability. I bet that we will hear again the numbers that are thrown out about how large the Afghan army is, and how it will double in size, along with the police force. I am afraid that in reality the operational effectiveness of both is very weak. The police force is 70 per cent. illiterate and most officers have a day job in the police and at night are involved in counter-narcotics.

David Davis: You mean narcotics, not counter-narcotics.

Mr. Ellwood: Absolutely—they are involved in narcotics; I stand corrected.

Helmand province has been mentioned, and yes, we are making a fantastic job of teaching and training a new Afghan army, but there are four battalions based in Helmand province and just one is of operational effectiveness. That means that there are just 400 people we can work with in the whole province. Those are minuscule numbers, which is why we need to be able to train much faster. It should have happened. I am angry with the Germans about that; they were the ones who put their hands up in 2001 and said that they would train the police force. Did that happen? No, it did not. That is why the Americans have had to come in.

The third key area is to do with the vision of the country itself. There is huge agricultural potential in Afghanistan. At the moment there is only one market—the black market—and everyone is engaged in the poppy trade. The only way we will change that is by improving infrastructure and allowing the three main arterial routes to be improved. No one is working on railway lines, or, really, to improve the dual carriageway system, to get the produce—whether that is apricots or dried fruits—to the Indian ocean or, indeed, on to the Trans-Siberian railway. Everything must be flown out, which is far too expensive, and because of that there is no market. Therefore, the only market people rely on is the black market, which is why everyone is involved with poppies.

Fourthly, I want briefly to talk about Helmand province—I am trying to stick to your guidance on time, Mr. Taylor. The province is a British affair. We can criticise and be upset about the fundamental lack of co-ordination between our NATO allies, but what is happening in Helmand province is a British responsibility, and I am afraid DFID does not do danger. It does a wonderful job in places such as Africa and in other parts of the world, but when it comes to working in an insecure environment, it does not happen. We need a revolution in the way we approach our reconstruction and development works. That happened with respect to the way our armed forces operated when we moved from a cold war scenario to counter-insurgency operations, and it worked well. The same has not happened as far as
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dealing with reconstruction and development. I want to state firmly my desire that the British Army should take over that responsibility. There is a window of opportunity of about six months to a year, on going into an insecure environment, in which to create and build the necessary hearts and minds projects, until it becomes safe enough to allow DFID and the other agencies and contractors to come in and take over. Until that happens, what is going on in Helmand province will continue: that is very little, while the locals get frustrated because their life has not changed enough to have an effect.

I am very concerned that the police do not have the necessary ability, and I think that we should listen to General Rose’s comments and have a debate about whether to follow the line that we took in Iraq—the awakening process, under General Petraeus, by which we allowed local militias to grow. That happened in the UK 500 or 600 years ago, and in America during the revolution. It happened all over the world. That is how police forces develop in poor and underdeveloped countries—not by shipping in people with no alliances or allegiance to the local area. We need a debate about that; it would expedite the security process, which is so fundamental if anything else is to happen.

There are some serious questions, to which I do not think we will hear the answers today. I should like a regular debate to be held in the House of Commons, not in Westminster Hall and not just with the Minister who is present today but with the Secretary of State for International Development and the Foreign Secretary. All three of them are tied in to what is happening in Afghanistan and we do not get enough feedback, and cannot contribute to debate on those important issues. I hope that the Government have the strength to listen to what is being said today, recognise what is not working and be brave enough to take a new direction.

Several hon. Members rose

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. There are now five hon. Members who wish to speak, and 14 minutes available, so if hon. Members could keep their comments brief it would be most helpful.

3.16 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I shall be very brief. The House owes a debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) for obtaining the debate. Both he and the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) have made an important point: there is insufficient parliamentary scrutiny of what is happening in Afghanistan, insufficient time for debate and an insufficient number of statements.

No one who has so far spoken in the debate has shown great optimism or confidence about what is happening or is likely to happen in Afghanistan. The policy clearly does not enjoy universal support in the Chamber, or, I suspect, among the British public. The last opinion poll showed that 54 per cent. of the population of the country want the troops to be brought home. I suspect that those opinion polls are mirrored all over Europe and in many other parts of the world. There is, however, a degree of unity in the United States about continuing with the policy. Both Barack Obama and
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John McCain are pursuing essentially the same policy on Afghanistan. It is a question of who would put in the most troops the quickest, and who would bring about a solution to the war quickest. I would caution both of them to think back a little to how we got involved in the mess in the first place.

Only nine days after 9/11, President Bush made a blood-curdling statement to Congress, demanding all sorts of things of the then Afghan Government, led by the Taliban, which he decided were not delivered. A war was therefore unleashed against Afghanistan. Many thousands of wholly innocent ordinary Afghan people died as a result of high-level bombardment from the west. Their families have not forgiven or forgotten what happened then. The war was meant to solve the problems of 9/11 and teach the world that the US was in charge, after which all would be well.

It is now seven years since that happened. The war has taken considerably longer than the second world war, and has cost a vast amount of money. It has not brought about the peace or justice it was supposed to bring about. One should not forget that the behaviour of US forces shortly after they arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 led to imprisonments at Bagram air base, the establishment of Guantanamo Bay and the gross abuse of human rights by a country that claimed it was defending them.

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman’s difficulty that we got rid of the Taliban, or that we messed things up in the seven years since—or both?

Jeremy Corbyn: First, the Taliban have not been got rid of; they are clearly still there. Otherwise, I suspect the war would be over. I also think that the whole philosophy and strategy were fundamentally flawed from the beginning. However, it suited the purposes of President Bush at that time to pursue the war. We have thus suffered a serious loss of liberties. That applies not just to the people who unfortunately ended up in Guantanamo Bay, but to every country that has pursued the absurd war on terror.

These things are dangerous, and they go on for a long time. The war has now actively spread over into Pakistan and we have the ludicrous situation that occurred a couple of weeks ago: because unmanned aircraft are bombing villages in Pakistan, people are now fleeing across the border into Afghanistan to avoid the US bombing, and then when the US starts bombing villages in Afghanistan they go back across the border. We should put ourselves in the position of the Pakistan; Government, who are in a complicated bind. Do they pursue a war in support of what the US wants, knowing that it is unpopular with a majority of the Pakistani people, or do they nothing about it and allow the US to invade their country, when they are supposed to be allies of the US? These are dangerous times that could well lead to a political crisis and collapse in Pakistan—a country that possesses nuclear arms. The situation is not simple; it is in fact very dangerous.

I urge an end to the fiction that there is going to be a military victory in Afghanistan, or that western-style government covering the whole of Afghanistan is going to be imposed. Everybody knows, including the braver people in the military, that to end this war, there will
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have to be political dialogue—yes, with the Taliban and yes, with elements of the Taliban. The Taliban are not a seamless whole. One cannot go to Kabul, knock on the door of the Taliban head office and ask to see the general secretary of the Taliban to have a discussion; it does not work like that. There are lots of different factions and elements. There has to be that dialogue process; otherwise, we will end up with the most terrible loss of life among British soldiers, coalition forces and civilians in Afghanistan, and we will see the extension of the war way beyond the borders of Afghanistan. This is a time for reality check and a time to look for peace, not an expansion of this ghastly conflict.

3.22 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on securing this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). All I would say in response to his comments is that I do not think that anyone but a fool would think that this campaign, war, policy, insurgency—call it what we will, although the language is important—can be won by military means alone. I am sure that the Minister would agree with that.

I was brought up with tomes of counter-insurgency documents, such as Frank Kitson’s books or Robert Thompson’s books, based on the British and American experiences of counter-insurgency. I was surprised, therefore, after Baghdad fell, when I spent some time on the Iraq-Iran border at a relatively benign time, to be told by the locals, “Listen, get your reconstruction right, because if you don’t, you’re going to have a Shi’a uprising, you just are. Iran is going to be drawn into this conflict, as sure as eggs is eggs.” That comment was clearly made to me. Thompson, Kitson and the higher command and staff course all teach that counter-insurgency is not fought by bombs and bullets alone.

I do not mean to patronise the Minister in any way, but I hope that he will allow me to reflect some of the comments of a certain infantry battalion—its name he can probably guess—which returned from Afghanistan recently with nine dead and more than 30 injured, and which is due to return in the near future. I shall set out what my former comrades are telling me of their deepest and most grave concerns for their return to Helmand next spring.

The first has been touched on by a number of different people. My former comrades are not clear in their minds what the relationship is with the Pakistani Government, what the position is of the Inter-Services Intelligence—the Pakistani intelligence service—or exactly what is being done to control the movement of foreign fighters to and from the border. They are happy, and I hope the Minister believes this, to kill those people, but by golly, every time that they knock one down, three more seem to spring up. They are not clear about that. That has a major impact on their morale, particularly for men who are now seasoned fighting soldiers.

The second point is an unlikely one to come from a military mouth, or at least I thought that it was. They are unclear about where the future lies for the process of security sector reform and reconciliation in particular. I was asked, for instance, what exactly was the position with Michael Semple and the United Nations official
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Mervyn Patterson? What were they trying to achieve? If they were doing what it is said they were trying to do, which was broadly praised by my former comrades, why were they arrested? Why were they ejected? What is the position on reconciliation? Going back to Thompson and Kitson, reconciliation means talking to the enemy, trying to turn the enemy into our friends, and heavens above, that was the secret to our supposed, or at least our partial, success in Northern Ireland. Where do we stand on reconciliation?

The next point, which I thought was absolutely crucial, was the question of why we are so poor at communicating our views with the world through the national and international media. They made the point that all that the Taliban have to do is to pick up a mobile phone and speak directly to al-Jazeera to allow their particular bit of poison to drip into the world’s ear, yet if a military public information strategy is being thought up it is “staffed to death”—their phrase, not mine. Nothing is agile about how we put our views, or our propaganda, into the world arena. It is slow, cumbersome, risk averse and too often, it is politically correct. The enemy are defeating us with propaganda just as surely as they are damaging us with bombs and bullets.

The next two points fall under one generic heading, which concerns the key to local success. I am not of the school that believes we will ever see an established democracy with universal peace in Afghanistan, any more than we did in the 19th or 20th centuries—it is not that sort of country. None the less, the key to that peace lies in two places: the Afghan national police and the Afghan national army. I will not repeat the points that have been made much more eloquently by my some of my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Islington, North. If we wish to have a competent police force, and not, to quote a former colleague of mine, one that is

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