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3.43 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I join the Foreign Secretary in apologising for not being able to be present for the winding-up speeches; I long ago accepted an invitation from the Pakistani high commissioner to an event this evening relating to Kashmir.

I also apologise to the House for the fact that I will not be speaking principally about Afghanistan. I recognise the huge achievements of our troops in Afghanistan, which are not mentioned enough. Women no longer come to my constituency fleeing from Afghanistan because of the persecution of women by the Taliban. The emancipation of women since British troops went to that country is one of the huge achievements of our intervention there and the sacrifices of our troops. Women are no longer stoned when they go on to the streets: they can now work and girls can go to school.

I have a long association with Pakistan and have studied and followed its vicissitudes with great concern. I was most recently there to deliver the graduation address at the Institute of Science and Technology in Karachi, which is named after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan who was murdered by the military regime, just as his daughter was murdered only just over a year ago. Those of us who care deeply about Pakistan have been heartbroken by the way in which the attempted entrenchment of democracy has been undermined by spells of military rule.

There have been tragic vicissitudes in Pakistan over the 61 years of independence, but now it is once again a functioning democracy. That democracy was initiated when the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, sat in the Gallery of the House of Commons listening to debates and learning that democracy was the best way for the country that he wanted to found. It is essential that our Government and the US Government in particular work to sustain the parliamentary democracy that has returned to Pakistan and is the legacy of my good friend, Benazir Bhutto.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that democracy is not only about voting, but about liberal values, such as human rights?

Sir Gerald Kaufman: Of course I agree. Democracy is not just about voting for a Parliament, although that is very important. It is about the values to which the hon.
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Gentleman refers, and it is essential that they are sustained in Pakistan, which has among other things a very free press, as I have found when I have been interviewed by the press and television there.

It is important that democracy in Pakistan be sustained for inherent reasons, but also because of Pakistan’s key role in this troubled world. We must do all we can to make it a top priority to solve the world’s oldest unresolved dispute—the 61-year-old dispute over Jammu and Kashmir. I have visited Jammu and Kashmir on many occasions—both the Pakistani side and Srinagar on the Indian side—and everywhere I have seen unnecessary suffering that could be eliminated if only rationality prevailed. Both Hindus and Muslims have suffered, and the situation is a tragedy for all the people who live in that beautiful but troubled province.

We are all, I hope, friends of both India and Pakistan. In looking at the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, we do so from the point of view of the burdens and tragedies that it has imposed on both India and Pakistan. As I say, I have been on both sides of the line of control. I have visited a school destroyed by an Indian bombardment and I have visited the Indian military post that bombarded the school. Both sides believe that they are right, and that is the great tragedy in any such dispute. We have to do all we can—much more than we have been doing—to assist in the solution to the problem of Jammu and Kashmir. We have to put it high on the international agenda. After 61 years, it is essential that the voices of the people of Jammu and Kashmir are heard.

Mr. MacShane: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, especially as time is short. He will recall that Robin Cook, when he was Foreign Secretary, raised the issue of Kashmir and was trashed to death as a result. He will have seen the way in which some of the British press attacked our right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary because he raised the issue of Kashmir, and how the shadow Foreign Secretary carefully skirted around it. How on earth can we get the matter on the international agenda if our Front Benchers are too timid to raise it?

Sir Gerald Kaufman: It is a huge error to believe that the issue is marginal or peripheral in some way. Indeed, not paying serious attention to it is a prime strategic error in the context of what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary have been talking about. First, as I say, it is essential that we act because the voice of the people of Jammu and Kashmir has not been heard for 61 years. If one goes to Muzaffarabad or Srinagar, one meets a disfranchised people. When I went to Srinagar, the Indian Government made a Government house available to me and invited people who had matters that they wanted to raise with me to come and see me. I sat there for seven hours while people told me of their woes and troubles. On a human level, the issue is extraordinarily important.

I would have thought that it was folly not to take that all into account, because we have a confrontation between two nuclear-armed nations. We go on about the worries about nuclear weapons coming to Iran, and I do not disagree with that. We do not say so much about the fact that Israel is a country with nuclear weapons. However, in India and Pakistan we have two countries in perpetual military confrontation that both have nuclear
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weapons. In the United States Senate, that has been regarded as an extraordinarily serious matter. I hope that we will take into account the fact that war could break out between India and Pakistan at any time.

This matter is also essential because of the disgusting waste of resources in both India and Pakistan spending so much money on armaments. India is said to have 500,000 troops in Jammu and its part of Kashmir. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary referred to the admirable fact that our Department for International Development has provided £480 million of aid for Pakistan. How much more money is Pakistan spending on its military confrontation? How much money is India spending on its military confrontation? We are told that there is a very good chance—

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Sir Gerald Kaufman: I have high a regard for my hon. Friend, but I have only one minute and 23 seconds left.

We have seen the poverty shown in the film “Slumdog Millionaire”. That poverty exists whether a movie is made about it or not, yet India is wasting unspeakably large resources on its confrontation with Pakistan. Some 100 million people in India are living below the Indian poverty line. A quarter of a million babies in Pakistan die every year because of filthy water supplies. It is essential that we do what we can to bring an end to this unnecessary and tragic confrontation. We have to make that a top priority not only for the sake of the people of Pakistan, India and the beautiful vale of Kashmir but for the sake of all the strategic reasons why we are in Afghanistan.

3.54 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): First, may I pass on the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey)? Unfortunately, he has a prior engagement and is unable to be here for the debate.

I am very pleased that we are having this debate in Government time on the Floor of the House and not as an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall. Afghanistan and Pakistan are vital, both in the international context and for the UK. The Government are right to say that they need to be seen together and as part of the wider region.

History has shown that Afghanistan in particular is fraught with difficulty, especially for any military endeavour. It is fair to say that the whole region has a huge potential for conflict if left unchecked and if we do not succeed in achieving the objectives that we have set out. It is therefore absolutely right that it is a priority for the UK’s diplomatic efforts.

The topic of Afghanistan and Pakistan is a very wide one, and this debate has provoked a lot of interest despite the short time available. I hope that the House will understand that it will be impossible for me to cover every aspect, but I hope to be able to speak about what I see as the key priorities for Afghanistan—support for our troops, tackling the drugs trade and development aid—and the situation in Pakistan.

I agree very much with the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) that, although the debate is very welcome, three hours is not really sufficient. I
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understand that our time is restricted because of the other business before the House today, but we will need to return to these matters regularly as the situation develops. I hope that, as they have today, the Government will be generous in making time available for us to do so.

The problem of Afghanistan requires a regional diplomatic solution that includes Pakistan and, importantly, Iran. The developments over the past couple of days with the British Council have been especially worrying, but we should try to see them as an opportunity to engage with Iran. It is not in that nation’s interest to have a lawless void of a country on its doorstep, and the problems of the drugs trade and the impact that it is having on Iran have been mentioned already. It is essential that we bring Iran as well as Pakistan and the other neighbouring countries into the discussions. In the Balkans, peace was secured on a regional basis through the Dayton agreement, and we should look at adopting a similar approach in this case.

I very much welcome the willingness that President Obama has shown since his election to engage diplomatically with the countries that are Afghanistan’s neighbours. He has rejected the rhetoric of the war on terror, which undermined some of our diplomatic efforts by lumping everyone into being either with us or against us. It is easy to think of the Taliban as one entity, but that catch-all name covers a wide variety of people. Some of them are al-Qaeda sympathisers and very hard core, but others are more moderate, seeing the Taliban as a way to provide a degree of stability and security. We need to be able to engage and have discussions with them to see whether we can forge a way forward. That is something that our Government should definitely be doing.

I echo the Foreign Secretary’s welcome of Richard Holbrooke to his new role in Afghanistan. I very much enjoyed the letter that my noble Friend Lord Ashdown sent to him through the pages of The Times earlier this week. In the paragraph that stood out for me, my noble Friend talked about the priorities for Afghanistan. He said:

He is quite right: we need to focus on a few priorities and fulfil them properly, rather than do 15 things badly. In his letter, Lord Ashdown outlines three priorities—human security, the rule of law, and governance—that I think have merit.

In relation to human security, if the people of Afghanistan are continually threatened by violence as they go about their daily lives, and if they have no jobs or access to basic essentials such as electricity, water and health care, the ingredients for conflict are present and easily stoked up. However, if we can provide those basic necessities of human security, citizens will have a stake in peace and—crucially—a reason to support the Government.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the rule of law is essential but, if we do not create faith in the Government and the rule of law, the prospects for peace look very dim. However, securing peace will involve tackling the corruption that has been rife in the Karzai Government.
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To put it mildly, the international community is losing some faith in that Government. New elections may be the solution to that problem.

There is the issue of how the rule of law can be enforced, particularly in the short to medium term. Obviously, we want to move to a situation in which the police force is “Afghanised”—a term that has been used. More troops may be necessary, and Obama has talked about a surge and sending in new troops. It is certainly possible that the UK ought to be prepared to add to the troops there, although given the overstretch that we already face in the military services, the number of additional troops committed would have to be small. Perhaps we should redouble our efforts to encourage our EU partners, and other countries that recognise the vital importance of Afghanistan, to play their part more seriously, and provide the military support that is required if we are to meet our objectives. As I am sure the Foreign Secretary will appreciate, the issue is not just the number of troops; it is also the strategy. Continuing in the same vein as before is unlikely to yield results. Although I support additional troops, I very much hope that the Foreign Secretary will look, with our international partners, at a change of strategy in Afghanistan.

The third priority is strengthening governance. It is easy for us, sitting in our traditional Parliament, to think that the style of democracy that evolved here is the only one that can work, and that we must impose it on other countries. The western style of governance may not be the right answer for Afghanistan. Indeed, there has been more than a century of foreign invasions in that country and attempts to overrule the tribal structures on which Afghanistan is based. History tells its own story; those adventures have not been successful. Trying to go against the grain of the country has not led to success. We really need to consider whether working with existing tribal structures and strengthening them democratically is a better way to approach the situation.

Of course, the Foreign Secretary and shadow Foreign Secretary were right to pay tribute to all the members of the British armed services, and the civilians and aid workers, who are risking their lives in Afghanistan, as well as those from other countries around the world. When the House of Commons takes the difficult decision to engage in a conflict such as that in Afghanistan, we have a real responsibility to give the young men and women whom we send to that country the support that they need. The military covenant, which has worked well for many decades, is coming under increased stress because of the lack of support that many serving members of our armed forces have felt in recent years due to overstretch.

As has been mentioned, 143 British personnel have been killed in Afghanistan in the past eight years, and nearly 100 more have been seriously injured or wounded. In our constituency surgeries, people who served in Afghanistan tell us stories about the lack of equipment. It has certainly touched my heart to hear of the fears surrounding the use of armoured vehicles, particularly Snatch Land Rovers, which have caused the death of seven of our personnel. It is welcome that the Government have finally announced that there will be 600 new armoured vehicles going to Afghanistan. However, they took too long to come to that decision. It was evident a
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very long time ago that the Snatch Land Rovers were not adequate and sufficient equipment for our troops serving there.

I hope that the announcement will be properly backed up, and that the 600 vehicles will arrive on time. Back in 2007, 96 new armoured vehicles were promised, but according to The Daily Telegraph, only 16 were delivered on time. I hope that we have learned lessons from that experience, and that we can make sure that the new armoured vehicles get to the brave soldiers who need them. The shadow Foreign Secretary mentioned helicopters, which, in a country such as Afghanistan, are vital, as it is very difficult for any foreign army to deal with the terrain. Of course, the enemies there know the terrain and their homeland much better than we do, so helicopters, allowing the swift movement of troops, are absolutely vital.

The other point to make about honouring the military covenant is that we should ensure that the troops we send to war zones have adequate time in between tours to recover, to spend with their families, and to have the semblance of a normal life. That has not been happening to the extent that it should, because of the overstretch. That should be borne in mind when the troops come home from Iraq later this year. They cannot immediately be sent to Afghanistan. We need to take into account their health and psychiatric care needs. That is why a large increase in troop numbers from this country will not be possible.

With regard to opium and poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, clearly the building of a legal economy with secure incomes for citizens is essential. The economy that has developed over the past couple of hundred years has thrived on the trade in weapons and narcotics. As a result, the incomes of many people have relied on the instability in the region, which totally undermines what we are trying to achieve. I read recently that the opiate industry in Afghanistan produces exports equal in value to half of the rest of the Afghan economy, so there is obviously a huge challenge.

Various responses to that challenge have been suggested. The US has often favoured spraying the poppy fields, but that could undermine our efforts to build relationships with individuals and would not be helpful in diplomatic terms. Others, including some hon. Members, have suggested that we should buy up the entire poppy crop and use it for the legal trade in morphine, but again, that would not necessarily do us any favours in building relationships.

The strategy that seems to have had some success is supporting initiatives to move from the poppy crop to, for example, wheat and other agricultural products. As was mentioned, the resulting number of poppy-free provinces increased from 13 in 2007 to 18 in 2008, and particularly in the north-east of the country the scheme has had some success. It is vital that that continues, because the narcotics trade is fuelling corruption, which undermines the rule of law and governance.

On the international development support that we give, there has been some positive progress on some indicators since the fall of the Taliban. Figures for infant mortality show that 40,000 fewer babies die each year. The number of functioning health clinics is up by 60 per cent. So there is some good news, but there are huge problems from an international development perspective, with up to 5 million people facing food
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shortages and 1.8 million at high risk of malnutrition. Those circumstances continue to undermine the security situation.

The issue that I particularly want to raise with the Government is the distribution of aid, because there is still a tendency in Afghanistan for development aid to reflect donor priorities, rather than Afghan priorities—a tendency to look at Afghanistan from a country perspective, rather than at the totality. Often, when we talk about Afghanistan, we naturally think about Helmand and about our troops who are there, but a more strategic overview is needed. I hope DFID can contribute to that. Oxfam has suggested that the uneven spread of aid is contributing to insecurity, so I hope the Government will take up the issue and ensure that the aid programmes to which all the various international partners contribute are properly co-ordinated to reflect the national priorities, not just the regional priorities, in Afghanistan.

Returning to the security situation, the effort to provide aid in Afghanistan has been hampered by the increase in deliberate attacks on aid workers. There were 30 such deaths last year which, as I am sure the House would agree, is a very worrying development. It takes us back to the initial priorities of securing people’s ability to go about their daily lives and ensuring that the rule of law is respected.

I turn now to Pakistan. It is just over a year since we were having debates in the House following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto so shockingly on 27 December 2007. There was a cautious optimism in the House at the time that the elections would go ahead and proceed peacefully. At the same time there was an acceptance that the situation was fragile and could go horribly wrong. As we look back one year on, it is welcome that elections took place fairly peacefully and that there is a coalition Government and a return to democracy between the Pakistan People’s party and the Pakistan Muslim League. Obviously, that is welcome progress, although we are not quite there yet as there are still major challenges, particularly in the Pakistani Government’s relationships with the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence and the military, and in respect of where the true power and control within the country lie.

It is vital that we involve the Pakistani Government in any of our diplomatic efforts to secure peace in Afghanistan, particularly when it comes to the border regions and the federally administered tribal areas. I had read about the problems in that region, but I was still momentarily stunned by the statistic read out by the Foreign Secretary: female literacy in the region is just 3 per cent. When we discuss international affairs, intense poverty and great problems, we sometimes get away from the human and the individual. However, such a statistic makes us start to appreciate how dire the situation is and how much progress needs to be made. There is a whole range of different indicators. We can see the link between the education of women and the economic development and progress of countries; that literacy situation means that the economic future of the region is also under great threat.

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