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We must pay tribute to the troops for their bravery and success in Operation Panther's Claw. However, there was an ugly side to it. In the village of Penkala, the elders came to see our soldiers and said, "Whatever you do, make sure that the Afghan police do not come back. We know that they rob us and they are thieves, but last time they practised 'bacha bazi', which is the organised rape of pre-pubescent boys, who were kept in compounds in the village." That is not an isolated event.
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Is that the way to win hearts and minds-through our bombs, bullets and "bacha bazi"?

We heard the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) on what would happen if we were to pull out now, but no one is suggesting that we do so in a disorderly way. There is great danger, however, unless we do a deal with the patchwork of interests in Afghanistan. That deal must take in the Northern Alliance warlords, who are pretty unpleasant people. One of them was responsible for suffocating 200 prisoners, but he is important to Karzai who made sure that he was back for the election because he needed his votes and support. In our eyes, however, he is guilty of war atrocities.

In the case of the Taliban, we have developed the mindset that they are so wicked and terrible that we cannot possibly let them in. If 9/11 had not taken place, however, we would have been quite happy with the Taliban running the country as an independent state for the past eight years. The myth that has been perpetrated conflates the Taliban with al-Qaeda-as the hon. Member for Newark did in his very interesting speech-and Afghanistan with Pakistan. We have invented a new country called "the region" or "the Afghanistan-Pakistan border", although we know that the areas are very different and have very different interests.

If there is any group with a strong interest in ensuring that al-Qaeda never returns to Afghanistan, it is the Taliban. It was because of al-Qaeda that they lost their position as rulers of the country. When I last spoke about this subject in the House, I quoted an international think-tank which had said that 72 per cent. of Afghanistan was controlled by the Taliban last year and 80 per cent. this year. The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), disagreed. Although I have written to him, I have yet to be told what the official figure is. However, it is a fantasy to believe that we are in control, and that if we left, everything would go to hell-would go to the Taliban.

Britain has 9,000 soldiers in Afghanistan: 2,000 are fighting soldiers on the front line, and they are in one of 34 provinces. Last year we celebrated with great satisfaction the taking of a turbine to the Kajaki dam. Three thousand of our soldiers and 1,000 others were required to ensure that the turbine reached the dam, but it has yet to produce enough electricity to light a bicycle lamp. In fact, we have one fewer turbine there, because another has not been repaired on site. We are fooling ourselves if we believe that there have been great successes. There have certainly been successes, but they are tiny. British involvement is limited to perhaps 2 or 3 per cent. of the land mass of the country.

We have seen what our brave allies-those from the Netherlands and Canada who have paid the price in blood and treasure-have done. Let me issue this plea: for goodness' sake stop believing the myths, particularly the new myths about the nuclear threat. The reason we are creating these new pieces of propaganda is that the Government and Opposition are rattled by the fact that a quarter of the population of the country believe, sadly, that our soldiers are dying in vain. That is a cruel thing to say from the viewpoint of the relatives of those soldiers, but it does not in any way detract from their bravery, which is as impressive as that of any soldiers who have ever fought on our behalf.

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There is another example that defies our myths. We hear that the Americans are paying $1,500 for each truck with which they move goods-ordinary goods, not just weapons but furniture and toiletries-from Kabul to Kandahar, and that in each case the money ends up in the hands of the Taliban. According to an Afghan proverb, when the sun comes up it is like the truth: it is hard to hide it. The sad thing is that the truth is slow to dawn in this Parliament.

8.43 pm

Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): On occasions such as this, I am always struck by the number of constituents who contact me about foreign affairs. They contact me to express concern about conflicts elsewhere in the world, and often to highlight peace-building work in which they are personally involved or which they support.

Like many others, I have received numerous letters about Zimbabwe, anti-Christian violence in Orissa-sadly, I am unable to attend a briefing about that tonight because of the debate-death sentences passed in Tibet, and religious discrimination against Christians and Jews in Iraq. I have received representations from Flame International, a small young Christian non-governmental organisation working in Africa. I know that it is particularly concerned about the plight of those in south Sudan, specifically those in the region of the Nuba mountains. And, of course, I have received many letters about Afghanistan, expressing concern about the confused and muddled messages from the Government.

The Government really need to explain what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan. I want to associate myself with much of what has been said this evening by many Members on both sides of the House about the lack of clarity. Is this about threats to our security, about poppies, about al-Qaeda, about the Taliban, about threats to our security, about reconstruction or about Pakistan? We need to be clear, and my constituents need to be clear, about what we are trying to achieve. We need to know what exactly the mission is and what measures of success are going to be used, so we can see ahead to the prospects of eventual handover and withdrawal.

I am also speaking tonight in my capacity as co-chairman of the associate parliamentary group on women, peace and security. I normally have a knee-jerk reaction against groups with the word "women" in their title, but this group is different, and I urge Members who usually have the same reaction as me to look again at the work it does, and also to look at the many organisations in this country and across the world who see women as a crucial part of the peace and security we all work so hard to achieve.

More than 50 per cent. of our conflicts reignite within a decade of peace, and often at the heart of the problem lie flawed peace-building efforts that exclude half the affected population-women. Over the past 50 years, the nature of conflict has changed. Almost all modern conflicts are intra-state, although external dynamics obviously still influence conflict realities. This means it is far more dangerous to be a civilian in today's conflicts. As wars shift from the battlefield to communities, civilians suffer more than ever. While in world war one, approximately 10 per cent. of deaths were civilian, in Iraq since 2003, civilians have accounted for 90 per cent. of all fatalities. These changes have impacted
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enormously on women and their dependants, and this is a challenge that the modern peace-building and security agenda must address.

The associate parliamentary group on women, peace and security is a parliamentary forum in the UK for the discussion of issues relating to UN Security Council resolution 1325. The group provides a unique opportunity for parliamentarians, civil servants, civil societies, non-governmental organisations and others-the Soroptimists being one-to come together in one forum to debate, encourage dialogue and gather expert information from across the political spectrum. We have speakers from across the world, many of whom have risked their lives to film secretly in their own countries, smuggling evidence out so that they can come here to the Houses of Parliament and we can hear first hand about the terrible suffering of women, but also what women are achieving on the ground.

The group is co-ordinated by Gender Action for Peace and Security, and I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Charlotte Onslow, Lady Fiona Hodgson, Chris Levick and many others for the work they do through GAPS. GAPS was established in May 2006 to

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I am listening to what the hon. Lady is saying with great interest, and she is absolutely right about the vital role of women in peace building. Does she agree that the recent news that the United Nations is going to appoint a special representative to take forward action on resolution 1325 is a welcome step in turning what have been very good words that have not, perhaps, delivered into real action on the ground?

Anne Milton: Yes, it is welcome, and I have to give some praise to the Government on this: progress in this country has been quite significant. GAPS highlights examples of women's contributions to reconstruction and also the way forward for the implementation of resolution 1325 as well as, of course, the UK national action plan.

Resolution 1325 was passed unanimously in October 2000. In 2004, the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, issued a report on its implementation, and called for all member states to develop a national action plan to ensure the implementation of the resolution. To date, 16 countries, including two post-conflict countries, have developed a national action plan. The UK Government were among the first to develop a national action plan, which was launched on international women's day in 2006. The strategy links Government, humanitarian, defence, security, diplomacy and conflict work, all of which are important to conflict resolution and peace building. The five core areas are supporting the mainstreaming of a gender perspective at the UN in peace and security policy; training and policy within government; gender justice, including on gender-based violence; disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration; and working with civil society. Within those core areas there are 12 action points.

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Why does all this matter? A briefing by Widows for Peace through Democracy makes several points. Widows make up a significant proportion of the female population in all societies, but in conflict-afflicted countries their number-there are very few official statistics on this-has risen to an extraordinary and unprecedented level. Rough estimates vary widely, but it is thought that there are more than 2 million widows in Afghanistan-70,000 in Kabul alone, where, according to a UN report, nearly all the 37,000 street children are fatherless-and probably more than 3 million widows in Iraq. The number may be much higher in both those countries, where many women are the wives of the disappeared or missing. It is suggested that as many as 70 per cent. of children in Rwanda are dependent on widowed mothers, and in eastern Congo more than 50 per cent. of women are widows. Similarly, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Burundi all need to identify the impact on society of such increases in widowhood.

It is impossible to raise awareness without proper reliable data. Governments, non-governmental organisations and the UN do not have the vital information needed to protect the widows and their dependants, and to ensure that they can access basic services, are protected from violence and have legal protection to ensure their rights to inheritance, property and land ownership. These widows are bringing up the next generation of children, and their role in post-conflict reconstruction is vital. The prospects of the widows and their children after war reflect the prospects of these countries as a whole. We need to know what is happening so that we can direct support on the ground and turn around the fortunes of so many war-torn families-so many war-torn widows and their children-and, thus, turn around the future of their countries.

The initial intervention in Afghanistan was partly justified on the basis of liberating Afghan women from subjugation, violence and injustice. Some 68 of the 249 Afghan MPs are women-that exceeds the 25 per cent. quota-but at least six women MPs have been killed in the past two years. With the exception of the Minister of Women's Affairs, all of Afghanistan's Cabinet posts are held by men. Only one out of the 32 governors is a woman, and women number only 233 of an estimated 62,000 officers in the Afghan national police. It would be helpful to know how the Government will support women's participation in the proposed summit in early 2010, which our Prime Minister announced. A WOMANKIND Worldwide report in 2008 showed that in Afghanistan 87 per cent. of women are affected by domestic violence, 60 per cent. of marriages are forced and 57 per cent. of girls are married before their 16th birthday. In addition, despite improvements having been made, only 5 per cent. of girls are enrolled in schools.

Figures are extremely hard to get on sexual and gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but the UN estimates that 27,000 women were raped in 2006 in South Kivu province alone. The true figures are impossible to verify, but according to one analyst rape is underreported and

There are certain things that our Government can do. There seems to be no central point within government driving the women, peace and security agenda forward. The lack of clear lines of responsibility makes the
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advancement of the national action plan difficult. That plan does not cover interventions in specific countries and Northern Ireland is omitted. The plan has no specific resources or funds attached; all activities are expected to be completed through existing departmental budgets. It remains disconnected from the wider conflict and security policy and other gender equality frameworks. The lack of monitoring and evaluation mechanisms makes it almost impossible to assess the plan's impact.

Women are an immense resource for building a peaceful and sustainable future, but their voices rarely reach the negotiating tables or political spaces. Violence against women is still seen as an unfortunate by-product of conflict and is largely left unchallenged. Such violence and exclusions must be confronted to assist societies in becoming more stable and peaceful for us all. Understanding the realities, needs and capacities of women as well as those of men must lie at the heart of peace-building efforts if an inclusive and sustainable peace and security is to be achieved. Ignoring such issues is costly, both for conflict-affected regions and for the international community.

Several hon. Members rose -

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I inform the House that I have been advised that the winding-up speeches will commence at 9.30? There are still Members hoping to catch my eye. I hope that they can do the maths between them and all be successful.

8.55 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): These debates always bring out two things: first, the immense amount of knowledge that colleagues have from their experiences all over the world; and, secondly, a rather relentless and sometimes dispiriting account of the problems that the Government have to face. However, without these debates we would be far less well informed than we are.

There are a number of pegs on which foreign affairs remarks on the Gracious Speech can be hung, and I want to hang mine on the back of a year of President Obama and 20 years of European progress since the fall of the Berlin wall. I shall touch on a number of topics that others have mentioned in the debate.

Without the engagement of the United States, the Government's aspirations as set out in the Queen's Speech, to work for

will make little progress. I was in the United States about 12 months ago as an observer for the Harvard induction week for new members of Congress, along with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). This traditional neutral and bipartisan affair, which incidentally might lend itself as a style of briefing for new Members of this House in due course, is presented by academics, commentators, diplomats and those from business. It pulled no punches about the in-tray of Congress and the President-from climate change to terrorism through nuclear proliferation and economic chaos.

The world's expectations of the President have been high. The fact that the "re-set" button from the Bush era was pressed early ensured that the much-wanted re-engagement of the US into the multilateral world
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that it had to a degree struggled to come to terms with was welcomed. It was a different voice. The President's first international broadcast was to an Arabic news station; his first phone call was to the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas. He spoke directly to the people of Iran, he is closing Guantanamo Bay, he spoke so well in Cairo and he has made the goal of progress in the middle east not an afterthought of his Administration, but an upfront determination. All those facts suggested change, and the sort of change the world was seeking.

On the middle east I believe, as a Conservative friend of Israel whose support for the state of Israel is long-standing and well-documented in this House, that the President must continue with his realistic approach to the Israeli Administration. He must endeavour to make it clear that Israel's moral high ground, so precious to it in the face of relentless terrorism and hostility and on which it might yet have to rely again in dealing with Iran, has suffered terribly in recent years and that criticism or expressions of concern over policy such as those on settlements, for example, are not always ill-meant but are designed to start winning that high ground back.

I suspect that the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), who described his journey from being a supporter of the state of Israel to where he is now, will have spoken for some. They might not express it in as extreme and very partial terms as he did, but he captured the concern about Israel's loss of the moral high ground.

I believe that much might revolve around the case of Corporal Gilad Shalit, who, as we know, is still in the captivity of Hamas after more than three years. Following the release of video evidence that he was still alive, at the cost of a substantial prisoner exchange-which tells us much about the appreciation of life in the middle east-the world might unite first in demanding that the Red Cross should be allowed to see Corporal Shalit. We might then use the inevitable contacts necessary for such developments to pursue other avenues. To go on as we are in the middle east is in nobody's security interests, least of all Israel's.

Mr. Winnick: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alistair Burt: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's desire to intervene, but we are now very short of time for other colleagues.

In two other areas, I hope that what is currently perceived as the President's caution will not drift into more dangerous inactivity. In both areas, our Government have crucial responsibilities. On climate change, I do not believe we should allow our expectations of Copenhagen to be dashed completely. Perhaps some lessening of overblown expectations was needed-Copenhagen was never going to solve everything-but nothing that has happened over the past 12 months has done anything but increase concerns about climate change and the need for a concerted response from nations. It is about rather more than the onshore wind farms we tend to get bogged down with.

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