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Volume 404: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2003

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If she will make a statement on aid being provided to Afghanistan. [111517]

At the Tokyo conference on Afghanistan in January 2002, donors pledged $4.5 billion over one to five years for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Last year, more than $1.8 billion was disbursed, and another $1.8 billion will be provided this year. It is widely suggested that Afghanistan has not had the resources that were promised. That is not true, but one of the problems is that because the authority of the Government in Kabul does not extend right across the country, some resources are flowing through the UN and other agencies. Getting security and order across Afghanistan is essential in moving on to further development.

My friends in the area tell me that following the magnificent crusade to establish liberty and democracy in Afghanistan, the only optimism is in the heroin industry, which has been freed of the Taliban restrictions. Can the Secretary of State say how she is endeavouring to circulate aid in a country which, outside Kabul, seems to be run by warlords and mini-dictators? I do not in any way blame her for that, but is there an answer?

There have been improvements in the lives of the people of Afghanistan. More children are in school, people have been fed, and the drought is coming to an end, which is a blessed relief. The UN system kept up the feeding right through the crisis and has done so ever since. Many children have been immunised. However, I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman's fundamental point. The whole economy is based on narcotics, and it is run outside Kabul by warlords, who were strengthened during the conflict. People have been fed, the basics have been improved, and Kabul is safe and secure, but we now need to build a national army, to demobilise the warlords' fighters, and to assert the Government's authority across the territory.

Provincial reconstruction teams are being put in place in the big cities; my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary is to make an announcement about the UK's contribution to that. We must secure authority across the country and disarm the warlords; otherwise, the narcotics industry will continue to flourish.

The House will understand that despite the dreadful problems with warlords, drug barons and so on, good progress has been achieved by working with UNICEF and others to deliver humanitarian aid and to develop and encourage education, especially for girls. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that progress can continue?

My right hon. Friend is right. The fact that an enormous amount remains to be done should not deter us from congratulating the international system on the progress that has been achieved. The lives of people in Afghanistan are better. For example, many children are back in school; many women are back teaching; a Loya Jirga has taken place; work is progressing on a new constitution; and many children have been immunised. Further improvement depends on progress on order, building a national army and disarming the warlords. Progress on tackling the narcotics trade also depends on that. We have reached a point where there must be order outside Kabul or we will not move much further.

The right hon. Lady will remember her words to the Select Committee on International Development in December:

"Security is now coming outside Kabul, the international community is not going away, American power is not going away. The government will be strengthened, there will be a national army."
We have already heard that that has not happened and that the position is worse. When will there be adequate security in Afghanistan to allow progress on reconstruction and public services? When will asylum seekers be able to return willingly and without compulsion? Will Iraq suffer the same fate as Afghanistan, or will the presence of oil make the difference?

Afghanistan is not worse, as I made clear. If the hon. Lady reads the briefings, the details make that clear: people are being fed, children are in school and being immunised and people are back at work. The position is not worse, but the country was wrecked by 20 years of warfare. It is desperately poor—one of the poorest countries in the world. [Interruption.] It is no good the hon. Lady sighing; rebuilding a wrecked country takes time and a lot of effort.

Agreement has now been achieved. It has taken longer than I would have liked, and the United Kingdom has played a part in applying pressure for the formation of a national army. There are many powerful vested interests in the warlords, and some of their power is influential in the country's Ministry of Defence. Agreement must be followed by demobilising many fighters. The process is beginning to progress, as are the provincial reconstruction teams. However, the country will not move forward without persistent engagement and we need to drive forward on security outside Kabul in the next months and years.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that, as part of continuing security operations in Afghanistan, some coalition troops are conducting operations in civilian clothing while armed, and claiming to be humanitarian workers? Does she accept that British aid workers' lives are being put at risk by the blurring of the distinction between aid workers and soldiers? What is she doing to raise that with the Secretary of State for Defence and members of the US Administration?

I am not aware of that serious allegation of a complete breach of the Geneva convention. If it is true, it would endanger the work of humanitarian workers; indeed, a worker from the International Committee of the Red Cross died near Kandahar I believe, speaking from memory. I have heard nothing about such an allegation; I shall look into it and get back to the hon. Lady.