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Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 27 June 2006

1. How much was spent by the British Embassy in Kabul on assisting the Afghan Government in 2005-06; and what it was spent on. (80210)

With permission, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government I wish first to extend our condolences to the families and friends of the two members of Britain’s armed forces who, it was confirmed this morning, were killed in action in an incident in north Helmand province in Afghanistan. Our thoughts and sympathies are with those close to them at this very difficult time.

Combined Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Department for International Development, Ministry of Defence and Afghanistan drugs inter-departmental unit spending on Afghanistan for the financial year 2005-06 was more than £379 million. Those funds were used to support the British effort to assist the Government of Afghanistan across a number of areas including security, reconstruction, election support, counter-narcotics and institutional capacity building.

I join the tribute paid to our soldiers who were recently killed.

I want to focus on what is happening under the umbrella of security that our soldiers are working so hard to create. I have just returned from Afghanistan, and I was shocked to see how bad co-ordination is on the international development and reconstruction front. There is a conflict of interests between United Nations and European Union agencies, as well as the myriad of non-governmental organisations that answer to no one. A fundamental lack of leadership is leading to the pursuing of separate agendas and to the wasting of money as projects overlap. Does the Minister agree that the long-term success of Afghanistan hinges not only on the military capability that we are working so hard to achieve, but on what is happening under that security umbrella? We could be doing so much more with the money to which the Minister referred.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on going to Afghanistan. It is not an easy journey, as I have found on many occasions. I am sorry that he found such a lack of co-ordination there.

As for Britain’s effort, in conjunction with our close allies, the establishment of the provincial reconstruction teams and their recent extension to the south were part of a deliberate policy—beginning in the north, then extending to the west and now to the south—linking military forces in a determined effort to establish security and combining them with officials from a number of Departments, including the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, to achieve that security and also progress towards democracy and effective administration. That has been successful in the north and west, and it will be successful in the south.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the crop substitution programme that we are helping to fund in Helmand province is not going very well? Several hundred Afghan farmers who were persuaded to destroy their crops in 2004 are clutching cheques that have not been honoured. Understandably, they are rather angry about it, and we are bearing some of the brunt of their anger. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a danger that, if we are not careful, we will turn from liberators into oppressors? Has the time not come for a bit of blue skies thinking when it comes to dealing with the drug problem?

My hon. Friend is right to raise some of the difficulties with the anti-narcotics programme in south Afghanistan in particular. I am sure that he will be the first to acknowledge that there was a 21 per cent. reduction in opium cultivation last year, although there have been some difficulties in the south.

I accept that there is a disturbing relationship between those who are using some pretty appalling means of attacking British soldiers and British forces and those who are responsible for the distribution of drugs out of Afghanistan. It is that connection that we are determined to disrupt. It involves risks as, sadly, we have seen, but at the same time it is part of our effort to secure the long-term reconstruction of the country.

Are Foreign Office Ministers being kept informed of the increasingly unsatisfactory performance of President Karzai’s Government? Is that not cause for concern, especially given that successive Defence Ministers have told me, and the House, that a prime justification for our military intervention in southern Afghanistan was support for President Karzai and his Government?

I suspect that I was one of those Ministers, and that remains the position of the British Government.

Actually, there has been remarkable progress in Afghanistan since 2001. There have been presidential elections, parliamentary elections and the establishment of a Government who are now increasingly able to extend their authority throughout the country. That is a success to celebrate. It does not mean that difficulties do not occur from time to time, but it is something on which I think we should all congratulate President Karzai and his Government. They are increasingly in control of their own country, as should be the case.

At a time when the Taliban has launched its most serious offensive in the south in the past four years, will the British Government resist strenuously Donald Rumsfeld’s stated intention to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan, and to justify that on the ground of NATO’s presence in the south? Will the Government accept that the timing could not be worse for any reduction in American troops at this moment?

I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, with his comprehensive knowledge of international affairs, did not intend to suggest that the present attacks are somehow part of a comprehensive offensive by the Taliban. Certainly the Taliban is attacking the coalition forces and does so from time to time in conjunction with the range of criminals, gangs and terrorists that operate in that part of the world. But those organisations are not capable of defeating Britain’s forces in a conventional attack: they are simply part of an effort to destabilise the authority in that part of Afghanistan, mostly for criminal purposes. We must resist that by deploying the appropriate number of forces, which will be adjusted from time to time in both number and nationality. That is an inevitable part of that kind of multinational operation.

May I join the Minister in expressing great sorrow at the news of the deaths of two British soldiers? Is he satisfied with the current pace and co-ordination of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan? They are obviously crucial if the insurgency is to be defeated and the narcotics trade reduced, yet my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and others bring back reports of poor co-ordination and corruption, as well as deteriorating security. How would the Government react to the idea that some people have suggested of a UN-mandated special representative to oversee construction efforts and to work with the Afghan authorities to ensure that the work is not derailed by waste, corruption or duplication?

I have conceded that the reports are disturbing and we will look at them carefully. We can be proud of the record of success of the PRTs in the north and west, which has assisted the Government in Kabul to extend their authority. We always knew that the extension of PRTs into the south, and an inherently more unstable situation, was likely to be difficult, not least because—as I have indicated—of the conjunction of the Taliban and some of the various criminal gangs that are heavily engaged in the smuggling of opium. It is that connection that we need to disrupt. The right hon. Gentleman has made a sensible suggestion about the need for more effective co-ordination and we will consider that carefully.