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Afghanistan

Volume 450: debated on Tuesday 17 October 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]

It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor. I thank the Secretary of State for being present. I understand that he has had to change his plans and I am very grateful to him for that.

I should start by saying that my personal experiences in Afghanistan pale into insignificance when compared with some of those that our troops in Helmand have suffered. I have certainly had my fair share of being rocketed and bombed by the Taliban, but that is nothing compared with what our troops have been going through, and it is only right that I put on record my deep appreciation of our armed forces serving in Afghanistan and, in particular, of 16th Air Assault Brigade.

I can pinpoint the exact moment when I realised that British troops would be serving in Afghanistan for a very long time. It was 09.32 on 8 September—a moment after I felt the shock wave pass through my body from probably the largest car bomb there had ever been in Kabul. The shock wave was not particularly shocking—I got used to the experience as a bomb disposal officer—but I shall never forget the sounds of agony and the smell of death that followed.

If there is one message that I want to get across to hon. Members today, it is simply this: if we are to achieve the strong and stable society that the Government want to achieve in Afghanistan, we will be there for a very long time—perhaps 15 or 20 years. If we manage to raise Afghanistan to the level of a third-world country in that time, we could perhaps pat ourselves on the back. None the less, that is the task that faces us.

In my role as a Royal Engineers officer, I was charged with delivering in a small way the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan and I travelled to the four corners of the country—to Kandahar and Helmand in the south, Herat in the west, Mazar-e-Sharif and Faizabad in the north, and Kabul and Bagram in the east. While much of the media focus is on the war-fighting in Helmand, we are making progress elsewhere in the country. In the north and the west, where the situation is much more benign, some reconstruction and development is taking place, but progress is painfully slow.

However, we must give credit where credit is due. There has been some progress in Government thinking since the disastrous days of planning the Iraq war. The three Ds—defence, development and diplomacy—now form the bedrock of the strategy for the eventual planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. The theory behind the three Ds, at least, is rather like that behind the three strands of a rope: when they are applied concurrently, their effect is far greater than when they are applied on their own, and they are certainly far more effective than when they are applied sequentially, as they used to be. The question, however, is whether that new approach is working in Afghanistan. Having spent nearly eight weeks travelling the length and breadth of the country trying to deliver reconstruction and development, I would have to say yes, but as I said, progress is painfully slow.

I imagine that the Secretary of State will outline Afghanistan’s commitment to the millennium development goals, although, unfortunately, we are currently implementing only four of the eight plus one goals to which Afghanistan has signed up. He will perhaps also outline what has happened since the Afghan compact was agreed in London earlier this year and how we are trying to implement the compact via the interim Afghan national development strategy. However, I am here to tell him that the theory in Kabul is one thing—the reality on the ground in the provinces is entirely different.

Far from the capital, Kabul, and the influence of the fragile central Government, in provinces such as Helmand and Kandahar, the strategy is, in theory, being delivered through provincial development committees—civilian Afghan committees made up of locally appointed provincial leaders. As a rule, however, those organisations simply do not meet, and the result is that there is little, if any, genuine dialogue between local people and coalition forces. In practice, what little reconstruction there is is delivered not via the local government, but via the military, through provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs. With few exceptions—Nimruz, which is sandwiched between Helmand and Iran is one such exception, and Daykundi, just to the north of Helmand, is another—most provinces have a PRT. Those organisations are, in effect, delivering central Government influence to the far-flung corners of the country. Having visited several of those areas, it struck me that despite the politically comforting name, the fact remains that PRTs are predominately military units designed to provide security and that the diplomatic and development elements appear almost as bolt-ons or afterthoughts.

Earlier this summer, I visited the UK-run PRT at Lashkar Gar in Helmand province with the Select Committee on Defence. Then, as now, it appeared that little if any development activity was going on because of the fighting—something that the British Government have quietly recognised with the recent deployment of 28th Engineer Regiment in an effort to fill the development gap.

In recent weeks, much has been made of the lack activity by the Department for International Development in Helmand—even the whereabouts of the DFID representative seem to be a mystery. It is clear that when representatives have been present in the province they have rarely wandered far from camp. If they had done so, they would have discovered, just 10 minutes away from the PRT, a refugee camp full of starving children who appeared to be gaining little, if any, benefit from our presence in the region. What better recruiting grounds could the Taliban want? Why are we failing to deliver food and basic medical supplies—basic hearts-and-minds stuff—to those people? Can the Secretary of State at least reassure me that poverty eradication is a priority in Helmand?

Another area of controversy—notionally, at least, the British are taking a lead on this—is the counter-narcotics strategy, but there has been little if any progress in that area too. Opium cultivation rose by 59 per cent. in Afghanistan in 2006. Afghan farmers grow opium not because they want to, but because they need to; it is one of the few crops from which they can make any money. Many Afghan farmers would be open to growing alternative crops if they thought that that was sustainable. Among the few things that are sustainable in the long term are vineyards and orchards, but they take seven to 10 years to establish and in the main support is available for only one or two years. Subsistence farmers simply cannot take the risk of converting to vineyards and orchards unless they have a long-term guarantee of support.

One of the principal problems with the PRTs has been their leadership. In theory at least there should be a triumvirate structure, with each discipline head having an equal say. In practice, the military has led in all areas, with mixed results. In the south, where fighting dominates, the military lead has been natural, and it has been broadly accepted as a practical necessity, although it causes some resentment among other partners. The problems really start when the requirement for a military lead diminishes, as in the relatively benign northern and western regions. While attending a PRT conference in Herat, I witnessed two Spanish delegates from the same PRT almost coming to blows over who supported whom.

Even the name “provincial reconstruction team” has become controversial. At the same conference, I heard representatives from NGOs and civilian organisations argue that only they could deliver reconstruction and that the best the military could do was deliver stability. On that basis, “provincial stability team” would be a far better name. In that respect, it is interesting that the first task of the 28th Engineer Regiment, which has been sent to Helmand to deliver reconstruction, is the completion of permanent vehicle checkpoints. That work is vital to providing stability, but it can hardly be classified as reconstruction. What is in a name? I guess that the problem is political and that “reconstruction” sounds so much more progressive and acceptable than “stability”.

To be fair, some PRTs are achieving success. Shortly before I came back from Afghanistan I went to Faizabad to witness the opening of a new runway, which the PRT there had built with the help of Slovakian engineers. That runway is vital, because for the first time there is a link between Kabul and Faizabad, and that will help the economy. Local leaders were delighted that that work had been delivered. On my way back I flew via Mazar-e-Sharif, accompanied by the very first PRT commander there. He told me how, only three years before, one could not even land there during the daytime without being shot at. Now the town has quite a flourishing economy. So some progress is being made.

Frankly, though, the concept of reconstruction in Afghanistan is optimistic, because it implies that there are institutions and infrastructure to reconstruct. Some Government ministries, such as the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, are progressing fast and have offices in some provinces, but others have little, if any, capacity. After decades of war, the professional class simply does not exist. Almost all of that class are ex-patriots who have returned to the country, and that in itself is causing a conflict with those who stayed behind to fight.

Coalition forces are also learning fast that it is all very well building schools but little will be achieved without the teachers to put in them, such is the impact of a local lack of co-ordination between international bodies, each following its own agenda in splendid isolation. However, some progress is being made and it would be wrong of me not to highlight the good work of Colonel Pat Fryer in building the Afghan country stability picture. We now have a digital image of every reconstruction project and piece of infrastructure in Afghanistan, which will prove to be a marvellous tool in future years.

Genuine efforts are being made at provincial level to build capacity in local government, but that is proving to be a painfully slow process. I recall a member of the PRT based in Ghor province telling me that he struggles even to get the provincial council to meet. After a chaotic start, when some PRTs, NGOs and international organisations operated with little, if any, consultation with local people—for example, the magnificent new women’s centre in Qalat city remains empty because local men refuse to allow their wives to go to it—steps are now being taken to deliver provincial development plans, listing regional development priorities drawn up not by coalition forces but by local people. However, where they exist, they remain on the whole little more than laundry lists.

Rightly there is a determination that all development should, where possible, have an Afghan face to it, thereby demonstrating to the local population that there are benefits to supporting the far away central Government. The problem is that Afghan face equals Afghan pace, and very little gets done quickly. All too often, military commanders, frustrated at the concept of Afghan face, Afghan pace, use the military chain of command instead. Although that delivers much quicker results, it does little to build capacity in the provinces.

Perhaps the most striking thing is that even now the debate about how best to deliver development continues. Let us consider the contrasting approaches of the Department for International Development and its US equivalent, the United States Agency for International Development. USAID tends to use quick-impact projects, spending large amounts of money in the provinces to give its local military commanders some tactical effect. For example, in Kandahar, lots of wells have been built. A local military commander will turn up and a well will be dug. Local people can see some benefit of the military commander, but there has been little strategic thought. I talked to representatives of one of the NGOs that still operates in Helmand and discovered that so many wells have been dug in parts of the province that some of the ancient karez—the water channels which Afghans have used for centuries to bring water off the mountains—have run dry. The water table has been lowered by well digging.

DFID puts less emphasis on quick-impact projects and tends to deliver a longer-term strategic effect, trying to build capacity in the provinces. The problem is that we are not seeing much early tactical effect, so what is the answer? Like most things in life, the answer is probably to try to find a balance between the two approaches.

I attended a reconstruction conference in Kandahar in early September, which coincided with Operation Medusa, NATO’s largest land offensive for many years. There is something odd about discussing reconstruction and development when 200 yd away the sound of outgoing artillery might be accompanying the discussion. At the conference, one PRT commander—not a Briton, I hasten to add— confessed that he felt that the only reason why he was building so many schools and clinics was to please politicians back home, and that ultimately building four walls and a roof has little long-term effect unless we manage to get people in to run things. If we do not do that, such places will simply end up as homes for the Taliban.

Both the Afghan Government and the international community are growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress. The problem is that reconstruction and development are simply not possible without stability. The latest plan is to try to deliver stability by introducing four so-called Afghan development zones, predominantly in the south. Effectively, they are merely an attempt to reorganise the troops that we have in theatre into small lozenges to deliver stability. It might well work and it is a good plan, but we are simply redistributing forces that we already have in Afghanistan. A cynic would say that the whole of Afghanistan should be an ADZ and that the latest plan simply recognises that we do not have the troops in theatre to deliver what we need.

I am sorry if I paint a grim picture, but it is an honest assessment to colleagues of what I have experienced in Afghanistan during the past eight weeks. I believe that we are making progress, but as I have said on several occasions, it is painfully slow. The Government have called for a public debate on our role in Afghanistan. If we are to have that debate, it must be with a degree of political honesty, and if we are to achieve our aims, we will be in that country for a very long time to come.

Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen a little before 10.30 am. Some eight Members are standing. If people do the arithmetic and limit the length of their speeches, everyone will be called.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on his speech; it is good that we get a reality check on what is happening in Afghanistan. It is an extraordinary story. I believe that there was almost universal approval of our going there in the first place both to get rid of the haven that existed for al-Qaeda and to end, as far as was possible, much of the medieval cruelty of the Taliban Government. Great successes have been achieved on education and democratic change.

Having had five years during which there were remarkably few British casualties—just seven, most of whom were as a result of accidents—we made the monumental error of invading Helmand province. The result has been a further 33 British fatalities, most of whom died in combat. We had a debate on this subject in February during which that was forecast. Another military gentleman, Captain Leo Docherty of the Scots Guards, resigned from the Army last month in some despair at a situation that he described as “barking mad”. He described how the military achieved a victory in the town of Sangin and pointed out that that was when some development should have gone in. He said:

“The military is just one side of the triangle…Where were the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office?...The window was briefly open for our message to be spread, for the civilian population to be informed of our intent.”

In fact, nothing happened and the Taliban regrouped and attacked a few days later and there were six British casualties as a result.

I would have thought that this morning I would have heard a cry of some despair from the military in Afghanistan who have been given several impossible tasks. In the past 12 months in the Helmand province operation they have been told that their task was to eliminate poppies and that their task was not to eliminate poppies. They were told that their job was to storm the Taliban strongholds and they have subsequently been told that their task is not to do that. They were firmly told that their job was one of reconstruction, but they are now told that their job is not to do any reconstruction. They were told in a famous saying, which cannot be unsaid, that there was a hope that they could go into Helmand province without firing a “single shot” and of course they have been ordered to fire tens of thousands of shots with the result that many hundreds of Taliban and other Afghans have been killed.

We know that this battle cannot be won using military power alone; hearts and minds must be won. That is not done by using bombs and bullets, as the Americans have been trying to do in their “Operation Enduring Stupidity”, which consists mainly of aggressive search and destroy missions, usually from the air, in which many people, both innocent and guilty, are killed. That is entirely counter-productive.

Hearts and minds are not won by cheating the Afghan farmers. We paid out £21 million of British taxpayers’ money in compensation. That represents just a small part of what we have spent. The total bill for the eradication of poppies will be around £240 million. The £21 million was sent to the corrupt Karzai Government to compensate farmers and some of them received cheques for £380, but all the cheques bounced and there has been an energetic campaign to find out where that money went. The farmers are going through the courts to establish their claim for compensation. None of the money got through to them and perhaps the Minister will tell us this morning where that £21 million went.

We are dealing with a culture and a country that for two centuries at least has been run by endemically corrupt warlords. We went there as the Feringhi—that is the name they use for us now—and lost three wars. The Russians went there and I remember a member of the Russian Duma telling me with contempt, “You have invaded Afghanistan. We did the same. It took us six days to conquer Afghanistan, but we were there for 10 years.” They had an army of 120,000—not the 5,000 that we have or the 30,000 that NATO has—but they left in ignominy and 15,000 of their soldiers were killed.

We are on the brink of either going forward and rethinking our operation or losing everything. Unless we have attainable objectives to consolidate the gains that have been made around Kabul in education by recasting the operation in the Helmand province, we may leave Afghanistan with the same ignominy with which the French left Vietnam after Dien Bien Phu, the Americans left Vietnam and the Russians left Afghanistan. We have forgotten the nature of guerrilla warfare.

There were vivid accounts of French soldiers standing in serried ranks with epaulets and ceremonial swords shining when they surrendered. They were the pride of the French army, but they surrendered to a rabble that came out of the bush, many of them barefooted with home-made weapons. The most high-tech equipment they had were bicycles. That guerrilla army beat the French army.

Unless we understand the hearts-and-minds argument and see the extent to which we are losing the support of the Afghanistan people, we shall enter a cauldron of grievous suffering and death. It is no exaggeration to say that we are following the same path with the same delusions as the Americans followed in Vietnam. We should reject the calls for escalation because, if we do not, we shall be in the same situation as in the past when, because of the belief in politicians here, the military are there, in Afghanistan. Great anger is being expressed on websites, and Ministers and others would do well to listen to what serving soldiers are saying.

There is an alternative for Afghan farmers. It is not to destroy the poppy crop. We know about the abject futility of trying to reduce the poppy crop. We know, as Lord Birt said in his strategy paper, that the supply side of the drugs trade cannot be destroyed. In Afghanistan, we are trying to do in five years what America has failed to do in Colombia in 20 years. Colombia is in a state of bloody chaos with three armies, two of them funded entirely by drugs. Destroying the poppy crop would make no difference whatever to the supply of drugs because, for every reduction in Colombia, more drugs were produced in Peru and Bolivia. Exactly the same would happen if we reduced the crop in Afghanistan. It would be grown in Myanmar, Laos and surrounding countries. There is no chance of preventing that and of imposing on Afghanistan a Swedish-style democracy or of ensuring that there will never be a place for Osama bin Laden to hide in Afghanistan, north Pakistan or elsewhere. Despite the might, subtlety, bribery and wealth of the American army, it has not yet found him. Nothing we can do by changing the system would ensure that there is no place for Osama bin Laden to hide. These are our unachievable objectives.

Our soldiers are right to ask what on earth the politicians are doing and what the mission is. It was said of the charge of the Light Brigade that those involved had no chance of objecting to what was an act of military stupidity. A latter-day Tennyson writing the story of Helmand might say, “Blair to the right of them, Bush to the left of them, Holler’d and thunder’d. Their’s not to reason why, Their’s but to do and die: Into the valley of Death, Into the mouth of Helmand drove the 5,000.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on securing this debate and I thank the Secretary of State for making time to come and contribute to it. The subject is important and arguably one of the most important. I hope that in future we shall have opportunities to discuss it in the House rather than in this Chamber.

I do not think that there is any disagreement that we need to be active in Afghanistan, because it certainly requires assistance to meet the objective of peace and self-sustainability. However, views differ throughout the Chamber on the strategy and size of our commitment.

I was fortunate to visit Afghanistan recently and it was good to see the steady progress that has been made in areas around Kabul and other areas to which my hon. Friend referred. The problems that we are facing came home to me when I met some newly elected Afghan MPs who do not go to their constituencies in places such as Helmand because it is too dangerous. That quickly summarises the state of affairs there. We need much more effective and coherent co-ordination of operations in Afghanistan if there is to be progress.

I fully agreed with the decision to enter Afghanistan. The threat was real and the enemy was active. Al-Qaeda was present and the Taliban Government were sympathetic to its cause. However, five years on, I am left wondering how much more could have been achieved had the 230,000 allied forces been moved to Afghanistan instead of going to Iraq in 2002. Five years after we first went into Afghanistan, we have only just gone into the Helmand province, which is probably the heart of where the most focus is required.

I praise 16th Air Assault Brigade, which has made a fantastic effort there, but there is an issue of strategy. As a military person, I question why 16th Air Assault Brigade was sent there alone. We have huge and valuable experience of peacekeeping and war-fighting operations in Bosnia, Kosovo and so on, yet we sent out a light infantry unit for a task that required more armour, more firepower and more mobility. I encourage the Secretary of State to do what he can to influence the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that our troops are properly armoured. That includes sending out one of the seven remaining Warrior battalions in this country that are not on deployment. I do not believe that Snatch Land Rovers provide the necessary protection, and the matter needs to be addressed.

The debate focuses on reconstruction. I fully agree with the comments of my hon. Friend. My experience of the development teams was that they are in a competitive game. USAID has a different strategy from DFID. Embassies have different forms of income coming through and different ideas of where the money should be spent. A myriad of agencies are competing against each other for contracts and work. I have said before and I repeat that there needs to be a UN-mandated co-ordinator for all reconstruction activities. Otherwise there will be continued competition—not necessarily between agencies but between what the military are doing on one hand and reconstruction efforts on the other.

South of Kandahar I saw a school that had been rebuilt with international money and that was fantastic. Unfortunately, three weeks after it was completed there was a crop-eradication programme around the school which removed the livelihood of the community, so everyone left and there is now an empty school building south of Kandahar which no one is using.

The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) touched on the biggest issue about which we are in complete denial: the poppy crop. We try to distinguish the military front from reconstruction and from poppy growth, but the three are intertwined, and we must come to terms with that, otherwise our policy has no long-term future. Our policy on poppy crops is failing. We have a policy of eradication and replacement, and we cannot separate it from long-term factors even if we intend to remove the terrorism link with Afghanistan.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime opium survey shows that last year was the largest opium crop ever. It represented a 59 per cent. increase on the previous year’s crop, which was also the largest crop up to that point. The amount of crop exported has risen from 4,100 tonnes to 6,100 tonnes, which means that Afghanistan produces 92 per cent. of the world’s opium. Helmand province has increased its capacity by 162 per cent. right under our noses. That is where we are supposed to operate. To put it another way, Helmand province produces just under half the world’s opium.

Britain is responsible under the list of G8 tasks for counter-narcotics and the counter-narcotics programme. We are well placed to lead. Last year, the United States spent more than $780 million, the UK about $100 million and the EU about $150 million on poppy eradication and replacement programmes, but let us face facts: the money was wasted. Crops have increased, and we must find another strategy to deal with the problem.

I have mentioned to hon. Members before that a similar story took place in Turkey in 1969, when Turkey was identified as the main source of the heroin that was entering the United States. President Nixon declared a war on drugs, and he was about to impose military and economic sanctions on Turkey. There were four years of hostility between the two countries as they tried to work out how to deal with the huge amounts of heroin entering the United States from Turkey. Eventually, after trying to make the crop illegal, Turkey asked the UN, “Can we legalise it? Can we have a poppy programme in which poppies are grown under licence and distributed to the international community? There it will be controlled, it will not leak out, and it will be turned not into heroin, but into morphine and codeine—other products of which there is a world shortage.”

That was back in 1969 and the 1970s. We do not hear of an opium or heroin problem from Turkey anymore. Indeed, other countries throughout the world grow poppies under licence. There is a massive threat and challenge in Afghanistan, however. I stand to be corrected, but I believe that about 90 per cent. of the heroin on British streets comes from Afghanistan. Yet, we are in denial; we believe that we can somehow eliminate the crop. The poppies play into the hands of the terrorists. The saddest fact is that when we try to eliminate those crops we alienate the very people whose hearts and minds we are trying to win over. That is fundamental.

In refugee camps around Lashkagar, there are 10,000 to 15,000 people, and the numbers are rising because people have lost their communities. If one visits the camps, one finds that every third or fourth person wears a black turban. It is the mark of the Taliban. They walk around freely and recruit people from the refugee camps. So, when we talk about the enemy, the Taliban, we must be specific, because “Talibanisation” is the process whereby such people are recruited. The recruits are not Taliban sympathisers in the sense that they have a cause; they just want to put bread on their tables, feed their families and get on.

The recruits see that the international community has been in their country for five years, and that their communities have been ruined by the destruction of the crops that have kept them going. It is understandable why when someone from the Taliban gives them a rocket-propelled grenade and says, “Take a pop at a Land Rover or an American vehicle, and we will give you two months’ salary in exchange”, they would be happy to do so. We are losing the battle for hearts and minds because of that.

Organisations in Afghanistan such as the Senlis Council and others would be keen to run a pilot scheme. Let us test the water. I am not saying that it would work. I really do not know whether it would, but why not give it a try? We have discussed how long it takes to grow a peach tree, pomegranates and so on, so let us consider a five-year programme to wean farmers off poppy cultivation. Each year they could give their poppies to a UN-licensed scheme, and at the same time part of their crop could be replaced with other produce. We could tax it, so the Afghan nation benefited, too. Most importantly, however, we would deny the terrorists the chance to benefit from the money, which is exactly what happens now.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes discussed the long term. We might be in Afghanistan for 15 years, and it might be worth looking at the map of Afghanistan again. With its Pashtuns, Tajiks and Baluchis, we might ask whether the territorial line that encircles the country is ideal. Alternatively, we might ask the Baluchis, “Were you to recreate your own country, where would it be?” I think their answer would be that they would take a nice chunk of Pakistan that Pakistan does not like to talk about, and into which it does not send anybody in a uniform. We might consider that idea in the long term if we asked those people what they wanted to do. They are loyal not to Kandahar, Kabul or President Karzai, but to their families and their ethnic grouping. Until we understand that, we will never win the battles that we are fighting in Afghanistan.

There are 20 minutes left for Back-Bench speakers, and three Members are seeking to catch my eye. I hope that we can fit them all in.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on raising this important subject and on his sobering speech. I intend to travel down the same road on which the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) journeyed, although not as far as his final remarks. His suggestion of redrawing the map in Afghanistan and Pakistan opens up a new can of worms, which might get us into further difficulty.

I cannot claim any recent first-hand experience of Afghanistan, because it is more than 30 years since I travelled there. I recall a time before the earth changed places with the sky, when King Zahir Shah was in his palace, the Buddhas were in their place in Bamiyan, the markets in Kandahar and Kabul were overflowing with fresh produce and it was possible for any foreigner to travel almost anywhere on public transport—albeit on aged German buses that still had their German destinations, such as Munich railway station, on the front.

Nevertheless, I have picked up from people with recent experience of Afghanistan that things are not going well. That is the flavour of the debate. In particular, they are not going well in the south of the country, where our troops appear to be besieged in their bases, venturing out only in heavily armed convoys and patrols. As hon. Members have said, there is no meaningful contact with the locals, and we are in danger of losing the south. If we do, it will mark the beginning of a new Taliban state that may spread north whether we like it or not.

Local people are becoming increasingly desperate. They are squeezed between the Taliban and the international community. Incidentally, they believe that all the international community, whether Canadians or British, are Americans. They refer to them as Americans. Among refugee camps, which are within 10 minutes of our military bases, as hon. Members have remarked, there is hunger. Among children, there is starvation, and there is little or no sign of aid.

The pursuit of the opium eradication policy without any viable alternative strategy merely drives people into the hands of the Taliban. We appear to be destroying the crops only of those people who cannot afford to pay bribes not to have them destroyed. They are the smaller and more vulnerable farmers. For the larger farmers, who can pay the bribes, it is business as usual. Anybody who sees the new houses of police chiefs being built in the area will see where some of those bribes have gone. As hon. Members have remarked, there is little or no development activity. The aid agencies, including DFID, have more or less withdrawn from the south, and foreigners are increasingly reluctant to venture out of their fortified compounds, for reasons that I understand perfectly. It is not for me, sitting here in the comfort of the United Kingdom, to lecture the people on the ground in Afghanistan on what they should do. However, we have not the slightest hope of winning hearts and minds in such a situation. As others have said, the time has come to contemplate alternatives, unless we believe—I do not know anybody who does—that things are going so well that we can afford to ignore those who suggest alternatives. New thinking is required.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East, mentioned the Senlis Council, which has people on the ground in Afghanistan and appears to venture out where most foreigners fear to tread, including into Lashkagar. It recently published a report assessing the first five years of the international presence in Afghanistan, entitled “Afghanistan Five Years Later—The Return of the Taliban”. I have sent a copy to the Secretary of State, although he may not yet have received it as he has been away. I have also sent copies to the Secretary of State for Defence and to the Minister responsible at the Foreign Office, each covered by a personal note. I hope that somebody will examine the report, because it tells a somewhat different story to the one that Ministers appear to believe. Over the months in which I have tried to interest Ministers in the work of the Senlis Council, it has depressed me that it has been so difficult to engage their attention. That is particularly true, I am sorry to say, of those in my old Department, the Foreign Office, and in the Ministry of Defence. I have had more luck with DFID, as one might expect, and I took some people from the Senlis Council to meet the Under-Secretary of State for International Development.

Any alternative strategy—the report presents the one proposed by the Senlis Council—must involve local people. I wish to impress upon Ministers that they should at least consider the proposal mentioned by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East, for opium to be grown under licence for the international medical market, although I know that there are practical difficulties. The alternative is more of the chaos that already exists in Afghanistan and is writ large in Colombia, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said. We are afraid to discuss the matter because the Americans do not approve, but we must push it up the agenda. Pilot projects must obviously take place before the scheme can be considered viable, and there are practical difficulties, but they are not all that large compared with those of carrying on down the present road. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the experience of eastern Turkey. If a scheme can work there, it ought to be able to work in Afghanistan. I believe that India grows opium under licence, as do half a dozen other countries, but the Turkish experience is the best example.

The Senlis Council, which as I have said has people on the ground in Afghanistan in places where others fear to go, is offering to run pilot schemes. If I were at DFID I would be talking to it about that offer. An impressive woman named Norine MacDonald, a Canadian, is in this country at the moment. She has been based in Afghanistan for 18 months, and has just come back after three months there. I urge the Secretary of State to meet her while she is here this week: he would hear a version of events different from that which he is likely to hear from his officials.

It is clear from what has been said by anybody with even a small knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan—my knowledge is small—that our military on the ground know that the present strategy is not working. Opposition Members have spoken to them, and they are frank about its failure. They are up for change: Ms MacDonald said to me last night that our military are among the most open-minded about doing things differently. The only hope for Afghanistan, particularly the south, is a sustained effort to win hearts and minds before it is too late. The present programme, based partly on the forcible eradication of the poppy crop, which leads to hunger and in some cases starvation, will not work.

There is a distinction to be made between Afghanistan and Iraq, and I wish to return to what the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said. Although I voted against the war in Iraq because I believed that it was against international law, I certainly supported our intervention in Afghanistan. It was in support of international law and various UN resolutions and at the behest of the democratically elected Government of President Karzai. I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman accuses the Afghan Government of being corrupt. Those of us who have met President Karzai and his Ministers know that they are trying to do as good a job as they can in difficult circumstances, often with not many resources. Many of them have returned to Afghanistan having lived abroad and are intent on bringing security and development.

I do not have much time, and my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) wishes to get in.

When, in the last Parliament, the Select Committee on International Development produced a report, we made it clear, as has every non-governmental organisation concerned, that security is a precondition of development. As Sikander Ali of Islamic Relief made clear to us, development is also a precondition of security. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) said, the two go hand in hand. On the two visits that I have made to Afghanistan, the question has struck me, “Where are the jobs going to come from?” The terrain is inhospitable at the best of times. I believe that someone once said, “When God made the Earth, he had a few rocks left over and decided to make Afghanistan.”

When the International Development Committee was first in Kabul in 2002 we asked people what they thought they could do about jobs. The Kabul chamber of commerce was interested only in importing such things as hair shampoo, and the only export seemed to be carpets. Most of the carpets were going to Pakistan, and traders in Peshawar were making most of the profit.

I am glad to say that I have made a small contribution with Chris Beales, whom I first met at the Inner Cities Religious Council and who has been involved with the Afghan diaspora in the east of London. We have set up Afghan Action, which with the help of a DFID grant from the business linkages challenge fund now has a factory and a training school in Kabul. In the next two or three years we hope to train 350 young men and women and employ 140, making carpets to be sold directly to the UK under fair trade principles whereby all the profits will go back into supporting those people. That has required a considerable amount of effort, but with the best will in the world we will train only 350 young people. Thousands need to be trained. We know that the Taliban destroyed many of the orchards and vineyards; one does not have to go far from Kabul to see the scorched earth of the Taliban. A country that used to produce much of the world’s dried fruit is no longer able to do so. Answering the question of where jobs will come from will require a lot of focus.

Many of us have asked the question posed by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), on poppies. The advice of the NGOs in and around Kabul is that it would be impossible to distinguish legal, licensed poppy growing from the illegal. We have a duty to be in Afghanistan and we must recognise that we will be there for a long time. It does not help to take pot shots at the Government of Afghanistan, who are doing the best that they can under the circumstances. We must have more focus on where jobs will come from, because it is not a country with extractive industries or mineral wealth and resources.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), whose remarks were most perceptive. I also thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) for securing this debate in the first place. The recent cover of The House Magazine said it all. I looked on with not a little envy, and would like to congratulate him on the example that he has set to many of the rest of us.

Three things have rather chilled me over the past couple of months, the first of which was my visit to Kiev. It is a little known fact but, for whatever reason, about 60 per cent. of the Soviet forces that fought in Afghanistan were Ukrainian. The beggars in Kiev are of a wholly different class from anything that we see even in London. Many of them wear their veteran’s caps, desert camouflage and Soviet orders from their times in Afghanistan, and an awful lot of them are minus limbs. Many of them are scarred horribly from the effects of bullets and shrapnel. They are an eloquent testimony to getting it wrong in Afghanistan. I wonder how closely we have paid attention to the lessons that the Soviets learned.

The second thing that worried me was a comment that was made by Mr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second in command of al-Qaeda. He said, “Don’t bother bringing your troops home, there’s no need—there’ll be no more Dr. Brydons this time”. I am looking around and wondering just how many people know who Dr. Brydon was. He was the single British survivor from the 1842 expedition. The fact that that name does not necessarily trip off our tongues, but that it does trip off the tongue of an important individual in al-Qaeda, alarms me.

The third thing that worried me seriously was my conversation with some American special forces officers yesterday, who said, “Do understand that the war in Afghanistan is all-out war. Your troops are going there to fight—nothing more, nothing less. You must understand that the only solution is the destruction and the death of the Taliban.” I do not think that that is correct and, without wishing to criticise our American allies in any way, I think that they have essentially missed the point.

We must remember that our forces—and by that I do not just mean our armed forces, but our officials, our NGOs, our effort, our treasure and our emotions—are all driven towards creating the conditions in which the Afghan authorities can govern their country properly and peacefully. We are not there as a force to invade. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes said that he had painted a bleak picture, but I am not sure that he painted as bleak a picture as he suggested. He painted a picture in which there is hope, but in which, above and beyond everything, we must maintain a sense of balance about the campaign, both military and civil.

My big fear is that over the next few months we will allow winter to make us complacent. The fighting will die down. Very shortly we will have some wonderful stories of heroism, with serious awards for gallantry—possibly Victoria crosses—to gentlemen who have bravely fought tooth and nail. We may allow ourselves to be distracted and to think that the war, or at least the fighting along the border, is won and that things are probably back on an even footing.

Winter is when things go quiet—ask Roberts, of the British punitive expedition mounted from 1878 to 1880, which was extremely successful for a punitive expedition, inasmuch as it killed a lot of people. Ask him what happened in the winter. Things go quiet. The farmers and the Taliban retire to their deep valleys, where the satellites and the B-52s cannot get at them, let alone the special forces patrols. The farmers prepare their crops for the next season. It will be easy for the western press to say, “Yeah, things are fine, guys—let’s not worry about it”, but what happens next spring? What happens when we find ourselves without the troops, money or Government direction to take on the next phase of the campaign, both civil and military?

I am grateful for the presence of the Secretary of State, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, and I would like him to answer one or two questions. The first concerns the delivery of international aid straight to the Afghans via the Afghan reconstruction fund, which is administered by the World Bank. How cleverly are we delivering money into the hands of the Afghans? Forgive me for using that horrid phrase, but if we are to empower the Afghan politician, authority, policeman, soldier, hospital or whomever, surely they must have budgets that they can use and that they can direct right to the spot where the trouble is. We cannot empathise exactly with the problems that face the Afghans—only they can—but we can make those in power seem powerful and influential in the eyes of the Afghans only if the money goes to the right places at the right times and is administered by Afghans, not Americans, Brits or Canadians. Can the Secretary of State shed some light on that?

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) made some interesting points about what motivates the Taliban. Are they still an ideological movement or have they become a pragmatic movement? What dialogue are we trying to establish with the Taliban? I appreciate that such dialogue is probably loathed by some of our allies, such as the Tajiks and others, but we must surely be clever in the same way that we were, at times, pretty clever in the 19th century on the north-west frontier. Will the Secretary of State make it clear how subtle and sophisticated we are being in talking to the people who oppose progress inside Afghanistan?

I shall end on that point, but I roundly condemned the Government’s tactic of sending few troops and few guns to Afghanistan when I led a similar debate in February this year. I hope that the Government have realised that we sent too few men, not to do killing and military tasks, but to enable security to reign, the NGOs to do their job and proper, sensible aid to be brought to the embattled people of Afghanistan.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) both on securing this debate and on making an incredibly good start to it, by laying out issues that only someone of his experience and background could present. I found that extraordinarily helpful. I also thank the Secretary of State for coming to this debate. I want to hear what he has to say and there are important questions to answer, so I shall keep my contribution short. I want to make two comments and then ask some questions.

First, my party supported the agenda for Afghanistan that the Government set out five years ago, but implicit in that support was the commitment of the international community not only to tackle the terrorist threat to the west, but to work together to bring reconstruction and economic development to Afghanistan. We are exceedingly worried at the slow pace at which that project has advanced. Secondly, as others would agree, Afghanistan has in many ways been a victim of the misguided US-UK adventure in Iraq, which has taken military resources, distracted promised investment in reconstruction and, perhaps most importantly, diverted high-level international attention away from what should have been one of the major projects of the past five years.

Some of my questions were asked in another place by Lord Garden, so the Secretary of State will have advance awareness of the issues that we want to pursue, which are about the progress towards reconstruction and development. The Afghanistan compact was agreed in London in January and set down some benchmarks, one of which stated:

“All illegal armed groups will be disbanded by end-2007”.

Does the Secretary of State really believe that that can still be achieved? We are all conscious that reconstruction and development are impossible without security.

The compact also says that by the end of 2010 there will be in place

“effective measures…that contribute to the elimination of poppy cultivation.”

Does the Secretary of State not regard that as rather optimistic when, as others have said, there has been a 60 per cent. rise in the poppy harvest in the past year, when Afghanistan produces 92 per cent. of the world’s heroin supply and when the country depends on the export of illegal opium for some 70 per cent. of its gross domestic product? What can the Minister tell us to give us confidence that there has been a genuine shift to alternative livelihoods? Others have raised questions about that and about whether we should consider the licensed growth of poppies for medicine. Will the Minister enlighten us? Can he tell us something about the overall strategy that might give us some reasonable hope?

The compact states that by the end of 2010

“the National Action Plan for Women in Afghanistan will be fully implemented; and…female participation in all Afghan governance institutions…will be strengthened.”

How will that be possible, given that the education of girls, which lies at the heart of that aspiration, is—at least in the south and the south-east—being totally undermined? It had seemed to be locked in place, but now schools, especially girls’ schools, are being closed because of pressure from the Taliban and local communities. What action are the British Government taking to reverse those unfortunate experiences?

The Afghan compact requires the Government to raise domestic revenues to more than 8 per cent. of GDP by 2011. It also requires such revenues to cover 58 per cent. of their recurrent budget by that year; that compares with 28 per cent. now. Given the escalating costs of security and civil service reforms, is that realistic? Corruption is genuinely an issue, in part because of how we took control of Afghanistan—not through conquest, but through alliances with people, many of whom were inherently corrupt and now dominate many of the ministries, particularly at provincial level. The compact obliges the Government to fight corruption, but does not say how. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us on that issue.

An article by Christina Lamb in The Sunday Times of 8 October discussed the turf war between DFID and the Ministry of Defence. A little like the United States Agency for International Development, the MOD wants any possible jobs for young Afghans so that they have options other than joining the Taliban, joining a militia or growing poppies. DFID is looking for sustainable development. We all read that in Helmand province DFID could mention only a few market stalls as its contribution, as it has found the situation difficult. How will that circle be squared? Will the Minister tell us more?

We also read in that article that the British military, as others have mentioned, are turning to local militias—renamed “auxiliary police”—to guard various districts and allow the redeployment of British troops for reconstruction and development. What assurances do we have that that is not a new underpinning for the corrupt and authoritarian powers of warlords?

The UK mission in Afghanistan has always been characterised as firmly centred on the reconstruction effort. The United States has never been shy of saying that its mission has been one of “search and destroy”. There has always been confusion about the agendas and their priorities. When the US takes command of NATO forces in February, which agenda will take precedence? Can NGOs operate seriously if offensive air power is being used other than as a last resort?

Other questions have been raised in the debate. I thank you, Mr. Taylor, for the opportunity to speak. I shall take my seat, because so many of those questions need to be answered.

Like other Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on securing this important debate. I join him and other Members in congratulating and thanking British troops for their bravery and commitment in Afghanistan.

This has been an excellent debate. My hon. Friend commenced it with an articulate and informative contribution, based and founded on his personal experience. I am sure that the Secretary of State will acknowledge that across the Chamber—although I emphasise the contributions from the Conservative Benches—there is real expertise and knowledge, and a genuine concern about what is going on in Afghanistan. My hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and for Newark (Patrick Mercer) have made significant contributions, in their own inimitable styles.

We Conservatives support the Government’s aim in Afghanistan: to prevent the recurrence of a failed state, and the re-emergence of Taliban or al-Qaeda terrorists and the effect that that would directly have on Britain’s security. We accept that preventing Afghanistan from becoming a rogue or fragile state is a complex mission, at the heart of which must be the reconstruction of the country in all its facets. The creation of a stable state is challenging, but it is fundamental for regional and global security, for controlling narcotics production, for the improvement of the capacity of the Afghan Government and for Afghan citizens.

In January, we welcomed the Afghan compact, which commits the British Government, other donor Governments—the involvement of some was surprising—the Afghanistan Government and the UN to improving conditions in the country. As other hon. Members have said, the key principle of the compact is to give more ownership of the process of development and reconstruction to the Afghan Government and their people. The other key aspect is the improvement of economic development—a point well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury. Significant benchmarks were set out in the compact, and I should be grateful if the Secretary of State said whether they were being applied and met. Does he still think that they are working and correct?

The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) made a good point in saying that he did not understand what the obtainable objectives in Afghanistan were—counter-narcotics, counter-insurgency or nation building? Will the Secretary of State set out the Government’s priorities and the order in which they put those issues?

I shall not detail the expenditure proposed for Afghanistan except to say that the Government have rightly made significant commitments, bilaterally and through multilateral channels, to enable capacity to be built. It should be put on record that it is estimated that during the past five years, since the allied forces’ intervention in Afghanistan, 2,000 schools and 70 new hospitals and clinics have been built, and that 4.5 million refugees have returned home. Those significant achievements need to be acknowledged.

However, numerous challenges remain, not only for the donor Governments, including the British Government, but for the Afghan Government, the Afghan people, the NGOs and the aid agencies. Only yesterday, there were suicide bombs in Kandahar and Kabul. Terrible atrocities are taking place on the main highway, as I am sure the Secretary of State is aware.

I am not sure that I agree with one of the points made by the hon. Member for Newport, West. We need to tackle both the supply and demand for opium production. It would not be acceptable to leave the supply side to blossom and grow unchecked. We need to strengthen the Government, civil society, the provision of infrastructure, the development of sustainable public services and the creation of a non-narco economy. All those challenging issues need to be taken head-on.

In some parts of the country there is economic activity and improvement in infrastructure, but progress is being hampered by the deteriorating security situation, persistent unemployment, poverty and corruption. The real key to the issue is that very few Afghans have felt much benefit from the political change of the past few years. Most still live in abject poverty; Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and is not on track to meet any of the millennium development goals—so much so that the MDGs in Afghanistan have been added to and put back by five years to 2020. There is a Government in Afghanistan, but they do not have much capacity. They have very little penetration and reach in rural areas among the traditional make-up of Afghan society and the different ethnic groups in different parts of the country.

I shall not concentrate on security, as other Members have mentioned that, but I should like to make a couple of points. The international community needs to do far more to develop faster the Afghan police force, which is two years off track. There are significant problems. The force is criticised for being fragmented; many police remain loyal to local warlords rather than the national interest. That needs to be tackled.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newark made reference to my next point. Military commanders in Afghanistan are speaking of a small window of opportunity for reconstruction and development in the next six months—during the winter, until the spring returns. Does the Secretary of State agree that that short window exists? If so, how do he and his Department intend to take advantage of it?

Will the Secretary of State confirm how many DFID personnel are in Afghanistan? How many, if any, remain in Helmand province? Under what circumstances will he allow them to return, hopefully to start the reconstruction and redevelopment process?

I should like to make a couple of points about the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. Nine provinces face a critical shortage of drinking water, and the failure of many cereal crops could leave 2.5 million people in Afghanistan facing a chronic food shortage. What thinking have the UK Government and DFID done and what contribution have they made to the latest UN drought appeal? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the situation does not escalate into another major humanitarian disaster?

We are deeply concerned that Afghanistan and the Afghan Government are not on track to meet any of their millennium development goals, which as I have said have been pushed back to 2020. What is DFID doing to improve progress towards the targets, and how many of the goals does it expect Afghanistan to reach by the revised 2020 deadline?

One of the most oppressive features of the Taliban regime is their appalling behaviour towards women. We very much welcome the freeing up and expansion of education facilities available to women in Afghanistan, but there are suggestions that up to 200 schools in Kandahar and 165 in Helmand have been closed for security reasons. DFID and the military must focus on reopening education facilities, particularly those for girls, and protecting female Government employees who work in high-risk areas. When does the Secretary of State hope and anticipate that many of those schools will be reopened?

I would also like to pick up briefly on cross-Whitehall co-ordination, which was mentioned by other hon. Members. There is no doubt that there have been friction and tensions between the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and DFID. The inability to agree on how the post-conflict reconstruction period should be handled has led to delay in setting up the post-conflict reconstruction unit. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State would say which Minister is accountable or responsible for the unit—that is not clear—and if he could detail exactly what the unit has achieved in Afghanistan so far. All that comes out of the International Development Act 2002.

As well as ensuring the necessary co-ordination in Whitehall, efforts must be made to ensure co-ordination on the ground between various multilateral and bilateral donor parties, the Afghan Government, Bretton Woods institutions, NGOs and civil society. From his direct experience, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes made some interesting suggestions and analyses in respect of how things must change, and I hope that the Secretary of State will take some of them on board.

I do not want to repeat points that have already been made about opium production except to say what others have said about opium cultivation rising by 59 per cent. The Secretary of State is fond of saying that production fell in the previous year, but he knows that it fell only in terms of acres, or hectares, cultivated, and not in yields. In fact, decreases have been due to bad weather, not to the fact that people have stopped trying to grow the crop.

The production of opium as a potential source of heroin is not the only problem. It is the currency in some parts of Afghanistan, and it meets a demand in the country itself—it is not all exported. People are robbed of their livelihood, and in some parts of the country those who grow the crops are in serious debt to drug barons and exporters. If they do not produce opium, they often have to pay those debts with their children. There are serious societal issues that must be tackled, and I believe that all hon. Members agree that some fresh thinking is needed in this area.

Aid is the final issue that I would like quickly to explore. It is estimated that DFID now channels 70 per cent. of its aid directly to the Afghan Government; only 30 per cent. goes through NGOs and civil society. Putting aside for a moment the point that was made by the hon. Member for Newport, West about corruption in the Afghan Government, they do not have the capacity to spend the money on agreed infrastructure and other projects. It is estimated that only 10 per cent. of the available aid money has been spent.

The Secretary of State must focus his Department on ensuring faster yet still effective allocation of money. It must ensure that money is spent by the central Government and, perhaps, through other routes in the more rural places that the central Government have not reached. There seems to be a contradiction in the British Government’s strategy, in that they acknowledge that President Karzai’s authority and reach are limited to the immediate area around Kabul, yet they seem to be putting more and more money directly into central Government. We know that the Afghan Government do not have the capacity to spend money in the more rural areas to alleviate poverty, which is needed.

Many NGOs complain that funding from DFID and other donors is being withdrawn. As they are perfectly capable of delivering the services that are required on the ground, I suggest that the Secretary of State needs to revisit the issue.

We hope that very quickly following the establishment of security DFID and other international donors will be ready and prepared to act as speedily as they can. That was one of the main problems in 2001, when the Taliban were taken out in the first element of the military conflict. We must ensure that that does not happen again. It would also be helpful if the Secretary of State would give us his view as to whether and when Afghanistan will be able to survive without such a level and type of donor support.

Conservative Members support the Government; we wish Afghanistan to be stable, but that will happen only with adequate necessary resources from both the military and the international donor community. First, security must be provided and then, immediately post-conflict, there must be the reconstruction and redevelopment that will demonstrate to the Afghan people that they are better off remaining under a fledgling democratic state than returning to a damaging and poisonous theocracy.

I thank all hon. Members for co-operating in respect of the length of their contributions to the debate. I now call on the Secretary of State to reply for the Government.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on securing the debate and on the authority, knowledge and, above all, insight with which he spoke. His speech deserves to be widely read, and I shall return to some of his points in the course of my remarks. I am sure that we are all grateful to him and to all our troops for their service in Afghanistan and for their courage and professionalism in extremely challenging circumstances. That point was made by several hon. Members.

I welcomed the speeches of all those who contributed: my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the hon. Members for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and for Newark (Patrick Mercer), and the Opposition spokespeople, the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) and for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds).

I last visited Afghanistan in June and spent some time in Kabul and in Lashkar Gah. I was able to see the progress that has been made as well as how far there is yet to go and the obstacles faced by the people of Afghanistan. The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes referred, as did others, to the tragic history of the Afghan people, who have been terrorised by 30 years of conflict, widespread poverty, a complete lack of essential services and—the thing that most forcefully strikes me and other hon. Members—an absence of capacity.

As has been said, Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. The most chilling statistic is that one in four Afghan children do not live to see their fifth birthday. One third of those children do not celebrate even their first birthday—they die before they are one year old. Afghanistan, along with Sierra Leone, has the highest infant mortality rate in the world. Only 47 per cent. of men and 15 per cent. of women can read. The challenge is immense, and the first thing that we must do is be absolutely straight about the scale of it. What has characterised this debate has been the honesty and candour with which all hon. Members have spoken.

The hon. Gentleman also knows the history of British involvement, and that we are part of a wider endeavour with the United Nations and NATO and one of 36 countries contributing to the international security assistance force.

I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman and others who spoke that this is a long-term commitment. The challenge that the Afghan people face in changing their country and therefore their lives will involve a long, hard slog, to use a technical term. That is what we are talking about, and it will not be easy for the Afghan people quickly to undo the effects of the conflict. That is why we must demonstrate a long-term commitment.

I was asked to sum up what we are trying to do. We are trying to help the Afghan Government and people to create a stable and secure country. That is in their interests above all, but it is also in our interests, not least because of the circumstances that led us and others into Afghanistan after September 2001. That is why I say in all honesty to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West that I do not recognise parallels with Vietnam. I believe that the circumstances are different, not least because we are supporting an elected Government. However, that is not to say that there are not challenges, and I shall return to them.

We must acknowledge that there has been some progress, and the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness just outlined some of it. A good indicator of whether things are moving in the right direction in a country where there has been a conflict is whether people who fled the country when fighting was going on have come back. The fact that more than 4.5 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since 2001 is an indication that things are better than they were when those people fled the country.

The presidential and parliamentary elections have taken place and 25 million people participated. One answer to the point raised by the hon. Member for Richmond Park is that, as she will know, 25 per cent. of Afghan parliamentarians are women. They are doing better than we are in that respect. Some 6 million children have returned to school and a third of them are girls—I shall come back to the important point about intimidation. Immunisation has saved the lives of 35,000 children and—this links to the point about jobs that was raised by the hon. Member for Banbury—in 2005 the legal economy was estimated to have grown by 14 per cent. Private investment has soared from $22 million in 2003 to more than $400 million.

Road rehabilitation, which is now taking place, will help to connect the major urban centres. One of the most striking things about Afghanistan is how it is decentralised by its geography. It is quite hard to get around. The improvement of communications and road communications will help people to travel, to meet each other and, crucially, to do business so that the economy will have the chance to grow.

The UK is the second largest bilateral donor after the United States of America. We have spent about £390 million since 2001, and that is the fifth largest DFID programme. At the London conference, which was mentioned by a number of hon. Members, the Prime Minister committed us to a 10-year development partnership with Afghanistan, which is another sign of long-term commitment from the Government. That is intended to try to help the Government of Afghanistan to plan for the long term and to invest in schools, hospitals and infrastructure. We are also providing support through the European Commission, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes clearly set out—the point was also made by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East—the choice and tension between doing things quickly and building capacity for them to be done in the long term by the Afghans. The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes used exactly the right word; there is a balance to be struck, and that is what we are trying to get right. The way in which we give our support has led to Britain being described by Finance Minister Ahady as a model donor.

We give 70 per cent. of our assistance directly to the Government of Afghanistan and that is one of the ways in which we can avoid lots of donors doing their own thing, which was the point made by the hon. Gentleman. It is also the best thing that we can do to show that there is an Afghan face to redevelopment and reconstruction. It is about giving the Afghans the tools to do the job. We are the largest donor to the recurrent budget, which covers the central costs such as salaries for teachers and health workers. It is for that reason that the Afghan Government want donors to provide more support in that way. They have acknowledged Britain’s contribution, and the point that came across most forcefully at the London conference was a request to other donors to do more of that. The Afghans recognise that that is the most effective way in which, over time, they can increase their capacity to build effective state institutions that will last. Directing funds through the Government of Afghanistan also enhances their accountability and authority. That directly responds to the point made by the hon. Member for Newark. We know that such an approach is the most effective way of ensuring sustainability in the long term. That is why it is a question of balance.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes twice talked about progress being painfully slow and, in some ways, he is absolutely right. We all share the frustration, but we have to accept that if the goal towards which the people of Afghanistan and the Government are working is to be realised—an Afghan Government, elected by their citizens, delivering health care to people who are sick, education to children, and security in every province of the country—it will take time.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park asked about the Afghanistan compact. It covers benchmarks that have been jointly agreed between the international community and the Government of Afghanistan. The UN has a job in monitoring it. She raised good questions about the rate of progress and the honest answer is that we will not know whether those benchmarks will be achieved until we reach those dates, but they express a set of targets towards which we are working. The rate at which the Afghans will be able to make progress on meeting the benchmarks will depend in part on security. There are some significant hurdles to overcome; we must be straight about those, too.

When I was in Lashkar Gah, I went down to the banks of the bright turquoise-blue Helmand river to look at some work that DFID has been supporting. The thing that I remember, apart from the young boys who were having a swim having taken their examinations in school earlier in the day, was that the interpreter who turned up so that I could have a conversation with them and others was wearing a black facemask that covered his face. He had a baseball cap pulled down over his head. Why? It is a risk, in Lashkar Gah, to be seen to be working with the British—the foreigners.

On the same day, Governor Daud of Helmand and his director of education, who we met in the hotel there, explained that 60 of the 224 schools in Helmand province—those figures are imprinted on my brain—are currently shut because of intimidation. Some head teachers have been murdered, as have some students and school officials, because they continue to try to teach girls. When will they reopen? It depends on when they feel that it is safe and secure enough to do so. That is why bringing security is, in my view, the precondition to development.

In the few minutes that are left, will my right hon. Friend address the question of poppy eradication—whether he thinks it is working and, if it is not, whether he would contemplate alternatives?

I shall come to that point in a moment.

There are 18 DFID staff in Afghanistan overall—15 in Kabul, one in Kandahar and two in Helmand. The development adviser, subject to the final security review, will return. We have a quick-impact problem manager in the country. There is no turf war between Government Departments; I want to make that clear.

I pay tribute to the bravery not only of our troops, to whom I have already referred, but of our staff, who we ask to work there. Let us not forget that two weeks ago a group of them were in two vehicles queuing outside Governor Daud’s premises when someone set off a suicide bomb. They are not people who do not dare to leave the premises to go out and see what is going on. No one has said it today, although others have in some newspaper reports, but that is a monstrous calumny against the bravery of our people who are out there doing their work.

We are trying to balance the quick-impact project money that we have made available, in response to the more difficult security situation, to help the engineers who are out there to deliver things quickly with initiatives such as the rural development programme, which we hope will bring clean water and new roads to 120,000 people in Helmand in 2007—not because DFID has started to dig wells but because it is finding partners with whom to do such work. We are considering the drought appeal and I undertake to look further into the point that the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes raised about the camp not far from the provincial reconstruction team.

I turn finally to the question of poppies. I accept entirely that the challenge in overcoming the curse of the poppy is a long term one. The hon. Gentleman was right that if a farmer has a choice between growing something and feeding their family and not growing it and their family starving, they will grow that crop. Those responsible should be arrested and the law enforced, but eradication must take place alongside the alternatives.

I want to finish on the point about the Senlis Council’s report. I shall simply quote the Afghan Minister’s comments on legalisation:

“The poor security situation in the country means there can simply be no guarantee that opium will not be smuggled out of the country for the illicit narcotics trade abroad…We could not accept this.”

The conversation needs to be had not with me or the Foreign Secretary but with the Government of Afghanistan—it is their country—and they have a clear view about the Senlis Council’s proposal.

This has been an extremely good debate, because people have spoken frankly, from their own experience, about the scale of the challenge. I am clear in my mind that what we are doing to support the people and Government of Afghanistan is the right thing for the long term. The scale of the challenge is enormous and we must stay with the Afghan people as they rise to it.