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Volume 451: debated on Monday 30 October 2006

The Afghan provincial government under the leadership of Governor Daud has made progress in engaging with local community leaders in Helmand. He sought and gained backing for his negotiations from President Karzai and, as part of the process, UK forces handed over security in Musa Qaleh to provincially raised forces. Such engagement has strengthened the governor’s position and he continues to develop relations throughout Helmand.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. There is no doubt that UK forces are second to none in carrying out their duties wherever they are required. Is there any aspect of that engagement with the local populace that he would wish to be improved and strengthened?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about our troops. I am sure that all hon. Members share his view. He asks whether I would like any aspects of the engagement with the communities in Helmand province to be improved. I would like the processes to be built upon. The key to that is to let Governor Daud, whom I met last week when I was in Helmand province, continue with the process that he has already started in Musa Qaleh—where he has proper political control—in other parts of northern Helmand, including the Sangin valley and other communities. The process is difficult, but ultimately, Afghan solutions to Afghan problems will deliver the answers for the Afghan people. We should support their properly constituted and elected government in achieving those solutions.

Notwithstanding the excellent work of our troops in tough conditions in Afghanistan, has the Secretary of State seen the reports in The Times today that say that, where our troops are pulled back, the Taliban have moved straight back in? Would he like to comment on that?

I read those comments, which are attributed to a man called Khan, whom I do not recognise as a spokesman for the community of Musa Qaleh. All morning, I have heard PGHQ in Helmand province inquiring as to who the spokesperson actually is. I am mindful of the fact that I have repeatedly had comments quoted to me from alleged spokespeople from Helmand who turn out to be members of the Taliban. Only last week, I spoke to the commanding officer of the British forces and the head of the Helmand taskforce who told me that they were keeping the situation in Musa Qaleh under daily observation. In his view, the deal done with the local community—between the governor and the local community—was being sustained. Of course it is a very delicate situation and we can only observe. There are associated risks, but unless we take them, the people of that part of Afghanistan will not secure the improvement that we are deployed there to achieve.

Can my right hon. Friend shed any light on reports that up to 60 Afghan civilians were killed in a NATO bombing at the end of last week? Can he say what help, if any, NATO is making available to survivors? Does he agree that, if we make mistakes like that, there is not the slightest chance of our winning hearts and minds in Helmand or anywhere else?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will have followed the story as it developed last week. Only over the weekend we had reports—public, open reports in the media, which I read—that General Jim Jones, who is known as SACEUR, theSupreme Allied Commander in Europe, apologised to President Karzai for the inadvertent casualties created. As he explained it, the Taliban had been using these individuals as a human shield. He clearly put the responsibility on the Taliban and I have heard from our own troops of circumstances in which the Taliban have used innocent individuals as a human shield—indeed, specifically lining up women and children in front of paratroopers on one occasion, not long after we were deployed in Helmand province. They do that because of the effect that my hon. Friend identifies: if there is accidental injury or death caused to innocent civilians, the Taliban will play that out. We are mindful of that fact, which is why we take the greatest care to ensure that there are no civilian casualties.

With 90 per cent. of the heroin on the streets of Britain coming from the poppy fields of Afghanistan, does my right hon. Friend agree that in the interests of our young people, our armed forces should be fully supported in Afghanistan?

My hon. Friend identifies one of the reasons why it is important that the world, not just the UK or the developed world, which is specifically represented in Afghanistan, sees through the support and development of the Afghan economy so that the people of Afghanistan will not be exploited, as they have been by drug dealers and others in the past and forced to grow poppies for opium. It is a long-term problem and those who understand how it has been dealt with in other countries will realise that we have to build governance, build the rule of law and security and build economic prosperity. Only in that context will very poor people be dissuaded from growing poppy when they are in many cases being forced into it by violence.

Rather than trying to find Mr. Khan’s identity, would we not do better to recognise the evidence of our own officers and soldiers, particularly those who have been in discussions with village elders about arrangements in the villages. They have identified among those village elders potential supporters of the Taliban who they believe have been giving them the once over during the course of the negotiation. Should we not recognise the truth of the situation—that the Taliban are very much stronger six months after we started our deployment in Helmand than they were before?

I do not accept that the Taliban are much stronger now than they were before. I believe that they were significantly present in those communities. We also saw, as I mentioned in response to the previous question, a significant increase in the growing of poppy in the year before we deployed into Helmand province. That, among other indications such as the beheading of teachers and closure of schools because they were teaching girls, suggests exactly what they were doing. There was much evidence that the Taliban were in those communities. The fact that we deployed into those communities brought them out very quickly, as it did in northern Helmand.

The essence of the hon. Gentleman's question is that I should pay regard to what the commanders on the ground tell me, and that is exactly what I do. It will be instructive for him to know that we have accepted, and indeed Governor Daud has entered into, only one agreement, although there are discussions going on across northern Helmand. He is bravely holding out to ensure that, as in Musa Qaleh, he deals with people who properly represent the community, and not the Taliban.

I welcome the agreements with village elders that have been struck in various parts of Helmand province, but will the Secretary of State give us an assessment of how well he thinks they are working on the ground? To what extent has the combination of Ramadan and the poppy-planting season contributed to a lull in activity? What impact has the air strike last week had on relations with the Afghan population? What can he tell us about the longer-term future of the security elements that the village elders have been able to summon to the cause? What prospects are there for integrating them eventually in the Afghan auxiliary police?

The first point that I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that there are no agreements—there is one agreement. That is the point that I was making in response to the previous question. There is one agreement thus far. There are negotiations going on in Sangin, in the Kajaki area and in other parts of northern Helmand. Those are being conducted in a canny and expert way by Governor Daud, who is ensuring that he deals with the appropriate people in those communities. It was only when he identified that he was dealing with the appropriate people in Musa Qaleh and those who represented the community, and not the Taliban, that he struck the deal.

The second point I make to the hon. Gentleman is that the incident involving the inadvertent loss of life—it was not as much as people are reporting—did not happen in Helmand province. It happened in Kandahar in the Peshwar valley. That can have an effect on Helmand, but it will not have a direct effect. The blunt answer to his question is that the view of those on the ground who know is that the Musa Qaleh agreement is holding and that, if it holds and spreads in Helmand, that will be to the good of the people of Helmand, whatever other activities they may have been involved in. If we establish the strength of the local communities and they can hold out the Taliban, that is exactly what we went there to do.

Are there not two threats to our relationship with the Afghan people? Governor Daud said last week of British help:

“Promises to get projects up and running have not been kept and there hasn’t been a DFID representative in Helmand for2 months.”

Secondly, politicians abroad have been calling for more action to destroy poppy crops. Do not the failure of DFID and the intention to destroy poppy crops in the short term—the only income for subsistence farmers— risk pushing the local population into the arms of the Taliban and undermining the efforts of our armed forces?

In the first place, Governor Daud is a man who represents his community and consistently asks for more, as indeed almost every hon. Member probably does in relation to their own constituents at one stage or another. It is not surprising therefore that he should focus on what more he wants for his community and not necessarily on what has already been achieved, and a significant amount has been achieved in Helmand province in road building, in other significant reconstruction work, in health and in schools. Indeed, we plan to do much more work, particularly in Musa Qaleh and in other parts of the north, in order to reinforce the deal that has already been struck in that part of the country.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman was wrong about the absence of a DFID representative in Helmand. Last week, I was in Lashkar Gar, where I met and spoke to a DFID representative present on the ground. The challenge is whether the security in the part of the province where we want to do the reconstruction work first is sufficient for us to deploy into those areas people who are not soldiers or troops, for the purposes of reconstruction work. That is a difficult judgment to make. Consequently, we need to reconfigure the way in which we do the construction or reconstruction work, and that is exactly what we have been doing across government. That is why in July I announced the deployment of 300 engineers into Helmand province, and we are beginning to see the work that they can do across the province. That work will build further security. We will then, on that basis, encourage non-governmental organisations and others to build their representation in Helmand, or to come back into the province to do what we went out there to do in the first place. We have, in my view, a programme now in place, principally as a consequence of the work that the Paratroopers did while they were there in regularly overmatching the Taliban.