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House of Commons Hansard
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09 January 2007
Volume 455

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In the Prime Minister’s 10th, and presumably last, new year’s message, which ran to some 1,000 words, he managed to devote just one sentence to Iraq and Afghanistan combined. I believe that the thousands of our servicemen and women serving in those two countries, who are putting their lives at risk daily, would have thought that a very inadequate degree of attention to give to those countries. I am glad that we have the opportunity this morning, in the House’s first sitting week of this year, to deal in greater depth with the all-important issue of policy towards Afghanistan.

With three other members of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, I made a visit to Afghanistan approximately six weeks ago, at the end of November. In the course of our visit, we were reminded constantly that security will not be the only means by which we solve the problems of Afghanistan. That is entirely correct and it is as correct in Afghanistan as it most certainly was for us in Northern Ireland. In saying that it is correct, I suggest that the converse is equally the case. Unless we get satisfactorily on top of the security situation in Afghanistan, we will not be able to achieve long-term stability for that country, make satisfactory progress on good governance and human rights there or help it to develop as a modern state, and we will certainly not be able to help it realise the considerable potential that it has for economic progress and development. The security dimension is crucial, and unless we win on security, we are at serious risk of losing in Afghanistan.

The essence of the security problem for us was shown very well in the “Dispatches” programme on Channel 4 last night. Although I noted that the Government sought to dismiss the programme as being based on out-of-date film, I thought that it brought home extremely vividly, and with absolute accuracy, the essence of the security problem, which is that NATO forces are too thinly spread in the areas of Afghanistan where combat intensity is highest. That presents our forces with real operational problems. It makes them constantly vulnerable to the possibility of finding themselves significantly outnumbered. It makes them dependent on calling in air strikes, which carry with them the attendant risk of civilian casualties and the destruction of civilians’ homes, with all the political damage that that does to our long-term objectives of winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan. The fact that we are so thinly stretched in the southern part of the country tends to make many Afghan civilians there significantly more alarmed and open to coercion by the Taliban than are reassured by our very limited presence.

There are a number of points concerning security on which I am critical of the British Government, but I do not criticise them for the lack of boots on the ground as far as we are concerned. There is no question but that the UK is doing more than its fair share in dealing with the military resurgence of the Taliban, as are the Canadians and the Americans. What is lamentable is that too many of our NATO allies, which have significant forces in Afghanistan in some cases, have surrounded their deployment with national caveats, and they make it difficult, if not impossible, for the NATO commander to deploy them in the areas where they are most seriously needed. I hope that the Minister will confirm that it is imperative that national caveats in Afghanistan be swept away lock, stock and barrel. All NATO forces in Afghanistan should come under the same rules of engagement and the NATO commander of the international security assistance force should be left wholly free to deploy all available NATO forces in that country in the locations where they are most needed.

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I believe that the number of troops NATO has in Afghanistan at the moment is about 30,000, not all of whom are combatants. The Soviet Union had 120,000, killed 1 million Afghanis and lost 15,000 casualties. How many troops does the right hon. Gentleman think NATO needs to have to secure a military victory?

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I say to the hon. Gentleman that our approach is fundamentally different from that taken during the Soviet occupation. There is no way that we are going to employ the sort of tactics employed by the Soviets because they successfully and unequivocally alienated the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. We have a totally different approach, and I do not believe that we need forces of anything like that number to be able to win politically in Afghanistan or to contain the Taliban.

I wish to touch on three aspects of security policy. The first is the key policy issue for the British Government: what is the right balance of forces between the deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan? There is little doubt that the present Government’s reduction in size of the British Army and the insufficiency of operational aircraft, particularly helicopters, is producing profound overstretch in Iraq and Afghanistan. The crucial issue is determining the optimal balance of British forces between the two countries. I take the view that we are probably now overcommitted numerically in Iraq in relation to what we can achieve on the ground. Equally, I take the view that we are under-committed in relation to the gains that are to be had in Afghanistan. Perhaps the Minister will say whether the Government are considering making a significant redeployment of British forces in the coming year from Iraq to Afghanistan.

The second issue I wish to touch on, which is crucial for us down in the south, in Helmand province, is that of security co-operation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Northern Ireland, the long, open border was a considerable security problem for us for many years. However, that border was child’s play in security terms compared with the situation that we have along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Alongside the length and topography of that border, much of it mountainous, is the fact that an enormous number of people cross there: we were told that approximately 200,000 people cross over that border each day, and at one crossing point alone, 30,000 people cross per day. Sadly, those factors make the border an ideal cover area for Taliban fighters to intermingle with the civilian population and move both fighters and supplies between one country and the other. That makes security co-operation between the two of the utmost importance, and we know that General Richards has been devoting a lot of attention to that issue. Some progress has been made. I think that the military trilateral commission is a very important step forward, and while we were there we learned of further developments in military co-operation. Again, however, it would be helpful if the Minister could confirm that that is a central security policy of the British Government and will remain so as long as our forces are in the south.

I want to raise a third security issue: the fundamental duty of any British Government is to ensure that our forces are adequately equipped for the task that they are being asked to undertake. Patently, that has not been the case and still is not the case in Afghanistan, and certainly is not in Iraq. We all know that casualties have been incurred, and lives lost, as a result of insufficient body armour. We know of deep concerns among our servicemen and women about the adequacy of their armoured vehicles. We also know—it was borne out graphically in the film on television last night—about the serious inadequacy in the amount of helicopter support available in Afghanistan. We all heard the Prime Minister on television stating that our forces in Afghanistan could have any equipment that they wanted. That has turned out to be one of his rhetorical statements and so far there seems to have been a singular lack of delivery on that very important need.

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The Opposition feel ashamed about the lack of equipment and vehicles in Afghanistan and Iraq, which my right hon. Friend has pointed out. Will he tell us whether the Vector Pinzgauers, which were to be deployed by the end of 2006, have been deployed?

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I cannot give my hon. Friend an answer to that, but I am sure that the Minister will have heard her question and will give the answer that she is seeking.

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On that point, I can confirm that those vehicles have not been deployed to the region. In fact, the speed of the procurement reflects the lack of coherent thinking in replacing the unsuitable Land Rovers with the sudden purchase of the Vector Pinzgauers and the Cougar vehicles, to which my right hon. Friend has referred.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

I shall turn to some key Foreign Office policy issues other than security. I shall not touch on development because this is a debate to which the Foreign Office will reply, so I want to focus on issues concerning specifically that Department. On improving governance in Afghanistan, I say at the outset that given where Afghanistan was when we invaded, following years of war with the Soviets and then the appalling Taliban tyranny, I believe that the presidential, parliamentary and provincial elections, which were relatively free from violence and intimidation, were a considerable achievement. They achieved an encouraging turnout from the Afghan people—men and women.

Having said that, there is no doubt that there are grounds for many concerns about the state of governance in Afghanistan. Clearly, a huge amount of additional progress is required. The Afghanistan compact, signed in London almost exactly one year ago, is still largely an aspiration. The legal system is in its infancy, to put it mildly and politely. We heard during our visit that significant numbers of those who administer justice and of those in the police force are illiterate. There is very serious and all-pervasive corruption—I do not think that is an exaggeration—in the Afghan Government. That represents a big and long-term challenge.

I believe that we have to work at that over a long period. It cannot be dealt with solely by the British Government and I am not suggesting for one moment that it should. However, I say to the House that the British Government are highly regarded, as is the strength of our governmental and parliamentary institutions. Notwithstanding the pressures on the Foreign Office budget, I hope that the Minister will reassure us that it is looking carefully at the various pots of money that it has to promote and support good governance around the world and will make Afghanistan a very high priority. Unless we make progress on governance, we will not achieve long-term stability and success in the country.

That brings me to another specific issue: poppy cultivation. I do not know by what process the British Government agreed to take the lead on counter-narcotics after the invasion of Afghanistan. I do not know whether it was an act of heroic self-sacrifice on behalf of the Government, or plain naivety. Whichever it was, it has proved to be a seriously poisoned chalice. Poppy production was up 60 per cent. last year and is proving to be a depressingly useful source of funding for the Taliban and a means by which they can pull in what appears to be an almost unlimited supply of new recruits on the promise of $10 a day.

During our visit we discussed poppy cultivation and counter-narcotics for hours with a number of experts and, of course, the counter-narcotics Minister. I was satisfied that there is no simple or quick solution. No alternative cash crop can provide an income for Afghan farmers even remotely close to what can be obtained through poppy cultivation. There can be no commitment to buying in poppies for destruction at their current value because undoubtedly that would spur on further cultivation. Neither can the problem be dealt with by buying in poppies for legitimate medical use and the manufacture of morphine because that market has been taken up already by licit production in Turkey, India and Australia. Furthermore, drastic eradication by aerial spraying is ruled out by virtue of being politically unacceptable to the Afghan Government—with some justification.

We are left, therefore, with what appears to be only one option: a slow process, which will probably take many years, of combining moral and religious persuasion, and, hopefully, a more effective system of deterrence through the criminal justice system. It will probably require a more intensive form of eradication as well, particularly through the use of ground-based spraying. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us whether the British Government are now willing to back such spraying as a means of dealing with eradication more effectively.

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Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that if poppy cultivation in Afghanistan were reduced, production would inevitably increase in Myanmar, north Pakistan, Kazakhstan and a string of other countries, which could lead to the Colombiarisation of a large part of central Asia?

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I certainly recognise the force of what the hon. Gentleman says, in that the market is international. However, we must consider the issue in the context of Afghanistan and its relation to the UK. The overwhelming proportion of the heroin sold on the streets of our towns and cities comes from Afghanistan. Poppy production in Afghanistan is also directly contrary to our security objectives there, as it produces a lot of money for the Taliban and finances their recruitment. Against those two criteria, we must be persistent and determined in trying to effect the gradual but ultimately total eradication of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan.

My last non-security point concerns human rights, which is also of profound importance. I should like to raise one small issue initially, which concerns the memorandum of understanding, which was entered into shortly before we arrived in Afghanistan, between the Afghan Government and the British Government on the treatment of detainees—that is, persons who are detained by British forces in Afghanistan and then transferred to the Afghan authorities. There is a clear written obligation in the memorandum on the British armed forces out there to notify both the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission when they make those transfers. However, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission made a strong complaint to us during our meeting about the lack of timeliness of such notifications. I hope that the Minister will give that matter his attention. It is important that we fulfil our obligations under that memorandum of understanding.

The central human rights issue in Afghanistan applies to approximately one half of the population. That half is of course the female population. Our presence in Afghanistan will determine whether the huge progress that has been made since the days of the Taliban tyranny on giving women greater human rights, and career and employment opportunities—we were glad to meet a number of women parliamentarians—and, perhaps most critically, on providing education for girls, will be carried forward or whether it will be totally obliterated, which would be the result of allowing the Taliban to take back control.

One cannot stress too strongly either how much is at stake or the sheer ruthlessness of the Taliban in their determination to deprive women and girls of those fundamental human rights. The Taliban are people who still burn down schools in the south simply because they take girls. They have murdered teachers in schools simply because those schools give access to girls. Therefore, when we talk about human rights in Afghanistan, we are talking about the fundamental rights of one half of the population there.

I am in no doubt that we should be in Afghanistan. The security case is overwhelming. It is unthinkable to allow the Taliban to retake control of that country and to return it to before 9/11. There is also a fundamental human rights case for being there. I conclude by saying that we are right to have removed the Taliban and we are right to be there, but we must do more, by deploying more resources to ensure that we win on security grounds, and we must be prepared to be there for the long haul.

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rose—

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Order. I intend to call Front-Bench spokespersons from about 12 o’clock, so if hon. Members who have indicated that they would like to speak can be reasonably brief, we can, I hope, get everybody in.

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We are all grateful to the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley)—I can call him my friend, because I have known him for a long time—for the wealth of his experience on the Foreign Affairs Committee and for all that he has learned on his visit to Afghanistan. He gave a sobering report. What came through some of his suggestions was the pessimism that must be the proper reaction to the situation there, particularly after our incursion in Helmand province.

To return to the beginning of our involvement, it is important that we have a Minister here who played a crucial part in the early days of the invasion and its aftermath. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in October 2001:

“We act because the al-Qaeda network and the Taliban regime are funded in large parts on the drugs trade. Ninety per cent. of all heroin sold on the streets of Britain originates from Afghanistan. Stopping that trade is directly in our interests.”

The hope that was shared by the Government and the Opposition, almost unanimously throughout the House, was that there could be a twin battle against the threat of terrorism and, rightly, against the Taliban and their mediaeval cruelty, to which the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling referred, while also destroying the refuge that al-Qaeda had enjoyed in that country. They were seen to be worthwhile objectives and were supported almost unanimously throughout the House. We would have a twin campaign—a double war and a double victory.

We see now, however, that we have not secured a double victory but, if anything, a double catastrophe. We have been reminded of the drugs situation. Not only has Britain taken the lead, but the spending will increase to more than £200 million—we have spent more than £100 million already, £21 million of which has disappeared without trace and greatly antagonised the Taliban farmers. It was meant to be paid to them in compensation, but it disappeared in what for the past two centuries has been the endemically corrupt system of government in Afghanistan—there is a long history of that. Freedom of information investigations have turned up some of the documents that were needed for the Taliban farmers whose crops were destroyed in 2003 to receive the compensation due to them. They have not received that compensation and they rightly feel cheated. In fact, the efforts that we made in destroying those crops gave a further inducement to those farmers to plant more crops. We find ourselves in the ridiculous situation where our actions there have not reduced the crops—production fell by 2 per cent. in the year before last, but it is now up by 60 per cent., to the highest it has ever been.

The idea was to stop the heroin on the streets of Britain, but if we go a few hundreds yards from this place, we can buy heroin more cheaply in real terms than at any time. That is utter, abject failure. As I said in my intervention on the right hon. Gentleman, even if we had successfully destroyed the entire crop, the supply of the heroin would not be affected—it might be affected temporarily, but that would only increase the price and thereby the crime on our streets. The reaction would be an immediate increase in cultivation in Laos, Myanmar and elsewhere in that string of countries, exactly as has happened in Colombia. We should have learned the lesson: America spent billions of dollars trying to destroy the crops in Colombia. It had some success in that it reduced Colombian production, but production greatly increased in Peru and Bolivia in keeping with the “squeezed balloon” principle.

A splendid report by Lord Birt and the strategy unit, published under freedom of information legislation, clearly makes the point: we cannot destroy the drugs problem on the supply side. We can do it only in other ways. The situation is one of abject, utter failure. The lives of British troops are being sacrificed to an impossible cause. As always, I praise the heroism and professionalism of our soldiers in Afghanistan; I have met some from my constituency. Given the combat that they face, they are doing a splendid job in circumstances as difficult as anything faced by soldiers for many years.

I turn to what has been happening recently. A short while ago in the House, I raised a question with the Secretary of State for Defence about the endemic corruption of the Karzai Government—not so much of Karzai himself. I am sure that he is a good and idealistic man, but he is running the country in the only way possible: by doing dirty deals, through bribery and by using an army of provincial governors and police chiefs. I asked the Secretary of State:

“With Karzai increasingly appointing warlords, ex-Taliban leaders, criminals and drug dealers as police chiefs and provincial governors, is not the likelihood that oppression by these provincial governors and police chiefs will greatly increase the danger to our soldiers?”

We are associated with that rotten Government. There was an election, so they are a democratic Government, but as a western democracy we would not recognise them as a fair Government. The Secretary of State gave me an interesting answer. In a bit of a cheap shot, about which I later wrote to him, he decided that I was attacking one man. I was not; I was attacking the generality. He referred to the only star, the only provincial governor about whom we could talk with pride. The Secretary of State said:

“My hon. Friend should be careful in what he says…The description he has given of the governance of Helmand is far from the truth.”

I did not mention Helmand in the question, but that is what he said. He continued:

“Governor Engineer Mohammad Daud is a very brave, committed and non-corrupt individual, which is why we want to support him so much. He is a force for good in Helmand province.”—[Official Report, 10 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 189.]

The Secretary of State was absolutely right and entirely fair, but last month Mohammad Daud was sacked. He is no longer the provincial governor of Helmand province; clearly, in that province there is no place, certainly in the Karzai Government, for someone with idealism who is non-corrupt. Mr. Daud could not survive there. Not only was Mr. Daud non-corrupt, but he achieved what has probably been the most promising success in Afghanistan by negotiating the deal that has brought temporary peace in Musa Qala. There is an interesting set-up there, which I think gives hope for the future.

Yes, we agree that there have been great gains in Afghanistan as far as women and education are concerned. However, it would be a mistake to believe that women are educated on the finer points of Plato’s “Republic” or the writings of Voltaire. They are educated in sharia law. There is no way of altering that; it is part of the culture of Afghanistan. The Taliban attacks on the schools and their murder of teachers and others involved is wickedness on a terrible scale. Of course we have to fight to try to stop that happening. However, do we have an attainable aim? Can we really do it? I believe that we can defend the gains that we have made around Kabul. For all the control that he has, Karzai is really the mayor of Kabul. The rest of Afghanistan is farmed out to warlords and provincial governors who still run the bulk of the country.

Since our February Westminster Hall debate on Afghanistan, we have been arguing about our going into Helmand province and trying to extend there. That was mission impossible; we cannot take control in that area. We can defend the gains around Kabul and use Karzai’s influence on the warlords, but that is the maximum that we can gain. That is not just my opinion. In our February debate, I gave a very pessimistic assessment of the situation and suggested that we were heading towards a British or NATO Vietnam.

Having heard suggestions that we should escalate the number of troops in the country, I am extremely worried that such a situation will come about, in which we are fighting not a traditional war between nations but an insurgency. We know the result of that from Chinese, US and French involvement in Vietnam and the humiliation of various other western nations with great sophisticated armies. I do not want to make too close a comparison with the Russians on this issue, but what is happening now was exactly forecast to me by a member of the Duma when we invaded in 2001.

At the moment, the hope of getting out with some dignity is the Musa Qala deal. I wrote to and asked the Secretary of State for Defence about that. I suggested to him that we had withdrawn British troops from Musa Qala, and that that had seemed a sensible thing to do. He said that we had not withdrawn the troops, but redeployed them. There is a subtle difference, perhaps; I do not know.

The Taliban are still in Musa Qala; they are inactive but present. We are not there, and a deal was done by the people who run the place so that they could recruit their own army, which I understand we are helping to finance. All that has resulted in a period of calm, without hostility. There is hope, although there is some nervousness in the Government about whether the situation will break down. Questions have been raised about the loyalty of the army, given that many of its members are certainly former members of the Taliban. However, in the context of looking for an optimistic solution, the Musa Qala deal has been good. We should certainly try to extend it to Sangin province.

After February, when we went in, we had lost seven troops in Afghanistan, most as a result of accidents. Since then, I believe that we have lost another 35, mostly in combat. That is a sad and bitter price for their families to pay.

There is an answer. I was disappointed to hear what the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling said about the serious suggestion of using poppies for medicinal purposes as morphine. He said that the market was flooded, but it is not flooded as far as the developing world is concerned. The chance of a person in the developing world with a terminal illness or in terrible pain getting morphine is very small—only 6 per cent. Following the suggestion might well reduce the price of morphine.

In the western world, we know that if we face terminal pain we will almost certainly be supplied with morphine, that greatest of painkillers. However, there is certainly a market in the world that needs to be supplied. Médecins sans Frontières says that it has great difficulty in getting supplies and providing people with the boon of morphine and codeine. Yes, there is a great legal market supplied by Turkey, India and Tasmania, but it is not saturated. The suggestion in respect of poppies is practical. There are ways of growing them so that they go down the medical route rather than that of drugs of abuse. We should take up the proposals made by the Senlis council. There is support from Afghan farmers, who are either bribed from one side or attacked from the other.

The new governor of Helmand province, Mr. Wafa—a bit of an unknown quantity—has a plan to spray the poppies with herbicide. We can only pause to recall past experience of spraying crops. I do not know whether Mr. Wafa intends to spray them from the air, but the Karzai Government oppose the plan. However, we know that in most such cases, the decisions are taken by the United States as it exercises its influence over Karzai. Another catastrophe could take place; the people will certainly be further antagonised.

We can congratulate our troops, who recently achieved a significant military victory. Their reconstruction work has been virtually frozen for some months now. They were virtually confined to their barracks because of the ferocity of opposition from the Taliban and some of the civilian populations. Adding crop spraying to the list of what are perceived to be our crimes as the farangi in that area will further add to the difficulty of ever winning hearts and minds there.

You rightly asked us to be reasonably brief so that everyone can speak, Mrs. Humble, so I shall wind up now. There is no quick fix, but neither is there a slow fix. We must recognise that our mission in Helmand province is unattainable.

There is another danger. As a member of the Western European Union Defence Committee, I speak to people from more than 40 European countries. I know the views of fellow members of NATO such as France, Germany and Italy. Their views are different from those of this country, Canada and the Netherlands. I do not believe that there is any situation in which they would go into Kandahar or Helmand province. They regard that as a step too far and something that would be a suicidal mission for their soldiers.

Canada, Britain and the Netherlands have lost a great many troops. One questions whether they died in vain. It would be an act of criminal folly for us to send more troops on a mission for which there is no possible victory. Our best course of action would be to consolidate the gains that we have made around Kabul and to use our influence with the Karzai Government for benign ends. We should not continue with what we are doing in Helmand but seek a dignified retreat from the province. We will not call it a retreat, of course—we will dress it up as a deal—but we must get out of there. We can work with warlords who could use their influence to bring peace, but we will not achieve some kind of Scandinavian democracy in the area, as many here claim is possible. It is unattainable.

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I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) for his interesting contribution.

What strikes me about the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly Afghanistan, is the Government’s lack of candour. A long briefing that the military gave the Defence Committee during its visit last year to Kandahar was very interesting. At the end of it, I bumped into a friend. He dragged me outside and around the back, and said, “I can’t believe it. You sat there for three hours but the military have not told you that all five of our platoon houses in northern Helmand are today in heavy contact. All those guys giving you the briefing are apoplectic because yesterday the Americans dropped a 500 lb bomb or two on children in a compound in Helmand province without the slightest reference to the British.” That culture—that lack of candour—reflects a degree of panic on the part of the Government.

It suits the Government very well that we all stand up in the House of Commons and bang on about the lack of helicopters, body armour and vehicles. Those are important issues, of course, but they obscure a much bigger picture. On 12 September 2001, we had the sympathy of the vast majority of people in the Muslim world, the middle east and the Maghreb. Today, that picture is very different. The effect of our policies and those of a US Administration that completely dropped the notion of pragmatism in foreign affairs from the lexicon has been to push tens of millions of people in the middle east—and, regrettably, a few in our own country—into the hands of al-Qaeda and the like. Previously, those people had thoroughly objected to such groups, but now they are against us. For the benefit and safety of the people of this country and our allies, this Government, during the time that remains to them, must urgently address what on earth they are going to do about the situation. The effect of their policies has been the reverse of what they wanted to achieve.

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The hon. Gentleman has just suggested that the Government are able to determine the content of a military briefing given to Members of Parliament in southern Afghanistan. Is he seriously suggesting that the Government would instruct the military on how to brief Members of Parliament?

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No, I am not suggesting that.

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That is what the hon. Gentleman said.

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I did not say that. I said that the culture was the problem. I shall give another example. The Defence Committee was at the airport, waiting to leave Kabul. Along comes the senior Foreign Office official, who is a good guy. He has done great stuff in southern Afghanistan. Has he come to say goodbye to us? No, he has come, rather like a public relations man, to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, there are three key points that you must take back.” The Government created that culture, and I have many friends in the military from the time when I served in it who would agree with me.

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I shall be brief, but I wish to make a couple of points. First, I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) for his introduction to the debate, which was well informed and measured in tone. That is the line that we must take when discussing Afghanistan.

We had a visit from a group of parliamentarians in December, and some of us took part in a video conference with Members of the Afghan Parliament, who pointed out a few things that are relevant to this debate. They asked that we not let our discussion of Afghan issues be completely overwhelmed by what is happening in Helmand province. They obviously understood that there are enormous difficulties in Helmand but asked that we bear it in mind that that situation is not necessarily typical of what is happening across Afghanistan.

The Afghan parliamentarians were also keen that we, as a group of British parliamentarians, press our Government to secure more international support for what we are trying to achieve militarily in Afghanistan and to urge NATO to provide additional support.

Afghan parliamentarians are aware of corruption in their Parliament. Those with whom we had the video conference are challenging it themselves. That is an enormous advance, and as parliamentarians we should do what we can to support them in that challenge. We had discussions with the British Council, which works with parliamentarians on language skills, and on understanding what is meant by governance and what they need to do to govern effectively. Again, that is something that we should recognise and applaud, and we should do what we can to support it.

The Afghan parliamentarians stressed that we should get on with economic development and reconstruction. They said that although supporting additional security is obviously necessary, it should not take our attention away from the other side of the coin, which is ensuring that economic development and reconstruction continue. At the end of the day, that is the only way to secure hearts and minds. People must be able to see on the ground that things are getting better.

I hope that all Members have received a copy of the report that was sent out by the BBC World Service in the past week. It carried out a nation-wide survey of opinion in Afghanistan. Seven in 10 people are still happy with the presence of US, Canadian and UK troops, and some 74 per cent. said that, overall, their living conditions are better today than they were under the Taliban. Obviously, they still have enormous concerns about security and corruption, but the Afghan parliamentarians want us to challenge negativity and pessimism such as that in the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). They were astonished at the pessimism that is expressed in this country, not only in Parliament but by non-governmental organisations, and they are doing what they can to challenge it. That is not to say that they are not aware of the enormous difficulties, and I would not want to play them down. In essence, a country is being built from scratch, in terms not only of basic services but of principles of government, security services and the legal system. That is an enormous challenge. We should see it as a challenge and do what we can to support the Government. We should be not unnecessarily pessimistic but realistic, and we should get on with the job.

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It is an honour to participate in the debate and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing it.

It is sad that we are not able to conduct such debates more frequently in the House, considering that Britain is at war in Afghanistan. We have 4,000 soldiers there, who are working very hard. I must acknowledge some of the comments made by my right hon. Friend. I have been to Afghanistan three times now and each time I come back with far more information than I ever glean from the Government. It is important that all hon. Members who have been to Afghanistan can come back and contribute to such debates. Sometimes we do not get the full information about the consequences and challenges, so it helps us if we visit such places as frequently as we can.

I pay tribute to the work of 3 Commando Brigade and to that of their predecessors, 16 Air Assault Brigade, in doing a difficult job. However, they do not have the technical support or the back up that they need. It is not possible to patrol an area the size of Wales with eight Apache helicopters and four Lynxes. I am afraid that that is a reflection on the commitment that the Government now show towards our military, which is seen in the many comments made by a series of generals, both retired and serving, on the state of our armed forces. For example, let us take the comments of General Rose on the state of our Army, those of General Dannatt—a serving officer—about the consequences of our struggling in Iraq and those of General Jackson in the Dimbleby lecture. They need to be taken seriously by the Government if we are to ensure that we are successful in Afghanistan.

If we are to be successful, we must ensure that we provide the right equipment. The Vector Pinzgauers have been mentioned, and I have been calling for some time for Warrior vehicles to be sent. The Canadians and, indeed, the Americans are now taking full-blown battle tanks, but instead, as hon. Members might remember, in July we had to rush through the sudden and hasty purchase of Vectors and Cougars, which are tougher vehicles, much better than the Land Rovers that have resulted in some 21 soldiers being killed because they are not tough enough.

Time is limited, so I shall drop many of the comments that I would have liked to make. On my last visit, I saw that huge progress has been made, particularly in the north. Schools are opening up, radio stations are developing and we are getting the bases of the communities that we so wanted. In the south, the picture is very different. The serious levels of corruption are now being exposed by the relative peace. Some speakers today mentioned that they have met Members of Parliament from Afghanistan, but those whom I have met have never been to their constituencies because that is too dangerous. We have to ask how much of a democracy that is.

We are not taking advantage of the fragile peace because of a fundamental lack of co-ordination in reconstruction activities. Who is in charge? Is it Tom Koenigs of the UN, or the head of the EU in Afghanistan, or our representative from the Department for International Development? I witnessed those organisations competing against each other rather than working together. We need one overall co-ordinator with the authority to knock heads together and work with ISAF commanders. That is absent from Afghanistan and a ton of money is being wasted as a result. Those are the issues that we on this side of Europe can get right.

I want to see the EU take a more pivotal role. One way in which the EU could do well would be in spending the tons of money that are pouring in better. There are rivers that run underground in Afghanistan that are not tapped into. Those are larger projects than the quick impact projects that the local provincial reconstruction teams can tap into. Such projects need massive co-ordination, big engineering and a huge amount of work beyond the ability of any DFID operation in Helmand province or of the German foreign ministry in the north. That is where the co-ordination must take place.

My final point is about poppy growth. We have a shortage of diamorphine in this country, and another country—the third poorest in the world—is producing poppies that could make diamorphine. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that there has to be a little co-ordination. I heed the points that have been made. Yes, it is difficult to wean people off growing poppies but let us have some five-year pilot programmes that allow us to purchase the poppies directly from the farmers. We can turn them into something that the world has a shortage of and at the same time introduce other programmes whereby farmers grow other crops. It takes a while to grow peach trees, so in such a five-year programme we can slowly wean farmers off their reliance on poppies. If we were to do that we would provide financial support direct to the farmer, raise taxes for the Government, cut off the clandestine links that have been established with Pakistan, and remove the link to terrorism, too.

Time is short, Mrs. Humble, and it seems so sad as I know that everybody else wants to say so much. In conclusion, we are at a tipping point. We have been in Afghanistan for five years and not a huge amount has happened in that time. We need to do so much more. The window of opportunity is closing, and we need a workable solution to the challenge of poppy growth. The Prime Minister has said that we can have any equipment that we want there, so let us meet the challenge and encourage our allies to do so, too.

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rose—

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Order. I have three people wishing to speak and five minutes left for them to do so, so I urge everybody to be extremely brief.

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I shall be extremely brief. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on gaining this debate and I congratulate all hon. Members on the extraordinary analysis that has been made by members of all parties in the Chamber this morning. There has perhaps been more analysis of Afghanistan than of almost any other hot spot anywhere in the globe in the current political conflict. It has all been enlightening in many respects.

To those who say that the military or the Government are spinning, let me remind them that the first casualty of war is always truth. It is extremely difficult to get to the bottom of what is going on. I immediately disagree, however, with my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn): now is not the time to plan a withdrawal from Afghanistan. I say that in the light of a recent visit I undertook with the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling—

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I did not say withdrawal from Afghanistan, but from Helmand province.

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I shall move on, because that is now on the record and that is fair enough.

Let me quote from the International Crisis Group’s report, which gets to the heart of the matter. The group, having heard the analysis and carried out significant amounts of work in Afghanistan, states:

“The intervention in Afghanistan has been done on the cheap. Compared even to many recent post-conflict situations”—

it gives the examples of Bosnia and Kosovo—

“it was given proportionately many fewer peacekeepers and less resources—and Afghanistan has never been a post-conflict situation.”

The report also states:

“The desire for a quick, cheap war followed by a quick, cheap peace is what has brought Afghanistan to the present, increasingly dangerous situation.”

I commend the report to all who want to make any difference in Afghanistan.

I was also interested by a quote from the deputy Secretary-General of the UN, who said that unless we go to Afghanistan, Afghanistan will come to us—and, by golly, in a big way. In the west midlands and in other conurbations, the market for drugs is growing at an exponential rate. The way to tackle that is not to go for some of the poorest farmers on the face of the earth, who exist on just over a dollar a day to keep their families, but to prevent the demand here, in Europe and in America from increasing and to reduce it through education.

In Afghanistan, I saw our two old friends: poverty and his bedfellow inequality. Until we tackle those two problems in Afghanistan, as we must elsewhere, the rise and rise of fundamentalism will continue to confound us and even our best efforts will be laid waste. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West that there are no quick answers, but the long answer is education, the elimination of poverty and the reconstruction of devastated nations.

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I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on a characteristically thorough and impressive introduction to our debate.

The backdrop, of course, is the attacks by al-Qaeda on the United States on 11 September 2001 and the subsequent response by the US and others, including the United Kingdom. The Liberal Democrats supported the intervention by British armed forces in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, partly because the country was evidently a base for al-Qaeda and could form a platform for exporting militancy around the world. It was difficult to have much sympathy for the Taliban regime.

Considerable progress has been made, and I am sure others would echo the sentiment that the tales coming out of Afghanistan are not all bleak. For a start the Taliban Government have been removed; the Taliban has residual influence but it no longer controls the country as it did. Anyone who is of a liberal disposition will see huge merit in the fact that the Taliban is no longer running the country.

Many basic measures of attainment are pointing in the right direction. There is greater access to health care and an increasing number of children are being educated. We have seen progress, and I would not wish anyone to leave here with the impression that my party does not regard that as worthy of support, just as we remain supportive of the troops and the British presence in Afghanistan. However, there is much to reflect upon given the difference between the objectives and ambitions that the country had when we first sent troops there and the position today.

From the beginning, it is fair to say that there has been confusion about the purpose of the mission in Afghanistan. We were told that troops were intended to enhance stability and to spread the authority of the Afghan Government, but what was billed as a stability mission has rapidly become a full-blown counter-insurgency operation. One can see that in the disparity between the present position and the statements made by the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) when he was Secretary of State for Defence. He allowed the British to believe that there may be no need for British forces to engage in substantial fighting in southern Afghanistan. That is evidently not the case, and the news on our television screens and radios and in our newspapers nearly every day makes that clear.

We are trying to fight in two countries in the middle east—Afghanistan and Iraq. It is worth repeating that if the armed forces are overstretched it is due in large part to the fact that the Labour and Conservatives parties voted for us to go to war simultaneously in both countries. Many people in the Liberal Democrat party and beyond regard the invasion of Iraq as a distraction from the work being done in Afghanistan.

We supposedly invaded Iraq because of the link between Saddam Hussein and the appalling events of 11 September 2001—a link that has never been established; or because, according to the Prime Minister’s account, weapons of mass destruction posed an imminent threat to the security of the United Kingdom. Some said that that threat could be realised in 45 minutes. That, too, proved not to be the case. I leave those arguments to one side—they have been rehearsed again and again, and I wish to consider only the effect on Afghanistan.

I keep hearing about overstretch, a lack of equipment for British forces and the difficulties of retention and recruitment in the armed forces because of problems with morale and the time that soldiers and others have to spend away from home. Our presence in Iraq was the result of a conscious decision by the vast majority of Labour and Conservative Members in the House that we would commit our forces to the war in Iraq, despite the absence of al-Qaeda links in Iraq and the evident links in Afghanistan. That war has been a distraction from some of the work being undertaken in Afghanistan.

Drugs were mentioned earlier. If that is a measure of our success, it is lamentable. The Prime Minister gave the country the impression that the British presence in Afghanistan would reduce the amount of drugs coming to the UK and being used here illegally. I refer to a written answer to the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown)—I give credit where it is due—from the Foreign Office. It confirmed that in Afghanistan in 2005 4,100 metric tonnes of opium poppies were cultivated; that by 2006 the figure was up to 6,100 tonnes—an increase of about 50 per cent. year on year—and that Helmand province saw an increase of 162 per cent. in the amount of opium poppy cultivation in 2006. If that was the Prime Minister’s objective, as we were led to believe, our efforts have not been conspicuously successful.

I wish to give others more time to speak, particularly the Minister, so I finish by saying that, although our presence in Afghanistan is necessary to continue to ensure that it does not act as a base for exporting violent militancy, extremism and terrorism around the world, good things are being done there. However, there is confusion about our objectives. I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with these three questions.

First, what is our goal? In summary, is our aim to make the country sufficiently stable that people do not daily go in fear of their lives and that the aid agencies can go about their business reasonably unmolested, or are we instead trying to achieve the far more ambitious goal of exporting western-style liberal democracy to Afghanistan? If it is the second, laudable though it may be, the Government will have a big struggle on their hands.

The only time in my memory that power has changed hands between political parties was at the 1997 general election. That shows how infrequently it happens in Britain—or how young I am, or a combination of the two. I remember being struck by how painless the process was. One party and one Prime Minister were in charge of one of the most powerful countries in the world—a member of the United Nations Security Council, a member of NATO, a nuclear power and all that goes with that—but after the people had voted, they exited office and a newer regime, a newer Administration, came in with a new Prime Minister. We take such things for granted, assuming that they can be exported to other countries, and that others can pick them up and take things from there, but the process that took place in the UK in 1997 and which happens in other mature and established democracies takes a long time to establish. The Government are showing an element of naiveté if they think that they can export our liberal democratic systems and values as a package to other countries. Indeed, we have heard a lot about the corruption in Afghanistan that undermines those intentions.

The second question is what is the Government’s envisaged timetable in Afghanistan? They may not have one, but I would be interested to know whether the Minister thinks that we will be there months, years or decades. At the moment, it is unclear. He may say, as the Prime Minister does about Iraq, that we will be there for as long as the job takes, but that is an extremely vague basis on which to plan defence expenditure and British foreign policy.

The third question summarises all that I have said. What would the Government regard as constituting success in Afghanistan? Whether we take it from when the Prime Minister leaves office in a few months, or whether we take a longer view and consider what might have happened in 10 years’ time, what would the Minister regard as a successful outcome to our venture in Afghanistan? It would be extremely interesting to know, as it would be a basis on which to measure the Government’s policy and the achievements that had been made in the meantime.

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I wish you all the compliments of the new year, Mr. Pope. I thank the Minister for being here; and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing this debate. My right hon. Friend did exactly the right thing, given that we have some 6,000 troops in Afghanistan, that we are in a deep military conflict and that we have committed ourselves to about £400 million of aid for Afghanistan.

This should not be a debate in private Members’ time; it should be a properly constituted Government debate. We should have a debate on this subject at least once a quarter and the Government should tell us what progress they are making towards the timelines and ambitions contained in the London compact signed just over a year ago. I urge anybody who has not read that document to do so. It is not an onerous document to read, but it is very interesting and contains some important information. However, in my view, the compact is vastly over-optimistic and I will come on to the aims of that document in a moment.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on what he has said. In particular, I agree that, as in many other parts of the world, a solution will not be reached by military means alone. There has to be a stable security situation in Afghanistan to achieve the other goals we are aiming for. Surely, one of those goals is the establishment of a stable and secure central Government in Kabul with an independent judiciary and a stable economy delivering improved public services for all the people of Afghanistan.

So, where do we go from here? My right hon. Friend did well to emphasise the problem of overstretching our military. We are beginning to see that in every aspect of military life, from cutting back capital resources in our Navy to the condition of the living quarters of our armed troops, which was highlighted over the Christmas break. Many different areas of the military are overstretched. The Government must decide exactly what they want from our armed forces and what assets they will provide them with. It is morally unacceptable to send our troops into danger without properly equipping them.

We, the official Opposition, believe that it is absolutely essential that we bring stability to Afghanistan and therefore, in a sense, all like-minded western democracies are in this fight together. Much mention has been made of those countries which have deployed forces to Afghanistan. Congratulations and thanks should be given to the countries that have taken the brunt on the front line—America, Canada, ourselves and the Netherlands. However, it must be said that other allies could do more, particularly considering the size of their armed forces and the number of troops deployed. I will not name names, but several of our key European allies do not commit as many troops as they should while others commit troops yet impose huge numbers of caveats. Those troops should be available to commanders on the ground in whatever capacity they wish to deploy them.

Having said that we are in this fight together, what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan and what needs to happen in the future? It is not all doom and gloom as some hon. Members have said that it is. The number of women being educated in the north of Afghanistan is certainly increasing; on the other hand, Human Rights Watch says that the overall number of women being educated in Afghanistan is not enough and that the situation has not changed as much as women in Afghanistan would want or the liberators would desire.

I have a story that will particularly appeal to the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), if not to other hon. Members, because it sums up what is taking place in the Parliament and democratic processes of Afghanistan today. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling met the lady my story is about when he visited the country. She is a parliamentarian in Afghanistan and her name is Malalai Joya. She is just 28 years old and is the youngest and most famous of all the women in the Afghan Parliament. Her very presence in the Parliament is a powerful symbol of change. She rose to fame in 2003 when she made a speech attacking the warlords who still hold the balance of power in Afghanistan. On that occasion, one of the men she was attacking, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, rose and told her that her speech was a crime. He announced in the Afghan Parliament that

“Jihad is the business of this nation”.

He then asked for her microphone to be disconnected. The then Speaker of the House, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi—a former mujaheddin leader—called her an infidel and said that if she did not apologise, she could not attend the next session of Parliament. I could not imagine you, Mr. Pope, doing anything similar. However, that incident shows what is taking place in the life of Afghanistan and is an example of what we must reckon with.

The general situation in Afghanistan has been mentioned and I would like to go back to the compact that was signed over a year ago. I draw the attention of hon. Members in particular to the annex at the back. On those countries who could supply armed forces, I ask hon. Members to look at annex IV, which lists the countries that could but do not supply troops. I urge the Minister to look at that list and consider whether he could urge some of our key allies to provide more troops. As the Secretary-General of NATO has said, we need another 2,500 troops.

I draw the Minister’s attention to one or two of the timelines in the compact. First, and perhaps most important, on the international security forces, annex I of the compact states:

“Through end-2010, with the support of and in close coordination with the Afghan Government, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and their respective Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) will promote security and stability”.

We are a long way off achieving that. On the Afghan army, the compact goes on to state:

“By end-2010: A nationally respected, professional, ethnically balanced Afghan National Army will be fully established”.

On the Afghan national and border police, the compact states that by the end of 2010 a fully constituted, professional, functional and ethnically based Afghan national police will be established with up to 62,000 men. Those aims are vastly optimistic, but extremely important. That is why I repeat to the Minister that the Government need constantly to come to Parliament and update hon. Members on progress towards those goals. Some of our troops have been in Afghanistan since 2001 and the vast bulk have been there since the middle of 2006, with further troops committed towards the end of 2006. I do not believe that those aims are any closer to realisation than they were when we committed troops. Indeed, some of the aims in relation to counter-narcotics are further away from being achieved than when the compact was written.

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Another point of view is that the Governments of Germany, France and Italy are to be commended because they have not put their troops at risk of death for an impossible cause. If the hon. Gentleman is urging the other NATO countries to send more troops into Kandahar and Helmand, will he tell us the number of troops he thinks NATO should have to achieve a military victory?

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The hon. Gentleman has put it on the record in his own way, but, as I have already said, the Secretary-General of NATO has estimated that we need another 2,500 troops to improve the security situation in Afghanistan. He has named those countries that he thinks could provide more troops, and his intervention brings me on to his pet subject—counter-narcotics.

The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) quoted the parliamentary answer that I was given, but I would like to bring hon. Members’ attention to the aim stated in the compact on counter-narcotics. It says in reference to the Afghan Government that,

“By end-2010, the Government will strengthen its law enforcement capacity at both central and provincial levels, resulting in substantial annual increase in the amount of drugs seized or destroyed and processing facilities dismantled”.

I am told that one of the main problems with drugs is that we are not going after the dealers or the manufacturing facilities. I do not know why, but there is a suspicion that the dealers are being kept so that we can gain more intelligence. That is unacceptable; if we know who they are, we should go after them. We should follow the American model in Colombia. I commend the Minister for looking at some of the Colombian figures because they have had great success in reducing the amount of coca-growing areas in Colombia.

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Will the hon. Gentleman give way? There was a 20 per cent. increase last year.

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The hon. Gentleman scoffs, but it is a fact and I am not going to give way to him. The Colombians have had a significant success. I do not agree with him that by concentrating efforts in one country the problem will merely go to another country. That is not an excuse for not concentrating efforts in a particular country. The Americans have helped the Colombians reduce coca production in Colombia and I hope that we will produce significant reductions in poppy growing in Afghanistan. That is absolutely necessary because the price of heroin on our streets has halved during the past two years—down from about £75 a gram to about £35 a gram. If that is the real reason why some of the public do not believe that we should be in Afghanistan, I believe it is cast-iron proof that we should be there.

There are other things that we should and could be doing in Afghanistan. We should be helping to establish a proper judiciary; the French are in charge of that aspect and it seems that relatively little progress has been made. It is estimated that we need to train 62,000 police. The Germans are making relatively little progress in training the police and rooting out corruption in the police force. As with the armed forces, the police need to be given proper equipment.

I do commend the Government for one thing. They have done a good job of helping to reconstruct the Treasury, and it is now bringing in more revenue. The Afghanistan Government are now spending a little more on schools and health and beginning to build infrastructure in the north. The trouble is that Afghanistan is a country of many different parts, and while one part may be making progress, the situation in others—certainly in the south—is getting worse. We do not even hear about some of the provinces, and nobody seems to know, for example, what is going on in Nimroz, the province next to Helmand.

I urge the Government to remember that we are in this fight together and that all western democracies and like-minded nations must co-ordinate their efforts to resolve the problem, by providing human assets and training so that we can build infrastructure or providing military assets so that we can make a real effort to crack down on the Taliban insurgency. Finally, I urge the Government to make every possible effort to lobby the Pakistani Government to seal the porous border with Afghanistan.

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I shall bring the debate to a close with some observations on the current position in Afghanistan, but I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing the debate and on taking the time and trouble to visit Afghanistan with other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Given the nature of the debate, it is important to remind those who have contributed to it that when the Taliban regime fell in November 2001—a very short time ago—it left behind a fractured, impoverished, broken state. In the five years since then, the only constant for the people of Afghanistan has been change. However, with the help and support of the international community, they have effectively rebuilt their nation almost from scratch, and their accomplishments have been significant.

In 2004, Afghanistan held free, fair and democratic elections to select a President. The following year, the people elected a Parliament, and a new National Assembly was inaugurated. The key state institutions are all now in place. Afghan entrepreneurial skills, helped by inflows of reconstruction and development aid, have generated annual economic growth rates of between 9 and 14 per cent. Some 4.5 million refugees have returned to their homes. Women, who were excluded from participation in public life under the Taliban, now make up a quarter of the MPs in the National Assembly. Five million children, 37 per cent. of them girls, are now at school. The health system is functioning, with a 60 per cent. increase in the number of clinics since 2001 and a widespread vaccination programme.

The crucial fact, however, is that much of Afghanistan is at peace. The Taliban have sustained significant losses in the face of determined action by the international security assistance force. In that respect, NATO and British troops have made a significant contribution. In much of the country, ordinary people can go about their daily lives without being at serious risk from terrorism or crossfire. In short, Afghanistan’s rate of recovery since the fall of the Taliban has outstripped that in most post-conflict countries. I recognise, as right hon. and hon. Members have highlighted in this brief debate, that challenges remain, and I shall outline a few of them, but it is important to concentrate on what has been achieved rather than on what must still be done.

Let me emphasise that we cannot win in Afghanistan through military action alone. There is a need to extend the rule of law and the writ of the democratically elected Afghan authorities across those parts of the country where there are still challenges. The Afghan Government want and need to take responsibility for the security of their country and their people as soon as they can. However, until a new Afghan national army and a reformed Afghan national police force have been trained, equipped and fully deployed, international forces will need to remain in Afghanistan. In that respect, work remains to be done, but there has been significant progress. Nearly 30,000 Afghan soldiers and more than 40,000 police officers have been recruited, trained and given the tools to do the job. The Afghan national army has been reformed to make it more professional, accountable and ethnically balanced. More than 62,000 fighters have also been disarmed under the disarmament, demobilisation and rehabilitation programme, and a successor programme to disarm illegal armed groups is in hand.

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The right hon. Gentleman talked about training the police force and the army, but when does he imagine that that will be completed, given that we heard earlier—that the countries undertaking that training appear to be dragging their feet? He describes the most fantastic progress, and there may be progress in the north, but there is certainly no progress in the south, so perhaps he should concentrate more on the difficult situation there, rather than on the rest of the country.

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If I may say so, one thing that almost all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate have overlooked is the plan that was outlined quite soon after British and international forces went into Afghanistan. The operations in the south are the continuation of a plan that has evolved over a number of years. The plan was always that effort would be concentrated in and around Kabul and then in the north, before moving progressively to the east and then the south, and progress has been absolutely consistent with that plan. We always anticipated that resistance, particularly among the criminal and terrorist elements in the south, would be one of the most difficult problems, so it is not surprising that we are facing attacks there; that was always anticipated and planned for. If I may say so, the hon. Lady needs to emphasise the tremendous success that has been achieved in other parts of Afghanistan as the plan has evolved.

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Is the Minister going to use all his time to read his civil service brief or will he make any attempt to answer the points raised in the debate? That is the convention of the House.

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I am sorry that I gave way to my hon. Friend.

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Given what the Minister knows now, and bearing in mind that we have only 30,000 troops in Afghanistan but sent 230,000 troops to Iraq after the invasion of Afghanistan, does he agree that we would have achieved an awful lot more in the past five years if we had sent those 230,000 troops to Afghanistan?

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I made it clear that what has evolved in Afghanistan was planned for and is the continuation of proposals that were set out right at the start. I should also emphasise that there cannot be a military solution alone to the problems of Afghanistan. If hon. Members had had the time, they might have looked more carefully at what has taken place in the north and, indeed, the east, where a sophisticated combination of military effort and the development of the civilian administration has resolved problems. That is particularly significant in the east, where many people said that the problems could not be dealt with. However, the warlords and others who had been in power there, who were not prepared to accept the authority of Kabul, have now done so, and a similar pattern has developed in the west. We have been able to combine the sophisticated use of military force with the skills and ability of administrators from this country and a number of other international contributors to ensure peace and stability and to create administrations in many parts of Afghanistan that are answerable and responsible to the democratically elected President and the parliamentary authorities. That is a huge achievement in a short time, and I only wish that right hon. and hon. Members had given the Afghan people more credit for what they have achieved and, indeed, for what they want to go on achieving with the support of the international community.

None the less, I recognise that there are problems, and I have mentioned some already. Corruption remains a major challenge and good governance needs to be extended. The UK hosted a conference on Afghanistan in London in January last year, which was chaired jointly by Afghanistan and the UN. The Afghanistan compact, which was adopted during the conference, dealt directly with corruption and saw tackling it as a priority for the country’s continued development. Corruption will not be eliminated overnight, but measures are being put in place to help the Afghan Government tackle it in a more effective and sustainable way. Those measures include creating a panel to advise President Karzai on senior appointments below ministerial rank that fall outside the existing civil service appointments board. The panel assesses candidates’ competence and personal integrity and seeks to exclude those with links to illegal armed groups, drug trafficking, corruption or human rights abuses. The President has also established an anti-corruption commission, which is chaired by the chief justice, and which has tasked the Afghan attorney-general with leading the fight against corruption among senior public officials. A number of officials have already been suspended. Together with terrorism, the continued involvement—

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Order. We must now start the next debate.