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Volume 461: debated on Monday 18 June 2007

The Helmand provincial reconstruction team has implemented more than 120 projects to provide tangible benefits to local Afghans. Examples include the building or refurbishing of 12 schools, improvements and repairs to roads and three bridges, six projects improving local health care facilities, and five projects improving the rivers and irrigation canals that enable local farmers to earn a living. We have also constructed a bus station near a major market, which is one of two that have been upgraded with UK funding.

I remind my right hon. Friend of the statement by UNICEF:

“When one woman is abused, exploited or denied, all of humanity is debased.”

I remind the House that the Taliban have banned education for all women, and tyrannised them and their families lest they attempt to enter the process. What is being done to change that?

Among the better indicators of success in Afghanistan, where there are still significant challenges, is the fact that about 6 million children are now in school, 37 per cent. of whom are girls. The Taliban did not educate girls at all. It seems to me that that is exactly what we are doing to address the issue.

It is unrealistic to expect my Royal Engineers colleagues to deliver reconstruction and development in Helmand. The very best that they can do is deliver stability. When does the Secretary of State expect sufficient stability to be provided to enable non-governmental organisations to return in numbers to the province?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has significant knowledge of what is happening in Afghanistan and, in particular, in Helmand province. He will know that there are NGOs operating there, but not in the numbers that we should hope and expect. In my view, the most important development would be getting the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan to open an office in Helmand province. If the United Nations were present that would indicate to NGOs across the world that Helmand province was a place where they could do their business. When I was at the United Nations recently in New York, I spoke about this with the Secretary-General and, indeed, with the person responsible for the security of its people, and I hope that we shall soon be able to make some progress in that regard.

We are now almost half way through the Helmand mission, which was presented as one of reconstruction. The hope was expressed that not a shot would be fired, but 500,000 rounds have been discharged, and we have lost 54 of our courageous soldiers there. It is clear that without the co-operation of the NGOs, who will not operate there because it is too dangerous, very little construction can continue. Is it not time to re-examine the purpose of the Helmand mission so that we can concentrate on attainable objectives that will reduce the number of casualties among civilian Afghans and British soldiers?

The loss of any life is a tragedy and British forces take exceptional care to avoid such incidents as generate civilian casualties. I discussed this recently with my NATO colleagues and raised it with the UN Secretary-General. All agree that avoiding civilian casualties is a matter of the highest priority. This week, of course, showed that the Taliban had no such concerns when they exploded a bomb in the centre of Kabul. That is part of the problem. I know precisely what my hon. Friend is asking me to do, but if he wants me to posture our troops in such a way in Helmand that we hand over the province to people capable of that level of atrocity and brutality, I am not prepared to do so.

The Secretary of State recently said—and not before time—that greater emphasis should be laid on winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan. Why, then, was I told in a written answer of 15 March that only one British Army officer serving in Helmand province has passed the speaking exam in Pashto? Has the Secretary of State been told that in the first three Anglo-Afghan wars, if British officers serving there were to qualify for promotion, they had to be able to speak the local language, although to no avail?

It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman was given that answer on 15 March because it was the right answer to the question that he asked. I accept that there is a challenge for us in the UK to have more native speakers engaged in that area. I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that in my own experience of visiting that area on a number of occasions since I took on my present responsibilities—as with almost all the other parts of the world I visit—a lot more people speak English now than did in those days.

Will the Secretary of State tell us what steps are being taken to reduce the dependence of the rural economy on the opium trade?

Counter-narcotics is, of course, a significant challenge. Although progress has been made in some parts of Afghanistan where security has been improved to a particular level, the production of opium has increased in other parts, including the province of Helmand where we have responsibility. The answer is to develop infrastructure and, in particular, alternative livelihoods for peasant farmers so that we can encourage them to move away from growing poppy, which they are often pressurised into doing by insurgents—and, increasingly, by the Taliban themselves. We are constantly working to improve governance across Helmand province and the south of Afghanistan and to improve the opportunities for local people to generate their livelihoods in an alternative manner.