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Volume 471: debated on Wednesday 30 January 2008

I next anticipate holding comprehensive discussions on aid to Afghanistan with my European counterparts at a conference on Afghanistan to be hosted by France this summer. The conference will take stock of achievements to date and donors will make pledges of support to the Afghan national development strategy, the Government of Afghanistan’s own five-year strategy for reconstruction and development that is due to be finalised in March.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply, but does he agree that it is most unfortunate that President Karzai first criticised British intervention in Helmand province and then vetoed Lord Ashdown’s appointment as UN special representative? What will the right hon. Gentleman do to ensure better co-ordination of the aid efforts undertaken by his Department and the hundreds of other aid agencies in Afghanistan?

First, I am sorry that Lord Ashdown has felt obliged to withdraw his candidacy for the post of UN special representative, as he would have served with great distinction and ability in that role. Before he withdrew his candidacy, I had an opportunity to discuss these matters with President Karzai at the end of last week. Although the question of who should be the UN special representative should be discussed with the Afghan Government, the judgment ultimately rests with the UN Secretary-General, with whom I have also therefore taken the opportunity to speak. It is right to recognise the urgency of stronger co-ordination within the donor community, but ultimately the initiative rests with the Secretary-General of the UN.

What role does my right hon. Friend think that specific and targeted EU and UK aid can play in reducing Afghan farmers’ reliance on growing cocaine and poppies, and in reducing the level of violence in the country?

Inevitably and appropriately, because British troops are serving with such distinction in Helmand, much of the coverage of Afghanistan in British newspapers focuses exclusively on the counter-insurgency campaign. It is right to recognise that there has been a significant uplift in poppy production in Helmand but, at the same time, there has been a significant increase in the number of poppy-free provinces in Afghanistan. That speaks to the fact that the key to eradicating opium, which will be a long-term endeavour, is making the environment secure and ensuring the rule of law. That is why we stand four-square behind the Afghan Government in their efforts to find a way forward, not simply in the areas affected by the insurgency but more broadly across Afghanistan.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the recent criticisms voiced by President Karzai and other members of the Afghan Government might have something to do with impending elections? Figures suggesting that UK aid is three times more efficient than American aid reinforce the need to co-ordinate aid and its impact on the ground. Will the Secretary of State use his offices within the international community to engage with other partners to ensure local impact and an understanding by the people of Afghanistan that there is real benefit in partnership, and that a long-term commitment has been made?

The right hon. Gentleman speaks with obvious authority as Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, which recently visited Afghanistan. I assure him, as I assured the Committee, that we are engaging actively with our American partners. When I visited Afghanistan, I met the American ambassador, and I am in regular contact with Henrietta Fore of the United States Agency for International Development. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that discussions with the Americans are going on at every level about how we can ensure maximum impact for international development assistance to Afghanistan.

In his discussions with his European counterparts, will my right hon. Friend ensure that much greater priority is given to reforming the justice system in Afghanistan? Women there are still arrested and routinely jailed for years simply for running away from home or choosing not to marry the man their families have chosen for them. I ask that the issue of gender be given much higher priority as well.

My hon. Friend speaks with great authority and expertise on these matters. The Americans have led on issues relating to the Ministry of Interior while, within the European Union, our German colleagues have done much on police reform. An active dialogue is taking place in the international community about how best we can support the Afghan Government’s efforts. I am encouraged by the recognition at senior levels in that Government of the importance of both the issues identified by my hon. Friend.

During my service in Afghanistan, I experienced at first hand the challenges of trying to deliver meaningful development on the ground. The keys to success, as highlighted by the Afghanistan compact, are capacity building, co-ordination and a bottom-up approach through the production of community development plans. Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the signing of the compact, yet the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development remains the only vaguely functioning Department in the provinces and only a tiny percentage of communities have produced meaningful plans. Why has so little progress been made, and what specific action does the Secretary of State intend to take to address the situation?

I do not share the universally negative view suggested by the Opposition’s Front-Bench spokesman. Of course there is a long way to go and a great deal of work to be done in terms of building the capacity of the Ministries, as I just acknowledged in the case of the Ministry of Interior. On the other hand, real progress is being made. Back in 2001, 900,000 boys were in education in Afghanistan; there are now more than 5 million children in education, and more than 2 million of them girls. More than 9,000 km of roads have been improved since 2001. One force commander told me when I visited Afghanistan that where the roads end, the Taliban begin. Both physical work and social and economic development are under way, but I fully recognise that there is still a long way to go.