Skip to main content

Afghanistan

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 19 February 2008

There are significant security challenges in Afghanistan, epitomised by the tragic death of a British soldier from the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment on Sunday. However, there has also been significant political progress since 2001. Afghanistan has a constitution, and the first parliamentary elections for 36 years took place in 2005. The Interior Ministry has registered more than 80 political parties, and our Government have funding programmes to increase the participation of civil society in politics. The UK will continue to assist the Afghan Government to build on progress so far.

I join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to the British soldier killed at the weekend and offer our condolences to his family. Following the abortive attempt to appoint Lord Ashdown as the special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, it all seems to have gone rather quiet on that front. Can the right hon. Gentleman give the House an update on progress? It is critical that all the key agencies working in Afghanistan are co-ordinated properly, so that we can build progress not just on the military front, but on the political front, and ultimately be successful.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, he is echoing the Government’s determination to see a strong political figure appointed to that role. The fact that it has gone quiet in the media and on the airwaves is probably a good thing rather than a bad thing, given the difficulties that arose with the previous suggested appointee. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that in my discussions with President Karzai and the Secretary-General of the UN, I have stressed the importance of a timely and early appointment of a new special representative. I look forward to announcements when the Secretary-General and the Afghan Government have come to a conclusion. Like the hon. Gentleman, I think that that should happen sooner rather than later.

The men and women of Her Majesty’s armed forces are doing an extraordinary job in Afghanistan, and some are making the ultimate sacrifice. However, the total number of service personnel provided by Germany, Portugal, Greece, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Sweden, Spain and France is less than the total number of British troops deployed. What is the Foreign Secretary doing to ensure that our European allies bear their fair share of the burden in this fight for democracy?

The hon. Gentleman is right that the UK is the second largest contributor in Afghanistan, with some 7,800 troops. I agree with him that it is critical for all of NATO that there should be the increased burden sharing of which the Prime Minister has spoken. I also assure the hon. Gentleman that the NATO summit in Bucharest in April is an important occasion, and that there are intensive ongoing discussions in advance of it to ensure that there is a proper, increased deployment of troops from European and other countries, not least to help ensure that the Canadians continue their important work.

However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would also agree that it is not only through the extra deployment of overseas troops that progress will be achieved in Afghanistan. Critical, too, is the build-up of the Afghan national army and, of course, the economic, political and social development that must go side by side with military deployment.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that quite a number of hon. Members on the Labour Benches supported the invasion of Afghanistan, owing to our grave concerns about the treatment of women there? Will he therefore give us an update on the position of women in Afghanistan?

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s support in that regard. I think that she would agree that 25 per cent. of the MPs in the Afghan Parliament being women is a start, but that she would also agree that economic and social progress will be critical. One indicator is education, and under the misrule of the Taliban, education for girls was all but banned. The fact that, of the 5 million pupils now in school in Afghanistan, nearly half are girls is obviously a significant start to progress. I can assure my hon. Friend, however, that equal citizenship for all Afghan citizens must bridge the divide in life chances that exists between men and women, and our efforts are certainly dedicated to achieving that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one important factor in achieving sustainable political progress in Afghanistan will be the development of effective systems of sub-national governance, to enable people in the different regions and localities to have a real stake in building a future for democracy in their country? Will he tell me what action is being taken to promote that?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. He will be pleased to know that the decision last August by President Karzai to establish a dedicated national directorate of local governance—led by Mr. Popal, who has respect across the political spectrum in Afghanistan—has been a significant development. It is leading to neighbourhood level councils being established across the country, and I think that that is critical. After all, our own democracy was built from the bottom up, not from the top down. That should apply in Afghanistan as well as elsewhere in the world.

In judging political progress in Afghanistan, has it occurred to the Foreign Secretary how disbelieving Mr. Attlee would have been if he had been warned that, 60 years after he had withdrawn the British Army from the Indian sub-continent, there would be a Labour Government so stupid as to send yet another undermanned, ill-equipped army to the north-west frontier, when, in the preceding century, the British Raj, with all its expertise in Pathan tribal politics, had never been able to pacify the area?

I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree with me that the late Lord Attlee was critical to the foundation of NATO. I think that he would have reflected on the fact that the end of the division in Europe was a signal event that allowed NATO to think beyond its traditional remit. I think that he would also have believed that the values for which we are standing up in Afghanistan are the values that brought him into politics in the first place. So, although I would not want to put words into his mouth, I think that he would rest happy with the knowledge of the efforts that this Government and others—with cross-party support, it has to be said—are using to try to do good in that important part of the world.

Would not Mr. Attlee also have sent a strong message that he left India in order to provide a democratic basis for Indians to make decisions about their own future, just as this Government are trying to do in Afghanistan? Is not that also the message that we should be giving to our European partners? The earlier point raised by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) was right: we are not seeing enough commitment or recognition among our European partners that what is taking place in Afghanistan is about preventing the Taliban from coming back, about preventing the erosion of the rights of women, and about the ability to ensure that the Afghan people are in control of the destiny of Afghanistan.

The chairman of the parliamentary Labour party will know that Lord Attlee wrote a famous book called “Empire into Commonwealth”, which epitomised precisely such values. The Minister for Europe tells me that he read that book as a child, which explains a lot about his later political development—

I am not sure whether it was at nursery; it was at a formative stage of his budding political career, at the age of eight, that my hon. Friend read it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) makes an important point, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. He will be pleased to know that, at the meeting of European Foreign Ministers yesterday, there was an extensive discussion about how the European policing mission could help to provide an important counterpart in Afghanistan, where a European police training operation is in evidence. It could be improved, however, and its co-ordination with NATO could also be improved. That is something that the European Union should be taking seriously.

The Secretary of State can judge the success of our political aims in Afghanistan only if we know precisely what they are. Perhaps he could take this opportunity to clarify them for us. Is the aim to reverse the awfulness of the Taliban, bearing in mind that the Taliban were our allies against Saddam in 1991? Is it to defeat al-Qaeda and to remove the international terrorists, of whom there are many hundreds in Afghanistan? Is it to eradicate the poppy crop, in which case we could be alienating the very people who ought to be our friends? Or are we trying to establish a Guildford style of democracy, with universal suffrage and gender balance? Will the Secretary of State please be clear about precisely what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan?

Along with our international partners, we have a simple aim—for Afghanistan to be run by the Afghans and not to be influenced by outside foreign fighters inspired by al-Qaeda. The hon. Gentleman says that the Taliban were there in 1991, but I have to disagree with him about that. We can have a longer discussion about it, but our political aim is for democracy to take root in Afghanistan—though not necessarily Guildford-style democracy, as I would not want to speak on behalf of Guildford. Afghans should be able to run their own country; it is a very poor country, which deserves to be able to run its own affairs.

The Foreign Secretary made a mockery of the non-appointment of Lord Ashdown to co-ordinate international development. Will the right hon. Gentleman update the House on what is happening with that appointment? When this question was put to the Prime Minister, he ducked it and said it was a matter for the UN Secretary-General. Is not that an example of the sort of indecision that is adding to the problems of Afghanistan? If the fundamental lack of co-ordination between the international community and Afghanistan is not solved, we will see the country fall into civil war.

I can only believe that the hon. Gentleman was either not in his place or not listening when I answered the first question put by his hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), because there was no mockery at all in respect of Lord Ashdown. We supported his candidacy, but in the end the new special representative must be acceptable both to the UN and to the Afghan Government. I can assure the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) that we are talking to and working with the Government of Afghanistan and with the UN to ensure that a new special representative is appointed in a timely fashion. That is not a matter of mockery, but a matter of substance and urgency.

The Foreign Secretary quite rightly pointed out that there were a number of positive aspects to what has happened in Afghanistan in the past, but all hon. Members are only too well aware of a series of more recent powerful reports from national and international bodies, including the International Development Committee, which conclude that Afghanistan is possibly beginning to tip towards failure. Will the Foreign Secretary clarify the strategy of the British Government in what is looking more like a crisis. I fear that there is an element of complacency in his attitude. If we wait cautiously and slowly for the appointment of the new special representative, the position may get completely out of hand, when it has already got far too serious for that to happen.

The situation is far too serious for complacency and I defy the hon. Gentleman to find any suggestion in anything that I or the Prime Minister have said that the challenges we face—security, economic and political—are anything other than extremely significant. We have made that clear in every article, speech or answer that we give, as I did in response to the first question today. However, it is not right to talk about the situation in Afghanistan tipping into chaos or failure. The analysis of the Select Committee on International Development and others, including the Senlis Council, is similar to the analysis set out by the Prime Minister in December, so it is a shared analysis of the economic, political and security concerns that apply in Afghanistan.

As to our own strategy, the Prime Minister set out a number of features. First, the Afghan leadership is important, as we are there to support the Afghans, not to create a colony. Secondly, we want to ensure that we build up the local governance, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) referred earlier. Thirdly and critically, alongside the military effort, we are pursuing an economic and political effort to ensure that ordinary Afghans feel the benefits in their everyday lives. That is what we are trying to engineer. Fourthly, critical to that effort are the responsibilities of both the international community and the Afghan Government to each other: the international community must be better co-ordinated and the Afghan Government must clean up corruption and other problems that have stood in the way of making progress towards a solution in that country.