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Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2008

The UK works to support the Government of Afghanistan at both national and provincial levels through an extensive, co-ordinated programme of development assistance and military support, as well as diplomatic activity. That includes providing support to the local government structures in Helmand. We have frequent and wide-ranging contacts with Governor Mangal of Helmand—the new governor—as well as with the independent directorate of local governance, working together to extend governance and the provision of services in the province.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Given the crucial importance to the whole world of a stable and democratic Government in Afghanistan, can he outline the progress being made in the international community to ensure better co-ordination of economic, military and political assistance to the Government?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are now 46 countries in Afghanistan, and the danger is that the Government of Afghanistan spend all their time in a series of bilateral meetings with each of those Governments instead of getting on with the business of running Afghanistan. The appointment of Mr. Kai Eide as the new UN Secretary-General’s representative in Afghanistan is a major opportunity. My meetings with him suggest that he is a serious figure who has the confidence of all sides, and he will be able to play a co-ordination role at national level as well as the rallying role in capitals around the world that is so important.

What does the Foreign Secretary think the new Secretary-General’s representative will be able to do about improving the security situation in Helmand province, which is where our armed forces are primarily deployed? When will we see some improvement in the situation for our security forces?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the first responsibility for security after the Afghan Government lies with the commander of the international security assistance force, General McNeill. The responsibility of Mr. Eide, the UN Secretary-General’s representative, is to ensure that civilian work matches that military activity properly. The two are two sides of the same coin.

One indicator of improved security in Helmand is the fact that drug production is falling so fast. That also reflects the rising wheat price, which is encouraging farmers to go into farming wheat. In a way, that is a leading indicator of security. That is not to say, however, that our forces do not face serious danger every day that they are doing work. Kai Eide’s appointment, and his professed determination to get to grips with policing issues as a counterpart to the military campaign, is essential. It is in respect of policing that we hope to see the greatest improvement over the next couple of years.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the long term the only way to resolve issues in Afghanistan is through a greater involvement of the Afghani military and police, and the civil structure? The quicker that we establish those relationships, the quicker we can deal with those issues.

Yes; my hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. He will also appreciate that a major contribution will be to ensure that complementary strategies are pursued on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. The fact that the new Pakistani Government have made a commitment to ensure that they tackle terrorism on their side of the border is the sort of activity that will help the Afghans, and get us out of the Afghan-Pakistan blame game, which has too often typified relations between those two countries.

Can the Foreign Secretary outline whether there are any plans to allow the Territorial Army personnel who are currently serving in Afghanistan to join in the commemorations of the centenary of that fine and upstanding organisation?

I have to apologise to the hon. Gentleman because I do not know the answer, but I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence writes to him as soon as possible with the answer to his question.

How does the Foreign Secretary account for President Karzai’s hostility to British political advances in Helmand province when our troops are fighting so bravely there to defend his interests?

I have discussed President Karzai’s alleged hostility with him directly on three occasions. He denies any hostility and insists that he has been misquoted in the allegations that have been made against him. He also insists that he has nothing but admiration for the commitment of British forces, and that of the British people in supporting the role of British civilians and British armed forces in that country.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is important that the Department for International Development works more closely with British military forces on the ground? It is a widely held view by all those who have served in Afghanistan that the Department for International Development, although it does a good job, could do much more if it would swallow the nonsense about not working with people in uniform.

I have talked in Helmand to soldiers and representatives of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. I do not want to associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s allegations but I want to take collective responsibility for the activities of FCO and DFID staff. There is no question but that we need to ensure better civilian-military co-operation. I hope that he agrees that the appointment of a civilian head—as it happens, from the FCO—of the Helmand provincial reconstruction team, who takes office next month, will be the symbol of the proper, high quality civilian-military co-operation that he and I agree is essential.

The Foreign Secretary knows about the complexities of co-ordinating policy in Helmand. What is the Foreign Office view, especially given the new appointment, of conducting negotiations with those elements of the Taliban who may have been active in violence but are now prepared for a more peaceful solution? How will he persuade President Karzai of the importance of such a subtle approach?

The position is clear and shared by President Karzai and the British Government. I sat with the US Secretary of State in President Karzai’s office in Kabul in February, discussing the reconciliation programme. I describe it as a reconciliation programme rather than a negotiation programme for the simple reason that those members of the Taliban who are willing to live by constitutional rules are welcome to do so, and the Government of Afghanistan will bring them into the political system. In that sense, it is not a negotiation—the red lines are clear. Recent evidence from Musa Qala shows that there is a genuine opportunity to bring members of the Taliban, who are not ideologically convinced but make a contingent decision about which side to back, into the mainstream and persuade them that that is where they have the most stable and prosperous future. We are determined to do that.