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Volume 477: debated on Monday 16 June 2008

1. What role the armed forces are playing in providing humanitarian relief in southern Afghanistan. (210788)

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family, friends and comrades of Lance Corporal James Bateman and Private Jeff Doherty of 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, who were killed in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Thursday 12 June. They were young men of remarkable courage and professionalism, and we owe them an enormous debt.

The primary focus of the international security assistance force—ISAF—is to assist the Government of Afghanistan in the maintenance and extension of security. Practical support for reconstruction and development efforts is one of ISAF’s key supporting tasks.

I am grateful for the opportunity to ask that question, and I echo my right hon. Friend’s thoughts on those who continue to give their lives to secure peace and security in Afghanistan—I send them my eternal thanks. Does he agree that the best way for the people of Afghanistan to have confidence in the work that is taking place there is to forge ahead with the health and education programmes that are crucial to that work? Education and health are a basic right, and people in Afghanistan will come to understand that when those programmes are rolled out throughout the country.

From her own professional experience in health, my hon. Friend knows how important health care is, particularly to women. I am pleased to say that, as a result of ISAF’s effect in Afghanistan, 80 per cent. of people now have access to basic health care—less than 10 per cent. did so before. Education offers a long-term sustainable future for Afghanistan, and there are now 6 million children in education, one third of whom are girls. We should remember that the Taliban refuse to educate girls, and they still kill those teachers who educate girls, and try to destroy the schools.

From a parliamentary reply from the Department for International Development, I notice that there is just one single non-governmental organisation operating in Helmand province. Seven years after the invasion, it is astonishing to discover that we cannot invest more and encourage NGOs to do their work. If that is the case, why do the Royal Engineers not have one single Trojan or Terrier vehicle, which would mean that they, instead of DFID, could help the reconstruction and development work? It appears that we have taken over responsibility for the provisional reconstruction team, but we are not doing enough about it.

The hon. Gentleman knows that I respect his informed observations about Afghanistan—he takes a lot of time and trouble to inform himself. I am sure that he will accept that, from my recent visit to Afghanistan, I have seen significant improvements in reconstruction. When I was in Lashkar Gah a couple of weeks ago, 30 projects were under way across that city. I may have more to say later in some detail about what is happening across Afghanistan, but he can be assured, in terms of reconstruction and development, that we, with our allies, are investing $12 million a week in Helmand province alone.

How does bombing, including of civilians, by the US military; hostility to Iran, including incursions; and threats to invade Pakistan’s sovereignty, help the humanitarian effort in southern Afghanistan?

With respect, my hon. Friend always manages to make a partial analysis of what is going on in a country of great complexity. He forgets to remind the House that while civilian deaths caused by ISAF forces are accidental, deeply regretted and always investigated, they are part of the Taliban’s plan. Indeed, they intend to do that, and that is the substantial difference between us. As for his other two observations, I know from my work with Bob Gates, who is the US Secretary for Defence, and from the American Government, that they are doing a significant amount to get the Governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan to work across their common border to deal with insurgent and other terrorist activity that blight both countries, and cause significant difficulties for them. A lot of positive work is under way: I just wish that my hon. Friend would occasionally refer to that as well.

I was in Lashkar Gah the week before the Secretary of State and with reference to his earlier answer he did not tell the House that there are fewer schools and health clinics open in Helmand province this year than last year. One of the principal concerns that I heard from my colleagues in the Royal Engineers is that they are frustrated that, while they have been asked to undertake reconstruction and development work—and progress has been made by the stabilisation unit—the time that it takes to obtain the money for the project is getting longer. What can we do to help that time line?

I do not recognise the statistics that the hon. Gentleman has shared with the House, and they certainly do not correspond with the briefing that I was given.

The hon. Gentleman says that it is true, but I do not recognise those statistics. For example, during the week that I was in Helmand province, the hospital in Garmsir opened for the first time in two years, because of the work achieved by Scots soldiers and Americans working together in that part of the province.

The brigadier in charge of our troops in Helmand province took me through a list of construction projects that were going on and told me a very interesting anecdote about his presence at the opening of a secondary school. It opened for the first time ever, because, after having been built, it had been closed by the Taliban.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the investment of funds not only in quick-impact projects but in long-term development projects. I remind him of what I told the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood): we are currently investing $12 million a week through projects in Helmand province, which is $600 million a year. I think that that is quite a significant amount of money. The ability to invest there stretches the capacity and capability not only of the Afghans, but of our own forces.

May I associate myself with those whose thoughts are with the Paras who died last week? Having visited Afghanistan on a number of occasions, including southern Afghanistan, I have always found morale among our armed forces personnel to be very high, and that they are very proud of what they are achieving in southern Afghanistan. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that we need to keep up a constant battle to ensure that their good work and the sacrifices that they make are kept at the forefront not only of the news agenda, but of the minds of the British public?

In my conversations with our troops on the ground in Helmand province, Kandahar and, indeed, Kabul, very many of them have said to me that their deepest frustration is with the failure of people back in this country to appreciate exactly what progress is being made—the concentration always on the negative and the lack of understanding about how difficult an environment it is. I remind the House that Afghanistan has gone through the best part of four decades of violence and lost 2 million of its own people, and two generations in respect of education. In many parts of the country, only between 17 and 22 per cent. of the indigenous population can read and write. There needs to be some strategic patience with what we are trying to do. Nothing will happen year to year on a metric that meets the demands of some unreasonable commentators on what is happening in Afghanistan.

Is the Secretary of State aware of a report, which was published by Oxfam earlier this year, that found that the provincial reconstruction teams had extended beyond the remit that was originally intended at the expense of delivery by the local Afghan institutions? Does the Secretary of State believe that that is true? If so, how does he think that we can build up the capacity of the Afghan institutions so that they can deliver much more of their own aid, development and reconstruction?

I read many reports written by people about Afghanistan. The reports that I place greatest store by are those from people who are on the ground in Afghanistan, living and working in that environment. There is, however, an issue about provincial reconstruction teams. At present, the second in command of ISAF, who is a very experienced British general, is, at the request of the previous commander of ISAF, undertaking work on provincial reconstruction teams. On the question whether it is time in certain parts of Afghanistan to move from that sort of reconstruction support to longer term development, I think that the general will almost certainly conclude that in some circumstances provincial reconstruction can exist for too long. At present, however, that is hardly likely to apply to the south of Afghanistan, where most of the most difficult work is being done. Reconstruction is at the heart of what we need to do there.