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Helmand Province

Volume 477: debated on Tuesday 17 June 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Blizzard .]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor. I thank Mr. Speaker for allowing this important debate. Britain is at war, and we have spent too little time discussing and scrutinising what the Government are up to. I also thank the Minister and his team.

I start by paying tribute to our troops who have died in Afghanistan, their families, the injured and those who remain in the Helmand desert.

On 11 September 2001, the west had the sympathy of the vast majority of people in the Muslim world, who were against attacks carried out by a load of nihilist extremists. In the days following those attacks, western Governments—including our own—realised the enormity of the problem that we faced and within months had successfully defeated the Taliban and expelled al-Qaeda from its operating base there. Afghans literally danced in the streets in gratitude for their release from a mediaeval regime and from their hated Arab guests. At that point, there was a massive opportunity to make progress and good will on the part of the Afghan people to accept foreign aid and development. Although General McColl managed to get a tiny £2 million for development from the Department for International Development, the reality in Whitehall was that we were not concentrating on Afghanistan or more generally on al-Qaeda. Instead, we were focusing on a crazy and quite unnecessary invasion of Iraq.

Despite our early success in toppling the Taliban, almost everything we did afterwards undermined the massive amount of good will we had across the Muslim world after 9/11. Today, al-Qaeda are no longer seen as a bunch of extremist crazies; they are, to some extent, seen as heroes fighting against what they perceive to be an arrogant west. I fully accept that—with the possible exception of Iraq—our Government have acted in good faith and realised the seriousness of our situation, but I also believe the way we have executed this operation has been incompetent and half-cocked.

An awful expression that does the rounds in Whitehall these days is, “We are where we are”. So, where are we now in Helmand province? There are 102 British dead and hundreds have been grievously wounded, many of whom would be dead were it not for modern protective equipment. That is why so many people survive but lose limbs. No one knows how many Afghan civilians have been killed and some say that 7,000 Taliban are dead. We should remember that those people are mostly local people with extended families. The Taliban’s in-country command and control is in bits and we have killed many of their experienced commanders and tribal leaders. We might think that that is a good thing, but a newer, younger, more radical group of leaders might be emerging who are less likely to negotiate. That means we are facing more asymmetric attacks.

Despite gigantic spending by the UK, minute amounts of reconstruction have taken place. Last year, there were only 57 doctors in Helmand for a population of more than 1 million people. We have been there for three years, so that has happened on our watch.

Where is the security? To the Afghan population, the most visible sign of the Afghan Government is the Afghan national police. We must do more to get the police under control, because at the moment we are not doing anywhere near enough. The roads and security infrastructure that we have built are often used to make it easier for the police to rob people. The other day, I spoke to an interpreter I used 18 months ago in Lashkar Gah: he told me that a teenager was recently abducted from his small settlement and returned in the most awful physical condition, having been repeatedly raped over three days.

Although the UK has taken the lead on narcotics, heroin production has massively increased. Many millions of small arms, well over 30,000 artillery rounds and probably 100,000 Apache rounds have been fired, but to what effect? I have not been to Helmand for more than a year, but I think I am the only person in the House who has been to Helmand outside the Ministry of Defence, Foreign Office and DFID envelope. I have been there a couple of times at my own expense to talk to and spend time with ordinary Afghans. Before we arrived in 2006, Helmand was a pretty quiet place. There were 40 US troops in the base at Lashkar Gah, and at that time I wandered around the town and asked people whether they welcomed the arrival of the British. They said, “If the British bring security and reconstruction, they are welcome, but if you cannot bring peace and development, you should go home.”

The Afghans themselves will decide who wins in Helmand and whether that will be the corrupt and frankly remote Afghan Government backed by the international community or the Taliban. It is incredibly important to focus on the needs of the ordinary Afghan, because the consent of the people is, in military terms, our vital ground. Three years after the arrival of UK forces, the Afghan civilian population can quite reasonably be disappointed. We still have their consent, but it has declined rapidly and markedly in the past three years. The Afghan people do not want the Taliban back, but that does not mean they will support us.

On the military, when Colonels Worsley and Messenger were busy setting up the provincial reconstruction team and Camp Bastion, others were busy—mainly in Kandahar—writing a joint plan for Helmand province. When 3 Para and Stuart Tootal arrived they were accompanied by a huge logistical chain. People were pretty confident that there would be enough troops to secure the area around Lashkar Gah and implement the plan—the ink-spot strategy—whereby development could take place and reconstruction would slowly spread across the province.

General Omar Bradley said that amateurs talk tactics, but professionals talk logistics. At the weekend, a modern British general said to me that he would change that comment: he would say that professionals talk command and control. That was a problem we faced in summer 2006, when there was a massive deviation from what sounded like a pretty reasonable plan. That deviation has set the whole tone for Helmand ever since and has resulted in massive violence. Partly because of that, reconstruction and development have been minuscule.

In summer 2006, we found ourselves with an extremely confused command and control structure. There was the Government here, the chiefs of staff, the NATO command chain, a Canadian brigadier general in charge in Kandahar, a British 3-star in Kabul, a commander of the Helmand taskforce, and the commander of the British forces—the brigade commander for the Paras, who was in an ill-defined and difficult position. At the same time, there were a load of Afghan district governors around Helmand, the governor of Helmand himself, and President Karzai. Those were all conflicting interest groups.

The result of the lack of clear command and control was the decision to dump the Afghan development zone plan and move relatively small numbers of troops to remote locations in the Government district centres in northern Helmand. That turned what should have been a slowly spreading ink-spot strategy into a violently flicked ink splatter. The result of what is now known as the platoon house strategy has been the deaths of dozens of British servicemen and hundreds of civilians.

Inevitably, any thought of development was a low priority when the British were dealing with that very difficult military situation. At the time and since, a number of British officers have complained that although there were things that they could have been doing in those areas, they simply did not have the budget to do them. The number of troops that we had in the new situation was just too low to make them anything more than self-defending targets for the Taliban. Thousands of refugees were created, and the towns sustained large amounts of damage and ceased to function properly. That was hardly the security and reconstruction that the Afghan population had expected.

Later, the military realised that after the platoon house strategy, there was an urgent need to get on with the hearts and minds effort. That was an unintended consequence of the platoon houses. Perhaps not unreasonably, the civilian agencies, including DFID, considered development activity far too dangerous because of the violence. Over time, that has become a problem, born of the military’s view, which is still held, that the civilian effort in Helmand, particularly that of DFID, has failed them.

What of DFID? Even if the military had stayed with the plan and got everything right, there would still have been the difficulty that military personnel could never on their own solve the problem. NATO and our Government understand that all that the military can do is to provide the secure environment in which other things can happen and take effect. We talk an awful lot about the comprehensive approach—security, governance and reconstruction—and it sounds great, but a villager in Helmand could be forgiven for asking where that is and what the British were talking about.

Where is the reconstruction in Helmand? The British effort falls largely to DFID, but that is not an organisation charged with supporting the military effect. It likes to remind us that it is charged by law with the higher purpose of poverty reduction. Its whole philosophy and method of operation means that it is simply not geared to support military operations. As one senior officer put it,

“the military secure areas, but the civilians are way behind the military effort… we are lagging behind the rhetoric…. The problem is that DFID do not see themselves as part of our foreign policy.”

That statement came this weekend from a very senior serving general. People can wag their heads, but that is the truth; it was said by a 3-star or 4-star general this weekend.

DFID believes that the best way to help a country is to support it with long-term initiatives. As one senior DFID official put it to a friend of mine,

“we don’t do bricks and mortar”.

DFID is not there for such initiatives; instead, it wants to undertake long-term projects working with Government Ministries. That is fine in theory, but in Helmand we do not have the time for that. DFID is simply not configured to do what the major on the ground needs to be done before, during or after military operations. It is not configured to help that major to regain hearts and minds.

My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. Does he agree that there is a sad degree of repetition in this debate? Just a few years ago, when we had the debates on the invasion of Iraq, we were repeatedly assured that DFID would be there, just behind the armed forces, and that reconstruction would take place in Iraq. Is it not sad to hear exactly the same story about what is taking place in another country a few years later?

Of course it is a tragedy, but as I will go on to say, we cannot blame the DFID staff for it. The problem is systemic.

Indeed. To follow on from what my hon. Friend says, it was under huge pressure that DFID put people into the provincial reconstruction team in Lashkar Gah, but since they arrived there, they have found it hard to leave the compound. When they do, it is mainly to visit the provincial capital, where the PRT sits. According to another friend of mine, many projects are evaluated on the basis of digital photographs taken by the military. According to a parliamentary answer, the cost of keeping an official in Helmand is £250,000 a year. Of course, a large component of that is security. I accept that some of the work is highly impressive—it ought to be, given the money that is spent. I also accept the commitment of DFID staff, who try to do the right thing.

Another very experienced person I spoke to, who is not entirely unknown to the FCO’s payroll, said,

“DFID only do things in Helmand under duress.”

Someone else, who is well known to DFID staff in Afghanistan, described their working arrangements as “ludicrous, completely ludicrous”, as they work six weeks on, two weeks off.

“The cumulative impact is terrible. They come back from leave and spend the first two weeks catching up. They will also probably find themselves having to do the job of someone who is away on leave at the same time. They might then be able to spend a couple of weeks focusing on the job—then they are getting ready to go away again, to hand over to others without a grasp of the brief. All this in a country where trust and personal relations are incredibly important when dealing with Afghans. And then they are only generally in country for nine months all in.”

I should like to hear later whether the Minister agrees with that assessment and that the working pattern should be changed.

The Minister has had a team of people working on this debate, and I am sure that when he speaks he will list all the wonderful achievements of DFID in Helmand, but unfortunately many people, certainly in the military, would not agree. Anyway, even if we have carried out a gazillion projects successfully in Helmand, what does that really matter if ordinary Afghans do not feel that we have made a difference to their lives?

A friend of mine recently turned down a job working in the PRT. She said that there was no point in going there because she did not feel that she would be able to achieve anything. She said:

“The bottom line is that we need to change. We need to accept more risks in terms of what we do, where we go.”

I think that DFID is sending or has sent about 40 new people to reinforce the civilian effort. It will be interesting to see whether that large influx of people makes a difference. I hope that it does, but I do not know. It may be too late.

Why have we not pumped money into the Afghan and international non-governmental organisations that do exist? Why have we not stepped up the cash-for-work schemes? Why have we not made more use of the local village shuras and got stuff in at ground level? What about the national development programme or the unused capacity of the Bangladeshi charity? Perhaps that is why the Minister is going to Bangladesh later today; I do not know. The Central Asia Development Group has just finished a major project for USAID—the United States Agency for International Development—and has bags of capacity right across the province; why are we not paying it to do some of the work? Why are we not using private companies that will take the risk? I am talking not about men with gun trucks, but about people who can get out a little further. They can be directed by DFID staff inside the PRT. The Germans are doing very well in this respect. Why can we not try to persuade the Germans to get down there and do some of the work? I hope that the Minister will have some answers to these questions.

The new brigade commander in Helmand, the razor-sharp and remarkable Mark Carleton-Smith, went out to Helmand a few months ago, determined to change the focus from dealing with the Taliban to dealing with the needs of the Afghan people. I have no idea whether his initiative is responsible, but I have the feeling that a shake-up is going on in Whitehall on precisely this question of what we do with the civilian effect. Unlike the Minister, I do not have chapter and verse on what DFID has been doing in those years, but I do know that a shake-up is taking place. I shall give the House a taste of it.

For example, the Prime Minister’s delivery unit is reviewing public service agreements on conflicts and reporting to permanent secretaries. A stabilisation and civil effect review has been set up by the Cabinet Office, and the taskforce will report to permanent secretaries on 1 July and to Ministers in September. A couple of things that have been a particular focus for them are specific questions on staffing in the Helmand PRT and risk management for personnel, and the feasibility of producing a framework that incorporates the FCO and the MOD. I would like to hear the Minister’s view of that. The Government are also considering setting up a civilian reserve corps, and a cross-Government capacity for interpretation and translation.

I do not complain that the Government seem at last to have woken up to the fact that there are problems. I do not complain that new staff are heading out there. I do not complain about DFID staff, or that the Government have belatedly sent one their most able people—Hugh Powell—to Lashkar Gah. That was long overdue. However, I complain bitterly on behalf of our troops sitting in the Helmand desert, in the green zone and in remote locations, and I complain bitterly on behalf of the Afghan civilian population, who had such high hopes of us.

I wonder what on earth the Government have been doing. The Defence and International Development Committees go out there regularly. Every time we are given the same good news story, but it is not reflected on the ground. It is like smoke and mirrors, with everyone lying and deluding themselves. That is certainly how it feels from my perspective. As one Government employee put it to me yesterday:

“We realise it is now time to start taking it seriously”.

It is bad enough that, on the home front, money is wasted and spin machines come into action, and that ideas are not executed properly or were half-cocked in the first place. The Government saw great opportunities and important things that needed to be done, such as spending more money on the NHS and health and the new deal, and they won that argument massively. But the problem is that the same arts used when confronting failure here are also applied to Helmand province, and I am sorry to say that the matter is too serious for that.

It may be against Conservative party policy, but I believe that it is time for DFID to come back under the control of the Foreign Office, becoming once again an arm of British foreign policy. The lessons of history tell us that we need unity of command for counter-insurgency. The NATO set-up lacks coherence, and even in Britain people have often not been conducting a single policy. It is time to adopt the Templar model from Malaysia. We need an overarching boss to be in charge, and a committee system. Even in Whitehall, no one is in charge. It could be argued that we have Cabinet Government. Fine, but where is the War Cabinet? As I shall say later, this policy has potentially catastrophic effects for people in Britain.

Let us not kid ourselves. We have been there for three years, but an awful lot of people in Helmand are disappointed, and some of them are pretty angry with us. One of our commanders described it as a

“declining glide path of consent”.

It is like an aeroplane, but we need to watch out or the plane will land. Does the Minister agree?

What should we do? I have focused on Helmand province, but I fully acknowledge that the picture is not gloomy everywhere, that large areas of Afghanistan are at relative peace and that reconstruction development is taking place. However, I guess we should expect that, given the hundreds of billions dollars of taxpayers’ money from across the world being spent there.

I want to shoot a sacred cow. Whenever people talk about Afghanistan, they say, “It is vital that we remain in Afghanistan; we are there to stop al-Qaeda regrouping and returning to threaten us.” That is nonsense on several fronts. First, the effects of our over-ambitious and ill-resourced plan has been further to radicalise large numbers of people across the Muslim world.

We often talk about al-Qaeda and the Taliban as if they are the same thing. There is a significant difference. The Taliban are largely Pathan tribesmen with a traditional and nationalist agenda and no foreign policy. On the other hand, al-Qaeda is a loose international nihilist movement with a highly developed foreign policy and the intent, and, regrettably, sometimes the capability, to conduct mass casualty attacks across the globe. They are two completely different things.

Mullah Omar himself is reported in the late ’90s to have been perturbed at the internationalist agenda of the Arabs that Abdul Haq had invited into the country earlier. Indeed, in 1998 Prince Turki, the internal security Minister for Saudi Arabia and later the Saudi ambassador to London, landed his jet at Kandahar in order to take bin Laden away. Mullah Omar was going to hand him over. Only after a shura to discuss the matter was it decided that they would not hand him over. Some people who know these things better than I do swear blind, although it is surprising to me, with my western point of view, that the only reason why Mullah Omar and the shura decided to let bin Laden stay was the pashtunwali code under which guests are protected.

To assert boldly that al-Qaeda will return to Afghanistan in a meaningful way is almost ridiculous. It is not the same situation as in the 1990s, when we ignored the place. Whatever we do in future, we shall still have an interest there. Since the 1990s, we have had huge signals intelligence, with huge overhead assets and loitering military assets in the sky. Almost every square centimetre of the country has been mapped. If they began to return—I cannot believe that the Afghans would wish to wreak the same disaster on themselves as happened in 2003—we would be able to deal with them.

While we pour life and resources into Afghanistan, that contributes to al-Qaeda successes in the Pashtun tribal belt in Pakistan itself. Pakistan is important to the United Kingdom, as many of our citizens have one foot in there and one in the UK. It is helping radicalisation in the “-stans”, in the Maghreb, in east Africa and across the towns and cities of the Muslim world, including some of our own cities.

The trouble is that by making the link between al-Qaeda and nationalist causes around the globe, we help al-Qaeda. Last week, at a Conservative middle east council event, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) made the following observation, although he was not directly referring to Afghanistan. He said that we need to understand that

“we’re not engaged in a single struggle against a single protagonist. We’re not engaged in a clash of civilisations, and suggestions that we are can too easily have the opposite effect to the one that you intend—it makes extremists more attractive to the uncommitted. Yes of course there are connections between terrorist activity in different parts of the world, but we have be to a little smarter in how we handle those connections. Our aim should be to dismantle the processes, separating each component part rather than just sort of amalgamating them into a single global jihad that just becomes a call to arms.”

I totally agree with my right hon. Friend.

We need a realistic long-term policy for Afghanistan. Does anyone seriously believe that Britain and the west will be able to continue with this relatively large-scale loss of life and spending billions and billions of pounds for many years to come? I cannot see it happening. We know that some NATO countries are wobbling because of the cost and the lives lost. It is time to scale down from what we would like to do to what we are able to do.

I do not pretend to be a great expert, but I have spoken to a lot of people who are—I am talking about people who have been there for longer than a six-month or nine-month tour, or through the changeover and reshuffles and so on. The consensus among them is something like this: we need to accept that large numbers of people in Helmand province are deeply traditional, xenophobic and resistant to change, and that most Afghans hate the Feringhi—the foreigner—especially if they pitch up in armoured vehicles and attack-helicopters. We cannot impose democracy at the point of a gun, so we need to play the great game in a new century and urgently bring the Taliban into the process with a national programme of local arrangements for different areas.

To the Government’s credit, some of that is happening behind the scenes and through various other initiatives that I shall not raise now. However, such a strategy should be brought centre stage, regardless, frankly, of what President Karzai says. We need a sort of “You leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone” approach and a bit of pragmatism. At the same time, we need to support intensively development zones and areas of the country that are at relative peace, reduce troop numbers to those that can be supported in the long term and focus our efforts massively on training the Afghan army and police.

I am not saying that we should disengage militarily. We should have small groups of troops on the ground, working with the Afghans; but it must be their show, and we must accept that it might not be very pretty. We should also be ready, at the drop of a hat, to send in helicopter-borne men with unseasonal suntans at dead of night, and to use missiles or bombs or whatever else at the slightest whiff of resurgent al-Qaeda.

It is time to stop seeing the Afghan Government as the key channel of development. We need development at local level and to let people locally decide what they want. We should let them start to feel some benefit from the presence of all those foreigners in their provinces. I am sorry to say this, and it may not be popular, but important aspirations such as women’s rights and opium production will just have to wait until the reality on the ground catches up. We are there either to fight and defeat an insurgency and reduce poverty or we are not. In short, it is time to get a little bit of peace through reality—we could describe it as the great game crossed with ballistic missile, submarine and special-forces diplomacy, underwritten by massive development spending.

My hon. Friend’s speech is most compelling, but surely the point about the great game was that, again and again, we found ourselves fighting Pashtun tribesmen who were sheltering, because of the rules of hospitality to which he referred, the most repulsive Deobandi extremists, who came mostly from the centres of the big cities of India. I agree with most of the things that he has said, but we must surely recognise that the country’s structure and remoteness makes it an ideal base for similar extremist insurgents to shelter, on the back of those historical rules of hospitality.

What my hon. Friend said is superficially true, but there is a big difference now from the situation 150 years ago. Our intelligence picture is likely to be considerably better and we will have something resembling an Afghan state. We are making a big mistake in the so-called war on terror—I would love to think of a different name because that is not apt. There are lots of broadly nationalist movements in the middle east and we make our problems worse because we lump them together with the super-extremists. We must start to separate al-Qaeda from the Taliban and other nationalist movements in the region. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney suggested, although not directly vis-à-vis Afghanistan, we must dismantle the problems one by one. Take, for example, the Israel-Palestine problem. The Government, massively to their credit, have realised that it is one of the big games in town. We must pursue that approach, because until we get rid of those problems and separate them, al-Qaeda will mix in like those Indian troublemakers in the Pathan tribal belt all those years ago.

That neatly leads me back to the wider picture. I spoke at the beginning of my speech about the drivers of radicalisation. Three years ago, no one outside Helmand had heard of places such as Sangin, Gereshk, Nowzad and Musa Qala. Today, they are clearly on the map and internet sites of the global jihad. I again assert that we are in Afghanistan for well-intentioned reasons, but how does the Minister think that TV news footage of war fighting plays among impressionable Muslims even in this country?

The primary purpose of going to war in Afghanistan was to deny al-Qaeda a safe operating base. We achieved that aim a long time ago. Our secondary objective was the destruction of the Taliban. However, frankly—let us have some realpolitik—that appears to be beyond our means. Commanders can tell us that we are winning until they are blue in the face, and that increasing numbers of suicide and roadside bombings prove that, but, at some point, as in every other insurgency historically, we will have to make a deal with the Taliban. I have some sympathy with the argument that we must beat them to some extent and make them realise that they cannot win before we can make such a deal. Does the Minister agree that now is the time for a deal?

The big strategic challenge for our generation is to win back the good will of all those people who were with us on 11 September 2001. We must do that over the next six months, or over 10 or 30 years. We must take al-Qaeda back to where it was, in terms of popular support across the world, in 2001, which was frankly nowhere. At the same time, in parallel, we must reduce its residual capacity.

What we have been doing in Afghanistan is a long-term liability for the UK. It has been ill thought out and is counter-productive, and it is a further driver of radicalisation around the world and in this country, all of which contribute to our wider strategic failure.

We have lost immeasurable amounts of good will since 11 September 2001 and it continues to haemorrhage away across the Muslim world and Pakistan in particular. It is time to free up resources to deal with the much more serious strategic threats that we will face in the coming months and decades. We need to win back that good will and fight the battles that really matter. When we do those things, we might be doing something to make our people safer.

I am not quite sure how to follow that excellent contribution, which was rather colourful in places. Nor am I sure whom the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) was referring to when he mentioned helicopters and unseasonable suntans in the middle of the night, but he certainly added colour to our proceedings.

It feels like the old gang are back together because the hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) and I visited Afghanistan together as members of the Select Committee on Defence. Thanks to the Pakistan air force, however, I never actually made it to Helmand—that was not because of a clash between the Governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, or because of a war of words, but simply because an innocent prawn cocktail made sure that I stayed in the base in Kabul. I was disappointed not to have made it down to the south to see the provincial reconstruction teams for myself and hear from the troops about their experiences of development work.

As he has shown this morning, the hon. Member for Gravesham has extensive knowledge of Afghanistan and Helmand. He is probably the only Member of Parliament to have visited the country using his own means and to have heard about the situation in the south for himself—without spin and without being influenced by Government officials. I do not necessarily agree with all his analysis and I do not claim to be as knowledgeable as him—I simply go on the information and advice that I receive from various reports—but I am not as pessimistic as him. Excellent work is being done, although there are challenges.

The Liberal Democrats support the mission in Afghanistan, although we recognise that we should not use the grand rhetoric that Ministers have unfortunately used about it, including in the past week. The task ahead is extremely hard. We should not always talk about democracy and human rights in Afghanistan in terms of British standards, and although we should always strive to achieve the best, we should be realistic about what we can achieve.

One of my main criticisms is that we took our eye of the ball in Afghanistan when we invaded Iraq. The efforts of the great minds in the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office were primarily focused on Iraq. Massive numbers of troops were in Iraq at the time, but that was exactly when we should have been investing in reconstruction in Afghanistan, particularly in the south. We should not have started investing five years later, when we had already started to lose the hearts and minds of people in the south.

None the less, the Liberal Democrats support and completely agree with the comprehensive strategy that the Prime Minister set out at the end of last year. There are issues about implementation, but we agree overall with the strategy, which takes a sensible approach.

Distinguishing between the different players in the south of Afghanistan—whether they are Taliban, al-Qaeda, Pashtun or tribal leaders—is difficult. That is why we need the professionals and the military on the ground to determine who is what. People will shift between the different categories at different times, but we sometimes look at these issues far too simplistically. I agree that we should be more sophisticated in our approach to identifying who is hostile and who is not. We should leave it to those on the ground to determine such things. Sometimes we will think that people are friendly, but they will suddenly become hostile again because they fear that those who are hostile will be stronger than those in our military. The answer is to use the military and the professionals on the ground to make the judgments. Foreign Office officials recently got into difficulties when they were negotiating with individuals in the south. President Karzai did not appreciate the fact that they had gone beyond what he thought was their remit. These are difficult issues, and we must be intelligent in our approach.

The Minister might be aware of the Oxfam report “Afghanistan: Development and Humanitarian Priorities”, which was published in January. Oxfam has been very critical of the humanitarian and development effort. In the summary at the beginning of its report, it says:

“While aid has contributed to progress in Afghanistan, especially in social and economic infrastructure—and whilst more aid is needed—the development process has to date been too centralised, top-heavy and insufficient. It is has been prescriptive and supply-driven, rather than indigenous and responding to Afghan needs”,

which is very much what the hon. Member for Gravesham said.

The report covers a huge range of issues. I do not necessarily agree with the tone of some aspects of it, but it is pretty comprehensive. It covers aid effectiveness, governance, agriculture, counter-narcotics, education, health, the protection of non-governmental organisations, community peace building, regional action and the provincial reconstruction teams, and I want to spend quite a bit of time discussing how effective the PRTs have been. However, the main criticism in the report is that the Afghans have been fed a diet of development over which they have had little say, that has been delivered by outsiders and is not good value for money. Before I look at that, however, I want to discuss how much of the aid pledged by foreign Governments has been delivered.

Since 2001, $25 billion of aid has been committed, but only $15 billion has been delivered. I am aware that more money was committed at last week’s conference, but I am not sure how much of it was new money and how much has been delivered already—only time will tell which category it falls into. According to the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief—an alliance of international aid agencies working in Afghanistan, of which the Minister will probably be aware—the US is the worst offender, having delivered only $5 billion of the $10 billion that it has committed. We should be generous to the US because it has committed considerable sums—much more than any other individual country—but there is a difference between pledging and committing. The UK, Canada, Italy and Japan have a good record of delivering on their pledges, but there is still a $10 billion shortfall overall compared with the amount pledged. The UK has a £200 million shortfall for 2002-08. Why has that money not been spent? What, in general, is the Minister’s response to the report?

Another issue picked up by the Oxfam report relates to value for money and local delivery. Large chunks of the aid that is actually delivered flow back out of the country simply because we use external contractors, advisers and consultants, rather than indigenous support. According to the Oxfam report, about 40 per cent. of the money spent by the donor countries, including the US and the UK, goes into corporate profits, consultants’ salaries and other costs. That vastly pushes up the cost of projects, so we get less for the money that we spend.

For example, a road between the centre of Kabul and the international airport cost the US $2.3 million per kilometre, which is at least four times the average cost to the Afghan authorities of building a road. To take another example, a classroom costs $14,000 when built by the Afghan Government, $17,000 when built by NATO, $21,500 when built by a private contractor and a staggering $51,000 when built by an international developer. I am sure that there are sometimes reasons why it is appropriate to use an international developer, but I would hope that this is an extreme case and that such things are not common. My fear, however, is that they are. Perhaps it is far too easy to opt for an international developer.

I appreciate that DFID has a good track record of trying to filter money through Afghan institutions, including the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund, but US aid is bypassing the Afghan civilian Government. What discussions have our Government had with the US Government to spread the lessons learned from DFID’s good practice and to allow the United States to benefit from our knowledge? It is important that Afghans see the money being spent wisely, but it is also important to us to ensure value for money. What monitoring measures are in place to ensure that?

There are about 25 provincial reconstruction teams, led by 13 different nations, and standards and operating practices for each PRT are an issue. Although we do not want complete uniformity, we want some consistency among the PRTs and a general working practice. According to their mission statement, PRTs should

“assist the Government of Afghanistan to extend its authority, in order to facilitate the development of a stable and secure environment in the identified area of operations, and enable Security Sector Reform and reconstruction efforts”.

However, the handbook also says that there should be an interim structure.

Oxfam has criticised the PRTs for going well beyond their remit at the expense of the development of local Afghan institutions and Government structures. Rather than a help, the PRTs could be seen as a hindrance. Whether to use PRTs and quick improvement projects to ensure early delivery is a dilemma. Making immediate improvements to the quality of life in an area demonstrates to the individuals living there the clear benefits for their families of having the British military on site. But if we are trying to build up Afghan institutions, we must sometimes wait, but how long should we wait before institutions are ready to deliver their own reconstruction? Developing their skills and capabilities helps the Afghan Government to gain authority in the regions. That is another part of the parcel.

Security is obviously important. Members might be aware of the story of two Afghan decorators who were hired to spruce up a local school in Musa Qala. Refreshing the rather untidy and unkempt school was supposed to be a good-will gesture to the local community, but during the decorators’ 50-mile trip back to their house after completing the task, their convoy was ambushed. The Taliban discovered that they had been working for the British, and they were promptly hanged.

In that climate, why would any citizen of Afghanistan want to help the British? Their security is not personally guaranteed, and locals are not absolutely convinced that the British will stay there for a long time. In Musa Qala, for instance, we had control and then lost it, and now we are back in. How many Afghans in Musa Qala believe that the British will be there for the long run, and wonder how long it will be before the Taliban come back? Why would they help in those circumstances? I understand the difficulties of trying to build up local structures and local capability for reconstruction, but in that climate—again, I depart from the hon. Member for Gravesham on this point—it is perhaps no surprise that outside agencies are reluctant to enter zones where even the security of Afghanistan’s own citizens is not guaranteed. Again, that is a matter for the professionals on the ground.

It has been asked whether we are too risk-averse. Are we sending the appropriate individuals to such areas to help with indigenous reconstruction? Are we being too timid in our approach? A risk assessment needs to be done. It is not for us to make that decision in this Chamber—it must be made by those on the ground with an understanding of security and safety—but it is a problem. Indigenous reconstruction is not happening at the pace that Oxfam and others would like.

Oxfam says that we should restrict the use of PRTs to situations in which they are absolutely necessary, and the security situation prevents other development. Those are the parameters for risk assessment. The Select Committee on International Development found in its report on Afghanistan:

“If the goal of the international effort is to build up Afghan capacity, PRTs should not perform functions which could be performed by Government of Afghanistan structures.”

I think that everybody would agree with that, but exactly when does that happen? When is it safe to allow external bodies to come in and help with a reconstruction effort that is primarily indigenous? That is a decision for the commanders and professionals on the ground.

Concerns have been expressed about the lack of funds flowing through to the military when the conditions—

Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to draw his remarks to a close in order to give the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman and the Minister time to reply.

Certainly, Mr. Taylor. I am coming to the end of my speech.

There are questions whether funds are flowing through to the military at the appropriate time. Concerns have been expressed that the military do not receive funds when it is absolutely clear that they should in order to complete quick improvement projects, because DFID believes that such reconstruction projects should be conducted by locals.

I have two other points to raise. One concerns police training. We heard from the Defence Secretary yesterday about the progress that has been made on police training. The Government believe that the new format of focused district development is reforming and reconstructing the police forces. I would like to hear what the magic bullet is, because it has been difficult to get the police forces on side in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The other issue is the poppy crop. Concerns have been expressed about the expansion of the poppy crop, but we hear that it is declining this year. Is that due to food prices, or is it a result of some substantial change in the security situation that has allowed farmers to adopt alternative livelihoods?

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), who made an excellent speech. He covered some of the ground that I was going to cover, so I shall not. I thought that he got it absolutely right when he highlighted some of the problems of building capacity in the provinces, and I intend to touch on that matter in my speech.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) on a thought-provoking speech, much of which I agreed with, although a couple of elements I did not. He is absolutely right to say that the Conservative party’s official position is not to put DFID back under FCO control. To take his speech in the round, one of his key points, with which I agree absolutely, is that we need to start looking at the whole question of development in Helmand province from the viewpoint of the Afghan. That is simply not being done to the degree that it should be. We have talked about producing community development plans via community development councils—having spoken with some councillors on my trip there a couple of weeks ago, I shall talk about that—but the fact remains that we are still not Afghan-focused.

For my part, I have not travelled under my own steam in Afghanistan. I have travelled there with the Select Committee on Defence. I also served in Afghanistan for some weeks as a Royal Engineers major in charge of delivering reconstruction and development, so I got to see some of the work at first hand, and I went a couple of weeks ago to see the work of the stabilisation unit in Lashkar Gah. That trip was fascinating, and I shall discuss some of the points that came out of it in a few moments.

In the short time that I have, I shall discuss the role of the stabilisation unit, which my hon. Friend touched on. We in this place are always slightly suspicious when Departments change their name; it is not normally a good sign, so the fact that the post-conflict reconstruction unit magically became the stabilisation unit was a clear sign that perhaps not everything was going well. However, having been to see the stabilisation unit at work in Lashkar Gah, I was encouraged that finally—some would argue that it has taken far too long—we are getting on the right track. The comprehensive approach that my hon. Friend described—security, governance and reconstruction—finally seems to be coming together, and for the first time the UK has produced a UK road map for bringing together the military effect to ensure that it contributes directly to the development needs in Helmand province. We are beginning—painfully slowly—to see the positive benefits of that.

I recall during my time there visiting a PRT in Herat province, which was not experiencing the degree of conflict that Helmand was; we viewed it as the sort of province that we hoped Helmand would be in two or three years. However, I watched the Spanish military commander and the Spanish equivalent of DFID arguing over who was supporting whom and who was in control, which was a clear message that we needed to get the stabilisation unit right to try to put an end to that type of conflict between the military, DFID and the FCO. The one message that we were given—it seems to be quite genuine—is that the unit now has that under control and no longer are the military constantly arguing or vying with DFID over who is doing what and who is supporting whom. I was deeply encouraged by that. In addition, the PRT in Lashkar Gah is now commanded by an FCO official, not a military commander, so that conflict seems to have ended.

This debate is specifically about the military action in support of development, of which I have some experience, as I said, having been a Royal Engineer working briefly in Kandahar and Helmand. While in Helmand a couple of weeks ago, as I talked with some of my colleagues in the Royal Engineers, it became clear to me that great frustrations remain about the speed at which money gets to them for delivering projects that they are asked to undertake, as the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife explained—for example, road-building projects to connect the main towns of the Helmand valley.

Unfortunately, there still seems to be some rivalry over funding streams and who gets what money, and it has been argued that military support would be much greater if the process of getting money through were made faster. Indeed, yesterday in the House, I asked the Secretary of State for Defence that question, but he chose not to answer. As my hon. Friend rightly said, there is a gap between what we can realistically expect DFID operators to achieve in that difficult environment and what they ought to be achieving, given that we are entirely reliant on military engineers to deliver that effect. We have not quite managed to close that gap, but we are making progress. The gap is closing slowly, but until we close it entirely and can ensure a seamless transition, we must ensure that funding streams are available to both equally.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the police, who in any normal country are the first line in ensuring security and governance. It became pretty clear during our trip a couple of weeks ago that the police in Helmand do not have a good reputation. In fact, it was fascinating visiting the head of the counter-narcotics police, who claimed that almost every member of the normal police—if I can call them that—was a drug addict, permanently off their head on some form of drug and completely untrustworthy. They did not have the trust of the Afghan people. Clearly we must do an enormous amount of work in that area, because an effective police force is a key plank in delivering sustainable development in Helmand province.

My hon. Friend also spoke about finding alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers and argued that it might well have to wait until other things have been put in place. He may well be right. In fact, some would argue that very little progress has been made in that area since we have been there.

I was not quite saying that. My point is that we desperately need alternative livelihoods to poppy farming, rather than to pick an argument with Afghan villagers by destroying their crops. Where are those alternative livelihoods?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he will be reassured by what we heard during our meeting with the new governor in Helmand, Governor Mangal. He has drawn up a five-year plan—I hate to call it that, because it conjures up images of Stalinist plans—offering a clear carrot-and-stick approach to poppy farmers. By ensuring that the infrastructure is in place so that goods can be brought to market, he intends in the next few years to offer real alternative livelihoods to try to wean poppy farmers off the need to grow poppies. We were quite encouraged by the plan’s detail.

Clearly, as hon. Members have highlighted, building capacity is at the heart of what we need to do in Helmand province, and Afghanistan as a whole. From my humble experience of working in Afghanistan, I have no doubt that very good work is being done as a result of the majority of DFID’s efforts in Kabul in attempting to build capacity in the national Government, although some Ministries are doing far better than others—as ever, the Ministry for Rural Reconstruction and Development seems to be pushing along very well. However, translating that capacity building down to provincial level, where local Afghans will actually see a difference, is proving to be much more challenging.

During our trip to Lashkar Gah, we met some of the local government officials from each of the Government Departments who have been charged with trying to build capacity locally. What we heard was not very encouraging. Some three years ago, when we first became involved in Helmand, about 200 schools were open in the province, but today there are just 56. That is a direct example of what my hon. Friend was saying: our intervention has, to a degree, had a detrimental effect. Yesterday, when I argued with the Secretary of State for Defence in the House, he denied that those facts were true, but it is what we are being told, not by DFID officials—although they were present at our meeting—but by Afghans charged with delivery.

I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the big problems is that we do not hear any Afghan voices in much of what we do. In my limited experience, the reality experienced by Afghans—on the other side of the barbed wire—is very different from what we hear about when speaking to our officials. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that. It is also very different from what we are told by the media, whose interest is very limited, although Sky News is now running a week-long series of programmes—not before time. We need much more scrutiny.

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a valuable point. When I returned to Lashkar Gah some 18 months after leaving, I was encouraged by the fact that we could get out, which we simply could not have done when he and I went with the Defence Committee. That in itself shows progress, so we should be encouraged. Let us be clear about that.

From talking with local tribesmen and members of community councils—the very people charged with coming up with the community development plans—it became clear to me that a bottom-up approach is being taken in an effort to understand what local tribesmen want, so hon. Members should be encouraged. However, progress is painfully slow, and we need to focus on where it will make the principal difference. I listened to what my hon. Friend said, and believe firmly that DFID should focus its efforts at the local and provincial levels.

Before the Minister responds to the debate, I should like to make one point about the counter-narcotics police, as that is another area in which the Government need to be a little cleverer about how they support local Afghan organisations. We went to see the head of the counter-narcotics police, who turned the air-conditioning on especially for us. They had so little diesel that they could not afford to run the air-conditioning or their local trucks. They had been funded directly by the British Government, but an artificial timeline had been set so that, from the end of March, all the funding that had come directly from the British Government stopped.

We had decided that, by that time, the necessary infrastructure and capacity would have been built up within the relevant Ministry—the Ministry of Justice, I think—and the Afghan Government, so the money was diverted to Kabul in the hope that it would filter down to the provinces and local commanders. However, capacity had not been built into the national system and the money was not coming through. All the sterling efforts of the local commander had gone to pot because he could not get the diesel through his own system, because our Government had decided, completely artificially, that 31 March was the date that funding would stop. That is a clear example of how we need to be a bit smarter when deciding how to help people in Helmand. Artificial deadlines are based on an assumption that capacity will have been built in the provinces, and that simply is not happening. We need to reconsider what is happening there, as that is only one of many examples of how we need to do better.

It is a pleasure to engage in this debate under your stewardship, Mr. Taylor. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) on securing this important and timely debate, which has shown that Afghanistan is a country of extreme complexity that faces enormous challenges. We must not underestimate the scale of those challenges, but there has been genuine progress, to which the British armed forces and Her Majesty’s Government have made a significant contribution.

It will be impossible to respond, in the time available, to all the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised. Time has flown; I had wondered whether there would be enough meat to keep the debate going for an hour and a half with just one or two speakers, but it could have lasted for four or five hours. I shall respond as quickly as possible, but my response will be slightly disjointed because I want to respond to the points that have been made.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman accepted that he does not know chapter and verse. At the risk of sounding slightly unkind, I must say that that was evident in part of his contribution.

I thank the Minister for acknowledging that, but will he also acknowledge that senior people in the military have serious misgivings about DFID’s performance?

I accept that Afghanistan is an extremely challenging place for all who are there trying to make it a better place for the people of the country.

It might be useful if I get straight into the meat of this debate. Following decades of conflict and political turmoil, Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and remains off track in relation to all the millennium development goals, but there has been real progress and life has improved for many Afghans. Let me illustrate some of the achievements since 2001. About 6 million children are in school, more than a third of whom are girls. That number is up from the estimated 1 million children who were in school in 2001, of whom very few were girls as they were officially denied access to education under the Taliban. The legal economy grew by 13.5 per cent. in 2007-08, and 82 per cent. of people now live in districts with access to basic health care, compared with just 9 per cent. in 2002.

Let us be under no illusions that building on those important gains will be easy. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said last week in Prime Minister’s questions, we are in it for the long haul. Neither the Taliban nor illegally armed groups pose an immediate and credible threat to the overall authority of the Afghan Government, but in the south, in particular, security is fragile, which makes it difficult for Afghans to live and work in safety, and for aid workers to operate.

The figures that the Minister has given are for Afghanistan. Can he give us figures for education and health in Helmand?

I am coming to Helmand.

In Helmand, the impact of military operations is that they are setting the conditions for stabilisation, reconstruction and development to begin. The UK has invested heavily in joined-up civilian and military planning. As the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) has rightly pointed out, we have a civilian-military plan for Helmand—the Helmand road map—which is backed by the stabilisation aid fund. Last week, a senior civil servant arrived to be the UK’s new senior representative for Helmand.

To assist with integration and joined-up decision making, the provincial reconstruction team is located with the military headquarters of Task Force Helmand. Of course, success depends not only on an increasingly effective civil-military effect, but on the involvement of the Afghan Government and the Helmand governor. We must always remember that our aim is to help the Afghans to secure and govern Helmand and the wider country themselves, not to do that for them.

Over the life of the PRT, the scale and influence of civilian effort has increased significantly. It has evolved from the relatively narrow concept of backfilling military operations with reconstruction efforts to one of influencing the shape and conduct of military operations. Joined-up civilian-military planning has enabled the UK to shape and extend the reach of stabilisation activities beyond Lashkar Gah to Gereshk, Sangin and Musa Qala. Recent stabilisation efforts in Musa Qala demonstrate the progress in the UK’s civil-military stabilisation operations and may provide a future model.

We do not have figures on education in Helmand, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that DFID funding in Helmand has helped with the construction of 44 km of road, the completion of 851 bore wells and contracts for another 974. It has also helped with the 496 community development councils that have been elected in six districts, which have received more than £5 million in grants for local development projects. In addition, 332 microfinance clients have received small loans to start new businesses in Helmand.

There have been positive moves forward with education in Helmand, including the recent opening of the main school, with 500 pupils and 30 teachers, and the establishment of basic municipal services. With our military operations setting the necessary security conditions, our civilians are promoting stabilisation, reconstruction and development. Since our engagement began in 2006, DFID has spent £23.7 million in Helmand out of a commitment of £30 million from 2006-07 to 2008-09, which has delivered many development gains such as those that I mentioned.

I shall cut out most of what I had intended to say so that I can get to the core of the questions that have been asked. We know that we have a long way to go before Afghanistan can become a safe, peaceful and prosperous nation. The international community and the UK have not got everything right, and there is always room for improvement.

I shall respond to some of the questions that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) asked. Some of his points were also made by the hon. Members for Gravesham and for North-East Milton Keynes. He was absolutely right about the battle for hearts and minds, and I think that we would all agree that that is where victory—if we can call it that—will be achieved. He was also correct that a simplistic approach, such as thinking of the groups involved as a homogenous mass, will not deliver results. There needs to be a more sophisticated approach, and we would like to think that that is exactly what we are moving towards through local empowerment and by moving down to local level.

I am pleased that DFID’s £50 million funding for the national solidarity programme has helped to establish more than 20,000 local community development councils, which build on the model of the local shuras and ensure that local people receive funding.

I am dismayed; we have heard all this before. This is the “good news only” stuff. When will the Government start answering the key questions: are we winning? What more do we need to do? How will we stop the rapid glide path in the consent for our being there? We have heard everything that the Minister is saying before.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has heard it before, but that was not clear from his contribution, so for his sake perhaps I should repeat it.

There are 496 such councils in Helmand. DFID funding also goes to non-governmental organisations across the country, including in Helmand, through the Afghan Government. For example, the Bangladeshi NGO BRAC runs a microfinance programme in Helmand with DFID funding.

On the UK’s commitments and pledges, I say to the hon. Gentleman that we have met our obligations. Our challenge is to ensure that others do likewise, and our mind is focused on that. The UK has spent all that it pledged at the London conference, in the time scale set out. Other donors have yet to honour their commitments, and that is where much of the challenge lies.

At the Paris conference last week, the Afghan Government repeatedly asked the international community to put donor funds through central Governments and not spend off budget. DFID leads on that, providing 80 per cent. of its funding through the ARTF. Many other donors do not, and we encourage them to do as the Afghans ask. That is part of our belief in a country-led approach.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife asked whether the price of wheat was having an impact on the poppy crop. There is certainly anecdotal evidence of farms in the south destroying some of their poppy crop to grow wheat, and land under poppy cultivation may have decreased. It is too early to give a definitive answer.

The hon. Gentleman was right to mention magic bullets, but he is wrong if he believes that there is one in the case of policing. We all wish that there were. On winning hearts and minds, it is interesting that President Karzai said in October 2007, during his visit to the UK, that there was a need for talks with elements of the insurgency, but only those that renounce violence against Afghanistan and the west, and that accept the Afghan constitution and are willing to live in peace. In December 2007, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that insurgencies were ultimately solved at political level, not by military means alone. I think that the hon. Gentleman would concur with that.

Since 2001, we have pledged or spent some £1.65 billion in Afghanistan, and I have described part of the impact of that. The hon. Member for Gravesham mentioned the issue of women, which is incredibly important. It was one of the factors that allowed many people to support military intervention in Afghanistan. Some 60 per cent. of women voted in the 2004 elections, and 27 per cent. of primary school-age girls are enrolled in schools in rural areas and 51 per cent. in urban areas. Some 2 million girls are now in primary schools in Afghanistan.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes was well informed in many parts of his contribution. He is right that there are joint military and civilian planning arrangements in Helmand, which was true from the outset. I would add that civilians and the military are working much closer in Helmand. The provincial reconstruction team is led by a Foreign and Commonwealth Office civilian, who works closely with the military commander, and military engineers work where it is too dangerous for UK civilians or Afghan contractors to go.

I am listening to the Minister’s argument that we are all working together closely in Helmand, but does he not understand that the fact that he was unable to tell us how many schools are open in Helmand is not encouraging? It does not give the impression that we have a grip on what is going on in Helmand.

It would be foolish to suggest that anybody has chapter and verse knowledge of everything in Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman’s point indicates some of the challenges that exist, particularly in Helmand. Nobody is underestimating those challenges.

Hon. Members mentioned the Afghan police. It is true that there is widespread evidence of corruption, poor leadership and a lack of capability in Afghanistan’s police, which undoubtedly undermines the Afghan Government’s credibility. That, in turn, leads to further decline in respect for the rule of law. However, there has been some progress on providing basic training to large numbers of police officers and on the close mentoring of specialist forces. Some 80,000 Afghan police have been trained and equipped. The UK is committed to improving the quality of policing in Afghanistan and has been active in lobbying partners to increase the training and mentoring of Afghan police. Along with Germany, we were instrumental in setting up the EU police mission to Afghanistan. In 2007-08, we contributed about £10 million, and 35 personnel have been deployed to assist with police development.

I do not think that I will, because time is against us.

As I have said, we know that we have a long way to go before Afghanistan can become a safe, peaceful and prosperous nation. The international community and the UK have not got everything right, and there is always room for improvement. For example, we accept that we have not been as successful as we could have been at persuading other donors—