I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Few subjects are more important in foreign policy today than security and stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Few subjects are more pressing, and few are more complicated. That is why the Government have initiated this debate and why I look forward to contributions from both sides of the House—not just today, but throughout the year ahead.
This is an important moment for this debate. Pakistan is struggling to deal with its turbulent tribal areas, and Afghanistan faces presidential and provincial elections this year. As NATO approaches its 60th-anniversary summit in April, it faces important questions about its performance and rationale. Furthermore, the new United States Administration are reviewing their approach to both Pakistan and Afghanistan—and, critically, looking at their approaches to those two countries together.
Today I met special envoy Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a man of enormous diplomatic distinction. I warmly welcome his appointment and his strong commitment to working closely with the United Kingdom. I hope that the House will understand if I am not in my place at the end of this debate; I shall be meeting General David Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, or Centcom, and a key decision maker on American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The subject of this debate is the challenge posed by Afghanistan and Pakistan together; the two countries need to be seen together. A mix of violent extremist groups poison the tribal belt on both sides of the Durand line. There are intimate connections between the insurgency in Helmand and that in Waziristan, and between the criminals, spoilers and terrorists who operate in Kandahar and Quetta, Peshawar and Nangahar. A combined and comprehensive approach is needed. However, the responses in each country have to be different. In Afghanistan, a UN-mandated, NATO and EU-supported international effort—military and civilian—helps the Government. In Pakistan, the international community must play a different role in supporting the new, democratic Government in their response to violent extremism.
Is not part of the problem the fact that Pakistan does not see the world as we do? To a large extent, Pakistan is fixated on its conflict with India and does not consider the insurgency in Afghanistan and its northern territories to be as important as we do.
There is merit in that argument. When I have met the leaders of Pakistan during my four visits over the past 18 months, I have made the point that the modern, mortal threat to Pakistan comes from the terrorism within its own borders. The Government’s and the military’s attention to those problems is imperative.
Our overriding objective in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to deny al-Qaeda a base from which to launch attacks of the kind that we saw on 11 September 2001. That means, first, reducing the insurgency on both sides of the Durand line to the level where it is unable to overwhelm Afghan or Pakistani forces; secondly, preventing core al-Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan—it must be defeated in Pakistan’s tribal areas as well—and thirdly, ensuring that Afghanistan remains a legitimate state and becomes more effective and able to handle its own security.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the difficult conclusion that he reached on that immediate question.
While I very much agree with what the Foreign Secretary said about the main objective in Afghanistan being to deny al-Qaeda the opportunity ever to use the country as a base again, will he specifically endorse the welcome recent comments by the Secretary of Defence Robert Gates in the United States, who said, probably for the first time, that we must lower expectations about nation building, not because those objectives are not desirable but because they cannot be realised in the short to medium term?
I would say two things about that. First, I rather think that Secretary Gates was endorsing an approach to this issue that has been outlined by the Prime Minister and me over the past year and a half. I think that he talked about not trying to build Valhalla in Kandahar; last year, I spoke about trying not to think that genteel British suburbia would be built in Kabul. There is unanimity on that point.
Secondly, it is important to say that in both Pakistan and Afghanistan the sustenance of a democratic state is one of the primary steps towards nation building, so I would not want to get into too strong a distinction. However, I completely agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we should set our objectives at the right level. If people have any sense of inflated expectations, which has not come from this country, I would invite them to visit Afghanistan and Pakistan and realise what the real agenda is.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving way. I always take my lead from my erstwhile neighbour in Edinburgh, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind).
As someone who strongly supported our involvement in Afghanistan in 2001, may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether we have now reached the time when we must recognise the elephant on the doorstep? We are fighting a war in the south-east part of Afghanistan which, in the end, we cannot win. Our objective of setting up a transparent democracy is sinking into the mire of corruption in Kabul. Is it not time that we fundamentally reassessed our involvement in Afghanistan?
If the right hon. and learned Gentleman means that we should withdraw from our commitments to Afghanistan, I do not agree with that fundamental reassessment. It is clear from my experience, and that of everyone I have talked to, that the withdrawal of British and other international forces would lead to the collapse of Afghanistan’s first democratic Government and to the overwhelming of the Afghan state, with very serious consequences. After all, Afghanistan is the incubator of choice for al-Qaeda. For that reason, we have a central national interest in sustaining the ability of the democratic Government in Afghanistan to defend themselves. The critical point, as I shall try to explain, is that we are not in Afghanistan to create a new colony; we are there to enable the Afghan people, the Afghan Government and the Afghan state to defend themselves.
My right hon. Friend will know that the Foreign Affairs Committee is about to begin an inquiry into Pakistan and Afghanistan; no doubt he and Ministers will give evidence to us in coming months. He mentioned the Durand line. Does he agree that one of the fundamental problems in the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan is that the Afghan Government do not accept that border and there is almost open movement between the two countries, which makes it almost impossible to deal with the problem of terrorism and insurgency on both sides?
I would certainly say that disputes over the Durand line get in the way of the sort of co-operation that is necessary. However, as I shall say later, the fact that President Karzai and President Zadari have broken the taboo of the past eight years and are now working together, rather than pointing fingers at each other, is one of the important steps forward that has happened in the past six or seven months.
Having outlined what I see as the objectives, it is important to pay tribute—with the support of the whole House, I am sure—to the soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and women who risked their lives for the mission in Afghanistan. It is also important to recognise the efforts of British diplomats and aid workers who have risked their lives, although under the protection of the armed forces. The armed forces in Afghanistan serve with unflinching courage and professionalism, which I have seen for myself, and they are a credit to the nation. It is right to salute not just their courage but their sacrifice. Some 143 members of the armed services tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan. Their friends and family need to know that the country will never forget them or their loved ones. It is also important to recognise the sacrifices of the Afghan army and police, and of the Pakistani army and frontier corps, as well as the thousands of ordinary Afghans and Pakistanis who have lost their lives in the conflict.
Today, I want to address the Government’s view of the current situation and of the future. The insurgency is changing its shape, but not receding. In parts of each country, the sense of security for ordinary people, as well as for coalition forces, is deteriorating. In Afghanistan, the insurgents are increasingly relying on asymmetric tactics. There has been a fourfold increase in the use of improvised explosive devices in Helmand province over the past year. The Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies reported more than 2,000 terrorist, insurgent and sectarian attacks there last year. It was the most violent year in the FATA—the federally administered tribal areas—in Pakistan’s history.
In Afghanistan, corruption is widespread and is not receiving the treatment it needs. Elections have been set for August, but political uncertainty remains over that debate. Our commitment is to support credible elections in Afghanistan. In that context, I am pleased to commit a further £10.6 million to support the elections, predominantly funded by the Department for International Development, in addition to the £6 million that we have already provided. Our contribution will support election operations run by the independent election commission in Afghanistan.
On the economic front, Afghanistan remains an extremely poor country. Despite growth in recent years, more than half the population still live on less than $1 a day, and last year Pakistan saw its currency tumble and inflation soar. There is, however, another side of the ledger. As I indicated, the lead of Presidents Karzai and Zardari has led to improved cross-border co-operation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. I heard for myself from General Kayani about the new co-operation between coalition forces and the Pakistani forces in the northern part of the FATA.
Over the past year in Helmand, we have seen the Afghan authorities, with our support and encouragement, retake three districts: Musa Qala in the north, Garmsir in the south, and Nad-e ’Ali in the centre. The number of districts under Government control has doubled, and more than half the population of the province are now under the jurisdiction of the legitimate Afghan Government for the first time. A dynamic new Interior Minister, Hanif Atmar, has been appointed and is at last starting to deal with the state of his ministry and critically, the police service that it supervises.
Meanwhile, opium cultivation is down 19 per cent. on last year. The number of poppy-free provinces has risen to 18, covering more than half the country’s provinces, and the legal Afghan economy continues to grow, helped by the record $21 billion of assistance pledged in Paris last June. The benefits of that growth are still very patchy, but today 6 million children are in school, compared with only 2 million in 2002. Many more people have access to basic health care and child mortality rates are falling.
On overseas development aid, when the International Development Committee was there in 2007-08 to produce our report, one of the facts put to us was that the US was spending six times as much on aid as the UK, but achieving only twice the impact on the ground. With the new wish to engage in Afghanistan on the part of the United States, it is the time to work. We are seeing some straws in the wind, with the US beginning to see the UK approach as more effective in the delivery of aid in the more stable parts of Afghanistan.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. However, one of the worst things we can do is to be smug and self-satisfied about our performance and recommend that other countries “copy” us. However, his point that our experience of promoting development of the legal economy, especially agriculture, in Afghanistan will be of widespread interest is absolutely right.
As it happens, I talked to Ambassador Holbrooke this morning about the wheat distribution programme that has been developed by Governor Mangal in Helmand, which I saw for myself when I visited Garmsir last year. That programme is helping farmers to choose legal production rather than opium production, which is significant. I also spoke to Secretary Clinton, who has bold ideas about how she wants to reconfigure the US aid effort. I think that I am right in saying that there are a large number of funding streams to Afghanistan from the US development effort, and we certainly want to work closely with the US as it reviews that matter.
Did Secretary Clinton mention anything about reconciliation and bringing the Taliban and organisations such as Hizb-e-Islami into the political process? Is it true that President Karzai called for a jihad against us in a Cabinet meeting recently?
I have seen no report to that effect, and whenever I meet President Karzai he tells me that he is very committed to the partnership between Britain and Afghanistan. However, one must acknowledge that although he rightly has a fair degree of anger about civilian deaths, that sometimes spills over into rather more generalised attacks on the role of coalition forces that could give a different impression. The hon. Gentleman asks about reconciliation. I shall certainly address it, as it is an important part of the agenda. I assure him that I will come to that, and if he does not feel that I have covered it, he should intervene again.
The civilian deaths have been a formidable obstacle to our attempts to win hearts and minds. We have heard of a British officer being brought home for allegedly giving information to Human Rights Watch about the extent of civilian deaths. Human Rights Watch claims that there were about 1,600 such deaths last year, and the United Nations Association puts the figure at more than 2,000. What is the Foreign Secretary’s estimate of the number of civilian deaths that were caused last year?
I am not going to make an estimate today, but I am happy to write to my hon. Friend with the best estimate that we have. He is right to say that civilian deaths are a major cause of disaffection among the local population. I hope that he will be reassured that one thing that we are working actively on with NATO command and our American and other coalition partners is how to minimise coalition deaths and promote openness and transparency with the Afghan Government when such tragedies occur.
Of course. In response to the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), it is obvious that when one describes civilian deaths as a tragedy, one is saying that one does not just regret them but regrets them deeply, both for the sake of the individuals concerned and for the message that they send more widely. One of the first principles of British action anywhere in the world is the need to minimise civilian deaths, not just because it is a legal obligation but because there is a moral obligation. It is also a material factor in whether the coalition effort succeeds.
Does not much of the problem with civilian deaths arise from the fact that part of the American force is not part of the NATO operation? Those forces do not appear to co-operate. That part of the American force is careless about what it gets up to. Three times, it has bombed wedding parties.
It is for that reason that General McKiernan is now in charge of both the NATO operation and Operation Enduring Freedom. That is an important step forward and speaks to the need for co-operation between the two forces.
As for Pakistan, the £7.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan that it secured last November has helped to plug the hole in its balance of payments, and it is making progress in implementing the accompanying economic reform programme. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I, along with many others, have urged faster and further action against those associated with the Mumbai attacks, and prosecution and then punishment for those found guilty. Clearly, however, the fight cannot be won by military means alone. Military action needs to be backed by a comprehensive political and economic plan, and that is the prospect that is now held out in the Holbrooke review.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear in his statement to the House on Afghanistan in December 2007, and again a year later, the key to our policy is helping the Afghans stabilise and govern their country. Let me highlight today three important issues for the future, including reconciliation, which the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) mentioned.
The first principle of our policy is to build the capacity of the Afghan state to root out the insurgency and provide basic security and justice for its citizens. By building up the Afghan national army—now around 60,000 or 65,000 strong—and creating an Afghan national police force worthy of its name, we are working to strengthen indigenous Afghan capacity for the long term. In creating systems of governance and of justice, at district, provincial and national level, we are trying to ensure sustainability by working with the grain of Afghan tradition.
The Department for International Development’s work to reform the civil service and ensure transparent allocation of Government funds will help make the state more credible and more effective at delivering basic services. By supporting 18,000 community development councils, and providing small business loans to more than 280,000 Afghan women, the Department is empowering some of the poorest communities to take more responsibility for their security and development.
The second element that I want to highlight is political reconciliation. Al-Qaeda draws its support from being part of a wider insurgency that seeks to usurp the authority of the state. However, the insurgents are neither strong nor united. They have different motivations and come from different backgrounds: ideological Taliban, $10-a-day Taliban, fighters from beyond the region, criminals and narco-traffickers, warlords and wannabe local power brokers.
The insurgents are not popular. In poll after poll, the people say that they have tried Taliban rule and detested the experience. However, they dread their return, and doubt the local authorities’ ability to resist them, so they hedge their bets. They support them out of fear rather than free will.
Our strategy is to help the Afghan Government divide the insurgency, and co-opt those who are prepared to renounce al-Qaeda, obey the laws and accept the principles of the Afghan constitution. Equipping the Afghan authorities with the means and the authority to conduct such reconciliation activity both nationally and—critically, in my view, locally—is key to the future.
Thirdly, there is military force. By pressurising those who refuse to co-operate with the Afghan state, and protecting those who do, it can directly support political reconciliation. By enabling the Afghans to secure and stabilise their territory, then delivering aid and promoting development, the military show not only that the insurgents can be defeated, but what is possible once they have gone.
There is no purely military solution to the problems of insurgency and disorder in Helmand or across Afghanistan generally. However, equally, there is no non-military solution. That is why our approach—creating a combined civil-military mission in Helmand, staffed by some 65 civilians and some 55 military officers, and led by a civilian—has been so important, and, I believe, right. It is also why, when I say that Britain is in Afghanistan as part of an international effort, I refer not only to the NATO-led military force of some 41 nations, but the civil alliance, which encompasses some 60 nations and international organisations.
My right hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. Does he recall that we had a military surge in Helmand province, as a result of which the number of British deaths increased from seven in 2006 to 143 now? Will not any military surge by NATO be met by an even bigger surge by the Taliban?
It depends. If my hon. Friend is saying that a military surge must be accompanied by a political and an economic surge if it is to succeed, he is right. That is the essence of what we are trying to do. Before we went there, Helmand was ungoverned space—certainly, it was not governed by the Kabul authorities. Although my hon. Friend is right to point to the high number of deaths on the British side, it is also right to say that, for the first time, more than half the province is being properly governed—not by us, but by Governor Mangal. That must be a step forward.
The Government are determined to improve donor co-ordination, and to strengthen the role of the excellent UN special representative of the Secretary-General and his mission. We talk a lot about improving Afghan governance, and it is important to put on record our commitment to improving international governance, too. The Afghan authorities are right when they say that too much of the international effort is confused or confusing, and too much of it fails to get maximum, optimum benefit—
I know that the hon. Gentleman believes that a sinner that repenteth is worth double, but I do not believe that the Government have sinned in the matter, because of our arguments for reforming the international system, not least since before the appointment of the new special representative and all that went with that about a year ago, and our placing the need to improve the international effort at the centre of our activities. That is also why we have been active in promoting better burden sharing, not only among the military allies, but in the civilian coalition, through the UK-French helicopter initiative, for example.
I am most grateful to the Foreign Secretary—I will make best use of it. As we are putting the international house in order, may I suggest that the Government put their house in order and open up the discussion that is needed between the military and DFID about how our military forces can use cash instead of military force to achieve the effects that they want? At the moment, our forces do not have access to nearly enough cash. The result is that they resort to military force instead, which is not only much more destructive, but much more expensive.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, which is an important one. It is not fair to say that our military “resort to force” because they have no alternative. They resort to force when they need to. They are the first to say that their success depends on close work with DFID and Foreign Office diplomats. The civilian-military mission, and in particular the way that it brings together the British Government’s different resources in the south, points the way forward.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the experience of how the American forces work, in contrast with ours. We will go into our discussions with the Americans not just keen for them to learn from our experience, but keen to learn from theirs, too. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I would say that the caricature of the right hand of the military not knowing what the left hand of DFID is doing is indeed a caricature, and is not accurate.
I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman and we have only three hours for this debate, so in the interests of time, I should probably press on. However, let us see how I get on. If I can get to the end of my speech, I shall try to bring him in.
Let me say a word about Pakistan, a nation of 170 million people faced with growing disorder, which is spreading slowly from the tribal areas. When I visited Islamabad last month, it was clear that both the civilian and the military leadership now recognised the severity of the threat from violent extremism. It is vital that we and other members of the international community support the democratic Government at this time, because a sustained focus on the terrorist threat requires Pakistan to take ownership of the struggle against violent extremism. It also requires determined action to root out existing terrorist networks across the country and prevent new ones from emerging. That means a comprehensive plan to increase security, improve governance and promote economic development in the federally administered tribal areas, FATA—60 years after the creation of the state of Pakistan, the female literacy rate there is below 3 per cent.—in order to complement the military actions being taken there. A sustained focus on the terrorist threat also means working with the Government of Afghanistan on a joint plan to address the insurgency on both sides of the border.
To support that work, the UK is providing extensive bilateral counter-terrorism assistance. As well as providing training to build the Pakistani Government’s counter-terrorism capacity, we have an active campaign to counter the ideology of extremism that feeds support for terrorism. International moderate Islamic scholars and ordinary British Muslims have taken part in the efforts to tackle al-Qaeda’s distorted and divisive message, through public meetings and multi-media campaigns.
We are also providing long-term development assistance, with bilateral aid of some £480 million to help poor and vulnerable people in Pakistan. Over the next three years, Pakistan will become one of the UK’s largest aid recipients, because we believe that tackling poverty and exclusion are key to addressing the underlying causes of the conflict and insecurity in that country. DFID is expanding its assistance in education, for example. We will be increasing our development work in the areas bordering Afghanistan and we recently began work to strengthen the police in Pakistan’s most troubled North West Frontier province. We are also supporting the Pakistani Government’s attempt to stabilise and reform their economy. It is also vital that we mobilise practical and political support for Pakistan from across the international community, for example through the international Friends of Democratic Pakistan group.
I mentioned international co-operation and want to say a word about the regional context of our work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Stability and development in both countries requires the active co-operation and engagement of neighbours and the broader region. A strong relationship is being built between Presidents Karzai and Zardari; there is Iranian investment in western Afghanistan and infrastructure development linking central and southern Asia. The countries of the region have a clear stake. The narcotics trade has hit Iran and Russia particularly hard, and conflict and instability are undermining the trade relationships that could strengthen regional economies and help lift people out of poverty.
The challenge is to build on existing links and turn political will into real change for ordinary people. Afghanistan and Pakistan should use the new excellent relations between their Presidents to build a broader working structure that can deliver concrete progress. Iran must decide that it will focus on positive engagement, rather than using Afghanistan as another opportunity for confrontation with the west. Pakistan needs to show its neighbours that it is determined to address the terrorist threat, and Afghanistan must secure the engagement of the broader region, involving Chinese investment, Indian development assistance and increased Russian engagement.
The people of Afghanistan and Pakistan face immense challenges. Our choice, at great cost, has been to help them to meet them. We do so out of a clear view of our national interest in working with other countries to address terrorism at root. This is the rationale of our mission and, with the majority of terrorist plots against the UK linked back to Pakistan alone, no one believes that the threat is not real.
Does the Foreign Secretary not feel, particularly after his conversations with the Americans, that we can now either go left or go right? We can go the way that we have gone so far, which is leading us to disaster, or we can be a bit more intelligent and work very hard for a political settlement, backed up by force if necessary.
The hon. Gentleman would expect me to say that it is always better to be more intelligent than less intelligent in the way we approach these problems. The burden of my speech today has been to say that there is an opportunity to review what is going right and what is not, and to change what is going wrong and reinforce what is going right. A regional focus is now emerging, which includes Pakistan and not just Afghanistan. That is something that Britain has urged for a long time. There is also a stress on Afghanisation, which was a feature of the Prime Minister’s statement here in December 2007, and an emphasis on civilianisation and localisation. These form a package that can unite not only the coalition but, critically, Afghans and Pakistanis on this difficult and long-term issue.
Our tactics are not static. In the coming months, the organisation of the international effort, its focus and its balance will be renewed. The military and civil approach will be addressed, and international co-operation with the Afghan and Pakistani Governments and people will also be reviewed. However, the strategic commitment to build the capacity of the Afghan state will remain, and strengthening counter-terrorism in Pakistan will be essential. That is the only way to tackle the insurgency. The UK will enter the discussions in the months ahead with clarity about our insights from the past and determination to see a coherent and focused international effort for the future. On that basis, I look forward to taking into these discussions the ideas and views expressed today.
May I begin by welcoming the Government’s decision to hold this all too short debate on one of the most pressing and intractable foreign policy challenges of our time? The Foreign Secretary has spoken of the decisions and reviews that will take place over the coming months. When we come to look back in future years, we are likely to find that the decisions that are made in the coming weeks will have been of decisive importance to the war raging in parts of Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The strategy now being worked on by General Petraeus and the Obama Administration is likely to be the one that leads either to eventual success—however we define that—or to the failure of our hopes for this deeply troubled part of the world.
As matters unfold over the coming months, I hope that the Government will be prepared to give more time on the Floor of the House to these important issues. The Foreign Secretary will know that, for some time, we have argued for regular, detailed, quarterly reports to the House when British troops are engaged in prolonged action, with an explanation and assessment of objectives set and attained, and of the policy intentions and resources allocated for the future. In the absence of such reports, the Government have sometimes elided one stated objective into another less ambitious one, without much formal acknowledgment to Parliament. I will give the Foreign Secretary some examples, because he is looking a bit doubtful about that. For instance, the lead role for the United Kingdom in combating the Afghan narcotics trade was clearly trumpeted in our original objectives. However, the conversion of that lead role into a lower-key partner nation role emerged only in answers to written parliamentary questions.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) has pointed out, we have recently seen a change of tone in how the objectives are spoken of by the US Defence Secretary, in a probably inevitable move away from idealism to realism that we should welcome. However, it was only through written parliamentary questions that we discovered that 17 British officials have, quite rightly, been working with, and effectively embedded within, the American strategy review.
Yes, it is very good, but perhaps Parliament should be informed of these things, without the information having to be elicited all the time through written answers. We were told on 26 November last year in a written answer from the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell):
“A formal review mechanism was initiated this year”—
that is, last year; that
“the first detailed periodic assessment covering the preceding 12 month period will be completed by the end of 2008”
“the House will be informed of the implications of the assessment.”—[Official Report, 26 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 1742-43W.]
However, it is not evident that that review has been completed or that the House has been informed of the implications of the assessment.
The Prime Minister announced a week later that he was leading a review of Afghanistan policy, bringing all the Departments together. I say to Ministers, however, that it is not clear from outside the Government what form that review will take or why the periodic assessment was not complete at the end of last year. From what one can tell from outside the Government, there are several overlapping processes going on rather than a single review. They include a process that the Prime Minister chairs in person but irregularly, trilateral meetings between the three relevant Departments chaired by the Foreign Secretary, an Afghanistan strategy group separate from that, a separate senior officials group and three separate strategy teams within the relevant Departments. I would be happy to be told that matters are better co-ordinated than that sounds, but it puzzles me why this work does not take place as a single integrated review under the auspices of the National Security Committee that the Prime Minister announced in July 2007. A Downing street website lists the responsibilities of that Committee as discussing
“all issues relating to defence and counter-terrorism, including international defence and security”,
but the setting up of separate reviews of Afghanistan policy suggests that the Committee is not working together as an integrated departmental forum.
I make those points because the way government functions is fundamental to the consistent pursuit of a sound strategy and because there have undoubtedly been difficulties in co-operation between the relevant Departments in previous conflicts, which is one reason why I believe there are important lessons to be learned from the circumstances of the war in Iraq and why there should be no further delay in establishing an inquiry into the origins and conduct of the Iraq war.
Turning to the situation in Afghanistan now, it is clear to all of us who have visited that country in recent times that British servicemen and women—and, indeed, the diplomats and aid workers to whom the Foreign Secretary referred—do a job that is often little short of heroic and sometimes literally heroic, fighting in conditions of extreme heat or cold, spending long periods in close proximity to the enemy and using equipment often not originally designed for such situations or terrain.
In the last year, according to international security assistance force officials, there has been an increase of a third in the number of attacks against coalition forces, and of course a huge increase, to which the Foreign Secretary referred, in the number of improvised explosive device attacks in Helmand province against our own troops. All that is in the context of a truly vast country with huge deserts and dramatic mountain ranges. Seeing such terrain with one’s own eyes brings home how difficult it is for relatively small numbers of troops to control that sort of formidable terrain. As the noble Lord Ashdown pointed out last week in an article in The Times:
“We are trying to win in Afghanistan with one twenty-fifth of the troops and one-fiftieth of the aid per head than in Bosnia. And… Afghanistan is much more difficult.”
In Helmand province the scale and difficulty of this challenge have meant that our forces have only relatively small areas under permanent and secure control—a situation that has made the delivery of aid and reconstruction projects extremely difficult and the eradication of the narcotics trade, for the moment, impossible. Our troops do a wonderful job not only in relations with local communities but, of course, in military terms, winning every tactical encounter and often inflicting sustained and serious damage on their enemy. But as we all know, that is not the same as controlling the ground or achieving a strategic victory.
The Taliban’s intended route to a strategic victory is, I think, discernible. It is to confine our forces in Helmand and other NATO forces in difficult areas near their bases, while attacking NATO’s supply lines and beginning to make life more difficult in Kabul itself, so that it starts to feel being closed in on. Following the destruction of a bridge in the Khyber pass in recent days and the apparent intention of the Government of Kyrgyzstan to deny the United States the use of the Manas air base, Ministers may wish to expand at the end of the debate on the outlook for NATO’s supply lines and assure the House that the operations of our troops will not be endangered by any disruptions to military and civilian supplies.
History teaches us that embarking on an attempt to conquer Afghanistan would be a foolish exercise, and military experts would tell us that any such attempt would require many times the level of forces that the United States and the rest of NATO have committed. But that, of course, has never been the objective. Our purpose has been to permit the people of Afghanistan to decide their own future in a way that enhances their own security and livelihoods without presenting a danger to the rest of the world. Success has therefore been predicated on popular support rather than military force on its own, for none of us has ever believed that there was a purely military solution to this conflict.
The great problem now appears to be that support among the Afghan people on a sufficiently widespread basis that the Taliban and its allies would find it impossible to prosecute the war depends on at least four factors being in place. The first is visibly effective reconstruction of the Afghan economy and infrastructure across the country; the second is effective government that is respected and not seen as arbitrary or corrupt; the third is relative security for Afghan families and communities; and the fourth is a perception of inevitable success rather than uncertainty about the outcome.
I think it fair to say that the reason our troops are having such a difficult time in realising the vision of a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan is that at present none of those four essential requirements for their success is in place. The result is, at best, a strategic stalemate, and that is what the current review of strategy, particularly that taking place in Washington, must obviously set out to break.
It is hugely welcome that President Obama has said all along, and said throughout this election campaign, that he would bring an urgent and fresh focus to Afghanistan, and has also said something confirmed by the appointment of Ambassador Holbrooke: that the United States will regard the issues of Afghanistan and Pakistan as an integrated whole. That General Petraeus, whom the Foreign Secretary will talk to later, is at the centre of Washington’s strategic review is enormously encouraging, because he has shown in Iraq a keen sense of the need for political and military progress to run alongside each other. We now await details of the action proposed when the review has been completed. We hope that Ministers here will make a fresh statement in parallel with any announcements made in Washington, rather than the British Parliament’s hearing about what is to happen on CNN one afternoon when we are not expecting it.
The right hon. Gentleman quoted President Obama, who said just before his election “Afghanistan is a priority for me. The solution to Afghanistan is not achievable without the help and involvement of Pakistan, and to secure some stability in Pakistan we must address the Kashmir issue.” I note that the Foreign Secretary did not mention India or Kashmir—probably rightly, as far as he is concerned. I wonder what the shadow Foreign Secretary, who has a freer remit, has to say about that. If he has nothing to say, I shall address the issue in my speech.
The Foreign Secretary probably feels that he has said enough about Kashmir for the moment, and that we are all familiar with his views. Of course we all look forward to the day when India and Pakistan can together find a way forward on that issue. We know that they are often quite resistant to the idea that they can be told from outside what that way forward may be. So rather than expanding on the subject today and getting into difficulties similar to those experienced on the Government Front Bench recently, I will avoid the temptation and continue with the rather interesting points that I thought I was making.
The United States is considering an increase in its military presence in Afghanistan. Indeed, it has announced some increase, which we assume to have been a subject of discussion with United Kingdom officials. In the light of that, may I ask the Minister who will wind up the debate what the Government’s assessment is of the number of additional troops that will be arriving in Afghanistan in 2009? How many of those troops will be operating in Regional Command South, and more specifically in Helmand province, and—crucially for us—what will be the command relationship between US and UK forces operating in Helmand province as part of ISAF?
If the Government are to propose that the level of British forces in Afghanistan should be increased—and there is much rumour of that at the moment—we hope that Ministers will have at the forefront of their minds the serious overstretch of our military resources in recent years, in both human and material terms, as well as the huge contribution that British forces have already made. Conservative Members have long argued for a more rapid increase in the number of helicopters available to support our forces. Some changes appear to have been made, but they have largely related to an increase in flying hours rather than in actual helicopters, with the result that the number of helicopters that was servicing 3,000 soldiers at the beginning then had to service 8,000. We welcome the fact that some of the Merlin helicopters from Iraq will eventually be transferred to Afghanistan, but there remains a serious time gap before this new capability arrives.
I hope that when the Government present to Parliament the result of their review—or the Washington review, perhaps, or a joint review—they will ensure, especially if they are to propose an increase in our British troop levels, that that proposal is accompanied by a clear explanation of the military necessity and purpose of such a deployment. I also hope they will ensure that it is part of an overall strategy encompassing further improvements in the co-ordination of international aid—we have been drawing attention to that for some years, and the Foreign Secretary joined us today in that—and accompanied by a readiness by other NATO allies to increase their effort and, if necessary, to engage in actual fighting, and that it will give some indication as to how the better governance that is central to military success will eventually be achieved. It must be a civil, political and military strategy so that the people of Britain—and, indeed, normal, peace-loving people in Afghanistan—can have some confidence that it will succeed. I do not underestimate how formidably difficult it is to bring such a strategy together and execute it, but even for those of us outside the Government who do not possess all the necessary information and advice, it seems clear that a new strategy must, as a minimum, have all the attributes I have listed, and I hope Ministers will also feel able to say that it must have all those attributes.
In addition, it is obvious to all that one of the key differences between defeating the insurgency in Iraq and the insurgents in Afghanistan is that in the latter case it is possible for them to take refuge on the territory of another country—in the tribal areas of Pakistan. That is one of several reasons why the future stability and success of Pakistan as a nation are fundamental to our security and that of the wider world.
Members in all parts of the House pay close attention to the affairs of Pakistan. We have all expressed the hope that the return of democracy will be for the long term, so that the repetitive cycle of democratic experiment and military intervention that has plagued Pakistan for decades comes to an end. For Pakistan, and for the future of the entire region, this is now a time of great opportunity, but of equally great danger.
It is a time of opportunity because a new, democratically elected Government have come to power, and by all appearances that Government have made a serious effort to improve relations with Afghanistan and understand the importance of combating terrorism. The scale of the attacks on Pakistan itself—most notably and tragically in recent times the bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad—has underlined the fact the Pakistan has no choice as a state but to try to root out terror from its territory.
The danger lies in the sheer scale of the challenge. The federally administered tribal area alone covers more than 27,000 sq km, is not covered by national legislation, and has an impoverished and isolated population. Worryingly, power in recent times seems to be shifting from the traditional assemblies of tribal elders—the jirgas—to militant or neo-Taliban groups. Danger also lies in the economic condition of Pakistan, which is currently facing depleted foreign exchange reserves and an International Monetary Fund loan package but with every prospect of a continuing financial crisis. There have also been serious concerns about the role of elements of Pakistan’s own internal security services.
Our response to this must be serious, large scale and determined. We must do everything we can to help to entrench democracy for the long-term future in Pakistan, to encourage its leaders in their struggle against terrorism and to give financial assistance.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that co-operation between India and Pakistan in combating terrorism is also extremely important, and that it is a tragedy that the people who carried out the Mumbai attacks—who were also responsible for the bombings in Pakistan to which he referred—have been successful in that they have managed to create a situation in which the Indian and Pakistani Governments do not have good relations and are not co-operating?
It would undoubtedly have been one of the objectives of those who carried out those terrorist attacks to make relations between India and Pakistan worse and to reduce the effectiveness of their security co-operation. That is why all of us in the House look to the leaders of India and Pakistan to work together on a range of issues and to co-operate closely on the security challenge that they face.
My right hon. Friend began by saying that we have to tease answers from this Government to understand what is going on. There is no clearer illustration of that than the answers that came back highlighting the fact that there are no Pakistani army representatives in Helmand province and no British Army representatives on the other side of the border, in Pakistan. Pakistan’s army is now making an effort to deal with the insurgency, but because it cannot communicate on the other side of the border, things are going via Kabul. Is that not one example of the fact that there is not a lot of communication? So much more could be done if that situation were improved.
I believe that Pakistan’s armed forces have been making a considerably improved effort to deal with these matters in recent months. I have not looked at the particular point to which my hon. Friend refers but, undoubtedly, if that effort is to be effective, good communication across that border will be required. I shall certainly look at that point, and I hope that Ministers will do so too.
I was discussing the scale of financial aid required for Pakistan. President Obama has spoken of tripling American aid to Pakistan, but he has also said, on the campaign trail:
“As President I would make the hundreds of millions of US aid conditional, and I would make our conditions clear—Pakistan should make substantial progress in closing down the training camps, evicting foreign fighters, and preventing the Taliban from using Pakistan as a staging area for attacks in Afghanistan.”
That must be right.
The Foreign Secretary has pointed out, as Ministers have often done, that the Department for International Development is doubling our assistance to Pakistan over the next three years—it is becoming DFID’s second largest programme in the world. The Opposition support that emphasis on assistance to Pakistan. We are very concerned about what has been happening in the border areas. We receive a lot of letters and e-mails from visitors and those with family in these tribal areas, who are appalled by the increasing radicalisation of young people and by last year’s destruction of 150 government schools, most of them for girls, in the North West Frontier province. We therefore hope that a great deal of that money will go to help in those areas, if that can be done in a secure way; otherwise we will find that a whole new generation of children have been raised under Taliban-style control.
Given our domestic security situation, the presence of British troops in Helmand province and our long-term links with Pakistan, we hope that there will be close British input into the deliberations and mission of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke in his work as the special representative of the United States for Afghanistan and Pakistan. US Secretary of State Clinton has stressed that Ambassador Holbrooke
“will co-ordinate across the entire government an effort to achieve United States’ strategic goals in the region”.
A similarly joined-up approach must be pursued in this country.
The problems that we are debating today are among the most intractable in the world. Some people would argue that they are nothing to do with us, although we know that in such an interdependent world, particularly with regard to our own security, we cannot walk away from them. Others would say that they are hopeless and unresolvable. In my view that is too pessimistic, but it is beyond doubt that we need an improvement in the situation in this region in the coming year. If all the factors of which I have spoken are addressed at the same time and with great energy by the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, by our Government and that of the United States, the opportunity to get these things right will more or less be upon us in the coming months, and the importance of that is underlined by the likelihood that it will not easily recur.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I remind the House that there is an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches and that applies from now on?
I join the Foreign Secretary in apologising for not being able to be present for the winding-up speeches; I long ago accepted an invitation from the Pakistani high commissioner to an event this evening relating to Kashmir.
I also apologise to the House for the fact that I will not be speaking principally about Afghanistan. I recognise the huge achievements of our troops in Afghanistan, which are not mentioned enough. Women no longer come to my constituency fleeing from Afghanistan because of the persecution of women by the Taliban. The emancipation of women since British troops went to that country is one of the huge achievements of our intervention there and the sacrifices of our troops. Women are no longer stoned when they go on to the streets: they can now work and girls can go to school.
I have a long association with Pakistan and have studied and followed its vicissitudes with great concern. I was most recently there to deliver the graduation address at the Institute of Science and Technology in Karachi, which is named after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan who was murdered by the military regime, just as his daughter was murdered only just over a year ago. Those of us who care deeply about Pakistan have been heartbroken by the way in which the attempted entrenchment of democracy has been undermined by spells of military rule.
There have been tragic vicissitudes in Pakistan over the 61 years of independence, but now it is once again a functioning democracy. That democracy was initiated when the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, sat in the Gallery of the House of Commons listening to debates and learning that democracy was the best way for the country that he wanted to found. It is essential that our Government and the US Government in particular work to sustain the parliamentary democracy that has returned to Pakistan and is the legacy of my good friend, Benazir Bhutto.
Of course I agree. Democracy is not just about voting for a Parliament, although that is very important. It is about the values to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and it is essential that they are sustained in Pakistan, which has among other things a very free press, as I have found when I have been interviewed by the press and television there.
It is important that democracy in Pakistan be sustained for inherent reasons, but also because of Pakistan’s key role in this troubled world. We must do all we can to make it a top priority to solve the world’s oldest unresolved dispute—the 61-year-old dispute over Jammu and Kashmir. I have visited Jammu and Kashmir on many occasions—both the Pakistani side and Srinagar on the Indian side—and everywhere I have seen unnecessary suffering that could be eliminated if only rationality prevailed. Both Hindus and Muslims have suffered, and the situation is a tragedy for all the people who live in that beautiful but troubled province.
We are all, I hope, friends of both India and Pakistan. In looking at the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, we do so from the point of view of the burdens and tragedies that it has imposed on both India and Pakistan. As I say, I have been on both sides of the line of control. I have visited a school destroyed by an Indian bombardment and I have visited the Indian military post that bombarded the school. Both sides believe that they are right, and that is the great tragedy in any such dispute. We have to do all we can—much more than we have been doing—to assist in the solution to the problem of Jammu and Kashmir. We have to put it high on the international agenda. After 61 years, it is essential that the voices of the people of Jammu and Kashmir are heard.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, especially as time is short. He will recall that Robin Cook, when he was Foreign Secretary, raised the issue of Kashmir and was trashed to death as a result. He will have seen the way in which some of the British press attacked our right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary because he raised the issue of Kashmir, and how the shadow Foreign Secretary carefully skirted around it. How on earth can we get the matter on the international agenda if our Front Benchers are too timid to raise it?
It is a huge error to believe that the issue is marginal or peripheral in some way. Indeed, not paying serious attention to it is a prime strategic error in the context of what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary have been talking about. First, as I say, it is essential that we act because the voice of the people of Jammu and Kashmir has not been heard for 61 years. If one goes to Muzaffarabad or Srinagar, one meets a disfranchised people. When I went to Srinagar, the Indian Government made a Government house available to me and invited people who had matters that they wanted to raise with me to come and see me. I sat there for seven hours while people told me of their woes and troubles. On a human level, the issue is extraordinarily important.
I would have thought that it was folly not to take that all into account, because we have a confrontation between two nuclear-armed nations. We go on about the worries about nuclear weapons coming to Iran, and I do not disagree with that. We do not say so much about the fact that Israel is a country with nuclear weapons. However, in India and Pakistan we have two countries in perpetual military confrontation that both have nuclear weapons. In the United States Senate, that has been regarded as an extraordinarily serious matter. I hope that we will take into account the fact that war could break out between India and Pakistan at any time.
This matter is also essential because of the disgusting waste of resources in both India and Pakistan spending so much money on armaments. India is said to have 500,000 troops in Jammu and its part of Kashmir. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary referred to the admirable fact that our Department for International Development has provided £480 million of aid for Pakistan. How much more money is Pakistan spending on its military confrontation? How much money is India spending on its military confrontation? We are told that there is a very good chance—
I have high a regard for my hon. Friend, but I have only one minute and 23 seconds left.
We have seen the poverty shown in the film “Slumdog Millionaire”. That poverty exists whether a movie is made about it or not, yet India is wasting unspeakably large resources on its confrontation with Pakistan. Some 100 million people in India are living below the Indian poverty line. A quarter of a million babies in Pakistan die every year because of filthy water supplies. It is essential that we do what we can to bring an end to this unnecessary and tragic confrontation. We have to make that a top priority not only for the sake of the people of Pakistan, India and the beautiful vale of Kashmir but for the sake of all the strategic reasons why we are in Afghanistan.
First, may I pass on the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey)? Unfortunately, he has a prior engagement and is unable to be here for the debate.
I am very pleased that we are having this debate in Government time on the Floor of the House and not as an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall. Afghanistan and Pakistan are vital, both in the international context and for the UK. The Government are right to say that they need to be seen together and as part of the wider region.
History has shown that Afghanistan in particular is fraught with difficulty, especially for any military endeavour. It is fair to say that the whole region has a huge potential for conflict if left unchecked and if we do not succeed in achieving the objectives that we have set out. It is therefore absolutely right that it is a priority for the UK’s diplomatic efforts.
The topic of Afghanistan and Pakistan is a very wide one, and this debate has provoked a lot of interest despite the short time available. I hope that the House will understand that it will be impossible for me to cover every aspect, but I hope to be able to speak about what I see as the key priorities for Afghanistan—support for our troops, tackling the drugs trade and development aid—and the situation in Pakistan.
I agree very much with the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) that, although the debate is very welcome, three hours is not really sufficient. I understand that our time is restricted because of the other business before the House today, but we will need to return to these matters regularly as the situation develops. I hope that, as they have today, the Government will be generous in making time available for us to do so.
The problem of Afghanistan requires a regional diplomatic solution that includes Pakistan and, importantly, Iran. The developments over the past couple of days with the British Council have been especially worrying, but we should try to see them as an opportunity to engage with Iran. It is not in that nation’s interest to have a lawless void of a country on its doorstep, and the problems of the drugs trade and the impact that it is having on Iran have been mentioned already. It is essential that we bring Iran as well as Pakistan and the other neighbouring countries into the discussions. In the Balkans, peace was secured on a regional basis through the Dayton agreement, and we should look at adopting a similar approach in this case.
I very much welcome the willingness that President Obama has shown since his election to engage diplomatically with the countries that are Afghanistan’s neighbours. He has rejected the rhetoric of the war on terror, which undermined some of our diplomatic efforts by lumping everyone into being either with us or against us. It is easy to think of the Taliban as one entity, but that catch-all name covers a wide variety of people. Some of them are al-Qaeda sympathisers and very hard core, but others are more moderate, seeing the Taliban as a way to provide a degree of stability and security. We need to be able to engage and have discussions with them to see whether we can forge a way forward. That is something that our Government should definitely be doing.
I echo the Foreign Secretary’s welcome of Richard Holbrooke to his new role in Afghanistan. I very much enjoyed the letter that my noble Friend Lord Ashdown sent to him through the pages of The Times earlier this week. In the paragraph that stood out for me, my noble Friend talked about the priorities for Afghanistan. He said:
“We need a clear plan and some ruthless priorities. When I was going to Afghanistan in 2008 they told me we had 15 priorities. But if you have 15 priorities, you have none.”
He is quite right: we need to focus on a few priorities and fulfil them properly, rather than do 15 things badly. In his letter, Lord Ashdown outlines three priorities—human security, the rule of law, and governance—that I think have merit.
In relation to human security, if the people of Afghanistan are continually threatened by violence as they go about their daily lives, and if they have no jobs or access to basic essentials such as electricity, water and health care, the ingredients for conflict are present and easily stoked up. However, if we can provide those basic necessities of human security, citizens will have a stake in peace and—crucially—a reason to support the Government.
Perhaps it goes without saying that the rule of law is essential but, if we do not create faith in the Government and the rule of law, the prospects for peace look very dim. However, securing peace will involve tackling the corruption that has been rife in the Karzai Government. To put it mildly, the international community is losing some faith in that Government. New elections may be the solution to that problem.
There is the issue of how the rule of law can be enforced, particularly in the short to medium term. Obviously, we want to move to a situation in which the police force is “Afghanised”—a term that has been used. More troops may be necessary, and Obama has talked about a surge and sending in new troops. It is certainly possible that the UK ought to be prepared to add to the troops there, although given the overstretch that we already face in the military services, the number of additional troops committed would have to be small. Perhaps we should redouble our efforts to encourage our EU partners, and other countries that recognise the vital importance of Afghanistan, to play their part more seriously, and provide the military support that is required if we are to meet our objectives. As I am sure the Foreign Secretary will appreciate, the issue is not just the number of troops; it is also the strategy. Continuing in the same vein as before is unlikely to yield results. Although I support additional troops, I very much hope that the Foreign Secretary will look, with our international partners, at a change of strategy in Afghanistan.
The third priority is strengthening governance. It is easy for us, sitting in our traditional Parliament, to think that the style of democracy that evolved here is the only one that can work, and that we must impose it on other countries. The western style of governance may not be the right answer for Afghanistan. Indeed, there has been more than a century of foreign invasions in that country and attempts to overrule the tribal structures on which Afghanistan is based. History tells its own story; those adventures have not been successful. Trying to go against the grain of the country has not led to success. We really need to consider whether working with existing tribal structures and strengthening them democratically is a better way to approach the situation.
Of course, the Foreign Secretary and shadow Foreign Secretary were right to pay tribute to all the members of the British armed services, and the civilians and aid workers, who are risking their lives in Afghanistan, as well as those from other countries around the world. When the House of Commons takes the difficult decision to engage in a conflict such as that in Afghanistan, we have a real responsibility to give the young men and women whom we send to that country the support that they need. The military covenant, which has worked well for many decades, is coming under increased stress because of the lack of support that many serving members of our armed forces have felt in recent years due to overstretch.
As has been mentioned, 143 British personnel have been killed in Afghanistan in the past eight years, and nearly 100 more have been seriously injured or wounded. In our constituency surgeries, people who served in Afghanistan tell us stories about the lack of equipment. It has certainly touched my heart to hear of the fears surrounding the use of armoured vehicles, particularly Snatch Land Rovers, which have caused the death of seven of our personnel. It is welcome that the Government have finally announced that there will be 600 new armoured vehicles going to Afghanistan. However, they took too long to come to that decision. It was evident a very long time ago that the Snatch Land Rovers were not adequate and sufficient equipment for our troops serving there.
I hope that the announcement will be properly backed up, and that the 600 vehicles will arrive on time. Back in 2007, 96 new armoured vehicles were promised, but according to The Daily Telegraph, only 16 were delivered on time. I hope that we have learned lessons from that experience, and that we can make sure that the new armoured vehicles get to the brave soldiers who need them. The shadow Foreign Secretary mentioned helicopters, which, in a country such as Afghanistan, are vital, as it is very difficult for any foreign army to deal with the terrain. Of course, the enemies there know the terrain and their homeland much better than we do, so helicopters, allowing the swift movement of troops, are absolutely vital.
The other point to make about honouring the military covenant is that we should ensure that the troops we send to war zones have adequate time in between tours to recover, to spend with their families, and to have the semblance of a normal life. That has not been happening to the extent that it should, because of the overstretch. That should be borne in mind when the troops come home from Iraq later this year. They cannot immediately be sent to Afghanistan. We need to take into account their health and psychiatric care needs. That is why a large increase in troop numbers from this country will not be possible.
With regard to opium and poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, clearly the building of a legal economy with secure incomes for citizens is essential. The economy that has developed over the past couple of hundred years has thrived on the trade in weapons and narcotics. As a result, the incomes of many people have relied on the instability in the region, which totally undermines what we are trying to achieve. I read recently that the opiate industry in Afghanistan produces exports equal in value to half of the rest of the Afghan economy, so there is obviously a huge challenge.
Various responses to that challenge have been suggested. The US has often favoured spraying the poppy fields, but that could undermine our efforts to build relationships with individuals and would not be helpful in diplomatic terms. Others, including some hon. Members, have suggested that we should buy up the entire poppy crop and use it for the legal trade in morphine, but again, that would not necessarily do us any favours in building relationships.
The strategy that seems to have had some success is supporting initiatives to move from the poppy crop to, for example, wheat and other agricultural products. As was mentioned, the resulting number of poppy-free provinces increased from 13 in 2007 to 18 in 2008, and particularly in the north-east of the country the scheme has had some success. It is vital that that continues, because the narcotics trade is fuelling corruption, which undermines the rule of law and governance.
On the international development support that we give, there has been some positive progress on some indicators since the fall of the Taliban. Figures for infant mortality show that 40,000 fewer babies die each year. The number of functioning health clinics is up by 60 per cent. So there is some good news, but there are huge problems from an international development perspective, with up to 5 million people facing food shortages and 1.8 million at high risk of malnutrition. Those circumstances continue to undermine the security situation.
The issue that I particularly want to raise with the Government is the distribution of aid, because there is still a tendency in Afghanistan for development aid to reflect donor priorities, rather than Afghan priorities—a tendency to look at Afghanistan from a country perspective, rather than at the totality. Often, when we talk about Afghanistan, we naturally think about Helmand and about our troops who are there, but a more strategic overview is needed. I hope DFID can contribute to that. Oxfam has suggested that the uneven spread of aid is contributing to insecurity, so I hope the Government will take up the issue and ensure that the aid programmes to which all the various international partners contribute are properly co-ordinated to reflect the national priorities, not just the regional priorities, in Afghanistan.
Returning to the security situation, the effort to provide aid in Afghanistan has been hampered by the increase in deliberate attacks on aid workers. There were 30 such deaths last year which, as I am sure the House would agree, is a very worrying development. It takes us back to the initial priorities of securing people’s ability to go about their daily lives and ensuring that the rule of law is respected.
I turn now to Pakistan. It is just over a year since we were having debates in the House following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto so shockingly on 27 December 2007. There was a cautious optimism in the House at the time that the elections would go ahead and proceed peacefully. At the same time there was an acceptance that the situation was fragile and could go horribly wrong. As we look back one year on, it is welcome that elections took place fairly peacefully and that there is a coalition Government and a return to democracy between the Pakistan People’s party and the Pakistan Muslim League. Obviously, that is welcome progress, although we are not quite there yet as there are still major challenges, particularly in the Pakistani Government’s relationships with the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence and the military, and in respect of where the true power and control within the country lie.
It is vital that we involve the Pakistani Government in any of our diplomatic efforts to secure peace in Afghanistan, particularly when it comes to the border regions and the federally administered tribal areas. I had read about the problems in that region, but I was still momentarily stunned by the statistic read out by the Foreign Secretary: female literacy in the region is just 3 per cent. When we discuss international affairs, intense poverty and great problems, we sometimes get away from the human and the individual. However, such a statistic makes us start to appreciate how dire the situation is and how much progress needs to be made. There is a whole range of different indicators. We can see the link between the education of women and the economic development and progress of countries; that literacy situation means that the economic future of the region is also under great threat.
The intention of the Obama Administration to address the threat of the FATA welcome. Securing a border agreement and bringing the region under the legitimate rule of central Government is of utmost importance to international security. It is right that we should work with the Pakistani Government to achieve those goals. None of that will be easy; the challenge for us and our international partners is incredibly difficult.
India has been mentioned. There is little time to go into the issue in great detail, but the relationship between Pakistan and India has clearly been hugely shaken by the Mumbai bombing; that, of course, was the very objective of those attacks. Understandably, there have been very strong words from the Indian Government, but so far there has been no form of retaliation. I think that that is a positive sign that the two Governments recognise the importance of getting their relationship back on track.
Does the hon. Lady accept that the Mumbai attacks against innocent people have damaged the relationship between India and Pakistan? Both countries are victims of terrorism and we must urge them to work together with the international community to defeat terrorism. Pakistan must do its best, using evidence, to bring to justice the perpetrators who are taking refuge in the country. On the other hand, India must accept Pakistan’s offer of a joint investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is right, and the international community should do anything that it can to support the efforts of India and Pakistan to work through the difficulties caused by the attacks. Proper investigation is certainly part of that, and bringing to justice the people responsible would be incredibly helpful.
There was a statement today on the case of Binyam Mohamed, and there is no point in my going over that debate. However, I should say that our action in Afghanistan is to uphold human rights and the universal values that the terrorists seek to undermine. Stooping to practices such as torture would fatally undermine our own case. I welcome the Government’s statement that we never condone torture or allow the practice of it; clearly, there can be no justification for torture under any circumstances. If there is evidence that Binyam Mohamed was not tortured, we need to see it. If there is evidence to the contrary, we equally need to see that, so that those who knew about it and were responsible can be held to account under international law.
In conclusion, I welcome the regional context that the Foreign Secretary set out. Afghanistan and Pakistan must be seen together in a regional frame. Although we have made some limited progress in Afghanistan, there is clearly still a massive task ahead of us. Business as usual will not provide us with the right way forward. We need new and clearly articulated priorities. We have to hope that there is a cause for optimism with the current international good will towards new US President Obama. Perhaps that gives us a little window of opportunity in many foreign affairs issues which should be exploited to the maximum.
As the House will know, my party has not been universally supportive of UK intervention abroad, but in the case of Afghanistan there was consensus not only in the UK but, amazingly, in the international community. The success that we seek to achieve in Afghanistan and in the wider region, including Pakistan, is absolutely vital, not only for the international community but for UK interests, whether in terms of safety and security, counter-terrorism or counter-narcotics. That is why the region must remain a top priority on the Government’s agenda.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in a debate on a matter that is so close to my heart and to which, owing to my origins, I am so deeply connected. I should like to begin by highlighting the strong mutual relations that exist between the United Kingdom and Pakistan arising from their long-standing historical association with one another. I was fortunate that in my youth, when I was growing up and studying at university, Pakistan was a modern, liberal state run according to modern democratic and Islamic ideals in which traditional Islamic values were reconciled with modern, liberal ideas.
However, there was a dramatic change shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The United States Government viewed the conflict as an integral part of their cold war struggle against the Soviets and so saw it as being in their interests to provide assistance to any Afghan-led resistance movement regardless of its fundamentalist and extremist elements. Such support, although successful in achieving the immediate goal of a Soviet defeat, afterwards served only to strengthen the extremists’ hold over Afghanistan and Pakistan. As soon as the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan, the Americans abandoned the people of Afghanistan, leaving the different factions to fight among themselves. No assistance was given with the rebuilding of homes, schools and infrastructure that could have helped the people of Afghanistan to recover and to create a stable and secure democratic nation, capable of countering extremism.
Similarly, after the tragic events that took place on 9/11, which triggered the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, no prior plan was ever conceived to deal with the aftermath. The US-led force devastated what was left of a very poor country that had already been ravaged by war, and yet made no real efforts to invest in it and help it to recover. The people of Afghanistan never saw any visible benefits of change after the defeat of the Taliban. Instead, they have been let down once again by the west, which, halfway through the invasion, shifted its attention towards the invasion of Iraq. That is a mistake which the United States has made before, and we must not allow it to happen again. I therefore thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for having made Afghanistan one of the UK’s top foreign policy priorities. I also commend the Government for the substantial development and stabilisation aid that is to be delivered to Afghanistan over the next few years.
Earlier this year, I led a delegation of hon. Members from the United Kingdom, including my hon. Friends the Members for Livingston (Mr. Devine), for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) and for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern), on a visit to Pakistan, at a time when there were rising tensions between it and India because of the deplorable and vicious attacks, which we must all condemn, on the innocent people of Mumbai. We were all very grateful to His Excellency Mr. Javed Malik, Pakistan’s ambassador at large, who made all the necessary arrangements for our visit. We were very privileged to meet the President of Pakistan, Mr. Asif Ali Zardari, the Prime Minister, Mr. Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, and Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, former Prime Minister and current chairman of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), who during his time as Prime Minister helped to foster better relations between India and Pakistan. He was particularly grateful for the hospitality extended to him by the British Government during his time spent in exile.
We were all honoured to have had the opportunity to meet her excellency, Dr. Fahmida Mirza, Speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan, and the first Muslim woman Speaker in the entire Muslim world. My colleagues and I were tremendously impressed by her passion and commitment to the fragile democracy of Pakistan. Those we met were eager to see Pakistan flourish as a democratic Muslim nation, and emphasised their commitment to ridding the country of the scourge of terror. They also expressed their gratitude for the substantial aid and investment package the United Kingdom Government have offered them to help to redevelop the education system and health care, and to counter the influence of militancy.
We also had the privilege of meeting the Leader of the Opposition, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. He was extremely grateful to the British Government, particularly the British high commission in Islamabad, for their support when he and others were subjected to political victimisation. That made me and all the members of the delegation feel immensely proud. However, all the people that we met were extremely concerned and angry at the continued use of drone attacks by the United States, which they felt were not only counter-productive to their attempts to tackle terrorism, but were actually harnessing extra support for extremist groups. Such attacks are a violation of the sovereignty of Pakistan and we must urge the United States to bring an immediate halt to their use.
We need to understand and appreciate that Pakistan is also the victim of terror, and that it is going through difficult and challenging times, especially bearing in mind the recent assassination of the former Pakistani Prime Minister, Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto—the terrible loss of a great leader. It is estimated that Pakistan has so far lost more than 1,000 soldiers in fighting militants on the border with Afghanistan. At the same time, both countries have been subject to numerous suicide bombings—in the last year alone, more than 2,000 civilians in Pakistan have lost their lives to such bombings.
In conclusion, I must emphasise the importance of a resolution of the Kashmiri conflict in favour of the people of Kashmir. It is perhaps one of the most important issues in this debate, and an area on which both Pakistan and India need our help. It is also an essential part of the road map to a stabilised Afghanistan. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was absolutely right when he said that
“Resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms”.
On the dispute between India and Pakistan, is it not important that the British Government should play a major part in bringing those countries to the table to negotiate on all their disputes, including the recent bombing in Mumbai and in other parts of the country?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. When tensions were high between India and Pakistan in 2002, I remember the British Government and the international community played a major role in easing those tensions and, indeed, brought those countries to the negotiating table to discuss the issues between them.
A political settlement on Kashmir is vital to the future peace and security of the region. Therefore, we must help the Governments of Pakistan and India to work together to reach a resolution as soon as possible. I hope that through the newly elected Administration of President Obama in the United States, combined with the leadership of our Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister, we will learn from our mistakes, continue to build stronger diplomatic relations and work together with the Governments of the region to build a stable and prosperous south Asia that can help to bring peace and stability to the world.
Any student of Afghanistan—the word “Taliban” translates into Pashto as “student of Islam”—will know that there are two permanently dominating factors. One is size, and the other is psychology. When the British Raj was seeking what in those days was called a “forward policy” on the North West Frontier, now called the tribal districts, the great Lord Salisbury, when he was Foreign Secretary to Disraeli, used to send messages to the viceroy urging him to study a larger-scale map. Of course, the viceroy’s failure to do that led to the second Afghan war, which contributed to the fall of the Disraeli Government.
The size of Afghanistan is critical. It is an enormous country of breathtaking beauty—not really a country at all but a huge geographical area occupied by about 40 tribes, many of them of different ethnic backgrounds. They have only two characteristics in common. One is that they hate each other, and the other is that they hate foreigners even more. When they cannot kill each other, they turn to killing foreigners—or vice versa, actually.
The idea that is now spreading that we are going to win people’s hearts and minds is realistically unattainable. The Russians and the British tried to win their hearts and minds by every conceivable method for 200 years. We had an immense number of devoted Old Rugbeians who spoke all the local languages and could pass unnoticed in any bazaar as devoutly Islamic. They knew all about Afghanistan being the home of the cloak of the Prophet. But nobody has ever won the hearts of people in Afghanistan, and nobody is ever going to, because they hate foreigners. It is precisely the intervention of foreigners that is making the problem so bad. The more troops we send there, the worse the situation will get.
As I said right from the beginning, our action does not just destabilise Afghanistan, it equally destabilises Pakistan. People are beginning to see that in reality. It is not just about hotels being blown up in Islamabad. Only a fortnight ago there was tremendous trouble with the Taliban in Swat, which is an enormously long way away from the frontiers and has a totally different ethnic background. The fact is that the situation in Pakistan is getting ever more serious.
I have some knowledge of Pakistan, having travelled about it. I am sorry that my colleague from Oxford days, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), is no longer in his place. He and I were both friends of Benazir Bhutto. My wife and I took Benazir and her fiancé out to the theatre and to dinner three days after her mother had chosen her husband-to-be, whom she had never met before. They were very happy together. The next time that I met him was after he had come out from many years in prison under General Musharraf, and I took them both out to lunch. Benazir Bhutto’s mother was the widow of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was murdered by General Zia, and Benazir’s widower is now President of Pakistan. That indicates the extreme fluidity of Pakistani politics.
One must bear in mind the absolute lack of stability in these countries. What makes it much more serious is that Pakistan is a nuclear power with rockets that, with nuclear warheads, could destroy New Delhi and the area around it. Nobody actually knows who controls that nuclear power—maybe our Ministers do, but I very much doubt it. Even in Pakistan, none of the Ministers to whom I spoke, including Benazir, whom I knew well from her schoolgirl days onwards, knew who controlled the weapons.
We are playing a terribly dangerous game—the word “game” always seems to crop up in connection with the area. We should get out of Afghanistan altogether. It no longer has strategic value. It is not the Russian gateway to India or the crossroads for trade between east and west and north and south. No Afghan was involved in the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban have no international ambitions. Taliban leaders do not like the al-Qaeda Saudi leaders.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many Afghan politicians who visit this country and meet hon. Members, including those in the all-party group, stress the opposite to what he suggests? They want us to be in Afghanistan and they want us to stay there for the long term to help them develop and establish a prosperous and democratic country.
The warlords, who run the place, are quite undemocratic. In the eight minutes available, I cannot make a proper speech on the matter—or any other subject.
However, I will read out four answers that the new Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, gave when she appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the other day for her confirmation hearings, with Senator John Kerry putting pointed, detailed questions. Here are only four of her answers, which are not in consecutive order. First, she said:
“The security situation in Afghanistan in deteriorating and the Taliban is gaining ground.”
Secondly, she said:
“Afghanistan needs a government more able to take care of its people’s needs”.
Thirdly, she said:
“Afghanistan has turned into a narcostate.”
Fourthly, she said:
“The Afghan government is plagued by limited capacity and widespread corruption.”
Now even the planned election has had to be postponed. President Karzai has no popular support. His relations are leading members of the narcotics corruption gangs.
I cannot give way again. I have only one minute—I am sorry.
We should support Mr. Holbrooke, whom I know because we served on the Trilateral Commission for many years together. He is the ideal man for the job. He is as tough as any Afghan and very clever. We now have a new President of the United States, in whom I have tremendous confidence and for whom I have the greatest admiration, and I hope that he will apply his brilliant mind to the problem and get us out of Afghanistan altogether, before Pakistan becomes an enormous threat to the stability and safety of the world.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), who has been the voice of history and the voice of sanity on the subject of our debate for many years.
There were many omissions from the Foreign Secretary’s speech. He inadvertently gave a wholly misleading impression when he suggested, in answer to an intervention, that we have only two choices: to carry on what we are doing or to cut and run. Those are not the only choices—there are many others. As has been suggested, it is possible to do deals. Subtle and complex deals, which are not straight deals with those who are pro-Karzai or pro-west, have been done successfully. That is the way forward. If we do not do deals, we might end up with something like the retreat from Vietnam by the Americans or the retreat from Kabul by the Russians. There is a way we can defend and consolidate some of the gains. Those gains are greatly exaggerated, but there have been some in education and in the position of women in Afghanistan. Unless we do a deal, we might lose them all.
The Foreign Secretary did not mention the surge, which is very much on our minds. Let us go back to what happened in this country. There was universal support, including from me, when we went into Afghanistan, although I did not think that the aims were attainable, particularly the ones to do with drugs. There is no consolation there, in spite of what the Foreign Secretary said. In the past three years we have seen the three largest drug crops ever and the price of heroin on the streets of Britain and France is lower than it ever was. There has been no success there.
We are talking about a country that is hugely divided, as the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle said. I have a constituent who describes himself as the King of Baluchistan. Baluchistan is never talked about, but when Karzai sent in 12 emissaries to bring the Baluchs under control, their reaction was to behead them. Afghanistan is a huge, complex country that has been divided for millennia by tribal jealousies, as the hon. Gentleman described.
Let us look at the idea of putting in the military. Nobody says there is a military solution on its own, but there is nothing else to go with it. We can talk about construction, but although there was great celebration when a turbine was taken to a power station site, it took 3,000 soldiers to guard its passage there over many weeks. We know that the Taliban’s first roadblock is 15 miles outside Kabul, and Kandahar is under their control, apart from a few square miles of compounds controlled by NATO.
I believe that we are mistaking the view of the Afghan people. They were fed up with the Taliban and certainly welcomed us when we went in in 2001. However, the mood now is very different. What we are offering is eternal war—an American in the Pentagon told me that we would be there for generations. If that is the prospect for the Afghan people—either they bring the Taliban back or the Taliban take control, or there is a war in which Afghanistan loses 2,000 civilians a year as a result of bombing—they could move to the view that life might be more tolerable under the Taliban, so we are in a very weak position.
The great worry that we all have is about the extension of the war to Pakistan. Indeed, America is bombing sites in Pakistan now. The battle to win hearts and minds has gone terribly wrong. We should think back to the debate that we had in Westminster Hall in March 2006 and what all the parties to it said. There were interesting contributions from Opposition Members in that debate. As I said in an earlier intervention, at that time only seven British soldiers had died, mostly as a result of accidents.
The Government were warned that going in to Helmand province was like stirring up a hornets’ nest, because we were the Ferengi—the foreigners—against whom there would be jihad again. The view of many Afghans is that their sublime motive in life is to die in jihad, as their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers did. We are sending troops in as targets for people who are looking for their pathway to paradise. When we began our intervention, the hope was—this was said at the time and it cannot be unsaid—that we could go into Helmand province and stay there for three years without a shot being fired. We know now that 4 million shots have been fired, and we will be there possibly for 30-plus years if we continue with this foolishness.
I urge the Government to look again at what is happening. I urge them to take the intelligence of the new US President and General Petraeus, who are clearly subtle thinkers—we are not dealing with George Bush now—so that we can follow in the slipstream of Obama and his policies and look to a solution that is based on negotiation and doing deals. We cannot get rid of corruption. Corruption has been the lubricant of business and politics in Afghanistan for centuries and it will remain so. At the moment the corruption runs all the way up to the family of the President. There are a significant number of new millionaires in Afghanistan as a result of our presence and our spending there.
We have already spent far too much in Afghanistan, in blood and in treasure. We must look to the future. We cannot send our young men and women over there to die in vain in a war with impossible aims that cannot be achieved.
The message that should come from the Chamber today is that there should certainly be no surge. There should be no increase in the number of British troops there; it is madness to believe that that would make any difference. Russia had 100,000 troops there, and there were 150,000 Afghans under arms. The Russians lost 6,500 of their own troops. They were there for 10 years and spent billions of roubles, but they ran away when 300,000 mujaheddin surrounded Kabul. We must ensure that we do not get ourselves into that position.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the best way of ensuring that the lives of British and other soldiers will not be lost in Afghanistan is to work with the people who want to build a properly functioning state with a properly functioning police force and army, rather than simply to give up, walk out and leave the people of Afghanistan to deal with their enormous difficulties on their own?
The Foreign Secretary mentioned the police force, although I do not know whether it was in his original speech. He talked about a police force that was worth the name. The police force in Afghanistan is corrupt. Its officers are unpaid, and their only source of income is to put up roadblocks and collect tolls from the people going through. The situation is far worse now. I have been to some of the presentations given by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) when groups come over here. Of course, there are certain groups and individuals in Afghanistan who have done very well. They look forward to our staying there for a long time, because it is good for them. They have power that they never had before, and they are far more prosperous than they ever were. It is ironic to think that, for every British life lost in Afghanistan, there is almost certainly one additional millionaire in Kabul. That is not the way forward, and we must recognise the seriousness of the position and the hopelessness of the case. We are constantly in denial if we believe that there is a way forward and a solution waiting round the bend.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) fairly set out four aims, and said that none of them was attainable. He said that we were not going forward on any of them. Sadly, however, at the end of his speech, he bottled out and came up with an optimistic ending. I urge Opposition Members—many of whom have spent time in Afghanistan, including serving in the Army, and are very well informed—to make their voices heard to ensure that we do not go ahead with a disastrous military surge that would be answered with a vast surge by the Taliban. The bloodshed among our soldiers and among the civilians would only multiply.
Listening to the thoughtful speech by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) and the splendid speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), I could not help but reflect on my own first ministerial visit to the region in 1982, when I was an Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. At that time, the Soviets were in occupation in Afghanistan. While in Peshawar, I visited an Afghan refugee camp. When the Afghan refugees heard that a British Minister was present, I was required to make a speech. I spoke to 10,000 Afghan refugees, with their rifles and bandoliers, and I said the kind of things that one would expect me to say. I said that we looked forward to their achieving their freedom, and to the day when the Soviet Union would return to its own country.
The speech was translated into Pashto, but what I did not realise was that it was then translated back into English for the English-language Peshawar Times that appeared the following day. When I read it, I saw remarks attributed to me that I did not exactly recall having said. It said that the visiting British Foreign Office Minister had called upon the Afghans to continue the jihad against the Soviet infidel. I was not so worried about what the Peshawar Times had said; my concern was that Mrs. Thatcher, back home, might get a report of it. On further reflection, however, I thought that if she did, she might think that the Foreign Office was not quite so wet as she had previously assumed.
Perhaps I could continue my remarks for the moment.
Of course, the British and western presence in Afghanistan is of a quite different order to the Soviet occupation, and it is important to remind ourselves why we went there. We did not go there to eradicate the poppy trade, to introduce democracy or to give women greater rights—entirely desirable though they be. They were no more the reasons why we went into Afghanistan than why we ever sent our troops into many other countries around the world. We went there because the Taliban Government had given sanctuary to al-Qaeda and had every intention at that time of continuing to do so.
This is crucial. Despite what the Foreign Secretary tried to suggest, the reality is that in the earlier years of the western presence in Afghanistan, as seen in all the speeches made by Ministers, both American and British, we appeared to be giving equal weight to nation building along with the eradication of the Taliban and the political control of the territory of Afghanistan. That was always a very foolish set of assumptions because nation building, although highly desirable, is a matter that will take at the very least a generation to achieve and it will certainly depend on cultural and social factors as it simply cannot be implemented by military means.
The risk that we followed by taking that approach was, until relatively recently, twofold. First, of course, it could not be achieved, so the consequence was failure. Secondly, we risked—as we still do—losing public support in this country and other NATO countries because we did not seem to be delivering the democracy, the freedom from corruption and the end of the poppy trade, which we claimed were our objectives. I noted that Robert Gates, the American Defence Secretary, said three weeks ago that
“the goals we did have for Afghanistan are too broad and too far into the future.”
He acknowledged that America had changed its position, and I just wish that the Foreign Secretary and the than their Government would make a similar acknowledgement rather implying that they had said this all along, when that was not and has not been their position until relatively recently.
If we are to see the continuing elimination of Afghanistan as a base for terrorist activity, we should first realise that we have already achieved that objective. For the year since NATO arrived in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has not been able to use that territory as a base for its vicious terrorist activities; and our objective should be entirely concentrated on how we ensure that that continues to be the case in the future.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but it is not as good as he thinks it is. The fact remains that while the Soviet Union was in effective occupation of Afghanistan, the international community of course used whatever means were available to eliminate the Soviet presence from the country—and it succeeded. The fact that some of the individuals in the mujaheddin—some, not all—went on to become international terrorists is not a matter for which either the United States or anyone other than the individuals concerned can be blamed. I think that the hon. Gentleman would recognise that fact.
The objective is, as I have indicated, to maintain, not to achieve, a position whereby al-Qaeda is no longer able to operate from within Afghanistan. We know that the single greatest problem at the moment is that both al-Qaeda and the Taliban can take sanctuary in the frontier area—in the hills and caves on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The question is therefore how we can improve that situation and assess why it is proving so difficult. It is not a new problem.
I mentioned being in the country in 1982 and I remember going to the Pakistan part of the Khyber pass at that time. As I entered the area, there was a sign on the road which effectively said that the Pakistani Government would not accept responsibility for anything that happened more than 100 m off either side of the main road. There has been a long period of uncertainty and lack of effective control, but what has made it worse is that deep Pakistani neurosis that both India and Afghanistan are seeking the ultimate dismemberment of their country. That may be a grossly unfair accusation—it probably is a grossly unfair accusation—but Pakistan is, of course, an artificial state. I hope I will not be misunderstood in saying it, but it was a state created for a specific purpose at a specific time.
We know that, as has already been mentioned, Afghanistan has never, since 1948, recognised the Durand line as the legitimate international frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course that gives rise to elements within the Inter-Services Intelligence, within the armed forces in Pakistan and possibly within the Government who say, “Actually, we would rather have the Taliban than anyone else, because however evil the Taliban may be, they are not particularly nationalist in their ideology.” Nationalism is not what interests the Taliban; what interests them is Islam, of a particular mediaeval kind. From the Pakistani point of view, while all Afghan Governments have not been particularly useful to them, the Taliban were more acceptable—in the past, when they were in charge—because they did not seem terribly interested in frontier issues.
Against that background, we—as NATO, and as the international community—are entitled to say to President Karzai, “Look, if you want us to continue helping you, you must do what is in your power to help the situation.” What is within the power of the Afghan Government is the resolution of the frontier problem between the two countries. If Karzai is not willing to do that, he must recognise that he cannot expect the kind of support that he would be entitled to expect otherwise.
Those are important issues, but let me comment on two other matters. Of course it is the case that, in many respects, President Karzai has proved to be a serious disappointment. He is thought to be corrupt, inadequate and unable to govern in an effective fashion. We constantly hear the question, “Should the international community dump Karzai because of his inadequacies?” We need only question give that a moment’s thought, however, to realise what a grossly improper suggestion it is. One of the arguments employed by the west—the international community—is that Karzai is the first elected President in Afghanistan’s history. How can we possibly be seen to be involved in seeking to remove him? That must remain a matter entirely for the Afghan people. They will decide in their own way—and let us hope that they have the means to express it in a proper way—that they will have either Karzai or some alternative President, if that is their wish.
Finally, I want to say something about the role of the Taliban. I said earlier that our objective in Afghanistan was not primarily to bring about democracy, the end of corruption or human rights, desirable though that is. Again, I do not wish to be misunderstood, but at the end of the day we do not mind who runs Afghanistan, including the Taliban, as long as they do not give support to al-Qaeda—as long as they do not provide a sanctuary for that or any similar terrorist organisation. I detest the Taliban as much as anyone because of what they believe in. I detest many organisations and peoples around the world with unacceptable views, but that is not a matter that need result in a military intervention in the country concerned.
Whether we deal with the Taliban depends on whether the Taliban as a whole, which is unlikely, or substantial elements within the Taliban, which is much more probable, either are prepared or may become prepared to negotiate with the Afghan Government either on a coalition or on something of that kind. Let me respond to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle by saying that the relevance of our military presence is that if we want to ensure, as I am sure my hon. Friend does, that al-Qaeda or other terrorists cannot use Afghanistan, it is highly desirable for us to involve at least a proportion of the Taliban in the political process if they are willing to co-operate in that objective. I do not consider it to be an unrealistic objective.
The reason why I shall be perfectly happy if we have more NATO troops in Afghanistan is that it will help to convince the Taliban that while we may not be able to achieve a complete military victory, nor can they. A political solution will therefore become increasingly attractive to a substantial proportion of the Taliban, and may then enable a political solution to be achieved which will help us to deliver our fundamental requirement: no terrorism ever again emanating from Afghanistan.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), described in Lord Howe’s memoirs as a brilliant speaker without notes. We saw again today just how right that description was. It is also a pleasure to follow my fellow Mertonian, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell). I do not quite know why Merton college produces so many people with an interest in geopolitics, but there it is.
I will start by mentioning a date: on 25 June 2003, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, for the first time came to the Dispatch Box to pay tribute to a soldier who had fallen in the campaign in Afghanistan. Now, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have to go through that ritual every Wednesday. We understand that, but I wonder whether our fellow citizens and we as Members of Parliament will at some point say, “That’s enough.” I hope that the good people of Rotherham will continue to send me here to spend more years in Parliament, and I would like many a Wednesday to go by without such condolences having to be paid.
I make that point as a supporter of the decision of the Euro-Atlantic community and NATO to be present in Afghanistan. I do not get any sense that there is a strategy, however. There are tactical interventions and comments here and there. I heard Secretary Gates refer to the impossibility of making Afghanistan a Valhalla. I hope he was accurate in that because, of course, Valhalla is where dead heroes go to their final eternal rest—I am unsure to what extent some senior American politicians are educated in the classics nowadays.
I propose a non-aggression pact to the Front-Bench teams of all three main parties. Is it possible to have a fabulous discussion of “Hamlet” without mentioning the prince, or of “The Jungle Book” without referring to the elephants or tigers? If India is not mentioned in the context of how to solve this broad regional problem, we will never have a strategy, but merely tactical interventions.
It is easy to send our troops into foreign fields, but it is much more difficult to get them out. I remember hearing a Defence Secretary say, “Oh, the soldiers are only going to Afghanistan. They won’t do any shooting. They’ll only be there for a short time.” Then, not so long ago, I think it was one of the senior generals who said, “They could be there for 30 years.” I want to know this: what is our strategy? Does NATO have a strategy? Does the United States have a strategy? I do not seriously expect a full answer to this question tonight, but it must be posed.
With the arrival of a new President in America, we have an opportunity to set Afghanistan in a wider context. Afghanistan was the base where the planning and organisation was done for the killing of people in America, and it is part of the broader base—linked with Pakistan, I accept—whence the people came who killed the Londoners on 7 July 2005. That planning, recruitment, training and killing continues: even today, five people have been blown up at a hospital in Pakistan. I do not have the details, but I do not think that can be divorced from the fact that we face an ideological onslaught on our values.
There is a clearly expressed ideology of militant Islamist fundamentalism that not only wants to kill, but rejects all the values that uphold democracy—the rule of law, open economies, freedom of expression—as well as the rights of those of other religions and women and gays to live their lives as they wish. It is not just western countries who suffer from this ideological assault. Al-Qaeda’s number two, Mr. al-Zawahiri, has stated that the Pakistani Government are “apostate” and should be overthrown. It is time that we drew a much clearer distinction between Islamism as an ideology and the faith of Islam.
We must also recognise that there are great forces around the world with a strategic interest in seeing NATO, the United States, Great Britain, the west and the Euro-Atlantic community defeated. There is an open-ended supply of arms from Iran and other parts of the region to the people who are seeking to kill our soldiers. We can send as many helicopters there as we like, but as the Russians will tell us, helicopters do not do the trick. We can bomb as much as much as we like, too—in 2007, the US air force had almost 3,000 strike hits—but that has not decreased the violence.
Kyrgyzstan is shutting down its supply base for America, so if the Khyber pass is choked off—as seems to be the case—land supplies can come in only through Russia. I do not wish to make comments about Russia in this debate, but putting NATO and America at the mercy of Mr. Putin does not seem strategically wise, so we need to think in a different way. The player that we have to bring in is India.
So far this century, we have sent more than £1 billion to India in development aid, yet India is rich enough to plant its flag on the moon and, as has been described, to be a nuclear-armed power. It is spending up to a reported $1 billion in its own development programme in Afghanistan. Thus, Pakistan feels encircled. There are 500,000 Indian troops in Kashmir and 70,000 Kashmiris have died since the Indian army moved in nearly 20 years ago—far more than all those killed in the middle east. The bulk of the Pakistani military has to focus on that. A country cannot have 500,000 troops actively engaged in training and manoeuvres on its frontier and not take appropriate precautions—there is no example in history of that happening. So we have to say to India that it should de-escalate a bitterly emotional dispute.
Former President Musharraf said that the line of control should be treated as a de facto frontier, and I invite the two Front-Bench teams not to snipe over the question of who raises the issue of Kashmir. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was right to repeat the then Senator Obama’s absolute hyphenation between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. To get things going, we have to discuss the Kashmiri issue. When my right hon. Friend came back, he was trashed in The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail—all those papers that just seek to score cheap political points. Let the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) have the guts to say that Kashmir, India and Pakistan need to be discussed, and let us stop sniping about that issue.
While on holiday in India at the new year, I was appalled to read the militaristic language being used against Pakistan, to see maps in Indian papers of Pakistan re-partitioned, to read about serious people discussing a military invasion of Pakistan and to be able to watch a TV show called “Dial Pak for Terror”. We have to get the hyphens back in place; India must bear a responsibility and we must make that clear.
This debate rightly focuses on both Afghanistan and Pakistan because, although there is an established international border between the two countries, in many remote places it is virtually ignored by local tribes, who move freely back and forth. I propose to concentrate my remarks on Afghanistan and to focus primarily and perhaps rather narrowly on what is needed to promote the creation of wealth. We all applaud efforts to build schools and hospitals and to provide for other social needs, but if wealth is created the country will not have to depend for ever on international aid.
The security situation in Afghanistan has to be sorted out before the creation of wealth can begin. The military are expected to provide the security, with civilian contractors following up with reconstruction projects, but until the population are convinced that life is better than it was under the old regime, there will continue to be flare-ups—many Afghan men will still have a rifle concealed under their dishdash ready to exploit any situation, and the re-infiltration of Taliban forces will continue to bring about failures in the security situation.
I would like briefly to pursue two themes: power supply and the road capacity. The Taliban want neither to succeed; they do not want capacity to be enlarged or such facilities to be made more efficient. They would prefer to continue to rely on the heroin trade and the restrictions on society that we in the west find so abhorrent. The Afghan Energy Information Centre tells us that Afghanistan has 18 hydroelectric power plants, with a generating capacity of 263 MW, and 15 thermal plants, which run on imported diesel and generate 88 MW. It says that a further 296 MW is imported from 13 sources in neighbouring countries. Afghanistan has a total capacity of more than 600 MW, although output is estimated to be around 400 MW, and about 20 MW per 1 million people is provided. That is insignificant when compared with UK provision, which is 1,000 MW per 1 million people.
There is no national grid in Afghanistan because of the security situation, and distribution is limited to businesses and individuals located in the major cities or those close to the sources of power generation. That severely limits Afghanistan’s ability to establish wealth-creation projects, although it has tremendous assets such as coal reserves of 400 million tonnes—no doubt destined to fuel China’s coal-fired power stations—and gas, oil, copper, iron ore and many other minerals. In addition, it has the ability to grow crops in its rural areas which, if storage areas and transport facilities were developed, could be exported to the west or elsewhere.
The construction and maintenance of much-needed roads appears to be a hotch-potch international affair with very mixed results. India, for example, has just completed a 135 mile road linking the province of Nimroz to the Iranian port of Chabahar, thereby opening up a new trade route. That has attracted some sniping from Pakistan, which will lose its trade monopoly and is probably worried about its rival’s growing influence in Afghanistan.
In late 2001, approximately 16 per cent. of Afghanistan’s roads were paved, compared with more than 80 per cent. in neighbouring Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The percentage of paved roads has now increased to 29 per cent. and they have the advantage of being faster for communication, security and the movement of goods. It is also more difficult for insurgents to plant mines and IEDs in roads than in dirt tracks, but maintenance is a continual problem, especially in the mountain areas where damage is caused by the melting of the winter snows.
The Afghan Government and the USA and other donors consider road construction to be a top development priority and almost 20 per cent. of the US Agency for International Development’s $5.9 billion assistance to Afghanistan has been for roads. However, detailed information on this subject has been difficult to obtain, particularly on provincial and rural roads.
That is a good point and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is right.
One way to secure a dramatic improvement in road building and power distribution could be achieved by putting the military in charge. It would need to be given the tools and finance to get on with the job, with the transfer of money from other Department’s budgets if necessary. If that is not done, it is the Army that will suffer in the long run as it is placed in an impossible “no win” situation. Reconstruction of the infrastructure is very slow—over the past two years the Royal Engineers have repaired, reconstructed or built just 25 miles of road.
There is also a military advantage to such a strategy. At present, members of the Taliban choose their ground and can evaporate and re-emerge at will. They are present everywhere, but are indistinguishable from the local population. Afghanistan is far too large and complex a country for the Taliban to be destroyed by the military alone, but the one thing that the Taliban could not tolerate is for infrastructure improvements to win support from the people.
A good road network would bring in its wake prosperity, thereby generating income for social projects. With the military in charge of the road-building programme the Taliban would be identified, tied down and drawn into an area where ISAF and Afghan forces could take them on, knowing full well when to expect them. The co-operation of local people is essential if we are to succeed in Afghanistan, and there is no better way to ensure that that is achieved than by improving prospects, in both security and potential prosperity.
Although progress is undoubtedly being made, it is far too slow and sporadic. The British Army in Helmand province, by changing its tactics and strategy, could make a lasting and dramatic improvement in the lives of the people of Afghanistan that would augur well for eventual peace.
Let me start by protesting at the absurd shortness of the debate, which is totally inadequate even for the sprinkling of Members present. Why are so few people here? It is because so few people will get the opportunity to speak. I blue-pencilled my speech to fit it into the time available, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) who has spent days working on his speech, drawing on his enormous experience, will be reduced to a few scraps. It is intolerable and I hope that the Government will take that to heart and give the House more time to discuss these vital issues.
I agree with much of what has been said and, most worrying, I find myself agreeing with those who are most doom-laden. Our soldiers continue to win battles against the Taliban in Helmand but the politicians in Afghanistan and the west seem incapable of taking advantage of the time and space won by the blood of our brave troops.
The story is the same across Afghanistan. We went to Afghanistan, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) pointed out, solely with the objective of toppling the regime that sheltered al-Qaeda. However, we have finished up nation building.
Our problems in Helmand are a microcosm of the wider difficulties that the international security assistance force is experiencing: lack of military and civil capacity, a vacuum of governance, overstretch and a complete lack of strategic direction. I met a senior non-commissioned officer who was back from Afghanistan just before Christmas, and he told me, “We are there to help them but they just don’t want to be helped.” That reinforces the central message of James Fergusson’s excellent book, “A Million Bullets”, which is that much of what we have found ourselves doing in Afghanistan seems to have been counter-productive.
Our armed forces are brilliant and brave, but their tactical successes seem to contribute little towards strategic success. They merely stir up a hornets’ nest. Lord Ashdown went even further in a remarkable interview on the “Today” programme on 24 January. It pains me to repeat him, but he said:
“I fear…we are now wasting the lives of our young men and women”.
That is a serious charge to bear for us as politicians responsible for the situation.
We would do well to recall the greatest Chinese military thinker, Sun Tzu, who said
“strategy without tactics is the slowest way to victory”
“tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”.
I agree entirely with the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who has unfortunately absented himself from the Chamber, that the lack of strategy is our biggest problem. The hesitancy of the Foreign Secretary, perhaps in an attempt to seem reasonable and open-minded, conveys a lack of confidence that I have also picked up on in private meetings in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence and from our military commanders.
We have a campaign plan but we have no overall plan to win the war, as pointed out by Professor Hew Strachan recently at the Royal United Services Institute. NATO is operating the 21st-century equivalent of the Schlieffen plan at the start of the first world war, when railway timetables behind the German front lines became the driving factor of German military policy. With a new US President, it is time to say these hard things in the hope that a coherent strategy will emerge.
Lord Ashdown suggests that three essentials are required alongside additional military and aid capacity: an international plan, signed up to by everybody; proper international co-ordination expressed with a single voice; and a regional construct—a treaty—to involve Afghanistan’s neighbours, including Iran, that is underpinned by the world powers, including China. Let us hope that Richard Holbrooke’s appointment heralds that new single voice, but reinforces another lesson. The UN does not and cannot successfully prosecute wars. Wars need leadership of the kind that, in this case, only the United States can provide. If some nations are not prepared to accept that, it would be almost more helpful if they left the field altogether instead of insisting on overcomplicated command chains and caveats that preoccupy commanders with process instead of outcomes.
If we Europeans want a say in US strategy, we must commit the European forces that can make a real difference. Sadly for the British, our armed forces are so overstretched and run-down that we have limited additional military capacity to offer just as the new President is looking to America’s allies to prove themselves. We are losing influence in Washington and at US central command in Tampa, Florida, and we have only ourselves to blame. That is more than just bad for the UK; it threatens our ultimate success. With our history and blood ties in the region, particularly in Pakistan, we are uniquely placed to be effective and proactive.
It is true that Pakistan is vital to success in Afghanistan, but that misses the real point. In the long term, Pakistan is far more significant strategically than Afghanistan. We should be devoting far more to our excellent mission in Pakistan and committing far more military resources to helping the Pakistani army.
Military diplomacy was meant to be a big thing in the 1998 strategic defence review, but the Government keep cutting the numbers of defence and military attaches in our embassies. We have a good but tiny military-to-military relationship with the Pakistan. Given the scale of the potential strategic threat of terrorism, and the disastrous possibility that a Government armed with nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of extremists, why on earth is military diplomacy not being addressed with far more urgency?
We have spent billions of pounds in Afghanistan, perhaps not very effectively. A few hundred million more spent in Pakistan would be of far greater strategic benefit. We should be helping to reform and modernise the Pakistani military to give the army the self-confidence to conduct modern and sophisticated counter-insurgency campaigns, to divert it from its hopeless preoccupation with India, and to help it integrate into a stable Pakistani democratic settlement. We would also be tackling the roots of the insurgency in Afghanistan; at present we are treating the symptoms and not the cause.
I profoundly agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said about the importance of Pakistan. We should not forget that it is the sixth most populous country in the world, with 170 million people, or that it is a nuclear power.
One warning that I would make about putting Afghanistan together with Pakistan in this debate is that we must not prejudice improvement in Pakistan by our actions in Afghanistan. It is that important.
Even so, there are some grounds for optimism about the present situation. First, we have a new President in America. I voted against the Iraq war because I felt that America took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan between 2000 and 2003, and we are paying a very heavy price for that neglect.
Secondly, we have better people in charge now. General Petraeus has more confidence than some of his predecessors and did a good job in Iraq. I think that he is the right person to manage these matters, given his experience in an equally difficult part of the world.
Thirdly, it is clear that there is a new emphasis in Pakistan on the importance of relations with Afghanistan. President Zardari, for example, had President Karzai with him during his inaugural procedures, and that was a good sign. Moreover, the Pakistani Parliament had a long and very sensible discussion last October about negotiations in Afghanistan, and that is a very good sign indeed.
As has been said, however, the situation on the ground is dire. The Joint Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee recently heard evidence from Lieutenant-General Wall. Several Opposition Members were present, and the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) said that we had been told in New York that only one of the 13 provinces in Helmand was now under control. Lieutenant-General Wall agreed and said that that was a fair assessment. In his speech today, the Foreign Secretary insisted that far more provinces were under control, but it is clear that the situation is fluctuating and I do not believe that the present assessment is correct. It is worrying that Lieutenant-General Wall should have made those comments.
The situation on the ground in Afghanistan is dire and, as various contributors to this short debate have said, we need a radical adjustment of our strategy. In particular, greater emphasis needs to be placed on political dialogue with the Taliban and the Pashtun. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), if he gets called to speak, will elaborate on those matters, which I have discussed with him over the past few years. I agree with his basic proposition that we must negotiate sensibly with those elements of the Taliban and the Pashtun who will respond. I appreciate that it is very difficult to decide who to negotiate with and what they want, but none the less I think that that is inevitable.
Fourthly, as Adam Roberts—an Oxford professor and noted authority on the issue—pointed out in evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, which will visit Afghanistan in April:
“One informed and persuasive critique of the approach to counter-insurgency used in Afghanistan since 2003 suggests that its emphasis on extending the reach of central government is precisely the wrong strategy: its authors, specialists in the region, argue instead for a rural security presence that has been largely lacking.”
In other words, there is some doubt about whether for ever strengthening the central Government’s military force is the right thing to do.
Clearly, Pakistan has to make a much bigger effort to deal with the problems. As has been said, the border more or less does not exist as far as the Pashtuns are concerned. As was pointed out by the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), in the FATA—the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan—female literacy is at 3 per cent., which is appalling. Unemployment is at 80 per cent. Are we surprised that those people are ready to be radicalised by the Taliban? There, too, a major effort has to be made to get the show on the road, so I hope that in future we can have longer debates on the subject. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex that the allocation of three hours for a debate on Pakistan and Afghanistan is lamentable.
I hope that we can have debates of a decent length on the issue, particularly, as the shadow Foreign Secretary says, when there are major, or even significant, changes to the UK Government’s strategy, as there have been from time to time. I hope that there will be a radical change in strategy, but I believe that we should be there in Afghanistan, for the reasons that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) so admirably set out.
Yesterday, I saw a friend who had been tracking the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan—he was listening to somebody with a Yorkshire accent trying to speak Arabic into a hand-held radio. What can we do? We cannot do very much on our own, but I suggest that Britain and our allies declare a new war: a war on radicalisation. We should seek to protect our people by cutting out this cancer, rather than by suppressing the symptoms—that is, by dropping bombs on it from 20,000 ft, thereby distributing the cells all over the world.
The new American President has a choice. He can either be a pragmatist or reinforce failure. Failure might look something like this: the Americans send another 30,000 troops, hot-foot from Iraq, in the absence of a political settlement. They then think that the answer is to continue to “clear, hold and build” among a civilian population to whom foreign troops are, in large part, the problem. In that scenario, President Karzai stays in office until his term runs out in May, but limps on with his corrupt narco-clique until elections at some unspecified time in the future. As we know, Karzai remains a major barrier to meaningful reconciliation. Of course it was he who chucked out the utterly irreplaceable Michael Semple.
Meanwhile, we would muddle on. We would shrug and continue to utter expressions such as “We are where we are,” “It’s just about fine-tuning the comprehensive approach,” and “Just a few more troops.” Pakistan would continue to bomb and disperse its population, and continue to lose large chunks of its territory. Sometime thereafter, we could guarantee a more or less irretrievable situation.
On the other hand, the US President might be a bit more pragmatic. In fairness, some people in our Government may at last have understood the gravity of the matter. What might be the ingredients of a success that would allow us to avoid a second strategic failure? First, we have to understand that Bonn was a conference of the victors. Large parts of the Afghan political landscape were left out of it. Whether we like it or not, Hizb-e-Islami and as many elements as possible of the Taliban have to be brought back into the political process. The Taliban are not a single, coherent movement. In large part, they are the ordinary people of the Pashtun belt. Al-Qaeda is not the same as the Taliban. Frankly, I do not think that AQ needs Afghanistan anymore. It is now in plenty of other places, including our cities.
Like it or not, the great majority of Afghan and Pakistani tribal inhabitants are deeply traditional people. They want a very light touch from central Government; that system has worked for centuries.
In other words, what we need now is an Afghan solution—obviously, though, one that protects the strategic interests of the western countries. Of course, it is a hell of a lot easier to say that than to do it, but a couple of weeks ago in Dubai in the Art Boutique Apartment hotel a remarkable meeting took place—you are hearing it here first—between elements of the Taliban and representatives of all the major political parties, including that represented by Gulbuddin Hikmetyar. They were there to discuss the elements of a grand conference, which would do three things. It would correct the imbalance of the Bonn agreement, helping to bring the Taliban back into politics, it would agree to an interim Government to replace Karzai at the end of his term in May, and it would agree a programme for the withdrawal of foreign troops over many years.
Elements of the Taliban have signed up to those three things as the basis for a further meeting in a few weeks. The driving force behind the initiative, Mr. Jarir, is right now getting on a plane at Heathrow to go back to Dubai. He cannot go back to Kabul because Karzai has threatened to arrest him. The initiative, like many others before it, is imperfect, but it is huge in the sense that Afghan political parties are getting together, talking about bringing the enemy back in, and also talking about an agreed withdrawal of NATO troops.
Secondly, such a political settlement would allow resources to be concentrated in the Pashtun belt and Pakistan’s tribal areas. It will never be perfect, but light government would be working there with the international community to bring security, justice and the rule of law and to develop government institutions that serve the people meaningfully. This would be an enormous rescue plan, and we would have to be prepared to spend gigantic sums of money. We would have to reduce dramatically the tension between India and Pakistan. Remember that the Pakistanis see everything through the prism of Kashmir. We would then be in a position to allow the Pakistani military, which is now in tanks facing India, to focus on counter-insurgency and tribal engagement. It would be extremely helpful if the US Administration were engaged with Iran.
The plan would have the effect of freeing up our military resources, which are at present fixed in locations holding geography, rather than doing what they should be doing—defeating networks. None of that can happen without this Afghan solution at last, which would have to be supported by a clear international plan, a strategy and a single voice, which the military call unity of command, unity of purpose. It is there in the manual for winning a counter-insurgency operation. Without that, or some sort of significant rebalancing of our efforts, the problem will only get worse. At some point, that will directly affect our population. I want to win this.
In 1898 Major Fitzgerald Wintour, the grandfather of a distinguished managing director of my local borough council, asked:
“Is the frontier of British India strengthened by these outposts? There are many who deny it. Is it wise to lock up these numerous detachments in these isolated positions, cut off from one another in wild and mountainous districts, surrounded by lawless tribes? I think they all acknowledge that our policy should be to make friends with the tribes.”
The allies need to wake up and try to rediscover the pragmatism that we have lost in the past eight years in the wreckage of the ideologues.
I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) not only for the breadth and depth of the speech that he has just made, but for lining up exactly what I wish to begin with, which is a word or two about counter-insurgency in general.
I have a mantra, which is that there are four elements to a counter-insurgency campaign. Some of them are more familiar than others. The first three are very familiar—to identify, to isolate and to neutralise—but the fourth element is to negotiate. That is what my hon. Friend was referring to.
However, negotiation cannot be carried out at every stage of a counter-insurgency process. During an insurgency’s early stages, when the insurgents think that they are on course for victory, negotiation is not an option. The time for that comes either when the insurgents are in retreat, or when a stalemate exists—that is, when the insurgents cannot achieve their aims and the counter-insurgents cannot totally eliminate the insurgents.
At this point, I must pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who focused the House’s attention on the central point of our war aim in Afghanistan. It is not a great, positive aim, but a negative one: to prevent Afghanistan from being used in future to host what has shown itself to be not some sort of patriotic, anti-colonial, nationalist organisation, but one engaged in an ideological crusade worldwide.
I partly accept the hon. Lady’s point. What we need to do is help the Afghan state to build up a workable life for itself. However, we must not fool ourselves into thinking that that will involve a carbon copy or mirror image of the sort of lifestyle that it has taken us in our modern societies hundreds of years to develop.
Part of the aim was to destroy al-Qaeda’s safe place from which to organise terrorism. We have not been successful: that safe base continues, either on the borders or in Pakistan itself. Where is the threat of Taliban action in Britain? Is there any evidence that the organisation is planning terrorism here?
The hon. Gentleman is confusing my argument, which he has perhaps not fully grasped. I am talking not about the Taliban in this connection, but about al-Qaeda. The whole point about how insurgencies end with a negotiated settlement is that our war aim should be to demonstrate to everyone with influence in Afghanistan—including the Taliban—that they are on to a loser when they give house room to an organisation such as al-Qaeda, which certainly has aims of causing mayhem in our own societies. The concept of negotiation should come into play precisely when we have shown the Taliban that they are at best in a military stalemate.
I will lay a large wager that the people, groups, sects and tribes who make up Taliban forces will be as fissiparous as any other insurgency movement. There will be those among them who will be willing to do deals, compromise and realise that they made a terrible strategic mistake when they accommodated al-Qaeda; others among them will be diehards who say that they will never do a deal. Our job must be to show the more pragmatic among the insurgents that they made a strategic error, which they can rectify by isolating militants and giving no house room to al-Qaeda.
Although the hon. Gentleman rightly says that al-Qaeda is now to be found in other parts of the world, the NATO mission in Afghanistan, if it is to succeed, should have as one of its aims showing other countries that they should think long and hard before emulating the mistake of the Taliban and giving house room to al-Qaeda so that it can launch its attacks against the west.
There is an unfortunate perception among the people of Pakistan about the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It is important that the leadership of Pakistan tells the people of Pakistan that the Taliban are killing Muslims and non-Muslims and bombing girls’ schools in Pakistan. This is a war that it is essential to win for the sake of the integrity and prosperity of the people of Pakistan.
The logic of what the hon. Gentleman is saying is that if we now discovered that al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden had a base in Pakistan, we should invade Pakistan. I am sure that that is not what he means to say, but that is the logic behind it. Is it not a terrible mistake to put all these groups—al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the insurgency in Iraq, North Korea and other countries—together as one group, as terrorists, and talk about a war on terrorists? Surely we have got past that nonsense.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that not all the groups with which we have been militarily engaged are part of a single organisation, but the ones that belong to al-Qaeda are part of a single organisation, and our job should be to show the other groups that they should have nothing to do with AQ.
Let me quote from a report in The Daily Telegraph of 10 January about one of the drone attacks that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) condemned. However, this was one of the more productive drone attacks. The report reads:
“The head of al-Qa’ida in Pakistan and one of his senior henchmen have been killed in an American air strike, according to intelligence sources. Usama al-Kini and his aide, Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, both Kenyan nationals, are believed to have been killed by a missile fired by a ‘predator drone’ in south Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold close to the Afghan border.
The men are believed to have been involved in the bombing of the Marriott in Islamabad last year, in which 55 people were killed when suicide attackers drove a truck bomb into the security gates. They were also suspected of planning a failed assassination attempt on the late Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, shortly after she returned from exile in 2007.
They were indicted in the US for their role in the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and were believed to have played a key role in training recruits to carry out terrorist attacks in Britain and Europe.”
I want to impress on the House the fact that we are dealing with two very different types of enemy. One group is a declared enemy of everything that we stand for. It comprises people such as those in that report, who were from Kenya and yet, strangely enough, ended up in Waziristan. They do these things not because NATO responded to the attacks in America by invading Afghanistan, from which the organisers of the attacks had been operating, but because they have declared holy war on our way of life. The other, wider group—the enemies about whom we have to be concerned—are people who we have a lot of potential for working with if we can show them that dealing with al-Qaeda is ingesting a form of poison into their own lives and societies.
I say frankly to the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) that if al-Qaeda is expelled from one country after another, then takes root in a third, and then shows every sign, as it almost certainly would, of continuing to launch attacks against the west, then yes, we would have to work with that third country to cut them out, and if the third country were not prepared to work with us to do that, we would have to cut them out anyway—unless he is proposing that western countries simply sit back as terrorist outrages are committed in the centres of their cities.
I have spent enough time on the theory, so I would like to say a few words about the debate. When the Foreign Secretary said that he would not be here at the end, he gave the excellent excuse that he is going to have talks with General Petraeus. If those talks are going to be about a possible increase in the British troop commitment to Afghanistan, I would like the Minister to answer a specific question. If he answers nothing else that I say from this Dispatch Box today, I would like him to answer this question: how will any extra troops that are sent to Afghanistan, if that is agreed, be funded? Will they be funded in-year from the Treasury reserve budget, or will they be funded in such a way that the money can be clawed back from the central Ministry of Defence budget? I am sorry to inject a rather banal, cost-and-effect, penny-pinching approach to this debate, but the Minister will be as aware as anyone else that, at the moment, however well our armed forces are doing in theatre, the chiefs of the armed forces are at each others’ throats in a civil war of their own over inadequate defence resources. We know that one service is attacking another service’s prime projects and reciprocation is not likely to be delayed for long.
We have been fighting two medium-sized conflicts on a peacetime defence budget—now it is going down to one. I have said before from this Dispatch Box, and I make no apology for saying it again, that Prime Minister Tony Blair gave the game away when he said that throughout the decade that new Labour had been in power, defence spending had remained roughly constant at 2.5 per cent. of GDP, and added the fateful words:
“if we add in the extra funding for Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Whenever we talk about Treasury reserves and so on, when we lump everything together, we find that we have been fighting two conflicts on a peacetime defence budget, and now the services are seriously talking about having to abandon one of the strategic roles of the armed forces in peacetime—which is to insure against conflict with another state—if we are to go on fighting these counter-insurgency campaigns, even at the present level. That is totally unacceptable, so we must have an assurance from the Government that any extra cost arising from further deployment to Afghanistan will be paid for by extra money. Otherwise, it cannot be contemplated.
I have no problem with that at all; I have talked about it before as well. I have been challenged about the matter before, I am asked the same question every time and I always give the same answer: the official Conservative policy on defence is that we will fully fund our defence commitments. That means increasing the money for defence, reducing the commitments, or doing something in between the two. If the Government are proposing to increase their commitment, they have got to find the extra funding for it. They cannot do it at the expense of the core MOD budget.
I feel that I have neglected all the people who have contributed to the debate, so I shall try to make amends very briefly. I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), and I am only sorry that no other Liberal Democrat MP was present to hear her make it. My hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) has made a consistent case about the follies of getting involved in Afghanistan, but his point was anticipated neatly by my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary when he pointed out that unlike the Russians—and for that matter, unlike the British in the past—we are not out to conquer Afghanistan. We are out to work with people and groups in Afghanistan to enable them to deal with terrorist elements there. The reason why our casualties, grievous as they are, have come nowhere near the sort of levels incurred by the Russians, is precisely that difference. They were out to conquer and we are not.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea made a masterly speech, and I would sum it up as follows, “We don’t mind who runs Afghanistan, as long as they do not give a base to al-Qaeda.” There is a certain amount of credibility on the line here, both for NATO generally and for its individual component nations. For NATO generally, that is because it responded when one of its countries came under attack, and because it has invested a lot in the campaign. However, not all NATO countries have invested anything like the same amount, and that needs to be considered. I welcome moves in NATO to start examining how interventions are funded, and I believe it is moving in the right direction with the suggestion that if some countries are not so willing to undertake the fighting, they should be more willing to put money into a central pot to help finance those of us that are.
We have heard a number of dissenting voices, but at the end of it all there are only two ways of leaving Afghanistan. One is to capitulate, and basically to say, “It’s okay. You can house international terrorist organisations. They can launch attacks on our major cities and we will not respond.” The other is to identify the main elements in the country—not just the ones that we regard as the most democratic but the real power brokers—and say, “Look here, we don’t want to run your country, but we cannot tolerate a situation in which you allow splinter groups of foreigners to attack us, so we want to negotiate a deal.”
As most insurgencies do end in a negotiated deal, I close by reminding the House of one fact: when one negotiates a deal, one must negotiate from a position of at least equal strength to that of one’s opponent. We might not be able to win militarily—we never thought we would—but we are certainly capable of ensuring that our opponents cannot defeat us. When they realise that, the basis for a deal will be available and the outcome will be the isolation and removal for good of the cancer of al-Qaeda.
I think that everybody would agree that this has been an extremely lively debate, in which people have spoken straight from the heart and from many different perspectives. That is just what such debates should be about. The Government will take on board and reflect on all the points that have been made from all those perspectives.
I shall briefly address the various contributions. I start with the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), whose attitude was generally supportive of what the Government have been trying to do in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are grateful for that and appreciate it. Whichever Government happen to be in power, our foreign policy will always be more effective around the world if there is an element of bipartisanship. We recognise that and are grateful for it when it occurs.
The right hon. Gentleman complained that the Government had not kept Parliament well enough informed about Afghanistan or reported to Parliament at regular intervals. Frankly, I was a bit surprised to hear that complaint. The Government gave an extraordinarily full response to the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, whose Chairman is no longer in his place, on 23 January, which is not very long ago. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has had a chance to read it yet, but I am very happy to pass it across to him if he has not had the opportunity to get his own copy. When he reads it, I hope that he will find that his complaint is not quite as well founded as he first thought.
I cannot believe that the Minister really thinks that a sanitised response to a Select Committee report—we all know what responses to Select Committee reports are like—is a substitute for regular parliamentary statements, which mean that Ministers can be cross-examined by the House. That is the least that we ask for. It is unprecedented that a military campaign should be in progress and statements given so rarely.
I cannot accept that remark, because Select Committees are not marginal; they are a central part of the institution of this place. The Government’s responses to their reports should be in the mainstream of the whole mechanism of accountability on which a successful legislature depends. The response to the Foreign Affairs Committee report is full and detailed, and I believe that if the hon. Gentleman reads it, he will see that his criticisms are not well founded.
I will, but I want to answer some of the questions that have been put to me, and I will not be able to do so if I take too many interventions.
I said in my speech that I thought that some members of the Government had finally got the message. The conversation that the Foreign Secretary is having now with General Petraeus is probably much more panicked than what comes through in a Select Committee report.
Perhaps I will be briefed in due time about what is happening at the moment. However, I do not have extra-sensory perception, so I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman the details of a conversation that is currently taking place elsewhere.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks asked me several questions, including how many US troops would be deployed in Afghanistan, in Regional Command South and in Helmand, and what the command structure would be if there were an increase in the American commitment. All those questions are relevant and important, but of course we do not know the answers yet. We have not received any concrete propositions from the new American Administration.
It would be invidious and—I know the right hon. Gentleman agrees—contrary to the basic principles of diplomacy to give contingent answers to questions that have not yet been asked by an ally. He will simply have to be patient, and we will see whether any requests are made to us and, if so, how we respond. If there are major, significant changes in our policy or stance on any matter, we will make a statement before the House, first off, as a priority.
I will give way again to the hon. Gentleman, but it may be for the last time.
They square entirely. Conversations are going on about all sorts of things at all times with our allies—and so they should. I repeat that we have had no formal, concrete or specific requests or recommendations, and I speak advisedly because I know that I am speaking on the record.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks asked about helicopters in Afghanistan. Strangely, he said that was not so interested in helicopter hours or availability, he simply wanted more machines. Helicopter hours and helicopters with the right sort of capability, whether lift or ground support, at the right time—available as rapidly as possible to commanders on the spot—are important. We have made a considerable increase—60 per cent.—from the beginning of 2007 to the end of last year in the availability of helicopter time to our forces in Afghanistan. This year, there will also be a substantial increase—25 or 30 per cent.—including some Merlins, which he mentioned. We are also re-engining several Lynxes to enable them to operate on a 24-hour-day, seven-day-week, 365-day-year basis. I may have contributed modestly to that, and I set much store by it. That would constitute a considerable increase in our capacity. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that we have addressed the issue.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) spoke a little about Afghanistan and rather more about Pakistan. He acknowledged that the emancipation of women in all areas that ISAF controls or that are under our influence has been one of the great, positive changes in Afghanistan since ISAF intervention. The main thrust of his speech was about Pakistan, a country with which he is obviously familiar. He made the point that many other hon. Members made: that Afghanistan cannot easily be disentangled from Pakistan, which cannot easily be disentangled from relations with India, which cannot easily be disentangled from the problem of Kashmir. We all accept that.
We feel some sympathy for the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who has been abandoned, not only by the defence and foreign affairs spokesmen of her party, but by all her colleagues in her parliamentary party. None the less, she delivered a well-informed and lucid speech to which we enjoyed listening. She made some significant points on behalf of her party, including saying that more troops may be necessary in Afghanistan. She put it in the subjunctive, but it was an important point. She also said that United Kingdom should be prepared to make an additional small contribution. I note the word “small”. In that respect, the Liberal Democrats seem rather more decisive than Conservative Members, who do not express themselves so clearly on the matter. One sometimes suspects that—to use the term that was used yesterday rather memorably—there is a little bit of opportunism in the air. [Laughter.] That will probably be my last party political swipe of the evening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) spoke with great knowledge about the history of United States-Pakistan relations. Obviously he knows a lot about the background and a lot about Pakistan’s history. I was glad to hear that he had led a delegation of colleagues to Pakistan, because it is extremely important that we maintain such contacts. As he said, we do not have just a long-standing historical relationship with Pakistan, which goes back to what the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) calls the Raj, or a large number of citizens here whose family origins are in that country. We do not want our links to be just historical; we want them to continue—to be burnished and kept alive. Such initiatives are extremely welcome and valuable.
Now I come to the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle. The House always enjoys his contributions. I do not think that I have ever heard one without learning some new historical fact, and today’s was about Lord Salisbury telling the viceroy of India that he needed to use a larger-scale map, which is certainly a memorable phrase. The hon. Gentleman always enlightens the House, but he is always a pessimist about any British involvement anywhere. He said—I hope that I noted down his words correctly—that we want to “get out of Afghanistan altogether”. I do not agree with that, for reasons that I will come to in my concluding remarks. However, the House will have greatly appreciated his excellent speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) was also a pessimist. In fact, his analysis and predictions were extremely close to those of the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle, although I do not imagine that they agree on many things in the House. My hon. Friend said one thing that I have to dispute, which is that Kandahar is almost entirely in the hands of the Taliban. I was in Kandahar last month and I can testify that that is not correct.
The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) made an extremely well-informed speech, as one would expect. He started by saying that our involvement in Afghanistan is very different from the Soviet occupation and cannot be compared to it, and that we went in basically to defend our essential interests. I totally agree and shall say a few words about that. Indeed, there was much in his speech with which I quite agreed.
The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane)—
I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham—I can fairly say that he is a friend of mine in every sense of the term—accused the Government of having no sense of a strategy. I think that we do have one, and I hope that I can persuade the House of that.
The hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) spoke interestingly about the need for wealth creation. We quite agree that ultimately the solution must lie in wealth creation. I agree with her that stability is an essential prerequisite for wealth creation and that security is an essential prerequisite for stability.
The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) again asked for more time for such debates. The House will have listened to that request and no doubt the party managers and business managers will have noted his point. He said that we must persuade our European allies to make more of a contribution to Afghanistan. We have had a number of discussions of that sort. However, I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman on one point. It is certainly much better to have allies there with caveats than it is to have no allies there at all. It would indeed be very nice if our allies were prepared to reconsider some of the caveats from time to time, but we greatly welcome the valuable contribution that they are making.
Finally, the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) put forward what I might call the Holloway plan. I do not agree with it, but we will take it on board as one of the various suggestions that have been made about how we ought to proceed.
The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) spoke a lot of sense, as he normally does, but I take his point about inadequate funding of our defence budget with a pinch of salt. Until recently, the Conservative party was not prepared to say that it went along with our defence budget. The Conservatives have made additional commitments, such as on the three battalions, which is quite absurd, but they have not said what they will cut back if they go ahead with that commitment. I can give him an assurance that we always finance our military commitments overseas out of the reserve. We have always done so, and I cannot imagine that we would ever change that policy. I can give him an assurance that we will fund—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).