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Helmand Province

Volume 495: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2009

8. What his most recent assessment is of the effectiveness of the provincial reconstruction team in Helmand province. (282694)

The provincial reconstruction team’s mission in Helmand is to help the Afghan Government to deliver effective governance and security. The number of UK civilian staff working on a joint civilian-military operation has more than doubled since 2008 to more than 80, and all of them are delivering tangible results for the people of Helmand. The PRT has helped to built nearly 2,000 wells, benefiting more than 400,000 people. It has contributed to 160 district infrastructure projects, reaching more than 300,000 families, and provided paid work for nearly 19,000 people.

In the Opposition day debate on Iraq last week, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), a former Secretary of State for International Development, admitted that she deliberately instructed her Department to have nothing to do with the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the drawing up of reconstruction plans once the war fighting had stopped in March 2003. With no plan, chaos ensued for many years. We are now in our seventh year in Afghanistan. As US assistance is required in Helmand province, it seems that there are still lessons to be learned from Iraq. Is it not time there was a major overhaul of how the MOD, the FCO and the Department for International Development conduct modern stabilisation operations, as outlined in recommendation 16 in a powerful Institute for Public Policy Research report issued today?

That is indeed a good IPPR report, which fully endorses the idea of a joint civilian-military operation in Afghanistan. That has been pioneered by the DFID-FCO-MOD liaison in Helmand province. Of course, as I have discussed with the hon. Gentleman on a number of occasions across the Dispatch Box, we should always seek to learn lessons and improve the operation, but I hope that he will agree that the shared leadership across the traditional civilian-military divide in our operation in Helmand is indeed the right way forward. I hope that he will also agree that the bravery of the civilian aid workers and diplomats, alongside that of the military, has made a difference. As for whether there is further to go, of course there is, and we will certainly look at the IPPR report and other ideas—including those of the hon. Gentleman, because he has experience in this respect—in order to take the matter forward.

Reconstruction cannot happen unless we have security. Security requires a national military and a national police force. Is the Secretary of State satisfied with the progress that we have made in supporting and building up the Afghan national police force in Helmand?

No—or rather, I am satisfied that we have made an awful lot of effort, but I am not satisfied with overall progress, for obvious reasons. My hon. Friend will know from the debates that we have had in this House and elsewhere that the development of a trusted Afghan police force is perhaps the major challenge, or certainly one of the major challenges, that we face. The appointment of some of the new district governors under Governor Mangal in Helmand is making a sincere and real difference in that province, but to claim that things are better than patchy would be an exaggeration. The issue is certainly a priority that we intend to pursue.

Many hon. Members think that the Foreign Secretary’s comments about progress in Helmand province are optimistic. Recently, a lot more effort has been made in that area, but NGOs, hon. Members, and military and civilian experts believe that it is ludicrous that less than 10 per cent. of British aid to Afghanistan goes to Helmand province. I draw the Foreign Secretary’s attention to an article by an Army officer published in the most recent issue of the British Army Review, entitled “A Comprehensive Failure: British Civil-Military Strategy in Helmand Province”. We are catching up very slowly indeed. I am afraid to say that although there has been a loss of British military personnel, and there are threats to the lives of brave British civilians, the British Government have so far failed to pull together a comprehensive strategy. I am afraid, Foreign Secretary, that it has been a failure.

I think that the denigration of the efforts of the people on the ground, who have, as the IPPR report says, led the way on improving civilian-military stabilisation efforts is beneath the hon. Gentleman. The truth is that we pay our development aid through the Afghan Government, according to the best practice of international development around the world. We are not seeking to establish a British county in Helmand. We are supporting indigenous efforts, led by Governor Mangal, to build reconstruction as well as security in that province. As for the founding facts that I mentioned, facts are neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I offered no optimism or pessimism. I recited facts about the number of people who have been helped by the efforts of the provincial reconstruction team. I also said to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), who has taken a long-standing interest in this matter, that there are a number of areas in which we all need to do better, led by the Afghan authorities, and that is what we are determined to do.