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Volume 501: debated on Tuesday 1 December 2009

7. What is his latest assessment of the political situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (302600)

12. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (302605)

I refer my hon. Friend and the right hon. and learned Gentleman to the Prime Minister’s statement to the House yesterday. President Karzai was inaugurated on 19 November, and we await the formation of his Cabinet. The international community needs to work with the Afghan Government to make progress on the five issues that were identified as priorities in President Karzai’s inauguration speech.

Does not the suggestion of a United States high representative or chief executive to work alongside President Karzai somewhat undermine his already fragile legitimacy? If and when that proposal becomes a reality, will the British Government support it?

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is referring to the international civilian leadership or the idea that there should be a reformed administrative structure inside President Karzai’s office. The discussion that I have heard in the past is of Afghans filling those roles, rather than Americans or others. I will certainly follow up the report my hon. Friend is concerned about, but the idea that Afghanistan should be run by the Afghans, and the sooner the better, has always been at the heart of our approach.

Notwithstanding the increasing attention being given by both President Obama and the Prime Minister to an exit strategy for NATO forces, will the Foreign Secretary confirm that, even when NATO ground forces are completely withdrawn, it will continue to be necessary to provide NATO air support to the Afghan Government, probably for the foreseeable future? Is it not the case that just as it was a combination of NATO air power and Afghan ground forces that drove the Taliban out in the first place, so it will be that same combination that will keep them out of power in the future?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. At present, in most parts of the country the Afghan forces are being trained by international forces, and international forces are having to undertake leadership in combat operations. We very much hope that, in line with President Karzai’s commitment, within five years all provinces in the country will follow Kabul in having Afghan security leadership. However, that will not mean the end of international support for the Afghan forces and of air support of the kind the right hon. and learned Gentleman describes, and the so-called overwatch role that was developed for the circumstances of Iraq will remain an issue beyond that date. It is important, however, to signal the current priority, which is to transfer the leadership of combat operations to the Afghan forces.

My right hon. Friend referred to international civilian leadership and the importance of strengthening that if we are to succeed in our overall goals, and the Prime Minister said yesterday that that would be a major topic at the London conference. Will the Government consider strengthening it through the important means of co-ordinating its efforts, and perhaps even, temporarily, through the integration of its efforts with those of General McChrystal on the military front?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As he knows, civilian-military co-ordination is essential in provincial reconstruction teams around Afghanistan. In Helmand province, where most of the British forces are, there is a combined military and civilian team, being led, as it happens, by an official from the Department for International Development, previously an official from the Foreign Office. That sort of integration of, and co-operation between, the military and civilian sides of the effort is essential, and I hope we see it being replicated at national level. The two roles of the head of the United Nations and the NATO representative in ISAF will be critical to achieving that.

The Prime Minister talked yesterday about political reforms to produce governors appointed on merit and free from corruption. Is it envisaged that the process to achieve that will involve removing existing governors, and is it also envisaged that the new governors will ever acquire any political legitimacy of their own, other than being appointees of President Karzai?

In my experience of travelling to Afghanistan and talking to people there and of studying the situation in that country, the credibility of the governors at provincial and district level comes from the work they do and the way they do it. Those governors who have shown themselves to be dedicated to the interests of the people of their province have won widespread support, significantly through community councils, but also through other ways of engaging with the local population. In this case, therefore, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The governors who perform well, gain confidence; those who turn out to be placemen, or to be in it for their own interests, quickly lose the confidence of both Afghans and the international community.

I hope some of the governors currently in post will be removed during that political reform process, but how does the Foreign Secretary see the much needed process of reconciliation and reintegration working at district and local level? Will it be organised by these new governors, and will the ISAF coalition fund such Afghan-led reconciliation work at the local level?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We talk about reintegration at local level. Reintegration is for the middle and high-level commanders, and at the local level it will need to be Afghan-led and internationally supported. There will be different ways of arranging it in different parts of the country—sometimes at district level, at other times, where a larger reintegration needs to be achieved, at provincial level. One important point worth making to the House is that the reintegration effort only succeeds when the other side of the coin is a military and security effort, first because those in the insurgency need to know the risk that is carried by continuing the insurgency, but also because they need to know they will be properly protected if they come within the constitutional set-up.

We have been in Afghanistan long enough to know where every poppy field is, so can my right hon. Friend tell me when we will put an end to the vile trade in heroin, which does so much damage in Afghanistan and on the streets of Britain?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will be pleased, as I am, that the past two years’ poppy crop has been significantly down; I stand to be corrected, but I believe that there has been a 30 per cent. fall and then a 22 per cent. fall, and that the number of poppy-free districts has increased to 21. He will be as concerned as I am at the high level of poppy production that remains. Our experience is that there are two key factors to turning this round, the first of which is security—because poppy production is the product of insecurity—and the second of which is a decent economic price for licit production, notably of wheat.