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Volume 501: debated on Wednesday 2 December 2009

3. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s activities in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (303267)

My Department’s latest Afghanistan country programme evaluation was published in May this year. Although the challenges remain daunting, life for many Afghans is improving, with support from the United Kingdom and the international community. Indeed, a majority say that they are better off now than under the Taliban.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his response. Can he reassure me that there is no longer any basis for the concerns expressed by some in the military and other observers that there was some difficulty in achieving seamless working together between his Department and the military in bringing a better life to the people of Afghanistan?

I hope that I can offer exactly the assurance that the right hon. Gentleman seeks. I will be seeing General Sir David Richards later this afternoon, which is but one example of the close working relationships that have been established. A staff member from my Department is currently heading the provincial reconstruction team in Helmand. Only yesterday I received word that we have two civilians working in each of the forward operating bases. We also have a significant number of civilians operating in Helmand. That was not the case several years ago. We have scaled up the operation and the joint working in Helmand over recent years, and I am confident that a genuinely comprehensive approach is being taken by all arms of the British Government.

The House will, of course, welcome my right hon. Friend’s assurance that his Department is working with the military. It is right to focus on the military intervention, not least because of the announcements by the President of the United States and the British Prime Minister this week. I think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would accept that it is our military personnel who are at the sharp end. These are the people who ultimately have to help us win the argument on the farms and in the villages and towns hundreds of miles from Kabul. Will he assure us that he and his entire Department will be working to achieve this, because at the end of the day we have to win hearts and minds if we are going to make the progress that we all want.

Again, I hope I can give my right hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. It is right to recognise that we need a greater military effort from the international coalition in support of the Afghan Government, which is why we welcome the statement made overnight at West Point by President Obama, but we all recognise—not least our own military commanders—that ultimately there is no military-only solution to the challenges faced in Afghanistan, which is why it is necessary to complement the military surge with a political surge. That is the thinking underlying the Prime Minister’s announcement at the weekend that there will be an international conference hosted here in London on 28 January, which I believe will provide a further opportunity to set out our genuinely comprehensive approach, incorporating not simply the military aspects of the campaign but its civilian aspects.

It is understandable that in the Prime Minister’s statement to the House on Monday and President Obama’s speech last night, the primary focus was on getting the right military strategy and resources in place in Afghanistan, but does the Secretary of State accept that since 2001 only 5 per cent. of international aid has been spent on agriculture, so we have an urgent need to fix not just the military strategy, but also the development strategy?

I recognise that more needs to be done to co-ordinate the international effort. That has been a consistent message from the United Kingdom for some time now. I welcome the conversations that I have had in recent months with Richard Holbrooke, who is seized of exactly the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises in respect of the centrality and importance of agriculture both to the economic viability of Afghanistan and to counter-insurgency efforts. It is also right to set out for the House that we recognise that we confront twin challenges—the need both to weaken the Taliban, which is why we welcome the announcement from the United States, and to strengthen the Afghan state. Of course that begins with security, but it does not end with security. The provision of genuine economic opportunity by the Afghans for the Afghans is going to be a critical element in this campaign.

The investment of the Department for International Development in education in Afghanistan is to be highly commended. What have been the most successful investment outcomes so far from that huge contribution?

Perhaps the most simple and straightforward metric is the number of children enrolled in school. In 2001, 900,000 boys were enrolled in school and the Taliban had made it illegal for young girls to enjoy primary education. We are now comfortably beyond 5 million children enrolled in Afghan schools, and more than 2 million of them are young girls. That alone is testimony to the work we are taking forward through the Afghan reconstruction trust fund, which is paying teachers’ salaries. The Taliban recognise that that poses a direct threat to their prospective future for Afghanistan, which is why they continue to behead teachers and to bomb and burn schools, but we are determined to support the Afghan people in the educational endeavours that I have described.

In light of the Prime Minister’s statement on Monday that there should be even greater co-operation between the military and DFID in Afghanistan, what changes to the Department’s strategy in Helmand does the Secretary of State hope to see once the latest revision of the Helmand road map is completed?

I have just explained to the House that I am meeting General Sir David Richards this afternoon, and the co-ordination that we are taking forward in Helmand will be one of the areas that we will discuss. We have to recognise that the effort in Helmand is not military alone; as the general recognises, a civilian component is also required. That civilian component involves supporting Governor Mangal and the provincial council in the efforts being made, for example, to transfer production from opium to wheat. It also involves ensuring that we support the primary health care being moved in. A great deal of work is being taken forward not just in Lashkar Gah, but also in the forward operating bases, and I will continue to keep these matters under review.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer, but he did not really make clear what changes he expects to take place. A report published recently by the London School of Economics’ centre for civil society draws attention to claims by non-governmental organisations that foreign military strategies for tackling insurgency with aid projects had “infringed upon the work” of NGOs and

“compromised their claims of independence and neutrality.”

Given the Prime Minister’s commitment to pressing for greater civilian-military co-operation in Afghanistan, does the Minister feel that such criticisms are justified?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not recognise the centrality of security to the challenge of development in Helmand, not least given his experience of Afghanistan. Of course we must begin with the recognition that an insurgency is under way, the fulcrum of which is in Helmand at the moment. That is why it is vital for us to strengthen the security of not just the efforts of the international forces, but the Afghan Government themselves. Only when that space is secured will it be possible for the effective work that we want to take place to be fully maximised. I do not see this as being a trade-off between providing security and undertaking development: I think it vital for security to be secured so that development can take place.