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Conflict Resolution (Afghanistan)

Volume 503: debated on Monday 11 January 2010

5. What recent discussions he has had with Pashtun representatives on conflict resolution in Afghanistan. (309569)

As the Secretary of State for Defence, I regularly visit Afghanistan. During those visits, I take every opportunity to engage with the members of the Afghan Government, in their role as the elected representatives of the Afghan people, and to discuss issues that are important to us all, conflict resolution being one of them.

The allies did virtually everything wrong in Iraq, but at least they ended up siding with the majority of the population, the Shi’as. In Afghanistan, we have alienated the majority of the population, the Pashtuns, who have a long history of fighting whoever they perceive as occupiers. Does it not make military sense to enter into serious negotiations with Pashtun leaders and to bring them to power?

Reintegration is an important part of any counter-insurgency operation. We are more than happy to get involved in the reintegration of all parts of the insurgency that are prepared to revert to peaceful means. We need to provide methods to allow them to do that, but the process surely needs to be led by the Afghan Government, not by us as the international support force in Afghanistan. Of course we want to see the reintegration of those parts of the Pashtun population who feel alienated but who are not irreconcilable. Indeed, the title of Taliban applies to irreconcilable international jihadists on the one hand and to poor disgruntled farmers on the other, so there is a good opportunity for that to happen.

Given the very small number of Pashtun speakers in Her Majesty’s armed forces serving on the front line in Afghanistan, and the small number of Pashtun speakers in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, will the Secretary of State please explain how the British Government communicate with local communities in Afghanistan? Do they use local interpreters or is there a growing body of civil servants being trained to speak Pashtun?

We use local interpreters, but we also seek to use the local government arrangements in Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman will have heard me describe the excellent relationship that we have with Governor Mangal in Helmand province, where most of our forces are. He is right, however, to suggest that we need to look seriously at how many Pashtun speakers we have, and to seek to develop that capability.

Since there must be very few people who really believe that an outright military victory in Afghanistan is possible, is it not absolutely essential to put much more emphasis on a political solution, which must involve a good number of those who are, sadly, fighting the coalition forces? Simply to work on the assumption that military victory will be achieved in another four or five years is not to live in the real world.

Equally, that is a caricature of what people actually believe. Nobody believes that a purely military outcome is going to deliver victory in Afghanistan.

I do not know why my hon. Friend is so surprised at that. I have said that reintegration is a necessary part of the process. We want to see the Afghan Government holding a hand out to all those who are reconcilable and whom they can bring back into the fold—of course we do.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Afghan Taliban have no ambitions beyond Afghanistan and the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan, while, by contrast, Osama bin Laden is the protagonist of an international caliphate? Instead of lumping them together, would it not therefore be wiser to try to separate them by offering the Taliban an early withdrawal of foreign troops in exchange for their permanently excluding al-Qaeda, with which the Taliban have always had an uneasy alliance?

As I have said, elements of the Afghan Taliban are precisely as the hon. Gentleman describes. But let us not forget that they are still led by Mullah Omar, who ran Afghanistan. In that capacity, he welcomed al-Qaeda into his country and was an arch ally of Osama bin Laden. Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that, if we were to pull our troops out of Afghanistan in a precipitate way, the likelihood that Mullah Omar would again control large parts of Afghanistan, if not the entire country, would be pretty high—as is the likelihood that he would do again as he did in the past, bringing a threat back to us in the United Kingdom.