Since the London conference, the Government of Afghanistan have made progress on some of their commitments, including the Afghan Cabinet’s decision to approve the sub-national governance strategy and President Karzai’s recent decree boosting the high office of oversight’s powers to tackle and investigate corruption. In other areas, progress is slow—too slow. We continue to work with the Afghan authorities to encourage similar progress to be made in those other areas.
One area of our policy in Afghanistan—where, tragically, another British soldier lost his life at the weekend—on which I believe the Government have failed very badly is explaining to the public why we are there. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that that is the case and, if so, what is he going to do about it?
Every death of a British soldier in Afghanistan is a tragic event, and I think that the hon. Gentleman’s attempt to link this to a particular Government decision is unwise and not worthy of him. There is unity across the House that the border lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan are the gravest terrorist threat to this country and that stability in Afghanistan is absolutely essential not only to countering the threat that al-Qaeda might re-establish itself there, but to achieving stability in Pakistan. That is the fundamental reason why we are there, and it is why all three major political parties support our presence there. We all know, however, that there will not be a military solution in Afghanistan—the combined military and civilian effort will create the conditions for a political settlement, which is, after all, the only way to provide stability in that country.
What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of developments in Afghanistan regarding the well-being of women and their health, education and ability to work for their families?
I am sorry that this will be the last occasion on which my hon. Friend asks a question in this House; she has raised a very important point. On education, one can point to a qualitative shift. There are now, after all, about 6 million to 7 million children in school in Afghanistan, nearly half of them girls, which is a complete revolution in comparison with a decade ago. In other areas, however, as we heard from the civil society representatives at the London conference, progress has been much slower, including in areas such as political representation and health care, which my hon. Friend mentioned.
Amid all the debates that we will have in the coming election campaign, should we not all remember that throughout every hour of it we have 10,000 British servicemen and women in real battles in Afghanistan and that their role must be a paramount concern for whoever is elected on 6 May? Is it not true that the military advances made on the ground will be of long-term benefit only if the Afghan political processes also succeed and are seen to be legitimate? When the Prime Minister announced UK strategy for Afghanistan in November last year, he pledged that President Karzai would ensure that all 400 Afghan provinces and districts had a governor free from corruption and appointed on merit within nine months—by August this year. Is the Foreign Secretary confident that such benchmarks will still be met?
Perhaps you will allow me, Mr. Speaker, to say that I thought it completely appropriate for the Prime Minister when he spoke in Downing street this morning—and for the Leader of the Opposition when he made his response and for the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who I think took time out from the hurly-burly and political battles that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) mentioned—to say that this election campaign provides a chance not to forget what is going on in Afghanistan, but to discuss with and engage the British people on that issue. That is something that I—and, I hope, other right hon. and hon. Members—will be keen to do, because this is the time to engage the British people on the sacrifice being made and the purposes behind it.
As to President Karzai’s commitment, I believe that it was in his inaugural speech in the third week of November when he made the commitment to the transfer of security leadership and to extend governance issues in respect of corruption. The Prime Minister’s commitment remains. Early signs, over the three or four months since the announcement, have been positive and a number of provinces have had replacement governors who are, I think, an improvement on their predecessors.
In light of all that, should we not all accept how alarming it is to those who support the efforts of British forces in Afghanistan to read so many reports in recent days of apparent division between President Karzai and western nations? Given that steps to reduce corruption and to improve local government are vital for the counter-insurgency effort, is the Foreign Secretary absolutely confident that relations between this country and the US on the one hand and President Karzai on the other hand are as they should be, and that there is a clear enough mutual understanding of the approach needed to handle the situation in Kandahar, to conduct the elections well in September and to make progress on the integration and reconciliation process? Is he happy that all that is as it should be? Is not agreement on such things indispensable to our success in Afghanistan?
Agreement on such things is, indeed, indispensible, but verbal agreement is, of course, only one step in the process. I am absolutely confident that since the London conference there has been renewed unity not only between Britain and the United States but across the international coalition about the military and civilian strategy that is needed and the political settlement that can be generated. In respect of the Afghan Government, as I said in Kabul in November, words must be turned into deeds. That is the case both now and in the run-up to the Kabul conference, which is the moment when the international effort generated in London and the Afghan effort mobilised locally by a new Government—whose Cabinet has not yet been fully appointed, which points to some of the problems that exist—will need to be joined. That will be a very important moment to judge progress and how much confidence we should have. It would be unwise at this stage to say anything other than that we must continue to press very strongly on the agenda that President Karzai set out in November and that we have committed to—and we want to see it matched.
Finally, if you will allow me, Mr. Speaker—I apologise for talking at such length, but the Afghan issue is so important—the right hon. Gentleman has referred to comments made at the weekend. It is very important that we say very clearly that any suggestion that Britain, or any other country, has irregularly interfered in the election processes of Afghanistan is completely without foundation. Our troops were there guaranteeing the safety of people seeking to go and vote. I am sure that it is a unified position across this House to have absolutely no truck with such malign suggestions, especially about our troops, but actually about our whole country.
I associate myself and my hon. and right hon. Friends with the Secretary of State’s observations about Afghanistan and the debt that we owe to those who serve there, but, in his usual restrained way, he has not, I think, given the House a full and proper account of the Government’s response to these extraordinary and bizarre allegations of external interference in the presidential elections. What representations has Her Majesty’s Government made to President Karzai about these allegations, and if he is to be the centrepiece of political development, how can we have confidence when he makes such remarks?
I pleaded with Mr. Speaker to allow me to get in an extra sentence or two in order to address that, and I am sorry if that did not provide the comprehensive answer that the right hon. and learned Gentleman wanted. The Prime Minister spoke to President Karzai on Sunday, when he made absolutely clear our position in respect of these allegations. President Karzai did not repeat the allegations; in fact, he committed himself to working with the United Kingdom, but as I said in respect of an earlier question, it is important to turn those assurances into deeds. President Karzai is the elected leader of Afghanistan—he is the choice of the Afghan people. He certainly got more votes than any other candidate in the election, and it is by virtue of that election that he is our partner in securing our interests in that country.