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Volume 536: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2011

The principal outcome of the conference, which I attended on behalf of the United Kingdom, was an agreement by Afghanistan’s regional partners on the future of Afghanistan, involving commitments to non-intervention, to the inviolability of its borders and to support Afghan-led efforts on reconciliation and the political process. The group has agreed to meet again in June next year.

Given that Pakistan is vital to Afghanistan’s security, how will the Government assess the impact on relationships between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States, bearing in mind the tragic incident over the weekend involving NATO forces?

It was tragic indeed. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke with the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan on 26 November to convey the United Kingdom’s condolences to the families of those involved and to the armed forces and people of Pakistan. We support an urgent inquiry by the international security assistance force into the circumstances and encourage Pakistan to take part. In the meantime, all parties should do their utmost to rebuild trust and confidence between them and take no action that would make that more difficult.

The Minister will recall that I wrote to him a year ago having met a number of Afghan women MPs who were extremely concerned about the future and who regularly put their lives at risk in seeking to represent people in their country. What is he doing to ensure that the rights of women in Afghanistan will be supported in future?

If I do not remember the individual letter, I certainly remember the sentiments, which have been echoed by a good number of colleagues over the past few months. Yesterday I received a delegation of non-governmental organisations expressing their concerns about this and a large petition. We have ensured that the Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), the Minister responsible for combating violence against women, will attend the Bonn conference with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and that commitments to women in Afghanistan will be uppermost in our presentations. It is vital that the situation for women does not go backwards in Afghanistan and that the Government honour their commitment to equality.

Will conditions be attached to the withdrawal of our provincial reconstruction team in Helmand, such as an increase in the capacity of provincial government in the region, or will the team simply be withdrawn in line with the removal of combat troops by 2015?

We fully expect that the withdrawal of the provincial reconstruction team and those who support it will be in line with the timetable announced. We welcome the fact that further districts of Helmand were included last week in President Karzai’s announcement of a further tranche towards transition. We of course keep the closest watch on conditions on the ground, but so far our assessment is that the timetable will be able to be kept.

I welcome the Minister’s responses, but this was clearly the precursor to next week’s conference in Bonn on the future of Afghanistan. What are the Government’s objectives for the conference?

Our objectives are to fulfil the three themes of the conference: to look at future commitments from the international community to Afghanistan; to support the political process; and to discuss civilian transition in Afghanistan. It is a very important conference and we hope that all parties will be able to attend. It is not a NATO conference, for example, and we hope that it will be possible for Pakistan to send representatives, as its future security is intimately bound up with that of Afghanistan.

May I also thank the Minister for his very full response to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) on protecting the significant gains that women have made in Afghanistan? What are the Government doing to ensure that the voices of Afghan women are heard at that conference and in subsequent discussions?

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s questions. Civil society in Afghanistan and women’s involvement in it are growing. We have made representations over a lengthy period to the Government of Afghanistan to ensure that their own delegation includes a significant number of women representatives, which it will do, and they will voice their aspirations. Our delegation has also ensured that those issues are well up on the agenda, and it is important that the advances made by women in recent years, including that of 2.5 million girls now going to school, are not knocked backwards.