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Volume 543: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2012

1. What discussions he has had with his NATO counterparts on the political situation in Afghanistan. (102851)

12. What recent assessment he has made of the political and security situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (102862)

My colleagues and I regularly discuss Afghanistan with our NATO counterparts, as we will in Brussels this week. Although the situation remains challenging, transition is on track. The main NATO summit in Chicago will send a clear signal of the international community’s enduring commitment to Afghanistan.

Today the Australian Prime Minister announced the early withdrawal of Australian troops. What has the Foreign Secretary discussed with his Australian counterparts and what are the implications for the early withdrawal of British troops?

The vast bulk of the ISAF troop-contributing countries remain clear about the commitment to the end of 2014 as the time when the transition to Afghan security control will be complete. The United Kingdom is fully in line with that. We have said that British troops will not have a combat role after that point or be there in anything like the numbers they are now. That position is unaffected by announcements by any other countries.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s original response. Does he agree that the region itself must take a greater interest in and responsibility for the future of Afghanistan? What discussions has he had with Afghanistan’s neighbours about that?

Yes, I very much agree with that. Of course, there have been conferences of regional nations—promoted by Turkey, for instance. The co-operation of Pakistan with the Government of Afghanistan is of prime importance, and I am delighted that there has been a distinct improvement in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent months. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has also toured central Asian countries to the north of Afghanistan, encouraging their co-operation with that country.

The tragic events of Sunday afternoon in Kabul are yet more evidence that the idea of a transition to Afghan national forces is an objective that has been construed independently of any real long-term political solution—aid militarised, corruption endemic. Does the Foreign Secretary therefore accept that we should bring our brave troops home now, rather than waiting until yet more lives have been lost?

No; one of the things we saw from the incident on Sunday was the increasing ability of Afghan security forces to deal with a major incident on their own. It was the Afghan forces that killed or captured all the insurgents concerned. Of course, they need time for that capability to be built up further, and we are giving them that time by having our troops engaged in Afghanistan—including in combat—up to the end of 2014. If we did not do that, those forces would not be ready for the full task, and we would be letting down the people of Afghanistan and the people who have done so much work over the last decade.

I suggest that British Governments have long failed to understand that given the available resources, ISAF and Afghan forces will not defeat the Taliban. Is it therefore not now time to drop the unrealistic preconditions to talks with the Taliban and explore possible common ground—including differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda—for our possible mutual benefit? We can be proud of our soldiers, but I suggest that it is now time for the politicians to step up to the plate.

My hon. Friend knows that we are fully in favour of a process of reconciliation and that the British Government have been encouraging that—the last Government did it towards the end of their term of office and this Government have continued to do so. However, a successful reconciliation requires a readiness to reconcile on the part of the other party as well, and that has been lacking from the Taliban so far. I suspect that it would be even more lacking if we were to relax our military efforts and let the Taliban think that they could have success entirely on the battlefield.

I have listened with care to the latest answer that the Foreign Secretary has given. I welcome what seems to be his implication that these latest attacks do not detract from the case for dialogue with elements of the insurgency. However, could he tell the House what work is being done and what progress is being made—specifically, by the Afghan Government, the US Government and the British Government—in pursuit of that goal?

Progress has been made, and the right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the announcement of a Taliban political office in Qatar. That was an indication of a readiness to begin a process of reconciliation. Since then, the Taliban have suspended that intention. It is not surprising that efforts at reconciliation go backwards and forwards, or that sometimes there is a readiness to engage and sometimes they move back from that. That does not mean that we stop our efforts. The important thing is to maintain all our efforts to improve security and to build a viable state in Afghanistan so that, whether or not reconciliation succeeds, the Afghan national security forces are able to maintain security in their country.

Let me turn specifically to the NATO summit in Chicago in May, which has already been mentioned. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the summit needs to agree a co-ordinated timetable for the withdrawal of NATO forces, a stable and sustainable funding arrangement for Afghan security forces and a status of forces agreement on the role of any international forces, post-2014? Does he also agree that, as well as setting those three goals, the summit must achieve genuine progress on a stable political settlement in Afghanistan, and specifically on bringing the regional powers on board in a more meaningful way than has been achieved to date?

All those things are important, of course. The timetable was set by the Lisbon summit in November 2010, and as I have said, we are sticking to it. The right hon. Gentleman’s point about funding is very important, and we are doing a lot of work to ensure that there is a clear plan and a clear commitment from sufficient countries for the funding of the Afghan national security forces after 2014. I regard that as of the highest importance in regard to what we agree in Chicago. Of course there will be a network of bilateral agreements for forces, as well as any arrangements with NATO and ISAF, including our own commitment to having an officer training academy in Afghanistan after 2014. We also continue to promote a political settlement alongside all that, but the funding arrangements will be of the greatest importance in Chicago.

For a genuine settlement to be reached, equal pressure must be applied to the Taliban and to the Afghan Government. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on whether the Americans are continuing to investigate the possibility of retaining one or more strategic bases in Afghanistan after 2014?

I am sure that the Afghan Government feel that pressure. As my hon. Friend knows, they are in favour of reconciliation; they are promoting it. President Karzai has appointed the high peace council to take forward that work, endorsed by Loya Jirga, so that work is certainly under way. The presence of American forces is a matter for the Governments of Afghanistan and the United States to reach agreement on themselves, so I cannot give my hon. Friend any new news on that.

2. What reports he has received on the capacity of the authorities in Afghanistan to preside over free and fair presidential elections in 2014. (102852)

6. What reports he has received on the capacity of the authorities in Afghanistan to preside over free and fair presidential elections in 2014. (102856)

10. What reports he has received on the capacity of the authorities in Afghanistan to preside over free and fair presidential elections in 2014. (102860)

When I was in Kabul about three weeks ago, officials made it clear that the forthcoming elections would create challenges, not only in relation to security. Accordingly, we are working with the United Nations Development Programme to support the capacity building of the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, which will have responsibility for presiding over and delivering the election in 2014.

Is the Minister confident that the Afghan police force will be strong enough to secure a presidential election in 2014 that is free from intimidation and electoral fraud?

We certainly hope so. The work that is being done to train and build up the Afghan national security forces, including the police, is on track. The numbers have increased, and they now stand at 148,000. It should also be noted that not all of Afghanistan is Kandahar or Helmand; there are substantial parts of the country where security is not an issue. As a result of the transition process, half the population is now under the control of the Afghan national security forces. We will continue to work with them, but we hope that they will be responsible for the conduct of free and fair elections and be able to guarantee that security.

The Minister will know that there are concerns about the capacity of the Afghan authorities to hold presidential elections in 2014. In the light of that, what is the Government’s assessment of recent media reports that Hamid Karzai is considering stepping down a year early, thereby triggering an election before the withdrawal of international forces?

Of course the date of presidential elections that might be triggered by a resignation must be a matter for the Afghanistan Government and the President. That he has made clear his intention to stand down is important in the context of accepting Afghanistan’s own constitution, which limits him to two terms. If an election were to come up immediately, the Independent Election Commission has said it would be difficult, but I think the sense is that the timing is likely to be co-ordinated with the Afghan Administration’s ability to hold such an election. It is a matter for them, but too soon an election might be very difficult, although the Independent Election Commission is working hard at improving its capacity to hold an election at the allotted time.

I am sure the Minister will agree that for the next elections in Afghanistan to be really free and fair, women must be able to participate unrestricted in the process. What action has the embassy in Kabul taken to support women in the political process, and how confident is he that such participation will be meaningful?

Again, my recent visit and one I made some months ago allowed me to talk to women who are engaged in the political process. They are conscious of the difficulties in a socially conservative structure, but also of the gains they have made over the past 10 years and of their determination to make sure that the constitution, which guarantees equality for women, is adhered to. There can be no guarantees, but we are working with women’s groups and organisations throughout the country to ensure that the constitution is lived up to and to ensure the best possible opportunities for women’s representation because their full participation is indeed crucial.

The Minister will, I hope, agree with me that British parliamentarians have a role to play in building capacity in regard both to the elections and to general parliamentary matters in Kabul. Will he therefore encourage the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which is planning a trip to Kabul for British parliamentarians, to press ahead with it irrespective of security considerations?

I do not think it is ever sensible to press ahead “irrespective of security considerations”, but the point is well made: parliamentarians have an opportunity to share experiences and help in the capacity building of Parliament, which is already ongoing. I very much hope that such a visit will be able to take place in proper security conditions.

Will the Minister outline what steps are being taken to ensure the improvement of voter registration of male and female voters in a country with widespread illiteracy?

That is a key part of the capacity building of the Independent Election Commission, which has already improved the percentage of those registered. There is clearly a close correlation between ensuring proper registration and preventing fraud, and the commission is very conscious of that correlation and of the need to continue to do more. That work is ongoing, and we are confident that it will be improved further from the elections of 2009 and 2010.

The capacity of the Afghan authorities and their ability to hold free and fair elections will be crucially affected by the summit at Chicago, as the Foreign Secretary said, so we welcome his remarks about the involvement of neighbouring powers—a course of action we have urged on him for some time. Surely, however, this should also include India, Russia and Iran. Equally important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) stressed, the voice of Afghan women must be heard at the negotiating table. We must ensure that women’s rights are protected under the settlement. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that?

Of course the Bonn conference is part of the ongoing relationship of the international community with Afghanistan, and it has women represented on it. We made it an important part of our representation, and our own Minister with responsibility for dealing with violence against women—the Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone)—was present. We do indeed work to make sure that women’s representation is there. I come back to the point that much of this is in the hands of Afghan women themselves, who are very active and have made it clear that they do not wish to see the gains of recent years reversed. It is difficult, and no one should pretend otherwise, as it is not easily dealt with. We are confident that the opportunities will be there, that the determination of the international community will be there and that Afghanistan will be a stronger society because of the participation—political and otherwise—of women.