Skip to main content


Volume 685: debated on Tuesday 10 October 2006

rose to ask Her Majesty’s Government what further assistance they are providing for the reconstruction and security of Afghanistan.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this Question was originally tabled in the name of my noble friend Lady Northover. I much regret that, because of family illness, she is not here to open this debate.

We have supported the agenda for Afghanistan set out by Jack Straw some five years ago. It was clear that the international community had failed the country at the end of the Cold War and that we had to change it from the haven for terrorism that it had become. This required the international community working together on reconstruction and economic development which, in turn, required political reform and adequate security for the rule of law.

During the past five years, progress has been made—I am sure that the Minister will tell us about that progress—but it has been much slower than it should have been. That is because the main players moved resources to the foolish adventures in Iraq. The trends are now not as positive as we might wish. Non-governmental organisations are reporting that deteriorating security in many formerly peaceful provinces has resulted in a disabling environment for development. Although there is visible economic activity and improvement of infrastructure in many parts of the country, persistent unemployment and high levels of corruption are increasingly problematic. I shall focus primarily on the new developments this year, and ask the Minister several questions about the effect of the changes on overall progress and what the British Government intend to do about them. Unlike in Iraq, we have benchmarks against which to measure progress. The Afghanistan compact was drawn up in London in January, and gives us those benchmarks for a range of issues, including security, drugs, gender equality, and social and economic development.

Although formulated only nine months ago, these benchmarks now seem overly optimistic. For example, all illegal armed groups will be disarmed by the end of 2007 in all provinces. Does the Minister believe that this is still achievable? By the end of 2010, there will be in place effective measures that contribute to the elimination of poppy cultivation. After this year, which showed a 60 per cent rise in the total poppy harvest, where are the UK priorities now? By the end of 2010, the national action plan for women in Afghanistan will have been fully implemented, and female participation in all Afghan governance institutions will be strengthened, so the compact says. Does the Minister agree that the extension of education to girls—one of the major achievements since 2001—is now being threatened by the widespread closure of schools in the south? What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to help to provide safe access to education for girls in Afghanistan and protection for female government employees working in high-risk areas?

The United Nations and the Afghan Government launched a drought appeal in July. Why has the United Kingdom not committed any funds to the appeal so far? In all this, the security strategy is key. As we heard earlier this afternoon, NATO has taken responsibility for the whole of Afghanistan. The recent fighting in the south, including Operation Medusa in Kandahar province, has had a major impact on civilians. The Afghan Government have reported that 4,000 families in Helmand and 2,500 families in Kandahar have been displaced as a result of this ongoing conflict. Will the Minister tell us what assessment the British Government have made of the humanitarian effects of the fighting in the south?

For five years, the United States has led the coalition under the banner of Operation Enduring Freedom, which has been pounding the south and the east in a failed attempt to find Osama bin Laden. No significant reconstruction work has been done there, and the Taliban has grown experienced and more confident. Nor, even after five years, do we seem to have much of an intelligence picture of the operational theatre, given the mis-assessment of the past three months. Until today, I have not joined in the criticism about a confused strategy. While NATO and Operation Enduring Freedom had separate geographical areas of responsibility, the strategy was perhaps manageable, if unusual. As I indicated earlier today in our debate on the Statement on Iraq and Afghanistan, I am seriously concerned. NATO is responsible for the whole of Afghanistan through the ISAF mission. Meanwhile, 8,000 troops under American control will operate under Operation Enduring Freedom, and the US-controlled air power will not be transferred to NATO. Was there ever a military operation like this before, with two major forces with overlapping remits operating in the same areas? In February, when the United States takes command of NATO forces, which agenda will have priority? This is of real concern to NGOs operating in the field. They have found it very difficult to near impossible to work in a theatre where offensive air power is the weapon of choice.

But this is not the only turf war. Did the Minister read Christina Lamb’s report from Afghanistan in the latest edition of the Sunday Times, in which she said that a DfID representative speaking about reconstruction work in Helmand province could cite only the rebuilding of market stalls in two districts? She went on to report that the British military wanted DfID to hand over some of its funds to enable them to carry out work. Her article claims that the military are locked in a debate with DfID over the strategy for the £20 million available to spend in Helmand. DfID wants long-term projects, and the military want to get jobs to Afghans now. Indeed, the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, this afternoon seemed to reinforce this view of some difference between the military and the development strategy.

The Sunday Times article quoted the NATO commander Lieutenant-General David Richards as saying:

“The military can’t do much more - it’s up to the government and development agencies. At the moment somehow it isn’t happening and we’re beginning to lose time”.

When we talk to the NGOs, however, they are critical of the funds going to military aspects compared with the money available for development work. Does the Minister agree that the Ministry of Defence, DfID and the NGOs must have a common purpose? Where does the Foreign Office stand in these disputes? Does it favour the quick-fix approach offered by the military, or the long-term sustainable development approach for which the development agencies are arguing? Are the British Government providing sufficient resources to do both? Both are obviously important.

We on these Benches have no doubt that the future of Afghanistan is vital to the long-term security of United Kingdom citizens, as well as the greater aim of providing security for the people of Afghanistan. It is already a difficult task; it will become an impossible one if the United States and NATO operate different military strategies at the same time in the same place, and if the military and the aid agencies are in dispute. Will the Minister give us some assurance that these tensions are being addressed?

My Lords, I commend the Government’s programme for Afghanistan, but I recommend that they pursue that programme, first, with a considered and flexible strategy, secondly with caution, and thirdly with the opportunity for regular review. Above all, the Government must strive to avoid a significant gap being created between their political aspirations and the capacity to execute those aspirations with the military or in the development field, both of which are inextricably linked. I take this cautious view because historically Afghanistan is a complex and difficult geopolitical arena militarily. It survived 20 Russian divisions and saw the rise and fall of the Taliban in bloody circumstances. There is a Pashtun revival and a porous border with Pakistan, so history suggests the caution that I have recommended. With regard to aid, it is a misuse of words to speak of reconstruction in Afghanistan. Rather, it is a process of construction. That means time, money and long-term effort and commitment. The question is whether it will work for development.

Militarily and in the field of development, this country should determine what is best for that country and what is within our reasonable capacity to help it to achieve that. That means considering both the short-term and the long-term strategy. As of 5 October, NATO has taken military command of the military situation in Afghanistan under the leadership of Lieutenant-General Richards. Military men in his position are careful in their choice of words. Earlier this week, he said that we were at a tipping point and had six months in which to achieve a significant change so that the people are with us and are not driven against us. That is a very tight and very tough timetable within which to achieve his declared objective of having the people come on the side of NATO and the Afghan Government. So what is the short-term strategy?

Secondly, I turn to the long term. History demands that if you enter Afghanistan to seek to change it you thereby commit yourself to a process of a number of years. That commitment I understand to have been made by this country and its partners in NATO. They must fulfil that commitment; that is, all of them, not just us. NATO is with us and its member countries acting as a group of common partners with shared objectives, which means that you have to commit yourself to the responsibility of supply and potential damage to your troops. At the moment, the relationship of combat troops to the rest in NATO is wholly out of proportion. How can NATO, therefore, be seen to make that change unless there is more commitment?

Thirdly, do we have enough strategic assets as a NATO force, not just British helicopters for British troops? What is our alternative strategy if it is not to be NATO, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, raised this afternoon? Finally, since 2001 we have contributed £390 million to that country through DfID in aid. It is our fifth largest target for donations and we are the second largest aid provider. Have we carried out a results-based analysis? Is it going the right way? These are very large sums of money to direct to Afghanistan. I regret to mention the introduction of the Promulgation of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice Committee. The title bemuses us, but what does it mean for women in Afghanistan if we are spending this kind of money? I close positively. We as a Government are giving leadership, which means responsibility by us to lead others in the objectives that we have declared.

My Lords, I thank, first, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, albeit in her absence, for having instituted this debate; secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Garden, for introducing it; and, thirdly, the Government for having made a substantial commitment over the years to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Long may that continue. However, Afghanistan remains a fragile state—not, thankfully, as fragile as it was, but nevertheless certainly not stable.

I want to look briefly at the logic of the multilateral aid programme and to question the decisions by major donors to channel millions of dollars of aid largely through the Afghan Government to the detriment of indigenous and other NGOs, many of which have been working in Afghanistan for many years. The UK Government draw a distinction between the US search and destroy mission and the UK’s mission which is,

“firmly centred on the reconstruction effort … actions will always have the primacy of the reconstruction effort in mind … [the UK troops] are not there to wage war but to help rebuild”.

The aim of the donor community as laid out in the Bonn process and underlined again at the London conference earlier this year was and is to build capacity in all sectors in Afghanistan. Last January, donors launched the Afghanistan compact, part of which was concerned with ensuring that aid be allocated almost exclusively through the various Afghan ministries. This has led to a somewhat two-headed approach of conforming with President Karzai’s wishes, but at the same time undermining the development goals of the Karzai and Blair governments. The Department for International Development now channels something like 70 per cent of aid via the government, with the concomitant decrease in funds available for those NGOs working at local levels. That of course allows for a measure of accountability, but in recent months it has become more obvious that the government simply do not have the capacity to spend aid money on agreed infrastructure and other projects. Recent estimates suggest that perhaps only 10 per cent of available aid money has been spent.

Perhaps I may spell out a little more the consequences of this shift in the allocation of aid money. NGOs are increasingly becoming sub-contractors without the means to initiate new programmes, implement training courses and/or work in areas other than those presently occupied by various military forces. Given the precarious context in Afghanistan, local programmes that focus on capacity building, such as support for community development councils in health, education and local government structure, help to provide employment. That creates less incentive for young males to join the insurgents and therefore allows a more robust community that is less likely to fall to the Taliban at the first fence. Community work is a form of defence, yet the priority programmes decreed and funded by central government are short term, have no exit strategies and are running short of money—some speak of a $20 million deficit. Even if donors are willing to commit more, maintaining aid flows to rural communities is beyond the capacity of the government in the absence of a strong NGO presence.

A further consequence of the decrease in direct funding to NGOs is the shift to development programmes in insecure provinces being delivered by military personnel, which is an extremely bad precedent and not necessarily efficient. For example, aid pledged for Helmand but delayed due to the insurgency is aid money not being spent. As we know, military spending is six times greater than that spent on development. There is therefore an urgent need to deploy scarce resources well, if not synergistically. While it is understandable that the Government may be reluctant to commit non-military staff to working in insecure regions, it is precisely in those areas that long-term infrastructure building is most urgent, and this job is best undertaken by NGOs.

A continuation of this scattered approach, dictated by military rather than perhaps developmental considerations, will result in an imbalance in aid programming and an eventual imbalance in the country as a whole, with some provinces lagging far behind developmentally. Meanwhile, there are some NGOs mainly employing local staff, such as Afghanaid, that are prepared to carry on working in some areas considered to be insecure, but no longer have the means to do so.

The argument is for complementary programming to support the Afghan Government’s priorities, but to maintain some direct NGO funding to pre-empt the pulling out by some NGOs due to lack of support. Perhaps I may add that the Nordic Governments are extremely supportive of their NGOs and continue to fund them generously, precisely because they understand the role that they play in reconstruction. I therefore ask the Minister to reassure us here and the aid community more widely that support will be continued and/or forthcoming for those NGOs with a proven track record of serious work in the poorest parts of Afghanistan.

My Lords, there seems no point in denying that things have not gone as well in Afghanistan as was hoped and, perhaps, unrealistically expected when the Taliban regime collapsed five years ago. We underestimated the degree of failure of the Afghan state after a decade of Soviet occupation and another decade of civil war. We underestimated the intractability of the problems posed by the fissiparous tendencies of the different ethnic groups, by the longstanding tradition of interference in Afghanistan by its neighbours and by the grip that drug production had taken on Afghanistan’s otherwise almost non-existent rural economy. We did, here as in many other places, fail to grasp what a very long, complex task peace-building inevitably is in a failed state. It is good that the Question introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Garden, gives us an opportunity to look at all this and reflect on it.

One hears quite a few voices suggesting that we and our NATO allies are unwise to commit ourselves to new and demanding security operations in the south of the country and that the international community as a whole is trying to achieve the impossible task of helping Afghanistan become a stable, working state with reasonably democratic institutions. Before following that line of reasoning, it is as well to consider the alternatives. Do we seriously believe that Afghanistan could yet stand on its own feet without any or with less external support than is currently being provided? If not, what would be the likely consequences of our doing less or simply quitting? The Taliban and the forces of religious extremism remain a force to be reckoned with, as do the remnants of al-Qaeda. Can we possibly afford to run the risk of their achieving something similar to their joint control of Afghanistan that existed until 2001? Do we not in any case have a political and moral duty to see through the peace-building tasks that we assumed when we intervened in Afghanistan that year?

The answers to all of those questions seem to point to our having a national, as well an international, interest in seeing this matter through, and doing so with a will and the necessary resources. But are we and the Afghan Government yet doing all we can to achieve a successful outcome? Is enough being done to marginalise the former warlords and to ensure that they do not return or reassert their control over the instruments of the state? Is enough being done to offer a substantial stake in the new Afghanistan to the Pashtun tribes of the south and the east, without whose active co-operation a peaceful and stable Afghanistan will not be achievable? Have we yet achieved the right policy mix for dealing with the drug problem? I doubt, frankly, if it is possible to give an unhesitatingly affirmative answer to any of those questions.

Afghanistan has suffered from external interference for hundreds of years and it has sometimes interfered in its neighbours itself. Recently we have heard distant echoes of past quarrels over the tribal areas that straddle the Afghan-Pakistan border, otherwise known as the Durand line. Is it not an essential element of any stabilisation of Afghanistan itself that it and all its neighbours commit themselves to non-interference, to respect for existing frontiers and to a range of confidence-building measures and co-operation? In many parts of the world those objectives are anchored in regional or sub-regional multilateral organisations, which impose legal obligations as well as expressing good intentions. Is it not time to construct some such regional approach around Afghanistan? I raised this point in our debates some five years ago and I do not believe that much has been achieved. Perhaps the Minister can say something now about the Government’s thinking on this point.

And then there is the issue of drugs. I should like to hear the Government’s thinking on this. Is there any aspect of the ideas being promoted by the Senlis Council, and which would involve some legitimised production for pharmaceutical purposes, as takes place in certain other countries such as Turkey, which might over time make sense in Afghanistan?

Clearly security issues lie at the heart of any peace-building effort in Afghanistan. It was surely a mistake to have left large areas to the south and east of the country so long as a kind of free-fire zone for the US forces and the remnants of the Taliban. The successes achieved elsewhere by the provisional reconstruction teams show just how important it is to pursue reconstruction and development at the same time as security. Perhaps the Minister could tell the House how those tasks of reconstruction and development are being pursued in the areas where Britain and other NATO allies have now taken the responsibility for providing security.

More, much more, could be said on this subject. But I would like to end with one thought, which is in no way specific to Afghanistan. The tasks we have undertaken in Afghanistan will not be successfully achieved if we cannot check and reverse the increasing political alienation that is developing between Muslim countries and the West. That alienation will not be checked and reversed if we—and that in large part means the United States—do not resume without delay a serious effort to solve the Arab-Israel dispute in its entirety. The policy vacuum in this matter over recent years has wrought havoc to our wider objectives—the recent events in the Lebanon being the most recent evidence of that—and it is all set to wreak even more havoc if we do not collectively do something urgently to fill the vacuum with a meaningful peace process which has the united support of the whole international community. That is surely something on which Europe should now give a lead.

My Lords, there are positive signs in Afghanistan—children in school, women’s rights, the growth of civil society and of people’s power to change their lives. But these things are happening almost invisibly against a background of propaganda, insecurity and the uncontrolled cycle of violence.

This is not a conventional civil war, nor even really an ideological one: it is an old territorial struggle between rival groups and militias. The coalition decided to back the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, which is now a convenient name for the enemy. But there were never two sides, only temporary alliances. In 2001 we expected the whole country to fall in line because of the undoubted diplomatic skills of a new Pashtun leader. It has not, although he has held the rest of the country together remarkably well.

Disarmament is an extremely slow process, as the noble Lord, Lord Garden, pointed out. The end-2007 deadline is quite unrealistic. No fewer than six district chiefs and security chiefs of different provinces were fired recently because they were not co-operating with the disbandment of illegal armed groups and there are still about 1,800 of those groups. The Taliban, with its mainly southern commanders and allies such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are never going to co-operate. They have chosen to repeat the Russian experience and to become the Mujaheddin of today. They could hold out in the hills for years. I think it is unlikely that NATO, even under its new combined command, will be able to sustain its action in the south except along a front closer to Kandahar. It had much better concentrate on the areas it knows it can defend.

We originally sent our soldiers to defend reconstruction, and I am still of the view, as others have said, that we can do that in safer areas through the UN mandate and the PRTs in the north and west, but not in the south. What has changed is that NATO is now acting through a fighting force as well as through peace-keeping troops and the Taliban will make sure that the people are confused by this mix of objectives. Britain came as a friend, but it is also seen as an enemy and we have to come to terms with that. The longer our troops are fighting limited actions in Helmand, the less we can be regarded as helping in the country as a whole.

There are, of course, other reasons for the rise in violence, including the ideological overspill from Iraq and the perception of the US and the UK in general. We are not winning the hearts and minds of the Arab world because of our narrow foreign policy. I was very glad to hear that the Chancellor had made an excellent speech at Chatham House this morning, pointing out that the hearts and minds campaign has been neglected and that we must put more resources into it. I hope it gets it from the Treasury.

While we are right to assert human rights and the rule of law, we can do this only within the capacity of Afghan institutions. As the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, said, these things take years to grow, and to claim, like President Bush, that we are fighting for democracy is absurd. Those who are genuinely engaging with the Islamic world in the FCO and DfID and really understand the culture of the Middle East deserve much more support. There are some excellent projects, such as the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which are slowly reviving traditional crafts and restoring buildings; NGOs such as CARE are offering courses among the neediest Afghan women, providing them with income-generating skills. There is a myriad of valuable NGO projects. It might help if our various governments did not try to solve all of Afghanistan’s problems at once.

So what are the priorities for DfID and can it stick to them? Poppy eradication or poverty reduction? Let us concentrate on the poorest farmers, not the richest ones. Before 2001 we were concerned about the extent of drought in the north. The same is happening today. Lack of rain last winter caused severe water shortages and there has been a 50 to 80 per cent loss of rain-fed cereal production.

My questions for the Government are these. What are we doing to avert hunger in these areas, with nine provinces facing a critical shortage of drinking water? What contribution will the UK make to the latest UN drought appeal? What are the Government doing to help the UNHCR reach the estimated 15,000 families displaced by the conflict in the south? How is DfID supporting the attempts of the Afghan Government to provide safe access to education for girls and boys in high risk areas? The extension of education to girls is one of the major achievements. It is now threatened by the widespread closure of schools all over the south. This issue surely needs more attention if the Afghan people are going to trust foreign invaders.

My Lords, it is highly probable now that the intervention in Iraq—which I supported at the time—will fail to reach its purpose to create a pacified, unitary and democratic state of Iraq. This makes it all the more important that the other intervention in the area, that in Afghanistan, succeeds. Its objective was, and is, more modest. The mission for what are now NATO troops refers to the needs of reconstruction but concentrates on basic security. If I were a soldier, I should like this limited mandate which is within the professional competence of the military. However, enduring freedom—I am using the words rather than the term—requires more.

The problem of Afghanistan is that three needs are indissolubly interlinked. One is security. The second, however, is statehood. Foreign military forces are in a sense expected to represent the elected Government in Kabul—or is it of Kabul?—throughout the country. It is hoped that they will prevent Afghanistan becoming a failed state. The third need is sustainability in the social and economic sense. This involves, above all, the transformation of a drug economy into one that provides long-term opportunities without a mafia or warlords—present rulers are often both—running the economy for the greater glory of their power.

One may hope that one day the international community will have a force capable of helping with all three objectives. That day, however, is still far away. One must be satisfied if military intervention forces are trained in appreciating the needs of statehood and sustainability as well as security. In any case, the three are closely related. There will be no security as long as the central state is failing to control local and regional warlords. There certainly will be no sustainable social and economic development as long as the drug economy is the main source of employment and the basis of local and regional power structures.

At the moment, there is an uneasy division of labour between the international troops charged with guaranteeing security, the training of a police force to support the elected Government and non-governmental organisations trying to build elements of a sustainable economy and society. In some areas, notably in the north of the country, this works reasonably well; in most areas it does not. When hand grenades were thrown through the windows of a hospital for women, which a friend of mine had constructed with the NGO he set up for the purpose, the troops stationed nearby did not know what to do, to say nothing of the absence of an Afghan police force representing the elected government.

When I reflect on these and similar incidents, it seems to me that although security clearly is an important objective, it will be achieved only if and when the need is met to help the establishment of an effective state of Afghanistan. Training an Afghan police force matters as much as fighting renewed Taliban incursions. The curse of the region—and that now includes Iraq—is failed states. Hence, state-building is the first objective of intervention. It is no good winning local battles with insurgents or burning poppy fields if there is no indigenous and effective state structure which gradually establishes the monopoly of violence which defines statehood. This requires a local police force which is loyal and an independent judiciary as much as elected leaders. It also requires some rethinking of objectives and of the measures and skills needed to achieve them. Who is doing the rethinking?

My Lords, in winding up this debate on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I stress the importance of not only the debate but the strength of the contributions made so far tonight. I am sure they will give the Minister much food for thought.

My noble friend Lord Garden referred to the slow progress made in Afghanistan due to the diversion of the adventures in Iraq. He said that the benchmarks we were aspiring to only some nine months ago are already failing to be met. The noble Lord, Lord Brennan, called for caution and for a regular review in the short and long term because of his concerns brought about by the history of that troubled region. The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, referred to the fragility of the development programme, and other noble Lords made similar telling contributions.

One fundamental concern must be the progress being made with reconstruction and security in Afghanistan. Reconstruction appears not so much to have stalled as to have hardly started in some provinces. The recent reports claiming that the outcomes to date of the £20 million DfID programme in the Helmand province amount to little more than rebuilding a few market stalls are cause for great concern.

The provincial reconstruction teams programme, much vaunted at the beginning of our current involvement in Afghanistan, seems to have fallen off the agenda. Instead, critical appraisals are emerging that the local development projects undertaken under the umbrella of ISAF and NATO, while worthy and well executed, are uncoordinated. They are not planned as part of a provincial or national development programme, thus tending to be ineffective in progressing towards national reconstruction goals. Yet our commanders on the ground are reporting that we have, at best, six months in which to turn things round and convince the Afghan people that the infrastructure improvements promised are materialising and that the destruction of their villages through the mayhem of war-fighting is a costly, yet acceptable, price to pay.

At present, we seem far from winning that argument. While President Karzai repeatedly calls for coalition forces to exercise greater care when conducting air strikes, the monthly rate of strikes by the US Air Force has reached 750, far exceeding the monthly rate in Iraq. The resulting collateral damage has been immense, with shopping districts, schools and transport infrastructure being destroyed and large numbers of civilians killed or injured to add to the civilian casualties occurring in the fighting in the south, which exceeds 50 per cent of total casualties.

While today’s Statement reflected on new schools being built and children now in school, schools are being destroyed, men and women teachers murdered and girls denied education on pain of death wherever the Taliban are back in control. Is it any wonder that Afghanis are said to be at a tipping point between supporting the coalition and NATO forces, with the continuing destruction and casualties that that implies, and turning again to the harsh regime of the Taliban and all that that implies?

Will the Minister confirm reports that the vast Pashtun tribal belt along the Pakistan-Afghan border is once again alive with the Taliban and its militant supporters, threatening the political achievements over five years in Afghanistan post 9/11? Will she accept that rejuvenating the Taliban is a major reverse in efforts to locate and destroy the al-Qaeda camps hidden deep in the mountainous North-West Frontier Province?

Will she tell noble Lords when last the UK Government made representations to President Musharraf of Pakistan over the pressing need for his military intelligence and our coalition Special Forces to work towards the same goals and the elimination of terrorist enclaves on both sides of the border?

Will the Minister confirm also that the United Kingdom-led strategy to eliminate narcotics production has been undermined by the US and Afghan Governments’ decision to pursue poppy eradication without offering compensation or an alternative livelihood to farmers? Is this not evidenced by the latest figures from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, indicating a 60 per cent increase in poppy cultivation this year?

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Garden, for taking on the Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, on the progress of peace and stability in Afghanistan. I am sorry that she is unable to be with us, but send her our best wishes for her family.

It has been invaluable for the House, building on the Statement that we heard earlier today, to speak out on the treatment of, and attitude towards, our troops. I add our condolences to the families of those troops who have been killed or wounded, and pay tribute to all the service men and women. I should declare my interest as a longstanding patron of the Afghan Mother and Child Health Clinic.

It is unfortunate that our efforts in Afghanistan are linked with the ongoing horrors in Iraq, yet the ever-climbing fatality figures and violence are only part of the Afghan story. In Afghanistan, a solid alliance is acting against Taliban fighters, including the Afghan Government, national forces and NATO troops, with the support of local people, who remember what was inflicted upon them by the Taliban during the past 30 years. The continuing power of warlords, the dependence on poppy production by many farmers, and the crushing poverty and underdevelopment found in many regions are unquestionable and well documented.

These obstacles are not insurmountable, but Afghanistan's problems will not be solved easily. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, told us that insufficient rainfall last month means that 2.5 million people in Afghanistan face a chronic food crisis. We would be most interested to know what steps Her Majesty's Government are taking to address this problem. Will the Minister clarify too what discussions DfID has had with the Foreign Office—the noble Lord, Lord Garden, mentioned this—before assigning its resources to projects in countries where both departments are involved? I gather that DfID is allegedly funding some reforestation projects in Pakistan. It is no doubt a worthy project, but, if it is taking place, are we not in effect paying to plant the trees that are hiding the Taliban fighters who have moved across the border? It is hardly joined-up government.

Unfortunately, enormous amounts of foreign aid can sometimes have many unintended consequences, such as high levels of inflation in certain sectors and increased corruption. The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, spoke of foreign aid agencies. However, these can prevent government agencies hiring capable staff. What steps are Her Majesty's Government taking to make certain that their aid is not unwittingly hampering the efforts of the Afghan Government to build an effective state apparatus?

Security, as the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, stressed so well, is as important as reconstruction. Where the former is absent, there cannot be the latter. Government reports and media sources tell two very different stories about Armed Forces funding. The Government claim that money was always available for equipment purchase and is even now being spent on ensuring that only the best is available for our troops, yet endless accounts by those in a position to know tell of cost-cutting. The latter highlights what the figures already indicate: that our Armed Forces are not being given enough money, men or support when they need it most. Will the Minister explain to the House, as the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, asked, what the Government have been doing recently to encourage the other NATO countries to increase their troop numbers in Afghanistan? I hope that there will be no more media stories of equipment failure now that the special reserve fund has been released.

We have been in Afghanistan several times before. History tells us that there are no easy solutions. Although matters may not be as bleak as the media continually portray, they are, however, certainly not as rosy as the Government would like us to believe. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s answer to our questions on food, FCO aid and troops, and to others put to her today.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Garden, for pursuing this debate. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, cannot be in her place and I send her the Government’s best wishes.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and is off-track to meet all the millennium development goals. Years of conflict and insecurity have denied basic services that we take for granted, such as healthcare and schooling. One in four Afghan children still dies before their fifth birthday. The reconstruction effort in Afghanistan is certainly a long-term initiative. Achieving our objective of a peaceful, prosperous and secure Afghanistan will be reliant on the support and commitment of donor agencies for many years to come. As my noble friend Lord Brennan said, we must honour that commitment. Do we regularly review our policy on Afghanistan? Yes, we do, both in DfID and across government.

A prosperous and democratic Afghanistan is crucial to reducing global poverty and increasing stability in the region. For this reason, the UK is the second largest bilateral donor. We are fully committed to Afghanistan’s long-term development. At the London conference in January 2006, the UK confirmed this by assigning a 10-year development partnership agreement. This agreement, signed by Prime Minister Blair and President Karzai, commits DfID to provide £330 million in development and assistance over the next three years. That forms part of the UK’s overall pledge of £500 million to reduce poverty, improve security in governance and tackle the opium industry. DfID’s budget for Afghanistan is £102 million for this year, which will rise to £113 million in 2007-08 and £115 million for 2008-09. In addition, DfID contributes 18 per cent of the European Commission's pledge of €1 billion over 2002-07, and over 10 per cent of the World Bank's spending in Afghanistan of $250 million a year. We also contribute financially to UN programmes and to the Asian Development Bank.

DfID's programme supports the Government of Afghanistan's interim Afghanistan national development strategy, launched at the London conference. Our programme specifically underpins three of the objectives set out in that document: building effective state institutions, improving economic management and effectiveness of aid, and improving livelihoods for the rural poor. I would certainly concur with the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, that we must work for security, statehood and sustainability, and that is exactly what I believe we are doing.

DfID believes that the best way to achieve these goals is by supporting Afghans to help themselves. Thus over 70 per cent of our aid goes directly to the Government of Afghanistan. The UK is the largest donor to the Government's recurrent budget, covering essential costs such as salaries for teachers and health workers. I note the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, but we believe that it is the best chance for building effective state institutions that will last. Directing funds through the Government of Afghanistan enhances their accountability and authority and, as we know from experience elsewhere, it is a more effective way of ensuring that development is sustainable. However, I assure the noble Baroness that we shall continue to support NGOs.

DfID leads the British Government's efforts to develop legal economic alternatives to opium poppy production. We spent approximately £45 million for this purpose last year. Part of this funding contributes to improvements in agricultural opportunities for farmers. This includes research to help identify, test and implement new crops and technologies—for example, improvements in the production of high value crops such as saffron and wheat. We are also promoting other non-farm economic alternatives. This includes small loans, support for small scale local infrastructure and labour-intensive public works. We are providing £20 million over three years to the Microfinance Investment Support Facility, and women receive nearly 80 per cent of the small loans. Like the USA, however, we do not support direct compensation as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, but we support a properly sequenced strategy which means only eradicating poppy crops where legal livelihoods already exist.

The Government share the disappointment and concern about the increase in opium production in 2006, but we believe the strategy outlined by the Government of Afghanistan is the right one. This requires not just provision of legal economic alternatives, but also effective governance and law enforcement. Some 70 per cent of the increase in planting is in Helmand, reflecting the security situation, whereas in parts of the country where there is better security and better governance, drug cultivation has actually gone down. This is a long-term strategy. Progress will be gradual and will take many years.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked about the Senlis Council proposals. The Government of Afghanistan do not support licit cultivation of opium, and we agree with them. The proposals are unrealistic because there would be a risk of a high level of diversion of legal opium into illegal channels. We also understand it is unlikely that licit Afghan opium would be economically viable.

In Helmand, DfID is working closely with other departments as part of the wider UK effort to promote economic and social development, to help improve governance and bring visible benefits to local people. That is challenging, given the very difficult security environment, but, as the Statement earlier today made clear, there is now a short window of opportunity with a more secure environment for reconstruction and development, thanks to the magnificent efforts of our troops. Government departments are working closely together, and with the Afghans, to bring about tangible improvements. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Garden, that there is common purpose throughout government departments. However, as my noble friend Lord Drayson said, we need further to explore opportunities for the military to undertake projects, but only where security is difficult.

We are lucky that the British military has considerable experience working in these sorts of environments, and with a range of NGOs. There is a short-term and a long-term strategy, and they are both working in tandem. We have committed over £30 million over the next three years to the Helmand Agriculture and Rural Development Programme, which aims to increase economic opportunities for the rural poor of Helmand through a variety of programmes led by the Government of Afghanistan. We have also contributed £4 million to the delivery of quick-impact activities in Helmand, which are already securing short-term development results and will help create a foundation for longer-term development in the province. They are implemented jointly by DfID, the FCO and the military, and include improving security for schools; building and rebuilding; improving drinking water and sanitation; and building wells and roads.

With regard to the resurgence of the Taliban on the porous Afghan/Pakistani border, the Pakistani Government have recently agreed, in conjunction with the UNHCR and the Afghan Government, on the need to close down two terrorist training camps in Baluchistan, although the Pakistani Government do not have the means to enforce that. Both governments are working closely with UNHCR to find a long-term solution to the camps. In addition, the FCO, DfID and the MoD, through the Global Conflict Prevention Pool, have just agreed to fund a project that will look at ways of electronic identification of suspect individuals in the camps.

The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and others asked about humanitarian assistance and drought in the north-west. Rural development is a key priority for DfID. We expect to spend £35 million this year, almost all through the Government of Afghanistan’s budget, which will help ensure that they have predictable funding, thus allowing them to respond to their own priorities, including the drought. We are in regular contact with UNAMA, the Afghan Government and other UN agencies on their assessment of the drought, and we attended the most recent update meeting. The initial drought appeal was launched to secure pledges of in-principle support, prior to the proper assessment of the scale of the drought. The assessment results are due later this month, and we will then consider a UK contribution.

In relation to internally displaced persons, the UN is providing emergency assistance in the form of non-food items and food assistance. Their estimates suggest that basic needs are being met, and they are not asking for additional funding. The US has set aside funding to support the future return of IDPs in the south and the reconstruction of their homes. It is likely to work through implementing partners such as the International Organisation for Migration, UN-Habitat and local business. The UK has already provided $60,000 to the office of the governor in Helmand to help provide for the immediate needs of IDPs.

Since 2001, DfID has spent over £390 million on reconstruction and development in Afghanistan. Over this period there has been real progress. Presidential and parliamentary elections were held. Six million children have returned to school, over one-third of whom are girls who, five years ago, were not allowed to attend. Some 35,000 lives have been saved thanks to routine immunisations which our children are given as a matter of course. It is estimated that, in 2005-06, the legal economy grew by 14 per cent.

With regard to safe access to education for girls and boys and protection for female teachers and government employees working in high-risk areas, the Afghan Government have formulated and begun implementation of a school protection policy. In addition, the provincial reconstruction team is working with the provincial government in Helmand to pilot a school bus transportation system and is considering a number of quick impact projects to provide additional security at the four main schools, including one girls’ school in Lashkar Gar. Further support is being considered. The Government deplore the recent killing of Safiye Amajan.

The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, asked about troops. I do not have an answer to that question but my colleagues have. Indeed, it was probably answered this afternoon in the discussion following the Statement, but I will ensure that the noble Baroness receives that information in writing.

The Government remain firmly committed to the long-term development of Afghanistan. We will seek to ensure that the achievements that we have seen to date are consolidated and continued and we will work with others to ensure that the critical constraints to further development are overcome. We feel strongly that the Afghan Government must lead the development effort, which is why we need to invest in their development plans and channel our resources through their systems if we are to have enduring impact.