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Afghanistan: Reconstruction

Volume 694: debated on Tuesday 24 July 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether an enlarged diplomatic presence in Kabul indicates a new emphasis on reconstruction and development in Afghanistan.

My Lords, an enlarged diplomatic presence in Kabul indicates the continued seriousness with which Britain takes the business of supporting the Government of Afghanistan in meeting both reconstruction and national security challenges as part of the comprehensive approach to the country. DfID is scaling up its programme, reflecting a long-term commitment to Afghanistan and the increasing capacity of the Afghan Government to use and absorb that funding.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I know that we all wish our diplomats and aid workers every success in that difficult country, Afghanistan. Does he agree that, given our leading role, the embassy could now focus a little more on communicating those positive things that are happening? Does he agree that, for example, some staff could have proper communication skills, which means not just website management but getting on with people who know the country and getting in touch with civil society? Would that not give much more reassurance to those of us who are supporting them at home?

My Lords, the noble Earl is right. We have taken steps both to strengthen the size of the embassy, as he is well aware, and to put in place an ambassador who is himself a great communicator. We have increased the communication staff there; three UK nationals and three others are now working on that. The fundamental point of the noble Earl’s question is that we must not just communicate the successes ourselves but ensure that Afghan officials do a much better job of claiming success for their country. The essence of success in Afghanistan is not what we do for Afghanistan but what Afghans do for themselves. That is the core communication that must be made.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that an important part of what we are doing in Afghanistan is getting to grips with the problem of the poppy crop and that no change of policy is not an option? Can I perhaps live in hope that this increased diplomatic presence consists of people who are evaluating the proposals from the Senlis Council for the conversion of the poppy crop to medical use through the production of opiates?

My Lords, my noble friend is concerned, correctly, about opium production. I agree that failure is not an option. It is a terrible black mark on the international community’s performance in Afghanistan and indeed on that of the new Afghan Government that so far we have not prevailed in the efforts to defeat the growth of this pernicious crop. We must continue to examine all means for doing that. In those parts of the country where the writ of the Afghan Government runs, a combination of the rule of law, better government, the substitution of other crops and development support is bringing down the size of the crop. It is only where those conditions do not yet exist that I am afraid the trend remains in the other direction.

My Lords, did the Minister by any chance see the opinion piece in the New York Times last week that warned against seeing the Afghan situation in increasingly military terms rather than in terms of social and economic development? Does he accept that there is a real danger that the press in this country and the political debate here and in the United States focus much more on the military campaign in the south and much too little on the hard but long-term social and economic rebuilding that needs to be done and is being done, by a number of countries as well as ourselves, in the north, the east and the west?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. I did not see the article that he refers to. UK media coverage is inevitably drawn to that part of the country where UK troops are deployed, but if you step back from that and look at Afghanistan as a whole, you see that large parts of the country are moving ahead with successful development. We have to understand that that is the only way forward; it must be the focus of our efforts as well as of newspaper coverage in the longer term.

My Lords, the most recent figures released by the much respected Minister for Education, Dr Hanif Atmar, show that something like 5,000 schools have inadequate buildings, about half the school-age population is not being educated and something like 80 per cent of teachers are untrained, yet barely 6 per cent of the non-defence budget is being spent on education. Would it be an idea to try to persuade funding partners to increase or set aside money specifically for education?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct that, generally, the Afghan economy still spends a disproportionate amount on defence, but for a very good reason: the country is under internal attack. However, if we cannot increase spending on both education and health, we will never break out of this cycle. The Afghan Government have almost no revenue base of their own; they are almost totally dependent on development assistance. It is vital that sufficient funds are provided for education and health. Many more girls and children are now in school than was the case a few years ago, but I agree with the noble Baroness that that is not enough.

My Lords, we all agree that our embassy in Kabul is doing an extremely good job in horrifically difficult circumstances. Rather unusually, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, and the implication of his question about the poppy crop. This was specifically a British mission, but somehow it has all gone badly wrong. The poppy crop is bigger than ever and the hostility against our troops who try to eradicate it is enormous and greatly increases the support for the Taliban and other rebel groups. Will the Minister define a little more clearly what our policy now is? Are we going to give up eradication, as many recommend, or will we press ahead, even though the policy seems to be achieving very little?

My Lords, I have assured the noble Lord behind me that we will look at his proposals for creating a market for the crop on a limited basis. Government policy relies on the coercive use of removing the crops where that is resisted combined with working with farmers to ensure their voluntary agreement to substitute alternative crops. I repeat that in parts of the country the policy is succeeding but, in Helmand and the areas where there is still violence and insurrection, regrettably it is not yet succeeding.