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Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What recent changes they have made in their policy towards Afghanistan.

My Lords, I refer the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, to the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place on 12 December 2007, in which he outlined the UK’s long-term comprehensive framework for security, political, social and economic development in support of the Government and the people of Afghanistan. The framework entails greater ownership by Afghan people of institutions and responsibility for their own security; localisation and reconciliation building for the creation of a democratic constitution; and reconstruction and development to ensure that more Afghan people have an economic stake in their future.

My Lords, the Statement by the Prime Minister was so comprehensive that I do not think that I need to elaborate on it here. However, two subjects are giving continual trouble. The first is caveats made by countries that are sending troops to the north of Afghanistan, whereby in the sectors described those troops are not to take some actions, such as, in the case of Germany, flying aircraft at night. That sort of thing is a very bad example. It is already having an effect on the Canadians, who have been doing a wonderful job in Afghanistan but are now talking about withdrawing their troops if that practice continues. The second subject is opium, which pervades the whole of Afghan life and has a debilitating effect. I hope that a solution to the opium problems can be reached before long.

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point about caveats, I share his concern. This caveating of peacekeeping operations is sadly not limited solely to ISAF and Afghanistan. We see a similar problem in Darfur. Countries that commit troops to peacekeeping have to give the generals in charge the freedom to deploy troops as needed to do the job required, so it is a matter of concern. However, there are differences between the caveats of different countries; it is a complicated situation. Let me add to what the noble Lord has said. Canada has suffered an almost unprecedented level of casualties relative to the number of troops that it has deployed and badly needs support if it is to continue to carry out its vital task in the south of the country. I renew our plea to other countries to provide additional troops for that function.

As to opium, perhaps one of the most promising pieces of news is the announcement in another place of a new anti-drugs strategy here in the United Kingdom. We have to press the message that an opium economy needs customers, and too many of them are here in the UK. We have to combine effective interdiction and alternative crop strategies in Afghanistan with licking this problem of demand here in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, a group of us from this House were told by an Afghanistan expert that the invariable answer from the Afghan population to the question what or who are the Taliban is that a Taliban is someone who is unemployed. What are the Government doing to promote business ventures in the safer areas of Afghanistan for employment and economic growth and, indeed, by what means?

My Lords, the safe areas of Afghanistan—the north and to a large extent the east of the country—have been enjoying quite a high rate of growth in recent years, which has led to significant employment generation. Much of our pessimism about Afghanistan is concentrated on the south, where the level of insecurity militates against easy job creation. We continue to push alternative development strategies in the south in agricultural and other sectors to try to create jobs. I suspect that the Afghan who offered that wise advice was a former Finance Minister who was successful in creating jobs while he was in office. We must continue to rely on such an approach.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the French are about to deploy a significant number of troops in the south? Am I right to say that, if they do that, it will take some pressure off that small number of countries, including us and especially, as he said, Canada, which has been taking so many of the losses in that area? My understanding is that the French are very close to making an affirmative decision. Can he confirm that?

My Lords, when I was in Paris last week, a decision had not been arrived at. There were press reports today, to which my noble friend may be referring, but it was a little unclear exactly where the troops would be deployed. We have good news, but just how good that news is is yet to be confirmed.

My Lords, the British Government and others are much concerned about the confusion in Kabul arising from different international agencies and foreign Governments giving their separate advice to the Afghan Government. There have been proposals for an international co-ordinator; we know that they are still in play. Are the British Government satisfied that we will get greater coherence among the Governments engaged, particularly the United States, and the various international agencies helping the Afghan Government?

My Lords, this is a rare occasion on which we are all, I suspect, genuinely sorry that the job did not go to a Liberal Democrat. It is truly a great shame that Paddy Ashdown was not appointed, because the job needed exactly the kind of dynamic and forceful leadership that he would have brought to it. We press for alternative names. It is a matter for the Secretary-General of the United Nations and President Karzai ultimately to determine, but we think that the vacancy should not be left open much longer.

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness the Leader of the House whether she is aware that we all admire enormously the knowledge and capacity of her Ministers. However, could she persuade them to divest themselves of only a part of their knowledge in answer to questions? If people also asked shorter questions, we would all get on a lot better.

My Lords, have there been any recent developments in the Government’s policy towards women in Afghanistan? One of the most terrible manifestations of the Taliban was their policy of excluding women from economic activity and education. There have been indications of some of that creeping back in Afghanistan. Are the Government aware of that and, if so, what are they doing to stop it happening?

My Lords, I think that my noble friend refers to a report issued this week by Womankind, which indeed points to dismaying trends. This issue has been one of the great successes of post-2002 Afghanistan and we are looking at those findings with care because we would hate to see the progress undone.

My Lords, I support the important intervention made by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza. It is vital that unemployment is reduced and that the economy is able to develop. Realistically, is not the only viable employment the opium crop? Is it not the view of the Senlis Council and others who have studied the matter carefully that we should change our policy on that to allow people to develop the opium crop and for it to be entirely bought up by those of us who are engaged in this war against the Taliban? It can then be converted into a non-addictive painkiller, which is badly needed in the developing world. Is that not a better strategy—and a cheaper one—than the strategy being pursued at present?

My Lords, the noble Lord refers to an idea that has much support in this House. I must say that I, too, was very open to it on coming to office. In examining it carefully, however, I should say that, although he is right to say that the opium economy is the core of much economic activity in the country, it comprises only 5 per cent of agricultural land. The view is that providing a second purchaser for that opium would expand cultivation rather than transfer it from an illegal to a legal character. It would therefore not achieve the intended purpose. Indeed, the market for natural pain-relief products of the kind that he mentions is more limited than he might imagine and the studies suggest that there would not be such a market for Afghan-produced opium.

My Lords, how do the Government respond to the strong statements made by the Secretary-General of NATO that the very credibility of the alliance is involved in Afghanistan?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely correct to draw our attention to this. The credibility not only of NATO but of international peacekeeping in many ways is on the line. We have to deliver in Afghanistan.

My Lords, the superb performance of the British troops in Afghanistan draws attention to the fact that only troops who have the professionalism to enable them to operate there should be sent there. Is the Minister in a position to say whether the reluctance of other nations to send troops is related to quantity or quality?

My Lords, it is true that only a limited number of armed services can provide, support and sustain the kind of troops needed for these activities, but not all of them are sharing the burden equally.

My Lords, the Minister has just reconfirmed the Government’s strategy of replacement crops for the opium poppy; indeed, Ministers have made this announcement many times in the past few months. Can he now tell me what alternative, high-value horticultural or agricultural crop is proposed to replace the opium poppy, which of course is high volume?

My Lords, the noble Lord might want to know that we have placed in the Library—following the request of the noble Baroness, who has similarly impatiently asked me to name the crops—the report of DfID and the World Bank, which goes through this in great detail. At the risk of boasting of too much knowledge, however, let me just say that the conclusion of the World Bank report is less about what we expected, which was specific crops, and more about the incredible dislocations in the market—the fact that you have to pay bribes to get your crops to market, and so on. The report is more about how we solve those problems than about believing that there is one particular silver-bullet crop that can be substituted.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the so-called market for analgesics is falsely small, because so many countries are ignorant of basic pain relief and do not even allow their doctors to prescribe basic pain-relieving drugs? If this Government, as part of their economic aid to other countries, provided adequate education in pain relief, which this country has led the world on, we would see markets open up for cheap, safe analgesia. That would be one of the most humane things that we could do for the world population.

My Lords, the noble Baroness clearly has an expertise that I do not have, but I would be happy to look at that, because I did not know that it was the case.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the lack of capacity in the ministries in Afghanistan is explained partly by the poaching by the World Bank and international organisations of staff, who are offered higher salaries? What can be done to second some of these staff back to the ministries so that they are actually helping Afghanistan directly?

My Lords, the noble Earl has put his finger on an enormously difficult problem. We have just seen the staff of the Ministry of Counter Narcotics have the subsidy that we gave their salaries removed because the Afghan Government want all civil servants to be paid the same. As a result, those staff are looking for jobs as drivers and interpreters in NGOs. We have to find a solution to this, so that the Government can afford the people whom they need to work for them.