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Afghanistan: Taliban

Volume 703: debated on Tuesday 8 July 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they expect the Taliban to be defeated by military means.

My Lords, NATO and Afghan forces have made significant progress in delivering security in Afghanistan. We have taken the fight to the Taliban and have defeated them again and again. However, we have long made clear that progress in Afghanistan will not be achieved by military means alone. The UK supports a politically led approach backed up by military pressure on the insurgents and by targeted development work.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his somewhat encouraging reply. I am full of admiration for the bravery of our troops and for their achievements in very difficult circumstances. However, will HMG open, or perhaps reopen, discussions with the Afghan Government to find a way to legitimise the growth of the poppy crop for commercial production of medical opiates? It would have two benefits: first, it would produce a respectable income for Afghan farmers and, secondly, it would starve the Taliban of the massive funds from the illegal narcotics trade that buy the bullets and bombs with which they continue their murderous attacks on the British, NATO and Afghan troops.

My Lords, I assure the noble Viscount that I sympathise with the spirit behind his Question. In entering this House and the Government I took a long hard look at this issue but was convinced by officials that a Government with such limited capacity would never be able to manage a legal market for opium. This proposal would supplement production and provide a second buyer, in addition to the illegal buyers. It would increase production rather than reduce it as the noble Viscount hopes.

My Lords, I am reliably told by my Afghan colleagues in Afghanistan that there is a worrying growth in anti-Western feeling or perception. Will the Minister say something about how that might be further and perhaps differently counteracted?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is of course correct. I am not sure that it is as new a phenomenon as she suggests. In fact, some recent opinion poll data suggest a peaking of anti-Western sentiment. We have always felt that we must demonstrate our support for both political progress and reconstruction in the country. Where our military operations touch on civilians, we must ensure that they are done to the highest standard, with the greatest protection possible of civilian lives.

My Lords, can the Government convey to the Afghan Government that the British public regard our commitment to Afghanistan to be in support of a noble cause? Can they also convey that that support can only be sustained if the Afghan Government can demonstrate that real progress is being made in the elimination of corruption within their police force and among government officials, and in much more effective control of the illegal poppy crop?

My Lords, I reassure my noble friend that we repeatedly send these messages to the Afghan Government. Corruption is a terrible cancer in that Government; it is partly a consequence of weak capacity and history, but it is unacceptable that it continues when so much Western assistance is given to a country. We hope that that Government will continue to take steps to address it. I certainly also endorse his observation on illegal narcotics. It is enormously important that the leaders of that industry are brought to justice.

My Lords, in the Statement on Afghanistan in the House on 16 June, reference was made to the “$10 Talibs”—paid foreign fighters. Given the apparent success of General Petraeus in Iraq in turning insurgents with money, are we offering inducements to buy off these Taliban mercenaries?

My Lords, we are not offering any such inducements. We have been clear that the Afghan Government themselves must lead efforts on any reconciliation with the Taliban, and that we would obviously support those efforts. At this point, the only kinds of incentives being discussed by the Government are long-term security incentives: new livelihoods, education, training and the opportunity to participate politically and economically in the government of the country. Our own financial support is limited to the Programme Tahkim-e-Solh, which provides support to the reconciliation process but does not pay former combatants.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned reconstruction. The Americans are acknowledged by British forces to be doing a far better job of supporting military successes locally with immediate civil infrastructure work. What steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to achieve this in UK areas of operation?

My Lords, in a way, that is an apples-and-oranges comparison, particularly with the security threats our colleagues face in Helmand. We have just appointed a very senior civilian to oversee precisely this issue there, to ensure that our military activities and, coming in behind them, political and reconstruction support are joined-up, so that we get the benefits of the military victories.

My Lords, what support are our troops getting from the Government of Pakistan across the border? When we beat the Taliban, it appears that they run back to their shelters in Pakistan. Are we getting full co-operation?

My Lords, the noble Lord puts his finger on a major issue of both military and political strategy. The new Government in Pakistan have been undertaking a process of reconciliation of their own with the tribal leaders on that side of the border. We have pressed on that Government that the unintended consequences of those agreements should not be to allow these forces to have more liberty for their actions in Afghanistan in return for agreeing not to cause trouble in Pakistan. We continue to press to ensure that that does not happen.

My Lords, does the Minister believe that DfID is organised enough to deliver tactical effect as suggested by my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever?

My Lords, we have that tactical effect through the provincial reconstruction teams. It is enormously important to move as quickly as possible to full engagement by local provincial government and governors—the Afghans themselves. DfID is doing a good job of ensuring that that second wave of reconstruction also happens.