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Pakistan: Afghanistan Border

Volume 704: debated on Monday 13 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What recent discussions they have had with the Government of Pakistan about the security of its border with Afghanistan.

My Lords, border security is crucial for regional stability and for both Governments’ effort to combat the threat from violent extremism. It is part of our ongoing dialogue with the Government of Pakistan. It has been discussed at ministerial level, most recently by my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary with President Zardari on 16 September and 25 September respectively.

My Lords, it is good news that these discussions are going on. However, will the noble Lord address in particular the position of the federally administered tribal areas? Although it is traditionally a lawless region, has not the situation now got to the point where firm action is really necessary? Can he say whether the new civil Government of Pakistan and the army of Pakistan are working more closely together? Is not the time now right for a united effort to be made by the United States of America, ISAF and Pakistan to eliminate the many bases, terrorist camps and other establishments that are aiding and abetting militias based in the FATA region?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that the FATA region has historically been, and is currently, a very unstable place which is host to many elements that do not respect the rule of central government. The new president, President Zardari, has made welcome comments about the need to crack down on this with both a reinforced military and political approach. He has also met with the President of Afghanistan, and they have promised mutual co-operation. The United States and the United Kingdom certainly have a role in supporting these efforts.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Pakistan Government are, as we speak, meeting in a joint session of Parliament to try to resolve the security situation along that border? Is he also aware that the new head of Inter-Services Intelligence—ISI—has told parliamentarians in his briefing that the military concedes that the peace talks with the Taliban along the border have not succeeded—that that strategy has failed—hence the resort to military operations again? Yet at the same time our ambassador in Afghanistan is supposedly brokering peace talks for the Taliban to return to government in Afghanistan. Which strategy do we really believe in—supporting the pro-democracy groups, or rolling out the red carpet for the Taliban? Or do we want to please both parties at the same time?

My Lords, not for the first time, the noble Baroness is better informed than I am. I am not privy to the current discussions in the Pakistan Parliament but I think that it is true to say that both the Government of Pakistan and Pakistan’s military leadership believe that there must be a push on both fronts. There must be effective military action against lawless elements, including Taliban and al-Qaeda elements, but there must also be a political effort to win back the support of civilians in the tribal areas. These two goals are not contradictory.

For the record, our ambassador in Afghanistan is absolutely not engaged in a process of rolling out red carpets for the Taliban or arranging for their return to government; he is pursing British interests there, which are to encourage President Karzai to have an effective military strategy against insurgents in the eastern and southern parts of Afghanistan and, similarly, to pursue reconciliation with the Pashtun tribes in that area.

My Lords, further to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Eden, are we not talking here mostly about the Bajaur agency district and the Swat district of the federally administrated areas, and about a border that is 1,640 miles long? Given that it is widely supposed that al-Qaeda has its headquarters in this inaccessible region, that Osama bin Laden is there if he is still alive, and that the main purpose of putting our troops into Afghanistan in the first place was to corner him and his immediate aides, is there the necessary co-operation between the ANA, the US forces and the Pakistan intelligence and army, and are we in the UK—since our interests are directly affected—also making a contribution, possibly with the new troops that we are sending in that direction?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a vital point. We have to understand that the border dividing the two areas is a recently modern invention and we must therefore treat it as a single area populated by people who are linked by tribal and ethnic associations. Every day, thousands of people cross the border. Any solution to this area must therefore take a comprehensive view, and that requires common co-ordinated action by both Governments supported by the likes of the United States and ourselves. We are moving forward very strongly on that. However, the troops that we are sending are at this stage for the purpose of reinforcing our operations in Helmand on the Afghan side of the border.

My Lords, one of the consequences of an insecure border with Pakistan has been the infiltration into Helmand. Will the Minister comment on the latest severe attack on Lashkar Gah and whether there are non-Afghan forces involved that have infiltrated?

My Lords, the noble Earl refers to reports at the weekend of a large insurgent action in Lashkar Gah which will have dismayed many of us. The good news is that the Afghan military and security forces played a front-line role in averting it. It is too soon to say whether non-Afghan elements were involved, but we will certainly report to the House when we know more about the incident.