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Volume 714: debated on Wednesday 4 November 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in the light of the cancellation of the second round of the presidential election, they will reconsider their policy on Afghanistan.

My Lords, with the indulgence of the House, before I address the Question I should like on behalf of the whole House to pay our full respects to members of the Armed Forces who have given their lives on behalf of their country, particularly the five British soldiers killed in an incident in the Nad-e-Ali district of Helmand province on 3 November. I cannot exceed the eloquence with which tributes were paid in another place today by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Soldiers have lost their lives and our condolences and sympathies go to their families. They fought to make Afghanistan more secure and, above all, to make Britain a safer place from terrorism and extremism, which continues to threaten us from the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I pay tribute to their courage, skill and determination; they will never be forgotten. I believe the whole House would endorse those sentiments.

President Karzai was the clear choice of the Afghan people and on 2 November he was formally declared the winner by the official Afghan election authorities. We now look to him to drive forward a programme that represents the interests of all Afghans. The international community is right to be in Afghanistan to ensure that that country continues on its forward path and never again becomes a safe haven for al-Qaeda. Our policy to achieve this remains consistent and firm.

I express deepest sympathy from the Back Benches to the families of the five soldiers who were killed yesterday.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I do not share his optimism, not least about President Karzai. Does he agree that against the corrupt and discredited background of President Karzai, we cannot have any confidence in him thwarting the fraud and corruption that has been so much a foot-mark and stigma of Afghanistan in recent years? Against that background, does not the Minister agree that we had a certain tune to play but we now need to change it? Is it not right that we should have a new policy on Afghanistan, possibly with the Americans, that will decide afresh how best to help the Afghans and to deal with al-Qaeda?

My Lords, I do not believe that we need a new tune. We have the word of the newly elected leader of the choir—the Government of Afghanistan, who in many eyes are inefficient and corrupt—that he will remove the stain of corruption from Afghanistan. He has to appoint a Government with new Ministers and to carry forward to the country as a whole that commitment to the fight against corruption and terrorism. We need to assist him in that and guide him where possible. To abandon or change the policy would not necessarily do anything to help Afghanistan and could be damaging to the United Kingdom.

My Lords, nothing can diminish or should distract us from the tragedy of five young lives lost yesterday, the pain of their families or the bitterness that we feel because their deaths have been brought about by those who said they were our partners. However, we should not allow ourselves to be distracted from the fact that failure in Afghanistan—and we are quite close to it, in my view—or withdrawal would have baleful consequences, including abandoning the clear majority of Afghans who want us to be there while only 5 per cent support the Taliban. That would mean that al-Qaeda was able to expand from a small area of northern Pakistan where it is under pressure to a large area in the south of Afghanistan where it is not, the inevitable collapse of the Pakistan Government and jihadi hands far too close to a nuclear weapon. It would mean deepening the instability of the world’s most unstable region, and a mortal blow both to NATO and to respect for it throughout the world, on which we depend. By the way, it would also mean a severe blow to our moderate Islamic friends who are courageously fighting a battle against jihadism and medievalism in their own religion in favour of its true values of tolerance and civilisation. These are consequences that ought to be in our mind at this moment, are they not?

Noble Lords, as I have learnt to my cost, do not like long questions or long answers. I am delighted that the noble Lord’s question, which was not too long, allows me to provide a very short answer: I agree with him 100 per cent.

My Lords, I associate myself with the remarks that have been made about the five soldiers who sadly lost their lives yesterday. If the aim of the Government is to help Afghanistan to become more normal, as they say, why is so little being done to help it exploit the literally trillions of minerals under the ground in that country?

I am not sure that I understand that there are trillions of anything in Afghanistan, apart from too large a crop of poppies. We are seeking to assist diversification from that crop and others. I am sure that knowledge of vast sums of money to be extracted from the ground in the form of minerals would be in the interests of the Afghan Government, the United Kingdom and others. We are not in this alone; there are 43 nations tasked with bringing normality to Afghanistan, as it has been put. That would be in its interests but—do not forget—in ours as well.

My Lords, I express from these Benches our sympathy and condolences to all those who have lost their lives in this recent incident in Afghanistan. Does the Minister agree that the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategies have resulted in serious civilian casualties and the alienation of the population, producing angry recruits for terrorism, and that together with the Americans we should now, with development, using our military resources, provide security exclusively to protect the strategic rebuilding of the country that is urgently needed?

I agree with the right reverend Prelate’s sentiments but I cannot agree with the first part of his question; I do not think there is evidence that the vast majority of Afghans are alienated by what the United Kingdom and its allies seek to do. There is broad support. They have been subject to coercion and intimidation by the Taliban and behind that, in its own way, by al-Qaeda. Those are the two enemies, and we need to bring along with us the majority of Afghans in government and in the public to appreciate that we are there to help that country. The end game that the right reverend Prelate seeks is one that we agree on, but I do not accept the first premise in his question.

My Lords, I recognise that there is widespread fraud and corruption throughout Afghanistan, but does not my noble friend believe that, if we changed our policy, that fraud and corruption would become even greater?

My Lords, the premise on which that question is based reminds me of the tale of the Irishman—I am Irish, so I can say this—who was asked by somebody how to get to Dublin. He said, “If I was you, I wouldn’t start from here”. The truth is that we are starting from where we are: from a country which has been dominated by coercion and intimidation. We have had the first election in 30 years; we have corruption; but we have honest politicians, honest governors and honest Afghans—we have a candidate who fought the election on tackling corruption. We therefore need to sustain and support the Government, and particularly those parts of Afghan society that want to change the country in the way in which we want it to change; that is, to a fully democratic state, with the rights of all its citizens protected.