Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review United Kingdom assistance to Afghanistan; and what assessment they have made of the prospects for peace in that country.
My Lords, I begin my declaring my interests as set out in the register.
In the last decade or so it has become the sometimes unspoken view that Afghanistan is a lost cause. It is excessively poor, tribal, corrupt, still thick with warlords fighting for territory, and, above all, a haven for both the Taliban and Daesh, with consequent violence, civilian deaths and the continuing degradation of women. Some of this is true but much has changed in the years since the Taliban regime was routed by the US and other forces in late 2001. Today, I should like to cover some of the factors preventing further change and, having looked at what works, to ask the Minister how UK assistance is helping to tackle the root causes of Afghanistan’s instability.
Work on state building clearly demonstrates that sustained development cannot occur in the absence of an effective state—one that derives legitimacy from performing specific functions in the economic, social and political arenas. It follows that international assistance must at all times support the state in its functions. Sadly, much multilateral and bilateral aid is often counterproductive in that it undermines the authority and, thus, the legitimacy of the state. It could be said that it is the duty of the international aid community to do all in its power to establish legitimacy, most particularly when the use of force has reached its limit. Ideally, outside agencies should perform a specific function defined by the recipient Government, for a limited time and with a clear process of handover.
The reality is different. There is too much evidence of reckless spending, poor accountability—or even a critical lack of it—hastily prepared short-term responses, mismanagement, thousands of projects without any systematic agenda, and the assumption of functions that belong rightly to the state. Projects that are externally driven, poorly designed, co-ordinated and managed, with little connection to the national system are sources of waste and corruption and can directly undermine state institutions.
Development can be defined as a reduction in poverty, morbidity and mortality, especially in children, as well as a decrease in corruption, an increase in literacy and the expansion of production and entrepreneurial projects. Following that come democratic institutions and a dependable contract between the state and the individual, resulting in consistent and just treatment.
The necessary and sufficient conditions for this situation to emerge depend on a number of factors but importantly, according to the newest research, investment in infrastructure, including communications, water, electricity and sewerage, is vital. Of these, the key factor is communications, meaning tarred roads, transport and cell phone services. An infrastructure deficit penalises growth and development. Recent research indicates that those on the electric grid show a reduction in hunger of some 30%, and this outcome is largely replicated in figures for access to cell phone services.
Afghanistan is among those countries with the poorest growth in infrastructure. While the Government recognise the need, the difficulties in bringing about sustained infrastructural development are many. To begin with there are three partners involved: the donor, the relevant government ministry and the contractors. Donors tend to favour short-term projects with restricted funding, but too often with ambitious schemes. Government departments do not have either consistent construction standards or the capacity to monitor building safety. Contractors are usually from the West and, most importantly, do not budget either for training of locally employed staff or for maintenance. The result is a huge missed opportunity to train engineers, for example, who could then be involved in the upkeep and replication of major projects.
So, while it is acknowledged that economic growth is the key to counteracting insurgency and itself depends on a functioning infrastructure, Afghanistan remains woefully underdeveloped. An example concerns a widespread agreement between the Afghan Government and the donor community for the construction of a ring road to connect major cities, with a significant impact on economic development, social integration, political stability and service delivery. However, each section of the road was managed by separate contractors, resulting in endless delays and confusion, and the opportunity for regional co-operation—with Uzbekistan or Iran, for example—was missed since the contractors were predominantly western. Five years after its inception the road remains unfinished.
Of course, there have been welcome developments. It is claimed that Afghanistan has the potential to become economically self-sufficient with infrastructural investment. For example, Khan Steel has reduced the country’s steel imports by 33% with a $35 million investment. Furthermore, just under $900,000 spent on an air corridor with India increased agricultural exports by $30 million in 2015-16.
Building infrastructure might tick all the soft-outcome boxes—how many patients a new hospital can service, the number of lives saved and how many local jobs are created—but the safety of the structure in, say, a seismic zone, which Afghanistan is in, and the amount of training it will provide are left out, as is the national picture. Where, for example, it would be most cost-effective to build dams depends on the topography of the country, but regional interests intervene to undermine such rational planning.
The issue it seems is not more, or less, aid but the right kind of strategic aid. Between 2016 and 2020 the Department for International Development will have spent some £0.75 billion pounds on healthcare, education, safe drinking water, the creation of jobs and tackling corruption. The UK lists among the gains some 6 million children now attending school, up from 1 million in 2001; access to healthcare up from 9% to 50%; maternal mortality halved; and life expectancy at birth higher than it has ever been in that country. More broadly, there is a written constitution and a democratically elected Government, and Afghans now have an unprecedented voice in how they are governed, nationally and locally. These statistics are impressive but are the programmes having the intended impact?
The gains are undermined by a number of new demographic factors, the failure of too many programmes in rural areas and the continuing insurgency and corruption. There has been the emergence of a new generation of highly educated young Afghans who now work in the media, the private sector, civil society and government. They are, and will be, the leaders of change but their number is tiny when compared to the youth bulge in Afghanistan today. The massive investment made by international donors in the early 2000s was too often misguided. The major multilateral organisations, for example, believed that secondary and certainly tertiary education was too ambitious for Afghanistan. As a result, there is a dearth of professional, vocationally trained, skilled young people equipped to enter the modern knowledge economy. The skills required for management and leadership do not come about in the absence of a first-rate system of higher education.
Even primary schools have fallen far short of what was promised and claimed. Despite government incentives, teachers are poorly trained and in some cases not trained beyond basic primary levels; schools in rural communities either do not exist or have fallen into disrepair; and parents remain reluctant to allow daughters to remain in education, which is still not compulsory beyond primary school. Indeed schools are not equipped to cater for adolescent girls.
A 2017 Human Rights Watch report cites worrying statistics. Sixteen years after the US-led military intervention and countless millions of dollars later, only an estimated third of Afghan girls go to school, and even this figure is decreasing. Forty-one per cent of schools do not actually have a building, nor is there transport to bring children—again, especially girls—to schools. Only 37% of adolescent girls are literate, as compared to 66% of adolescent boys. Given that it is now established beyond doubt and the world over that educating girls promotes development, these are very serious gaps.
The President, Ashraf Ghani, himself recently inveighed against some of the major donor programmes and their failure to create fundamental progress. Afghanistan, he laments, lags behind in all the MDG and SDG goals, despite generous international support. He cites NGO reports of women’s health which exaggerate achievements. Who, he asks, measures the outputs, how much duplication is there, how sustainable are projects and what are the overhead costs? Ashraf Ghani advocates—even pleads for—an aid system united around a single flow of financing and rules.
Up to 2015 there had been a decade of transformation —political, military and economic—presidential elections, the withdrawal of most international forces and massive amounts of foreign aid. However, humanitarian and development assistance cannot be said to have been highly effective. For example, despite the massive foreign aid and military strength, Afghanistan has in the last decade become the world’s largest producer of heroin.
The news has moved on but conflict and insecurity continue and even increase. Afghanistan’s insecurity creates a haven for terrorism and a continuing stream of refugees, and is one of the main factors imprisoning the country in a state of poverty. There are many complicating factors to any immediate solution. While we cannot dismiss the killings perpetrated by the Taliban in cities, with appalling death rates, in May 2018 the UK Minister Gavin Williamson openly called for talks with the Taliban to secure peace. Others in the international community now see that dialogue with the Taliban is a way forward. A June 2018 ODI research report notes the remarkable degree of co-operation between the Taliban and the Government through various ministries and at provincial levels.
Once the NATO troops began to draw down in 2015, the Taliban became more organised, reasonable and committed to services at the local level. In the words of one Talib: “With international troops leaving, we could be less warlike and we could focus on government”. Before this, many believed that to provide services was to support the infidel West and a puppet Government in Kabul. Today, in many districts, it is the Taliban that enforces teacher attendance at schools, reporting to the Ministry of Education. The Taliban sets the rules in vast swathes of the country with the full compliance of the Government. In seven provinces and over 20 districts, the Taliban controls and exerts influence over service delivery, collects taxes and provides receipts, provides local courts for local community dispute resolution, encourages vaccination programmes and puts pressure on government to supply better-quality healthcare.
Bad governance is the root cause of conflict and functioning institutions are the key to stability. If we acknowledge these key factors in achieving greater degrees of security and economic growth, it is depressing to see how far major donors depart from these criteria. Let me end with the words of President Ashraf Ghani himself:
“To address the most serious of the world’s problems … poverty and global terrorism … the aid system must orient itself around the task of building effective, functioning states”.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for having introduced this debate so ably and for bringing such an important topic to the Floor of this House. This is a critical time for Afghanistan. While the UK has been involved with the country for the past 17 years, Afghanistan is no longer in our media headlines—other conflicts have grabbed public attention. However, the contribution of the UK and other international partners is still vital to ensure that Afghanistan transitions to stability.
I have visited Afghanistan twice this year and know without doubt that lack of security is the most pressing issue holding the country back. The UN announced that more than 10,000 civilians were killed or injured in Afghanistan last year for the fourth consecutive year. These are stark statistics and do not reflect the misery that is caused. In spite of all the money given and lives lost, peace continues to be elusive.
While it was recognised that there was no purely military solution to the situation, it was clear that any long-term resolution needed to be Afghan-led. The drawdown of UK and US combat troops in 2014 led to a resurgence in the power of the Taliban, with BBC research in January suggesting that the Taliban is now openly active in 70% of the country. The situation has become further exacerbated with the emergence of Daesh. Even in Kabul, with its strong security, there has been a number of devastating attacks, with many lives lost. All these incidents have further aggravated the ethnic divisions that complicate the politics of Afghanistan. This insecurity strengthens the cause of the Taliban. A recent study showed that, in spite of efforts to address extremism, violent groups are even managing to radicalise students in Herat and Kabul universities.
In recent years, the peace process appears to have stalled. However, in June this year, there seemed to be a breakthrough when the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire with the Government forces, coinciding with Eid. There were jubilant scenes in some cities, with Taliban fighters being welcomed and posing for selfies with the soldiers. However encouraging that was, sadly the Taliban refused to extend the truce. The public determination to end hostilities was strongly demonstrated by a convoy of 80 civilians on a 400-mile peace march from the capital of Helmand province, Lashkar Gah, to Kabul, but the situation seems to have reached something of an impasse.
The 40 years of conflict have disproportionately affected women, and Afghanistan is still acknowledged to be one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman. While in the 1970s the women in Kabul wore mini-skirts and looked very similar to women in Europe, today many on the streets wear the iconic blue burqas. In spite of the Elimination of Violence against Women law being passed in 2009, which it was hoped would improve the protection of women, in July this year the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said that 85% of women and children face some sort of harassment.
I have had the honour of attending the First Lady’s symposium for the past two years. Last summer, I was very struck by listening to an Afghan psychologist talking about how difficult it would be to achieve peace in Afghan communities because of the conflict within Afghan families, and the fact that the majority of small children had witnessed domestic violence. We know from research here that children who witness domestic violence often grow up to become perpetrators themselves. However, in spite of all, we should recognise that there has been great progress for women in Afghanistan since 2001. Under the Taliban, almost no girls were in school, but today many more girls receive education. I declare an interest as I am a patron of Afghan Connection, a wonderful NGO that builds schools in Afghanistan, particularly in the north-east. Yet, as the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, has already said, for all the millions of pounds that have been spent on girls’ education, conditions in many schools remain rudimentary. In addition, I have heard accounts of girls being threatened on their way to school, causing them to stop attending.
However, many women in Afghanistan today, in spite of all the threats, now take part in public life. There are Afghan women in the armed forces and police, women judges and lawyers, doctors, ambassadors, teachers, civil servants and in many other professions, and currently 28% of MPs are women. There can be no doubt that long-term stability and prosperity in Afghanistan will be enormously aided by women and girls being able to make a full contribution to business, political and civic life. I particularly pay tribute to the role played by the First Lady who has bravely spoken out to support women and girls in Afghanistan, and has held five symposiums focusing on issues for women. It was my privilege to host her in this House during her UK visit in June.
To have peace in Afghanistan it needs to be peace for everyone. When I was in Kabul in January, I helped to launch the UK National Action Plan on UN Special Resolution 1325 at the British Embassy. This is the fourth UK national action plan and Afghanistan continues to be one of its focus countries. Afghanistan now has its own national action plan for Resolution 1325. That is a great achievement.
Evidence that gender equality is essential to building peace and security has grown substantially since UN Security Council Resolution 1325 was adopted in 2000. In fact, a greater involvement of women in peacebuilding increases the chances of longer-lasting, more sustainable, peace. Thus, including women’s meaningful participation in peace negotiations and reconciliation processes is essential. Peace and security for all will never be achieved if the needs of half the population are ignored.
So how do we ensure that women will be able to play a meaningful role in any forthcoming peace processes? The High Peace Council established in 2010 has not yielded results and in some areas, I gather, has caused a backlash. While women were appointed, I am told that they have often been ignored. No doubt before a formal peace process, deals will be done behind closed doors. How do we ensure that women’s voices are heard? The whole peace process seems opaque and some have concern that the High Peace Council is symbolic rather than active. While it is understood that most factions, including the Taliban, want peace, there is no road map, and it would appear that there are divisions in the Taliban—and, of course, the Taliban is not the only militant group, with Daesh now causing many attacks. The picture is confusing. There are reports of the Taliban rejecting the Afghan Government’s request for peace talks and, at the same time, there are reports of the US agreeing to negotiate directly with it, or to act as a mediator. Given the present US Administration, I wonder whether this would really be an acceptable solution. Can the UK Government help to persuade the new Administration in Pakistan to assist and ensure that terrorists are not given a safe haven over the border?
I congratulate our Government on continuing to offer vital support to Afghanistan at what is a critical time. Unless this support from the international community continues, there is a very real danger that the country could roll backwards. We now have 1,100 troops there in training and protection roles, and when I was in Kabul last year I visited the Afghan National Army Officer Academy, which was set up by the UK and modelled on Sandhurst. It is helping to train officer cadets, both men and women. More than 100 women have now graduated as officers, which is a fantastic achievement, with a woman cadet last year winning the sword of honour. The UK has been helping in many ways, including with education for girls, political inclusion and accountability, and helping to reform the security sector. It is vital that Afghanistan should build strong institutions and has robust law and order, and the issue of corruption also needs to be addressed.
To conclude, this is a crucial time for Afghanistan, and I was therefore pleased to hear that at the UN Security Council in January, the UK made it clear that our enduring commitment to Afghanistan is unwavering. However, it is very difficult for the country to move forward until the security situation is dealt with effectively and a clear peace process is established. I ask: is there more that we can do to help with this?
My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend—both as a friend and as a fellow member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Afghanistan—on focusing on this important issue. She also knows a good deal from personal experience of education and human rights through regular visits, as we have heard. She says that there is a great potential for development in the country and I am just sorry that there are not more of us here to listen to her and to the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson. However, we are a robust group all the same.
If you are someone who looks at the world through a prism of cricket, as I do, this is a time of celebration in Afghanistan. The Afghan team has enjoyed a successful summer, ending with Ireland’s defeat by eight wickets and the launch last week in Dubai of the Afghanistan Premier League. The MCC has been helping, and besides international fixtures, if it goes ahead with plans for teams from Kabul and other cities, playing in places like Khost as well as in the UAE, this would be a tremendous encouragement to such a stricken nation.
My noble friend has alighted on a country with one of the UK’s most difficult aid programmes and she has asked about the prospects for peace there. We talk about post-conflict countries, but Afghanistan is one of those that is seemingly in perpetual conflict. We all know now that after 2001, NATO gambled heavily on its superior force and we followed the US almost blindly into Helmand, as we did in Basra, with some terrible results. But this debate must also show how much good we have been able to do alongside and since our military intervention. In particular, we must send our good wishes to the 440 Welsh Guards and others who are embarking for Kabul at this time.
The Government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund came under scrutiny in March when the independent watchdog ICAI published its first report based on six case studies. Afghanistan was not among them, but perhaps it should be next time. One conclusion drawn was that,
“there is little reliable data on whether CSSF projects are achieving their intended results or delivering value for money. The problem is not just one of demonstrating results: unless the CSSF clearly articulates what it is trying to achieve and how, and monitors progress towards its goals, it is unlikely to achieve results commensurate with the level of investment”.
The Minister will know that Her Majesty’s Government take ICAI reports very seriously. Indeed they have already accepted many of the recommendations in the report, not least because it carried an amber warning. I bring this up now because it is quite possible that if the CSSF generally does not know what it is doing, this may also characterise the Afghan programme, which is, after all, the largest in its portfolio. The conflict fund in its various forms has had a chequered history. We do not want dissipation of aid funds because they lacked management and direction.
I cannot say much about the Ministry of Defence’s contribution and NATO’s commitment except that they remain in both cases firm but under considerable pressure. As we have heard, the Sandhurst academy has continued to train Afghan officers; I am delighted to hear about the women cadets. Even the smaller and warier NATO members evidently value Afghanistan as a training ground for their forces, including countries such as Georgia at a time when Russia has put eastern Europe on standby.
On the more familiar side of aid, namely education and health, HMG has a higher score of success, as we shall hear from the Minister and have already heard from my noble friend. Of course, conflict remains the main obstacle to development in many areas. I will not rehearse the atrocities of this summer, some of which—notably those in Kabul and Ghazni—are reported here. As mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, the mid-June ceasefire was observed by the Taliban, then broken by not just the Taliban but another merciless attack by Daesh. It is fair to say that away from main roads, which are mainly government controlled, the country is divided into so many districts within provinces that loyalties vary all the time. Where there is fighting, every community has to accommodate whoever is in charge at any one time. This is how the poor survive: through obedience to authority. Any outside helpers also have to adapt accordingly. We have heard that there is also government compliance with Taliban control.
It is still possible for aid agencies to work in areas of conflict, even where official aid agencies try to avoid them. One way to find out what is happening is to consult the British & Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group, which is in close touch with both Afghan civil society groups and international development NGOs. It is also a valuable secretariat for our all-party group with a counterpart European network called ENNA based in Brussels. There are some outstanding NGOs, such as the Aga Khan Foundation, which has a long record in education and health and is active in seven northern and eastern provinces. Another is the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, based in Kabul, which seeks to restore traditional Afghan skills in the arts and culture. I have visited both of them. We have heard about the Afghan connection, which I did not know about. Many of these NGOs are doing good work.
However, my noble friend asks a critical question about peace, and no doubt the Government will refer to recent peace initiatives. Last month, our ambassador said:
“Now is an exciting moment. A moment of rare hope”.
We must pray that he is right. To me, this also highlights the degree of courage and tolerance of aid workers who are close to the front line or otherwise at continual risk of losing their life. Peace on a national scale will always be hard to achieve as long as money is flowing into the country from the Gulf or from lucrative sales of poppies to fund violence.
At a local level, people tend to find narrow ways through conflict and corruption, which can bring temporary prosperity even for a limited period. A report published in March by ATR Consulting, Aid Effectiveness in Afghanistan, makes a useful point that has to be repeated in almost every aid environment: development strategies need more Afghan ownership. It is not surprising that it says this, given that the report is sponsored by Oxfam, CAFOD and a Swedish NGO. It is much easier for NGOs than Governments to encourage local ownership, but they must go on saying it. In the last decade, despite falling aid, the Afghan Government have tried to develop a reputation for aid effectiveness, according to the report, yet decisions are made largely by over 30 donors outside the country.
The current strategic plan, called the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework, guarantees that at least 50% of development aid passes through the Government’s core budget into 11 different national priority programmes. Afghanistan, therefore, remains a client state so long as the international community goes on supporting it. I think it should. Nevertheless, the UK and other NATO allies must continue to build on Afghan talent and initiative, or there can be no end in sight.
The new Prime Minister in Pakistan, Imran Khan, was a supporter of Save the Children. He knows a good deal about the value of NGOs and on-the-ground development. We hope that he will have more understanding of Afghanistan and possibly more influence than his predecessors had on the army’s and the ISI’s secret role. I put it no higher than that because it would be difficult for the Minister to comment at such an early stage in his administration.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, for securing this debate on the prospects for peace in Afghanistan and for opening it so effectively. She has a long track record of involvement in Afghanistan, as have the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich.
The action in Afghanistan in 2001 had international support, unlike that in Iraq later on. I recall my noble and much lamented friend Lord Garden—with a depth of experience drawn from his long service in the Armed Forces and his strategic overview from heading Chatham House—saying in 2006 that sustained engagement in Afghanistan would need to last at least 30 years, if not much longer. Yet, as he predicted, it was not long before countries were pulling back, in part distracted by Iraq. NATO allies in Afghanistan never worked properly in concert with each other.
My noble friend Lord Ashdown—again with wide experience, particularly of the Balkans—emphasised that the first aim of the country must be to achieve security. Only then could the country be rebuilt. That security has not been achieved and the country has not been rebuilt.
There have been occasional bouts of optimism. I recall the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, confidently predicting the eradication of the poppy harvest by around 2012. Some politicians seem to claim that troops can be brought home, as the job is done. For others it has been a source of pessimism, or an area of the world they do not wish to think about.
I note that the current Defence Secretary is now emphasising the number of homegrown possible terrorists who go to Afghanistan to train and then return to the United Kingdom, posing a threat to us here. He doubtless wishes to convey that Afghanistan matters to the UK and is not some far-away conflict that need not trouble us. However, there is little public appetite for engagement. So much of our current political discourse is taken up with Brexit that little else surfaces.
There have been so many debates about development being essential to peace in Afghanistan. The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, pointed to its strengths—but also to how flawed its delivery often is. Initially, it was argued that it was too difficult to defend the rights of women. Hillary Clinton made it plain that half the population could not be excluded and, eventually, it came to a point where about the only gain in Afghanistan was in the rights of women. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, indicated, this had its limitations.
Clearly the American engagement in Afghanistan is of vital significance and Trump is, of course, very unpredictable. Anthony Cordesman describes Afghanistan as a war of attrition. He argues that the peace talks are an extension of war by other means. He states:
“If the US has any real strategy in Afghanistan, it seems to be fighting a war of attrition long enough and well enough for the threat to drop to a level that Afghan forces can handle or accept a peace settlement credible enough for the US to leave”.
He goes on to argue that after 17 years of combat,
“no one at any level is claiming that enough military progress has been made in strengthening the ANSF enough for it to win”.
He also maintains:
“No one is making any serious claims about success at the civil level in terms of politics, governance, and economics”.
Noble Lords have indicated that perhaps more progress has been made there than he suggests. Cordesman continues:
“Hope for the civil side seems to rely on the theory that if you attempt enough reform plans, one may eventually work. This is a literal triumph of hope over experience”.
He notes “deeply disturbing parallels” between the current situation in Afghanistan and the Vietnam War, pointing out:
“The North Vietnamese understood that they could keep fighting and win once the U.S. left … The U.S. underestimated the outside support North Vietnam would continue to receive. It … overestimated how well the South Vietnamese forces could hold on”.
In addition, in the US at the time, there was,
“a near denial of how badly divided the Vietnamese government was, how corrupt and ineffective the government was at both the civil and military levels, the level of economic strain on the country and government, and how ineffective the shell of a democracy was in actually motivating and uniting the people”.
We can see why he sees parallels.
I pay tribute to the NGOs and other agencies that noble Lords have mentioned which continue to work in Afghanistan, often against the odds. I read with enormous interest the latest issue of the Conciliation Resources publication Accord, entitled “Incremental Peace in Afghanistan”. Editors Anna Larson and Alexander Ramsbotham describe,
“the need for a radical change in approach to move beyond peace rhetoric in Afghanistan through a progressive, step-by-step process towards political settlement, which builds stability, confidence and legitimacy over time”.
They argue for two phased objectives. The first, in the short term, is to reduce violence, which they state,
“inevitably involves a central role for the conflict parties, principally the Taliban and the Afghan government”.
Their second, long-term, objective is,
“to achieve a more broadly inclusive social contract representative of all Afghans which is only achievable with involvement and ultimately endorsement across Afghan society”,
to which the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, referred. This strikes me as depressingly familiar, if clearly right. The authors argue that drivers of conflict include a well-established war economy. The Taliban and the Afghan Government fight on, having secured sufficient external backing on both sides to do so. Underlying the violence are,
“persistent political disputes over how power is shared and how future reforms are configured”.
Yet, perhaps encouragingly, most parties acknowledge that war can end only through a negotiated settlement. President Ghani’s offer to the Taliban of a political process is of course welcome—other noble Lords have referred to it. The Taliban appears divided on this and some pro-government Afghans do not want to share political power or fear compromise on human rights. Women’s rights might be a casualty.
The Accord authors also point to the need to balance the centre and periphery. They note that previous sub-national peace efforts have often been undermined by resistance from central government and from Taliban central leadership. No one wants to cede power.
Despite these failures, the Accord authors suggest that local initiatives could be a place to start. What support are the Government giving to President Ghani’s peace initiatives, including his offer of dialogue with the Taliban and subsequent offers of ceasefires? What steps are the UK taking to encourage the Taliban leadership and the movement more broadly to move towards a political dialogue with the Afghan Government? How do the UK Government plan to work with partners to build momentum in these areas? What is the Government’s strategy if the Taliban leadership does not seriously enter negotiations? What other routes to peace are being pursued? How do we ensure that peace processes are inclusive so that women as well as men are involved, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, emphasised?
The conflict in Afghanistan has proved extremely intractable, but we cannot walk away. Perhaps the main hope should be that this seemed also to be the case also in Northern Ireland, in the Balkans and in Vietnam itself. Conflict is not inevitable, even if the interests of some in Afghanistan and elsewhere seem to be in its perpetuation rather than its cessation.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, for initiating this debate and for her excellent introduction. Of course, what we have in Afghanistan is a country that has faced more than 40 years of conflict, which has left the country one of the poorest and most fragile in the world. Two critical concerns at the moment are that, once again, the country could become a haven for extremism, through Daesh, and that huge numbers of Afghans may continue to become displaced and leave to become migrants. The challenges are acute, with approximately 12.5 million Afghans living below the poverty line and 1.5 million returning refugees or internally displaced people in 2017 alone.
There has been a regular cycle of development conferences on Afghanistan. International Governments have reaffirmed $15.2 billion of assistance through to 2020, in exchange for progress and reforms from the Afghan Government. As we have heard in the debate, with increasing insecurity and the large numbers of returnees, there will be a need to hold the Afghan Government accountable for how the $15.2 billion is spent. We need, as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said, to redouble our efforts to strengthen civil society.
DfID says that it works closely with other government departments in Whitehall—the FCO, the MoD, the Home Office, the National Crime Agency and the Cabinet Office—to achieve results. We also co-ordinate with other international donors, working with them on programmes on anti-corruption. Can the Minister tell us what form this cross-Whitehall work takes? Which Minister is taking the co-ordinating responsibility to ensure that what DfID spends is monitored to ensure that there is no corruption?
As my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe said just before the Summer Recess, Afghanistan is a better place as a result of our efforts. We have achieved this through co-operation with our NATO allies. At this point I pay tribute to those who have served in Afghanistan, remembering in particular the 456 service personnel who have died and those who have suffered life-changing injuries. While the Afghan Government control 65% of the country, insurgent groups operate in around 12%, as we have heard, with the remainder being contested. Noble Lords have referred to the fact that in July we had the announcement that the 650 Armed Forces personnel will rise to 1,100 by early 2019. The US has around 15,000 troops in Afghanistan and has increased its use of air strikes. It recently called on the UK and other NATO allies to send reinforcements.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, in announcing this increase in personnel, told your Lordships’ House that all NATO allies were agreed that we will continue to support the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces until these forces are able to protect the people of Afghanistan without support from international forces, and progress has been made on a peace process. This reflected the earlier comments of the US Deputy Secretary of State, who pointed out that the commitment to Afghanistan must be conditions-based and not driven by timelines. No matter how keen we are to impose timelines, it would be a mistake.
We know what the UK Government are doing in supporting the Afghan people, helping with access to healthcare, education and safe drinking water, as well as creating jobs and economic development, and tackling corruption. The UK pledge to 2020 depends, as I mentioned, on security conditions and the Afghan Government’s performance—but how are we measuring performance? The UK helped the Afghan Government to establish the Anti-Corruption Justice Center to investigate and bring to trial high-level corruption cases. Will the Minister tell us what the current assessment is of the work of that centre and what outcomes there have been?
Despite the bad headlines and the obvious concerns that we have heard, there has been progress in Afghanistan. I pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, on this. Women have gained since the fall of the Taliban and, as she said, the 2004 constitution enshrined gender equality in law and, through the quota system, has resulted in 28% of seats in the national Parliament being held by women. But, as she highlighted so well, this progress is fragile, and the impact of the Taliban regime continues. Because of that, now is the time not to retreat but to redouble our efforts on women’s rights. Now that Britain’s combat role is over, some may think that our scope for influence has narrowed—but it has not. It is vital that we use our development spend to ensure that that progress is fully maintained.
Mark Field said at the beginning of the year that the solution to long-term peace and stability lies not within the military but in a peace process that is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, reaching out to the insurgents to try to launch a credible peace process. Credible, inclusive and timely elections are also essential. Of course, Afghanistan will hold parliamentary elections in October, and the Afghan army will be braced for possible violence, especially considering the recent attacks on those attempting to register to vote. However, as part of the UK’s announcement of new personnel, only around half of the new troops will arrive before those elections. So what is the Minister’s assessment of Afghanistan’s capability to protect voters during the upcoming elections? Throughout 2018, a series of Taliban and Islamic State suicide bombings have killed hundreds of civilians. There are concerns that these incidents could escalate in the run-up to October’s elections. What assurances can the Minister give us that the Government are taking steps to ensure the safety of UK personnel, especially those without combat experience?
I referred to the Minister, Mark Field, who said at the start of the year that 2018 represented a year of opportunity. We are now nearly three-quarters of the way through that year. What is the assessment of the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, of the prospects for ending the year with a credible political peace process firmly in place, so that Afghanistan can finally turn the corner to a more peaceful society?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, for tabling this Question for Short Debate and for her very thoughtful speech, which was delivered with great authority. I also thank all noble Lords for their contributions. Before I respond directly to her questions, I take this opportunity to set the scene by reminding noble Lords of the reasons for the UK commitment to Afghanistan and to confirm what that support has helped to deliver.
Successive UK Governments have committed to help build a peaceful, prosperous and stable Afghanistan, working closely with our NATO partners not only because that is what the people of Afghanistan want, after decades of conflict, but because it is in the UK’s national interest. An Afghanistan that is unstable and insecure presents a threat to the UK and to UK interests in the wider region—from terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State, drug trafficking and illegal migration, to other serious organised crime.
The support the UK provides to Afghanistan is crucial to building a stable state and reducing the threat to the UK; I thank my noble friend Lady Hodgson, who helpfully acknowledged that. The UK is working closely with the Afghan Government as they seek to overcome the legacy of more than 40 years of conflict and become a more prosperous and stable state. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, who rightly reminded us of the duration of that conflict. It underlines what a challenging situation the Afghan Government and global partners are trying to resolve. Afghanistan is determined to work towards a better future and progress has been made since 2001—I think all contributors acknowledged that—but considerable challenges remain, particularly with regard to improving security, governance and sustainable development.
The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, asked how UK assistance is helping to tackle the root causes of Afghanistan’s instability. I would like to deal with that under four headings: security, governance, development and supporting the path to peace. First, I want to pay tribute to the 456 British Armed Forces personnel and MoD civilians, as well as many others, who have made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. By continuing to support the Afghans on their path to a secure and stable state, we are ensuring that their sacrifices were not in vain. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for alluding to that.
Afghanistan continues to face significant security challenges. NATO’s combat mission ended in 2014. UK troops now serve in a non-combat role, as part of NATO’s Resolute support mission, to train, advise and assist building the capacity of the Afghan national defence and security forces. As the lead nation for the Afghan national army officer academy, the UK has helped to train more than 3,000 cadets, including, interestingly, 150 women, intended to be the next generation of military leaders. That is important support and I know that a number of contributors recognised the security challenges confronting Afghanistan. At the NATO Summit in July, the Prime Minister announced an additional 440 troops, making the UK the third-largest troop contributor.
We also provide £70 million per year to ANDSF sustainment which funds Afghan police salaries and provides mentors to the Afghan security institutions and other key UK programmes. The Prime Minister announced at NATO our commitment to extend financial support through to 2024.
On governance, sustainable progress in Afghanistan will only be as strong as the political institutions underpinning it. The UK is a lead partner in supporting the Afghan Government’s reform agenda. Reducing corruption is central to this work. Credible and inclusive elections that allow the Afghan people to exercise their democratic rights are vital for long-term stability. With the UN and international partners, we are also supporting preparations for the parliamentary elections in October and the presidential elections in April 2019. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Collins, who asked specifically about what the UK is doing to support the elections in Afghanistan. We are working closely with the IEC, the Afghan Government and civil society to support that electoral process.
The development challenges—I think all contributors in some way referred to development—remain significant. Decades of conflict have stunted Afghanistan’s economic development and, distressingly, more than half of Afghans live below the poverty line. We have pledged up to £750 million in development assistance between 2017 and 2020, depending on the delivery of reform. Our support is making a real difference.
UK-funded projects created more than 50,000 jobs in the past financial year alone, and our education programmes have helped more than 6.4 million Afghan children to go to school, more than one in three of whom are girls. That was an issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and my noble friend Lady Hodgson pointed out the welcome number of women now emerging in important roles in Afghanistan—a point also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover.
This financial year, our humanitarian assistance is expected to support more than 1 million people. This includes emergency food for over 400,000 people at risk from drought. We support people forced to leave their homes by conflict or natural disaster, and we have also cleared landmines from 85 million square metres of land, thereby freeing it up for homes and farming.
The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, raised an important point about infrastructure. I reassure her that the UK acknowledges the importance of infrastructure. I understand that about half of the UK bilateral programme, which is directed through the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund, is indeed intended to support infrastructure work.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, brought to our attention the role of sport in Afghanistan—particularly cricket, on which I completely defer to him as an expert and about which I know a negligible amount. That was an interesting reflection on another aspect of life in the country. He also raised the important point of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s report. We are pleased that the commission recognises that the conflict stability and security fund has become a flexible and responsive tool to support the UK’s national security priorities. The commission also recognised that the fund has developed conflict analysis and technical expertise able to influence and co-ordinate international donor efforts. I reassure the noble Earl that, following the national security capability review, the fund has moved to a new joint funds unit, which will allow for greater strategic and ministerial oversight. Although it may seem a bit of an anorak statistic, we have trained more than 400 HMG staff in programme management to ensure that the fund has the right capability to deliver and design programmes. I hope that that reassures him.
On prospects for peace, ultimately, a political solution to the conflict is the only way to achieve lasting stability in Afghanistan and the wider region. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, specifically recognised that. Let me reassure her that the UK strongly supports the efforts made towards this goal by the Afghan Government. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, spoke for us all in wishing that peace process well.
Recently, there have been unprecedented steps on the path to peace. At the Kabul process meeting in February, President Ghani made what most people regarded as a bold offer to the Taliban of peace talks without preconditions. This offer was endorsed by the international community. Then, in June, there was the first national ceasefire between the Taliban and the Government since 2001. The UK, alongside international partners, is working closely with the Afghan Government to support that process.
My noble friend Lady Hodgson realistically recognised the challenges. I have to say that an end to violence is still a long way off, and a lasting peace settlement will require courage, patience and compromise from all sides.
In all of this, a process of review is vital. In co-ordination with our international partners, the UK regularly reviews our development assistance to ensure it is as effective as possible. The Self-Reliance through Mutual Accountability Framework sets out the agreement between donors and the Afghan Government for necessary reforms.
The Geneva conference on Afghanistan, to be convened in November this year, will be an opportunity for donor countries and the Afghan Government to take stock of progress and ensure that plans remain on track.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the issue of anti-corruption and the question of the ACJC, which was launched in 2016 to investigate, prosecute and adjudicate in serious corruption cases. I understand that as of 29 May this year, 35 trials have been heard and 142 defendants found guilty, and to date, 553 cases have been referred to the ACJC by various institutions. Corrupt networks facilitate much of the narcotics trade and can facilitate irregular migration. That is why the UK is wholly committed to supporting the redoubled efforts of President Ghani and the Government to build an institution that can deliver justice for the Afghan people.
To conclude, we remain committed to supporting Afghanistan because we know that our assistance is crucial to achieving its transformation to a stable and peaceful state, as well as to reducing the threat to the UK. We remain committed to providing this support, with regular reviews. We are encouraged by recent positive developments towards a potential peace process, but there is still a long way to go. We are committed to a future Afghanistan which is peaceful, prosperous and secure.
I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. It may have been short, with a relatively small list of speakers, but I think the quality of the debate has spoken for itself.
House adjourned at 8.26 pm.