With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on Afghanistan.
First, I would like to pay tribute to the six service personnel who have died serving their country in Afghanistan since the last statement on Afghanistan was delivered to the House by the Defence Secretary on
These deaths are a timely reminder that our troops continue to risk their lives in Afghanistan every single day. Their legacy is realised in the fact that Afghanistan is now neither a safe haven nor a launch-pad for terrorists who seek to destroy our way of life. The tens of thousands of Afghan security forces whom they have helped mentor and who are now securing the country’s future are a testament to that. The sacrifice of our servicemen and women can never be forgotten.
I would like to reiterate my deepest sympathies for those affected by the tragic landslide in Badakhshan province. Relief efforts are under way to help the more than 4,000 people who have been displaced. The UK is closely monitoring the situation and stands ready to provide further assistance. Our recent £10 million contribution to the UN’s Common Humanitarian Fund will ensure that additional relief supplies can be delivered as required.
While the scale of the challenge cannot be underestimated, we are seeing some extraordinary progress in Afghanistan. Last month, Afghans took part in provincial and presidential elections, which were organised by Afghans, run by Afghans and the security for which was provided by Afghans. The latest estimates from the preliminary results on voter turnout show that nearly 7 million people voted, 36% of whom were women. This is particularly impressive, given the Taliban threats of violence across the country. With very little support from ISAF—the international security assistance force—the Afghan security forces secured the vast majority of polling centres across the country and helped to prevent any high-profile attacks. Their professionalism and bravery were evident throughout, and their confidence has been boosted by this operational success.
A constitutional transfer of power from President Karzai to his successor will be a milestone for the Afghan people. Until 10 years ago, Afghans had never had the right to choose their leader. Now they are getting a choice, and the UK Government are supporting that democratic process. We continue to support Afghan institutions in making sure that the elections are credible, inclusive and transparent.
The Department for International Development is providing £20 million to the UN’s ELECT II programme—Enhancing Legal and Electoral Capacity for Tomorrow—which ran a voter registration top-up exercise in Afghanistan. This has led to over 3.8 million new registered voters, over a third of whom were women. ELECT II also trained almost 7,000 election commission officials, over 2,000 of whom are women. This includes gender officers for each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Women’s political participation has been a priority for the UK Government in the past year, and it was impressive to see so many women exercising their democratic rights as voters. Although there were no female presidential candidates, it is a sign of how much Afghanistan has changed that three women stood as second vice-president on presidential tickets, and 297 women contested the provincial council elections. The Government’s support for women voters and candidates, through the UN and through DFID’s own programmes, will continue through to the parliamentary elections in Afghanistan in 2015.
We have made it clear that our commitment to Afghanistan extends beyond the time that UK combat forces have returned home. The UK has committed to its current level of development funding until at least 2017. However, if we are to continue our co-operation with Afghanistan in the long term, it is important for the bilateral security and NATO status of forces agreements to be established as quickly as possible. We shall expect to see clear progress and further reforms from the new Afghan President and his Government.
Afghanistan’s economy remains fragile and vulnerable to shocks. Although economic growth and tax revenues have increased substantially over the past decade, uncertainty ahead of the elections, along with the impact of the draw-down of international forces, has led to an economic slowdown in recent months. Through its continued support for Afghanistan’s economic growth and private sector development in the years ahead, DFID will seek to remove barriers to investment, particularly in the agriculture and extractive sectors, and to create economic opportunities for women. The UK will also continue to support greater regional economic integration through infrastructure development and trade.
We hope that the new President will prioritise increasing domestic revenue collection and strengthening the economy by, for instance, passing key legislation, because that is the best way to ensure that the country’s long-term future does not rely on aid from other countries. At an early stage, the UK will be encouraging the new Government to take the further steps on reform that the international community wants to see, such as tackling corruption and ensuring that gains made on women’s rights are strengthened. Some of the bravest Afghans I have met have been women’s rights defenders. Those women risk their lives daily, fighting for rights that men—and, indeed, we women—often take for granted in this country, and the UK Government will continue to support their efforts to secure a better future for Afghan women and girls.
We cannot do this alone. Afghanistan’s future depends on many international actors playing their part, as well as the work that Afghans themselves are doing to secure their country’s future. Afghanistan will inevitably be a key feature of the NATO summit which will take place at the Celtic Manor in Wales in early September. Plans and preparations are well under way for that important
NATO event. The UK Government will co-chair a development conference on Afghanistan in the months after the new Afghan Government have been formed, which will provide a timely opportunity for us to focus Afghan and international attention on the long-term economic, social and political challenges that Afghanistan must address.
The turnout for last month’s election shows the will and determination of the Afghan people to secure a better future, but they need our support. By continuing our essential development work and by working together, we can create a stable country where Afghan children have opportunities that were denied to their parents. That will be a fitting and lasting legacy to the service of our troops—those who are now returning home to their families and those who, tragically, are not.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement, and for giving me advance sight of it earlier today.
This year the United Kingdom’s combat mission in Afghanistan comes to an end, and I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the UK service personnel who have been lost in the service of our country. As we approach the close of a 13-year operation, there will be time for reflection on what has been achieved in Afghanistan, but, regardless of those discussions, no one can feel anything other than awe and admiration for the men and women of our armed forces who have served, and continue to serve, our country there. Their courage, their care and their sacrifice are virtues that we should never forget, and the strain on their families and loved ones constitutes a toll that most of us whose relations are not serving in Afghanistan can never fully understand. Just this week, we had a stark reminder that the pain of conflict is not only physical but, increasingly, an often initially invisible injury to mental health.
In this the centenary year of the first world war, new monuments will be built and tributes will be paid to the dead of three generations ago, but I want to ask about a permanent memorial to those who have died in Afghanistan. I have readily been involved in supporting that project, and I hope that the Secretary of State will update the House on the dedication of that important work.
As we all know, the Department for International Development works in some of the most dangerous and demanding places in the world, and Afghanistan presents its own set of unique challenges. For more than 30 years, the Afghan people have seen their communities blighted by conflict and violence. Thirteen of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces report at least one Taliban attack each and every day of the week; nearly half the population is in need of development assistance, and a third of the population is food-insecure, so there is no doubt that development in these circumstances is extremely challenging. The Opposition’s approach will continue to be support for and scrutiny of the Government’s work, and I want to ask the Secretary of State about four specific areas.
First, the Secretary of State rightly spoke about the massive mudslide in Badakhshan province in which 2,000 lives were lost. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, she rightly prioritised the safety and well-being of survivors, but will she now tell the House what assessment her Department has made of the needs of those who survived and, further, what impact, if any, security concerns have on the relief effort?
Secondly, in March this year the Independent Commission for Aid Impact reported on DFID’s bilateral support for growth and livelihoods in Afghanistan. The report raised serious doubts over the long-term sustainability of the progress made and over a lack of strategic coherence, so what steps has the Secretary of State taken to improve the Department’s programmes in the light of those revelations?
Surprisingly, ICAI found that none of the programmes assessed had made any plans for draw-downs, even though, to quote from the report,
“it is likely that they would be affected by more instability and greater risk.”
Can the Secretary of State assure the House that preparations are now well under way in all DFID projects for the impact of this year’s draw-down?
The report made three main recommendations: for a six-month review of current and future projects, and on systems of consultations and independent monitoring. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the progress she has made in fulfilling those recommendations?
I want to turn to the country’s future and the role of women. As the Secretary of State has rightly said, there has been much change for women in the last 13 years, but there is undoubtedly still an incredibly long way to go. It is right that DFID’s next operational plan has a commitment to tackle violence against women, and I hope she will confirm today that Afghan women’s organisations will be consulted on that plan.
As we approach the second round of presidential elections, the Taliban have this week announced the start of their annual summer offensive. Despite that and despite all the threats, Afghanistan’s women seem determined that their voices and their votes will be heard, so what additional measures have been put in place to protect Afghan women’s right to vote?
Finally, may I turn to the mechanics of the draw-down? Understandably, there are some concerns that the draw-down of the ISAF operation could have grave implications for the sustainability of development gains and the protection of civilians. What assessment has the Department made of the possible need for any extra security requirements for DFID staff and local partners after the military draw-down?
In conclusion, stability in Afghanistan will no longer rely on international military might, but instead on Afghan forces, an improving local economy, the attitude of neighbouring countries and international development funding. DFID staff and their partners will have a continuing role to play in the future of that country. For the sake of the people of Afghanistan, and all the Britons who have served there and continue to serve, this military draw-down must not mean turning away. For all their sakes, the UK’s commitment to building a lasting peace and a viable state must continue.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. The first point he raised was how we can make sure we never forget the sacrifice that has been made by our servicemen and women who have served in Afghanistan. I understand that discussions on how we can make sure we commemorate and remember that work are under way in the Ministry of Defence, and I am sure it will have further updates to give the House shortly.
In relation to the work ICAI did on DFID programmes in Afghanistan, I think the first point to make is that it recognises, as we do, that Afghanistan is one of the most difficult places in the world to deliver aid. However, it said that we worked effectively with our partners, and, indeed, that
“our livelihoods programmes are delivering significant improvements to thousands of people”,
although the right hon. Gentleman raised some of the serious challenges we still face in making sure that the gains and advances we have made continue. It is probably worth pointing out that some of the training on vocational education has helped about 70,000 young people get into work in Afghanistan. The right hon. Gentleman is right that the livelihoods issue is one of the core elements of the programme going forward.
We will work on the ICAI recommendations in the report and any that the IDC has made recently.
On the terrible mudslide and flooding around Badakhshan, the UN is working there on the ground. As the right hon. Gentleman points out, some areas in Afghanistan are harder for aid agencies to reach than others, but we have already made a £10 million contribution to the common humanitarian fund, and we stand ready to assess any further requests. Our current assessment is that adequate support is getting through to people, but he is right to point out that looking forward, we need to see what we can do to help the people who remain rebuild their lives and get them back on track.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of the work on women’s rights. As everyone recognises, this issue presents one of the biggest risks: as troop draw-down takes place and Afghanistan transitions to a future in which it takes responsibility for its own security, and a presidential election results in a new President, it is important that this aspect of progress—the advancement of women’s rights in a country that remains one of the toughest places in the world to be a woman—is not left behind. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I have made this issue a strategic priority for DFID within Afghanistan. We are undertaking a variety of projects that will continue in the coming years, such as the girls’ education project, and we will support the Government to make sure that the law on the elimination of violence against women is implemented on the ground. That will include working with the Ministry of the Interior and directly with the Afghan police, so that we can make sure that laws are implemented by them and they play their role in protecting and upholding women’s rights on the ground.
As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, and as I mentioned in my statement, we have done work on women’s political participation. One of the most encouraging aspects of the recent first round of presidential elections—alongside perhaps less violence than we might have expected—was the number of women who are now exercising their right to vote. DFID played a role in the United Nations Development Programme, supporting the independent election commission, and on the ground in encouraging people to use their vote. In particular, it helped to ensure that women were registered, and that women candidates were supported and understood that they could be not just a voter within the election, but a participant. Some 300 women candidates came forward, and 20% of the provincial election council places will go to women after the election.
We are also ramping up our work on access to justice. We have teamed up with the existing Australian Government programme—a £3 million programme that will mean that we can provide better access to justice for women in six provinces. Of course, the existing Tawanmandi programme, which supports civil society organisations on the ground, continues. I am putting an extra £2 million into that, which should help to provide at least 10 grants to organisations that are focused on working to tackle violence against women.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of draw-down and security. Obviously, I cannot go into the details of that in the House, but he is right to point out that the environment faced not just by our forces but by Foreign Office and DFID staff working in Afghanistan is highly risky, even in the British embassy in Kabul. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to those staff members, who do an immensely challenging job in difficult circumstances and are some of the most dedicated people I have come across in this job. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that that duty of care to our staff is always of paramount importance.
I thank the Secretary of State very much indeed not just for her statement but for its positive character and for the fact that she is making it, because that indicates DFID’s increasing importance and profile as Afghanistan moves from a situation of troop engagement to development. I want to reinforce the International Development Committee’s view that the test of success in development in Afghanistan will be the progress maintained by women. Indeed, I am grateful to the Secretary of State for emphasising women’s rights and development. Does she agree with me and our Committee that the status of women will be the key to Afghan development, that it is important that women are supported, that all the people of Afghanistan must understand that the progress of women will determine the successful development of their country, and that in that, they will have the full partnership of the UK Government?
I pay tribute to the work the right hon. Gentleman’s Committee does in scrutinising my Department and the work we do in Afghanistan. I can assure him that we will continue to play our role, as a key donor, in helping the Afghanistan Government to continue to make progress on women’s rights. It is fantastic that we now have a statutory duty to look at gender equality in international development, thanks to my hon. Friend Mr Cash, so we will continue to do that work. His legislation has sent a message across the world about the UK’s stance on the rights of women and girls, and it will permeate our entire work.
We have produced our latest report on Afghanistan, which was published yesterday. It makes a number of recommendations, including two major ones. The first is that we continue to have a proper, co-ordinated and comprehensive approach to the process of transition and its aftermath, in what is likely to be an uneven peace, uneven development and an uneven security situation. The second is that there should be a national evaluation, across government, of the whole of the period in which we have been in Afghanistan. Although our reports are aimed largely at the Ministry of Defence, which will respond on the lessons learned, this is a cross-government issue, so will the right hon. Lady also be able to respond, as the Secretary of State for International Development, to our report?
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we have sought to work hand in hand with the Ministry of Defence on policy in Whitehall, but also on the ground where MOD and DFID staff operate together. We have seen that in the provincial reconstruction team, which until March was based in Helmand and has now transitioned staff back to Kabul. There are of course continuing lessons to be learned, as his Committee’s report highlights. The military have a highly effective process for identifying lessons to be learned in the long term, but I am sure the UK Government will want to look strategically across the whole campaign, including the DFID element of the work we have done, to see what lessons can be learned once the mission is over.
In my earlier question to the Prime Minister, I mentioned Nigeria and Syria, but as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear today, Afghanistan is also right at the top of the tree regarding gender equality and international development, and I am grateful to her for her remarks. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank not only her but the staff in her Department, the Minister of State and others for playing an active and very supportive role on this issue. That extends to the whole House, including members of the Opposition, who gave their support to the International Development (Gender Equality) Bill to ensure that it went through Parliament. I thank them all very much indeed, because it will do a huge amount to help women and girls throughout the world.
It was a wonderful message that we sent out: that not just the Government but the whole of our Parliament regards the issue of women and girls’ rights and prospects as so important to what we are doing. It is fantastic that my hon. Friend has put his thanks on the record, and in fact, most of our thanks go to him for developing the Bill and taking it through.
Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the 297 humanitarian workers in Afghanistan, men and women, who lost their lives in 2002, many of whom were Afghans but also from the expatriate community?
In order to continue that valuable work in a deteriorating security situation, measures must be taken to protect human rights defenders. What is the Secretary of State doing about that?
The hon. Lady is right to raise that issue. A lot of the UK Government’s work has been on prevention: improving the underlying conditions for women in Afghanistan. Of course other countries, for example, the United States and Canada, have also focused on helping women who have already suffered physical violence. I assure her that we will continue to work at the national level with the new Government and the new President who will be in place after the elections are finally concluded. We will also work at the provincial level and we will continue, through programmes such as Tawanmandi, to work at the grass-roots level with these organisations, whose people I have met both here and in Afghanistan, to do what we can at an individual community-based level to make sure that those women are supported and can get on with their work. As she points out, some of these people pay the ultimate price. I met someone who was over in London recently who said that she would be happy to lose her life if that is what it took for women’s prospects in Afghanistan to improve in the long term. That was an amazing statement for her to make, and the UK Government will certainly play their role in trying to ensure that people can go about that work safely.
The Secretary of State identified the importance of economic development and of revenue collection. I know that DFID and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs support a number of countries around the world on the revenue development side. Has that been considered for Afghanistan? Is it already happening?
It is already happening; we are doing work with the tax revenue authority of Afghanistan. The good news is that since 2004-05 tax revenues increased from just $250 million to more than $2 billion by 2011-12. So things are moving in the right direction and we will continue that work.
Encouragingly, the Afghan security forces have grown in stature and in strength. It is important that Apache helicopter support is equally strong, so that the actions on the ground and in the air can be equal. What support for helicopter training will be given to Afghan security forces, and will the international security assistance force leave its Apache helicopters behind for the forces to use?
Clearly this issue of going beyond training troops to making sure there is the capability alongside them to support them in the air as well as on the ground continues to be discussed. We are discussing how that can be sustained post-2014. Obviously, that sits alongside the work we are doing to set up the Afghan national army officer academy, which took in its first battalion of officers back in October. This legacy will see a continued improvement and numbers of well-trained army officers coming through, but the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that an equipment and logistics strategy needs to sit alongside it.
The participation of women in the electoral process is to be welcomed, and I thank the Secretary of State for her commitment on that. What commitments have we secured on access to education for women and girls once we have withdrawn?
I have spoken on a number of occasions with President Karzai about how important education is, and he is emphatic that he sees providing it as the biggest thing we can do, long term, to improve the prospects for women in Afghanistan. That is why on my most recent visit there last November I announced further investment by the UK Government to reach about a quarter of a million girls in some of the hardest-to-reach areas to get them into education. This will certainly continue to be a key part of what we work on.
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, getting successful long-term change in that area is extremely challenging work for us. Fundamentally, we need to see security on the ground and then alternative livelihoods that prove more compelling prospects for farmers. The reality is that that is an extremely long-term programme. We will continue to do our work on livelihoods, which ICAI recognised was having a significant impact, but nobody is under any illusion about the scale of the challenge.
May I echo the Secretary of State’s tribute to those whose courage and sacrifice has been shown in Afghanistan, including those, such as Corporal Daniel Nield of my constituency, who died there, and all the armed forces, civilians and intelligence staff who have served in that country? Underpinning the progress of women’s participation, which she and my right hon. Friend Sir Malcolm Bruce spoke about, has been the enormous sixfold increase in the participation of children in Afghan schools—now 40% of them are girls. Does she agree that a whole generation of Afghan girls owe their thanks not only to their Afghan teachers, policy makers and the international community, but to this country, for transforming their life chances?
I agree with that. When the Taliban were in power almost no girls were going to school, whereas now more than 2 million of the 6 million-plus children at school are girls. That is crucial, but, as we see, it continues to be a challenge to make sure that we get equal opportunities for both boys and girls in Afghanistan. That is why our education programmes particularly focus on getting girls into school.
Twenty Afghan interpreters have died while serving with British troops and 3% feel they are going to be unsafe if they remain in Afghanistan after the troops withdraw. How many have applied to come here since the Secretary of State’s last statement? How many have been given permission to do so? How many have been refused?
I do not have those details with me, but I am happy to provide them to the right hon. Gentleman after this statement. As he will be aware, we looked particularly at the issue of interpreters and, more broadly, local staff who are intimidated and at risk as a result of being part of our efforts to help bring security and stability to Afghanistan. We have a very thorough process for making sure that where there is extreme risk of intimidation we are able to take further steps that go beyond simply helping people get into different work in Afghanistan to potentially relocating them. What I propose to do is send him a short note updating him on what we are doing for interpreters, and the extent of progress and use of that scheme.
Afghan electoral law requires a run-off election if no candidate achieves more than 50% in the presidential election. The run-off election has already been postponed and it has been suggested that it might not need to take place if one of the candidates can develop a majority coalition. Does the Secretary of State agree that the rule of law should prevail and the run-off election should take place? What can her Department do to ensure that that happens?
We all want to make sure that the electoral process happens effectively, and I talked about the need for it to be fair, inclusive and transparent. DFID has done a huge amount of work with other donors supporting the United Nations programme to make sure that that can happen. We will all have to see what happens on the second round of the presidential election, but what we can say from the first round is that, basically, the process worked: most of the polling stations were open as planned; people were able to get to them and to cast their vote; and where there were complaints those are now being assessed by the complaints commission. That is a good first step but, as the hon. Gentleman points out, there are challenges ahead. We will continue to do what we can to make sure that those presidential elections are successful.
The long-term security and development of Afghanistan is very much influenced by the regional context and Afghanistan’s neighbours. Given that there will be a change of Government in India on Friday, will the Secretary of State speak with her colleagues in other Departments to try to impress upon India and Pakistan the importance of resolving regional security issues, as that would be of great benefit to Afghanistan in the long term?
I met the Prime Minister of Pakistan a couple of weeks ago when he was visiting the UK and I raised with him the issue of the importance of this relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan and, in particular, of improving it. That applies both from a political and security perspective, which is crucial, and because of the economic opportunities that are there for both countries if they can get stability and then start to grow the economic relationship. That also stands true for India, and I have no doubt that my colleagues in the Foreign Office will follow up on the point the hon. Gentleman has made.
May I, too, ask about poppy growing? My constituents in Kettering wish to know what has been done, what is being done and what can and cannot be done to tackle poppy growing without endangering fragile local economies in Afghanistan, which remains the major source of heroin that comes into the western world.
Principally, there are two strands of work in which DFID has been engaged. One has been to work alongside the Home Office on a counter-narcotics strategy that has involved working with the Afghan police and the security services. The second is the work on livelihoods. We all recognise how difficult it is to get communities to change practices and livelihoods in which they have been engaged for so long. We have undertaken work in this area, but recognise that more needs to be done, which is why we want to stick with this for the long term.
The Secretary of State and her Department will be aware of the huge mineral reserves and resources that exist in Afghanistan. What discussions has she had with the Administration in Kabul about the distribution of licences for the exploitation of those resources, what benefits are there for local people, and who in the long term will get the riches out of Afghanistan?
That is an important question. We have seen in other countries how mineral extraction has filled the pockets of the few and how the opportunity for shared prosperity has been missed. We do not want to see that happen in Afghanistan. The value of minerals in Afghanistan is estimated to range from $2 trillion to $3 trillion. There is a huge opportunity there. DFID has worked with the Afghan Ministry of Mines on the minerals law, which has, I think, now passed through Parliament. That should provide a legal framework for responsible investment. We will be doing further work to ensure that those concessions that the Government give are ones that ensure not only that companies profit from extracting minerals but that Afghanistan itself starts to reap the rewards of having those resources.
In a recent debate in the House, Members raised the important correlation between inclusive economic growth and respect for all human rights, including freedom of thought and belief. What discussions have my right hon. Friend and her colleagues had with the Afghan Government about that important relationship in respect of economic development?
We talked more broadly about the economic and social progress that Afghanistan needs to continue to make, which includes people’s human rights. Obviously, a constitution is in place now. Part of the Tokyo mutual accountability framework was all about ensuring that that constitution gets implemented and holds for individuals in their daily lives on the ground. It is good that, two years on from that Tokyo meeting, we are having a ministerial meeting to look at development. We need to see not only that donors are living up to the commitments that they made—the UK is—but that the Afghan Government are getting on with the process of reform, economic development and security improvements, not least of which is the final signing of the bilateral security agreement.
The Secretary of State mentioned the upcoming NATO summit in south Wales and the inevitable focus on Afghanistan at that summit. She will no doubt be aware of the significant Afghan diaspora communities in south Wales. What discussions has she had about outreach and the potential engagement of those communities, many of which are making a massive contribution not only to communities in south Wales, but to peace, development and stability in Afghanistan? Perhaps her officials will meet me to discuss how we can take that matter forward.
That is an excellent suggestion. We are working across Government in preparation for the NATO summit. It is fantastic that we are hosting it, and that we are hosting it in Wales. I very much want to make the most of that opportunity to reach out to those diaspora groups that the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned.
The Commission for Aid Impact gave an amber-red rating for a third of the projects, including the growth in livelihood project, which is relatively poor. Does the Secretary of State think that there is an argument for looking again at the process by which development officers identify, select and allocate funding to those projects?
One thing I have tried to strengthen in DFID is programme management capability, which includes the way in which and the speed with which we respond to programmes that are not on track. We look at Afghanistan, and other such places, because it is such a challenging environment for us to deliver and monitor projects while they are happening on the ground. The hon. Gentleman raises a perfectly good point, and I can assure him that this is a good time for us to look at our Afghanistan programme given the transition that has taken place in the delivery of our projects—some of our projects used the provincial reconstruction team in Helmand, but now we have retrenched within Kabul. I assure him that we are now planning ahead to understand what the next three-year outlook should be for our livelihoods programmes and to make them a success.
The Foreign Office has played an important role in bringing together Afghanistan and Pakistan in so-called trilateral talks, which were hosted here in the UK. Our Prime Minister led those talks with the Prime Minister of Pakistan and President Karzai of Afghanistan. That gives us a good platform for playing a constructive role. My Department is talking with countries in the region about their infrastructure needs, which will potentially provide the backbone for economic growth to take place successfully.
Progress has undoubtedly been made in Afghanistan, and one can only hope and pray that, in the years to come, the sacrifice of our brave service personnel will not be forgotten. The Secretary of State quite rightly alluded to the participation of females. She talked about 297 women contesting provincial council elections, but she did not say how many candidates there were in total.
I can provide the hon. Gentleman with that information. Something like 480-plus council places were being contested as part of the elections. A minimum of 20 will go to women, so we expect at least 92 women to have been elected. I will provide him with an update of the male aspect of those elections once I get back to my Department.
The Secretary of State recognises the enormous social and economic progress made in Afghanistan. Therefore, can we once again pay tribute to our armed forces for the selfless sacrifices they have made over the past decade to make that progress possible?
We can never say thank you enough to our servicemen and women for their efforts and work. I have had the privilege of meeting them when I have been out in Afghanistan. It is not just what they do but the way that they go about it—their professionalism, their attitude. They really represent the cream of our country. I think they have done an amazing job. They have been working in a country that has seen so much conflict for so many decades, and are finally starting to get it on track for a long-term better future. We can be immensely proud of the role that our armed forces have played.
I also pay tribute and associate myself with the Secretary of State’s comments about our armed forces personnel, including those that have made the ultimate sacrifice. My constituent, Sergeant Gary Jamieson, lost three limbs in an improvised explosive device attack only six days after arriving in Afghanistan. In 2012 the International Development Committee visited Afghanistan, and we were disappointed to see that a lot of DFID staff were deskbound for security reasons. That inevitably affects our ability to measure progress on the ground. Has that situation improved?
I have also considered what steps we can take to enable our staff to be better placed to get out in the field and monitor projects. We do as much as we can but, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, duty of care and making sure our staff are safe is of paramount importance. We must take that into account when designing our programmes, so that we understand what the risks are in relation to our challenges of monitoring and evaluation and we amend our programmes accordingly.
I know that the Secretary of State will share the concern of many of us that the number of women and girls who have been killed and injured in Afghanistan has increased, possibly threefold in targeted areas. Why does she think that is and what measures has her Department put in place to help tackle this awful crime?
On the ground in Afghanistan we see a continued daily physical threat to many people all over the country, whether they are a journalist, as we saw recently in Kabul, part of the security service or the army, or a woman. The challenge is to ensure that although we still see such challenges we do not back off from trying to tackle them. We know that the Taliban needs to engage in the peace and reconciliation process if we are to see long-term stability for Afghanistan. Ultimately, DFID can continue to help create the best possible conditions on the ground for women to play a role, take part in elections, have a voice in their community and have the chance of education and employment. That is the role that we can play.