Afghanistan

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:35 pm on 11th February 2004.

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Photo of Baroness Chalker of Wallasey Baroness Chalker of Wallasey Conservative 4:35 pm, 11th February 2004

My Lords, it is some 12 years since I was last in contact with a large number of Afghan refugees. I, like other speakers, am deeply grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for initiating this debate today. It gives us a chance to focus on an area that is almost being forgotten by the media in the light of other issues.

I want to endorse, without repeating, every word spoken by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, on the situation of women. There is a sliding backwards for women in Afghanistan because they cannot exert any of the rights which so many of us take for granted. They need our help and they deserve it. I hope that special measures can be taken, particularly through the provincial reconstruction teams, to help women. I shall be grateful for anything the Minister can say on that score.

One of the problems we are facing in Afghanistan is the crucial need to establish security, for security without development means no progress. It is a stultifying situation in any war zone simply to keep the peace and do no more. That is why the Mazar-e-Sharif provincial reconstruction team, led by the British, is being so successful. The clusters of lightly armed soldiers are there to assist in rebuilding, but the difficulty is that most PRTs have a vague mandate. Furthermore, they do not have security backing to enable them to concentrate on the reconstruction for which they were set up. They receive air support from the coalition, but they are not part of ISAF, although they have the ability to draw on ISAF's experience. Can the Minister say what we can do to give these provincial reconstruction teams better support to get on with the job? Can we not divert or extend some of the work of the NATO contingent running ISAF to help them with that support so that they can reconstruct?

There is good news coming out of Afghanistan. There has been growth in the economy and more than 2 million refugees have returned home. Yet, thank God, there has not been the kind of humanitarian crisis about which we hear too often in other parts of the world. The Loya Jirga is giving some legitimacy to the country at last. But it is easy to say that without a great deal more sustenance from the international community, the efforts of President Hamid Karzai and others may not succeed. We are at a tipping point with the situation in Afghanistan. Groups of people have been polled on the coming election and 90 per cent have said that they will vote. But of course that will not cover the whole country, as several noble Lords have said.

In addition to those first two issues, where else could we do more to help bring about stability in Afghanistan? Clearly, more soldiers and peacekeepers would make a big difference. I have enough experience in this field to know that it is probably better to divert people to help the reconstruction in Afghanistan than it is to have huge numbers protecting other places in the world, and I believe it to be necessary.

I said that the economy has, indeed, grown by some 28 per cent, but it is still less than half the size it was in 1978. Therefore, what can be done to help the economy to grow? Clearly, Afghanistan needs more food to be grown. However, without water that will not happen. I have heard the argument put forward many times that if we give the Afghans more water, they will simply grow more poppies. I consider that to be a thoroughly defeatist attitude. I believe that if we could devote more of the resources going through the PRTs to the provision of water and basic agricultural assistance, we could help the local communities to gain greater stability through their own efforts.

I note that less than 1 billion dollars of the 4.5 billion dollars promised at the Tokyo conference in 2002 has yet materialised. Further, there is a capacity problem in introducing the resources through development into the areas which are secure enough to start that off.

I have always believed that nothing succeeds like success. The message that gets around is that, when a local community begins to thrive because of the efforts that it makes itself, others want to copy it. Therefore, I hope that we can take the best examples from the great people in the NGOs, DfID and the Foreign Office who are working in Afghanistan and ensure that the messages of success, which do exist, although in too small a part, can be spread to the areas which have not yet engaged in development to any great extent. If we could concentrate more of the resource on water and agriculture, I believe that we would see success.

However, the final area on which I want to concentrate for a moment is the drug situation. Without tackling that to a greater extent, we shall not maintain whatever security we manage to establish through the forces which are there. The Counter-Narcotics Department, which has been instituted, has admirable goals: of 70 per cent eradication by 2008 and 100 per cent by 2013. Indeed, we, the British Government, are financing that. But that team is poorly equipped. It is by no means able to reach the goals that it has set itself. Very few of the 28 staff officers in the Counter-Narcotics Department have the relevant experience; there is little money for communication or vehicles; and there is very little money for intelligence gathering, which is a particularly dangerous pursuit in the atmosphere which prevails in Afghanistan.

I know that Mirwais Yassini, the director of the CND, has given us some frightening statistics for the basic scheme which could help the country. He has referred to a need for 300 million dollars over three years. However, it seems to me that, unless we are prepared to make that effort, we shall lose out on the gains that we make from the security that we provide.

Afghanistan is an almost forgotten country at present. I believe we owe it to the bravery of people such as Hamid Karzai and those who seek to re-establish order in Afghanistan to do more than we have been able to do thus far. As a country, we have already made some good and thoughtful contributions. We have set the scene very well. However, we wish that others would copy us—not as a form of flattery, but as a form of vital necessity for ordinary Afghans.

In the debate which our colleagues from another place held in Westminster Hall on 29 January, one area was highlighted repeatedly—that is, the need to help the Afghan people to build up their police force and their judiciary. That is a critical element in continuing the security that foreign forces may help to bring. I hope that the Minister is also able to comment on that in her response.