My Lords, the Government make very regular assessments of progress in Afghanistan. The recent approval of the new constitution guaranteeing equal rights of women and minority groups was a real landmark. Economic growth of 30 per cent last year and the opening of Standard Chartered Bank in Afghanistan are signs of economic progress, as are the resurfacing of the Kabul-Kandahar road and the opening of the Salang road tunnel. However, many long-term challenges remain, including the holding of democratic elections and the establishment of security across the whole country.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. It is three years since the fall of the Taliban, yet Afghanistan still remains one of the poorest nations of the world. We welcome Her Majesty's Government's increase in assistance, announced this month, but, despite the achievements to date, we are seriously concerned about the country. Would the Minister agree that security remains a particular issue in the southern and eastern parts of the country? What are Her Majesty's Government doing to break the impasse on Afghanistan's paradox? Reconstruction will be stalled until there is greater security but, without more reconstruction, insecurity will continue.
My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right. We have to get the security right in Afghanistan, or development will not happen at the kind of pace that we would all like to see. That is why the provincial reconstruction teams are being established throughout the country; there are now eight, and we hope to extend that to 13. But the difficulties in the east and the south remain, and we are continuing to work with our US colleagues and others in ISAF to bring stability to those parts of Afghanistan.
My Lords, is there now a timetable for the expansion in the number of NATO troops in Afghanistan, given the very serious security needs that have just been referred to? Do the Government support Colin Powell's proposal that NATO should be involved in Iraq from this summer? What implications does that have for NATO's involvement in Afghanistan?
My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that under ISAF we now have the Canadians, Germans, French, ourselves, Norway, Belgium, Turkey, Greece and Spain operating in Afghanistan. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, we are hoping that the number of provincial reconstruction teams that are looking at military and other developments within particular areas will be expanded from some eight to 13. With respect to Iraq, we shall continue to talk to our US colleagues about the best way in which to secure peace in that country.
My Lords, can the Minister tell us the latest figure for registration for elections in Afghanistan? Would she agree that the training of adequate numbers of police to ensure that elections can be free and fair is critical? Also, what is the UK's contribution to that training?
My Lords, from memory—and I shall write to the noble Earl if I have got this wrong—I think that to date we have registered over 1 million people. We are hoping to register 10 million. This is being done through eight regional centres at present and then the focus will be on rural areas. The UK has contributed significantly to that process. I shall write to the noble Earl and put a copy of my letter in the Library of the House.
My Lords, Al'Qaeda is still assumed to be based in Afghanistan. Would not any further participation in improving Afghanistan by the United States and ourselves help to suppress Al'Qaeda?
My Lords, there is continuing concern about the activities of Taliban forces and Al'Qaeda in Afghanistan. This is a major threat and we are working closely not only with our US colleagues on this but also with Pakistan and other countries in the region.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the proportion of women in the voters registered so far is very low? Can she say whether this is being given any degree of priority and whether the people doing the registration are encouraged to try to persuade women to take part in the political process?
My Lords, we have been concerned about the low numbers of women being registered. We were very pleased with the outcome of the constitutional talks, as a result of which 25 per cent of the Members of the national Parliament will be women and equal rights for women have been enshrined. We shall continue to work to try to improve the number of women who are registered but, particularly in the rural areas where registration has not yet taken place, we are concerned that this may be a major problem.
My Lords, my noble friend mentioned the impressive economic growth in Afghanistan. Does she know what proportion of that economic growth relates to the re-emergence of the drugs trade in Afghanistan? What does she see as the inter-relationship between the emergence of money from drugs and the insecurity that clearly exists in that country?
My Lords, there is clearly a relationship between the re-emergence of drugs and the security situation but it is not the only problem. I am not able directly to answer my noble friend's question with respect to economic growth. I can say that we think that the livelihoods of 20 to 30 per cent of rural Afghans are at least partially dependent on growing opium poppies so we have must find some form of alternative livelihood. Our strategy is to try to get rid of opium production, to work with the Afghans to improve their interception of drugs and, at the same time, to work to provide alternative livelihoods.
My Lords, I think that it is our turn.
In view of the obvious interest that the House has shown in these issues, and in view of the importance of the commitment that we have made as a country to Afghanistan and Iraq, is the Minister satisfied that enough is being done to keep people properly informed on current progress in both those important countries? Will she consider whether there are better ways in which the House and the country could be more regularly informed on progress in the range of issues in which there is great interest?
My Lords, I am very happy to talk to noble Lords about whether there are alternative ways in which we can keep noble Lords informed. A great deal of information is available on the DfID website. I regularly draw the attention of noble Lords to it. We do not print it off and put it in the Library of the House, but I can look at whether that would be helpful to noble Lords. My right honourable friend Hilary Benn frequently makes Written Statements on this issue in another place that I then sign off in this House. If there are other ways in which noble Lords would like to be kept informed, I would be happy to hear of them.
My Lords, can the Minister give us any information about the formation of a national army under the central government? I understand that it has been bedevilled by recruits joining and then deserting. Has this anything to do with them not being paid enough or not being paid regularly? If so, could they not be funded from an international fund that would, perhaps, ensure that they would stay?
My Lords, there are two ways in which we are seeking to support the Afghans with the development of a national army. First, there is a process of demobilisation from the forces that currently exist and reintegration, which particularly tries to get rid of the weaponry that is still around in Afghanistan. Secondly, there is a process of security sector reform that looks not just at the army but also at the police and other law enforcement agencies. It is important that the Afghans are taking these matters into their own hands.