Foreign Policy — Debate (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:42 pm on 26th February 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Liberal Democrat 3:42 pm, 26th February 2009

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for securing this debate and, indeed, for so elegantly and succinctly covering an expansive ground of challenges today.

I want to talk about a single challenge, albeit an increasingly serious one: the question of what the West can do about Pakistan. It is an ongoing challenge in the sense that Pakistan's potential to destabilise the region continues, as the noble Lord, Lord King, and others pointed out, but it is also a growing challenge for us here in the UK, for the US and for NATO, as the outcome of what we can do in Afghanistan is predicated on what we are able to achieve in Pakistan. Furthermore, what happens in Pakistan is now inexorably tied up with debates in the wider Muslim world about justice for the people of Kashmir, which has taken its place alongside the challenge of seeking a peaceful solution to the Israel/Palestine problem.

These debates impact on us in the domestic sphere here in Britain too, as both conflicts have an ability, at best, to engage British Muslims in our foreign policy decisions or, looking at the darker scenario, to radicalise British Muslims. What is clear is that foreign policy challenges are no longer the preserve of the initiated in forums such as this Chamber or the world of think-tankers and opinion-writers. We heard earlier of the need for a serious explanation by the Government to the British people of the limitations of Britain's role, not in any sense in "talking it down" but more in educational terms of how we are constrained by external factors and actors, and how we can no longer act on the will of the people in the international arena as we might have done 100 years ago.

So where are we in Pakistan? Sixty years on from a messy partition from India, and after several attempts at military and civilian Governments, this country of 165 million is still incredibly poor. GDP per capita, based on purchasing power parity, is still under $2,500, and all the indicators of human development, basic health and education give no cause for optimism. The figure of per capita GDP is important. There is now consensus that transitions to democracy are unlikely to succeed in countries where GDP per capita is under around $7,000 per year. This is simply because institutional development and governance in those situations is so weak, and therefore human development is constrained, that democratic choice becomes challenging to deliver.

Last week, 18 February saw a full year since democratic government was restored in Pakistan. It is ironic that this anniversary was marked by the virtual ceding of a critical region of Pakistan in one of its most volatile provinces, the North West Frontier Province, to the Taliban. It is an area where, in last year's election, the people overwhelmingly voted for the Awami National Party, which is a secular party far removed from Islamic militancy. It is testimony to the weakness of the democratic mandate that the Government of Pakistan have so easily succumbed to the terrorist threat. I use the word "terrorism" with care. It is indeed terrorism that the people of Swat have endured, with public beheadings of their friends and neighbours, and public beatings for those who do not subscribe to the antediluvian and medieval code that the Taliban impose. The deal itself is done by terrorists named by the Pakistan Government as the murderers of Benazir Bhutto.

The danger of the Talibanisation of Pakistan does not end in the NWFP. Only a few weeks ago the Financial Times reported that the mayor of Karachi, who runs Pakistan's most liberal commercial centre of 15 million people, has spoken of his fear that the Taliban are taking over and destabilising his city. Last month nearly 20 people died in gun battles between people from the NWFP and local residents of Karachi. Lest noble Lords think that these are isolated instances, they will also recall that Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group behind the Mumbai bombings, is based in the Punjab. Last year alone saw 60 terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Those who hope that the Pakistani Taliban can be contained in fractious feudal outposts need to wake up to the sad fact that terrorism is endemic throughout Pakistan, and is increasingly destabilising the already weak governance structures.

Furthermore, this region of south Asia is one where we have repeatedly heard the drums of war, even in the last decade. The stand-off between India and Pakistan over the Siachen glacier in 1999 led to a near-conflagration and has seen the longest land-mined border in the world, extending over 1,000 miles. Last December's Mumbai attacks resulted in sufficiently belligerent tones between the two countries for several Army divisions to be moved from Pakistan's western frontier, where they had been countering al-Qaeda, to its eastern border with India. The stakes in a future war with nuclear options would be disastrous not only for the region, but the world.

What are we to do? The answer mainly lies in Washington, but it impacts on us here in London, too. Several of the pointers are fairly obvious. It seems evident that our tenure in Afghanistan will be for the long term, until that country becomes a relatively stable democracy, with a Government who are capable of enforcing law and order throughout their territory and maintaining peace and security for their citizens. My view is that this cannot be a Taliban Government. It must be democratically elected, even if this might be a hybrid of local customs and institutions alongside a popular mandate. The commitment of a further 17,000 troops from the US is a welcome development and I hope that the UK will rise to the challenge of augmenting our own force numbers there. In time, it will also be necessary to revisit the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and seek a solution to the Durand line dispute. It is only when both countries take responsibility for rooting out cross-border insurgency that sustained good relations between them will become possible.

In terms of Washington's role in the region, I take the point made by several noble Lords that the Obama Administration may well find themselves preoccupied with the economic crisis, but we should be assured by the fact that some of the finest US minds have been brought to bear in the White House policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan that is currently under way. Ambassador Holbrook brings both wisdom and experience to his diplomacy in the region, while the appointment of Bruce Riedel as chair of the review is extremely good news, as he will bring his background in the CIA, the Pentagon and the National Security Council to bear on what he describes as a situation which is "dim and dismal".

While there is a recognition in the US of how dire the situation is in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I fear there is little original thinking in the Foreign Office of what we are to do or, indeed, of the urgency of the situation. At a modest level, we need to recognise that stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan is predicated on assistance with development. I share the view of several other noble Lords that the separation of DfID from the FCO has resulted in our losing strategic depth in prioritising our interests. Aid to Pakistan is now so low as to have little traction. A few months ago we were told that it was going up by £150 million a year in the 2008-11 settlement, an increase from a low base that works out at roughly £1 per year per capita for a county the size of Pakistan. We also need to improve the capability of Pakistan's military and security structures to deal with counter-insurgency. If this means providing training in arms to an army originally designed to fight a well mobilised Indian force in order that they might change their mindset to deal with insurgents and terrorists on horseback emerging from narrow alleys, then that is what we should be doing.

Finally, we need to scale up our attempts through multilateral diplomacy to find a solution to the India/Pakistan problem pace Kashmir. It is with regret that Richard Holbrook's remit was curtailed from being a regional one that included India and Kashmir to a more limited one under pressure from India which seeks to prevent internationalising the issue. It is evident to any analyst dealing with south Asia that the Pakistani mindset is still one which, wrongly, is preoccupied with India as the sole enemy and one capable of an existential threat to Pakistan. We cannot change this mindset, which is prevalent in the security services, the military and, indeed, in aspects of the media, until we recognise Kashmir as a dispute that must be solved and then engage with both partners in the region and more widely in seeking a peaceful and durable outcome.