My Lords, this topic is discussed less these days in this Chamber, yet it is of paramount importance to the country's future stability and prosperity. Today, I shall set out for the House the major effort that is under way, both in the region and from the international community, to work towards building a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan now and after 2014. In doing so, I shall reflect on how Afghanistan and its neighbours will begin to take greater ownership of their own peace, security and prosperity, supported by international partners.
Until now, debate on Afghanistan has tended to focus on the military efforts of ISAF, yet as we move towards drawdown and look beyond 2014, we must look back at history and learn from what has gone before. These lessons have and will continue to inform our decision to maintain our commitment to Afghanistan beyond 2014. Once our role in Afghanistan moves from combat to support and training, in which we are already very involved, regional relationships will be even more crucial to building a strong and independent future for Afghanistan in the heart of Asia.
At the Istanbul conference in November 2011, the Heart of Asia countries, including the central Asian states, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, affirmed their support for a stable Afghanistan. Following that conference, they stated:
"We remain convinced that a peaceful Afghanistan, with functioning institutions and strengthened security forces, is key to successful regional cooperation. We remember that the international community and the region are not separated and emphasize that we all have a stake in the security and stability of the region".
Supporting countries, including the United Kingdom, welcomed this statement. That conference launched the Istanbul Process.
I shall consider today the role of regional players in an Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process before outlining how I see the role of the region in longer-term stability and security. Finally, I shall set out for the House the role of regional and global partners in Afghanistan's economic development, helping it to become an independent, prosperous and self-sufficient state.
Before looking more closely at Afghanistan's regional relationships and the important roles that they play, I should like to put this discussion into context by setting out how the UK sees its current role in Afghanistan and how both our role and our priorities will change between now and 2015. British troops are in Afghanistan to protect our national security. We are trying to support the building not of a perfect Afghanistan, but of an Afghanistan that does not again provide a safe haven for international terrorists. That is a difficult task, and we recognise the extraordinary courage of our servicemen and women.
In December, the Prime Minister announced that the UK would reduce force levels in Afghanistan to about 5,200 by the end of 2013. The Prime Minister has also said that the UK will not have any troops in a combat role in Afghanistan after 2014, but that we will maintain a long-term partnership with Afghanistan post-2014 through trade, diplomacy and development, as well as training, mentoring and funding the Afghan security forces.
Development support will also remain crucial in the years to come. At the Tokyo conference in July last year, the UK committed to maintain its current level of development funding of £178 million per year up to 2017. In turn, the Afghan Government have committed to improvements in the rule of law, governance and human rights, including women's rights, as part of the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework.
Women's rights were a key theme of my recent visit to Afghanistan. I found women's leaders upbeat about prospects for their country. They felt that the gains made on women's rights would not be lost, but I agree that more must be done to improve the daily lives of the Afghan people, particularly women and girls. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development has made clear that tackling violence against women and girls will become a strategic priority for her Department's work in Afghanistan.
All of this demonstrates that our efforts in Afghanistan do not begin and end with military support. The international community has committed to continue its investment through to 2014 and beyond. The end of the ISAF mission next year does not mean an end to the support provided by the international community. Planning continues for the NATO-led follow-on mission that will continue to help, train and advise the Afghan security forces. The UK Government will continue to support governance and development in Afghanistan through the next decade, helping to ensure that the progress made to date is not lost.
Afghanistan and its region have a long recorded history. From the first century BC to the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the countries around Afghanistan were part of the lucrative Silk Road trade route from China to Europe. Afghanistan formed a crossroads for trade routes across the region and a hub for commerce. As well as the trade connections, the region shares a long Islamic heritage, something that I have seen as I have been lucky enough to travel in the region over the past few years. When I visited Uzbekistan in April last year, I saw the Uzbeks' Islamic heritage, visiting the great Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. I had the opportunity to discuss with my hosts their perceptions of Islamic identity and how this impacts on their sense of community, both nationally and regionally.
I have been closely involved in Pakistan since the Government were formed, both as Minister without Portfolio and now at the FCO. My dealings with Pakistanis and the Pakistani Government have been open, frank and in the spirit of friendship, and I sense a desire across political parties and others to build deeper relations with Afghanistan and an acknowledgement that stability and security in Afghanistan ultimately mean stability and security in Pakistan.
If noble Lords will permit, I will take this opportunity to mention the upcoming elections in Pakistan. They are a crucial milestone in Pakistan's democratic history. It will be the first time in decades that there will have been a democratic transfer of power between one civilian Government and another after serving a full term. The elections are a vital step on the path to a strong, stable and democratic Pakistan. The new Government, whatever their make-up, will face some real challenges in their first 100 days, including a difficult economic situation and a critical energy shortfall. The UK is committed to working closely with Pakistan on these challenges. We can share our experiences of the need for tough decisions to deliver future growth and prosperity.
It is in the interests of all political parties that the elections are credible and acceptable to the Pakistani people, so that they have a mandate to meet those serious challenges. The elections will be managed by perhaps the most independent election commission that Pakistan has ever seen. The UK is supporting the election commission of Pakistan in its preparations through a three-year programme focused on sustainable capacity building and based on international best practice. For example, we are funding the training of election staff, helping to refine the electoral dispute resolution mechanism, enabling them to update their electoral operations system and supporting their voter education strategy.
The UK, along with the international community, is lobbying for greater registration of women in the elections. In 2008 there were, sadly, some areas where no women voted. The UK is supporting a civil society network to help disadvantaged groups to register on the electoral roll. For us, it is not about who is in power; it is about a democratic process, a system functioning within its constitutional framework and building greater accountability to its people.
A stable, peaceful Afghanistan remains critical to Pakistan, a point repeated by President Zardari at the Chequers summit in February this year. On my last visit to Afghanistan earlier this month, in meetings with Foreign Minister Rassoul and head of the Joint Secretariat of the High Peace Council, Massoum Stanekzai, I discussed the progress that had been made thus far in the Afghan-led peace process. Both Rassoul and Stanekzai welcomed the UK's role in helping the Afghans and Pakistanis to work through some of the more difficult issues.
The relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan has moved in a more positive direction in the past six months than it had for quite some time before. The difficulties encountered over the past 30 years have sometimes blinded both sides to the extent of their mutual interest. Their co-operation is essential to securing long-term security in the region, and indeed for our own national security.
Given our good relationships with both countries, the United Kingdom is happy to play a part in facilitating discussions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. We recognise the importance of economic growth and the historic trade links through south Asia. It is for this reason that we believe strong trade agreements, such as the Afghanistan-Pakistan transit trade agreement, are important. Yet economic growth will be difficult in a challenging security environment.
The UK has been active in supporting greater co-operation on peace and security through the UK-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral process. This process began at the request of President Karzai and Prime Minister Ashraf last year. As a facilitating partner, we have encouraged ideas, identified areas of agreement and provided a forum for open dialogue.
We have now had three successful Prime Minister-level trilateral meetings, as well as a meeting at Foreign Minister level in December, which I attended with the Foreign Secretary and Foreign Ministers Rassoul and Rabbani Khar. At the September trilateral in the margins of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed that they would work towards a strategic partnership agreement. Both have since committed to signing such an agreement, which would pave the way to greater economic co-operation as well as co-operation on security and border management.
At the top of the agenda of the trilateral process is serious dialogue about the Afghan peace and reconciliation process. At Chequers, the three leaders made a clear public statement that they supported the opening of a Taliban political office in Doha. This sends a very clear message to the Taliban that now is the time for everyone to participate in a peaceful political process in Afghanistan.
Other regional partners are also engaged in dialogue with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Turkish and Chinese Governments hold trilateral discussions with both countries, which we welcome, and this support for an Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process is echoed around the region. During the Prime Minister's recent visit to India, our Governments agreed to establish a new joint working group for a regular bilateral dialogue on peace, security and development in Afghanistan. The joint statement included language that supports a peaceful inter-Afghan dialogue on reconciliation. However, the role of the region goes beyond just supporting an Afghan-led peace process. Looking to the future of Afghanistan beyond 2014, the region must play an even greater role in promoting regional security.
A stable Afghanistan is essential for the whole region. For the central Asian states that share her borders, it is fundamentally important. As ISAF draws down, the central Asian states will face increased security challenges. Our commitment to Afghanistan and the region will go far beyond the end of active combat. We will continue to engage constructively with the region on its security concerns. Central Asia will play an important role not only in the future stability of Afghanistan but in the safe return of our troops and equipment. We are working with the Governments of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to agree transit agreements. We recognise the importance of regional fora where issues of wider regional security can be discussed outside a context of NATO and ISAF.
One such forum is the Istanbul Process, which seeks to improve relations between Afghanistan and its neighbours through increased political dialogue and a set of voluntary confidence-building measures that countries implement at their discretion. This is a unique process. It is led by the Afghans and owned by the region. The role of supporter countries and organisations includes the sharing of expertise and technical assistance and financial contributions to support the implementation of confidence-building measures. The UK is supporting confidence-building measures on disaster management, counterterrorism, counternarcotics, regional infrastructure and trade, commerce and investment opportunities.
By working together and helping to bring unity, we will support Afghanistan and the wider region. Projects such as the TAPI gas pipeline, which would link Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and the construction of an electric power line, CASA 1000, from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan will support economic growth and co-operation alongside other processes such as the EU-Central Asia High-Level Dialogue on Security. We hope this co-operation will help with security issues in Afghanistan and facilitate greater trade and economic links throughout the region, which has such a deep shared trade history. We welcome other regional initiatives, such as the Asian Development Bank-led central Asia regional economic co-operation process, and are clear that all regional processes should seek to collaborate where possible to ensure co-operation and avoid duplication.
Beyond the political framework of the Istanbul Process, partners in the wider region and the Gulf are increasing their commitments to Afghanistan. We are working closely with India on joint efforts to promote sustainable development in Afghanistan. India has pledged $2 billion in aid to Afghanistan, making it the largest regional donor, and we are working with our Emirati partners on development co-operation in Afghanistan, including on infrastructure projects in Helmand. Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan have enjoyed a long-lasting and deep friendship, and the kingdom remains committed to supporting Afghanistan through development projects. The UAE and other Gulf partners also have generous aid programmes for Afghanistan, which is important for developing confidence in the country's future security, stability and peace.
We welcome China's deepening commitment to Afghanistan. China has pledged $23.5 million in development aid this year and has brought Afghanistan into the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation as an observer. Russia is also strengthening its activity in Afghanistan, with a focus on economic assistance and investment in infrastructure.
As we look to the future of Afghanistan, we must consider how it can prosper without international aid. Afghanistan has a wealth of natural resources, estimated to be worth $1 trillion to $3 trillion, which has the potential to transform the Afghan economy. Companies from around the region have taken a keen interest in Afghanistan's mineral wealth and have pledged to make a large investment in the extractive sector. A week ago, I met the Minister for Mines, Wahidullah Shahrani, who was in the UK for the mining, gas and oil investor forum hosted by the Prime Minister. At the forum, the Prime Minister announced the UK's continued support for the Afghan Ministry of Mines of £10 million over the next three years to help the ministry manage and monitor contracts to ensure that the benefits of Afghanistan's mineral wealth are felt by the Afghan people. We also discussed how Afghanistan can harness this wealth as it looks to develop a sustainable economy and move away from dependence on aid. Investment must lead to broad-based growth and job creation. This is a challenging task, but with the support of DfID, the Ministry of Mines is working hard to ensure that the Afghan people benefit from the huge mineral resource which is beneath their feet.
As we look to the future of Afghanistan, I have highlighted three main areas for regional co-operation: first, support for a political settlement; secondly, support for regional security; and thirdly, investment to build Afghanistan into a self-sustaining and prosperous state. Clearly the international community has a role in all three of these, and the UK will continue to work closely with Afghanistan and its neighbours. I look forward to noble Lords' insights into the role of all the countries in the region and welcome the increasing engagement of all neighbouring countries at the heart of Asia. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, who has introduced the subject with the characteristic fairness which we have come to expect of her, and with a great deal of historical learning. If I disagree with her from time to time those disagreements are largely minor and serve only to correct-as I see it-certain interpretations.
The UN-mandated military operations have been going on since 2001 and, as far as I can see, we have little to show for the past 12 years. Violence continues on all sides; rampant corruption is startling and visible. Afghanistan today is rated as 180 out of 183 countries; seven years ago, it had the honour of being 140 out of 183. There is a huge waste of resources. Money everywhere is wrongly used or used to buy people and corrupt the cultural life of the country. Violence has become a profitable industry. You only have to set up a little insurgent group and there are people who are ready to buy you or to offer you all kinds of services.
Ethnic divisions, happily, have abated a little, but they remain just as acute, and there is no stable political system. This has tended to happen despite the enormous amount of money and the enormous amount of political wisdom pouring in from all parts of the world-including from countries which cannot manage their own affairs but are very generous with advice. In spite of all that, why have we not succeeded in creating a reasonably stable political system in a small country?
I think that part of the reason is that we have been ignoring certain basic realties of Afghan life. Some 80% of it is rural, and 87% of its people earn their livelihood through agriculture-related activities. Many communities are separated by mountains and it can take days to reach them. There is an informal power structure based on ethnic, regional, tribal, clan and village loyalties. The centralised governance which the modern state presupposes and which everyone has kept recommending since the Bonn conference is simply not possible.
Afghanistan needs to evolve its own political structure and that structure cannot be imposed or propped up by outsiders. Afghanistan cannot relive somebody else's history. We discovered that very painfully in India when the Constituent Assembly was trying to draft the constitution and realised that the modern nation state is simply not an option for India, and India did not opt for it.
One of the important things to bear in mind, therefore, is to stop outside interference except for the kind of aid and advice that it might need. We need to trust the people of Afghanistan to sort out their own differences. After all, they have lived together all these years; they want to live together; they share a future; they know-as the Minister said-that they have trillions of dollars that they can make proper use of; and they have their own children whom they would like to see educated. We need to trust the people of Afghanistan to evolve a structure which is appropriate to their own history, traditions and culture. A traditional loya jirga, for example, can be a good starting point.
In all this negative publicity we tend to forget that there are some powerful civil society movements in Afghanistan. In spite of having been a student of politics, I had not been aware of them until a few weeks ago, when I was addressing an important "Festival of Ideas" in Goa. I spoke on one day, and the person who addressed the meeting the next day was Dr Siddiqui, an Afghan professor of education in the United States who decided to return to Afghanistan and to take on the Taliban on her own. She said that girls will be educated-they will be sent to schools and the schools will not be touched. She relied on persuasion, on power and on organisation, reaching out to the daughters and wives of the Taliban leaders themselves, telling them that the future was theirs if only they would go to school. Slowly and slowly, despite threats to her life, she has been able to create a fairly powerful movement. It is not surprising that she, along with many others, has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Movements of this kind exist. Society has a certain vitality, if the Taliban would only allow it to breathe-which they do not seem to be doing.
I am sorry to say that Pakistan's role, which could have been and should be useful, has not been terribly helpful. It has provided backing, safe haven and even military training to insurgent groups, including the Taliban. It is using those groups, particularly the Haqqani network, to attack Indian interests and targets in Afghanistan; for example, the Indian embassy in 2008 and 2009 and even the United States embassy in 2011. Not surprisingly, the recently retired chief of staff of the United States called the Haqqani network the "veritable arm" of Pakistan's ISI. Sadly, if you try to provoke violence of this kind, or support terrorism in other countries, it has a blowback effect on your own. The result is that the Pakistan Taliban uses Afghan territory as a safe haven and a springboard to launch attacks on Pakistani troops, which we all bitterly regret. In other words, Pakistan, by supporting insurgent movements in Afghanistan, is paying the price in terms of its own stability and the security of its own people.
This happens in international politics-there is no use in being sentimental or sanctimonious about it-but what are Pakistan's reasons? It argues that Afghanistan offers strategic depth against potential conflict with India. However, you cannot think of other countries simply in terms of conflict, and you cannot think of India simply as a country with which you are eternally condemned to fight one war or another. And even if you do, Afghanistan cannot provide strategic depth.
There is also the argument that India is using Afghans, or Afghanistan, to foment trouble in Pakistan. Again, I have seen no evidence of this-and if there is, India deserves to be condemned. So far, however, I have not seen it. I do not think that it would be in India's interests. Talking to Indian diplomats I get the feeling that it would not be in India's interests to use Afghanistan to foment trouble in Pakistan, because one Afghanistan is enough. Half a dozen Afghanistans in the heart of Pakistan would hardly be the way for India to be stable.
I think that Pakistan needs to recognise that India has a legitimate interest in Afghanistan: first, to maintain trade with central Asia and beyond; secondly, to prevent militants from attacking Indian targets in Afghanistan; and thirdly, because it has close historical and cultural ties that need to be maintained. It is very striking that India has signed an agreement that it would not use its troops or combat personnel in Afghanistan. Its activities, as the Minister rightly said, are largely developmental. It is the fifth-largest provider of development aid, giving over $1.5 billion to various projects.
I sometimes wonder whether our own Government's policy is as even-handed and transparent as it could be. On the one hand they seem suspicious and critical of what Pakistan is doing; but on the other hand they organise meetings such as the trilateral summit in February this year, where they seem to be supportive of what is going on and give the impression, certainly to Indians, that they want to keep the Indians out and that they think we can maintain peace in the region simply by establishing some kind of relationship with Pakistan and Afghanistan. That is not the way to go. I very much hope that the British Government will make it absolutely clear that, as the noble Baroness said, all the regional powers in the neighbourhood have a legitimate role in maintaining a stable Afghanistan -they all need to be involved. Bilateral or trilateral summits simply arouse Indian suspicion and are not the answer.
My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lady Warsi for introducing this debate in a thoroughly rounded and comprehensive manner, well illustrating the challenges that this subject raises.
A British Prime Minister declares that now is the time for everyone to participate in a peaceful political process in Afghanistan. One might legitimately ask whether this is the late 18th century, the 1920s, or perhaps last month at Chequers. It could easily be any of all three. That Afghanistan has the capacity to destabilise its neighbourhood is uncontested, but it is also a country that finds itself in a particularly unsavoury neighbourhood, surrounded by, in the north, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, et al, acknowledged to be some of the most authoritarian, poorly governed and dysfunctional states of the former Soviet Union. Iran, its western neighbour, has continued on its post-1979 project to be the guardian of Shia interests around the world, irrespective of the force of international law, as we have seen demonstrated in the Middle East but also in western Afghanistan itself. Here, apart from a short window of co-operation in 2002, Iran has seen its role as a spoiler, resisting US-Afghan strategic co-operation, profiting, it is alleged, from the narcotics trade, funding armed shipments and training the Taliban. That is hardly a recipe for neighbourly relations.
The most difficult relationship between Afghanistan and its neighbours is that with Pakistan, and it is primarily on that relationship that I shall focus my remarks today. There was a time of cordial relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but it was a relatively brief window and is easily forgotten: the period between the 1950s and the late 1970s, when trade was undertaken, people-to-people contact was strong, and both Kabul and Peshawar were interdependent. The intervening 35 years from then to today have resulted first in Afghanistan becoming a near failed state, and now Pakistan, mainly due to its own internal dynamics, is also deeply unstable.
While the trajectory of decline in Afghanistan from the time of the Soviet invasion is well known, it is difficult to see how we can, in the words of the Prime Minister at Chequers last month,
"see a strong relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan built on greater trust".
Let me turn to the aims of the Chequers six-month push for peace, as it is described, the principle of which is a peace and reconciliation programme. There are three fundamental issues at stake. The first is the Karzai Government's ability to attain peace with their Taliban, given that the Taliban office intended for Qatar nearly two years ago has still not arrived, although, as the noble Baroness has told us, the new initiative will be a Doha-based political office, and talks are likely to go ahead shortly. However, the history of peace initiatives with the Taliban is not likely to deliver results, particularly when the US is not actively involved-and to my mind, six months is not nearly long enough to see delivery.
If the Chequers summit had been more broadly based to include at least the United States as financial guarantor, we might have given this a greater push. But without wishing for a replication of the Bonn II meeting, which was very wide indeed, it would be illuminating to assess what discussions might have been conducted with the Saudi Government about their support for the most radical elements in the Taliban, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have been historical and, some say, ongoing.
My noble friend said that Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan have a deep and lasting friendship, but given the history of its destabilisation in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, I wonder whether players on either side would subscribe unanimously to that remark. Moreover, the role of the UAE as the principal recipient of the proceeds of corruption, as the destination of choice for Afghans depositing their ill gotten gains, is also to be scrutinised. What attempts in this six-month period are Her Majesty's Government likely to make with the United States in seeking to assess how much terrorist funding is channelled through the UAE, and what steps will be taken to curb that?
The second fundamental in bringing about peace is the role of Pakistan, which may not actively seek to destabilise Afghanistan any longer but certainly does not play as constructive a role as it might, given the shared challenges of the terrorist factions in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and their activities on both sides of the border. The role of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency's operations in Afghanistan is probably the best documented record of a deep and concerted policy of destabilisation by one state on another. This is down to Pakistan's long sought doctrine of strategic depth, discussed earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, which is based on the idea that its influence over Afghanistan-some might even say its control of Afghanistan-represents some sort of strategic depth against India. The perversity of this thinking in Pakistan is that if your attempts at control do not work, you end up with enemies on both your eastern and western flanks. I am aware that the US and the United Kingdom are hopeful that the rapprochement between Kabul and Islamabad will work this time, but I have to say I have my doubts.
I was told by an Afghan Minister only last week that the agreement from the Chequers summit that the Pakistan army would be involved in training the Afghan National Security Forces is now under threat. His explanation was that since Chequers, Islamabad has sought to exert greater pressure on Kabul for Afghan foreign policy to be somehow approved by Pakistan. This is clearly unacceptable to Kabul, and I understand that talks have now recommenced with India to see if India can fill the gap in training the ANSF. It undoubtedly can, and since it has a strategic partnership agreement with Pakistan, which gives it a formal role in guaranteeing Afghan security, it would be entirely in keeping with India's strategic goal of denying Pakistan any strategic advantage in that country. I have to say that I cannot see the extremely benign role that the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, ascribes to India. It has historically always worked to manipulate Pakistan-Afghanistan discord. If my Afghan interlocutor was correct, this is another illustration of how very challenging the task of maintaining regional security will be.
However, the final fundamental that was not addressed at Chequers was the ability and inclination of Pakistan to bring its own house in order. I refer to the various Taliban and other terrorist groups operating across the border. It has long been acknowledged that the main elements of al-Qaeda's leadership reside in Pakistan. Since the capture of Osama bin Laden, it is also widely believed that Ayman al-Zawahiri is not in the tribal areas but resides in the so-called "settled" areas of Pakistan; in other words, he lives in comfort in some city. We know that the Haqqani network continues to launch attacks and control myriad insurgency groups. Its interests in the drugs trade, arms trade, kidnappings, murders and terrorist bombings make it the most difficult of the terrorist groups with a stake in this conflict. Given that its interests are so deeply entrenched, and that it is so financially dependent on this ongoing conflict and on keeping it going, I cannot see how it will be demobilised. Its listing in the US as a terrorist organisation is long overdue, but I do not see Pakistan bringing it to any kind of negotiation. It simply does not have that in its power.
Finally, there is the influence of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the umbrella group of the various Salafi, Deobandi and Wahhabi groups, which were created by ISI initially to counter the Soviet invasion as well as the Shia threat after the Iranian revolution of 1979. They are distinct from the anti-Indian terrorist grouping so well established in Pakistan, too. The Pakistanis have discovered that while the main aim of these groups was to "repulse the invader", as it is called, be he an Indian, Iranian, Soviet or American, their ideology has now evolved.
With levels of violence in all parts of Pakistan up-by some 300% in Karachi to some 40% in Lahore-the Pakistani public justifiably ask what these groups now want. With the restoration of a civilian Government for some years, it is instructive that it is itself subject to attacks from these groups. Their aim seems to be to build a fully theocratic state within Pakistan, subscribing to their vision of a true Islam. One of their means of doing this is to form electoral pacts with the mainstream political parties in order to be able to enter the Pakistani parliament, and to wield the influence and power that that brings. As this process of Islamisation of Pakistan continues through the use of violence, and now political entryism, I cannot see much progress in a stable Pakistan emerging as a strong and constructive partner for Afghanistan.
However, in order to support Pakistan in its attempts to recalibrate its policy towards Afghanistan, I know that Her Majesty's Government seek an orderly transition to a new civilian Government in Pakistan. Indeed, my noble friend has spoken of the UK's engagement in bringing about a robust and transparent electoral process. I wonder whether she will be able to tell the House what steps we are taking to monitor the elections in Pakistan. A stable Afghanistan will be a prize that will reinvigorate the region and enhance development, trade and the overall economies of the entire region. We know that development is a factor in reducing conflict, and the absence of conflict is a precondition for freedom. Achieving that across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India would be a prize indeed.
My Lords, the Minister covered a vast area and I envy her trip to Bukhara and Samarkand. I hope that we shall all achieve that. It is a pleasure to join her in such an upbeat and constructive debate on Afghanistan because it is a country which will always depend on the strength of its links with its immediate neighbours. However, so much uncertainty may mean that what we say will be largely speculation. Having been puzzled by the wording of the debate, I nevertheless fully understand the Government's motivation for tabling it.
Are we bold enough to say that Afghanistan even has the prospect of becoming a united country? In my view, after ISAF's withdrawal, it will still require subtle partnerships not only with neighbours but with provincial warlords to achieve relative unity and ensure a reasonably stable coalition at the centre. If we have learnt one lesson in 12 years-the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, reminded us of this-it is surely that over every mountain is another form of loyalty to family, tribe and the shura, normally before that of central government. However, there will always be central government in some form, and it is the job of this debate to identify what forms of regional co-operation are going to achieve the most secure results. In the absence of ISAF, Afghanistan will have to fall even further back on the good will of its neighbours, and they are pulling it in different directions. The Istanbul Process was a good idea but perhaps too ambitious, and the key bilateral partnerships with India and Pakistan will always be restrained by the endemic rift between those two countries, although I am very glad to hear of the improvements in the links between Pakistan and Afghanistan and the transit trade agreement and the new strategic partnership agreement. They will always be helpful in achieving reconciliation.
Iran has a common language with Afghanistan. It has many close regional ties with Herat province and we may be underplaying its role in a future Afghanistan. I am never clear why our relations with Iran seem to inhibit us from making this point. It is true that our embassy and the British Council in Tehran have been badly treated, as I saw for myself when I visited Tehran, but so have they in Moscow. I know from fairly recent experience that there is a great affection for the UK among people in Tehran, and I hope the Minister would agree that there is room for discussion about development along the Iranian border, perhaps through DfID or EU funded NGOs, as I believe there has been in the past over the narcotics trade.
Security is not part of this debate but it is almost impossible to discuss regional relationships without mentioning the background of insecurity and terrorism which has frustrated so many initiatives. Most critical of all is the inability of the Afghan Karzai Government to come to terms with any of the Taliban, the Haqqani group, the Quetto groups, the ISI-created groups mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, or the cronies of the dreaded and mercurial Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, to name but a few. Indeed, the Afghan Government have been unable to identify any lasting relationship either side of the Pakistan border.
We have heard that there are a number of initiatives in international trade and development, and this is why I will today confine myself to soft diplomacy, as it is called. The Afghan Government's website states:
"Through regional cooperation, Afghanistan wishes to improve trading opportunities, integrate itself with regional railways and road networks, become an important partner in regional energy markets, and eliminate narcotics trade", and achieve millennium development goals. That is a tall order-trade, transport, energy, narcotics and MDGs. I will consider just trade and MDGs. Trade is perhaps the most important of all because it actively concerns and develops people's livelihoods. It is happening every day, bringing goods and services across all borders, despite the insecurity. Afghanistan already has bilateral agreements with Pakistan and India and its membership of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC, should be helping to build its partnership with both countries. I should be interested in the Minister's comments. The association aims to promote the welfare of the peoples of the region through accelerated economic, social and cultural development. Afghanistan joined the association in 2007. What has it to show for that?
I remember watching the reconstruction of destroyed small towns and villages outside Kabul, such as Istalif. I saw how dependent the people were on imports of, for example, roofing timber from Pakistan, and all the appalling delays in ordering and transporting it. What Afghanistan needs is more of its own timber so that development is more sustainable. Perhaps the noble Baroness can forecast what our role will be in trade promotion after 2014, especially in agricultural exports, which are the potential winners. To the north and west, there is the important international trade route through Uzbekistan used by ISAF. What is its future? We know that there is considerable local traffic across a long border with Iran. We have heard about mineral exploration and co-operation on proposed pipelines, which are promising.
The Pakistan border is in a special category because of the refugee camps in Peshawar, where many of today's decision-makers grew up and were educated in exile. This is how many of the Afghan NGOs developed, in partnership with the aid agencies. That building up of civil society has been very important, both before 2001 during the rule of the Taliban, and since. After our armed intervention, when the mist of antiterrorism had receded, development became our principal motive for public support for our intervention in that country, as we have, usually for bona fide reasons, intervened in many poor countries around the world, although not as dramatically as in Afghanistan. I was delighted to hear from the Minister that the UK intends to remain in Afghanistan through international development for another decade. That is saying a lot. In the knowledge that DfID is reducing its programme in India, I ask for a reassurance that the Government will begin now to encourage and support development and co-operation between India and Afghanistan, given that India has much experience in that field.
I will mention one important millennium development goal that affects Afghanistan-water and sanitation. About 300,000 children in south Asia die from diarrhoea every year and more than half the population of Afghanistan lacks improved water facilities, and nearly two-thirds lacks sanitation facilities. The WHO estimates-this must be repeated as often as possible-that for every $1 invested in water, sanitation or hygiene, $3 or $4 come into the national revenue. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells knows from his connection with WaterAid, the noble Lord, Lord McColl, and I are joining a parliamentary delegation to the Kathmandu valley this coming weekend to draw attention to the importance of water and sanitation in south Asia. I am beginning to do that here and now. It will be a regional event and will be joined by MPs from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere in a street march to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation headquarters.
Another objective of the campaign is to highlight the work of the high-level panel on the post-2015 millennium development goals, which is meeting in Bali this month and has to come to a decision in May. Perhaps I may send a signal to our Prime Minister that WASH-water and sanitation and hygiene-is still only a subsection of MDG 7 on sustainability and needs to be upgraded in the next round. While drinking water targets are being reached generally by 2015, the world is still well short of the targets for sanitation and hygiene. I hope that the Minister can take back that message.
Afghanistan must play an increasingly active part in these international associations. I hope that our Government will ensure, post-2014, that this continues to happen. I congratulate the noble Baroness on her personal role in this region.
My Lords, I, too, welcome this opportunity to debate the regional relationships with respect to Afghanistan. I have noted with interest the remarks of the Minister following her recent visit to the area and the range of her talks on transition, elections and women's rights. These, together with steps towards peacemaking in the region, are subjects in which many of us within the church and wider society in Britain have an interest and concern.
Chief among these concerns is the issue of conflict resolution and peacemaking. Like other noble Lords, I do not underestimate the difficulties involved in achieving some kind of regional security. I draw your Lordships' attention to the words of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who recently blogged that,
"the journey of transforming conflict is a long and hard one", adding,
"by the way that is how I understand reconciliation in the church: not as agreement, but conflict transformed from being destructive".
As we look at the situation in Afghanistan and the region in which it resides, the question that we need to face more than any other is one which enables conflict to be transformed from being destructive, in order to move to a place where reconciliation can take place. There is little doubt that this conflict has been destructive and that there is a need for transformative action-not least because the commitment, sacrifice and welfare needs of serving personnel and veterans demand it, and because there is a need to acknowledge and address Britain's weariness with a decade-long conflict that has eclipsed the wider debate on our moral and political responsibilities towards a post-2014 Afghanistan.
As other noble Lords have remarked, the need for an inclusive peace process in Afghanistan, and between Afghanistan and the wider region, with appropriate confidence-building measures to achieve this, is paramount. Key to any process is the moral imperative of justice after war. Such consideration includes not just moral or ethical issues over the process of ending war, but the moral considerations that govern post-war relationships between the victorious and the defeated.
In parentheses, reports in last Sunday's newspapers, most notably the Sunday Telegraph, on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq conflict, revealed some of the concerns by senior military and diplomatic personnel on the lack then of preparedness and planning for after the end of that conflict. Since withdrawal in 2011, the disintegration into sectarian paralysis is alarming and should serve as a warning to the management of any post-withdrawal programme in Afghanistan. It is to be hoped that we have lessons to learn here.
The key to any peace process is the conduct of operations in Afghanistan and in the border region with Pakistan, and this must include the use of drones and the treatment of prisoners, as well as the need for dialogue with the armed opposition-notably, authorised representatives of the Taliban. I note with gratitude both the statement of the Foreign Secretary in January and remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, on the difficulties of achieving this, but the opening of a Taliban office is an integral and important step forward in the Afghan peace and reconciliation effort.
Much of what is currently proposed in terms of peace and reconciliation is a top-down approach, particularly in relation to Pakistan. In and of itself, that should not be underestimated. However, as has already been pointed out, there are considerable regional implications that go beyond a bilateral peace process, many of which are historical. I note with gratitude that any peace process in which we are endeavouring to engage at present looks to the wider communities-India, Saudi Arabia and China among them-but, equally, that the historic involvement of Iran, which to a lesser degree is supporting insurgency, cannot be overlooked. Indeed, the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, each presenting slightly different aspects of the question of Iran, lead me to conclude that, although it may be very optimistic to propose it, the inclusion of Iran in any wider Afghan peace process could also prise open the door a little to the much needed regional peace process in the Middle East. This is not a conflict, or series of conflicts, that stands on its own.
I welcome the Minister's remarks concerning the considerable mineral wealth of Afghanistan and its potential for the future well-being and financing of that country. It would be good if that happened, and we should not allow a situation to occur as it did in Congo, where a great deal of the mineral and other wealth was bought up, leaving the country poor and benefiting only the investors. Whatever the detail, Afghanistan will not be at peace until all the Governments in the region see a common interest in peacemaking.
I remarked a moment or two ago that a top-down approach, while positive, has its limitations. I have indicated that common interest in Afghanistan's potential for peace requires a broad coalition of actors of varying merit. In any peace process it is also important to keep close to the ground and to see the potential in locally promoted initiatives, in the work of international aid and development organisations, and in the role and place of women. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, remarked earlier on the value of the local community at the rural level, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, spoke about the place of aid and of civil society organisations. These always play a fundamental part in the creation of any significant peace process being worked out on the ground.
In her remarks upon her return, the Minister observed the difficulties that women have faced because of the deeply conservative culture in parts of their country. She also reflected that over the past 10 years there has been a determination to protect women's rights and to ensure, as in any peace process, that gains made in the past 10 years are not lost. I welcome her assurances on this. However, I also recall Amnesty International's campaign, launched ahead of International Women's Day, calling on the United Kingdom Government to "significantly improve" their work in support of Afghan women's rights and in combating violence against women and girls in that country.
Although Her Majesty's Government have expressed themselves to be a "staunch supporter" of Afghan women's rights, little of their recent work in Afghanistan has focused specifically on those rights. Of the 100 reconstruction and development projects in Afghanistan supported by DfID, only two have specifically addressed women's rights, and both were completed in 2010. Any peace process that ignores the fundamental human rights of women and girls will be a scandal.
In conclusion, the transformation of conflict is a priority for Afghanistan and its regional partners. This long, frequently bitter and costly conflict must end both positively and hopefully. Lessons to be learnt from the Iraq theatre provide us with the potential to make, in time, a "good peace". To be successful, the views and perspectives of the other actors-India, Iran, Russia and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and China-are essential. However, above all, if war is believed to have been "just" to any degree, then the establishment of just peace is its corollary. Only if that is demonstrated can the cost of all the human lives lost in any way be mitigated.
My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to my noble friend for securing this debate and for the way she introduced it. She is a real breath of fresh air in an area which is often dominated by impenetrable foreign policy elites who have their own private conservations and reach their own conclusions, which sometimes bewilder us. Some of those elites were telling us 13 years ago that the invasion in 2001 would deal swiftly with the enemy. We then put in place the groundwork for the presidential election in 2004 and many people were suddenly telling us that the Taliban would be exposed, that we would have human rights and democracy, and that effectively we would have a country such as Denmark. However, we do not have that. That fact that 10 years later we are still wrestling with these impossible challenges is something that ought to humble us. That is very much the theme of my contribution today. I want to make the argument that essential to the success of the push for peace is truth and honesty about our roles on all sides. That then leads to humility and respect, and from that we can start to build trust. That is the foundation on which relations must be built.
Let us deal, first, with some harsh realities. These are very difficult statements to hear. My honourable friend in another place, Rory Stewart, who understands this region very well, wrote an article in the Financial Times in September last year saying that it was time to be honest about Afghanistan. He said:
"The gap between the language of policy makers and the reality is typical. It is time to be honest about Afghanistan: we face a desperate situation and an intolerable choice".
"They have tried 'ink-spots' and 'development zones'; counterinsurgency and nation-building; partnering and mentoring; military surges, civilian surges and reconciliation. Generals and ministers called 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 'decisive' years in Afghanistan. None was. None will be".
That is pretty stark as a statement. Those who regard themselves as being privileged to live in this country recognise the honourable service and sacrifice of our British forces, 440 of whom have lost their lives and thousands of whom have been injured. However, I do not think that we honour their sacrifice by somehow dismissing the mistakes that have been made and the problems that exist. We honour their sacrifice by being honest and true and by expressing our determination that these efforts will succeed.
I want to point to where we can learn from our experience in Northern Ireland and talk about the elements that are important if there is to be a lasting peace. I very much welcome the push for peace announced by the parties at the Chequers summit on
As preparations get under way for the Kabul follow-up conference next month, consideration must be given to that. I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on the role that the Taliban will play and whether, as some evidence suggests, it will lead to other very important parties, particularly from Pakistan, saying that they will not attend because the Taliban will not be present. We need to face up to that point. The second point, which has been very well covered by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, is that whatever the solution, it cannot be imposed but must evolve and come from local people; it must be their solution, not ours. I made a note of the excellent line that Afghanistan cannot relive someone else's history. That is very profound and true, and we need the centrality of Afghanistan having its own solutions.
We also know from our experience in Northern Ireland that the economy is critical to any success. We know that poverty and economic deterioration are challenges, whether in Northern Ireland or Afghanistan. That causes concern. I was reading a report from Oxford Analytica, which said:
"As NATO withdraws the economy will contract".
Why will it contract? It stated that it is because,
"90% of the Afghan budget comes from foreign donors and 97% of the total economy is linked to the NATO presence and foreign aid", with the other 3% coming from opium production. That is not quite the basis for a long-term sustainable economy, so the economy is critical.
I come to my final point on the absolute rejection of violence as a means of achieving an end. Some will say, "That is completely unreasonable; you can't say that in Afghanistan. Don't you understand what is going on?". We understood very well what was going on in Northern Ireland, yet it was only when it was laid down in the Good Friday declaration that all the parties affirmed their,
"total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues", that progress began to be made. There needs to be an absolute rejection of violence by all parties around the table. But, of course, that means some tough points for us. I was disturbed to read that less than a week after the Chequers summit, which held out that positive hope of the push for peace, that NATO's ISAF forces were called in to launch an air strike in a village in eastern Afghanistan where there were believed to be Taliban fighters. There were, but as well as the homes destroyed, 10 women and children were killed, and tens more were injured. That led to some forthright words from President Kazai; "How could they ask foreigners to send in planes and bomb our own houses?". It is a problem. If there is to be lasting peace, there must also be restraint in these crucial days and months.
Such incidents undermine the push for peace, however well intentioned they are. We must exercise restraint in the conduct of violence. These people are not statistics; they are not collateral damage. They are real people going about their daily work in their own country and we need to recognise that. It is difficult but it is possible, but it will come about only if all the parties join together and renounce the use of violence. All the parties must acknowledge their mistakes and together express their desire to seek a justice system, a way of resolving disputes without violence and the prosperity of the people of Afghanistan. We all wish them well in that.
My Lords, it has been helpful to have this debate today, and I appreciate that the Minister has provided us with the opportunity to do so. I share the view expressed, and appreciate her contribution to the work that is being done in the region. I express the same appreciation for other Members of your Lordships' House for the work that they have done as well. Irrespective of agreement or nuances of disagreement that may emerge today, the opportunity for a review at this moment is very welcome. Sometimes detailed discussion and analysis on Afghanistan seem to vanish from the agenda altogether. I think that, given our national commitment to resolving some of the problems of Afghanistan, it is hard to understand that, but it does happen.
First things first. We debate Afghanistan and its region against the background of the combat engagement of our forces. Their courage and heroism deserve both our unstinting praise and the reflection that they are and remain the very best of our nation. They protect, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said, our security interests. That is why they are there. But they are not the only heroes in the story, although, of course, they are placed at the greatest possible risk. Our embassy staff do a remarkable job. The aid workers also do a remarkable job and fill me with pride about the United Kingdom at its best. The same goes for the unsung members of our intelligence services. It is no criticism of any of them at all-none in the slightest-to try to draw up a balance sheet and ask: what are the key issues now? How are they being prosecuted? What has gone right and what has not, and what should we do now?
I want to look at these questions to assess how we stand in the region. I do so, and know how true this is, without the exceptional background resources and latest intelligence appraisals that are always available to Ministers on these occasions. Noble Lords may have to allow for any imprecision or gaps in knowledge on my part. Also, I cannot assess anything other than the work we are doing with our allies. We are not doing this on our own, and the impact of the alliances through NATO and especially the United States establishes particular conditions in which we conduct much of our work, not least in our relationship with Kabul.
My noble friend Lord Parekh was relatively optimistic about some aspects and less so about others. I am not generally speaking a pessimist, but on this occasion I am slightly on the side of pessimism. I wonder whether what we have heard today from the Government really speaks to the full scale of the challenges. That does seem to be an issue. The word "welcome" has been used a number of times, but can we really see in the category of successes an outstanding list of things that we would genuinely welcome as signs of success?
The United Kingdom and the United States are about a year away from a substantial diminution of their military presence in Afghanistan, while others have already left or lowered their numbers. Although we are committed to the longer term training and mentoring programmes we will not, as the Minister has said, be in the combat roles. Wisely, or more likely perhaps not entirely wisely, we have given our enemies considerable notice, allowing them to repurpose their strategic resources and programmes in the country. It seems all but certain that, whatever the real gains that have been made, Afghanistan will none the less be left with a precarious security problem. As the noble Lord, Lord Bates, said a moment ago, there is likely to be a significant economic downturn, along with political and social institutions in which many Afghans have very little confidence. They believe that, on some grounds, the institutions lack legitimacy. I am not clear on the extent of the risk of civil war being led by disparate warlords, but I suppose that any assessment must say that it is likely. Indeed, there could be a general internal conflict. In such circumstances it is not clear how we, the United States, the wider community or the neighbouring community will prosecute key interests and what options would really be open to us.
The helpful House of Lords Library brief-I congratulate the staff on it-illustrates each of these points. It counterposes the official narrative on security improvements, which is partly justified but not universally accepted as being the most accurate account there could be, with a bleak disbelief about the quality of the emerging Afghan forces. I am bound to say that while we should not gravitate towards any kind of complete pessimism, some recent media, including TV coverage, suggest frightening levels of military incompetence on the part of some of those forces. That is along with the abuse of women and small boys by members of the forces, some of whom appear to have serious drug problems as they prosecute the business of military involvement and command.
The Library brief shows what any economist would regard as an economy that is growing now but that is beyond fragility in the middle term. That is illustrated not simply by the aid requirements. As matters stand, the reliance on different agricultural products at the levels illustrated by my noble friend Lord Parekh leaves little scope for externally tradable goods, except arguably for heroin, and even the internal distribution of agricultural products is inadequate. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, also talked about the complexity of the politics that lie in the background to all this, and I share his view. The remoteness of political institutions that are far from the reach of many Afghans, the persistent corruption that puts Afghanistan in the bronze medal position in international tables for corruption, and the weakness of the rule of law suggest fertile ground for all kinds of groups to return, not least the Taliban, whether a negotiation moderates its position or not. Drawdown is likely to make the role of institution-building a regional target, but it is hard to see how realistically that is to be achieved. I do not want to be hopeless about the situation, but I do want to understand what we need in order to do it properly.
However, it has to be said that there are things on the positive side, although I have to say that I find it impossible to agree with the Prime Minister's somewhat effervescent belief that so many things are approaching the sunny uplands. I regret that that is a worrying and somewhat shallow view, because I can see no evidence that everything is going well. It is clear that Afghanistan is marginally safer today. There are fewer civilian casualties and many of them are the victims of the Taliban. The national solidarity programmes have embedded significant aid progress and processes, of which many are cost-efficient and popular. However, the reality is that they have barely marginalised corrupt local officials. Thousands of schools and major irrigation projects have been built, and in this regard I accept the analysis of the international community that President Karzai has performed in a competent way. However, after the drawdown, it is not clear how the incoming forces will occupy the space. My assessment, for what it is worth, is that it is not likely that the Taliban will occupy it or become the hosts of al-Qaeda again in a straightforward way, but that does not mean that other warlords and factional regional groups will not move in. Indeed, cross-border factions are important in this regard.
GDP in Afghanistan has grown but, as we have heard, it is vulnerable to any dip in aid and to the structural features of the economy itself. However, growth there has been-a tenfold growth in 10 years-while life expectancy has gone up by 18 years over the same decade. A great deal has gone right, but as the noble Lord, Lord Bates, was saying, a great many things still look like extremely big challenges. Like my noble friend Lord Parekh, I doubt that we understand the country or the region adequately. Given the frailties, as we pull out it is quite possible that we will abandon all our security interests in that part of south Asia as a whole, not just in Afghanistan. Progress has been made on the status of women and girls, some of it in pursuit of UNSCR 1325 on women, peace and security, which emphasises the healthier prospects for peace in a nation when women are enabled to participate and play an active role. Has the Prime Minister raised this in the trilateral discussions in order to ensure that it is a process that is capable of being continued?
After drawdown, there is a sharp risk that any advances could be thrown into reverse. Gains in schools have been made, but they are not easily sustained either in Afghanistan or in other parts of the region. When we consider the impact of the region on Afghanistan, we necessarily focus on Pakistan. Here, I welcome the work on Pakistan of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, which has been refreshing in exactly the way many noble Lords have described. However, it should be acknowledged that the problems of dealing with terrorism in the region are complicated. I recognise fully and acknowledge the sacrifices that have been made by Pakistan in combating terrorism, but it is vital to the United Kingdom that Pakistan should none the less change to a greater extent. Parts of it cannot be allowed to remain like a failed state, much less a failed nuclear state, but can those changes be accomplished? It is hard to see real consistency in our approach to this question. We provide military and financial support to a country that also appears to shelter insurgency in difficult parts of its terrain. Of course, it bravely fights any insurgency that is directed at itself, but the hot/cold relationship with Afghanistan leaves a feeling that there is still complicity with some terrorism in Afghanistan.
Any aid to the Haqqani faction, which I can regard only as a major crime family, would be a disgraceful development. The United Nations should list it as a terrorist organisation. Its only realistic role is to destabilise Indian interests at the behest of what I suspect are some factions inside the intelligence community in Pakistan. A proxy war between the subcontinent's nuclear powers is a dangerous proposition.
We may very well have to work doubly hard to ensure that relationships between all the countries in the region are more successful. I wonder whether we really have developed a comprehensive political strategy and whether we have not relied too much on military force. I still fear that that may be the case. My right honourable friend the shadow Foreign Secretary has consistently advocated stepping up the political strategy, and before each of the major conferences that we have heard mentioned today-Tokyo, Istanbul and Chicago-has asked, as I do today, precisely what our political contribution is and whether we are failing to debate it often enough in our own Parliament. We have learnt a good deal from the Minister today, but the question still has to be asked. In addition, how, in the context of that question, can we ensure that the Pashtuns do not get consistently marginalised in some of the major discussions? That is a regional question.
I conclude with a few quick thoughts, but first by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, who gave a tremendous analytical overview. I shall not, noble Lords will be relieved to know, try to repeat the points that she made. She gave us a realistic assessment of the characteristics of regional neighbours, the problems of a time limit of six months to make major steps and the questions about Pakistan's willingness to create strategic stability. As we withdraw, in an orderly fashion, we must not step ahead of Afghanistan's real capacities or in ignorance of the current levels of corruption and incompetence. We should accept that it would be wilfully naive to believe that the ANSF has avoided some of the systematic corruption that has appeared in almost all other institutions. This was widely understood at the Chicago conference, even if it is thought disobliging on occasions to mention it.
We need to continue to provide security assistance and work to avoid threatened divisions within the Afghan National Army itself. What can our role be there? We need to put emphasis on good governance and do it on a par with security, encouraging political reform. We should not accept that this should always go to the back burner because of the latest political or military exigency. This also means being very choosy about which of the warlords and power brokers in Afghanistan we cosy up to when we try to judge the consequences. How will we approach that? We should ensure that any negotiations with the Taliban are part of a broader process-the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells was essentially driving at the same point, not least in welcoming the establishment of the office in Doha-and cover all aspects of the rule of law and the rights of women.
We need to try to keep the broader regional discussions inclusive and make sure as far as we can that we influence them to ensure that India is not excluded, that China engages and continues to engage to a greater extent, and that the complexity of the "-stans" is grasped; while ensuring that Iran, rather than having more influence, has as little influence as we can succeed in achieving, including among the Persian-speakers in Afghanistan. In all this, we need to get our tone right. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, will take this in the spirit that I intend it, but I always welcome the very measured way in which the Minister deals with these things; there is nothing gushing or rose tinted in enthusiasm about untested capabilities among Afghanistan's forces or its leaders, the foot soldiers or the operational skills. However, we cannot in other places, particularly in the leadership of the Government, sound as though we are enthusiastic schoolboys, somewhat lacking gravitas as we make a realistic assessment of what is going on. That is not how I believe people will take us seriously.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. It is important that we continue to consider Afghanistan's long-term future. I start by mentioning Jan and Wodood, the two boys whom my noble friend Lord Bates referred to. I am sure that everybody in this House would wish to acknowledge the comments made by my noble friend and pass our condolences to the families of those two boys and the families of so many; both of our service men and women and of the innocent lives that have been lost over the years of violence in Afghanistan. We owe it to our service men and women and to the innocent civilians to stand and take stock. For me, it was very personal when I sat in the helicopter during one of the transfers down to Lashkar Gah. It was one of the troop movement moments, when you sit there with young men and women kitted out and ready to go into battle and the enormity of what they do on a day-to-day basis hits you. You are there simply to visit and to speak, but they are there to carry on on the front line. Our thoughts should be consistently with them.
The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, raised some very important points. As the Minister who is responsible for Afghanistan, Pakistan and central Asia, I am particularly focused on how the region can play an influencing and shaping role as to the future stability within Afghanistan. The noble Lord, quite rightly, raises challenges. Do we absolutely understand what the climate would look like as we draw down our troops? Are the security services there ready? I can tell him from my own experience of what I have seen that, of course, it is not a perfect service, but more and more we find the Afghan security forces taking over the security of their communities and doing it more and more in a professional way.
Has progress been made on women? It is one of the issues that I constantly bring to the table, whether in trilateral or bilateral discussions, or indeed in discussions with civil society. Too many gains have been made for us to lose them. As women in Afghanistan say to me regularly, there is no way that we can go back to the way things were in 2001. Simple statistics show that it cannot go back to that: 40% of children are in primary school, and a quarter of teachers and a quarter of parliamentarians are now female. As one lady put it to me, in the practical way that women do, "We now have mobile phones, there is no way they can stop us speaking to each other". Technology has developed in ways that mean, thankfully, that we can never go back to that dark period in Afghanistan's history. As I have said, too many sacrifices have been made for us to allow these gains to slip.
I absolutely take the point made by my noble friend Lord Bates about truth and honesty. My views on what we intended to achieve when we first went into Afghanistan are on record: I had real concerns about what we could achieve and how that matched up to the rhetoric that, unfortunately, we heard from Governments across the world at that time. It is important, especially because of the sacrifices that we have made, to be honest with the British public about what a future Afghanistan will look like. That is why I consistently ensure that our language is honest, frank and tempered, and not gushing and enthusiastic. It is of course right to praise the progress that has been made in Afghanistan and it is important to do so to allow the Afghan people to build the confidence that they need to be able to deal with the situation as we leave. However, it is also important to be realistic about what has been achieved. There have been real achievements if you go back to 2001, and we can all be sure that Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for terrorists who can be trained and then attack us on our soil. It is also important for us to say that we can realistically continue this relationship with Afghanistan. There are many countries in the world in which we face challenging circumstances but that does not prevent our having a strong bilateral relationship, including on aid and trade, which allows us to continue to engage in strategic bilateral dialogue as the basis of that.
My noble friend Lord Bates specifically spoke about the ulema conference. The trilateral process is important. Noble Lords have raised the question of whether other people should be part of that trilateral process, but the reason why that process is effective is that we have strong relations with Pakistan and with Afghanistan, many of those based on long and strong historical ties. We have acted as what would be seen as an annoying friend, to make sure that we allowed the right space to be created for them to have these strong bilateral discussions. The ulema conference, which was specifically discussed at the Chequers trilateral earlier this year, has had some difficulties.
Noble Lords may be aware that a member of the Pakistani group that was discussing the ulema conference, Allama Tahir Ashrafi, made some comments that were completely unacceptable and nearly threw things off course. My discussions with Foreign Minister Rassoul last week when I was in Afghanistan-or the week before; I have lost track of the timeframe-and subsequent discussions between the Prime Minister and President Zardari and President Karzai are moving things back in the right direction. If the ulema conference can be achieved, it will be a hugely important moment. That is why the stakes are so high: if a very clear message goes out that the use of violence cannot be justified in Islam, it will take away some of the moral justification that the Taliban sometimes use for their violence.
The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, pointed out that we must do this the Afghan way. Of course we must do this the Afghan way, and that is why the peace and reconciliation process has been Afghan-led. There are some good examples of local decision-making, including the Loya Jirgah, which allows Afghans to make decisions that are consistent with their own cultural heritage. But we must also be prepared to challenge the Afghan way when it leads to decision-making such as that in relation to the age that young girls can be married off. We must also be prepared to challenge some of the ultra-conservative views that are not consistent with the obligations that Afghanistan has signed up to in international agreements.
There has been much discussion of the role of Pakistan. My noble friend Lady Falkner, among others, raised this issue. Let us not forget that during this conflict 2 million refugees have spent time-indeed, many have been born and raised-in Pakistan. When you speak to the Pakistani public or the Afghan public, they will regularly say, "We are brothers. We have so much in common". The challenge is whether you can translate that into the mindset of the decision-makers. It is important for us to support that people-to-people contact but also to be quite robust about the fact that Pakistan's future stability and security are absolutely dependent upon Afghanistan's future stability and security. The two are absolutely interlinked, and noble Lords made important points about how Pakistan itself has suffered the consequences of many of these groups that were initially being used and trained in Afghanistan.
With regard to the role of Saudi support, I can tell my noble friend Lady Falkner that in October 2008 Saudi officials met with visiting Taliban as part of a delegation to Mecca. The Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, reported at the time that future Saudi involvement in peace talks would be conditional on Afghan parties laying down their arms and entering the political mainstream. Of course, there will always be those on the fringe who have a slightly different view but I assure my noble friend that the Saudi Government are playing a positive role.
The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and my noble friend Lady Falkner also asked whether Pakistan would be an obstacle to reconciliation. As I said, it is clear that stability and security in Afghanistan are in Pakistan's interests as well. My recent visit to Pakistan was predominantly to discuss the Pakistani elections, which my noble friend referred to, but I also had the opportunity to discuss with at least seven of the main political parties in Pakistan their views on Afghanistan. There has been a shift in Pakistan and it is interesting that there is political consensus on the importance of good relations with Afghanistan; there is also a power consensus. We all know that there are many levers of power in Pakistan, and the Chequers summit was important because we had the army, the ISI and the politicians around the table. When you get that unanimity of commitment, things will be able to move forward in a much more productive way.
A question was raised about the monitoring of the Pakistani elections. We are supporting the EU in its monitoring mission. Where necessary, we are negotiating on its behalf with the Pakistani authorities and providing UK monitors for the team. We have also been discussing with the Commonwealth Secretariat whether the Commonwealth will also send a mission. Pakistan may well go into a having caretaker Government as early as this weekend and it is essential that those elections are free and fair.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked about Iran and Afghanistan. The UK would like to see Iran living in peace and co-operation with its neighbours. An Iran that chooses co-operation rather than confrontation could play a role in international affairs that would be in line with the culture and history of the region. As neighbours, Afghanistan and Iran share a similar culture, language and history but tragically they also share similar problems, such as drug-smuggling and refugee flows, and it is important that they play a constructive role. We recognise the development of the Chabahar port in Iran, which could be important for Afghanistan's development, but we are also clear that any investment should not contravene the sanctions on Iran.
The noble Earl also raised the issue of SAARC. He will be aware that Afghanistan joined the association in 2007. The UK is not a member of SAARC but an FCO Minister attended the SAARC summit for the first time in October 2011 as a special invitee. SAARC is supporting several of the Heart of Asia confidence-building measures that I mentioned earlier. The UK sees SAARC as an important factor for stability in the region and welcomes its co-ordinated work with other regional bodies on Afghanistan. The UK values the role that SAARC plays in bringing member states together to tackle issues of concern and to share ideas and experience.
I agree with the noble Earl that regional economic integration is a key part of promoting growth and reducing poverty in south Asia. We are already working with the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other multilaterals to support the removal of barriers to greater regional trade and investment in south Asia.
The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, raised the issue of India. As I said in my opening remarks, the joint working group is a way of achieving that India, too, plays its role in terms of regional stability.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, also raised the issue of a transit route through Uzbekistan. The UK and Uzbekistan have a shared interest in the stability of Afghanistan and the region. As Afghanistan's key northern neighbour, Uzbekistan has the potential to play a positive role and we welcome its constructive role, including building a railway to Mazar e-Sharif and supplying much needed electricity to Kabul.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells talked about the importance of this not being just a top-down approach, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. As I have already mentioned, in Pakistan there is cross-party support and much people-to-people support. The different power levers within Pakistan are also, I hope, all pulling in the right direction. Much work has been done on the ground in Afghanistan in bringing ex-Taliban fighters into the system and having a process of reform and reconciliation for them. He will also agree that it is clear statements from the top that will drive real progress.
The right reverend Prelate spoke about the rights of women. I think I have already made clear that this is something that I am deeply committed to and passionate about. The sacrifices that we have made have to be worth something, including the rights of some of the most vulnerable in Afghanistan-the women. Our work with Afghanistan and Pakistan on the trilateral process is and will continue to remain at the top of our political agenda. Our support will remain as long as both countries welcome it. We are committed to the Istanbul Process and stand ready to offer support to the confidence-building measures, and indeed any other process where we can play a positive role.
This will be a difficult road. Many of us from all sides of the House raised these concerns right at the outset and continue to say that these will not be easy decisions. We must ensure that we maintain the confidence of the Afghan people and make it clear to them that as combat troops withdraw, our relationship will enter a new phase. The way I have put it is that a chapter in the book will close but the book has not come to an end; many chapters in our relationship with Afghanistan are still to come.
The mineral resource, which has been spoken about, is one of the opportunities that will help and support Afghanistan as it enters a new era. Another will be the vibrancy of its people, particularly its youth. I had the privilege of meeting a group called Afghanistan 1400-1400 based on the Persian calendar. Looking beyond the 2014 elections to what Afghanistan could look like, many of these young people were educated overseas and have chosen to return to Afghanistan. We hear much about people leaving Afghanistan but these young people have chosen to return. I can sum it up in the words of one of the young people, who said, "It is our country. We need to fight for it and we need to fight for its progress". We must ensure that we continue to stand by them.