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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development in another place. The Statement is as follows.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to update the House on Afghanistan. First, I should like to pay tribute to the six service personnel who have died serving their country in Afghanistan since the last statement on Afghanistan was delivered to the House by the Defence Secretary on
These deaths are a timely reminder that our troops continue to risk their lives in Afghanistan every single day. Their legacy is realised in the fact that Afghanistan is now neither a safe haven nor a launch pad for terrorists who seek to destroy our way of life. The tens of thousands of Afghan security forces who they helped to mentor and who are now securing the country’s future are a testament to that. The sacrifice of our servicemen and women will never be forgotten.
I should also like to reiterate my deepest sympathies for those affected by the tragic landslide in Badakhshan province. Relief efforts are under way to help the more than 4,000 people displaced. The UK is closely monitoring the situation and stands ready to provide further assistance. Our recent £10 million contribution to the UN’s Common Humanitarian Fund will ensure that additional relief supplies can be delivered as required.
While the scale of the challenge cannot be underestimated, we are seeing some extraordinary progress in Afghanistan. Last month, Afghans took part in provincial and presidential elections. These elections were organised by Afghans, run by Afghans and security was provided by Afghans. The latest estimates from the preliminary results on voter turnout show that nearly 7 million people voted, 36% of whom were women. This is particularly impressive given Taliban threats of violence across the country. With very little support from ISAF, the Afghan security forces secured the vast majority of polling centres across the country and helped prevent any high profile attacks from occurring. Their professionalism and bravery were evident throughout, and their confidence has been boosted by this operational success.
A constitutional transfer of power from President Karzai to his successor will be a milestone for the Afghan people. Until 10 years ago, Afghans had never had the right to choose their leader. Now they are getting a choice and the UK Government are supporting that democratic process. We continue to support Afghan institutions in making sure that the elections are credible, inclusive and transparent. DfID is providing £20 million to the UN’s ELECT II programme, which ran a voter registration top-up exercise in Afghanistan. This has led to more than 3.8 million new registered voters, more than one-third of whom are women. ELECT II also trained almost 7,000 election commission officials, more than 2,000 of whom are women. That includes gender officers for each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Women’s political participation has been a priority for the UK Government in the past year, and it was impressive to see so many women exercise their democratic rights as voters. Although there were no female presidential candidates, it is a sign of how much Afghanistan has changed that three women stood as second vice-president on presidential tickets, and 297 women contested provincial council elections. The Government’s support for women voters and candidates—through the UN and through DfID’s own programmes—will continue through to the parliamentary elections in Afghanistan in 2015.
We have made clear that our commitment to Afghanistan extends beyond the time that UK combat forces have returned home. The UK has committed to its current level of development funding until at least 2017. However, in order for us to continue our co-operation with Afghanistan for the long term, it is important that the bilateral security agreement and the NATO status of forces agreement are agreed as quickly as possible, and we will expect to see clear progress and further reforms from the new Afghan president and his Government.
Afghanistan’s economy remains fragile and vulnerable to shocks. Although economic growth and tax revenues have increased substantially over the past decade, uncertainty ahead of the elections, alongside the impact of the drawdown of international forces, have led to an economic slowdown in recent months. DfID’s continued support to Afghanistan’s economic growth and private sector development in the years ahead will seek to remove barriers to investment, particularly in the agriculture and extractives sectors, and create economic opportunities for women. The UK will also continue to support greater regional economic integration through infrastructure development and trade.
We hope that the new president will prioritise increasing domestic revenue collection and strengthening the economy, including passing key economic legislation. That is the best way to ensure that the country’s long-term future is not reliant on aid from other countries. At an early stage, the UK will be encouraging the new Government to take further steps on reforms that the international community wants to see, including tackling corruption and ensuring that gains made on women’s rights are strengthened. Some of the bravest Afghans I have met have been women’s rights defenders. These people risk their lives daily, fighting for rights that men and women take for granted in this country. The UK Government will continue to support their efforts to secure a better future for Afghan women and girls.
We cannot do that alone and Afghanistan’s future depends on many international actors playing their parts alongside the work that Afghans are doing themselves to secure their country’s future. Afghanistan will inevitably be a key feature of the NATO summit, which will take place at the Celtic Manor in Wales in early September. Plans and preparations are well under way to deliver that important NATO event, and the UK Government will co-chair a development conference on Afghanistan in the months after the new Afghan Government are formed. This will be a timely opportunity to focus both Afghan and international attention on the long-term economic, social and political challenges that Afghanistan must address.
The turnout for last month’s election shows the will and determination of the Afghan people to secure a brighter future, but they need our support. By continuing our essential development work by working together, we can create a stable country where Afghan children have opportunities that were denied to their parents. That will be a fitting and lasting legacy to the service of our troops, both those who are now returning to their families, and those who, tragically, do not”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Secretary of State’s Statement. Last week, we paid tribute to the service personnel whose tragic deaths in Afghanistan were reported to the House. As we approach the close of a 13-year operation, there will be time to reflect on what has been achieved—but regardless of those discussions, no one can doubt the courage, care and sacrifice of the men and women who served and continue to serve our country in Afghanistan. The burden on their families, too, is something that few of us can imagine. Just this week, we had a stark reminder that the pain of war is not only physical but, increasingly, can be an initially invisible injury to mental health.
DfID works in some of the most dangerous and demanding places in the world, and Afghanistan presents a unique challenge. For more than 30 years, the Afghan people have seen their communities blighted by conflict and violence. Half the population is in need of development assistance and a third of the population is food insecure. The Opposition’s approach on aid in Afghanistan is to support and scrutinise, so I will ask the Minister about four specifics.
First, in March this year the Independent Commission for Aid Impact reported on DfID’s bilateral support for growth and livelihoods in Afghanistan. The report raised serious doubts about the long-term sustainability of progress made, weaknesses in design and a lack of consultation and strategic coherence. What steps have been taken to improve the department’s programmes in the light of these revelations?
The report also found that none of the programmes assessed had made any plans for drawdown. Can the Minister assure the House that preparations are now well under way in all DfID projects for the impact of this year’s drawdown? The report made three main recommendations: a six-month review of current and future projects; the implementation of an enhanced system of consultation; and a better approach and commitment to independent monitoring. Can the Minister tell the House whether all the recommendations were accepted and what progress has been made in fulfilling them?
Secondly, I associate this side of the House with the expression of deep sympathy for those affected by the massive mudslide in Badakhshan province, in which 2,000 lives were lost. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster the Secretary of State rightly prioritised the safety and well-being of the survivors. However, what assessment has the department made of the needs of the 4,000 displaced, what assistance have the Government offered to the Afghan Government and what, if any, has been accepted?
Thirdly, I turn to the country’s future and the role of women. In doing so, I pay tribute to the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, who unfortunately is not in her place this afternoon, for their continuing commitment over a very long time to this issue. As we approach the second round of presidential elections, the Taliban this week announced the start of its annual summer offensive. Nevertheless, Afghanistan’s women seem determined that their voices will be heard and their votes counted. What additional measures have been put in place to protect the right of Afghan women to vote? I welcome the commitment to tackle violence against women as a strategic priority in DfID’s next operational plan for Afghanistan, for 2015-2019. Can the Minister confirm that the DfID approach will be informed by consultation with Afghans, particularly women’s rights organisations?
Lastly, I turn to the mechanics of the drawdown. As we have heard in previous debates, there are widespread concerns about the sustainability of development gains and the protection of civilians. What assessment has the Minister’s department made of the impact of the drawdown on DfID’s strategy, and what extra security requirements will DfID staff and local partners require after it?
In conclusion, stability in Afghanistan will cease to rely on international military might but instead on the Afghan forces, on an improving local economy and on international development funding. DfID staff and their partners will have a vital part to play in the future of that country. For the sake of the people of Afghanistan and all the Britons who have served there, drawing down must not mean turning away. For all their sakes, our commitment to build a lasting peace in a viable state goes on.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his tributes in this area both to our troops and to our Government. We welcome the fact that the Opposition indeed work in a very constructive way in regard to Afghanistan, and I thank him for that.
The noble Lord raised a number of points. He mentioned the question of mental health among troops. He is right that this is a key area that we must ensure that we address. I assure him that the MoD works closely on combat stress and has just put up £7.4 million to improve mental health services.
“Afghanistan is one of the most difficult placers to deliver aid and DfID’s staff work hard under demanding conditions”.
It has made a number of recommendations, as the noble Lord mentioned: for example, reviewing current and future projects; ensuring that intended beneficiaries are directly consulted; and giving a commitment to independent monitoring. I reassure him that all those issues are being taken forward. DfID constantly reviews what it is doing. Of course, DfID itself set up ICAI to inspect what the department was doing, so obviously we take very seriously what ICAI says in this regard. In a situation of transition, making sure that development is taken forward is part of what DfID is looking at.
The noble Lord concluded by saying that we must retain our commitment to Afghanistan. He is absolutely right. If we are going to continue to sustain the progress that is being made, that development engagement is exceptionally important and we must ensure that it is as effective as possible. We must also, as our first duty, care for our staff, whether they are drawn from DfID in the UK, Afghanistan or wherever. That is also part of what we closely look at.
The noble Lord asked about the mudslides. We think at the moment that adequate support is getting through to those who have been so badly hurt by this event. He will know that we contributed £10 million of humanitarian aid, and obviously we are open to further requests if appropriate. At the moment, though, we understand that adequate assistance is getting through.
The noble Lord rightly highlights the situation of women in Afghanistan. They have made amazing progress, given their starting point, and we are determined that things should not go backwards. The women in Afghanistan are even more determined, if you like, to ensure that that is the case, and we will be there to assist them. I thank him very much for the tribute that he paid to me and to my noble friend Lady Hodgson in this regard; there are many others in this House, including the Lord Speaker, who have been extremely strong in ensuring that women in Afghanistan are supported.
DfID contributes significantly to the support of women. In the election, one of our main aims was to try to ensure that women were registered, knew about voting and were able to do so. It is striking to read that in Heart, women smashed down the door of the voting station so that they could get in to vote. They were not ready to wait for it to open; they were so keen to get in there.
It is excellent that 20% of places on provincial councils will be held by women. It is a complete change from the situation a decade or two ago. That is very welcome, but we are acutely aware that things could easily go backwards and we are determined to do our best to try to ensure that that is not the case. In sum, we continue our strong engagement with Afghanistan, and we are acutely aware that it is through development that we will secure the kind of stability that they and we wish to see. That is why the UK Government continue their involvement.
I associate myself with the very sincere and warm tributes that the Minister paid to the troops who have recently given their lives in Afghanistan. I feel sure that across the House we would like our troops to know that they have our complete support and we will never underestimate their bravery and what they do on behalf of our society.
It is difficult to single out the achievements in Afghanistan, but will the Minister convey to the Ministry of Defence how pleased we are to hear of the huge increase in the education opportunities for girls in Afghanistan? If anything is a fitting tribute to what our troops have achieved, that is it.
I thank the noble Lord for what he has just said. Of course, one of the names I read out was Oliver Thomas, who many of us knew as he was a parliamentary researcher. That brings it home to those who would otherwise not feel the impact of the contribution that they have had to make. The noble Lord is right about the education of girls. The transformation from 2001, when virtually no girls were in school, is astonishing. Of the 6.3 million children in school in Afghanistan about 2 million are girls. We have not got to equality, but we have made a lot of progress and will make sure it continues.
My Lords, the Minister quite rightly points out how much we owe to our men and women for what they have done in Afghanistan, but there is a pernicious scheme—a poison—abroad which really upsets our servicemen. It relates to things that have happened in the past. I hope the Minister can assure the House that it will not happen in Afghanistan. It has happened in Iraq. We have seen the Al-Sweady inquiry, which has cost the MoD £47 million. Key evidence, which would have made the whole thing unnecessary, was shredded just before it was called. We have the business of the International Criminal Court amazingly saying it is doing a preliminary investigation into this country, which can and does look into activities by its forces. I believe that is quite extraordinary. Members of the International Criminal Court would be jolly lucky if they were caught by our people rather than most countries in the world. Can the Minister say that we will not allow this trawling of Afghanistan to find cases and trumped-up issues to cause problems for our people because it has a huge, pernicious effect on our service men and women?
I hear what the noble Lord says. I thank him for the tributes he has paid. He will know full well the contribution that our service men and women are making. I do not doubt that the standards of our troops are second to none. It is clearly vital that our troops, like all other troops, adhere to international law in this regard because we are trying to establish respect for the rule of law in Afghanistan. Clearly, if one or two let anybody down then that can let the whole group down. I am well aware that the troops themselves wish that every single member of their group adheres to the high standards to which they themselves adhere.
My Lords, we have had a member of the Cross Benches speak already. We take these things in turn. I hope that that will be helpful.
My Lords, I am grateful. My noble friend has made a moving and impressive Statement. However, she has not mentioned one group of people, and upon them so much has depended: the Afghan interpreters. As we withdraw from Afghanistan, we of course maintain our aid and connection. Can my noble friend assure me that the sacrifice and service that those men and women have given will not be forgotten, and that we will ensure—so far as is possible—that their lives will not be endangered after we have withdrawn?
Yes, we owe a great deal to the local Afghan staff who have worked for us in Afghanistan. As my noble friend will probably know, there is now a scheme in operation which is based in a generous in-country package of training and financial support for those for whom it is appropriate to stay, and a financial payment. For those who are eligible, such as staff who are regularly involved in working on the front line, there is the opportunity to apply for relocation in the United Kingdom.
In the other place, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development said that she would write to Keith Vaz, who chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee, with some details on numbers. I will ask that that same letter is put in the House of Lords Library and copied to my noble friend.
My Lords, if the tributes which are being made genuinely to our service men and women for the price they have paid, and to the families of those who have fallen, are not rapidly to sound hollow, what will matter most is the commitment we give to the building of security and peace in Afghanistan following our engagement. That is absolutely crucial if we are sincere in our tributes.
Would the noble Baroness agree that, in emphasising the contribution that we have been making, it is important—for example, in the context of women—to put on record our unrivalled admiration for the courage of many Afghan women who have themselves led the struggle for the emancipation of women in their society? I underline, and ask whether the Minister agrees, that the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is crucial: education must be given priority. If the peace is to be secured, the quality and integrity of public service will be crucial within Afghanistan. What practical support are we giving to reform of the security sector and the administration of justice, which will be central in building stability for the future?
The noble Lord speaks from a lot of experience, and he is absolutely right that we need to build security and peace in order to secure what has been achieved thus far. He is also absolutely right to pay tribute to the courage of the women who have been ensuring that women and girls have the kind of rights that we take for granted.
We support the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the police in trying to ensure that we provide the kind of security that the noble Lord wishes to see there. I also point out that, in other areas, half of all pregnant women, for example, now receive anti-natal care, compared with 16% in 2003. There have been many areas in which people’s lives have been transformed. We need to make sure that that continues to move forward.
My Lords, I am very conscious that what I am about to say may not make me universally popular in your Lordships’ House. I was in command of the Army from 2006 to 2009. It will not have escaped the notice of noble Lords that this Chamber was packed to the gunnels at the start of Question Time today for discussion of the Thames tideway tunnel and other important matters. However, when the Minister began to draw attention to those who had fallen, noble Lords streamed out of this House in a way that was most unfortunate, given that six of our comrades had lost their lives. Can the Minister speak with the Leader of the House and other members of the usual channels so that if a tribute is to be paid to those who have fallen in the interests of our nation, noble Lords will be informed of that and will stay in their places? On a military base no one moves during the Last Post. In your Lordships’ House, I respectfully suggest that no one moves while a tribute is being paid to the fallen. The fallen have done their best to give the Afghans the opportunity of a better life in the future. We have done our best; it is now over to the Afghans to make the best of what we have given them.
Yes; I have noted what the noble Lord has said. It was not known until today that this Statement would be repeated in the Lords. The fact that I am speaking on behalf of DfID but answering on behalf of the MoD and the FCO may have made people think that the Statement would be DfID-focused. My noble friend who is the Minister for the MoD usually gives those names, and gave them when he last answered a Question. Therefore I left a gap as noble Lords began to leave. I hoped that they would hear what I was saying, but I think that some of them did not realise. I saw noble Lords pause and stop, and when they heard what I was saying they responded. However, the noble Lord is absolutely right.
My Lords, the noble Baroness was somewhat overcharitable in her previous remarks, but she is not at fault for that. I want to ask a purely factual question; I do not want to make a big speech about Afghanistan. What was the percentage turnout in the election? Although the election itself is an enormous tribute to our commitment in Afghanistan, the key to whether it was a good election depends not only on the number of people who voted but upon the percentage turnout. If it was a high percentage turnout, it was quite clearly an expression of the genuine views of the majority of the population. If it is a low percentage turnout, it was not. I would be grateful for that figure.
Interestingly, I was trying to work that out myself when I was noting down the figures. I am not sure that I can answer the noble Lord precisely. I noted that the population of Afghanistan seems to be 30 million, and that probably 7 million turned out to vote. The noble Lord can probably do his own maths, bearing in mind the size of the young age group in the country. It is significant that 4.5 million people turned out in 2009, so that number has now gone up to 7 million. I will be very happy to get somebody who is better at maths to work that out, but I hope that it gives an indication of the upward trajectory.
My Lords, we seem to be talking as if it is all over. It is not over until the end of the year and the withdrawal. In a withdrawal, there is often a temptation to think defensively, which can get you into a great deal of trouble. I ask the noble Baroness to ensure that the forces that we retain until the very end within Afghanistan have an offensive capability both on the land and in the air, and that the evacuation does not take place in such a way that those who remain until the end are in a somewhat desperate position. There is still an enemy to fight and to look out for. I hope that the Ministry of Defence has not picked up this defensive attitude, which takes away the complete attacking and offensive spirit of an army and an air force in a withdrawal position. I speak as someone who has withdrawn several times.
The noble Viscount talks about it being not over until the end of the year. As the DfID spokesman, I should say that it is not over then either, as we have been emphasising. He can be reassured that the Ministry of Defence is well aware of the need to ensure that those who are still there are well equipped. I see from the figures on redeployment of equipment quite a substantial amount still there. Around 63% of major equipment has been moved back and redeployed, but there is a quite substantial commitment still there. I hope that he will be reassured by that.
My Lords, could the Minister address a point not covered in her very welcome Statement, to which I think most Members of the House who have spoken have given strong support—that is, Afghanistan’s neighbours? The history of Afghanistan is full of involvement by its neighbours in destabilising that country and, alas, in the past, also of Afghanistan destabilising its neighbours. Is it not absolutely essential that some very solid undertakings are given, perhaps in some regional grouping, that Afghanistan’s neighbours will co-operate with us and others in maintaining stability in the country after NATO’s withdrawal, and that they will be committed to respecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Afghanistan and working for economic co-operation? It is all very well us pouring money in but, if the neighbours are fiddling about, as they have often done in the past, it will not avail very much.
The noble Lord speaks from a great deal of experience. As he will know, there has been tremendous engagement with the Government of Pakistan and there is a trilateral relationship between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United Kingdom. Pakistan has made a number of commitments. It is very clear from what is being said by both Afghanistan and Pakistan that they recognise that their long-term prosperity and security depends on the stability in each other’s country. That is also true for India, China and Iran. Stability and prosperity in Afghanistan has a beneficial effect on all the countries around, and we will be engaging with all those countries in that hope.
I very much support the comments and suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and I express the hope that the Whip on the Bench will pass those comments and suggestions on to the Leader of the House and that they may be taken further. It has always been a great strength of this country that we have been able to adopt a bipartisan approach to a crisis situation such as we did at the time of 9/11 and the then necessary operation in Afghanistan. The whole House will undoubtedly be entirely with the Minister today and her expressions of tribute to the military who have died there, and in her expression of hope for the future, economic and political, of Afghanistan.
Can the Minister be a bit more specific than she was able to be in answer to my noble friend on the Front Bench about DfID? Does she now believe that conditions are such that it is possible for DfID personnel, whether UK-based or Afghan, to deploy in the Pashtun provinces such as Kandahar and Helmand to oversee and monitor projects? As she well knows, if you cannot monitor those projects, it is very difficult to avoid the kind of abuses and perversities that often arise, and then the money is really wasted, which is a very great shame. If she does not think that those conditions exist now, does she hope that in the near future we will be in a position whereby DfID personnel can deploy effectively in those difficult provinces for that important purpose?
DfID remains very committed in terms of its financial contribution, which is based on the fact that we believe that we can deliver that. A question similar to that was put to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in the other place, and she was very reassuring about what we can do. She is keeping a very close eye on exactly what we can do to ensure that DfID staff are not, for example, office-based back in the capital but actually able to monitor projects as the noble Lord seeks.
I am grateful to the Minister for spelling out the advances that have been made in Afghanistan because, sadly, outside this House there is still a tendency to see it as a failed operation. It is important that we change that perception. People think back to what Afghanistan was like when it was a base for al-Qaeda. If they think of the dangers to not just Britain but the wider world and of the enormous advances that have been made in Afghanistan, thereby giving those people a chance to recover from 30 years of war and revolution which ripped the country apart, they will see that we have made enormous progress while recognising the sacrifice that so many people have made.
The noble Lord is absolutely right. I point, for example, to revenue collection. In 2004-05, only $250 million was collected. In 2011-12, $2 billion was collected. That is a sea change.
My Lords, I note that the Minister said that the end of 2014 is not the end. That is, of course, quite right. The endeavour in Afghanistan has been a major international effort. Co-ordinating that international effort has been something of a challenge, to say the least, even when it was at the top of various nations’ foreign policy and security agendas and when organisations such as NATO were involved. Will the Minister indicate to the House how the ongoing international effort in developing politics, economics and social life in Afghanistan is to be co-ordinated in future, which will be necessary if it is to be effective?
The noble and gallant Lord is right. It is something of a new science to have so many countries involved in this constructive activity. Obviously there are lessons to be learnt but, if he looks to the NATO summit which will take place later this year and to the development conference, he will see some of those lessons being taken forward.