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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for having introduced this debate so ably and for bringing such an important topic to the Floor of this House. This is a critical time for Afghanistan. While the UK has been involved with the country for the past 17 years, Afghanistan is no longer in our media headlines—other conflicts have grabbed public attention. However, the contribution of the UK and other international partners is still vital to ensure that Afghanistan transitions to stability.
I have visited Afghanistan twice this year and know without doubt that lack of security is the most pressing issue holding the country back. The UN announced that more than 10,000 civilians were killed or injured in Afghanistan last year for the fourth consecutive year. These are stark statistics and do not reflect the misery that is caused. In spite of all the money given and lives lost, peace continues to be elusive.
While it was recognised that there was no purely military solution to the situation, it was clear that any long-term resolution needed to be Afghan-led. The drawdown of UK and US combat troops in 2014 led to a resurgence in the power of the Taliban, with BBC research in January suggesting that the Taliban is now openly active in 70% of the country. The situation has become further exacerbated with the emergence of Daesh. Even in Kabul, with its strong security, there has been a number of devastating attacks, with many lives lost. All these incidents have further aggravated the ethnic divisions that complicate the politics of Afghanistan. This insecurity strengthens the cause of the Taliban. A recent study showed that, in spite of efforts to address extremism, violent groups are even managing to radicalise students in Herat and Kabul universities.
In recent years, the peace process appears to have stalled. However, in June this year, there seemed to be a breakthrough when the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire with the Government forces, coinciding with Eid. There were jubilant scenes in some cities, with Taliban fighters being welcomed and posing for selfies with the soldiers. However encouraging that was, sadly the Taliban refused to extend the truce. The public determination to end hostilities was strongly demonstrated by a convoy of 80 civilians on a 400-mile peace march from the capital of Helmand province, Lashkar Gah, to Kabul, but the situation seems to have reached something of an impasse.
The 40 years of conflict have disproportionately affected women, and Afghanistan is still acknowledged to be one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman. While in the 1970s the women in Kabul wore mini-skirts and looked very similar to women in Europe, today many on the streets wear the iconic blue burqas. In spite of the Elimination of Violence against Women law being passed in 2009, which it was hoped would improve the protection of women, in July this year the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said that 85% of women and children face some sort of harassment.
I have had the honour of attending the First Lady’s symposium for the past two years. Last summer, I was very struck by listening to an Afghan psychologist talking about how difficult it would be to achieve peace in Afghan communities because of the conflict within Afghan families, and the fact that the majority of small children had witnessed domestic violence. We know from research here that children who witness domestic violence often grow up to become perpetrators themselves. However, in spite of all, we should recognise that there has been great progress for women in Afghanistan since 2001. Under the Taliban, almost no girls were in school, but today many more girls receive education. I declare an interest as I am a patron of Afghan Connection, a wonderful NGO that builds schools in Afghanistan, particularly in the north-east. Yet, as the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, has already said, for all the millions of pounds that have been spent on girls’ education, conditions in many schools remain rudimentary. In addition, I have heard accounts of girls being threatened on their way to school, causing them to stop attending.
However, many women in Afghanistan today, in spite of all the threats, now take part in public life. There are Afghan women in the armed forces and police, women judges and lawyers, doctors, ambassadors, teachers, civil servants and in many other professions, and currently 28% of MPs are women. There can be no doubt that long-term stability and prosperity in Afghanistan will be enormously aided by women and girls being able to make a full contribution to business, political and civic life. I particularly pay tribute to the role played by the First Lady who has bravely spoken out to support women and girls in Afghanistan, and has held five symposiums focusing on issues for women. It was my privilege to host her in this House during her UK visit in June.
To have peace in Afghanistan it needs to be peace for everyone. When I was in Kabul in January, I helped to launch the UK National Action Plan on UN Special Resolution 1325 at the British Embassy. This is the fourth UK national action plan and Afghanistan continues to be one of its focus countries. Afghanistan now has its own national action plan for Resolution 1325. That is a great achievement.
Evidence that gender equality is essential to building peace and security has grown substantially since UN Security Council Resolution 1325 was adopted in 2000. In fact, a greater involvement of women in peacebuilding increases the chances of longer-lasting, more sustainable, peace. Thus, including women’s meaningful participation in peace negotiations and reconciliation processes is essential. Peace and security for all will never be achieved if the needs of half the population are ignored.
So how do we ensure that women will be able to play a meaningful role in any forthcoming peace processes? The High Peace Council established in 2010 has not yielded results and in some areas, I gather, has caused a backlash. While women were appointed, I am told that they have often been ignored. No doubt before a formal peace process, deals will be done behind closed doors. How do we ensure that women’s voices are heard? The whole peace process seems opaque and some have concern that the High Peace Council is symbolic rather than active. While it is understood that most factions, including the Taliban, want peace, there is no road map, and it would appear that there are divisions in the Taliban—and, of course, the Taliban is not the only militant group, with Daesh now causing many attacks. The picture is confusing. There are reports of the Taliban rejecting the Afghan Government’s request for peace talks and, at the same time, there are reports of the US agreeing to negotiate directly with it, or to act as a mediator. Given the present US Administration, I wonder whether this would really be an acceptable solution. Can the UK Government help to persuade the new Administration in Pakistan to assist and ensure that terrorists are not given a safe haven over the border?
I congratulate our Government on continuing to offer vital support to Afghanistan at what is a critical time. Unless this support from the international community continues, there is a very real danger that the country could roll backwards. We now have 1,100 troops there in training and protection roles, and when I was in Kabul last year I visited the Afghan National Army Officer Academy, which was set up by the UK and modelled on Sandhurst. It is helping to train officer cadets, both men and women. More than 100 women have now graduated as officers, which is a fantastic achievement, with a woman cadet last year winning the sword of honour. The UK has been helping in many ways, including with education for girls, political inclusion and accountability, and helping to reform the security sector. It is vital that Afghanistan should build strong institutions and has robust law and order, and the issue of corruption also needs to be addressed.
To conclude, this is a crucial time for Afghanistan, and I was therefore pleased to hear that at the UN Security Council in January, the UK made it clear that our enduring commitment to Afghanistan is unwavering. However, it is very difficult for the country to move forward until the security situation is dealt with effectively and a clear peace process is established. I ask: is there more that we can do to help with this?