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Afghanistan - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:46 pm on 4th September 2018.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 7:46 pm, 4th September 2018

My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend—both as a friend and as a fellow member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Afghanistan—on focusing on this important issue. She also knows a good deal from personal experience of education and human rights through regular visits, as we have heard. She says that there is a great potential for development in the country and I am just sorry that there are not more of us here to listen to her and to the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson. However, we are a robust group all the same.

If you are someone who looks at the world through a prism of cricket, as I do, this is a time of celebration in Afghanistan. The Afghan team has enjoyed a successful summer, ending with Ireland’s defeat by eight wickets and the launch last week in Dubai of the Afghanistan Premier League. The MCC has been helping, and besides international fixtures, if it goes ahead with plans for teams from Kabul and other cities, playing in places like Khost as well as in the UAE, this would be a tremendous encouragement to such a stricken nation.

My noble friend has alighted on a country with one of the UK’s most difficult aid programmes and she has asked about the prospects for peace there. We talk about post-conflict countries, but Afghanistan is one of those that is seemingly in perpetual conflict. We all know now that after 2001, NATO gambled heavily on its superior force and we followed the US almost blindly into Helmand, as we did in Basra, with some terrible results. But this debate must also show how much good we have been able to do alongside and since our military intervention. In particular, we must send our good wishes to the 440 Welsh Guards and others who are embarking for Kabul at this time.

The Government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund came under scrutiny in March when the independent watchdog ICAI published its first report based on six case studies. Afghanistan was not among them, but perhaps it should be next time. One conclusion drawn was that,

“there is little reliable data on whether CSSF projects are achieving their intended results or delivering value for money. The problem is not just one of demonstrating results: unless the CSSF clearly articulates what it is trying to achieve and how, and monitors progress towards its goals, it is unlikely to achieve results commensurate with the level of investment”.

The Minister will know that Her Majesty’s Government take ICAI reports very seriously. Indeed they have already accepted many of the recommendations in the report, not least because it carried an amber warning. I bring this up now because it is quite possible that if the CSSF generally does not know what it is doing, this may also characterise the Afghan programme, which is, after all, the largest in its portfolio. The conflict fund in its various forms has had a chequered history. We do not want dissipation of aid funds because they lacked management and direction.

I cannot say much about the Ministry of Defence’s contribution and NATO’s commitment except that they remain in both cases firm but under considerable pressure. As we have heard, the Sandhurst academy has continued to train Afghan officers; I am delighted to hear about the women cadets. Even the smaller and warier NATO members evidently value Afghanistan as a training ground for their forces, including countries such as Georgia at a time when Russia has put eastern Europe on standby.

On the more familiar side of aid, namely education and health, HMG has a higher score of success, as we shall hear from the Minister and have already heard from my noble friend. Of course, conflict remains the main obstacle to development in many areas. I will not rehearse the atrocities of this summer, some of which—notably those in Kabul and Ghazni—are reported here. As mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, the mid-June ceasefire was observed by the Taliban, then broken by not just the Taliban but another merciless attack by Daesh. It is fair to say that away from main roads, which are mainly government controlled, the country is divided into so many districts within provinces that loyalties vary all the time. Where there is fighting, every community has to accommodate whoever is in charge at any one time. This is how the poor survive: through obedience to authority. Any outside helpers also have to adapt accordingly. We have heard that there is also government compliance with Taliban control.

It is still possible for aid agencies to work in areas of conflict, even where official aid agencies try to avoid them. One way to find out what is happening is to consult the British & Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group, which is in close touch with both Afghan civil society groups and international development NGOs. It is also a valuable secretariat for our all-party group with a counterpart European network called ENNA based in Brussels. There are some outstanding NGOs, such as the Aga Khan Foundation, which has a long record in education and health and is active in seven northern and eastern provinces. Another is the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, based in Kabul, which seeks to restore traditional Afghan skills in the arts and culture. I have visited both of them. We have heard about the Afghan connection, which I did not know about. Many of these NGOs are doing good work.

However, my noble friend asks a critical question about peace, and no doubt the Government will refer to recent peace initiatives. Last month, our ambassador said:

“Now is an exciting moment. A moment of rare hope”.

We must pray that he is right. To me, this also highlights the degree of courage and tolerance of aid workers who are close to the front line or otherwise at continual risk of losing their life. Peace on a national scale will always be hard to achieve as long as money is flowing into the country from the Gulf or from lucrative sales of poppies to fund violence.

At a local level, people tend to find narrow ways through conflict and corruption, which can bring temporary prosperity even for a limited period. A report published in March by ATR Consulting, Aid Effectiveness in Afghanistan, makes a useful point that has to be repeated in almost every aid environment: development strategies need more Afghan ownership. It is not surprising that it says this, given that the report is sponsored by Oxfam, CAFOD and a Swedish NGO. It is much easier for NGOs than Governments to encourage local ownership, but they must go on saying it. In the last decade, despite falling aid, the Afghan Government have tried to develop a reputation for aid effectiveness, according to the report, yet decisions are made largely by over 30 donors outside the country.

The current strategic plan, called the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework, guarantees that at least 50% of development aid passes through the Government’s core budget into 11 different national priority programmes. Afghanistan, therefore, remains a client state so long as the international community goes on supporting it. I think it should. Nevertheless, the UK and other NATO allies must continue to build on Afghan talent and initiative, or there can be no end in sight.

The new Prime Minister in Pakistan, Imran Khan, was a supporter of Save the Children. He knows a good deal about the value of NGOs and on-the-ground development. We hope that he will have more understanding of Afghanistan and possibly more influence than his predecessors had on the army’s and the ISI’s secret role. I put it no higher than that because it would be difficult for the Minister to comment at such an early stage in his administration.