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Afghanistan - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:04 pm on 4th September 2018.

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Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 8:04 pm, 4th September 2018

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, for initiating this debate and for her excellent introduction. Of course, what we have in Afghanistan is a country that has faced more than 40 years of conflict, which has left the country one of the poorest and most fragile in the world. Two critical concerns at the moment are that, once again, the country could become a haven for extremism, through Daesh, and that huge numbers of Afghans may continue to become displaced and leave to become migrants. The challenges are acute, with approximately 12.5 million Afghans living below the poverty line and 1.5 million returning refugees or internally displaced people in 2017 alone.

There has been a regular cycle of development conferences on Afghanistan. International Governments have reaffirmed $15.2 billion of assistance through to 2020, in exchange for progress and reforms from the Afghan Government. As we have heard in the debate, with increasing insecurity and the large numbers of returnees, there will be a need to hold the Afghan Government accountable for how the $15.2 billion is spent. We need, as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said, to redouble our efforts to strengthen civil society.

DfID says that it works closely with other government departments in Whitehall—the FCO, the MoD, the Home Office, the National Crime Agency and the Cabinet Office—to achieve results. We also co-ordinate with other international donors, working with them on programmes on anti-corruption. Can the Minister tell us what form this cross-Whitehall work takes? Which Minister is taking the co-ordinating responsibility to ensure that what DfID spends is monitored to ensure that there is no corruption?

As my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe said just before the Summer Recess, Afghanistan is a better place as a result of our efforts. We have achieved this through co-operation with our NATO allies. At this point I pay tribute to those who have served in Afghanistan, remembering in particular the 456 service personnel who have died and those who have suffered life-changing injuries. While the Afghan Government control 65% of the country, insurgent groups operate in around 12%, as we have heard, with the remainder being contested. Noble Lords have referred to the fact that in July we had the announcement that the 650 Armed Forces personnel will rise to 1,100 by early 2019. The US has around 15,000 troops in Afghanistan and has increased its use of air strikes. It recently called on the UK and other NATO allies to send reinforcements.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, in announcing this increase in personnel, told your Lordships’ House that all NATO allies were agreed that we will continue to support the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces until these forces are able to protect the people of Afghanistan without support from international forces, and progress has been made on a peace process. This reflected the earlier comments of the US Deputy Secretary of State, who pointed out that the commitment to Afghanistan must be conditions-based and not driven by timelines. No matter how keen we are to impose timelines, it would be a mistake.

We know what the UK Government are doing in supporting the Afghan people, helping with access to healthcare, education and safe drinking water, as well as creating jobs and economic development, and tackling corruption. The UK pledge to 2020 depends, as I mentioned, on security conditions and the Afghan Government’s performance—but how are we measuring performance? The UK helped the Afghan Government to establish the Anti-Corruption Justice Center to investigate and bring to trial high-level corruption cases. Will the Minister tell us what the current assessment is of the work of that centre and what outcomes there have been?

Despite the bad headlines and the obvious concerns that we have heard, there has been progress in Afghanistan. I pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, on this. Women have gained since the fall of the Taliban and, as she said, the 2004 constitution enshrined gender equality in law and, through the quota system, has resulted in 28% of seats in the national Parliament being held by women. But, as she highlighted so well, this progress is fragile, and the impact of the Taliban regime continues. Because of that, now is the time not to retreat but to redouble our efforts on women’s rights. Now that Britain’s combat role is over, some may think that our scope for influence has narrowed—but it has not. It is vital that we use our development spend to ensure that that progress is fully maintained.

Mark Field said at the beginning of the year that the solution to long-term peace and stability lies not within the military but in a peace process that is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, reaching out to the insurgents to try to launch a credible peace process. Credible, inclusive and timely elections are also essential. Of course, Afghanistan will hold parliamentary elections in October, and the Afghan army will be braced for possible violence, especially considering the recent attacks on those attempting to register to vote. However, as part of the UK’s announcement of new personnel, only around half of the new troops will arrive before those elections. So what is the Minister’s assessment of Afghanistan’s capability to protect voters during the upcoming elections? Throughout 2018, a series of Taliban and Islamic State suicide bombings have killed hundreds of civilians. There are concerns that these incidents could escalate in the run-up to October’s elections. What assurances can the Minister give us that the Government are taking steps to ensure the safety of UK personnel, especially those without combat experience?

I referred to the Minister, Mark Field, who said at the start of the year that 2018 represented a year of opportunity. We are now nearly three-quarters of the way through that year. What is the assessment of the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, of the prospects for ending the year with a credible political peace process firmly in place, so that Afghanistan can finally turn the corner to a more peaceful society?