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Afghanistan - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:13 pm on 4th September 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 8:13 pm, 4th September 2018

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, for tabling this Question for Short Debate and for her very thoughtful speech, which was delivered with great authority. I also thank all noble Lords for their contributions. Before I respond directly to her questions, I take this opportunity to set the scene by reminding noble Lords of the reasons for the UK commitment to Afghanistan and to confirm what that support has helped to deliver.

Successive UK Governments have committed to help build a peaceful, prosperous and stable Afghanistan, working closely with our NATO partners not only because that is what the people of Afghanistan want, after decades of conflict, but because it is in the UK’s national interest. An Afghanistan that is unstable and insecure presents a threat to the UK and to UK interests in the wider region—from terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State, drug trafficking and illegal migration, to other serious organised crime.

The support the UK provides to Afghanistan is crucial to building a stable state and reducing the threat to the UK; I thank my noble friend Lady Hodgson, who helpfully acknowledged that. The UK is working closely with the Afghan Government as they seek to overcome the legacy of more than 40 years of conflict and become a more prosperous and stable state. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, who rightly reminded us of the duration of that conflict. It underlines what a challenging situation the Afghan Government and global partners are trying to resolve. Afghanistan is determined to work towards a better future and progress has been made since 2001—I think all contributors acknowledged that—but considerable challenges remain, particularly with regard to improving security, governance and sustainable development.

The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, asked how UK assistance is helping to tackle the root causes of Afghanistan’s instability. I would like to deal with that under four headings: security, governance, development and supporting the path to peace. First, I want to pay tribute to the 456 British Armed Forces personnel and MoD civilians, as well as many others, who have made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. By continuing to support the Afghans on their path to a secure and stable state, we are ensuring that their sacrifices were not in vain. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for alluding to that.

Afghanistan continues to face significant security challenges. NATO’s combat mission ended in 2014. UK troops now serve in a non-combat role, as part of NATO’s Resolute support mission, to train, advise and assist building the capacity of the Afghan national defence and security forces. As the lead nation for the Afghan national army officer academy, the UK has helped to train more than 3,000 cadets, including, interestingly, 150 women, intended to be the next generation of military leaders. That is important support and I know that a number of contributors recognised the security challenges confronting Afghanistan. At the NATO Summit in July, the Prime Minister announced an additional 440 troops, making the UK the third-largest troop contributor.

We also provide £70 million per year to ANDSF sustainment which funds Afghan police salaries and provides mentors to the Afghan security institutions and other key UK programmes. The Prime Minister announced at NATO our commitment to extend financial support through to 2024.

On governance, sustainable progress in Afghanistan will only be as strong as the political institutions underpinning it. The UK is a lead partner in supporting the Afghan Government’s reform agenda. Reducing corruption is central to this work. Credible and inclusive elections that allow the Afghan people to exercise their democratic rights are vital for long-term stability. With the UN and international partners, we are also supporting preparations for the parliamentary elections in October and the presidential elections in April 2019. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Collins, who asked specifically about what the UK is doing to support the elections in Afghanistan. We are working closely with the IEC, the Afghan Government and civil society to support that electoral process.

The development challenges—I think all contributors in some way referred to development—remain significant. Decades of conflict have stunted Afghanistan’s economic development and, distressingly, more than half of Afghans live below the poverty line. We have pledged up to £750 million in development assistance between 2017 and 2020, depending on the delivery of reform. Our support is making a real difference.

UK-funded projects created more than 50,000 jobs in the past financial year alone, and our education programmes have helped more than 6.4 million Afghan children to go to school, more than one in three of whom are girls. That was an issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and my noble friend Lady Hodgson pointed out the welcome number of women now emerging in important roles in Afghanistan—a point also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover.

This financial year, our humanitarian assistance is expected to support more than 1 million people. This includes emergency food for over 400,000 people at risk from drought. We support people forced to leave their homes by conflict or natural disaster, and we have also cleared landmines from 85 million square metres of land, thereby freeing it up for homes and farming.

The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, raised an important point about infrastructure. I reassure her that the UK acknowledges the importance of infrastructure. I understand that about half of the UK bilateral programme, which is directed through the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund, is indeed intended to support infrastructure work.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, brought to our attention the role of sport in Afghanistan—particularly cricket, on which I completely defer to him as an expert and about which I know a negligible amount. That was an interesting reflection on another aspect of life in the country. He also raised the important point of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s report. We are pleased that the commission recognises that the conflict stability and security fund has become a flexible and responsive tool to support the UK’s national security priorities. The commission also recognised that the fund has developed conflict analysis and technical expertise able to influence and co-ordinate international donor efforts. I reassure the noble Earl that, following the national security capability review, the fund has moved to a new joint funds unit, which will allow for greater strategic and ministerial oversight. Although it may seem a bit of an anorak statistic, we have trained more than 400 HMG staff in programme management to ensure that the fund has the right capability to deliver and design programmes. I hope that that reassures him.

On prospects for peace, ultimately, a political solution to the conflict is the only way to achieve lasting stability in Afghanistan and the wider region. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, specifically recognised that. Let me reassure her that the UK strongly supports the efforts made towards this goal by the Afghan Government. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, spoke for us all in wishing that peace process well.

Recently, there have been unprecedented steps on the path to peace. At the Kabul process meeting in February, President Ghani made what most people regarded as a bold offer to the Taliban of peace talks without preconditions. This offer was endorsed by the international community. Then, in June, there was the first national ceasefire between the Taliban and the Government since 2001. The UK, alongside international partners, is working closely with the Afghan Government to support that process.

My noble friend Lady Hodgson realistically recognised the challenges. I have to say that an end to violence is still a long way off, and a lasting peace settlement will require courage, patience and compromise from all sides.

In all of this, a process of review is vital. In co-ordination with our international partners, the UK regularly reviews our development assistance to ensure it is as effective as possible. The Self-Reliance through Mutual Accountability Framework sets out the agreement between donors and the Afghan Government for necessary reforms.

The Geneva conference on Afghanistan, to be convened in November this year, will be an opportunity for donor countries and the Afghan Government to take stock of progress and ensure that plans remain on track.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the issue of anti-corruption and the question of the ACJC, which was launched in 2016 to investigate, prosecute and adjudicate in serious corruption cases. I understand that as of 29 May this year, 35 trials have been heard and 142 defendants found guilty, and to date, 553 cases have been referred to the ACJC by various institutions. Corrupt networks facilitate much of the narcotics trade and can facilitate irregular migration. That is why the UK is wholly committed to supporting the redoubled efforts of President Ghani and the Government to build an institution that can deliver justice for the Afghan people.

To conclude, we remain committed to supporting Afghanistan because we know that our assistance is crucial to achieving its transformation to a stable and peaceful state, as well as to reducing the threat to the UK. We remain committed to providing this support, with regular reviews. We are encouraged by recent positive developments towards a potential peace process, but there is still a long way to go. We are committed to a future Afghanistan which is peaceful, prosperous and secure.

I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. It may have been short, with a relatively small list of speakers, but I think the quality of the debate has spoken for itself.

House adjourned at 8.26 pm.