[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair] — Poppy Crops (Afghanistan)

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 11th July 2007.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 9:30 am, 11th July 2007

It is a pleasure to work under your stewardship, Mr. Hancock, and a delight to have the opportunity to open the debate. With Afghanistan and Iraq dominating our headlines, it is important that hon. Members get the opportunity to place on record their concerns and thoughts.

The challenges that face Afghanistan are immense, but I have deliberately selected one issue for us to consider. I shall therefore refrain from commenting on the size of the NATO force, which I believe is too small, and avoid mentioning the lack of co-ordination between the reconstruction agencies and the absence of a lead figure to unite operations. I shall instead focus on opium production and its link with insurgency. I should also like to put forward a possible solution—a proposal that I should very much like the Government to consider.

I shall first give some background. Progress has been slow in the five years since allied forces entered Afghanistan. The limited size of NATO's forces, some of which are hampered by caveats, prevents the country from having the umbrella of security needed for a reconstruction operation of large enough scale to take effect. That is hampering the allied development and reconstruction efforts to improve the lives of many rural Afghans.

I do not wish to take away from the many success stories in Afghanistan, particularly in the north and west. A number of schools have been reopened and radio stations formed. Indeed, wind-up radios have been handed out in various communities to allow better communication with locals. Alternative livelihood programmes have been rolled out along with improvements to roads and transport. [Interruption.]

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Order. It must be a mobile phone causing that problem. If somebody still has their phone on, may I ask them to turn it off? You do not all have to rush to your pockets at once. Mr. Evans looks like a guilty candidate. He has just grabbed his phone.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I believe that it may have been me rather than my hon. Friend.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Very gallant of you, Mr. Ellwood.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

There have been advances in some areas, and we should pay tribute to the work that has been done. Unfortunately it is limited to parts of the country, and many people are forced to survive in the only way they know—by growing poppies. Failure to address the impact of the poppy trade has led to a revival of the Taliban, who profit from it.

The west and the international community have been slow to acknowledge the link between insurgency and poppy cultivation, even five years after entering Afghanistan. In the report that came from the previous NATO summit in Riga in November, there was one small paragraph that mentioned poppies. It stated:

"We recognise the linkage between narcotics and insurgents in Afghanistan", which was a good start, but it simply went on

"and will continue to support the Afghan Government's counter-narcotics efforts, within ISAF's mandate."

I do not believe that that is good enough, and nor do many others. General James Jones, the former head of NATO, saw poppy crops as "Afghanistan's Achilles heel".

Some of the agencies that have been put together to try to combat narcotics operations in Afghanistan look good on paper. From the international perspective, there is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which is simply a monitoring and information service. It does not do anything to tackle drugs operations, it simply reports on what is happening. There is the Counter-narcotics police of Afghanistan, but it is only 1000-strong in a country the size of Spain. There is the Afghan eradication force, which is a successor to the central poppy eradication force, but it is only 700-strong.

There are various poppy elimination programme teams—about a dozen eight to 10-man teams that are spread around the country—but their impact is limited. There is also the Afghan special narcotics force, but that is also small considering the scale of the problem that it is confronting. From a financial perspective there is the counter-narcotics trust fund, which allows the international community to pour money into Afghanistan to combat narcotics. The structure is there, but it is far too small to deal with the scale of the problem that we face.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there has been a failure to think about how our aid policy can provide alternative jobs, which is a crucial part of countering both the insurgency and the growing of poppies? A policy of merely destroying the poppy crop can itself be a recruiting agent for the Taliban, whereas a strategy that tries to put jobs in place through an aid policy would not only counter that but extend the authority of the central Government.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I pay tribute to his work on the matter. Eradicating crops is pointless unless there is an alternative for the farmers to pursue, otherwise we simply deny them their livelihoods and encourage them to look for another immediate source to put food on the tables to feed their families. That pushes them in the direction of the Taliban, which is exactly what we do not want.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Does my hon. Friend accept that one problem is that the project against poppy and drug production is Afghan-led? Corruption takes place at every level in a country as large and poor as Afghanistan. Even the police say that they earn only $70 a month. Their power to choose which fields to eradicate means that the wrong fields are being put out of production.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. On my visits to Afghanistan, I have been astonished at the levels of corruption that I have seen. We cannot be surprised, considering the decades of war that we have witnessed there. We cannot expect Afghanistan to turn overnight into a civilised, democratic society. That will not happen. If we look back at our own history, we will see that it took some time for us to wean out all forms of corruption, and it sadly exists at all levels in Afghanistan—local, regional and national.

I have seen reports that up to 17 of the 249 members of the lower house of the Afghan Parliament are former warlords and still benefit from the drugs trade. That problem will not disappear, and it is difficult for President Karzai to balance and to maintain the peace. If those people are not somehow included in reconciliation, they may challenge the Government and cause more problems.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

Does the hon. Gentleman limit the corruption to Afghanistan? Is it not also in this country? Our failure to combat the war against the poppy trade effectively is having an effect here. There is corruption here, including in our prisons.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

The right hon. Gentleman teases me to wander into an area that is beyond the scope of the debate, but it is important. Some 95 per cent. of the heroin that enters this country comes from Afghanistan. There is a market here for it, so there is a degree of corruption here for us to challenge.

Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan now accounts for about 50 per cent. of the country's gross domestic product—about $3.1 billion. With no recognisable domestic market infrastructure, the black market is seen in many provinces as the only market. It is an interesting observation that in areas controlled by the Afghan Government, backed by the international community, production is either decreasing or stable, but where insurgency is strongest, it is for the most part increasing. That increase is staggering: Afghanistan now accounts for 92 per cent. of the world's opium production. Last year, production grew by some 60 per cent., and, in Helmand province, by an amazing 169 per cent. UNODC reports show that around 109,000 acres are cultivated every year, and only about 5,000 acres are eradicated. We are not winning the war through eradication.

That approach also fails to win over the hearts and minds of farmers who view opium cultivation as their only reliable source of income.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

My hon. Friend makes some good points about winning hearts and minds. Does he agree that there is an essential difference between the approach of the United States, which seems to involve slash and burn, in many cases rather thoughtlessly planned and imposed, and the Afghan-advised policy of a much more targeted campaign against poppy crops, and that that dichotomy is dangerous and plays precisely into the hands of the Taliban?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

My hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable about these matters, makes a valid point. We have seen an open argument between the United States and Britain on that very issue. I got the impression, having visited Washington in April, that the Americans are coming around to our way of thinking. They are now realising—unfortunately, through experience—that they are not winning hearts and minds by eradicating crops and thinking that the tough-stick approach will work. They are realising that there needs to be an alternative if we are to win that battle.

Certainly, in parts of Afghanistan, including Helmand province, our present strategy is failing for exactly the reason that my hon. Friend illustrates. The absence of security, the proximity to the border, the scale of corruption and the limited options for farmers mean that the challenge gets bigger each year. We have allowed Helmand province to become the supreme poppy grower of the world, responsible for producing one third of the planet's heroin.

It is time for a rethink. It is time for the Government to regroup and to consider the matter again. Perhaps the Minister can confirm whether Britain remains the G8 lead nation for the counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan. We have 7,000 troops in Helmand province. They are well placed to lead any new initiative, and the current $1 billion spent on counter-narcotics could be better utilised. I wish to make a proposal in that respect.

Hon. Members will be aware that poppies can be turned into not only heroin but several recognised medicinal products, including diamorphine and codeine. Ironically, there is a shortage of diamorphine in this country. I found that out through a parliamentary question. Indeed, an established UN-licensed poppy scheme is already up and running in places such as Turkey and India. However, I do not believe that that should be a long-term goal for Afghanistan, and that is where I differ from several other interested bodies that have expressed thoughts on the matter.

The current situation in Afghanistan is too unstable for us to have any long-term licensing systems up and running. That would just lead to an increase in counter-narcotics. The scale of the problem would be uncontrollable. However, there is a way of temporarily honing the concept. If we were to visit Lashkar Gar and find a metal factory that was turning out guns, would we destroy the factory, or would we say to the people, "Why don't you make tractor parts or something else?" The same applies to the poppy growers. They are able to make opium and heroin, but they can certainly make other products that could be of benefit to the international community.

I propose inviting farmers to sign up to a six-year programme. Each year, they would be required to replace one sixth of their poppy crop with another product. That would be repeated every year, eventually weaning them off poppy cultivation completely. Markets would need to be established to purchase the poppy crops and the alternative produce. Poppies would be turned into medicinal products locally and then exported. Farmers who failed to sign up to the programme would face immediate eradication of their poppy fields.

The proposal involves a carrot-and-stick approach. It must be introduced with the support of the local jirgas, which are the power bases in the towns and villages—something that has been ignored up to this point in the rolling out of democracy across the country.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

Trying to think ahead, does my hon. Friend recognise that if his ingenious scheme were put into practice, the first reaction of the Taliban, who used to suppress the poppy crop when they were in power but now put themselves forward as the defender of the poppy farmers because they know that that rallies support for the insurgency, would be to offer a different sort of stick? Anyone who signed up to the scheme would face a different sort of eradication—personal eradication.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Indeed, there are several pitfalls, which I shall come on to. To answer his question immediately, the present remit of the international security assistance force is not to go anywhere near poppy crops. They are strictly forbidden to get involved with eradication of crops. That points up the lack of a co-ordinated strategy. Were a farmer to sign up to the scheme, the next thing that he would need to do is to have his plot of land somehow electronically labelled so that from the air it would be identified as part of the programme and therefore be encompassed by a security package. Then, the farmer would get not only protection from ISAF, but support such as improved irrigation systems from the non-governmental organisations and other operators that are in the area. At present, there is no co-ordination of any of that. If one were to ask any farmer whether they owned a strip of land that had poppies on it, the farmer would completely deny that they did. The first thing is to get the farmers on board.

My hon. Friend was absolutely right to point to that pitfall. Another challenge would be price elevation. The Taliban may well offer more money for crops. We need to face those issues. I suggest that the problems could be overcome by implementing my proposal, but it needs to be tested in a pilot scheme. That is what I am proposing today.

The important point is that, in the long term, we would deny terrorists the benefits from the sale of opium, and we would free farmers from the clutches of the Taliban. Almost half the country's opium is produced in Helmand province, yet at present the eradication programme there is limited and there are hardly any alternative livelihood schemes in operation. There is no support for farmers whatever. Given that Britain has responsibility for security in Helmand province, it is well placed to conduct a pilot scheme such as I suggest.

The cumulative amount of European Union money, United States aid money and British money spent each year is about $1 billion. I believe that my scheme would cost in the region of $50 million to $100 million, which is one tenth of what is currently being spent. As we have seen from the year-on-year increases, the $1 billion is not very effective, but, if the pilot project were successful, it could be replicated in other provinces across the country.

As I said, financial support would be given to farmers. They would be freed from the clutches of the Taliban. The scheme would raise taxes for the Government, cut off the clandestine links, most of which are with Pakistan, and threaten the income of terrorists.

I do not believe that long-term licensing is feasible. We need a short-term solution, but one that will help farmers, provide them with a path without challenging their income, and, in several years' time, lead to their growing the produce that they once were able to grow on a vast scale. Afghanistan had an international reputation for providing the world with pomegranates, peaches and dried fruits. In fact, it was one of the greenest areas in east Asia. That was prior to 1979, when the Soviets moved in. They realised that if they smashed the irrigation systems, they would cause so much pain to the locals that they would then become subservient to their new masters.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

The hon. Gentleman's proposal is interesting. I agree that exploring the alternative of licensing production for licit morphine and diamorphine purposes is attractive, but has he considered the consequences for the farmers themselves and the comparable incomes for licit production as opposed to illicit production of opium? How does he propose encouraging farmers to engage in the lawful type of production if the income for it is significantly less?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The bottom line is that many farmers want to free themselves from the clutches of the Taliban. A pilot scheme would show that and certainly the farmers whom I met in Lashkar Gar want to be part of the community and to give up the subservience that they have to the terrorists. The farmers realise that that must be the case. We need to establish what the market price will be, but the billions of dollars that are spent every year will clearly have to prop up the market for some time.

The prices of the goods and the produce of which I am talking are certainly comparable in some areas. Some prices will be lower, but tonne for tonne, more money can be got for peaches than for poppies. We should say to farmers, "Come forward. Put out your hand and state, 'This is my field'. We will buy your poppy crops off you in the first year, but we will help to double the size of your area if you plant another crop". In the long term, farmers would actually gain more money, but they would also be free and be part of the community. We certainly get the impression that that is what they want. If farmers were not keen to remove the link between themselves and the Taliban and were content to receive the money and to continue living the existence that they have, this entire proposal would not be possible.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

I know that the hon. Gentleman has been generous in allowing interventions and that that is preventing him from finishing his speech, but before he completes, I would like to mention the link between what he is saying and what the military experts in the field think is the strategy necessary to be successful in Afghanistan. As he knows, there is a small group based in the House called Poppy Relief, with which he is associated, as is Mr. Lancaster. That group has attracted people such as General Sir Mike Jackson for the simple reason that he does not believe that we can win in Afghanistan by thinking only in military terms.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

Again, the right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Many military experts feel a sense of frustration. In fact, I met a colonel last night who was operating one of the provisional reconstruction teams in Mazar-e Sharif and he was frustrated because his remit was so tight and he was able simply to provide security. He so much wanted to do other things and help the communities, but was prevented from doing so by his remit and the fact that he can help only with security matters. General Jones also expressed his frustration with the situation. The absence of joined-up thinking that we have seen in Afghanistan has frustrated success and that is why we need a re-think. I pay tribute to the group with which the right hon. Gentleman has done so much work and I hope that the Government will listen to the comments that have come through, particularly from General Sir Michael Jackson. It is frustrating that we must wait until such characters retire before they can be more vocal with their thoughts.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

My hon. Friend may be aware that I have just come back from Afghanistan where I and a number of my colleagues discovered that the capacity of the Afghanistan Government to deliver is weak. Part of the problem is that only a small amount of the money that the Department for International Development has so far given for alternative livelihoods has actually got to the farmers. That is one major problem. The second is that NATO's remit does not involve destroying crops. That will have to be done by the Afghan army, helped by the Afghan police, who are incredibly weak at the moment and rapidly need to be bolstered.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

My hon. Friend makes an important contribution. I had the opportunity to meet President Karzai, who said that he was not able to control the trade for the obvious reason that so many of his team are, on various levels, involved in it and there simply is not the capacity to deal with the problem. The country is too young in that respect. When I put the idea of licensing to him, he acknowledged that the country had passed a law that allows the licensing of poppy crops and that legally it can act. However, I was with General Richards and General Jones at the time, and President Karzai pointed back to us and said, "You need to do this. You need to pursue this", and by "you" he meant the international community. He feels that on his side, much as he wants to take action, he does not have the capacity to do so. More importantly, many people would be upset if the scheme were rolled out, which is why it needs to be done carefully at a local level, rather than by a top-down approach.

I am conscious of the time I have taken, so I would like to conclude by saying that I have had an opportunity to put the proposal to the former Prime Minister and he acknowledged the difficulties that we have had. I certainly got the impression that he was willing to consider it in more detail. [Interruption]. I do not think that that is my phone this time.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

It is calling me to endorse what I have just been saying. I acknowledge the work of Keith Hill, who, through his staff, was very helpful in relation to this issue, and organised meetings in the United States with various senators and representatives from the Justice and State Departments, who also expressed much interest in and general support for this idea. We need to move from talk to action, which is why I hope that the Government will listen to what I have said today. Even the Afghan embassy officials were very interested in the proposal, as were others such as Paddy Ashdown, Richard Armitage, and General Jones—to mention just a few.

In conclusion, as I have mentioned, Afghanistan was once known for its agricultural exports, particularly pomegranates and peaches, but today it is labelled as the world's opium grower. Only a programme that is supported by the farmers themselves and the local jirgas can succeed in a war-torn country where corruption is rife. The new strategy would give a focus to all participating international organisations and non-governmental organisations that can play a part in nurturing a new market infrastructure. The poppy problem cannot be solved in isolation, but it is integral to establishing peace and improving the livelihoods of the people.

More money and troops are certainly on their way, but the poppies keep growing. The former Prime Minister has conceded that our present strategy is costing over $1 billion a year, but that it is failing and that it would be wise to consider an alternative solution. I am aware that the new Prime Minister is making a statement on his priorities for the year and I hope that he will take time to consider this proposal. The window of opportunity in Afghanistan will not be open for ever and after the six years that we have been there many of the locals are asking how their lives have changed. We must face up to the fact that unless we challenge the issue of poppies we will possibly undo all the good work that we have so far achieved. I hope that I have given the Government some food for thought.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

A number of hon. Members have indicated that they want to speak and I intend that the winding-up speeches should start at about 10.30 am. If there is not time to call those Members who wish to make a speech, I hope that they will make an intervention to enable the winding-up speeches to start on time.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West 9:57 am, 11th July 2007

I congratulate Mr. Ellwood on his visionary, practical and courageous approach. We owe him a debt of gratitude for injecting a note of reality into a war that all sides have treated with an air of delusion and wishful thinking. I will not go as far as my right hon. Friend Mr. Field and call the hon. Gentleman my friend, but I realise that we live in astonishing times where the walls of party tribalism are collapsing. In my party we are getting used to working with Comrade Sir Digby Jones and Comrade leuan Wyn Jones in the Welsh Assembly, and we hope that that will be productive. I find myself agreeing with a great deal of the document on drugs produced by the Conservative party because it at least acknowledges the failure of drugs policy since 1971 in this country. I am gratified to know that fellow Conservative Members of the Council of Europe are at least likely to vote for a new convention on drugs that I hope will go through the Council of Europe in Strasbourg in September.

The Minister should give a response of apology and contrition, but those are not responses that politicians usually give so I am not too optimistic about that. Instead, we will possibly hear the continuous manic optimism about the war that we have had from the Government and the Opposition for a long time. As many hon. Members will remember, we went to war for a very good reason: to ensure that the Taliban could not protect al-Qaeda, who were in the country, and that was entirely justified in my view. We also went into the war because 90 per cent. of the heroin on the streets of Britain came from Afghanistan and a solution to that was promised. That is hard to believe now. The situation after six years and after we, British taxpayers, have spent £260 million on the eradication of narcotics is that we have the highest harvest of poppies ever—an increase of 59 per cent. last year.

Furthermore, the price of heroin on the streets of Britain is the lowest that it has ever been—and still 90 per cent. of it comes from Afghanistan. In no way can that record be described as a success. There were successes on the way, but we always took three steps back. That is the bottom line now, and no one can pretend otherwise with any conviction.

We are seeing the Colombianisation of Afghanistan; we should look at what happened in Colombia when we believed that we could cut off the supply of drugs. For an argument better than anything that I can provide this morning, look to Lord Birt's strategy unit report to the former Prime Minister, which said that it had not been done—it has never been achieved. If we did achieve a reduction in Afghanistan it would be the squeeze-balloon principle. There would be an increase in production in Myanmar, north Pakistan, Kazakhstan and so on, in the same way that reductions in Colombia, which have now been reversed, resulted in increases in production in Peru and Bolivia.

The problem is on the demand side. We, rather than the fields of Afghanistan, are sucking in the heroin and fuelling the problems on our streets in London, Chicago and so on. Afghanistan has suffered greatly because of our false policies and our delusion of omnipotence. The Minister spoke recently about this subject, so we know what he is likely to say this morning. He spoke about tackling corruption in Afghanistan—that is delusional. Anyone who seriously believes that they can eliminate corruption in Afghanistan—it is possible, but very unlikely that he believes it—should be treated and gently ushered away by men in white coats. It is totally unattainable. We cannot do it. Corruption is endemic; it has been there for centuries and will continue for centuries. Our other policies are very similar, and are not practical.

As I said, I support the presence of our troops in Kabul. Members present might recall a debate in Westminster Hall, in February 2006, before we went into the Helmand province. At the time, I believed that we had made great progress on reconstruction, women's education and so on. We should consolidate that progress, which I believe is possible. However, it is not possible to ensure that Karzai's rule extends to every corner of Afghanistan. Sending troops into the Helmand province was mission impossible, as it has proved to be.

Perhaps the Minister will reflect on his attitude when we went into Afghanistan. On 7 February, he answered a question about the progress that had been made on drugs. As always, his answer was true, but only partly so. He said:

"Last year saw a 21 per cent. reduction in the area of opium cultivation in Afghanistan."

That is absolutely right. However, we saw only a 2 per cent. reduction in production. The area cultivated was cut down, but production went down by only 2 per cent. Since then, of course, things have got worse.

On the same day, I asked the Minister probably the most serious question that one could ask about this matter:

"A 20 per cent. decrease in the area cultivated but only a 2 per cent. decrease in the amount of heroin produced: are we not on mission impossible, sending troops into the Helmand province, and will that not result, perversely, in an increase of violence that drives local farmers into the hands of the Taliban?"

That was a plea to think again given the risks that we were taking. The Minister's reply was a joke. It might even get a laugh this morning:

"No, but with respect to my hon. Friend, his policies would lead that way. It is not enough to assume that if people eat the right kind of muesli, go to first nights of Harold Pinter revivals...and read The Independent occasionally, the drug barons of Afghanistan will go away."—[Hansard, 7 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 727.]

That got some laughter in the House, but I do not think that the families of the 56 soldiers who died after going into Afghanistan, or those of the record number of people on our streets who die using Afghan heroin would find that very amusing. That was the flip response to the very serious requests and speeches being made. I believe that going into the Helmand province was a doomed mission, and said so at the time. That question needed a serious response.

Let us look at the figures. Before we were in the Helmand province, up to February 2006, we lost seven of our courageous troops, mostly as a result of accidents. Nearly all of the 56 who have died since we went into the Helmand province have done so as a result of conflict. And what do Ministers do when a policy cannot be defended? In a typical speech, I am afraid, in Washington, to an audience that I am sure was willing to be cosseted and comforted by his words, the Minister talked about an "holistic approach", a "joined-up rule of law", and a coherent, "comprehensive approach"—he mined deeply at the seam of clichés. Members do that. They do not come up with practical policies, suggestions for change or expressions of regret at the lives lost and money wasted in Afghanistan, but attack it with a barrage of jargon and clichés.

The Minister came up with one glimpse of reality. He said:

"We are all aware of the reports suggesting there are some people in parliament and in the government— of Afghanistan—

"with links to the trade."

Well, congratulations! As the hon. Gentleman knows, corruption in Afghanistan goes to the heart of Government. Not so much Karzai himself, whom we all admire, but the people he has appointed as police commanders and provincial governors are, in many cases, drug dealers, former warlords, warlords now, and, in one case, a paedophile. One man was singled out for praise last November in the House when I suggested that bad people were running Afghanistan outside Kabul. It was suggested that I was being disrespectful to Mohammed Daoud, whom the then Secretary of State for Defence described as a man of idealism on whom we could really rely. A fortnight later he was sacked and replaced by someone more acceptable.

If we really believe that we can root out corruption in Afghanistan—drugs and corruption are said to be two sides of the same coin—we are wrong. That is a mission that cannot be achieved. We must deal with the reality: we can defend the progress made around Kabul and the immediate area, but we will never succeed beyond that. There is absolutely no evidence that we can succeed. We know that in the Helmand province there is very little, if any, reconstruction, because non-governmental organisations will not go there.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

It seems that the tribal walls are dissolving everywhere apart from in the hon. Gentleman's own party, between himself and the Minister. I know that the hon. Gentleman agrees that poppy production can and should be redirected towards the production of diamorphine. Bearing in mind his comments about corruption in Afghanistan, with which I agree as a policy approach, has he considered the practical challenges and basis for redirecting poppy production towards more constructive uses, both internationally and locally?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Yes, indeed. That idea was first introduced to Parliament in October 2005 in early-day motion 749, which the hon. Gentleman and I both signed. It is an instantly very attractive idea because, as we know, there is a shortage of morphine and codeine in the developing world. A person in a third-world country with a terminal illness has only a 6 per cent. chance of getting the comfort of morphine. There is a case for greater production, an approach that has been successful in Turkey where there has been a move from illicit to licit production.

The Government appear to be moving on the issue, although hon. Members should not be too encouraged by that, because the Minister will turn down the idea this morning, as the Government constantly have. Nevertheless, there are signs of common sense breaking through. However, there is no justification for the Minister having said in Washington that there has been real progress on drugs in Afghanistan over the last five years. There has not been any real progress, and the Government must first admit the abject failure of current policies.

The approach of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East is absolutely right. The Government's position on that, as I understand it, is that it would not be a complete success, because some of the poppy production would escape from the poppy for medicine harvest to illicit markets. So what? It will happen anyway, because we cannot stop illicit cultivation altogether. As I said earlier, if we stopped it in Afghanistan we would have a squeeze-balloon situation in which production would be taken over in other countries. So the problem has to be solved here.

However, the hon. Gentleman's approach would at least represent a chance to have peace in Afghanistan and to win hearts and minds, rather than doing what we have done with bombs and bullets. People are right that there have been differences between ourselves and the Americans on that. We have lost hearts and minds in Helmand province, and we are going backwards instead of forwards, at the cost of 56 British lives—with more to come.

The poppy for medicine proposal is entirely sensible and well researched, and the Government should consider it. There is still uncertainty even now, when we are not making any effort to destroy poppies. When the Taliban first came they were opposed to poppy growth—the farmers know that. Later, however, the Taliban rather cynically discovered that they could use the money from poppies to buy armoured personnel carriers and rockets. So they decided that poppy growth was appropriate after all and that, like other grown substances, poppies were a gift of God—a gift of Allah—that could be used for good or evil.

We should warmly support the proposals made by the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that the Government will have the courage to follow the direction that he has signposted.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley 10:12 am, 11th July 2007

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Ellwood on obtaining the debate. I shall use the discipline that you and I have learned in the Council of Europe, Mr. Hancock, and finish my speech in four minutes, to give other hon. Members an opportunity to speak.

My only reticence about my hon. Friend's suggestion is that it recalls the good old days of the Tory party conference when I was young. People used to speak against motions—such as for the return of the death penalty—because they did not go far enough. In the present instance, my only misgiving is that the pilot is just for one section of Afghanistan. If it is the right approach, it seems to me to be common sense that we should roll it out across the whole country. There are no two ways about it, the problem is huge.

This morning, I saw a BBC report about the eradication of the crop that referred to losing the poppy war. That is how it seems when we consider that Afghan farmers—or whoever it is—are chopping down the poppy crops by hand, yet we know how huge is the country and how large is the expanse that is given over to poppy production. The results achievable through chopping poppies down by hand are just a drop in the ocean, and will certainly not lead to eradication of the crop.

Spraying has been suggested as an effective way to control poppy production. That happens in Colombia, and we hear the same sorts of complaints from Afghan politicians as from Colombian politicians, who said that they were against spraying of crops because of the potential health hazard to farmers. It is difficult to control where the spray goes and legitimate crops might be contaminated.

Paul Flynn intimated that corruption is massive in Afghanistan. Members of the Afghan Government speak against crop spraying simply because—for whatever reason—they are a part of the production problem. They are themselves corrupt and they are taking backhanders. Having said that, it is difficult to put oneself in the position of those who are up against the Taliban. The Taliban are terrorists who intend to kill people; they are there to make people's life impossible. None of us has to put up with the sorts of fear that farmers and other people in Afghanistan have to put up with. When the Taliban say "Jump!", the response is "How high?"

There is another analogy with Colombia. We must never forget that Karzai's Government does not have control of the entire country. I was part of a group that was taken to Medellin in Colombia, which is a city that the Government lost control of for a long time before regaining it. The fact that a country has one name does not mean that its Government have control everywhere, like the Government of the United Kingdom. Here, we introduce legislation and it is enforced fairly well throughout the country. That is not the case in other parts of the world, so a balance must be struck.

The suggestion made by my hon. Friend is a useful one. It was discussed at the Council of Europe, where it was also suggested that we buy up the entire poppy production of Afghanistan—a suggestion that you supported, Mr. Hancock, as did other Council of Europe members. The idea was that it would cost less to do that than to wage a war that we are losing. We know that the demand side is huge; some 11 million people are estimated to be addicted to heroin, of whom 3.3 million are in Europe, and I suspect that those figures are somewhat conservative. We must make a concerted effort to try to introduce policies that will be effective in Afghanistan.

I pay tribute to our troops in that country; they are doing a fantastic job. However, we should reconsider our policies on drug eradication, and my hon. Friend's suggestions go a long way to making concrete proposals that I believe will be effective.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence) 10:17 am, 11th July 2007

I start with a simple proposition, which is that the attempt to eliminate poppy cultivation in areas where security control has not been established will not succeed and is likely to fuel the insurgency. That has always been my view, and nothing that I have heard this morning has changed it.

There is a problem in our dealings with our American allies on the issue. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Ellwood on securing the debate and on proposing imaginative ideas that will certainly bear fruit if applied in areas where a significant degree of security control has been established. He referred to General Jones, the former supreme allied commander at NATO, whom I had the privilege of meeting at the Royal College of Defence Studies last year. I do not know whether his views have since changed, but I was dismayed by his emphasis on poppy eradication even at the expense of winning hearts and minds. I felt that that was absolutely the reverse of the right emphasis for our activities.

It is a technique of unrepresentative, militant minorities down the ages—when they cannot succeed in convincing the mass of the population or even a significant sector of it of the rightness of their cause—to look around for some other area of activity that they can use to seduce people to their side. As a number of speakers have said, that is why the Taliban, having sought to suppress the poppy crop when they were in control of Afghanistan, reversed their position as soon as they lost control of the country. They did so, not as suggested by Paul Flynn, with some of whose analysis I agree, because they wanted money to buy equipment, but because they wanted to create a common interest between themselves as insurgents and a vast swathe of the population that is economically dependent on the poppy crop.

I have made a distinction between eradication in areas where there is a degree of security control and eradication in areas where this no such control. In areas where there is no security control, we are in danger of allowing ourselves to be diverted from the primary strategic military goal of containing and eventually eliminating the insurgency. We did not go into Afghanistan to fight the drugs trade, and I would be surprised if many of the people who took the decision to go into Afghanistan knew—or, if they did know, even gave a moment's thought to the fact—that we would find ourselves cheek by jowl with the people who produce the crops that are behind a great deal of the drugs taken on our streets.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Has the hon. Gentleman entirely forgotten the rhetoric before the war? Dealing with the fact that Afghanistan was a centre of heroin production was not the main aim of the war, but it was certainly one of the sub-aims.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

No, I have not forgotten that, because I never heard it in the first place. I entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I remind him that 48 hours before the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, General Masood was assassinated by people who were clearly part of the conspiracy. Why did they assassinate the man who would undoubtedly have been Afghanistan's predominant and most effective leader in the event of an invasion? They did so because they knew that what was about to happen in America would inevitably lead to the invasion of Afghanistan because the conspiracy behind it was based there. Narcotics did not come into the question of the invasion at all, and if they did, they should not have done, because the invasion was an attempt to respond to, and eliminate the source of, the dreadful terrorist attack that took place. We must not allow ourselves to be diverted from that aim, for precisely the reason that the hon. Gentleman twice mentioned in his speech: even if we succeeded in completely wiping out the poppy crop in Afghanistan, do we think for one moment that the laws of supply and demand would not lead to crops being sown and harvested in countries that were even more inaccessible?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Several colleagues have been to Afghanistan and know far more about the issue on the ground than I do, because I have never been there. However, is not part of the problem the fact that the drugs trade is so rife because the Taliban sell what is produced to carry on terrorism? Drugs are an integral part of the war against terrorism.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

The Taliban may make money from the drugs trade, but that is not what they need to carry on a successful insurgency. What they need is a number of willing recruits to keep the insurgency going and the support—passive or active—of a significant swathe of the population. The only way to defeat an insurgency, as we have learned over many years in a number of long campaigns, is to isolate the militants from significant parts of the population. If, by taking action to suppress the poppy trade, we create common cause between a significant part of the population and the militants of the insurgency—as we are—we will be sowing the dragon's teeth and making our eventual success problematic. We must focus on the primary aim, which, if we are talking about winning hearts and minds, must be to avoid at all costs doing anything that forces people who would not normally be inclined to side with the insurgents to do so.

In areas where we have established a reasonable degree of control, a scheme such as that suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East would be of great benefit because it would act as a beacon and an incentive and might even send signals to farmers in areas where we had not established security control that there was a better future to which they could subscribe. However, let us make no bones about the fact that, as I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend, even if a farmer wanted to sign up to such a scheme in an area where the Taliban were still running rife, the first thing that the terrorists would do would be to kill him to intimidate the rest.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

One point that has not been brought out in the debate at all is the fact that the problem of addiction is getting significantly worse in Afghanistan itself and even worse in Iran. Iran is co-operating with us on drugs eradication. Does my hon. Friend not believe that it is vital that we get a regional buy-in from both Iran and Pakistan if we are to succeed in Afghanistan?

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

I certainly believe that just as the Taliban seek to create a common interest with that part of the population that is dependent on the opium trade for its living, it would be immensely politically beneficial to see whether a common interest of the sort that my hon. Friend describes could be used to strengthen relationships with neighbouring countries. I therefore entirely support what he says.

I revert, however, to my central point: if an insurgency is to be defeated, it is vital that we do nothing to increase the insurgents' appeal to large numbers of the population. We are engaged in a counter-insurgency operation, not a social engineering operation, and we must not confuse the two.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Minister, International Development 10:27 am, 11th July 2007

I congratulate Mr. Ellwood on triggering this excellent debate. All speakers on both sides have expressed an interesting variety of views, and although hon. Members have not always been in total agreement, their contributions show that everybody cares passionately about this subject.

If we were ever in any doubt as to the seriousness of the situation that we are discussing, the resignation of the Afghan counter-drugs Minister and the record opium haul announced last month bring the situation into sharp focus. The impact of the crop spreads from the mountains of Afghanistan to the estates of Edinburgh in my constituency, and anyone who has seen the film "Trainspotting" will know exactly what I am talking about.

The 49 per cent. increase in opium production in Afghanistan has set a new record in world production. The country now accounts for 92 per cent. of global illicit opium production, while more than 12 per cent. of its population is involved in poppy cultivation. The opium trade is worth about $3 billion, although only a fraction of that goes into the pockets of farmers. It is estimated that the opium trade makes up about a third of Afghanistan's total economy.

In a country as poor as Afghanistan, opium has a corrosive and corrupting influence on any institution that it touches. Other hon. Members will have read reports that some of the biggest drug barons are reputedly members of the national and provincial governments and even include figures close to President Karzai.

The scale of the problem is huge, and the question is how we approach it and what solutions we can offer. As other hon. Members have said, everyone accepts the scale of the problem, but there is major disagreement about the best way to tackle it. Eradication is one possibility, but a growing school of thought suggests that, as the situation deteriorates, the only course will be the aggressive eradication of poppy fields across the country.

The United States has been a key proponent of a more aggressive eradication campaign involving aerial spraying. If the only aim were to destroy the plants, perhaps that would be the best way to proceed. However, when between a third and a half of the Afghan economy depends on the opium trade, with 12 per cent. of the population involved and with unemployment already at more than 40 per cent., to adopt such a heavy-handed tactic would, in my view, be a social and economic disaster and would have massive knock-on implications for the security situation.

The sight of UK or US soldiers or even Afghan Government workers forcibly destroying crops and therefore livelihoods would provide an immediate boost to the Taliban recruitment propaganda. UK commanders routinely warn that an aggressive, eradication-based approach would drastically worsen the security situation. In Helmand, British military commanders have consistently warned that attempts to eradicate the poppy crop without providing alternative incomes will simply increase hostility to foreign troops and boost Taliban support. I support British officials on the ground who say that their priority is to attack the drug traffickers and their laboratories before embarking on a programme to provide Afghans with alternative crops.

The option mentioned by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East is very interesting. It is one argument put forward by the Senlis Council.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Minister, International Development

It is a similar argument—that there is a demand out there.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's contribution, but I stress that my argument and the Senlis Council's argument are not the same at all. There is an overlap, in the idea of taking advantage of poppy crops that could be turned either into opium or into medicinal substances. The council wants widespread licensing—almost legalisation—of poppy growth. I believe that that is not the long-term solution for Afghanistan. The country is too unstable. In addition, the Americans would not buy into that at all, and if the Americans will not support a scheme it will not happen, because they are putting in the most money.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Minister, International Development

I take the point, and stand corrected. I believe that there is a degree of overlap, but I accept that it is a separate argument.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Does the hon. Gentleman think it sensible to listen to the advice of an American Government whose own regressive drug policy resulted in 2 million people in jail—mostly blacks and mostly for using drugs?

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Minister, International Development

The issue of the demand in Europe and the United States is a key part of the problem, and I shall come to that.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

The hon. Gentleman is generous with his time. Another aspect of the matter is of course providing alternative crops to the farmers, which means that the crops must be bought globally. I have always believed in trade rather than aid and that we should make certain that the new crops would have free access to the European Union and other markets throughout the world.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Minister, International Development

That point is very well made. I feel that I am eating into the time that I have for my speech, so I shall not respond in detail, but the points that hon. Gentlemen have raised are all well made. The issue is complicated, and hon. Members have helped this morning to open up questions that I hope the Minister will answer.

Another crucial issue to consider before attending to any proposals to move forward with the poppy trade in Afghanistan is the relative incomes of licit and illicit opium producers. The average annual income per poppy farmer in Afghanistan was estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime at approximately $3,900 in 2003. In 2004, owing to the fall in opium prices at the farm gate level, farmers earned about $1,700. The average field size per farmer in Afghanistan has been estimated at about 0.4 hectares. By comparison, data collected in Turkey in 2003 suggested that the average net income per farmer involved in opium poppy cultivation was just $50 to $100 per year, with an average field size range between 0.8 and 1.6 hectares. That does not inspire faith that a controlled legal market for opium would be appealing for Afghan farmers, who could still make far more money trading in the illicit market. That market will still exist throughout the world, as many hon. Members have said.

It would also be extremely difficult to enforce any changes that that approach would require, such as the identification of specific farming areas where control measures could prove sufficient for prevention of diversion, and which would be licensed by the Government for that purpose. I do not think that anyone would suggest that there is the infrastructure in Afghanistan to enforce that. I am concerned that in a country where legal institutions are sometimes not even capable of keeping accused drug suspects in jail, changes would serve only to blur the lines between legal and illegal opium and would provide new opportunities for corruption. As has been said this morning, corruption is not exclusively the domain of the developing world. We need only consider what has recently happened in this country with kickbacks and bribes to know that it is a global problem.

Different approaches undoubtedly have their merits, but I suggest that the spiralling drugs trade in Afghanistan is a symptom of the wider problem of the lack of security, strong institutions and the rule of law. As such, I believe it cannot be looked at in isolation from wider political and security concerns and regional differences. I believe that any attempt to combat the drugs trade that ignores those bigger fundamental problems will be doomed to failure. UK support for strong governance in the country, together with sustained aid and redevelopment and the provision of alternative lifestyles, is vital.

The best hope of getting to grips with the opium trade is to win the battle for security in Afghanistan and assert the authority of the elected Government. Currently, the whole chain of government that is supposed to impose the rule of law, from the Ministry of the Interior to ordinary policemen, has been subverted. No matter what policy is decided in Kabul or in NATO, there will be no real change until the authority of the Government is increased. In that respect, the international community has a great deal to learn about the importance of involving the existing central authorities of the communities, the communal or tribal shuras or jirgas. It is there that, often, great authority is held. I believe that they will play a key role in any successful attempts to dissuade farmers on the ground from poppy harvesting.

To get to grips with the problem we need fully to understand why farmers grow opium. The annual opium poppy survey carried out by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime illustrates the point. When it asked farmers why they cultivated opium, in most cases the reasons were to do with the high price of the commodity. When farmers were asked why they did not cultivate opium, the key reasons given in almost 50 per cent. of cases were religion, the views of the elders and other traditional decision-making powers. The rule of law featured only as a secondary reason, if at all. Not only does that brutally illustrate the lack of any kind of government authority in many regions, but it surely tells us that, realistically, any moves to offer farmers alternatives to opium must involve local traditional decision-makers in a central role.

Before we can hope to control the drugs trade in Afghanistan, we need a far better and more complete appreciation of the reasons why poppies are grown in some areas of Afghanistan and not in others. What is also is needed is a greater active commitment to, and steady progress on, the elements of the Afghan Government's national drug control strategy. Targeted eradication in places where farmers actually have a choice would be part of the programme, as would apprehending the big players rather than the petty traders. In the end, halting Afghan opium production also means reducing demand in Europe and other drug-consuming states. We in the developed world have to shoulder much of the responsibility for creating the demand for opium and heroin. Of the 11 million heroin addicts in the world, 3.3 million are in Europe. We have to accept that western society is fuelling the demand for opium.

Ultimately, any progress in Afghanistan is likely to be incremental and will involve a mix of targeted eradication and development, the stimulation of agriculture and the licensing of poppy growth. All those measures require the same elusive ingredient: a stable Government who control their own territory and borders. That is the key to controlling the drugs problem in Afghanistan. The drugs trade is a symptom of instability and unrest. Until that is tackled, any attempts to combat the opium trade will have little hope of success.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 10:38 am, 11th July 2007

It is a pleasure to serve under your authority, Mr. Hancock. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Ellwood. The matter that we are debating is an issue that he has taken up and driven forward with great effort and experience, and he is to be congratulated on what he has achieved.

I have a couple of general comments to make in addressing the issue, putting it into context and picking up points that several hon. Members have made. First, it is obvious from the language used by our ambassador, Sherard Cowper-Coles, and others, that if we are to succeed in Afghanistan, we are in for a long haul. People in Afghanistan and Pakistan are looking to see whether we, with the international community, are prepared to stay there for the long haul. If they think that we are not and suspect that what is happening in Iraq might happen there, they will not be prepared to do what we would like them to do and literally put their lives on the line.

Secondly, all hon. Members have talked about the sheer scale of the problems with security and dealing with the poppy crop. Those of us who have a little interest and background in the history of this kind of political situation and counter-insurgency campaign know that we are again talking about spending years trying to establish security and the authority of a legitimate Government. The question is whether the British Government, the British public and our allies are collectively prepared to put in that long-term commitment and to take some of the casualties that might be required—not only military casualties, but representatives from the Foreign Office and DFID, who have to go out into the field to carry out the kind of operations that we want.

Thirdly, it is interesting that General James Jones, who has been quoted on several occasions—my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East knows him well—said, when he gave evidence to the US Senate armed services committee on 1 March:

"Afghanistan's most serious problem is not the Taliban, it is the alarming growth of its economic dependence on narcotics...The lead nation for this effort is the United Kingdom, and it is failing in developing and implementing a cohesive strategy to even begin to resolve a problem that will result in international failure in Afghanistan if not addressed".

Those comments prompt several questions, not least regarding the fact that the United States of America is the leading international partner in Afghanistan. One could also question whether its anti-drug policy helped to create a problem. Nevertheless, the Government must be only too well aware of the American attitude. I do not view that comment in a negative sense; instead, I take out the part about developing and implementing a cohesive strategy.

I hope that the Minister will specifically address drug policy and my hon. Friend's constructive suggestions. It would be easy to list all the reasons why my hon. Friend's proposals should not go ahead—we could all do that. Indeed, I have a long list of such points, with which I shall not bore colleagues, but, given that we are all floundering around trying to find a positive potential solution, the Government should seriously consider his suggestions.

Where I disagree with my hon. Friend—this is to do with the chicken-and-egg problem of establishing security while allowing local economic development—is that, with the best will in the world, it would be incredibly difficult to have licit production within Helmand province, because the security situation there is probably too poor. However, that does not mean that there could not be a licit scheme somewhere else in Afghanistan. Such a scheme might provide an example to the Afghan Government and to people who live in other parts of Afghanistan where the security situation is less good.

Several hon. Members have talked about taking an holistic approach to the situation in Afghanistan. We all know that no single issue or policy has tended to work in the classic examples of counter-insurgency, even in so-called successful campaigns such as that in Malaya. I say "so-called" because the main reason for the success there was that we gave Malaya independence. However, there was a degree of co-ordination, and things were done then that we could not possibly do now.

There is a list of things that we could do in Afghanistan. Paul Flynn will be cynical about this suggestion, but I have no doubt that there are about 20 or 30 leading, known drug traffickers in Afghanistan, some of whom might well be related to or members of the Afghan establishment. If President Karzai wants the international community to stay for the long haul, he will have to show real courage on this issue. If he does not, the international community will have to lock those people up and take them out of action to show others that if they continue down that route, they, too, will probably face the same situation.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

My hon. Friend's comments about the Government are fascinating, but I recently visited Afghanistan with my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown, and it was clear to me that the tendrils of corruption go to the highest levels inside the Afghan Government and penetrate to the centre of the Cabinet system. I applaud my hon. Friend's sentiments, but the idea of removing the people he is talking about would necessitate a collapse of the current Government.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Yes, well, politics and war, as Major-General Wolfe said, before he was killed, involve an option of difficulties. I am saying that President Karzai might well have that option of difficulties. If we accept my logic and we are to have some success, we must remember that we are talking about the British contribution being on a long scale, lasting years. If we do not consider the possibilities and persuade President Karzai that he has to address these issues, the problem might ultimately be that we do not have a strategy, and British and American public opinion might then take the view that it is not worth the effort.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the situation in Afghanistan has far more in common with what happened in Vietnam than what happened in Malaya, and is likely to become a British Vietnam?

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

No, I do not. I think that Arthur Balfour was right when he said:

"History does not repeat itself. Historians repeat each other."

As a former military historian, I am loth to use analogies, because they are often wrong. There is a serious crisis in Afghanistan, and this debate is about trying to find ways to resolve the problems. I hope that the Government will seriously consider the suggestions of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and use their good offices to persuade the senior member of the international coalition, the United States of America, that those ideas might be worth trying. They will not have a major, monumental impact, but they are positive, British and worth considering.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 10:48 am, 11th July 2007

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Hancock. I thank Mr. Ellwood for securing the debate. His contributions are always thoughtful, and I appreciate the original ideas that he has expressed and developed today.

President Karzai has said that, alongside terrorism, drugs are the biggest threat to Afghanistan's long-term security and development. I do not agree with my hon. Friend Paul Flynn on many things, but I agree that corruption is fuelled by drugs and has an organic relationship with them, but is not entirely about them. We have heard that there are endemic forms of corruption in Afghanistan that reach right to the very top, and we have to live with that situation.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

No, I have only a few minutes to reply to this important debate and the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

Counsels of despair might say that there is nothing we can do, we might as well get out now and try to be more insular about things, but I do not believe that we can go down that route.

I know from my five or six visits to Afghanistan—I remember going to Lashkar Gar before any of our troops were there—that it is impossible to tackle its problems today if we put off dealing with the drugs menace until tomorrow. The issue that we are debating is how we deal with it. Drug-related crime and corruption are rife, permeating all levels of society. As we have heard, the drugs trade and the Taliban insurgency are intrinsically connected in the south; there is a common interest in resisting Afghan Government authority and international forces. Afghanistan is facing another year of very high poppy cultivation, driven by the prospect of higher cultivation in Helmand.

Despite the almost unremitting gloom that we have heard in this debate, there are signs that things can improve and are improving in other parts of Afghanistan, especially the north and centre. In such areas, we must continue to help the Afghan Government to sharpen the delivery of their national drug control strategy.

My right hon. Friend Mr. Field is no longer present, but I would say to him that there is a kind of facile wisdom—I am not sure whether that is the right way of expressing this—about alternative livelihoods. On my first visit to Afghanistan, I went to Feyzabad in Badakhshan province in the north-east of the country. It is a remote, beautiful area, where a farmer said to me, "Hang on a minute. You are rewarding the next farmer for growing poppy last year by giving him tools, fertiliser and seed. You are giving me nothing because I did not grow poppy last year." The notion that there is an easy formula about providing alternative livelihoods is nonsense. I have seen alternative livelihoods being provided. The idea that our Government and the 36 other Governments who are involved in Afghanistan do not understand that there must be joined-up approaches to these things is nonsense.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

No, I will not. My hon. Friend has talked for long enough.

I have seen simple schemes that we have helped to pay for. We do not go around advertising the fact that the huge amount of Department for International Development money—£120 million—that is going into Afghanistan is being spent by Britain; we do not put British flags all over it. The money goes through the Afghan Government. I have seen small schemes, whereby mule tracks have been widened into roads that can take four-wheel drive vehicles. That allows fruit to get to market more quickly and more easily, without being bruised when it arrives, people to get a better price for it and so on.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

I take the Minister's point about the bleakness of some of the views that have been expressed. When I was in Afghanistan two weeks ago, I was struck by the views of the ambassador, some of the UN staff and a lot of the military staff. I was broadly told, "Soldiers may be dying, civilians may be dying, the drug crop may be increasing, but we are making progress. Look in the north. Look in the west."

Let us compare the situation with that of Northern Ireland. Remember how the cities of Belfast and Londonderry were improving, yet the border down in South Armagh was constantly turbulent. There is an analogy to be drawn. We are progressing, but it is costing lives and money.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I could not have expressed it better. We denigrate or ignore the progress that has been made at our peril. We could talk about many areas in this regard, not just Herat in the west, where I was shocked by the normalcy of life—trade was going on, there was prosperity and so on. In parts of Helmand, right in the middle of the turmoil, I have seen remarkable things happening. The sacrifices that have been made by our soldiers are not in vain by any means. A council of despair has told us that we are just another army dragged into another Afghan war, it will become our Vietnam and so on. That is an easy thing to say, but it does nothing to address the central problem.

We must be realistic in our expectations of progress. As the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East told us, tackling the production and cultivation of opium is a complex problem that requires a complex solution. As Mr. Simpson said, ridding Afghanistan of this curse will take a generation, perhaps more. It took at least 30 years to reduce significantly the opium crop grown in the golden triangle. When I was in Assam a few weeks ago, locals told me that heroin is pouring down from there back into Bangladesh. This is a long-term problem. Should we do nothing about it? The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East says no, and that there are other ways of tackling it. We must examine those.

There are no short cuts to ending the drugs trade. As the hon. Gentleman said, we must be wary of silver bullet solutions. I do not believe that they would work, because I do not believe that a silver bullet solution exists. His continued engagement on the issue of drugs in Afghanistan is most appreciated. He acknowledges the difficulties in proposals for licit production there in the present circumstances, and he has some interesting and thought-provoking ideas about how to address the problems. He has raised them with us today, and my officials are studying them. I want to put it on record that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will take them seriously. I am particularly struck by the idea that we could consider a pilot project, because that is one way of testing whether an idea could work.

Dr. Lewis said that we must be careful about the idea that large-scale licit production can take place in an area where there is no law and order and where one does not control security. Such a notion is spurious. We have heard about the huge markets for opiates and heroin that exist just across the border in Iran and in Pakistan. Large numbers of people are prepared to pay good prices. I have just come back from Quetta and the border town of Chaman, where I saw how incredibly porous the borders are and how badly equipped the Afghan frontier police are. There is a notion that this can be controlled as one might control licit production in Tasmania or Turkey. We have heard Turkey talked about as if it were Afghanistan. Turkey is not Afghanistan—Turkey is like a little New York compared with Afghanistan. Afghanistan is completely different—one has to go there to see it and believe.

John Barrett touched on an important issue when he discussed "Trainspotting". There is still a glamour attached to drugs—to cocaine and heroin. Successive Governments have been trying to tackle that at home. Farmers and politicians in Afghanistan and Colombia tell me, "If there was no demand, we would not be supplying it." That is an important point to take on board.

We must examine all ideas and treat them seriously. I have almost no speaking time left, but I should say that we must continue to take a joined-up approach to this, as hon. Members have said. We must have certainty in respect of the money that is spent on development and on our attempt to fight the Taliban. The hon. Member for New Forest, East made the important point that we did not go to Afghanistan to stop the production and flow of heroin; we went there to fight the Taliban and to return the country to a state where it could live alongside, and as part of, the community of nations and not be a home for terrorists. Unfortunately, heroin is starting to finance those terrorists, so we must take both problems on at the same time.