[Christopher Fraser in the Chair] — Afghanistan Strategy

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 8th December 2009.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. Heppell.)

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West 9:30 am, 8th December 2009

A hundred British dead-why? That is the question this morning. A hundred British dead this year, three Dutch dead, seven Italians, 10 French and seven Germans; why the disparity? The flame at the Arc de Triomphe was rekindled last week to commemorate all Europeans who died this year in warfare. At that point, the total was 181 and the number of British dead was 99.

There was another significant anniversary last week, which was forecast by a Back Bencher in March 2006. The Government, with all their great knowledge and all of the experts on their side, said that we were going into Helmand province in the hope that not a shot would be fired and that we would be out in three years. That strategy was as accurate and reliable as the current strategy. At that time, there had been only seven British deaths, five of which were in accidents and only two of which were military deaths. We have gone from that to the dreadful position we are in now, with 237 deaths. At that time, a Back Bencher said that going into Helmand was the same as the charge of the Light Brigade-an act of incompetence and futility. Last Monday, the total British dead passed twice the number killed in the charge of the Light Brigade. Why have they died? Why are we there? Why are we continuing to send soldiers there?

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the tragic 100th death. That was the death of a soldier from the Royal Anglian Regiment-my local regiment-by small arms fire. Will he join me in sending condolences to the family?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I will certainly talk at length about condolences and the soldiers. The 200th soldier who died was Kyle Adams, who was engaged to and planning his future life with a constituent of mine. She wrote a touching letter about her hopes of marriage, the children they had hoped for and the place in which they had planned to live. She wrote that she met her "cold dead hero" when he returned to this country.

This morning, we were told a new fiction. We have reached the milestone of 100 deaths and carefully manicured soundbites have been prepared for the occasion. We are told that we must think not too much about casualties, but about other things: the propaganda, the lies and the posturing that we have been subjected to for the last eight years. We must not think about the casualties. Perhaps we should not think about those who are maimed, either. At least 300 have been maimed. People have lost arms, legs, genitals, their sight, their hearing. There is nothing we can do about that. We are told that we should concentrate not on that this morning, but on the manicured fiction that the Government-and the Opposition, I am afraid-are putting out.

Why are our soldiers dying? Are they dying to protect Karzai, the corrupt thief who says that he will suddenly become non-corrupt? If so, will he arrest his brother Wali, who is the best known, most powerful and richest of the drug dealers in the land? I think that is unlikely. Are they dying to demonstrate our solidarity with a man who rigged his election so efficiently? Of the $25 billion of international aid that he has taken, only $5 billion at the most has got through, and the rest has been spread out among his cronies and party members to buy his continuation in office. There have been no improvements in Afghan life as a result of the bulk of that aid. Afghanistan still has the second worst infant mortality rate in the world and the third worst rate of mothers dying in childbirth.

Are our soldiers dying to protect Karzai's cronies, such as Mohammad Fahim and Abdul Dostum? Fahim, who is now Karzai's chosen vice-president, was responsible for an orgy of murder, rape and looting in a poor section of Kabul, in which he and his army slaughtered 800 members of the minority Hazara community. He has a powerful position in the future of the new Afghanistan. Dostum, the other nominee for vice-president, was released from exile by Karzai to bolster the Uzbek vote. The most famous thing in Dostum's career is that he promised 2,000 Taliban prisoners safe passage if they surrendered their arms, then sealed them in metal cargo containers and suffocated them. Karzai, Dostum and Fahim are our allies. They are running the regime that we are sending our soldiers to protect. They should be in The Hague as war criminals, but instead they are our chosen allies.

Another reason for being there is the repeated fiction of the protection from terrorism. The Germans, French and Italians do not have the brass neck to lie to their people by suggesting that keeping their soldiers fighting in the war in Afghanistan is anything to do with terrorism, but we do. There has never been a terrorist plot or threat from Afghanistan or the Taliban.

If we were to ask the Taliban why they are killing our soldiers, what would they say? I have asked various Ministers and military people whether they have asked the Taliban about that and they have not. Would the Taliban say, "When we have killed all your soldiers, we will come over to London and Newport to blow up your streets."? Or would they say, "We are killing your soldiers because they are the ferengi. They are in our country. It is our sacred, religious duty to expel foreigners like yourselves from our country, just as our fathers did with the Russians and as our grandfathers and great grandfathers did with every foreign invasion into Afghanistan."?

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's comments. Does he agree that there are approximate parallels with the misleading way in which we attempted to deal with terrorists in the north of Ireland for a long time? Originally, we wrote them off as people who were insane and impossible to do business with, but they now seem to be running Northern Ireland rather well. Does he agree that if we are serious about a terrorist threat in Afghanistan, we should seek co-existence and negotiated solutions, rather than deluding ourselves and others that we can solve it through military solutions?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I agree entirely. We all know that there will be a deal eventually, perhaps in two or three years. We have a strategy that is gratifying and right for politicians. It is right for both main parties in this House because it takes us beyond the hurdle of the general election. It is right for the American President because it gives him some room. He has a Janus-faced philosophy. He must appear belligerent. As the first black President, with the middle name Hussein, he cannot possibly be seen to give in to a Muslim enemy because that would destroy him in redneck public opinion. He has no choice but to follow what has been urged on him. He is too intelligent to think that it will work; of course it will fail. There will be a deal and he has given a date for it, which is the perfect date for the next American presidential election. So, are our young people dying because of the presidential timetable in America and our own needs as politicians to survive? We are waiting for the day when we can exit, but we spin the situation as if it is a victory and present it as such. That is exactly the case that was put forward at the end of the first world war, which I will come to in a moment.

Perhaps we are fighting and dying in order for the day to arrive when we will hand over the country to the Afghan police and army. The Afghan police are depraved, brutal, lawless, drug-addicted thieves, who persecute and abuse the people they are supposed to serve. They are corrupt from top to bottom and are organised on the basis of bribes and theft.

In Penkala, a village that we liberated as part of Panther's Claw, the elders said, "We've had the Taliban here, and now we're frightened that the Afghan police are going to move in, because the last time they were here they practised bacha bazi." They corralled the pre-pubescent boys in the town and used them for sexual purposes-for rape. That was the practice of the Afghan police, and the elders have said that if they come back again, they will join the Taliban. The person who was interviewing the elders said, "But the Taliban are cruel people," to which the elders said, "Yes, they are cruel people, but they are men of principle and they do not practice bacha bazi."

Yet, the Afghan police are the people on whom we are depending. The fantasy that we can substantially increase their numbers and have a clean Afghan police is completely unattainable. An example of a corrupt police force being replaced by one that is non-corrupt can be found in Georgia, where they sacked the entire police force and started again. However, we are not doing that; we are building on the rotten foundation of the Afghan police. That is not going to work.

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

The hon. Gentleman has been consistent with his views in many debates, and he is showing that again here. However, I am trying to understand where he is taking us with his comments, because he is actually making the very argument that has been made by Conservative and Labour Members.

The whole Afghan nation has been corrupt from the time of Dost Mohammad, when we first wandered over there, to King Amanullah's time, to today. If President Karzai were removed and somebody else replaced him, the country would still be as corrupt as it is today. The fact that the police are corrupt and there is corruption shows what extra efforts need to be made to help the country. If we do not help the country, it will become the bastion of terrorism and we will end up with the problems that we saw in relation to 9/11 and 7/7. The hon. Gentleman's idea that we can somehow withdraw troops and expect a non-corrupt civilisation to appear is simply wrong.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

The hon. Gentleman is clearly a believer of fairy tales. He believes that there is going to be a happy ending to this, but no one will live happily ever after in Afghanistan. There was a civil war going on when we went in. The Taliban had control of 80 per cent. of the country, and the northern warlords had control of the rest. Of course, Afghanistan was corrupt. It was corrupt 100 years ago; it was corrupt 200 years ago. Corruption is the lubricant that drives Afghan life. We are not going to change that. We are not omnipotent, but we think that we are.

Let us consider our position. We talk as if we have got rid of elements of al-Qaeda in the country. The latest forecast from the independent body that produces maps on such matters shows that, last year, the Taliban had control of 72 per cent. of the country. However, the calculation this year is that they have control of 80 per cent. We will soon have 10,000 troops there, only 2,000 of whom are fighting troops who are on the front line. What percentage of the country does the hon. Gentleman think we control? We could possibly say 1 per cent., yet we are behaving as if we are masters of the universe and will change the habits of thousands of years. That is impossible. The new policy that has been introduced has been sold to us as something that will work, but it needs at least 12 miracles for the Obama policy to work.

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

The hon. Gentleman's argument that the Taliban are somehow in control of 80 per cent. of the country is simply wrong. They may have access to 80 per cent.-or a high percentage-of the countryside, but much of that is desert. For example, 70 per cent. of Helmand province is on the Helmand river, which is where our troops are actually based. If he wants to get rid of the police now, where are the other batch of potential policemen in Afghanistan, who are not corrupt and will take these jobs?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Again, the hon. Gentleman makes some reasonable points about the state of Afghanistan, but let us consider the alleged progress and the current position. There was talk of progress this morning and I am sure that there will be more. We made a great fuss last August about the fact that a turbine was conveyed to the Kajaki dam, which had been bombed by the Americans in the previous war. That was regarded as a huge triumph. It took 4,000 soldiers to get that turbine there-I have been told that there were 3,000 NATO and 1,000 Afghan soldiers involved in that one operation. How much electricity has it produced? It has not yet produced enough electricity to light a bicycle lamp. In fact, there is one less turbine there, because another turbine has broken down.

Let us consider the situation of the Americans. They are paying $1,500 per lorry in protection money to the groups that regard themselves as security firms to get all their goods from Kabul to Kandahar. Most of that money goes back into the pocket of the Taliban. That is the reality of life in Afghanistan. There is a President who cannot travel 30 miles outside his own capital. That is the reality. The Taliban are very much in control of movements there.

Let me just give one more example that has had very little publicity. Back in August, there was a huge fuss about the number of helicopters in Afghanistan. In 10 days, we-the British Army-destroyed two of our Chinook helicopters, which cost £40 million each. They were not wrecked beyond repair-one of them had had a heavy landing and the other had some bullet holes from hand guns-and both could have been repaired at little cost. We did not repair them or wait 24 or 36 hours to get a heavy lifting helicopter to take them out to a place of safety. We blew them up because the security was so bad we could not guard them for the 24 hours it was necessary to do so. That is the truth, but we do not see blazing headlines about that in our newspapers. The mythology is continuing that there is the possibility of victory. The words "possibility of success" were used this morning. I do not believe that there will be success and I want our soldiers to be brought home.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Shadow Minister (International Development)

Speaking from my personal experience as a development officer in Afghanistan, I wish to ask whether the hon. Gentleman will at least accept that he is focusing very much on just one region? I have seen projects going on with my own eyes-for example, irrigation schemes that I worked on in Herat, and a new airport and infrastructure that has allowed farmers to get their goods to market has been put in place in Faisalabad. Across much of the country, genuine development progress is being made, which is helping the lives of local Afghans.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Yes, of course I accept that, but that is not the problem. The problem is Helmand province. We are in only one of the country's 34 provinces. The reason we have the problem in Helmand is entirely of our own making because we charged into what was a peaceful province and the result was predictable. When the first soldier was killed in Helmand province in June 2006, an early-day motion was tabled in this place, which said that this excursion will strengthen the Taliban and possibly lead to a British Vietnam. That was the view of Back Benchers at the time. Of course, it is very difficult to spend what the Americans are spending-£1 billion a day-without doing some good. We are very much aware that some development work is going on. However, that is not the problem. The problem is why are we sending our soldiers to die there? That is what we should be addressing now.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

It is not only the Afghan people, but the British people who have been denied a point of view. At the time of a fundamental change in mission-when we went into Helmand-this Parliament should have had a vote. We were allowed a vote on the Iraq situation, but we were not allowed a vote on Afghanistan. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I agree entirely. It is absolutely right that we should have a vote on that at some time.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I will give way in a moment, but I want to make some progress first.

The other group on which we are building our hopes is the Afghan army. The idea is that the army will be expanded in huge numbers, which is a difficult thing to do. So, who is in the Afghan army? According to David Loyn, the BBC correspondent, 60 per cent. of them are heroin addicts and virtually all of them use cannabis.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

Is not the greatest failure that we did not go in and wipe out the poppy fields?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

That was mission impossible from the start. Going into Afghanistan with the aim of wiping out the poppy fields would have been as successful as the 20-year campaign against Colombia. Had we wiped out the poppy fields at the start, there would still be no shortage of heroin, because markets move and the poppy growing would have gone to Myanmar, north Pakistan, Kazakhstan and elsewhere, and we would have seen the Colombia-isation of that area. Wiping out the poppy fields would have done no good at all, because the problem is with the demand side. We are sucking in the supplies of poppy, so it would not have worked.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

The hon. Gentleman's argument about going into Helmand province is well made, and from one point of view we all agree that the force that was sent was grossly undermanned. However, could not the same argument be made about Normandy, which was jolly nice and quiet before we invaded? Why on earth did we have to go and stir up that hornet's nest on 6 June 1944? It was because if we had not invaded, we would not have taken on Nazism.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I listen with some astonishment to the voice of the military on that matter. We went into Normandy because Europe was dominated by an evil empire run by a wicked man who had conquered other countries. There was a war, but the hon. Gentleman's comparison is ludicrous. We went into a peaceful area in Afghanistan, and the Taliban are fighting and killing us because we are in their country. When we went into Normandy we went into the country of an ally and the French wanted us there. The people in Helmand did not want us there.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that trying to draw comparisons with world war two completely misses the point? I believe that his point is that there is endemic support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, partly as a direct result of our actions there. That was the same problem we had in certain parts of Northern Ireland, and it has been exacerbated and made much more extreme in Afghanistan.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

It is certainly true that our presence in both Iraq, where a million Iraqis died, and in Afghanistan, where 100,000 Afghans have died, has increased the threat of terrorism on our own soil. Our terrorist threats have come from Yorkshire and Pakistan, not from the Taliban and not from Afghanistan at all. That threat is an utter myth and a scare story that has been put out. The latest scare story, which is similar to what happened when they ran out of excuses for going to war in Iraq, is the nuclear threat, yet the Americans say they are quite comfortable with the situation in Pakistan.

The Afghan army is another one of those platforms on which we build our hopes for success in the future. Virtually all the Ministers who have had responsibility for Helmand have gone to spend more time with their financial interests and are not here to answer on the matter, but my right hon. Friend Dr. Howells, who answered many of the debates here as a Minister, has now gone to the Back Benches, where he speaks the truth intelligently. He said in an intervention in a debate on Afghanistan a few days ago that one group of the Afghan army changed sides three times in one 24-hour battle, depending on who was paying the bribes. That is the Afghan army that we plan to build up and leave so that the country is secure and everyone will live happily ever after.

One of the old Afghan generals from Soviet times, Jabbar Karaman, described a section of the Afghan army several weeks ago, saying that seven Taliban attacked a convoy in Helmand that was being guarded by 300 Afghan soldiers, and the soldiers fled. That is the reality of the Afghan army. Jabbar Karaman said:

"The Afghan soldiers do not believe in the government, they do not believe in the system and they don't believe in the international community."

Why should they? If they do not believe in the project, why on earth should we send our soldiers to die there? The idea that we are sending our people there for success or stability, based on the new strategy, is an utter fiction. It is impossible to have a victory using the Afghan army and police and the corrupt bunch of people now running the country.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I am following my hon. Friend's argument with interest. Is it a myth that al-Qaeda, aided and abetted by the Taliban, was plotting terrorist attacks against this country on an ongoing basis from Afghanistan, and is it a myth that al-Qaeda was responsible for the dreadful attack on the twin towers in America? Are all of those contrived myths? Is al-Qaeda and the threat to British national security a myth or an invention of the British Government? I ask the hon. Gentleman to respond directly to that point.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

The contrivance is that the Government conflate al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and they must understand-I hope the Minister is listening-that they are not the same thing. Al-Qaeda were guests in Afghanistan, and the Afghans do not want to get them out because they have a pronounced sense of hospitality. They would probably treat us as guests as well if we had not gone there with bombs and bullets.

There is a great difference between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Taliban has no interest in terrorism, yet we are fighting the Taliban. If we want to have a debate on Pakistan, let us have a debate on it, but the Government also contrive to conflate Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have invented a new country which they refer to as the region, as everything is put down to the Afghan-Pakistan border. In fact, they are two separate countries. The threat of terrorism comes from Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, but not from the Taliban, who have an entirely different agenda.

James Fergusson, in his book, tells a story about a time he talked to a Taliban leader, which is more than any of our politicians have done. That Taliban leader said that he did not want to learn to love his children, who were aged eight, six and three, and that he had made them live in another village. He said that if they loved him and he loved them it would be worse when he was killed. James Fergusson asked, "You do not want to be killed, do you?" The Taliban leader replied, "Of course I want to be killed. It is my dearest wish, as my father was killed fighting the Russians, as my great- grandfather was killed and as my great-great-grandfather was killed. It is my sacred, religious duty, because these ferengi"- foreigners-"are in my country and I have to expel them."

Can we not get this simple message across: our soldiers are being killed because they are present? The answer is not to send more soldiers to act as more targets for Taliban bombs, but to bring our soldiers out of Afghanistan. That is the only solution we have and we will do it eventually. In the meantime, we are dilly-dallying for reasons of political expediency here and in the United States. That is the heart of the position we are in. Five hundred additional soldiers are going to Afghanistan, and we were told on the radio this morning that we should expect more deaths and put up with that, but we should not put up with it.

The war in Afghanistan is probably an illegal war. International law states that a country may go to war when there is a threat against it from the local population of a country. There is no threat to Britain from Afghans and there was no threat to Britain from Iraqis, but we went to war in both countries. I believe that history will judge both to have been illegal wars. On the terrorism threat, we have seen the terrible event that took place in this country, but I believe that that had no connection whatever with the Taliban.

I was interested this morning to read a poem that has been published by our new poet laureate. At last we have a poet laureate who does not write poems about royal anniversaries, church bells ringing and Christmas bells at Christmas time. She writes about reality-the dirty, evil, horrible reality of life in Britain now. One verse states:

"In Afghanistan, no partridge, pear tree; but my true love sent to me a card from home.

I sat alone, crouched in yellow dust, and traced the grins of my kids with my thumb.

Somewhere down the line, for another father, husband, brother, son, a bullet with his name on."

In this House, in 1917, there was a parallel to the position that we are in now. The first world war was still going on, men on both sides were dying like cattle in huge numbers and a point of near stalemate had been reached. Siegfried Sassoon came to the House of Commons and gave his view of the situation. His comments then were entirely accurate in respect of our position now. He stated, as a serving soldier:

"I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it".

That is exactly true now. This war could come to an end. We could leave, but we cannot do so because we have to protect the reputations of politicians. Our mouths are bandaged by the fear that the incompetence of the invasion of Helmand and the stupidity of our unattainable policies ever since would be exposed. If we left, the dying of our soldiers and the Afghans would end. There is no easy deal, but there will be a deal eventually.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Following that line of argument, if we were doing the populist thing rather than the right thing, and if we were considering the polls at this stage of the mission, we would leave Afghanistan. However, politicians on both sides of the House who believe in the mission believe that we need to stay there because we are doing the right thing. It would be politically expedient to leave tomorrow, and we might gain some short-term political support, but would that be the right thing to do for our long-term stability and security? That is the question that my hon. Friend has to answer.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

If the Minister thinks that this debate has anything to do with populism, he is wrong. I have been saying these things since 2006.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Let us say what the position is. The public feel strongly that we should be out-71 per cent. in the last poll-and it is the same throughout Europe. It is the same in France and Germany. But this is not about populism. Of course we should always do the right thing, but when have we done the right thing in this war? When have the Government been right? When has their assessment been correct? I cannot remember any claim that they have made that has been correct or true.

We cannot get rid of corruption, and it is stupid to pretend that we can do so in the next six months just by wagging a finger at somebody. We cannot turn the Afghan army and police into something like the Swedish army. It will not happen; those are impossible claims. We cannot alter the nature of the whole country of Afghanistan when we are in only one province.

We are in Afghanistan for political reasons. The President of America is in an awful position because of his political need to placate both sides, including the rednecks and the Republicans who suspect a President with his character and name, but he has also given the hope of an exit strategy because he knows that it has to come eventually.

Could what happened in Vietnam, which some hon. Members may not remember as well as many of us do, be repeated? That was a country that had to be saved. It was a war that was impossible to lose because, if it was lost, there would be a domino effect and every other country in south-east Asia would become communist. The Americans should have done a deal and walked out with some dignity.

We can still do that in Afghanistan. We can still do a deal which might well consolidate some of the gains made, and which might mean that our friends are not slaughtered when we leave. We could walk out after doing that deal or we could run out in panic as the Americans did from Saigon because of the public's disgust at the coffins that were coming home and their refusal to see a strategy that made any sense.

Our new strategy does not make sense, and that was exactly the case in the last year of the first world war. I speak about this with some interest because my father was shot on 10 April 1918. Happily, his life was saved by a German group who stopped him bleeding to death. He was in that war, and his life was ruined by it.

Siegfried Sassoon, who had an honourable record in that war, stated in this House:

"I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it...I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

That is exactly the situation now. He went on to state:

"I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed."

Our men are being sacrificed now, and they will be sacrificed in the future. Our aim should be to bring our soldiers home, stop believing in impossible ends, and bring an end to the bloodshed of our soldiers, fellow NATO soldiers and Afghans.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 10:07 am, 8th December 2009

It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate, considering the many announcements that have been made not only in the UK but in the US in recent days. I congratulate Paul Flynn on securing this debate, although I find myself not entirely agreeing with everything he says. He has been consistent in his views-that is for sure-but I believe that he lives in a different world if he thinks that a sudden and quick withdrawal of British, American and allied troops from Afghanistan would somehow lead to peace there and a decline in the threat here. We are there for a reason: we are there as a consequence of recent actions, and we are there with the approval of the United Nations and, indeed, the elected Afghan Government as well.

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

Yes, absolutely. I correct the hon. Gentleman who suggests from a sedentary position that the Government were not elected. They were elected.

I shall not stand here and say that everything is running correctly, or that I entirely support the Government. Indeed, I have been critical of their strategy, which is changing yet again. It cannot be right that we are in a war half a decade after we ventured into Afghanistan. Unfortunately, there is a similarity with Iraq: whatever the reasons, which we can debate separately, for making the initial incursion, there needs to be a better process of moving from war to peacekeeping.

The UK does not have a strong post-conflict capability, which is a shame, because that is exactly what was needed in the aftermath of March 2003 in Iraq. Nobody took responsibility for the umbrella of security that was created by the military, and the same thing happened again in Afghanistan. We cannot expect, particularly with the technological advances in our war-fighting capability-force multipliers, as they are called-to take aeroplanes and a high-tech armed force to defeat a low-level, low-tech armed force, and then expect employment, governance, rule of law and security to be created on their own. We lack that capability. We have a serious problem with the relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development. DFID does a fantastic job tackling poverty, which is its first remit, and it was never expected to take on the fairly new responsibility of stabilisation. So there are questions to be asked about how we can improve that situation, although perhaps those are for another debate.

The hon. Member for Newport, West is certainly right to pose thoughts about what sort of country Afghanistan is, because only by studying it and understanding the people can we work towards a strategy that fits with their desires and ambitions. Afghanistan is a fascinating country-even calling it a country is perhaps a bit advanced-that is a mixture and a wonderful grouping of ethnic alliances and tribes. Over the last 2,000 years, going back to Alexander the Great, it has been the location of, or battlefield for, various incursions from the Persians on one side, the British from the other and the Russians from the north as well, all scrapping over this piece of land that contains groupings that have never really been aligned. After so many years, how can we suddenly expect to impose a western-style centralised Government on a place that has never had one? Not even during the long reign of Mohammed Zahir Shah was there any remote sense of centralised operation. There was certainly a big chief-in the 1830s that would have been Dost Mohammed, who was at that stage in the capital at Kandahar, rather than Kabul-and the other tribes would simply accept that there was a tougher, bigger more powerful leader in another location. But when Dost Mohammed died, having kicked the Brits out after they invaded, there was a squabble that involved the deaths of a number of his cousins before a successor was finally strong enough to be respected by the various tribes-and so life would go on. In the same way, when Henry V suddenly became king, for example, a bellringer would wander into a village in England and the villagers would just accept that over towards London there was now a different king and somebody else was in charge, but life would continue on merrily.

Why are we suddenly trying to impose a centralised Government, with everything being Kabul-centric and focusing heavily on President Karzai who has absolute issues with corruption? Why are we not pushing for a more federal model? It is curious that the Americans had a huge hand in developing the Bonn accord, which was the blueprint for the constitution of Afghanistan. America has an interesting model. Those who are familiar with that country will know that every state has the power to hold its leader-the Governor-to account and to make its own decisions separate from what happens nationally. Considering the wonderful tapestry in Afghanistan of different groupings-Hazaras, Baluchis, Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks-why did we not go down the road of a more federated autonomous basis, similar perhaps to the United Arab Emirates, which has seven different fiefdoms that come together when there are national issues to be discussed, but have a sense of responsibility? In the 1950s and '60s, Afghanistan was like that. The area containing Nimroz province, Kunduz, I think, Kandahar and Helmand was all controlled by one individual and there were about seven or eight different groupings of provinces that allowed a sense of rule in Afghanistan. Perhaps we need to use that model. If all the money is poured into Kabul and it is expected to trickle down into, for example, a little village outside Musa Qala, that will not work. That is the first governance issue that needs to be addressed as we approach a change in strategy.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

But does not that make fighting the war even more difficult? Because there is no homogenous enemy, people just keep changing sides. Whatever wins we have in one part of the country-this has always been the difficulty-are compensated for by people changing side in another part, which shows the complete folly of our being in Afghanistan.

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

The hon. Gentleman makes a point that I cannot disagree with. That is why a vision is needed about where the country, or the region or the locality, is going. People who live in Gereshk or Lashkar Gah do not see Kabul as the capital city and do not understand the decisions that are made. In fact, for many Afghanis living in their villages the word "ferengi", which is used for foreigners, also applies to the people living across the other side of the valley. Of course, there is a bond-the Pashtunwali code-that links all the Afghanis together, but the tribal instinct links those communities together, not a sense of belonging to Afghanistan as a state, because it has never been one.

My next point is about economic vision. When I go to Afghanistan, I ask, "What is the grand plan? What is the vision for the country? Where are we going in the long term? What are the plans for railway lines, for example?" Whatever widgets Afghanistan makes, we have to get them out of the country and into the international markets. Hon. Members mentioned that probably the only secure way of moving goods about is by aircraft. There is a workable railway line from Karachi on the Pakistani border, which is where we bring in our logistical gear from, all the way up to Spin Boldak, which is 40 miles away from Kandahar. Would it not be great if we linked that railway line-built by the British, oddly enough, to bring munitions to the fighting in Afghanistan 100 years ago-into Kandahar, so that the agricultural products, other than poppies, that people are growing can reach the international markets?

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

I give way to my hon. Friend Mr. Lancaster, who has a lot of experience in Afghanistan.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Shadow Minister (International Development)

This links to an earlier point that my hon. Friend made. If we are critical of some of the Government's strategy, it is of the artificial timetable that has been imposed. Yes, we want to build capacity in regional governance. The Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development is a good ministry, where genuine capacity has been built. However, I remember meeting the head of police in Lashkar Gah, where suddenly UK funding was cut off on 1 April and he was told to seek funding from Kabul. There was not capacity in the system to allow that funding to come down. Rather than focus on artificial dates, we should focus on capacity and transfer funding only once mechanisms are in place.

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

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I hope that the Minister listens to him, because he has experience in these matters: not only has he served in the armed forces but he has spent a lot of time in Afghanistan and seen these things first hand.

There would be a huge danger in packing our bags and turning our backs on Afghanistan. I say this as one who has been personally affected by the Bali bombing as well as 9/11, having been born in the United States. The hon. Member for Newport, West did not really touch on what would happen to Afghanistan as a whole or on the impact of the Taliban. If he thinks that the Taliban groupings, or leadership and followings, would not be a recruitment ground for al-Qaeda, in the absence of an international security force, he is hugely misled. The bigger consequence is that there will be a knock-on impact on neighbouring Pakistan. He says that they are two different countries, but he knows that when Pakistan gained its independence in 1947, the federally administered areas were just parked to one side and were not embraced within the constitution of the new country. It was regarded as being a little bit difficult and people said, "Oh, we're not really going to bother with these tribes up there on the border line. You guys crack on and do your own thing." Those places have now become the haven, probably, for Osama bin Laden and others. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the issues in southern Afghanistan-Taliban-led-would not spill over into that area and then into Pakistan as a whole, which has nuclear weapons, he is sorely misled. That is the danger that we on the official Opposition Benches need to be concerned about.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

The hon. Gentleman spoke too briefly. He agrees that the Taliban have control of 80 per cent. of the country, but they have not invited al-Qaeda back. They have the greatest vested interest in ensuring that al-Qaeda is not in the country again because it caused the Taliban to lose control of the Government.

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

First, al-Qaeda is not there for a tactical reason. It can easily move into an area where ISAF-the international security assistance force-is not, which is the Pakistani border. There must be concern about that, and it must be discussed, which is why we link Afghanistan and Pakistan together.

I correct the hon. Gentleman again, as I did during an intervention. The Taliban do not have control of 80 per cent. of the country, and his statement was misleading, because 80 per cent. of the population of Helmand province live in 20 per cent. of the Helmand valley, and it is in that 20 per cent. that we concentrate our forces. The rest of the area is desert, and to say that the Taliban have control of the desert and are moving around suggests that we have no control over Helmand province. There is no one there, and if the Taliban wander around, they can do so. We do not have control over that.

It is important to have this debate, but where the hon. Gentleman wants to go is extremely dangerous and goes against the grain of international concerns and our international responsibility to keep terrorism at bay.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs) 10:21 am, 8th December 2009

I congratulate Paul Flynn on securing this debate. We need many more such debates, and Members of Parliament should study and scrutinise Government policy in this area ever more diligently. Indeed, a fault of my colleagues and I is that we have not done that for many years, partly because our attention was dragged off to Iraq where so many dangers and disasters happened with the knock-on impact on the Afghanistan mission.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the matter today, and to challenge the consensus. However, I disagree with him, as he knows from listening to our debates on the Floor of the House, because the objectives of the mission are extremely important. Those set out by the Minister and others should be pursued by the international community. Withdrawal now would be disastrous. One has thought long and hard about whether that is an option, but the more one considers it-and not just the impact on the people of Afghanistan, the stability of Pakistan and the fight against terrorism-the more one realises that one must find a way of achieving success in the mission, even if that success is defined rather more modestly by lack of failure.

We need to consider what President Obama said last week at West Point. Some of what he said was welcome, and he was clearly strong on the military side, but I am afraid that I was disappointed by the lack of detail on the political side. There was little reference to the political strategy that I and my colleagues have argued is critical if we are to avoid failure in Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal's plan had a huge focus on the political side, and he argues that the military side alone is completely insufficient and inadequate. A strong political direction is needed, and I welcome what the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have said during the past two or three months because they have begun to spell out in detail that sort of political strategy. The lack of that in what President Obama said worried me.

I hope that the Minister will be able to elucidate for hon. Members why President Obama did not go into detail on the political element. Perhaps in the testimonies that we shall no doubt read from Secretary of State Clinton on the Hill and others in due course we shall see that political dimension described in more detail. Clearly, it was in the white paper published by the White House last March, but it was not in the West Point speech. Perhaps when speaking to a group of cadets at West Point, the details on the political side are not discussed, but Obama needs to focus not just on the domestic and military audience, but on the international audience. We must all be convinced that he has the right strategy after so much deliberation.

I want to press the Minister and his colleagues to reassure us over the next few weeks that the political dimension is at the heart of what the Americans want to do and how they are leading the international coalition. In the run-up to the London conference at the end of January there is a space to ensure that that strategy exists.

I have discussed the matter previously, and will try not to reiterate what I have said, but the importance of putting pressure on Karzai-the Prime Minister is particularly committed to that-will require getting rid of some of the governors who have been corrupt, because one cannot build on a rotten base. That needs a Loya Jirga, which President Karzai talked about in his inauguration speech, to have real constitutional reform to build up power and governance at local level. It also needs a plan B to be articulated, because we cannot simply wait for Karzai if he does not deliver quickly. That might mean bypassing central Kabul and going directly to those on the ground and getting the money to those on the ground, as Mr. Ellwood said, and to local district governors who can deliver. Karzai must know that he is not the only show in town.

I have talked a lot about the local political dimension. The need for reconciliation was crucial to McChrystal, but the President mentioned it in only a single, almost offhand remark. General Petraeus brought in the British Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb and puts a lot of store by that, so one hopes that that is still in the strategy. We must debate the process of reconciliation more because it is an incredibly tough strategy, and as tough as fighting. It is not an easy strategy, and it needs a military side to enable us to persuade the Taliban that they should come over, but it needs a multi-layered approach at local, district, provincial and national level.

The Americans are unwilling to talk to the Taliban leadership, but that must be on the agenda, not necessarily because they are likely to agree to a settlement that we could accept-they probably believe that they are winning-but clearly feelers need to be put out to Mullah Omar and others to ensure that the ground is being prepared.

The Taliban that we hear about are an incredibly complicated group of people. I and many others have talked about the $10-a-day Taliban, the local Taliban and the jihadist Taliban. I am trying to get through a detailed book that has recently been written called "Decoding the New Taliban", which is a series of essays by experts on Afghanistan and the Taliban. One chapter refers to the Taliban caravan and quotes an academic, Bernt Glatzer, who talks about different people. Even the Afghans have many different names for the different types of Taliban: Taliban-e jangi, the fighting or insurgent Taliban; the Taliban-e darsi, the madrassa or student Taliban; the Taliban-e asli, the real Taliban or clean Taliban; the Taliban-e Pakistani, who are there just to do Pakistan's business; the Taliban-e duzd, the thief Taliban; the Taliban mahali, the local Taliban; the Taliban-e khana-neshin; and the Taliban sitting at home. Those are all disaggregated by other adjectives, including the concept of majbur Taliban, the forced Taliban, and the naraz Taliban, the dissatisfied Taliban.

If we are to understand how to reach out and integrate people, we must understand the culture and the different types of Taliban far better than we have until now. It has been a huge failing by hon. Members and probably the Government and the international community not to understand the complexity of that society. We have been omnipresent, and have given the impression that we can go in and solve everything, but we cannot. We must understand the Afghan and Pakistan people, and the people of the region from where they are, not from where we think they should be. That is the only way we can be successful in reintegrating and reconciling.

We cannot take comfort from the idea that the Taliban are unpopular because they are nasty people. Nasty insurgents can take power, and they did. They can impose their power through coercion. They do not have to be popular to rule or to take ground. It is no good us saying that the Taliban are unpopular so we will be okay. The matter is far more complicated.

We must understand the process of reconciliation. In the past, there have been two big findings from looking at people who have been brought over. Some were brought over, but were then badly treated by the Afghan Government or the Americans-some were taken off to Guantanamo Bay. That is not an incentive for people to come over in the future. Others who have come over and tried to join the Afghan mainstream have been assassinated by the Taliban or their families have been killed. The process of reintegration and reconciliation is difficult and fraught with dangers, but I believe that it is the best way forward. If we manage to do that, we will help Afghanistan and the Afghan people. We must understand how to do that in more detail than there has been until now.

I will conclude by talking about the other political dimension that was missing from President Obama's strategy as laid out at West Point. I am sure that he is an intelligent, sophisticated man-I am sure it is somewhere there, but we need to see more sign of it and of the international dimension. People on all sides have talked about the importance of the regional peace settlement. I, together with other hon. Members, have asked Ministers to ensure that Russia and China, and possibly other countries, are represented at the London conference. It would be ideal to see Iran there. Clearly, there have been lots of talks with India and Pakistan, and the significance of that is well known.

I was interested to read in the Foreign Secretary's blog a call for a Marshall plan for Pakistan. That is exactly right. When one looks at the international dimension, Britain has a particular role in Pakistan-even more than in Afghanistan-and that area is clearly one of our main objectives. We must think more about and debate how we can help the people of Pakistan, not only against the threat of terrorists who are murdering people in the cities almost every other day with outrageous bombs, but with development issues. For example, Pakistan has a massive water problem. If we can deal with its water infrastructure and assist agriculture in villages and small towns, that would be a massive step forward and win us real plaudits from the Pakistani people. We would win hearts and minds, and that is the sort of approach that we need.

My concern about the Pakistan peace is that there is a parallel with Iraq. For Iraq, the then Prime Minister said that it was all about the middle east. He said that there would be a peace process for Israel and Palestine, which was why we should support the invasion of Iraq. He said he had twisted the arm of the American President to get peace in the middle east. What happened to that? Absolutely nothing.

The current Government say that they will pursue the political strategy laid out so well by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, and that they will persuade the Americans to do more in Afghanistan. However, we must also be the strongest friend possible to the people of Pakistan. We must help that country move forward. If we can do that, we will really have achieved something. This will be well worth while and we will bring peace.

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

The hon. Gentleman is about to sit down, so I thought that I would seek clarification. As with so many other things, he seems to be positioning himself firmly on the fence, although he is likely to slip one way with a commitment to Afghanistan. The speeches that others in his party have made seem to be generally supportive of troops in Afghanistan, although they are now rowing back from that. My concern is that as we approach the general election, the Liberal Democrat position will be to call for troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan. I seek clarity on that issue, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman can put it on the record.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I do not think that I could have been clearer. Certainly, Ministers have recognised our position during debates. The Secretary of State for Defence went on the record and criticised his own side for trying to make those sorts of comments, and the hon. Gentleman does not help the debate by his suggestion. The Liberal Democrats have been clear from day one about our support for the mission and its objectives. However, we have not allowed ourselves not to criticise the strategy. This is not simply about political matters such as troop equipment and supporting our forces, but about how the overall strategy has developed. We have been deeply critical for a long time about how the strategy has developed, because of the lack of a political dimension that I have mentioned today and in previous speeches.

I am still critical. The Government seem to have the right approach, and I commend them-they are developing the strategy, and I could hardly be more supportive of what they have been advocating, but my concern is that the Americans are not there yet. That does not mean that we should call for a withdrawal of troops. It means that we will retain our critical faculties and keep pushing at the points that need to be raised, so as to ensure that this is a successful mission.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 10:35 am, 8th December 2009

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser. May I congratulate Paul Flynn on raising this debate? As I listened to him, I wondered, rather like Churchill and his comment on the pudding, whether there was a theme. As far as I could see, the theme had two parts: first, why is the UK in Afghanistan and particularly in Helmand province; and secondly, that the answer to the difficulties being faced in Afghanistan is to bring our soldiers home. The hon. Gentleman raised such questions quite legitimately, although I disagreed with the answer.

I was also struck by him calling Siegfried Sassoon in aid. When I had a real job before becoming a politician, I did a little work and writing on the Royal Welch Fusiliers during the first world war. The hon. Gentleman might have forgotten that although Siegfried Sassoon criticised the war in 1917, he returned to regimental duty where he was known as "Mad Jack" because he went into no man's land and was an expert personal killer of German soldiers. He fought honourably to the end of the first world war and his attitude towards war and soldiering was, I think, ambivalent to say the least. It is always doubtful to call him in aid to support arguments about contemporary conflict one way or another.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I am well acquainted with the military career of Siegfried Sassoon at Mametz Wood, where he fought with Welsh regiments. What happened in those areas is a matter of great interest in Wales. However, does the fact that he saw himself as a loyal, faithful soldier not add more authority to his actions? He risked being jailed for the declaration that he made. It still rings true. Please do not try the ad hominem approach. The words apply precisely to our situation now.

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

I will beg to disagree. Both my grandfathers served in the first world war, and they had no doubt as to why they had volunteered and served. The peoples of Belgium and northern France were only too well aware of the reasons why they were fighting in the war. Siegfried Sassoon was never going to be tried because the Army would never have been stupid enough to do that, particularly following the intervention of his good friend and regimental comrade, Robert Graves. Perhaps we can debate that at another time.

This debate is about the strategy in Afghanistan. However one likes to define it, in simple terms, a strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. There is no doubt that we can wind the film back, and say that over the past eight years we have seen a series of failures by the United States of America, the United Kingdom and NATO to have a clear policy and strategy from which everything else flowed. There are reasons why we should be in Afghanistan, and I am not going to repeat all of them. Many hon. Members from both sides of the House have been at debates or briefings in the Foreign Office, and we have raised the issues. We cannot wish ourselves back to where we were eight years ago, so we must make the best of what we have.

The hon. Member for Newport, West made a crucial point. Without the support of public opinion, it is difficult to execute and implement the strategy. There is no doubt that public support for British troops in Afghanistan has declined over the past nine months for lots of reasons. First, there is the lack of a clear strategy, and secondly there is the drip, drip, drip of casualties. The hon. Gentleman was right to talk not only about deaths, but about the physical and mental casualties. However, if we looked at casualties alone, however personally horrendous for individuals, it is likely that at different times in our history we would not have pursued strategies of one kind or another.

There is a supreme irony that perhaps some of the casualties that we are sustaining now are due to General McChrystal having restrained the use of air power and ground fire power because he is concerned about its impact on Afghan civilian causalities. Our servicemen and women understand that. They are only too well aware of that balancing act, and have perhaps more grit and determination about it than we do.

However, the onus of responsibility must be on the Government to explain their policy. Although I accept that Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup and others are saying that the negative aspect of the debate-the casualties and the comments made by Members of Parliament and the media-undermines the morale of the troops, I do not accept that that is a reason why we should not have such a debate or, indeed, why the hon. Member for Newport, West should not raise these questions. It is the duty of the Government to provide the arguments about why we are in Afghanistan, why we are taking casualties and why, as the military themselves have accepted, we may, at least in the short term, end up taking more casualties.

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

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case for the importance of exposing a strategy. Does he agree that it would have been helpful not only to the House but to the nation if we had had regular updates-quarterly updates-from the Prime Minister on what is happening in Afghanistan, to ensure that we keep the British nation on side in understanding why we are there and the progress that is being made?

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

Yes, I do. Mr. Davey, who speaks on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, has already made that point, as have a number of Government Members. The Prime Minister has missed an opportunity. If, before Christmas, he had had a major debate on Afghanistan-in which he had, with support from Ministers, set out all the arguments-with both the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Government would have been in a stronger position. I hope that in the new year the Government will think again. That might well be in the aftermath of the London conference. I certainly agree that regular updates beyond the occasional statement would help to advance the arguments.

There are a number of questions to be raised about the strategy. I will not repeat some of the excellent points made by hon. Members on both sides of this Chamber. I shall concentrate on three or four questions. The first relates to the difficulty at present of measuring what success is. Along with many other hon. Members, I am concerned that both President Obama and, at one stage, the Prime Minister seemed to be giving the impression that there was a series of timelines of one kind or another. That might feed into the suspicion, raised by the hon. Member for Newport, West, that that had more to do with mid-term elections and the general election than with real success. To be fair, certainly the Secretary of State for Defence has rowed back from that, but the Government need to explain much more clearly how we demonstrate what success will be. Some of that will be beyond the control of the United Kingdom Government or the Prime Minister. I think that three issues are crucial in the immediate short term as far as the Government are concerned. The first is the London conference.

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

Reluctantly, I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will excuse me. I have only a few minutes left and we want to leave time for the Minister.

The London conference will be crucial, and not only because of the attempts to bring everybody there, which raise the danger that it will be an enormous political bazaar. The most crucial figure will be President Karzai, who, going by his previous track record, has the mental approach of an old British Army quartermaster-I may be denigrating that fine body of men-which is called "consent and evade". The quartermaster says, "Yes, sir, I absolutely agree, sir. This will be done" while thinking, "He'll never remember and I don't have to do very much about it." President Karzai's consent and evade will no longer be acceptable. The pressure that needs to be brought to bear on President Karzai from now on is along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend Mr. Ellwood: he will have to face the fact that there must be a devolution of power. There will have to be some form of federal government in Afghanistan. That goes with the grain of Afghan history. He will also have to recognise that without it, his long-term success will be incredibly limited. That is the first point.

The second point that will be important is to involve the regional powers, particularly Russia, China, India and Pakistan. That will not be easy, given the mutual antipathy and the mutual contradictions of one kind or another, but those countries are beginning to see that it is no longer in their interests that this conflict goes on for five, 10 or 15 years, and that instability in that area overruns into other areas in one way or another.

The third element, which is crucial and comes under the strategy, is the impact that these operations will have, politically, economically and militarily, on the United Kingdom. Our need to provide the resources over the next three or four years will put enormous pressure on the UK economy and, in particular, on the three main Departments: the Foreign Office, which has a tiny budget and only a limited number of personnel; DFID, which has a much bigger budget but seems to have problems in delivering on the ground; and our armed forces, which are running red-hot. The ability to sustain such operations, which are incredibly manpower intensive, will have to be considered not only by this Government but, probably, by another Government after June next year. I should like to know whether the Minister thinks that the Government are aware of that.

My final point is that I have never been absolutely sure who, to use the awful management term, "has ownership" of Afghanistan within Whitehall. Obviously, the Prime Minister does, but is the lead Minister who ultimately takes responsibility-the equivalent of the chief executive-the Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for Defence? The message that many of us get back from many of the people involved in all three Departments, both in Whitehall and on the ground, is that there is a failure in that crucial area. To use the analogy of Henry Kissinger wondering whom he should phone to get a decision out of Europe, if I was an American, I would wonder whom to phone in Whitehall. Who, apart from the Prime Minister, is the lead person? That is about wiring diagrams and delivery, but it is an important part of the element of strategy.

The Conservative party supports the Obama strategy. We also support what the Government are trying to do. The Government recognise, however, that we retain the right to press them, and to ask the difficult questions. Indeed, I hope that the Prime Minister will take the opportunity to have a formal debate on Afghanistan in the new year.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 10:47 am, 8th December 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Paul Flynn on securing this important Adjournment debate. I find it difficult, though, to agree with virtually any part of the contribution that he made. That will not come as a surprise to him. He expressed the notion that the threat to national security was entirely non-existent and contended that it would be impossible to achieve any sense of stability in Afghanistan. I can subscribe to neither of those views.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

You have distorted what I said.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

That is an utter distortion. Of course there is a threat from terrorism, but it comes from Pakistan and it is home grown-it comes from this country as well-and it is made worse by our intervention in Iraq and our intervention in Afghanistan. To suggest that I said that there was no threat is untrue.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I shall not quibble with my hon. Friend at this stage. I urge him to go back, though, and look at Hansard and the tone of his speech when he dismissed, and accused us of inventing almost, the threat from al-Qaeda, aided and abetted by the Taliban in Afghanistan. That threat is the reason why we went there and why we must never allow it to return to Afghanistan. That is at the core of our mission.

The contributions made by the hon. Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) and for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) were balanced, reasonable, very well informed and helpful at this stage in terms of the mission that we face.

Hon. Members will understand that I want to begin by paying tribute to each and every member of our armed forces who has been killed or injured in Afghanistan. The deaths of 100 brave servicemen and women this year and 237 since the operations started are nothing short of a tragedy. Nothing can ever compensate for the loss felt by the loved ones and colleagues of those who have laid down their lives for this country. We owe them a debt of honour and must always remember them. We know that there has been a tragic recent death, and our thoughts and prayers are with that serviceman's family at this difficult time.

Our reasons for being in Afghanistan are consistent. Like the 42 other countries that are there, we are there to safeguard our national security. As I said, our forces are there to prevent the return of al-Qaeda, aided and abetted by the Taliban. The only way to achieve that is to create a stable and secure nation.

We warmly welcome President Obama's speech of last week and the announcement that the US will send 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. As the President made clear in his speech, the current increase in US forces is designed to enable the Afghans to step up their activities on a number of fronts.

As hon. Members are aware, the UK Government have already announced an additional 500 troops and we will make permanent the additional 700 troops we provided for the summer, including in the election period. That takes UK forces to more than 10,000.

Hon. Members mentioned support for Pakistan, which is vital. As has been said, Afghanistan and Pakistan are very different countries, but they require complementary policies. We need Afghanistan and Pakistan to work together on the shared problems of terrorist activities, narcotics, weapons trafficking and the limited economic opportunities. The insurgency straddles the border and so, therefore, must the solution.

Our core strategy remains Afghanisation. The long-term security of Afghanistan and our own national security are best assured by training the Afghan police and army, by building up civilian government at the national and local level and by providing for economic development that gives Afghans a stake in their future. As the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary recently said, and as Mr. Davey stressed, we need to combine a military strategy with a political strategy, improving governance, reducing corruption and offering a way back for those who are prepared to renounce violence and choose the political process.

In his inauguration speech, President Karzai laid out five key issues: improved security, improved governance, reintegration and reconciliation, economic development and strengthened regional relations.

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

I want to echo a point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Simpson from the Front Bench. There is a difference between the £200 million that DFID spends in Afghanistan and the approximately £3 billion that our armed forces spend. That disparity shows how much we are spending on security and how much we are spending on stabilisation, economic regeneration and governance. Does the Minister agree that as long as that huge difference remains, we will not be able to take advantage of the fragile umbrella of security that our military forces are creating?

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The development investment that we have put in has made a difference, and I will refer to that later. As development professionals increasingly understand, however, securing security and stability is the precursor to being able significantly to expand development interventions that make a long-term sustainable difference. Indeed, that is right at the heart of the recognition in the recent DFID White Paper of what needs to happen in future development policy in conflict areas. It is, therefore, a question not just of comparing amounts of money but of looking at an integrated strategy and a staged approach that bring together security, governance and development. As a consequence of DFID investment, there has been a significant improvement, but a lot more needs to be done.

I referred to the five areas of improvement that President Karzai laid out. The international community must now work with him to turn those objectives into action and to ensure that his Government deliver on them.

On security, only five of Helmand's 13 districts were under Government control in 2006. Following the end of Operation Panther's Claw, the Government of Afghanistan now broadly control 10 of those 13 districts. We want to see a 134,000-strong Afghan army by the end of 2010, including an additional 5,000 troops trained by British forces in Helmand. Afghan national police numbers in Helmand will increase immediately to 4,100, with further increases to follow.

The Afghan national security forces are increasingly contributing to securing their own country. More than 90 per cent. of international security assistance force operations are conducted in conjunction with the Afghan national army, which is starting to take the lead in independent operations. The ANSF have already taken lead responsibility for security in Kabul, but we expect other nations to share further the burden in Afghanistan and we are increasingly confident that they will do so.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Shadow Minister (International Development)

Much of the focus seems to be on building the strength of the Afghan national army, but given the tribal nature of Afghanistan and particularly of Helmand, and given that few members of the army are recruited from the south, does the Minister accept that it is sometimes too simplistic to think that recruiting an Afghan national army is the answer to all our problems, given that its members will be viewed in much the same way as the British Army is in Helmand-as foreigners?

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

There must be a combination of building up the army and reconciliation and reintegration. As the hon. Gentleman himself said, we must increasingly know about the influences and the elders at the local level, and we must be able to work at that level if we are to be clear about the most effective way to secure security and stability. The Afghan army and police are crucial, but they are not the only interventions that will enhance security.

I need to make rapid progress now. I referred to the expectation that other countries will share the burden of providing security forces.

On governance, we have made it clear that President Karzai has to take action in forming his new Government to demonstrate that he is serious about rooting out corruption, which must be dealt with on an institutional basis. As the Prime Minister has outlined, one key element of that is a fully independent and empowered anti-corruption commission.

As the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East persuasively said in his speech, there is also the crucial question of sub-national governance. Clean and competent governors need clear roles, appropriate training and resources to function effectively. We welcome the Afghan Government's announcement of a sub-national governance reform programme and we will support them in implementing it. We also need better governance structures at village level. Across Afghanistan, the number of community development councils elected at village level will increase within two years, from 22,000 to 31,000. That is an important part of the strategy.

The same is true of the focus on reintegration of those whom we can peel off from the Taliban. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West implied, the majority of Taliban fighters and supporters are not hardcore terrorists, but are motivated by tribal allegiances or simply money-sometimes as little as $10 a day. If we can demonstrate that they cannot win and we can provide those who are prepared to live peacefully with a way back to their communities, we should do so. That has worked with former Talibs, who have now assumed legitimate positions in the Afghan Government, and old enemies now work together in Parliament.

As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton said, the reintegration process must be led by Afghans, but the international community can and should provide the funding. We are working with our international partners to determine how best to achieve that.

Alongside the military and security strategy, we of course need to ensure that there is economic development so that the people of Afghanistan see a direct benefit in their everyday lives as the situation moves forward. Economic growth this year is due to be 15 per cent., albeit from a low base, and that is an important step forward.

More Afghans are rejecting opium cultivation. This year, poppy cultivation decreased nationally by 22 per cent., and 20 provinces are now entirely poppy free. More Afghans are finding legal livelihoods, and the average income in Afghanistan has almost doubled since 2002.

The Prime Minister and President Karzai have signed a 10-year development partnership to support Afghan leadership of development. Some £510 million of DFID money will be invested over the next four years to support that development.

Hon. Members have rightly referred to the importance of regional development and the role that countries neighbouring Afghanistan will have to play in security. Some progress has been made, with Afghanistan and Pakistan negotiating a trade and transit agreement to facilitate trade. Afghan agricultural produce is regionally renowned. All that could help to undermine the appeal of poppy production to Afghan farmers. We welcome Turkey's offer to host a regional economic co-operation conference in 2010 and we hope that all attendees will contribute positively.

Finally, I come to the London conference. It is crucial that the conference, which will be followed by a Kabul conference in spring 2010, brings together the Afghan Government's commitments and the international community's support so that we have a cohesive and clear strategy focused on the five pillars identified in Karzai's inauguration statement. As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, that will give a clear sense of how we measure progress and how the Government and President of Afghanistan will be held to account. The London conference will be seen as a crucial moment in moving the mission forward so that we can truly create long-term stability in Afghanistan and, having done that, start to bring our troops home.