28 Feb 2002 : Column 315WH

Westminster Hall

Thursday 28 February 2002

[Sir Michael Lord in the Chair]

Humanitarian Crisis (Afghanistan)

[Relevant documents: First Report from the International Development Committee, Session 2001-02, HC 300, and the Government's response thereto, HC 633.]

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

2.30 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury): When the Select Committee on International Development, including my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) and the hon. Members for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) were in Peshawar in the north-west frontier province of Pakistan in December, we visited the main depot of the World Food Programme where food aid was being transported from Pakistan through the Khyber pass to Afghanistan. Considerable quantities of food aid were being shifted and an impressive fleet of white-painted United Nations trucks was lined up at the depot. However, those trucks were not being used to transport food aid to Afghanistan because the UN authorities took the view that the security situation there was so unpredictable that they were unwilling to risk their personnel and, by inference, trucks to shift the aid. That was being done by local contract drivers in their trucks.

That starkly emphasises the Select Committee's concern about security, which was central to our report. We said:

We went on to say:

We concluded that security is not simply a symptom of the recent conflict. The war may be over, but the risks remain.

When the non-governmental organisations gave evidence to the Select Committee on Tuesday—we had a single evidence-taking session to update us—Sakandar Ali, the country representative of Islamic Relief, observed that he had received reports as recently as 19 February from its Kabul office where international aid workers were being targeted. Mr. Roseveare, acting director of Oxfam's humanitarian department, observed:

28 Feb 2002 : Column 316WH

Oliver Burch of Christian Aid commented:

The security situation looks uncertain and the working team on food security, which produced a report on food security in Afghanistan five months before 11 September, raised similar concerns to those of the Select Committee.

When the NGOs gave evidence to the Select Committee on Tuesday, Elizabeth Winters, special adviser to the British Agencies Afghanistan group, said:

She went on to say:

Sakandar Ali, to whom I have already referred, observed:

Security is essential for food distribution in Afghanistan, but who is responsible for providing such security? Who pays? Under what authority is such security to be provided? The issue is relevant not only to Afghanistan. The Committee expressed a general concern that more should be done to track what is happening in failing states. The United Nations Children's Fund told us in evidence that it currently classifies some 31 states as being in a state of emergency or crisis, with an additional 35 on a watch list. All of those are either failed or failing states. We expressed the hope that the Government's response to our report would

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): May I take my hon. Friend back to the issue of security? The non-governmental organisations that we met on Tuesday expressed the view that the Afghans want more British and foreign troops. Does my hon. Friend agree that a useful means of delivering aid might be to train the native Afghan police and armed forces? I know that both the British and the Americans are doing that in some way or other, but I understand from newspaper reports that American and British troops are training different forms of forces. Would my hon. Friend like to comment on that?

Tony Baldry : I was going to come to that, because there are disturbing reports that police training is insufficient and not enough members of the previous military forces in Afghanistan are being demobilised.

28 Feb 2002 : Column 317WH

Chris Patten, the European Commission's External Relations Commissioner, commented in a recent article that

Earlier this month, the Prime Minister, when in Freetown in Sierra Leone, said that he felt very proud of the role that British soldiers had played in Sierra Leone, and went on to observe that he knew that they had

I do not think that any of us are under the illusion that Sierra Leone would have been rescued if the international community, led by the United Kingdom, had not intervened by force of arms. In their response to our report, the Government describe that as

Some of us were fortunate to have a briefing from the editor of Africa Confidential. He commented that, even in Sierra Leone, with the help of UK forces, the situation is still fragile and is still threatened by Liberia, another failing state. One of the features of failing states is that they not only fail their own people, but invariably risk the security of neighbouring countries. No one is under any illusions that, had it not been for UN and UK intervention in Sierra Leone, the situation would not have improved; nor is anyone under the illusion that, had it not been for the coalition intervening in Afghanistan by force of arms, the Taliban would not have been defeated and Afghanistan would not be, as it is now, taking steps towards reconstruction and democracy.

However, as demonstrated by the recent murder at Kabul airport of a member of the Afghan Cabinet, security in Afghanistan is still pretty notional. Kabul is the only part of the country where the international security assistance force is helping to maintain security. Even there, the concept of security still seems fairly illusory. I turn to the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby. In The Sunday Telegraph of last week, Robert Fox, who recently spent a week with the UK forces in Kabul, reported that

28 Feb 2002 : Column 318WH

The consequence of what appears to be some UN procrastination is the high possibility that Turkey will not assume the lead role for the international security force on the premise that it cannot see a clear mandate. UK forces will then become stuck there, and the Prime Minister's commitment that British troops will be in Afghanistan for only 90 days seems overly optimistic. That is all the more surprising because, when President Karzai of Afghanistan was in London recently, he asked the Prime Minister whether the United Kingdom would commit a larger number of troops for a longer time to peacekeeping in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister declined. I do not think that that was an unreasonable response by the Government.

Setting aside our own security needs in Northern Ireland, UK troops are currently involved in peacekeeping in 37 countries throughout the world, many of which will at times have appeared terminally conflict ridden, such as Sierra Leone, East Timor and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In recent years, there have been few occasions when UK troops have not been part of UN peacekeeping operations. Unlike Turkey, the Foreign Secretary can see a clear mandate for the United Kingdom Government and asserts that the international security force will give the United Kingdom an international role with which it is comfortable.

However, those who had hoped that the end of the cold war would bring an enduring peace dividend must now recognise the position. In the foreword to the slightly bizarre recent Green Paper on private military companies, the Foreign Secretary said:

Sixty-three countries currently contribute peacekeeping troops to the UN but, as the Green Paper further observes,

Some countries, including even members of the Security Council of the United Nations such as China, make little or no contribution to UN peacekeeping. China, which, after all, has approximately a quarter of the world's population, has just one—yes, one—troop person committed to UN peacekeeping, although I am not sure where he or she is.

There is little point in the international community getting food aid to Afghanistan or other countries if we cannot be confident that it will be distributed for want of security. As the Select Committee observed,

It was that concern about the potential failure of secondary distribution that caused us to observe:

28 Feb 2002 : Column 319WH

If sustained food security is symbiotic with conflict resolution, when the World Bank's reconstruction paper claims that

and that

enhanced security will surely be the ratchet for successful reconstruction.

The international community must collectively give such issues urgent thought. For example, when is it right for the international community to intervene in the affairs of member states? In Freetown, the Prime Minister said that there was

Is there now a principle of international law that, having regard to factors such as levels of conflict and violence that are sometimes aggravated by natural disasters such as floods, a country can effectively be deemed to be a failed state, and the United Nations is entitled to intervene in whatever way it feels appropriate to rescue the people of that country? If there is to be such a definition in international law, the international community must will the UN the means to ensure security in the countries concerned. That means far more countries being willing to commit peacekeeping forces more generally and readily to the UN Secretary-General.

Incidentally, I do not believe that there is any role for mercenaries in UN peacekeeping, as was suggested in the Foreign Secretary's Green Paper. For example, Frederick Forsyth observed of the mercenaries involved in the Biafra conflict that

The Foreign Secretary's suggestion that

is a complete non-starter. Other hon. Members may have a different view.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Does my hon. Friend agree that the comment by the distinguished journalist and novelist Frederick Forsyth is based on a great deal more understanding of the sharp end of conflicts than the rather banal and jejune views expressed by the Foreign Secretary, and that we should listen carefully to that distinguished Reuters correspondent, who has witnessed what happens in such places?

Tony Baldry : My hon. Friend makes his own point.

This is not intended to be a partisan comment, but I genuinely do not understand the purpose of the Foreign Secretary's Green Paper. I do not suggest, and I would be surprised if any hon. Member were to do so, that the lack of international security and peacekeepers could be met by the UN employing mercenaries. I make that point for the avoidance of doubt. To whom would such troops be accountable? Surely, armed forces should have a direct line of command and be subject to political

28 Feb 2002 : Column 320WH

control. Ultimately, when a national Government guarantee a country's security, they must also recruit and maintain that country's armed forces. In the long term, to delegate that function is to abdicate an essential responsibility of government as a concept.

The murder of the Afghan Cabinet Minister has been rightly interpreted as a political murder and a treachery against the Afghan Government. It was, however, also treachery against the Afghan people. That clearly raises concerns about the unity of the Government and the country as a whole. One day, however, they will need to rely on the security provided by a homogeneous armed force—an Afghan force, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby observed. Only then will reconstruction flourish and Afghan civil society start to gel.

More countries must be willing to commit peacekeeping forces more generally and more readily to the UN Secretary-General at a time when the most powerful country in the world, the United States, is preparing to redefine its international relationships and to focus on hostile countries, which it believes pose an immediate threat to its national security, sponsor terrorism and develop nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Its concern is not primarily failing or failed states, but regimes or countries that it sees as a threat. The projection of US military power alone will not, however, ensure global security. The lesson of 11 September is surely that the world welcomes United States leadership and commitment, but that it must be exercised in partnership. There is a need for international co-operation on an unprecedented scale. The coalition would not have achieved what it did in Afghanistan had it not been for the constructive support and co-operation of President Musharraf and the Government of Pakistan.

Recent events have surely demonstrated the interconnectedness of our world and perhaps reinforced the clear correlation between countries in which United Nations and NGO workers are attacked and those that we deem a security threat to ourselves. I alluded earlier to one such country, Sierra Leone, where the sale of diamonds is inextricably linked to conflict. Opium is to Afghanistan what diamonds are to Sierra Leone, and farmers grow poppies because they offer the prospect of being the most profitable crop. Those poppies are almost certainly the source of the opium that becomes the heroin that is conveyed across Asia to the street corners of Europe, where it will threaten our children.

The world must reflect on the fact that its interdependence makes us all dependent on the resolution of conflicts. The world does not want, at worst, ever-increasing armies of mercenaries or, at best, the United States using its military power to intervene only when it feels threatened. The world needs a strong United Nations, with member states that are willing to commit the necessary means to the Secretary-General. Otherwise, the world will simply stumble from crisis to crisis.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): I was struck by the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the United States. Does he agree that US targeting of Iran will very likely have a significant impact on the future of Afghanistan?

Tony Baldry : I was fortunate enough to visit Iran two years ago, and it was clear that many people were

28 Feb 2002 : Column 321WH

desperately trying to modernise the country. I am not sure that describing Iran as part of an "axis of evil" will help the modernisers; indeed, it will reinforce the position of the hardliners. The point that I am trying to make is that we must think about failing and failed states, not simply about countries that we feel are a security threat. That is a personal view, and colleagues may take a different view. The world must, however, accept its interconnectedness, and we must ensure that the United Nations has the means and the will to act.

We must also recognise that electorates in countries such as the UK will become increasingly weary of committing troops and taking on what increasingly seems to be an unreasonable burden of peacekeeping duties. I have not checked the figures, but I suspect that few other countries have committed proportionally as many troops to UN peacekeeping operations as we have. That raises considerable concerns about overstretch.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): I fully share the hon. Gentleman's view about the importance of trying to persuade other countries to join in the peacekeeping operation. I also accept how overstretched this country could become and may already be. Given the possibility that Turkey will not assume its proposed responsibilities at the end of our period of peacekeeping, does the hon. Gentleman think that the British Government should maintain their peacekeeping operation in Kabul and Afghanistan beyond that date?

Tony Baldry : I suspect that the UK Government will have little choice other than to stay in Kabul. The question is, for how long? It would be a great tragedy if the international security assistance force were to be withdrawn now. It looks as though we shall have to stay there for the foreseeable future, at least until the UN Secretary-General can find another country that is willing to accept the burden, but it is an unreasonable burden for the UK to bear alone. The Prime Minister was right to decline when the President of Afghanistan asked for more forces. We are already doing more than play our role in UN peacekeeping around the world.

I hope that the Select Committee report paid sufficient tribute to those who are working for UN agencies and NGOs in Afghanistan, because we have been impressed by their professionalism and commitment. We have also been grateful to them for the evidence that they have given us and for updating us, even as recently as last Tuesday. Frequent tribute has been paid, both by witnesses giving evidence to the Select Committee and by those whom we met in Pakistan, to the Department for International Development and the UK Government, who have often been first to come up with funds and have frequently been first on the scene. However, we should never underestimate the cost of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Somewhat worryingly, when the Select Committee was in Brussels talking to EU commissioners and officials, it was made clear to us that, in order to meet the EU contribution to the Afghanistan reconstruction programme, every single metaphorical cupboard had been stripped bare and the EU had no further funds for

28 Feb 2002 : Column 322WH

any other Afghan-type humanitarian disaster. I do not want to spend time now discussing the priorities of EU aid—that will be included in our forthcoming report—

Mr. Robathan : And the Moroccan fisheries.

Tony Baldry : Indeed. As my hon. Friend says, one of the budgets raided was that which provided support for Moroccan fisheries. I am unsure why the EU requires a Moroccan fisheries support programme but, again, we shall return to that in our next report.

The Commission made it clear that it simply had no further funds for any subsequent Afghan-type crisis. We can never underestimate the long-term costs of failed states, and we must give more thought to what we can do to help failing and failed states. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) and my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) are shortly going to Sudan, a country that has been in conflict for almost 40 years.

The Select Committee is committed to undertaking a further inquiry into the reconstruction needs of Afghanistan, so I am sure that we shall return to this issue time and time again during the lifetime of this Parliament. Likewise, we shall have to return to the issue of peacekeeping in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, especially to consider who authorises and pays the peacekeepers, and to whom the peacekeepers are accountable. I suspect that the House will have to return to the whole question of security in Afghanistan and the need for security to guarantee humanitarian food distribution.

2.58 pm

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): Mr. Chidgey, you will notice that I am forgoing the annual debate on Welsh affairs in the Chamber. Tomorrow is St. David's day, which is why I am sporting a daffodil. If I leave shortly after speaking to hear our new by-election winner make his maiden speech, I am sure that hon. Members will understand.

The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), has already raised many of the points on which the Committee agreed. Our interest in Afghanistan will be ongoing. We went to Pakistan, as hon. Members know, in November. We hoped to enter Afghanistan, but it was not a convenient time at which to do so. We were, however, able to talk to a large number of people who were going to and from that country and to get a good idea of the problems that they faced.

I want to deal with two issues. First, I want to lend support to the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the need for the deployment of more troops to strengthen security in the country. Secondly, I want to talk about the treatment of al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects in detention in Afghanistan and in Guantanamo Bay. I have bored many of my hon. Friends on that issue during the past few months, but I feel strongly about it, and a lot of confusion remains. We still do not have some of the answers, and the status of the prisoners is very unsatisfactory.

Mr. Hawkins : It may not be directly germane to the main purpose of the debate, but it might be helpful if

28 Feb 2002 : Column 323WH

I mention something that relates to prisoners from Afghanistan. The hon. Members for Edmonton (Mr. Love) and for Putney (Mr. Colman) and I met several US Congressmen at the end of last week, two of whom had been to Guantanamo Bay to see the prisoners there. If the hon. Lady were to talk to her hon. Friends and hear about our conversations with those Congressmen, she would be much reassured by their observations.

Ann Clwyd : I thank the hon. Gentleman. I am aware that that visit took place, but I am not reassured by the Congressmen's remarks. They have been afforded an opportunity that British Members of Parliament have not. Five British prisoners, who are constituents of some of my hon. Friends are involved. If US Congressmen have been given the opportunity to go to Guantanamo Bay, Members of Parliament should also have been given that opportunity.

I think that we are agreed that the civilian population of Afghanistan has been plagued by war, destabilisation, economic ruin and extreme repression. Unfortunately, addressing the needs of Afghans has not, up to now, been high on the international agenda. We must seize the opportunity to remedy an oversight. The people of Afghanistan must be given adequate assistance to rebuild their shattered lives.

I applaud the initial steps taken by the international community in rebuilding the country and the measures taken by international aid agencies to avert the humanitarian catastrophe that was undoubtedly looming last year. The British Government were one of the first—if not the first—to ensure that their pledge was translated into hard cash, as some of the NGOs to whom we spoke earlier this week pointed out. That cash has been put into programmes on the ground.

The international aid community must be commended for the action that it took to ensure that the predicted mass starvation did not become a reality. That action was taken in circumstances that were difficult and threatening for all those involved; there was often great personal risk both to local staff who stayed behind to assist their fellow countrymen and women, and to those who came in from the outside. As the Select Committee Chairman said, we saw at first hand the commitment of such staff when we visited the World Food Programme depot near Peshawar during our November fact-finding mission.

Everybody recognises that further effort is needed to ensure that the programmes meet the immediate needs of those whose distress is most acute. We have stressed that from the beginning. We must help those whose status in society is most marginalized—children, war widows, the disabled and other women who have, for various reasons, to fend for themselves. The demands of powerful warlords cannot be allowed to drown out the pleas and needs of the dispossessed.

Mr. Robathan : I want to build on the comments of the hon. Lady—my Select Committee colleague—about local people employed by non-governmental organisations that stay behind. The HALO Trust, with which I am involved, has 1,200 employees in Afghanistan. It managed to hide all its equipment and keep its staff on. As a result and notwithstanding the bad

28 Feb 2002 : Column 324WH

weather—weather obviously plays a part—it was able to start clearing mines in Afghanistan straight away, and I understand that it is still doing so.

Ann Clwyd : I gladly pay tribute to the work of those involved in mine clearance. It is unfortunate that they now have even more mines to clear than they had before the war started. It is important to clear the land, so that people who work mainly in agriculture can return and work that land. We all agree on that.

As our Select Committee Chairman said, stability is important. The current situation is characterised by the absence of a national armed force or of central command over armed elements. That is of some concern, as is the fact that there is not yet a programme for disarmament or demobilisation. The prevalence of weaponry in individual hands must be a priority for the international community. As we know, the Afghan President has called for Afghans to

Many people in Afghanistan—civilians, aid workers and members of the interim Administration—are concerned about the deterioration in security. Elizabeth Winter, who came to talk to the Select Committee earlier in the week, conveyed the strength of feeling of ordinary Afghans that the presence of more troops in the country is a priority. It would reassure them and act as a deterrent. The British Government have taken the right steps in leading the international security assistance force, but that force must be extended to the rest of the country, or at least to those areas in which unrest continues.

Without security in the country, all reconstruction efforts may be ultimately doomed to failure. We can consider examples from recent events. On 7 February, The Washington Times stated that the Central Intelligence Agency had paid $7 million to 35 Afghan warlords to switch sides—basically, to ditch the Taliban—at $200,000 apiece. It is tragic that apparently we still have to purchase peace. We talked to Afghans in camps in Pakistan and what they most yearn for is peace. They need to be sure that peace has been established before they go back to Afghanistan.

It must also be remembered that the previous lawlessness and anarchy opened the door to the Taliban in the first place, and then to the international menace of the al-Qaeda insurgents. Securing peace in Afghanistan must be a worthwhile investment for every one of us, as the world would also be much more secure. As I have heard the Prime Minister argue, we must be at the forefront of the extension of the security forces. We must do that as soon as possible.

We have all been given cause for concern by an armed attack on 16 February, again by unidentified gunmen, on the ISAF post at Kabul. The most significant event in that week of violence was the tragic murder on 14 February of Afghanistan's new Minister for transport and tourism.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) made a sensible comment about the axis of evil. The Interim Afghan Administration have not repeated those allegations, realising that belligerence between Tehran and Washington cannot augur well for the stability of Afghanistan.

28 Feb 2002 : Column 325WH

The fate of the Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners continues to concern me. Theirs is not necessarily a popular cause. I know that from my postbag—particularly from the large number of e-mails that I have received from the United States. I have also received many letters, some pleasant, some not so pleasant. My opponents have stated, often forcefully and in colourful language, that the men being held are getting their just desserts, that, if anything, their treatment is too good and that I should get the same kind of treatment.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): Does the hon. Lady agree that the difficulty is that we do not know what the men are being held for and that there appears to be no evidence that they are being held justly? Will she comment on that?

Ann Clwyd : I am pleased to do so. The treatment of those men raises a number of important issues that need to be addressed urgently. Like most people, I was horrified by the events of 11 September and I supported military action in Afghanistan to end the training of al-Qaeda operatives in camps. The fall of the Taliban regime, which had actively supported the activities of al-Qaeda as well as terrorising its own population, might have been unintended but it was certainly a welcome consequence of that intervention.

However, from the beginning, my support has not been unequivocal. I have had concerns about the delivery of humanitarian assistance, the use of cluster bombs and the lack of clarity surrounding the events at Mazar-i-Sharif and during other battles. I still believe that there needs to be an inquiry into those events.

The treatment of the prisoners continues to demand considered discussion, partly because of the apparent disregard for international law, partly because of the confusion surrounding the matter and also because of the seeming lack of influence being exerted by the coalition partners on the United States Administration. The treatment of our enemies in times of conflict and afterwards must serve as a benchmark of our commitment to those civilised values for which we are prepared to take military action in the first place.

First, the conditions in the camps in which the prisoners—many of whom could be categorised as Taliban foot soldiers—are held in Afghanistan, are appalling, according to the reports that I have read and some of the evidence that we took during the week. The fact that many of those forced into the Taliban army now seem to be dying of starvation and disease is a matter that calls for action by western Governments, whether that is their official responsibility or not.

Within its current budgetary restraints, it is difficult for the Interim Afghan Authority to improve the conditions in which the Taliban prisoners are held. The families of those prisoners, and of the al-Qaeda suspects who live in Afghanistan, are extremely vulnerable. They have limited access to food or shelter and are in constant fear of retribution and persecution. It seems that those with little influence—the foot soldiers who might have joined up in the first place in order to be able to feed their families—are suffering, while the pro-Taliban warlords—those who took an active part in the conflict

28 Feb 2002 : Column 326WH

over the years and who have been the real cause of both the conflict and the instability—are, as I mentioned, being paid significant sums by outside forces to switch sides yet again.

It is also doubtful that the facilities at Guantanamo bay, set up and controlled by United States forces, are in line with the requirements of the Geneva conventions or constitute humane treatment. The hooding, the shackling and the use of open-air cages does not show much of a commitment to civilised values. If British or American soldiers were being held in chain-link cages, exposed to the elements, sensorily deprived and constantly interrogated, it is almost certain that the American and British Governments would have decried that treatment as being against the Geneva conventions.

Furthermore, there has been no compelling explanation from the US Administration as to why the Geneva conventions, in so far as they relate to the determination of prisoner of war status, have not been upheld in respect of those captured in Afghanistan.

Mr. David Chidgey (in the Chair): Order. I ask the hon. Lady to bring her remarks more closely to the debate on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

Ann Clwyd : Thank you, Mr. Chidgey. I was making the point that the way in which prisoners are held in detention elsewhere may have an impact on the way people behave in Afghanistan. If we are trying to change the mindset of those people, who have been so debased by 23 years of war, we will be judged by the way in which we treat them when they are our prisoners. If we want to achieve change in Afghanistan, it is important to show that we want our values to be upheld there and in many other countries. I am trying to link the two subjects because it could have a considerable impact on the situation in Afghanistan.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): Does my hon. Friend agree that the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan both preceded and followed the conflict there, which was correctly described by the American President and the Prime Minister as a war on terrorism? If it was a war, would not it be correct for the prisoners to be treated as prisoners of war?

Ann Clwyd : I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. It is true that one would have expected them to have been treated as prisoners of war and I think that our Government expected that that would be the case. Indeed, when I asked that question in the Chamber on 10 January, the Secretary of Sate for Defence replied:

It was expected that the Geneva conventions would apply to all prisoners taken during the war in Afghanistan, but we have witnessed considerable confusion as to whether those people are prisoners of war. Indeed, the argument continues. Today, the Prime Minister made a point about the situation of the prisoners. Again, there seems to be a misunderstanding about precisely what their status is.

28 Feb 2002 : Column 327WH

There is a disturbing aspect as regards prisoners who were taken captive in Afghanistan: the presumption of guilt and the lack of legal representation being afforded to those being held, in contravention of international human rights law. The presumption of innocence, with the right to legal representation, should apply to all, even to those suspected of the most heinous crimes, including the worst terrorist atrocities. Some of those prisoners, whether in Afghanistan or Cuba, may be innocent of involvement in the activities of al-Qaeda or of any other terrorist activities.

Mr. Love : It cannot be right that American prisoners are afforded rights under the law in the United States, while all other prisoners seem not to be afforded any legal rights. Does my h F agree?

Ann Clwyd : Certainly. It is wrong. The lack of evidence from the American authorities against Lofti Raissi, who was recently released on bail from a British jail after being held for five months, has done little to dispel my disquiet on that point, and if the American, John Philip Walker Lindh, qualifies for protection under the American justice system, so should all the other suspects. The British Government should act to ensure that that is so.

Mr. Hawkins : Does the hon. Lady recognise that not only many of my constituents but also the American Congressmen, whose hosts the hon. Member for Edmonton, the hon. Member for Putney and I—among others—were, take the view that American or British people unfortunate enough to fall into the hands of the Taliban would not have been afforded the privileges or protection of the Geneva convention or anything like it? Does she recognise that many people in Britain and America are angry that the treatment of prisoners is being seen in a false perspective?

It must be recognised that we are trying to introduce a concept of civilised western values. We know perfectly well that our opponents in al-Qaeda and the Taliban would never have given our troops the privileges in question if they had captured them.

Ann Clwyd : The whole point is that we are trying to introduce civilised values to a country where they have not prevailed. We have always upheld the Geneva conventions and I hope that we shall continue to uphold them. It disturbs me that in the United States certain people are suggesting that the Geneva conventions are out of date and should be set aside.

Mr. David Chidgey (in the Chair): Order. I think that I have been very sympathetic in allowing the debate to stray on to the issue of prisoners of war and whether there are prisoners of war in this context. I ask the hon. Lady and other hon. Members to stick to the issue for debate, which is the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

Ann Clwyd : You have been extremely patient, Mr. Chidgey, but the treatment of the prisoners is part of our report. We made the point early on that the treatment of those prisoners concerned us.

Mr. David Chidgey (in the Chair): Order. The point has been well made and I ask the hon. Lady to move on.

Ann Clwyd : Thank you, Mr. Chidgey.

28 Feb 2002 : Column 328WH

I should mention, with respect to indefinite detention without trial in Afghanistan of people captured during the Afghan war, that we have in the past criticised other countries for that practice. It would be unfortunate if we supported indefinite detention now.

Despite many written parliamentary questions, I have found it difficult to determine whether the British Government have been kept fully aware of developments in Afghanistan throughout the war. It is important that they should be kept aware of such matters. If we are fighting a war shoulder to shoulder with another country, I assume that we are partners, but where does that partnership end? Information from the US authorities has been lacking at various times and it is right for us to say that we expect to be treated as equal partners. It is important to establish that in relation to this war, as it will be in any future military action wherever that may take place. The observance of international and human rights law by our allies throughout the course of any military action that we undertake together is extremely important.

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney): Was my hon. Friend pleased to hear during our discussions with the visiting US Congressmen that they were unaware that protocols 1 and 2 of the 1977 amendment of the Geneva convention had not been ratified by the US Congress? The protocols would cover participants in Afghanistan who are not members of the armies of either country and, if they were ratified, would sort out the basis on which prisoners held in such a war could be designated prisoners of war.

Ann Clwyd : I am glad that my hon. Friend was also at the meeting with the US Congressmen. I have attended several meetings at the US embassy at which some of my hon. Friends were able to discuss the issues.

Finally, I want to speak about the repatriation of refugees. Those of us who had previously visited Pakistan were made aware of the huge numbers of refugees from Afghanistan who were in camps in Pakistan. We first met them two years ago and were able to meet them again in November. Some of those people had been in the camps for more than 20 years. The world tends to forget that refugees may stay in what is described as a temporary camp for as long as 23 years. We must remind the world that refugees do not necessarily go home after a conflict; many remain. All the people we spoke to in the camp that we visited said that they wanted to return home as soon as possible. They did not want to be beggars in another country or dependent on another country; they wanted to go home.

Obviously, as the situation in Afghanistan improves, many countries in which there are Afghan refugees are considering their repatriation. Given the security issues that must still be addressed, that repatriation, although desirable, should not be premature. The expansion of the presence and mandate of the ISAF would be a useful measure to ensure the safety of returning refugees. In addition, repatriation must be voluntary and programmes properly funded. One of the most interesting discussions that my colleagues and I held in Pakistan was with the new Minister responsible for refugees, who kept stressing that the world must remember what an enormous burden on Pakistan the refugees had been for many years and called on us to

28 Feb 2002 : Column 329WH

show greater recognition of the problems. I know that the Department for International Development has already made a considerable contribution to the Government of Pakistan in recognition of that.

Dr. Tonge : Does the hon. Lady agree that Iran has also taken many refugees and funded them over many years and that we should perhaps consider helping Iran in the same way?

Ann Clwyd : I agree. Over the years, I have had many occasions to visit Iran and see what people there were doing for the Kurdish refugees. Many of those refugees remain in camps in Iran after 11 or 12 years. Iran has played an enormous part in helping refugees. When Turkey shut its borders to the Kurds, Iran kept its borders open, as I have said in the House on several occasions. I agree that Iran should be assisted. The British Government will, I hope, continue to offer support in the refugee camps on the borders, where life for many people is so difficult.

The international community must continue its recent focus on the reconstruction of Afghanistan and on global security. Long-term commitment to the legitimately constructed Government in Afghanistan and to the rule of law within the country and throughout the world is required to achieve those objectives. We must be magnanimous in winning the war, which means treating people—both inside Afghanistan and elsewhere—according to the Geneva conventions.

3.30 pm

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): You will be relieved to hear, Mr. Chidgey, that I have already dealt with some points that I wanted to raise in my interventions on the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), so I shall not pursue them further.

I should like to thank you, Mr. Chidgey, and the Minister for understanding that, because of a commitment in my constituency—the hon. Member for Cynon Valley has to attend a Welsh affairs debate—I shall have to leave the Opposition Front Bench in the capable hands of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). Although I cannot be here until the end of the debate, I shall certainly read it carefully in Hansard and discuss any issues that arise.

I also apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who also speaks on international development. She would have liked to take part in the debate, particularly given her recent visit to Pakistan, but she has a commitment this afternoon in the constituency where her mother-in-law lives. I understand that her mother-in-law will be part of the audience and I am sure that Mr. Chidgey and the Minister will understand that it is a commitment that my hon. Friend would be unwise to miss.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), not only for his powerful speech today, but for his chairmanship of the Select Committee. Once again, I am sure that all hon. Members throughout the House—not just those present in the Chamber for this afternoon's debate—would want to tell my hon. Friend that we hugely respect the

28 Feb 2002 : Column 330WH

work that he and other members of his Committee do. My hon. Friend had a difficult act to follow. He would agree that his predecessor as Chairman of the International Development Committee, Bowen Wells, our former hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford, was also a tremendously effective parliamentarian and successful Select Committee Chairman. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury is carrying on the work of our former colleague with his usual energy. The report is a tribute not only to my hon. Friend, but to all members of the Committee.

Debates on this subject often attract considerable interest, and hon. Members from all sides of the Chamber have already intervened. As both the Minister and I had cause to observe when winding up for our respective parties in the recent debate on the International Development Bill, the House is often at its best when debating serious subjects such as international development.

The UK has a proud record of support for countries in need around the world. The Minister recognises that MPs of all parties care deeply about the preservation and continuation of the UK's reputation. Other hon. Members as well as myself have already referred to the visit by United States Congressmen to the NATO committee during our recent short recess. Several Congressmen told me afterwards how much they appreciated the Minister giving up his time to welcome them in the Lord Chancellor's private chambers in the Palace of Westminster. He not only entertained the Congressmen with his American family links and his support for the Cincinnati Reds, but he made some powerful comments about the views of the current Secretary of State for International Development on the continuing process from Doha. The Congressmen listened carefully to those views, and greatly appreciated them. The Minister may find it difficult to believe, but no less a person than Lord Lamont paid public tribute to him in a later meeting with the Congressmen, which the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) will confirm. I do not know if the Minister will be embarrassed that someone whose political views are so different from his and those of his distinguished father should have publicly paid tribute to him. That may be the first time that that has happened to the Minister, but it shows how carefully everyone listened to everything that he said about Doha and international development issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury has already discussed some of the most important issues with regard to Afghanistan and the Select Committee's report. However, I want to speak about two or three matters that concern me, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden and Opposition Front Benchers. I also want to consider issues that arise from the Government's helpful and thorough response to the Committee's excellent recommendations.

I strongly agree with the Select Committee's recommendation (b):

The Minister and I have said before that so often what recipient countries and NGOs in those countries most need is quick cash, not promises. Throughout her adult life, my mother has been involved with several charities

28 Feb 2002 : Column 331WH

such as the Children's Society and, as a former member of a diocesan synod, with Church of England charities and their work overseas. She has constantly stressed in all her work the need for any aid to be given quickly and in cash. Promises and words are cheap, but cash is often important in failed states and needy countries. Recommendation (b) also states:

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden recently worked with the charity Islamic Relief on raising money for ambulances for Afghanistan where they are badly needed. I am sure that all hon. Members welcome and support that work. A couple of weeks ago, my hon. Friend and I watched the launch of the appeal in New Palace Yard with other colleagues. It was heartwarming to see that Islamic Relief could secure an instant donation so that the first ambulance could go immediately to Afghanistan. That is real action, and the sort of thing that reputable charities and people in the UK can deliver, and deliver quickly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury rightly stressed recommendation (k), which concluded:

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) has detailed knowledge of the security issues. Security is crucial after an armed conflict. There is also the problem of weather conditions, although happily on this occasion one feels that a higher power may have had something to do with it. When the humanitarian crisis was first reported in the news media, it was feared that food aid would not get through once the snows came, but, fortunately for the people, winter came late to Afghanistan this year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden has been to the Afghan border with Pakistan and the contacts she made there have recently been in touch with her. My hon. Friend commented:

She continued:

On the downside, my hon. Friend said that, sadly, ethnic tensions have flared up again. The new Afghan Minister for tourism has been murdered, a matter to which the hon. Member for Cynon Valley referred. My hon. Friend went on:

28 Feb 2002 : Column 332WH

That is unfortunate for the international community and for our constituents who may suffer from the scourge of drugs.

Speaking with my other hat on as shadow Minister for drugs and security, I am confident of the Minister's support when I say that all parliamentarians must address the difficult issue of financial incentives for people in countries such as Afghanistan to turn from the cultivation of drugs and destructive, rather than constructive, crops.

The United States has promised $300 million in aid. Hon. Members who are quick to criticise that country must recognise that it is far and away the biggest donor of aid in the world. There is a delicate balance between what is practical and what one would love to have in an ideal world. Now that the snow has come to Afghanistan, some remote areas in the central highlands are so cut off that the NGOs report that people are trying to live on boiled grass in order to survive. Three million people still have to live in camps outside Afghanistan and, according to Human Rights Watch, many people are too frightened to return home because of the fear of violence.

Even though the direct conflict may have finished, more people may leave Afghanistan because of a lack of food and water, never mind the fear of ethnic violence. There is bound to be more tension in the surrounding countries, which cannot cope with the numbers of refugees there already. As the hon. Member for Putney will confirm, the US Congressmen—there were 10 Republicans and five Democrats, all of whom had a special interest in NATO—who had an international outlook, were at pains to stress that one of the countries that will need the most support from the developed west in the next few years is Pakistan, because of the stress and strains imposed on it by the conflict in Afghanistan. There is a great danger of extremist parties threatening the stability of Pakistan. After the successful resolution of the destruction of the Taliban and the dismantling of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, which we hope will be maintained, the last thing we want is to see a Muslim extremist party come to power in Pakistan. That should concern us all.

The UN mine action programme in Afghanistan seeks to get rid of 25,000 land mines. My hon. Friends the Members for Banbury and for Blaby referred to that. When one turns on one's television, as I did early this morning, it is heartwarming to see that one of the first things that is being reported is the valiant work of the Army and the RAF in mine clearance in Afghanistan. I am sure that many hon. Members saw those film reports this morning.

I have a particular constituency interest. The Royal Logistic Corps has its headquarters in my constituency and many of the people who work for it are based at the mine clearance headquarters in Minley just outside my constituency in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). Those people are at the sharp end. They are involved in mine clearance, as are the RAF's mine clearance officers and the men we saw on television this morning. The British forces can make a substantial contribution because of our experience of mine clearance.

28 Feb 2002 : Column 333WH

Happily for the future of Afghanistan, there is speculation that recent rains might mean an end to the previous three years of drought. As my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden stressed, we hope that those rains will symbolise a new beginning. In one of the twists of irony that so often occur through history, the atrocity of 11 September may turn out to be a chance for change for countries like Afghanistan, and for progress in that area of the world. The developed west must not let that opportunity pass by.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby pointed out, security needs to extend to the secondary distribution food network as well as to the supply route into Afghanistan. That was recommendation (s) in the Select Committee report. Delivering food into the country is not enough. It must be distributed too. The Select Committee has put many thoughts to the Department for International Development and I shall read carefully what the Minister has to say to supplement his Department's thorough response to the report. We recognise that we cannot ask for the moon. It is incredibly difficult for even a combination of developed western countries to provide complete security after a war. Nevertheless, we hope that with good will there will be an opportunity for greater security for the delivery of food and other aid.

Norman Lamb : Can the hon. Gentleman confirm whether, given his emphasis on the importance of security, he supports the current British deployment of peacekeeping troops? Does he see a case for extending it beyond Kabul, which has significant implications on numbers? As I asked the hon. Member for Banbury, what does he think the British Government should do if the Turkish Government do not introduce their peacekeeping forces?

Mr. Hawkins : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The Conservative Front Bench has always supported the deployment of British troops. The Minister will confirm that there has been cross-party agreement on that. We recognise that it was vital to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US in our response to the atrocity of 11 September. One of the things that has concerned Labour and Conservative Members, both Front and Back Bench, has been the difference of opinion so vividly exhibited in the latter stages of the debate on the International Development Bill by different Liberal Democrat spokesmen. There has been strong support for the United States of America from the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), but the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) gave the Minister, me and other hon. Members a 20-minute anti-American rant. In talking about what should happen on the deployment of British troops, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) should bear in mind what my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said about overstretch.

Dr. Tonge : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins : I will give way to the hon. Lady in a moment.

28 Feb 2002 : Column 334WH

On further deployment, we need to bear in mind not only what my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said about overstretch, but the delicate balance of the deployment of other forces. We want the international community to stand together, but before we start putting out soundbites about countries such as Turkey, we must bear in mind that it is unwise for a Government or a responsible and loyal Opposition to pre-judge the issues, which are delicate. There are many implications for Turkey as a NATO member and for fellow NATO members, and there are all sorts of delicacies involved in, for example, the deployment of Turkish troops in Cyprus and the application of Greek Cyprus for accession to the EU. The hon. Member for North Norfolk is new to the House and I warn him to be careful before making statements about Turkey's involvement.

Dr. Tonge : I just wanted to point out to the hon. Gentleman that my "rant" lasted only two minutes, my entire speech lasting only 15 minutes.

Mr. Hawkins : All I can say to the hon. Lady is that it sounded like 20 to me. However, I am glad that she accepts that it was a rant. As I said, it did her and her party no credit.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): On subsequent deployments, does my hon. Friend agree that, given that the United Kingdom is one of the few NATO states other than America that has been ready to come forward rapidly when fighting has to be done, we should look to other European NATO states, which might for very good reason—

Mr. David Chidgey (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are debating the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, not the deployment of troops around the world.

Dr. Lewis : May I complete my point, Mr. Chidgey, to show its relevance?

Mr. David Chidgey (in the Chair): I advise the hon. Gentleman to choose his words carefully.

Dr. Lewis : Choosing my words extremely carefully, we should look to other countries to supply troops in supporting humanitarian relief operations over a longer period. I hope that that point is relevant.

Mr. Hawkins : I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East for his skill in choosing his words carefully. I agree with him. It is in the interests of the western world for the developed world to work together, through organisations such as NATO, in difficult international circumstances. That is how we can operate effectively.

You kindly called me early in the debate, Mr. Chidgey, and I want to allow other hon. Members plenty of opportunity to contribute. It has been a worthwhile debate on a significant report. Few issues are more important to the world than the future of Afghanistan and we will all be judged by the response of the west to that issue. I am sure that the Minister, whose remarks I shall read carefully in Hansard, will welcome

28 Feb 2002 : Column 335WH

the report as I have. I hope that the Government continue to take on board the valuable conclusions and recommendations of the International Development Committee.

3.53 pm

Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): I shall not stray from the subject of our debate. I feel bereft: I have no mother or mother-in-law to refer to in the debate and no excuse for leaving it. None the less, having declared my inadequacy, I shall get on to the subject matter.

Hon. Members who have spoken have dwelt on the problems of Afghanistan, saying how appalling and difficult things are. However, we should pay tribute to those who have achieved so much in the months since the Select Committee report was published. When we were taking evidence, the prevailing opinion was that military activity would not work. In metaphorical terms, hundreds of journalists were complaining because the war had not been won between the breakfast news and "News at Ten". However, the steadfastness of the alliance paid off in a remarkable way. Others said that, even if we won the war, Afghanistan was a basket case that could not be helped and that, faced with the scale of the problems, we would simply flee the area. We are not doing that. I pay tribute to those who proved that viewpoint wrong. Obviously, that includes the alliance, within which the British Government played an important role by providing military support and through the assistance provided by the Department for International Development.

I pay particular tribute to the United Nations, its Secretary-General and the rest of the UN family for their superb contribution. Organisations such as the World Food Programme, the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UNICEF—the United Nations Children's Fund—and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Ironically, UNICEF managed to immunise more children against measles in the past few months than we did in this country. There have been remarkable achievements by agencies that the Committee has strongly criticised in the past. Their performance on this occasion was superb.

Above all, I want to praise Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN Secretary-General's special representative in Afghanistan, who picked up the pieces after the war and led that country's leaders to an agreement in Bonn. He led the way to the creation of the international security assistance force and an Interim Administration under Mr. Karzai, and then went on to a relatively successful donors' conference in Tokyo.

Given the problems that confronted us in September and October, to have reached this position is a remarkable achievement. I pay tribute to the part played by DFID. Whomever one speaks to is full of praise for what the Department has done. We promised that Afghanistan would not be forgotten, and Mr. Brahimi and his team have provided a framework within which we can be held to that promise. If we are looking for the next winner of the Nobel peace prize, we need look no further than Mr. Brahimi, especially when we take into account the Brahimi report on UN peacekeeping operations. For one man to have achieved so much in a relatively short time is remarkable.

28 Feb 2002 : Column 336WH

I shall now consider some of the points that arise from the Select Committee report and the current situation. Other hon. Members mentioned security and military involvement. We say that our involvement is to last until only the end of April and then we shall hand over to the Turks. I see the desirability of that from the viewpoint of reassuring the British public, but I also see a great clash with the need successfully to complete the mission. That pattern of short-term involvement follows what we said about Sierra Leone, where an initially non-feasible commitment of 30 days has been followed by an unfinished but highly successful long-term commitment.

In Afghanistan, two medium-term missions should be developed. First, the mission of ISAF must be enlarged beyond Kabul. It is not credible for it simply to stay in Kabul and its surrounds and not to extend the mission to the rest of the country.

Secondly, as in Sierra Leone, there is a need to train a national army, and we are likely to be asked to play a part. The parallels with Sierra Leone are interesting, but we should not push them too far. Hon. Members have talked about the need for disarmament, following the parallel of Sierra Leone. However, many people in Afghanistan are not seen as equivalent to the forces of the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone; some Afghani forces are seen as heroic figures, who played their part in resisting the Russians for many years, for example. It would be naive simply to say that they must disarm. We must concentrate on ensuring that those armed men are provided with an alternative lifestyle, through farming or other productive work, so that they are not dependent on the warlords for their sustenance, or on the proceeds of poppies—and so that they do not return to ethnic conflict.

I turn to the relationship between international agencies and the Afghani Administration. That country does not have functioning ministries. Aid and development must be understood in terms of the construction of a state. Obviously, food aid is crucially important, but many other kinds of aid should also be provided.

The initial programme for Afghanistan states that senior officials of the Interim Authority have been briefed and consulted to as great an extent as possible, and Mr. Brahimi has expressed his support for the concept that the United Nations' presence in the country should be akin to a small footprint—that it must be seen to be small, and that much of the leadership must be provided by Afghans themselves, so that as few expatriates as possible are involved.

That is a noble goal, but we must think the matter through, because some of the tasks that need to be done are so great that they require immediate action. For example, 1.5 million children must return to school by 31 March, and a lot of outside assistance will be needed if that is to be achieved. It is also important that, in many circumstances, development money is used to provide Afghanis with a legitimate income.

However, there is great tension between the need to do things quickly and the need to organise things from the bottom up. I offer an example. The fertile areas and their water systems have been destroyed during the war, as a result of a scorched-earth policy. It would be highly desirable if Afghanistan could feed itself: 85 per cent. of

28 Feb 2002 : Column 337WH

the population are wholly or partially dependent on agriculture, and those people must be kept away from poppy growing, as several hon. Members have said. However, in rural areas, only 19 per cent. of people have access to clean, safe water. It is estimated that Afghanistan needs 80,000 to 100,000 new wells. That is a staggering figure, and the task cannot be achieved simply by saying, "This must be Afghan led and dug"—although Afghan labour will be needed. It is a staggering logistical task, but it must be achieved if Afghanistan is to start, once again, to produce its own food. If the Afghan people start growing food again, big steps forward can be taken.

Another area of concern is the fact that only 7 per cent. of the country is linked to electricity, and that is said to be the lowest per capita figure in the world. Afghanistan has never had a national grid, and there is a great dependence on electricity imports. Most people's concepts of aid focus on helping with the provision of food, education, health and so forth, but do not include addressing such problems as the electricity infrastructure. However, if Afghanistan is to succeed as a country, and if its people are to experience a rapid improvement in their lives, the technology of the developed world must be swiftly employed in accordance with national priorities. That would help to produce a real peace dividend.

In such circumstances, it is inevitable that western companies will queue up to secure contracts in a way that appears to be similar to the tied aid that we are against. I want to hear the Minister's views about the tension between the need for the rapid improvement that can be achieved only with our technology and the need for Afghan-led work.

Dr. Tonge : This may be a mischievous point, but does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Commonwealth Development Corporation might step in and fund some projects?

Tony Worthington : That is a mischievous point. Of course I do. The CDC, like other organisations, should consider the contribution that it can make. However, I do not want to be dragged down that side road. I would rather stick to what I want to say than consider what the hon. Lady might say if she catches your eye, Mr. Chidgey.

I hope that the Minister will reassure me about the importance of reproductive health services in Afghanistan. The issues that most appalled people when they heard about life in Afghanistan were the number of women who die in childbirth and the number of children who die in the first year of their lives. To have 16,000 women a year dying in childbirth at this point in time is shameful, and an infant mortality rate of 165 per 1,000 is unforgivable. It is extremely important to draw attention to the issue of women's health and the health of young children.

I emphasise what other hon. Members said about the need for our approach to be viewed in a regional context. We must consider the impact on Pakistan and Iran, and their contribution. It is absolutely crucial that neighbours such as Iran and Pakistan are kept on side so that they do not promote their own sides in Afghanistan as they have done in the past.

28 Feb 2002 : Column 338WH

Like other hon. Members, I should like to comment on the utter folly of the United States describing Iran as part of the "axis of evil". Iran had been on side with the coalition and had contributed to it. It had looked after 1.5 million refugees; it attended the Tokyo conference; and it became a major donor. Then, when we had all made our contribution to bringing Iran back into the family of nations, along came George W. Bush to undermine all that. I hope that we can recover the situation, but he does make things difficult at times.

Norman Lamb : The hon. Gentleman refers to security in the region as a whole. What thought has he given to the countries that seem increasingly to be known as the "stans" and their need for support? One non-governmental organisation suggested that there had been a period of demodernisation in the past decade or so in those countries. There is clearly a growing extreme Islamic threat in those countries and problems with drugs.

Tony Worthington : I very much welcome that intervention. For several years I have bored the hon. Members who share with me the privilege of serving on the Select Committee with comments about the importance of central and eastern Europe, which includes the "stans". Although substantial European and British assistance goes to the area, if there are places on earth that are least known to the British public, it is those that we have been talking about. We should have an early investigation into those areas so that we know more about them.

Dr. Julian Lewis : Before the hon. Gentleman gets too hot under the collar about Iran, does he not accept that that country has an appalling record of support for organisations, such as Islamic Jihad? Only recently it rejected the proposed British ambassador because it falsely alleges that he is Jewish. He is not, but the fact that Iran chooses to reject him on those grounds shows that there is still something seriously amiss in that country.

Tony Worthington : I have never spoken a word in my life that suggests that Iran is a wonderful and idyllic place whose human rights record needs praising. I merely suggest that, when we have made substantial progress in a very difficult situation, it is folly for us basically to kick in the teeth the progressives in Iran who are seeking to move the country forward. I was not getting hot under the collar, but pointing out what was a foolish move. Almost everyone who observed it was appalled that Iraq and Iran were linked in the way that they were.

Another difficulty is that much aid money has to go into work that does not match our expectations of aid. If one asked the British public what they see as aid, they would probably say humanitarian aid for food and basic health and education services. However, for the system to work, we must pay the salaries of the civil servants and police who have been unpaid for months. If we do not, the whole edifice may be brought down without the pit props of police, civil service, judges and other key elements of the modern state. I am therefore pleased that a trust fund has been established to meet the initial recurrent costs of establishing ministries, including the

28 Feb 2002 : Column 339WH

salary and equipment costs. The justice system, the security system, the civil service and planning and aid co-ordination are crucial to success.

We could focus on many other matters. Many people have mentioned the need to improve the security situation, and I fully agree. What the world must face up to is that the issue is not about troops, but about good troops. For example in Bosnia, although 2 million troops were being trained in Europe, we could not scrape together a few tens of thousands adequate for the purpose there.

I have visited countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone where the peacekeepers became part of the problem rather than the solution to it. It is no use sending troops who are not paid, or who, as I saw in Liberia, regard it as part of their job to loot the country as part of their reward for bringing peace to it. The sending of people who have not been trained and who do not know the skills involved in what the international security assistance force is doing is a major issue. I suspect that our troops will be there for a considerable length of time, I hope, doing work such as that they have successfully done in Sierra Leone. In effect, they will be a training a new Afghan national army and I cannot think of any troops better than ours to do that.

In conclusion, if any of us had said in November that we would now be as far ahead as we are, we would have been dismissed as starry-eyed idealists who ought to be locked up for our own safety. What we have done so far is to achieve one small miracle. We must now move on to the bigger miracles. I hope that the Committee's work and report will help us to do that. We must maintain our interest in the area.

4.13 pm

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney): As the visit of the United States Congressmen has been mentioned, it perhaps behoves me to put a different slant on it. I refer to recommendation (e) in our report and to the target of 0.7 per cent.of gross domestic product. The discussions that we had last weekend were held behind closed doors and off the record, and were frank and open in terms of each side understanding the other's point of view. Many similar points of view have been expressed in this debate.

It is important to reflect that the United States does not have an equivalent to the International Development Committee. We met representatives from its Committee on International Relations, and several Congressmen welcomed the speech that my hon. Friend the Minister gave. Much of the information that he provided was new. There is a view in the United States that the aid budget is about 20 per cent. of GDP; in fact, it is 0.1 per cent. of GDP. That astonishing fact surprised many Congressmen.

I add to the praise from all hon. Members for the tremendous work that the Americans have done to bring humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and the surrounding regions. It is important to recognise that while realising that work is in progress on both sides; they are trying to understand one other and work together. Many countries, but particularly the United Kingdom and the United States, have created a remarkable coalition. I welcome that, but it is important to reflect that we still have much to learn from each other.

28 Feb 2002 : Column 340WH

I shall briefly address the Select Committee's report and the future. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) in saying that we have seen a success a story. It is important that constituents who pay their taxes—which are spent by the Department for International Development, aid agencies, the EU and the UN—recognise that a job has been well done even though it is still in progress.

When we visited the area, we saw how UNHCR and the World Food Programme worked. Their work was fully funded. I particularly pay tribute to the work of Catherine Bettini, the chief executive of the World Food Programme, and the marvellous teams of Afghan lorry drivers who kept the aid flowing into Afghanistan for months. I took pride in seeing a list on a board in her office displaying how much each country had contributed—the United Kingdom was well up there—and it included a column called "private donors." They were not multinational donors, but ordinary men, women and children of the United Kingdom who, through the United Nations Association in the United Kingdom, contributed a total of £72,000 with their pennies and pounds. I witnessed that in Putney, and pay tribute to Jo Stocks, the secretary of the Putney UNA, and to the other members, including Ade and Walt Hain, for their work in raising funds for humanitarian aid. This month, a further £18,000 is going over from the people of Britain. I stress that because, as usual, the UNA in the UK has done good by stealth.

Our report commented on the money in the form of cash that went to the World Food Programme. It was important that the programme could buy food and products that were needed locally in Afghanistan. There was a good harvest in Pakistan last year so cash was important; DFID aid was also given as cash. Aid from the United States, however, was largely in kind, such as food. In the report, we were critical of the fact that food had been expensively trucked around the world. Although I understand that it is good to distribute food surpluses from the United States to places where there is need for them, it is also important to look forward and examine how there could be a rebalancing of the amount given in kind and cash by all the countries contributing to the success of the World Food Programme.

The organisation of the effort was impressive. It was the first operation of its type and lessons had been learned from Rwanda and Bosnia. The operation was taken forward in an extremely good way. The UN handled taking food aid into Afghanistan, where there were local contractors who were often in UK or European-badged non-governmental organisations. I put it like that because 138 of the 140 people working for Oxfam in Afghanistan were Afghanis, and many other NGOs made similar arrangements.

It was important that a viable civil society could be contacted by the UN to deliver aid locally. I am pleased to say that many of the dire warnings given by expatriate representatives of the NGOs were not fulfilled. I do not blame those expatriate members of NGOs because they had lost contact with what was happening inside Afghanistan. It is important that we recognise the tremendous work that has been done by the Afghan NGOs.

28 Feb 2002 : Column 341WH

My second point, which has been made by other hon. Members, concerns the support from countries in the surrounding regions. We have already mentioned Iran, but I shall discuss Pakistan in particular. Both countries have had refugee camps for the 22 years since 1979. There are 3 million refugees in Pakistan, where there was a crisis before 11 September. Those refugees had been forgotten by the world.

When I visited Kashmir in April 2000, I met a Voluntary Service Overseas teacher, Joan Atkinson, who told me quite movingly about the way in which women were treated in Kabul, which she had visited when it was under the control of the Taliban. Women could not access education, and she asked me to do all that I could to make sure that women's rights were dealt with in Afghanistan. I am sure that she did not believe that the dreadful events of 11 September would happen, but there has been a dramatic change since then. It is important to recognise that much of what happened could not have occurred without the help of President Musharraf and his surrounding team, who, having seen evidence of al-Qaeda's involvement, gave very strong leadership in the region in supporting the coalition.

In recent days, I have received intimations that the Pakistan Government are keen for the UK to remain involved with the assistance forces in Afghanistan. That brings us back to the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), in which he mentioned the importance of security. In the Minister's wind-up speech, I hope that he will be able to answer some questions that have been asked again and again. What are the plans, if any, for extending the International Security and Assistance Force beyond Kabul? What is the Government's view of the role of the Loya Jirga in the political development of Afghanistan? Will it be possible to form a properly representative Government?

That brings us to reconstruction, for which $4.5 billion has been promised for 27 million people. That is a small amount compared with the money that has been allocated to East Timor in the past two years. As hon. Members have said, what is extraordinary is that much of that money has not yet arrived.

I have received information that 30 Ministers are operating in Kabul at the moment. The majority work in buildings that are in an extremely poor state of repair. The buildings do not have windowpanes, there is little furniture and some Ministers make do with chairs that one would take on a picnic while other offices have no paper. The priority is to ensure that money is made available to the Interim Authority. The UK Government have made their contribution to the Interim Authority fund, but other Governments have not. The question is which countries have not contributed out of those who promised to do so in Tokyo. I would be particularly interested if any of them are European Union member states or the United States. It is important that the money flows now.

The money that flows through the Interim Government should utilise the Afghan NGO matrix that I have already mentioned. Elizabeth Winter—a constituent of mine in Putney—is the special adviser to

28 Feb 2002 : Column 342WH

the British Agencies Afghanistan group and gave evidence on Tuesday. She said that people in Kabul were asking us to stop sending hyperactive expatriates because they have the expertise locally. She said:

She added:

We all have Afghan experts in our constituencies. Last October, an Afghan water engineer came to my surgery in Roehampton library to urge me to support what the Government were doing. I told him that the best thing that he could do when peace came would be to return to Afghanistan. I hope that he is now there, starting on the huge number of boreholes referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie.

Another issue relating to reconstruction was raised last Tuesday in questions asked by the Islamic Relief spokesperson. Are we forcing people to return too soon? He was concerned about the delicate eco-structure in south Afghanistan. There is also a concern that pharmaceuticals that are unsuitable or had not been checked were being dumped. A mechanism must be set up to ensure that we are not passing on pharmaceuticals that we would not accept for our own treatment or that of our families.

Support is needed for future training and a unified curriculum, which is something that the American Congressmen were particularly keen on. I would be interested to know if the Minister could outline what support exists for that. The Islamic Relief spokesperson also raised a concern about seed verification. He did not want the seeds provided to the Afghan people to be unsuitable.

Afghanistan was once an extremely sophisticated country, and it can be again. We look forward to what will be announced by its Ministry of Planning. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie talked about the long-term sustainability of Afghanistan, and how it can progress: clearly, not by growing poppies. He talked about the need for the community to be able to feed itself, and restore its water channels. It is important to recognise that there is a strong entrepreneurial class in Afghanistan. It was interesting that the markets continued trading all the way through the war. Now that the electricity has been restored, we must help business to start working again. We must see what we can do by helping financial services.

There has been an attempt to block the flow of terrorist finance, which means that the way in which Islamic banking was working cannot continue. It is important to examine how we can move forward. As a Government, we should consider a new classification. We mentioned the everything-but-arms initiatives for exports from developing countries to the European Union. Perhaps we should make that everything but poppies and arms.

28 Feb 2002 : Column 343WH

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge)—I would call her a friend—mentioned the need for the Commonwealth Development Corporation to get involved. I would suggest that it would be more suitable for the Export Credits Guarantee Department—the export credit agency, which is taking a more active role in considering issues of sustainable development and has learned lessons in Tanzania—to get involved. It could underpin the rebuilding of infrastructure and involve those companies that we have talked about before. They will need help and encouragement. I urge the Minister to talk to his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry about the creation of credit lines for Afghanistan.

I wish to make a final point about the importance of education. I mentioned earlier the strong plea from the VSO teacher in Kashmir. When we went to schools in the refugee camps, we saw evidence of a tremendous thirst for learning. We were disappointed by the number of schools for girls compared with the number for boys, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that DFID funding will be used in a way that ensures total equality for girls' and boys' education in the Afghanistan of the future.

The schools must be of the highest standards. Yesterday, I attended the launch of the Kashmir Education Foundation, which runs the Pearl valley school and teacher training institute in Rawalakot in Azzad Kashmir. The standards at the school are higher than those at virtually every school in the UK; Afghan children want the highest standards. I commend the support of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for the millennium targets for providing free education to children of primary school age. That is the key to the future of Afghanistan.

I held a surgery yesterday at the Alton school in Roehampton. I was using the office of Ann de Bono, the head teacher—she was away for the day—and saw this posted on the wall:

That is so apposite to Afghanistan. We must help the Afghan people who dearly want to prepare today for their future.

4.31 pm

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): I should like to speak briefly and in less detail than I would have during my membership of the Select Committee on International Development throughout the previous Parliament, not least because I now spend my mornings in the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Select Committee discussing planning guidance and speed humps, on which I am now expert.

I begin with the most fundamental point, which is raised in the characteristically excellent report of the Select Committee on International Development: the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan began long before 11 September. It began in the nucleus of a failed state, and it will end only with the creation of a functioning state that has the capacity to serve its citizens and uphold the rule of law. The rule of law—in particular,

28 Feb 2002 : Column 344WH

international humanitarian law—is key to addressing the humanitarian disaster, not just in Afghanistan, but beyond its borders.

In assessing the current situation in the country, the Select Committee report states in paragraph 65:

That is pertinent. First, it is clear that more troops are necessary and that an effective security network must be established beyond Kabul.

Secondly, if Afghanistan is to be rebuilt, the west must keep its promises. We have to put our money where our mouth is. I commend the Labour Government on their support for long-term development in Afghanistan, which consists of £20 million for the new Afghanistan Interim Authority, as well as £200 million over the next five years, on top of the £40 million already given, to address the humanitarian crisis.

However, if we are discussing money and payment of what is due, we must consider the position of the United States. I should declare an interest, in that I am an American citizen. I proudly hold an American passport and I spent Christmas with my family in New York. I have the greatest sympathy with the people of New York, Washington and America and feel nothing but horror at the violence that was wreaked upon the American public and at the motives of those who were responsible.

However, the American Government's resistance to paying their way in international development is short-sighted, to put it charitably. I live in hope that 11 September may change that, not because the American Government might become converted to the soft end of security—we in the European Union take that to be our forte, as was recently outlined by Commissioner Chris Patten—but because of realpolitik. We took little notice of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan before 11 September, but realised afterwards that it was relevant to us.

DFID has identified more than 39 failed states with a couple of dozen on the urgent list or to be watched. If we are to prevent failed states from harbouring terrorist networks and imposing all manner of indecent treatment on their population, we must move urgently towards the 0.7 per cent. target of gross national product that can be directed to rebuilding those failed states and dealing with humanitarian crises such as that in Afghanistan.

It has been said before in this debate and never ceases to take my breath away that America spends only 0.1 per cent. of its GNP on overseas development assistance. In Britain, the Labour Government have made it a priority to increase our spending on overseas development assistance and we are currently spending 0.31 per cent. of GNP. However, I agree with the Select Committee's report that we should set a timetable to reach the 0.7 per cent. target. Several European countries have reached that target and it is high time that we were at the forefront of that effort, particularly as we take a leading role in responding to humanitarian

28 Feb 2002 : Column 345WH

crises and are rightly renowned around the world for having what many people believe is the best international development Department.

Norman Lamb : Does the hon. Lady agree that 10 years would be a sensible period within which to achieve the target of 0.7 per cent.?

Ms Oona King : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Ten years is certainly a reasonable time scale. The latest it could feasibly be is the date for reaching the target of the OECD's Development Assistance Committee—2015. That must be our timetable and we cannot expect people to take us seriously if we do aim for that. We certainly cannot expect the most powerful and important country in the world—the United States—to take us seriously if we do not aim for that. We must argue strongly with our American colleagues that that target must be achieved for reasons of need and self-interest.

Many people said that the world changed after 11 September. During our first debate on that subject I said that the world had certainly changed and for the first time in my life I used the word "respect" in connection with President Bush. Unfortunately, I now find that I was premature in lavishing a certain amount of respect on him. As the most powerful leader in the world—and the leader of the free world—I am devastated about such irresponsible remarks. If we are to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, it is important that we direct our efforts to that country and not towards any other axis that may be on someone else's mind.

Dr. Julian Lewis : I am old enough to remember—as, I suspect, is the hon. Lady—when President Reagan used the phrase "empire of evil". Much disrespect was shown to him at that time, but, subsequently, he was proved to be right. The same may yet be true of President Bush.

Ms King : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We have already touched on whether hurling abuse through the international megaphone at Iran is helping or hindering our efforts to bring it around to how we want it to behave. We must take a regional approach. I certainly hope that the American Administration continue to edge slightly more towards the Colin Powell position, as opposed to the Rumsfeld position.

I refer now to women in Afghanistan. I remember, as I am sure do all members of the Select Committee, that the Department for International Development and the Secretary of State said repeatedly that, if we are to have development, we must reach the girls. If a woman is educated, a family is educated. We need to act quickly and to use short cuts. Happily for women in the world, they are now a short cut to development. I hope that the Minister addresses some of his remarks to the efforts to include women both in society through education and in the Interim Administration. It is in all our interests that the crisis in Afghanistan is resolved, and resolved quickly.

28 Feb 2002 : Column 346WH

4.42 pm

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): I have not spoken before in a debate that you have chaired, Mr. Chidgey, and I am delighted to welcome you to our proceedings. I also welcome the report of the International Development Committee of which I used to be a member. I congratulate the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on his excellent speech. His independence of thought was refreshing and welcome. He made the first of many contributions about the security situation in Afghanistan, which was also taken up by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and others.

The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) rightly connected the treatment of prisoners in Cuba with the situation in Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) made much mention of the mother-in-law of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and his own mother, but he did not say much else, except in an interesting intervention about the treatment of prisoners. It occurred to me that, if the human race had done what he advocated, we would not have progressed very far out of the caves. Perhaps it is a good job that they were not listening to him.

The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) said how much has been achieved. When discussing such problems, it is refreshing to realise that a lot has been achieved. He paid tribute to all those involved. He also made some interesting and important points about water security and reproductive health care—which is dear to my heart—and maternal and child health.

The hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) emphasised the importance of sending cash in such situations so that food can be brought locally. That is so important. It is much better than carrying food all over the world. He also paid tribute to General Musharraf and the contribution of Pakistan. Several hon. Members agreed with my intervention about Iran. We must not forget the contribution that Iran has made, both in the refugee crisis and on previous occasions. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow emphasised the 0.7 per cent. target. I am glad that she agrees that it should be achieved in about 10 years, as that is my party's policy.

The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan before 11 September was dire, and not many people have mentioned that today. It was the poorest country in Asia and had experienced 25 years of war and three years of fierce drought, which affected not only Afghanistan, but the countries around it. A quarter of the population was dependent on food aid probably as early as this time last year, long before any of the action started. We were told that 6 million people were at risk and that many millions were flooding out to Pakistan and Iran in those years. The country was in terrible circumstances. Thanks to huge pressure from non-governmental organisations and hon. Members of all parties, after 11 September the humanitarian aspects of the crisis were kept to the fore at all times.

Thankfully, the winter was not as severe and the Taliban Government collapsed far more quickly than anyone expected. The World Food Programme, the non-governmental organisations and, as we heard from the hon. Member for Banbury, the people of

28 Feb 2002 : Column 347WH

Afghanistan, such as those who drove the trucks, are among the great heroes of the world. The latter are the bravest of all and never gave up forcing through food, despite the difficulties.

There are still difficulties. We do not know how many people are starving or dead—information is hard to glean—but we hope that there are not nearly as many as was anticipated when military action commenced. It would have been much better if the international community had listened to the calls and fed the people before 11 September. When giving evidence to the Select Committee, the Secretary of State for International Development said that

The consolidated appeal in 2000 received only 48 per cent. of the funding that it requested—half of what was needed. I wonder whether that was due to compassion fatigue. The appeal called for $662 million in November 2001. Three months later, the United Nations is still 25 per cent. short of that requirement, even given the events of 11 September. I wonder what is going on in the world.

Dr. Julian Lewis : I sympathise with the hon. Lady's point about the fact that aid was not given before 11 September, but does she acknowledge that it is hard to see what the west could have done to aid people until the Taliban were removed from power? It took the impetus of the terrible events of 11 September to justify and precipitate the military action that enabled aid to be given.

Dr. Tonge : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but I understood that aid was getting through before 11 September. The NGOs said so to the Select Committee and, indeed, to me. It was only after 11 September that the borders were closed, and the subsequent military action made matters even more difficult. I believe that the west had some culpability even before then for allowing the Taliban to take control of the country in the first place. Afghanistan was abandoned for a while—I hope that that will not happen this time—so the Taliban took over the Government.

I note with great pride, although I am not a member of the Government, that of the donors who pledged humanitarian aid since 11 September, the United Kingdom and Germany are the only countries to have met and, indeed, exceeded their pledges. That is good news, and the Government are to be congratulated.

Nigel Fisher, the newly appointed special representative for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, said this month that it was terribly important that pledges were turned into the actual commitment of resources. A month on from the conference on reconstruction, very little cash has been contributed. The USA has pledged $298 million, but has it arrived? Is the money in the bank, and, indeed, is there a bank? It is important that the Minister tells us.

I have said before, and I repeat, that it is outrageous that the £200 million that DFID will provide over the next five years will come out of its own budget and not from the Treasury. The Treasury made £100 million

28 Feb 2002 : Column 348WH

available to the Ministry of Defence to pursue military action, so why can it not make money available to the DFID to clear up the mess? I cannot believe that it does not regard humanitarian aid so highly, having seen the actions of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in recent months.

I understand from people who have been to Afghanistan that the Interim Authority has great difficulty paying policemen and others in Kabul. I heard that, in one instance, notes were flown in to pay policemen to stay in Kabul. That is disgraceful, and action must be taken if there is to be any sort of security. While Afghanistan remains insecure and there is no money to pay what few policemen or soldiers there are, the country will drift towards chaos and back to the warlords. We must not let that happen, and it is essential that we get money to Kabul.

Hon. Members have mentioned that UK troops are likely to have to stay longer, particularly if Turkey does not take over in April. When he visited the UK, Hamid Karzai said that his country was like a patient that had just come out of a major operation and entered intensive care. My medical experience tells me that the days in intensive care are the most crucial time after a big operation. Please let us not abandon Afghanistan, but see it through to a full recovery. We must see it through convalescence, just as we are doing in Sierra Leone. I was recently in that country and it was heart-warming to see how much better things were and how much people appreciated the British Army and wanted it to stay on to train the troops.

I want to deal briefly with the issue of drought. Sue Lautze, the director of the livelihoods initiative programme at Tufts university, visited Afghanistan and reported that the drought may continue for 12 to 18 months. She emphasised all the same points about water security as the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie. Further evidence to the Select Committee now suggests that there is heavy rain in Afghanistan, but that there is a lack of seeds and tools. If there is a lack of seeds to grow food, international drug dealers will make damn sure—I beg your pardon, Mr. Chidgey—very sure that there are poppy seeds to plant instead. It is important that we remember that the drugs trade that surrounds Afghanistan will swoop in pretty quickly.

In our previous debate on the reconstruction of Afghanistan, I and others stated that we should not underestimate the importance of developing the entire region, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) emphasised that again. Donors must focus on all of central Asia's failing economies, not just on Afghanistan. Any one of the central Asian states could fail if we do not address their problems. I note that Commissioner Patten called the events of 11 September "the dark side of globalisation", which is a good description. Since that day, many people have reminded us that development aid is an important issue for our future security. I am delighted that the International Development Committee has called for the target of 0.7 per cent. of GDP to be reached within 10 years. It is very important that we do that.

I assume that the official Opposition are still sticking to their policy of abandoning that target and going for cash amounts rather than proportion of GDP. They may defend the USA—they seem to be George Bush's representatives in this country at the moment—but no

28 Feb 2002 : Column 349WH

less an American than Bill Gates has castigated the US Government for their pathetic contribution, in terms of GDP, towards overseas aid. Perhaps they will listen to him.

Mr. Colman : Will the hon. Lady accept my assurances that the Congressmen were all quite shocked by the situation and took word of it back to the US? This is not simply the fault of Congress, but of the media in the United States, who are not explaining the situation.

Dr. Tonge : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

In the international development debate a few weeks ago, the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, who is no longer present, criticised me for castigating the USA. He has criticised me again this afternoon for failing to act on this issue and for failing to reach out to the rest of the world in the right way. I am now joined in that by one of my constituents, who is a member of the Conservative party—the good Commissioner Patten. He gave a very good interview to The Guardian recently, from which we have all been quoting, in which he described himself as "a life-long Americaphile" with

However, he fears that a deeper philosophical gulf between the United States and us could soon appear. The interview from The Guardian goes on to say:

That paragraph contains quotations from Commissioner Patten but was written by The Guardian. I agree with the Commissioner very much and I hope that the Government are listening and will not follow blindly whatever the United States does.

4.58 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn) : Thank you, Mr. Chidgey. It is a pleasure to be participating in a debate under your chairmanship for the first time. The debate has been excellent—I am sorry that several hon. Members who have contributed have had to go off, for very good reasons, to other engagements. Notwithstanding that, the International Development Committee—not for the first time, and I suspect not for the last—has done the House a service in the care and attention to detail that it has brought to its report.

It has been an extremely informative and interesting debate, which was summed up with characteristic generosity by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge). In particular, the House has cause to be grateful to the Select Committee because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) said, when the inquiry was conducted there was a great deal of concern and anxiety about the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. That concern was understandable and it was right, but the

28 Feb 2002 : Column 350WH

Committee has been able to present a fair and balanced assessment of the position on the ground. It has also done us a service by teasing out some of the broader implications and issues, from which we can learn.

I would first like to echo the words of praise that several hon. Members have uttered for all those who have worked hard in the United Nations system and the aid agencies to deliver that outcome. I thank members of the Committee and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), who is no longer in this Chamber, for their comments about the response of the Department for International Development to the crisis. I do so principally because it in turn gives me the opportunity to express my thanks, and I am sure the thanks of the whole House, to the many staff of DFID who have worked night and day—literally in some cases—to ensure that the response that the Committee praised became reality. Their contribution should rightly be recognised.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made an excellent speech and put the humanitarian issue in Afghanistan into a wider context. He rightly highlighted some of the challenging questions that arise from the experience there and elsewhere to which he and other hon. Members referred, especially the basis on which the international community will intervene in such circumstances in future. That is extremely important. In truth, the international community has felt its way forward in recent years in trying to answer that question. I am glad that we have moved from the era when the international community said that such matters were internal and could not be intervened in. Now we discuss among ourselves when we should intervene, on what basis and, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, how we ensure the means to do so effectively.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) had a little dialogue about training. Hon. Members will probably be aware that American troops will be involved, along with others, in training the Afghan army. Germany will lead on police training. However, the process has not really begun. An effective plan must be in place for the work to be carried through.

Dr. Julian Lewis : This intervention will be similar to my initial one. Will the Minister comment on what further contributions other European countries propose to make to a continuing military presence for humanitarian purposes?

Hilary Benn : If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will return to military involvement later in my speech, and I will try to pick up that point.

It is extremely difficult to describe in few words what has happened in a country that has been so damaged by conflict, drought, refugee movement, insecurity and poverty. We have to remember that it is a country where average life expectancy is roughly what it was in the United Kingdom in the 1840s, before the great improvements in infrastructure and health that allowed us to move towards the life expectancy that we enjoy today. All hon. Members have agreed today on the fact that widespread famine has been averted in Afghanistan by the effective action of the assistance community. My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), among others, acknowledged that.

28 Feb 2002 : Column 351WH

We have averted famine thanks largely to the efforts of the UN-led international humanitarian system, and especially the Herculean efforts of the World Food Programme, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) rightly had great praise. It showed imagination, in that it used local truckers and changed delivery routes when the Taliban seized one of the local warehouses, which ensured that it could take more of the food to the secondary distribution centres. Unseen, it produced many facts and figures about the extent to which it succeeded in bringing food into the country. That satisfied the thirst for knowledge on the part of DFID, the House and the country and enabled us to answer the question, "How is it going?" However, I take the point of the hon. Member for Banbury that what matters in the end is whether the food reaches the people for whom it is intended.

As hon. Members have said, we also need to give special recognition to the courage and determination of the Afghan national staff of the UN and of the aid agencies. They played a crucial role in keeping the supply routes open, often at great personal risk, when international staff were evacuated after 11 September. The primary distribution of food has, despite all obstacles, provided enough to avoid a catastrophe. Since October 2001, approximately 325,000 tonnes of food aid have been distributed to more than 6 million people—a record volume of humanitarian assistance.

Mr. Colman : Amazing.

Hilary Benn : My hon. Friend uses the word "amazing". It is amazing, and it is important to pause and reflect on what the UN system, with support, has been able to achieve in the most difficult circumstances. Despite that, we cannot pause for more than a moment for self-congratulation. The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan remains uncertain and fragile; there will continue to be significant needs for at least the coming year in the most difficult and volatile operating conditions. Because of severe weather and continuing concern about security in some isolated areas of the country, there are still places where people are not getting enough to eat. The WFP and other humanitarian agencies are continuing to do what they can to overcome those obstacles and to deliver food and other help. The indications appear to be that in the north and the west of the country, the prospects for some remediation of the drought are better than they are in the south and the east where, unfortunately, the signs are that it might continue.

Since the beginning of February, around 4,000 tonnes of food aid has been dispatched to the worst-affected provinces of Herat, Faryab, Badghis and Ghor. Food distribution will begin in Kandahar city on 14 March. In addition, the WFP is using helicopter-borne rapid assessment teams to find the isolated people in remote areas who are hungry, to provide essential food aid and to evaluate the effectiveness of the feeding programmes that are already in place.

City-wide food distribution has now begun in Mazar-i-Sharif, following similar distribution in Kabul and Herat. Approximately 53,000 families will receive WFP food rations totalling around 2,500 tonnes of wheat.

28 Feb 2002 : Column 352WH

Supplies of other relief items, such as tents, blankets, and cooking equipment, continue to be provided to those who need them.

The opening of the Salang tunnel has improved the flow of supplies between the north and the south of the country. However, the recent landslide at the tunnel, due to heavy snowfall, illustrates the precarious state of the transport network. Transport infrastructure across the country is in a pretty poor condition, with a number of critical roads and bridges in need of extensive, large-scale, capital investment. Talking of bridges, the one that we now have to cross is the long and difficult process of reconstruction of a country that has suffered much.

During the debate, we have agreed that four things are needed. The first is a political commitment to peace—without sustained peace in Afghanistan, nothing else will be achievable in the long term. The second is a sense of security, the third a plan of action that is owned by the Government and people of the country and the fourth, effective support from the international community, which contributes to each of those objectives.

On the political commitment to peace, I mention the Bonn agreement. The praise for Lakhdar Brahimi's persistence and skill is richly deserved. That extraordinary achievement in very difficult circumstances has provided political commitment—although it remains to be seen whether all who have been involved in the conflicts in Afghanistan in the past 20 years have the same level of commitment to a new order in that country, as opposed to the state of disorder that there has been for almost a generation. The Interim Administration now in place faces the most daunting challenge. We might sometimes think that the job of government is difficult, but our difficulties are nothing compared to the problems faced by the Interim Administration.

The most urgent issue—it has been the dominant issue in today's debate—is security. The hon. Member for Banbury referred to it at the start of his speech. The greatest danger that Afghanistan faces is the risk of a return to disorder, criminality and faction fighting. The Interim Administration's initiative to try to demilitarise the cities has had some success, with reports that the number of weapons carried openly is now significantly reduced. With the support of ISAF, the overall security situation continues to show signs of improvement, particularly in Kabul.

The Government are well aware, because Hamid Karzai uses every opportunity to tell us, of the Interim Administration's passionate desire to extent ISAF's coverage to other parts of the country. It has been discussed, and it is being discussed as we speak, but the House will be aware that no decision has yet been taken. Major logistical, military and other challenges have to be faced while trying to achieve that objective. However, any steps that can be taken to extend security and a sense of safety to all parts of the country would be widely welcomed.

The international staff of the humanitarian agencies are now able to move freely on most major roads throughout the country, and local leaders and the Interim Administration are working to improve the security of other routes. Nevertheless, significant areas,

28 Feb 2002 : Column 353WH

particularly in the east and the south, are still insecure because of military action or banditry, and because of the continuing danger posed by mines and unexploded ordnance referred to this afternoon. The United Nations Mine Action Service is leading and co-ordinating de-mining efforts, and the World Food Programme continues to provide immediate humanitarian help and assistance.

Two particular issues have been highlighted today—two important features of reconstruction that I want to touch on briefly. The first is education. UNICEF and the Ministry of Education are making real progress in starting the new school year next month. UNICEF's back-to-school campaign is continuing, and the procurement of education materials and equipment is under way. I was interested to hear of the event last week that involved the US Congressman and the steps that have been taken to print educational materials.

The aim of the project is simple: it is to assist 1.5 million Afghan girls and boys in to school when the school year starts on 23 March 2002. That will be a special day in the history of the reconstruction of Afghanistan. It is the next generation whom we hope will inherit the fruits of peace, and that day will mark the restoration to half of that generation—the girls—the most important gift we can give. That gift is the right to an education, as my hon. Friends the Members for Putney and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) said.

The most important thing to be done to enable women's participation in society in the years to come is to ensure that that half of the next generation is educated. The Department is supporting a range of initiatives to try to ensure that women are involved in the reconstruction effort. We are funding UNIFEM and OHCHR, and we are giving practical support to the Afghan Ministry of Women's Affairs, so that it can get started. It needs basic equipment, such as materials, infrastructure, desks, chairs, tables, paper and computers, so that it can begin to carry out the work that it is being given.

The second issue that was highlighted is health. There are real concerns about measles, respiratory infection, pregnancy-related complications, maternal mortality, which has already been referred to, diarrhoea and tuberculosis. The World Health Organisation is distributing emergency kits to hospitals and clinics and there is a national drugs supply programme. The WHO is working with the Ministry of Public Health on planning for the health infrastructure of the country. The immunisation programme is continuing. Indeed, it worked incredibly successfully even while the military conflict was going on. In the meantime, the health sector voluntary organisations and the Red Cross are providing the bulk of health capacity in the country.

Several hon. Members mentioned contributions—does the money match the rhetoric? The international community has contributed more than $630 million since September 2001 compared with the $1.8 billion appealed for to aid humanitarian and recovery activities until the end of this year. At the recent Tokyo conference, more than $4.5 million was pledged over the next five years. The Select Committee was concerned about the unwillingness of donors to turn their pledges into cash in the bank and was worried about what effect

28 Feb 2002 : Column 354WH

that would have on practical assistance. However, our assessment is that although some donors have been slow to turn their pledges into cash, the assistance effort has not been seriously impaired. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met Finance Minister Arsala, who was travelling through London on his way back to Afghanistan. We talked about several matters, but he did not express concern about any sort of major break from the kind of reconstruction that we all want to see.

The UN trust fund is disbursing money to pay civil service salaries, but as hon. Members have identified, there is a continuing problem with police salaries. Of the $20 million requested for the United Nations fund for the Interim Authority, $17 million has already been spent, so progress is being made. The Tokyo pledges are in addition to all the money that has already been provided, and we very much hope that the Tokyo pledges will be channelled through the Afghan reconstruction trust fund, which will be established shortly, rather than individual countries rushing ahead with many bilateral programmes, because we are concerned about co-ordination. We very much welcome the fact that the Interim Administration have set up an Afghan assistance co-ordination agency, which will hold the reconstruction plan for the country. We regard that as a welcome sign of Afghan ownership of the programme, and hope that it will provide a vehicle for mediating between the enthusiasm and willingness of donors to give support and the need to ensure that money is applied effectively according to priorities that are ultimately decided by the Afghan people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie gave us an outstanding description of the reconstruction challenge faced by Afghanistan and rightly drew attention to the tension between externally facilitated quick wins and the need to support the Afghan Administration in doing it for themselves.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Putney that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Food and Agriculture Organisation understand the need to provide the right seeds. We are aware of the problem of dumping pharmaceuticals, which we do not support, and we are working to ensure that the right medicines are delivered.

I completely endorse the point raised by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) about the countries that in current parlance are termed the "stans". They have suffered the most astonishing collapse in their economies. In the great depression of 1929, which we read about but some people lived through, gross national product declined by about 28 per cent. Some of the countries we are talking about have experienced a collapse of 40, 50 or 60 per cent. in their economies in the past 10 years. The hon. Gentleman rightly said that we need to know more about what is happening. A conference took place last week at Lancaster House, arising out of an original suggestion from the Department for International Development. It was organised by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and others and brought together seven of those countries precisely to say, "Tell us how things are going. What more can we do to help?" It has helped to throw the spotlight on their circumstances.

28 Feb 2002 : Column 355WH

I want also to touch briefly on repatriation and returnees. The UNHCR estimates that in January 2002, 130,000 Afghans returned home from Pakistan and Iran. It is planning for a bigger number in the coming months, not because it intends to tell people that they must return—I am happy to confirm to hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley, that it must be a voluntary return—but because more people will feel that they are able to return to their homes and communities, principally because there is security. As such, we must ensure that we can provide practical support on health care, food, water and sanitation. As the question of Iran was raised, I should say that the UK has provided £1 million through the United Nations for education and health for refugees in that country.

Norman Lamb : The Minister seemed to be moving to a close, and it appeared as if he was not going to get on to the question that I wanted to raise, which concerns food production. A brief comment was made about the importance of seeds, but there have been reports in the past few days of a considerable expansion in the number of poppies being grown. The one thing that the Taliban did correctly was to impose a ban on the planting of poppies. That has gone, and it appears that poppies are being planted in large parts of the country. As this seems to be a question of the market and the price that the farmers get for their product, what strategy is being developed to ensure that they have the right incentives to grow food rather than poppies? Sustainable development will depend on that, but we appear to be moving in the opposite direction. What assessment has been made of the extent to which the warlords of the Northern Alliance are involved in the drugs trade and thereby perpetuating the problem?

Hilary Benn : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the point, because it is topical. The poppy harvest is four to six weeks away. The honest truth is that the Taliban were successful in enforcing the ban on poppy planting in the same way as they were successful in enforcing many other things about which hon. Members would feel much less happy. In the current circumstances, and with the disappearance of the Taliban and uncertainty about the future, the poppy has returned. We have a certain amount of information about what is happening, but Afghanistan is a fractured country, and the remit of the Interim Administration does not extend throughout. The Interim Administration have said that they do not want the poppy to be planted, but they do not yet have the means to enforce that.

28 Feb 2002 : Column 356WH

The hon. Gentleman made the most important point when he said that the only long-term solution will be to find alternative ways of earning a living, feeding a family and keeping body and soul together for those who plant the crops. They plant poppies not because they are interested in fuelling the drugs trade in this country or elsewhere in Europe, but because it is a way to survive. Any strategy to try to eradicate poppy production must be based on the recognition that in the long term, we must give people alternatives.

Dr. Julian Lewis : On the principle that perseverance wins, may I ask again whether the Minister is satisfied with projected plans for military protection of humanitarian aid? Is he satisfied that our European colleagues are making a sufficient contribution, and if he is not sure now, will he write to me? In any event, does he accept the main point that, as countries that have done much of the fighting, the United States and United Kingdom should be able to look to our European colleagues to supply long-term military protection for humanitarian aid, especially as a European Commissioner is so willing to speak on such questions, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park noted?

Hilary Benn : The hon. Gentleman neatly brings me to the broader question of what contribution each of us needs to make to see the process through. Several hon. Members are half American, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow and I. I am proud of being half American. My hon. Friend referred to America's role. This has been a difficult period for America. It is hard for any country, society or person to wake up suddenly and discover that not everyone sees one in the way in which one sees oneself.

We, the Americans, our European colleagues, and other countries must ask ourselves what we need to do to achieve the objectives to which the hon. Gentleman referred. What money or military support will we give, or will the contribution be in kind? We have to will the means if we meant what we said as an international community, which was that once the military action was over, we would not walk away from Afghanistan. There has been some discussion about the axis of this or that. We should be interested in an axis of reconstruction for the future of Afghanistan, and in an axis of countries that are committed to increasing their overseas development assistance. Above all, we need an axis of determination. Poverty, injustice and inequality scar the world, and we must ensure that they are less in the years to come. That is the real lesson of the events of the past six months. We have made a small but important step along the way, but much work remains to be done.

Question put and agreed to.

 IndexHome Page