HC Deb 28 January 2002 vol 379 cc21-37 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

I would like, Mr. Speaker, to report to the House on the Afghanistan reconstruction conference which was held in Tokyo last week. The conference marked the turning of the focus and attention of the international community on to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. I believe that we now have an important opportunity to provide the people of Afghanistan with the real chance of a better future.

The conference lasted from 21 to 22 January and was attended by Ministers and representatives from 61 countries and 21 international organisations. It was co-chaired by Japan, the United States, the European Union and Saudi Arabia. Chairman Hamid Karzai led a strong delegation from the Afghan Interim Administration, I led the United Kingdom delegation, and there were delegations from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank, the Islamic Development Bank and United Nations agencies. Kofi Annan also attended and addressed the conference. In the margins of the conference, experts met to discuss military demobilisation, military and police training, de-mining and narcotics.

Chairman Karzai, who performed impressively throughout the conference, outlined current and future priorities for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. A 21-member commission is to be set up through the offices of the UN to oversee the emergency Loya Jirgah process, which will lead to the establishment of a full transitional Government in five months' time.

The Interim Administration's priorities for the next few months—on seeing the list, one understands the task to which we must rise—will be to expand emergency assistance programmes; to establish an effective Government administration; to provide peace and establish the rule of law; to ensure that as many children as possible, especially girls, are in school when the new school year begins on 1 March; to begin to reconstruct the country's shattered infrastructure, in particular, roads, electricity and telecommunications; to rebuild an agricultural system and eliminate poppy cultivation; and to accelerate mine-clearing.

The conference was clear in its conclusion that women's rights and women's empowerment should be fully honoured and mainstreamed throughout all programmes during the reconstruction process. Chairman Karzai stressed the Interim Administration's commitment to responsible economic management, transparency, efficiency and accountability. He also made it clear—and we strongly agree with him—that Afghan ownership of the process of reconstruction will be vital to its success and to the full implementation of the Bonn agreement.

We have the best opportunity in a generation to bring about development and lasting stability in Afghanistan. We must build on the lessons learned from previous efforts to reconstruct failed states such as Cambodia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and East Timor. That experience makes it clear that the United Nations must play a pivotal role, and that we must continue to strengthen the capacity and effectiveness of the UN system to undertake the task.

The conference recognised and greatly appreciated the role that the special representative of the Secretary-General, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, has played and his continuing role in promoting peace and stability in Afghanistan. We will need to continue to support his efforts and those of the United National Development Programme, which has been appointed to co-ordinate the early recovery efforts on behalf of the UN system.

It will be crucial to maintain and enhance the existing humanitarian effort while putting in place arrangements for long-term reconstruction. UNICEF will lead the effort to reopen schools. The World Health Organisation and UNICEF will work with the Red Cross to improve health care, and the UN mine action service will lead and co-ordinate the de-mining effort. The World Food Programme will continue to supply food for 6 million people; it will also develop food-for-work schemes across the country so that local communities can begin to rebuild, plus feeding schemes in schools that are focused especially on encouraging girls' attendance.

We must also make urgent efforts to strengthen the Interim Authority and build their capacity to lead the reconstruction effort. To take that process forward, a common trust fund will be established and we will work to encourage co-ordinated support for the Interim Authority's strategy, rather than a proliferation of donor projects provided directly by different countries, which might undermine the Interim Authority.

The preliminary needs assessment undertaken by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the UNDP to prepare for the conference concluded that Afghanistan's funding requirements would amount to just over $10 billion over the next five years. At the conference, $4.5 billion from 36 countries was pledged, including $1.8 billion for 2002, which was more than was requested for that year. I announced a commitment from the UK—funded from the Department for International Development—of £200 million over the next five years. In addition, my Department will make substantial contributions through the EC, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. This commitment is additional to the £60 million that we have allocated in the current financial year for humanitarian and recovery assistance.

Since my last statement to the House, much has been achieved in Afghanistan. The conference in Tokyo was an excellent example of how the international community can achieve results when it works collectively. However, there is still a great deal to do. The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan remains fragile and it is not yet clear whether there will be a fourth year of drought, but there is a real danger that there will be. We should strongly congratulate the UN system and particularly the World Food Programme on having averted a major humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan, and we must be clear that these efforts will have to continue for some time while arrangements for long-term reconstruction are put in place.

The most urgent issue that now needs to be addressed is the need to provide security across Afghanistan, and begin the process of demobilisation and disarmament and the building and training of an Afghan army and police force. As a first step, the UK has offered to work with the Afghan Interim Administration on a scoping study. The greatest danger to the future of Afghanistan is the risk of mounting disorder, criminality and faction fighting, which will create an obstacle to the reconstruction effort throughout the country.

With the Taliban removed, the Interim Administration in place and the widespread commitment by the international community to the future of Afghanistan made clear in Tokyo, there is real hope now for a better life for the people, and especially for the children of Afghanistan. We must not fail to grasp this opportunity.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

I welcome the statement and thank the Secretary of State for letting me have a copy of it in advance.

The £200 million announced in Tokyo to fund reconstruction in Afghanistan is extremely welcome. Many were quick to suggest that the west would bomb Afghanistan and then abandon it again. It is encouraging to see that that is not the case.

I share the right hon. Lady's belief that the people of Afghanistan now have a chance of a better future. We should pay tribute to all those who are engaged in liberating Afghanistan from the Taliban and al-Qaeda. I wish them success in completing that task.

When I was in Pakistan, local Afghan aid workers impressed on me the need to work with and through the new Administration. Does the Secretary of State accept that with the difficulties facing Afghanistan, reconstruction will fail unless the basic infrastructure of the new Government is in place? Given her high praise for Hamid Karzai, which I am sure is entirely justified, does she accept that reconstruction is something that is done with a country and not to a country?

Our key concern is that Afghanistan should see the pledges of reconstruction money turned into reality simply and effectively. Is the right hon. Lady satisfied that the reforms to EU development assistance are sufficiently well advanced to make that a good vehicle for a significant proportion of our aid giving?

We welcome the shift in emphasis in EU development assistance towards poor countries like Afghanistan. Learning the lessons from Kosovo, what assurances has the right hon. Lady received that this assistance will take on board the regional context? Many of the surrounding countries are poor and fragile. For example, only today, the entire regional government of Kurdistan resigned. Does she agree that intervening unilaterally in one country could destabilise others in the same area? The quality of co-ordination of the aid efforts will be key to the success of reconstruction. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that DFID's staff deployment will be sufficiently senior to ensure prompt and effective decision making?

The Secretary of State will be aware that more than 4 million Afghan refugees are in Iran and Pakistan. Remarkably, since 1998, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has repatriated 4.6 million Afghan refugees. Could the Secretary of State confirm whether there is provision in the reconstruction package for the repatriation of refugees? Looking at the long-term rehabilitation of Afghanistan, the international community will need to consider debt relief. Even before 11 September, Afghanistan had substantial overhanging debt. Can she give assurances that she will look imaginatively at ways of helping the new Afghan Government to deal with debt relief? In that regard, I welcome the news that a trust fund is to be established.

The Secretary of State twice mentioned the need to stamp out opium production. Does she accept that getting proper irrigation systems in place should be prioritised so that alternative crops can be grown? As I am sure she is aware, I am determined to help land mine victims in Afghanistan. I welcome the news of the involvement of the UN mine action service in what she described as accelerated land mine clearance. However, I draw her attention to the problems of land mines in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan; there is a real fear that as Afghan refugees return through those tribal areas, more may become land mine victims.

We welcome the commitment to women in the reconstruction process. What assistance could be given to Afghan women refugees in this country to encourage them to return and play an active part in restoring their country's fortunes? Finally, I welcome once again the Government's statement and the results of the Tokyo conference. If we can reconstruct Afghanistan properly, that will be another victory for the war on terrorism

Clare Short

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and agree with her. If she remembers, at the beginning of the crisis, there were some elements or loud voices in the United States, but not in the Administration, who said that nation building was none of our business. Anyone who took that position is now seeing the error of their ways. Terrorist groups, criminals, drug dealers and disorderly forces who want to be destructive and spread hate and violence in the world are nurtured by, and hide themselves in, failed states.

We always need the capacity to prevent such action and to build efficient modern states that are part of the international community so that it is not vulnerable to terrorist organisations such as those responsible for 11 September. In the case of Afghanistan, everyone should be haunted by the great error that was made after the Soviet withdrawal, when everyone left and armed groups took over the country; there was no order, leading to the rise of the Taliban and everything that has flowed from that. We owe it to ourselves and the people of Afghanistan not to make that error again.

The hon. Lady asked whether the reforms for which we have been working hard since 1997 in the European Union's development efforts are sufficiently advanced to trust that they will make a contribution in Afghanistan. A serious reform effort is in place, but it needs to be fully implemented. However, we were committed to a much bigger proportion of our funding going through the European Commission by the previous Administration. We therefore worked hard to get the Commission to commit to considerable spending in Afghanistan, as a proportion of our money had to go through it anyway and could well have been spent on less needy countries. The Commission is not the most efficient operator, but at least we should direct the money to the right sources. We should try to collaborate with the Commission to make sure that the money that has to be funnelled through it is spent well in Afghanistan; that is the task in which we will be engaged.

I agree with the hon. Lady very much that Kurdistan, Uzbekistan, Turkistan—all the "Stans"—are in enormously bad shape. Some of them are poor, highly indebted and full of instability. Just as we have got a chance in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we need to work with the "Stans" to try to lift that world region, overcome the problems of terrorism and conflict and give all the people a better chance. My Department is looking to make a bigger effort in co-ordination throughout the "Stans" in the hope that that part of the world will have a better future.

I promise the hon. Lady that my staff will be deployed at the right levels. I have said it before, but it really is true: they are respected and honoured throughout the international system and I am sure that they will make a leading contribution in Afghanistan. We shall try not just to introduce a UK programme, which we would do well, but get behind the Interim Authority and build up their capacity and work with the World Bank and the UN to get the co-ordination effort going properly, which is a more difficult but important task that must be carried out.

On refugees, the UN humanitarian agencies made a separate appeal for short-term help. We will have to assist refugees to return home, but they should not be forced. The big job is to build up the country. Living in refugee camps in Pakistan is a miserable life and I am sure that people will want to go home, but they must be supported until they are ready and then be helped with getting home and reconstructing their houses and agricultural lands.

I do not believe that Afghanistan has a large debt problem, but I shall look at that again. It has been so cut off from the international community for so long that it has not racked up lots of debts and the subject has not been mentioned by any international agency in preparing for reconstruction, but I shall consider the question and write to the hon. Lady.

Fields have already been planted with opium this year and we need to move quickly to ensure that the crop is not brought to market to carry on the corruption that drug dealing leads to. I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to restore irrigation. Lots of irrigation systems were destroyed during the bombing in the war against Soviet occupation, but destroying the irrigation alone is not enough, because that could lead to better poppy cultivation.

We must offer people alternative crops and a better legitimate life so that they do not want to be part of an illicit and corrupt drug-dealing life. These are very poor people who do not use drugs, which became the only alternative crop for them to keep their families alive. We must make them a better legitimate offer that they want to be part of.

Afghanistan was littered with land mines before the recent crisis and a high-quality UN operation was already working there. Now the conflict is over, it has a real chance to work throughout the country to clear up all the land mines. The operation assesses where the mines are and has programmes to warn refugees—a massive effort will be made. There is a genuine chance to clear the country of mines, if we can prevent it from returning to conflict.

The hon. Lady's last point was about helping skilled women refugees in this country to return to their country. The International Organisation for Migration has set up a register of all Afghans—most educated Afghans have left the country and are refugees across the world—to record their skills and talents and to link them with the needs of the new Administration so that people can be helped to return home permanently or temporarily to assist with rebuilding their country.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

My right hon. Friend's statement will be welcomed on both sides of the House. She mentioned the rule of law. Will the barbaric practices of cutting off hands and stoning people to death for alleged sexual reasons finally be ended? Would it not be a good thing for those practices to go for good in a liberated Afghanistan?

Clare Short

Yes indeed. The whole country has been liberated and it is absolutely clear that people from all parts of Afghanistan are overjoyed that the Taliban no longer rule. Some of the most barbaric practices that came in with the Taliban are already disappearing, and they were never supported by the people of Afghanistan. I completely support my hon. Friend's point.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

I thank the Secretary of State for letting us have sight of the statement in time for us to be able to comment on it and I welcome greatly her awareness of the needs of the "Stans"—I also refer to those countries as such. The whole of that area of central Asia is suffering the same drought from which Afghanistan has suffered. I welcome her statement that they will get help too and that the drought has been taken into account, but, mindful of the appalling health statistics and, in particular, maternal and child mortality rates in Afghanistan, what proportion of aid will go on health care?

Lastly, it is outrageous that the money for reconstructing Afghanistan is coming from the Department's budget, not the Treasury contingency reserve. Is the right hon. Lady not angry that, once again, her Department alone has to pay for damage inflicted on behalf of the international community?

Clare Short

I very much agree with the hon. Lady's first point. This new situation is a real opportunity for the whole area: Pakistan, Iran and all the "Stans". There is oil and gas in that part of the world, but they have not been able to get it out because pipelines could not be built as there has been so much disorder. There is now a real chance that all those countries can be helped to build up their economies. The problems in Afghanistan were spreading and corrupting the state, which led to growing drug use in all the neighbouring countries. The whole region has suffered from desperate poverty, so the reconstruction programme represents an important opportunity for it.

I cannot at the moment tell the hon. Lady how much will be spent on health care. The World Health Organisation, UNICEF and the Red Cross are already moving rapidly to expand immediate health care and immunisation. The Red Cross has been helping land mine victims for some time. There will be an immediate effort to improve health care while the Health Ministry and the country's long-term, sustainable health care system are being built up. As the work goes on, I shall be able to give the hon. Lady the figures that she has requested.

I need to explain how my Department's budget works. We have a contingency reserve within the Department that we deploy as emergencies arise in the world. Of the £60 million that we have found since 11 September, £10 million or £20 million was contributed by the Treasury, but the rest came from my Department. The sums that we are now deploying come from my Department. That is right, provided that we have enough in our contingency reserve. If there were crises all over the world we would need additional funding. Let us hope that there are not.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her considerable achievements in Japan, and on her positive and continuing support for women's rights. Does she share my concern that the Minister for Women in Afghanistan is working out of her front room with one cell phone and one personal computer, and has no staff and no resources? Can my right hon. Friend tell us when Sima Samar will get the resources to build up that critical Ministry within the Interim Administration.

Clare Short

Yes. I had a meeting with Jim Wolfensohn while I was in Tokyo. The UK and other countries agreed that we will immediately resource the Ministry for Women's Affairs in Afghanistan, and the preparations for that are going on as we speak.

Tony Baldry (Banbury)

The results of the Tokyo conference are very welcome, as is the United Kingdom's contribution. Is the Secretary of State aware that when the Select Committee on International Development was in Brussels last week, European Union Commissioners made it clear to us that for the EU's contribution to Afghanistan it had to raid every cupboard, and the larder is now bare? Afghanistan is not the only failing state. Does not that show the need to ensure that the EU development budget is as poverty-focused as the UK budget? It seems daft that we give money through the EU to countries such as the Czech Republic and to support the Moroccan fisheries agreement when many countries in Africa are, in their different ways, in as dire need as Afghanistan.

Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Under the Cotonou agreement the European Development Fund is poverty-focused, because it is for Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific regions. People who speak for the Commission always say that that is its poverty focus, but the other half of its development budget is focused on Europe's middle-income countries, which is money not well spent. There is an underspend on Asia, which is why the Commission has had so much difficulty making money available for Afghanistan. The balance of the spend is going even further away from poverty. We are making a major effort to reform that process, and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support. We must seek support across the European Union. The transfer of resources to middle-income countries does not help reform. They should look after their own poor, and they need help to restructure so that they can do that, but the resource stream should go to poor countries that need investment to improve their performance.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a much larger international security force needs to be deployed throughout Afghanistan? It is not sufficient to have that force in Kabul alone. It should be deployed throughout the country, so it must be increased. As my right hon. Friend knows only too well, aid is still not reaching parts of Afghanistan, because of the difficulties of security. Every night, children die in camps because of inadequate aid.

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I have said, insecurity, criminality and fighting between factions pose the greatest threat to our ability to deploy resources well, start rebuilding the country and give people hope for a better future.

Throughout the crisis, when the press pretended to know all there was to know about Afghanistan and people tended to repeat what the press said, it was widely suggested that it would be entirely unacceptable to deploy an international force in Afghanistan. In fact, the deployment has been welcomed massively in Kabul: people desperately want the security that an international force will bring.

The suggestion that there should be an international force in all major cities is not an easy proposition, but the Interim Authority have called for that. We should respect the proposition, examine it, and see whether the international community can respond to it. At the same time, however, we must get on with the job of demobilising all the armed factions and building an Afghan army. We want those people to hand over their weapons in the hope of becoming part of an army, or a proper police force, and indeed taking other jobs.

That is the real hope for the future. We need to consider how the international force can be enhanced, and how, as rapidly as possible, we can demobilise the factions and create legitimate security forces led by Afghans.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

Does the right hon. Lady agree that, although it is obviously vital in the short term that Afghanistan's rather antiquated irrigation system should be repaired—notwithstanding the fact that it is one of the chief causes of rivalry between the tribes—what Afghanistan needs in the longer term is a much greater supply of water and power? It so happens that its geographical configuration—the positioning of its rivers, valleys and mountains—is ideal for the building of power dams like the Kariba and Aswan dams. Will the right hon. Lady point out to our American allies that when President Roosevelt launched the new deal he put the Tennessee valley dam system at the forefront of it, and that by spending a good deal less than they have spent on bombing Afghanistan, the Americans could give it a proper dam system?

Clare Short

I agree that Afghanistan needs a new deal. These are hard-working, enterprising people who have managed to cope in the most difficult circumstances. It was Afghan lorry drivers who kept food moving throughout the crisis and Afghan workers who continued the emergency humanitarian effort when all the international staff were withdrawn.

I agree that our efforts should be focused on empowering Afghans to run their own country, and giving them proper irrigation and power systems. I do not know enough about the geography to know whether dams are appropriate, so I cannot comment on the soundbite, but I concur with the broad sentiment.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

The human infrastructure is vital. Can my right hon. Friend tell us a little more about the register of refugees?

Because of the disorder, instability and insecurity of the past 20 years, many professionals have fled Afghanistan—who can blame them?—and found more comfortable lives outside their country. What incentives can be given to such people, including those in the United Kingdom, to return to Afghanistan—if only for brief periods—and give of their talents?

Clare Short

This is a feature of failed states. Most educated Sierra Leoneans are not in Sierra Leone; many are in Britain, making important contributions. Because of Guyana's history from the 1950s on, many highly educated and indeed political Guyanese are in the UK rather than Guyana. They are welcome, and they make an important contribution in our country; but the presence here of an educated group who are the first people needed to restore a country are not in that country when reconstruction begins.

Afghans working in the World Bank have gone back, and are starting to help support the reconstruction effort. Afghans all over the world are being asked to register their skills on the register from the International Organisation for Migration. The aim is to provide a gateway to deliver information about all the projects and recruitment taking place in Afghanistan.

We will do our best to facilitate the recruitment of Afghans. Many who have been away for a long time and have children at school will find it impossible to uproot themselves and go home, but many will want to engage for a time in the reconstruction of their country, and the necessary arrangements are in place.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I welcome the content of the right hon. Lady's statement and the great progress that seems to be being achieved. I have two brief questions. It is obvious that Afghanistan cannot wait to have an Administration who develop the capacity and competencies necessary to build the infrastructure that can reach down to local level. What steps are being taken to ensure that the aid moneys will reach community levels as well as the Interim Administration? Can she say anything about the role that Afghan civil groups, the ordinary people of Afghanistan, including women, will have in the way those moneys will be spent?

Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is important for the authority of the Interim Administration and the success of the Bonn process—going from a transitional Government to elections, including all the people of Afghanistan and all the ethnicities so that there is a stable long-term future—that the Interim Administration deliver across the country to all localities. We are very aware of that but all the administrative structures have been broken. What is needed is easy to conceptualise but not so easy to achieve.

It will be possible—the United Nations system is lined up for this—to go into a humanitarian-plus phase. The World Food Programme, for example, will say to every community, "What do you want to rebuild?" It will look for groups, particularly women-led groups because they tend to be the most practical in local communities, and ask, "Is it the school or road you want to rebuild?" Then food for work could be introduced. People could start rebuilding across the country. Similarly, schools could be opened across the country, with food provided for children who go to school; that tends to incentivise girls to go to school.

Already there is an effort to pay civil servants across the country. The Interim Administration are paying, but I was insistent in Tokyo that we ensure that those civil servants are doing something real. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are aware of the point that he makes and determined to deliver to the localities so that money is properly spent.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East)

I welcome the positive and constructive role that my right hon. Friend and her Department are playing in reconstructing Afghanistan. I welcome too the fact that one of the objectives that came out of last week's conference in Tokyo was the elimination of poppy cultivation. Has she seen recent press reports that there has been a step increase in the planting of poppy fields in Afghanistan while attention is elsewhere, and apparently open trading of heroin in Kabul market? Will she impress on the Interim Administration the fact that that is wholly unacceptable?

Clare Short

I have already said that more poppy has been planted. If the House pauses and thinks for a minute, that is inevitable. These are people with nothing: no seed, no tools. They have been growing poppy to survive; they have not been using it. Without some external intervention, they have nothing else to plant and no other way to make a living.

There is no doubt about the commitment of the Interim Administration. They made that clear in Tokyo but they need the capacity. They have banned the cultivation of poppy but need the capacity to intervene. That crop needs to be rooted out. Local people must be offered an alternative. Have we not learned from Latin America that we cannot just destroy a crop and offer onions, or whatever it may be? We must offer people a legitimate life that will be better than the illegitimate life: the chance for their children to go to school, the chance to begin to get public services.

I agree with my hon. Friend that this matter is urgent. We are focused on the urgency but we must help the Interim Administration to do something about it, not just shout at them. They are determined to stop it, but capacity is their problem.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

I too warmly welcome the Secretary of State's statement. Are there any early lessons to be learned yet from the delivery of aid, which seems to have been very varied across Afghanistan? For example, Herat seems to be the success story. Is that because the local governor is Ismail Khan? Is it because Iran is rather more logistically effective at getting aid through than what she called the various "Stans", which are less developed?

Clare Short

I follow these matters closely, but it is not my understanding that things are particularly better in Herat, which we know was a fine, ancient and civilised city that has now been destroyed. Communities everywhere are restoring themselves, but I am not aware that things are better in Herat. My own view is that no one can praise the UN system enough for the way in which it has coped through the crisis. Just think; some 6 million people daily are absolutely dependent on the food trucked in by the World Food Programme as the crisis, the fighting and the bombing have been going on. The system has held up and the food has been getting in. Afghan drivers have been taking food in and reporting on where it is safe to go and on whether the warehouses are working. When warehouses were looted, the World Food Programme took the food directly to local communities to distribute.

The system has held up; that is a phenomenal achievement, but we must all keep that going as we build the long-term reconstruction. In some areas there is still conflict, and there has been criminality, with food supplies being stolen. In some remote communities, there are some very hungry children. I am not saying that everything is perfect, but the catastrophe that, without the conflict, might well have occurred has been avoided. The UN is to be praised, but there is an awful lot to do to make sure that we build on what has been done.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

May I add my congratulations to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on the remarkable part played by my right hon. Friend and her officials at the conference in Japan? I thank her for her warm commitment to women's rights and to ensuring that the women's Ministry has rather more facilities than clearly it has at the moment. Although, as she has made clear, a great number of Afghan experts have had to flee the country, will she confirm that there are still people in Afghanistan who can make a contribution, most particularly in health care and education? Is it part of the UN's programmes in these areas as far as possible to incorporate that home-grown ability, particularly in employing women in these areas?

Clare Short

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It was not just me in Tokyo who was committed to women's rights, as one might have expected. That commitment was felt very strongly across the board at the conference by all sorts of Governments and by the Interim Administration. That does not mean that the work will be done without more pushing, but the commitment was very strong, which is a good thing.

Afghans have kept the whole humanitarian effort going in the most difficult situation. After 11 September, when all the international staff were withdrawn and the Taliban said that even using the telephone to keep in touch with the humanitarian agencies could result in a life sentence, Afghans kept things going. It would be intolerable—we have seen this in other states—for all the international staff to come in, with their Land Rovers, their UN equipment, their housing and their high salaries, while the locals are marginalised. We have seen that before, time and again. We must avoid that in Afghanistan and we must build on the local staff, who have performed heroically. They will reconstruct their country, and they must not be marginalised.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that those of us who have consistently supported intervention—whether in Kosovo, Sierra Leone or, more recently, in Afghanistan—are always confronted by a particular argument, which is that when the fighting is over, our forces will be turned into permanent policemen? In view of her answer earlier to her hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), about the need to have more forces in all parts of Afghanistan to maintain security, what contact is she having with her counterparts in other European countries to see if they can help in that policing, given that most of them contribute a lot less to the fighting than the United Kingdom has had to?

Clare Short

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it has been honourable and essential for us to intervene in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. There are other failed states in the world that are causing enormous suffering to their peoples and endangering the future security of the world. They include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Sudan and, although it is much smaller, Somalia. It is part of our task in the 21st century to have the capacity to bring these conflicts to an end and to build effective modern states that will deliver order to their people and co-operation with the international community. We must, therefore, be able to engage and disengage with them, and to show that this is a sensible process.

In Sierra Leone, our forces are fewer in number but they have been engaged in building a new Sierra Leone army that is disciplined and properly responsible to the political authority there. The training team has now become an international training team. Something very similar has to happen in Afghanistan. The United Kingdom will hand over the lead of the international force to another country—Turkey is being talked about, and Germany might also take over the lead in the future. The question of whether countries will be willing to commit more forces so that the international force can maintain a presence in all the major cities has not been resolved, and will be an urgent matter for international discussion.

As in Sierra Leone, we must start the training of the Afghan army and the Afghan police force. The Germans are taking the lead on police retraining; we have taken the lead on a scoping study. The way out—the exit strategy—is to build the Afghan army and police force, and we must get on with that immediately.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

I welcome what my right hon. Friend had to say about the register of skills, and about other steps that are being taken to help refugees to return. People should not, however, be forced to return, given that the situation in Afghanistan is still fragile and that there is not yet security across the whole country. Will my right hon. Friend take the time to draw that to the attention of her colleagues in the Home Office, who seem to be considering returning asylum seekers to Afghanistan?

Clare Short

I would be happy to ask my officials to draw my remarks to the attention of the Home Office.

We are talking about a lot of different people in this context. The most needy are probably the millions of poor people living in very poor conditions in camps in Iran and Pakistan, who will want to go home if things get better and who will need help to do so. They should not, however, be forced to go home before the appropriate conditions are in place to receive them. Other Afghan people are spread across the world. There are a number of them in my constituency, some of whom have been given full refugee status—as my hon. Friend knows, that means that they will make their own choices—and some of whom are still asylum seekers. We shall all have to make sure that their interests are properly protected.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

The right hon. Lady has given an impressive account of co-operation and conciliation in Afghanistan. What lessons learned there can now be applied to the middle east peace process? Does she agree that the failure of that process threatens not only the peace process in Afghanistan but the stability of the Arab nations in the area? She spoke about the pivotal role of the United Nations; does she recall that there are United Nations resolutions relating to Israel and Palestine that have not been implemented? Should there not now be just as strong a focus on Israel and Palestine as on Afghanistan?

Clare Short

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Prime Minister made that clear during some of his early travels, trying to consolidate the coalition so that the world would hold together to deal with the al-Qaeda problem in Afghanistan. The problem in the middle east is the cause of a great deal of suffering and death. The road that it is on, with both sides inflicting and suffering terrible injury, represents a tragedy that only deepens the bitterness and that must, in the end, be turned around. Both sides must find peace for all those people to have a future. It is a desperate situation, and we all need to work together to make things better.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is the biggest cause of anger and bitterness in the Arab and Muslim world. We must all commit ourselves to redoubling our efforts to turn the tragedy around and to give young Palestinians and Israelis the chance of a peaceful, better future.

Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall)

Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many women have been nominated to the Administration that has been set up in Afghanistan? Will she also tell us what will be the role of women in the Loya Jirgah, which is a very traditional institution that is 100 per cent. male dominated? The Loya Jirgah will play an important role in the setting up of a democratic Government in Afghanistan.

Clare Short

I cannot remember the exact number of women Ministers in the Interim Administration.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn)


Clare Short

I met one of them, the Health Minister, in Tokyo. She is a surgeon, a professor and a general. She is quite a powerful woman; I saluted her, literally. I do not think that anyone would take her lightly.

As I understand it, Ambassador Brahimi is about to make an announcement about the make-up of the commission that will prepare the Loya Jirgah. Each of those bodies is widening the ethnic representation and making it more proportional, to get some legitimacy into the new institutions. The announcement has not been made yet, but it is imminent; I know that there will be some women on the commission, but I cannot give my hon. Friend a number today. I very much agree with him that the next step will be to make sure that women are properly represented in the Loya Jirgah—the big informal consultation across the country that will agree on the transitional Government. My hon. Friend makes his point well, and it is important; there has been some progress, but we need more.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk)

I welcome the emphasis that the Secretary of State put on the need to eliminate poppy production. Can she give more details of how it can be eliminated in practice, and of how we can create a mechanism to incentivise farmers to go into food production, and also create a market so that they can get a price for the food that they produce? How concerned is she that there may be Northern Alliance leaders who are still involved in the drugs trade? Could that not undermine the effort to eliminate poppy production in Afghanistan?

Clare Short

I do not know any particulars about those who have made lots of money out of the drugs trade, but I am certain that they are still out there, and that they would wish to continue their activities. Of course, well governed states are the enemy of drug dealers who want to make vast sums of money, because to do that they need disorder and corruption. I am sure that those people are out there, and we must ensure that the space that they have to operate in is destroyed.

I want to be completely honest in answering the hon. Gentleman's question: there is not a firm strategy in place to deal with the poppy crop that has recently been planted and is still in the ground in Afghanistan. I promise him that we will engage both the Foreign Office and my Department in trying to ensure that such a strategy is in place.

There have been proposals to buy up the crop as soon as it is harvested, but that tends to be a disastrous strategy, because if we buy up a crop in a very poor country, what will the people with neighbouring fields think about growing next season? There is an urgent need to root out the crop so that it is not harvested—but then we have to offer people the chance of a better future.

The lesson of the anti-poppy work throughout the world is that bombing and destroying crops and then offering people seeds for another crop, but not a better, legitimate life, is not enough. We need to offer people the package. People do not want to grow drugs and be marginalised, and come under attack from their own army and police force, either in Latin America or in Afghanistan. If people can have legitimate crops and get themselves an income, put their children in school, and have health care and a vote in the governance of their country, they will all choose that—and we must put in place a package that makes them want to choose that. The need is extremely urgent, but that package is not in place yet.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's contribution, and her statement today. In the context of the prospects for peace and reconstruction work, how concerned is she about the weekend news reports that intelligence agents and military officials from Iran are operating, especially in the Herat area, with a view to undermining Chairman Karzai and the prospects for central Government authority?

Clare Short

I met the Iranian Foreign Minister in Tokyo. The situation in Afghanistan has caused enormous destabilisation in Iran, with very large numbers of refugees and a drugs problem that has spread to Iranian young people, because of all that traffic. The Iranian Government are therefore very supportive of the Bonn agreement, and anxious that the process should be successful. They have made a big pledge of financial commitment to the reconstruction effort, and are highly engaged.

There are strong relationships between Herat and Iran. The people are related ethnically, by language and by the tradition within Islam, so that is natural. There have been suggestions that there may have been some unhelpful activity, but that is denied. I believe that the Iranian Government want to make a success of the process, and we need to work with them to ensure that it is a success.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

May I join in the almost universal and, in my case, heartfelt and genuine welcome for the Secretary of State's commitment to the reconstruction of Afghanistan? What mention was made of democracy in Tokyo? We hear about the Loya Jirgah and the commission. Does she believe that there is an appetite among the people who will make up the Loya Jirgah for proper, democratic and legitimate representation? Of course it is difficult, but there is no reason why the ordinary person in the street, however ill educated, male or female, should not be allowed to express their views on how they are governed.

Clare Short

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is the underpinning objective of the Bonn process, but it is a question of getting from here to there. We do not have the time or the organisation to have instant elections that would be representative across the country. The Interim Authority is slightly representative, although not perfect, but it is what Ambassador Brahimi could do to get agreement out of Bonn. The commission will be more representative of all the various groups in Afghanistan, and then the Loya Jirgah will have discussions with the elders and leaders of the whole country. A full Interim Administration will follow, and then elections.

We need a process of widening legitimacy and inclusivity, while taking enough time to have proper, legitimate elections, which require a census and electoral registration. What I have described is the intention of the Bonn agreement. Provided that we reinforce the Interim Authority and the people of Afghanistan see the process delivering for them, we will end up with a legitimate, functioning, democratic, representative Afghan Government.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

I add my welcome to the Secretary of State's statement. The right hon. Lady mentioned internal security concerns in Afghanistan. Is she in favour of broadening the remit of the troops already there to safeguard the delivery of humanitarian aid and, critically, to ensure that the aid that is there gets to the people who need it as soon as possible?

Clare Short

The remit of the forces in Afghanistan is determined by Security Council resolutions. There has to be consensus across the international community to move these matters forward. I would not like to elaborate on any modification of the Security Council remit in specific terms. The big question is whether the international force will deploy to other cities in Afghanistan and whether the will and resources are available for it to do so.

My view on the military engaging in humanitarian efforts is that the military should do what the military can do and humanitarians should do what humanitarians can do. We should not muddle the two, but they can often be complementary. The most important thing is to bring order and then humanitarians can operate. Part of bringing order is to get the trust of the local community, and UK troops tend to be very good at that, partly because of the lessons learned, painfully, in Northern Ireland.

My Department provides funding for small projects that the troops tend to carry out with local communities, such as fixing up schools and arranging games of football with the children. That increases the troops' authority and legitimacy and provides a sense of well-being. That is the best way to organise these matters, and UK troops are the best in the world at that kind of peacekeeping and working with local communities.