HL Deb 11 February 2004 vol 656 cc1120-54

4.7 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich rose to call attention to the efforts made by NATO and the United Nations to help the people of Afghanistan to defeat terrorism and improve security to assist national reconstruction; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful". Those are the famous words of the Koran which open speeches all over the Muslim world, and were used by the respected Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, last week when he urged the people to register for the forthcoming elections. They are a reminder that reconstruction is a solemn task, not only for the new Afghan nation but for the whole international community and our soldiers and aid workers who are risking their lives there.

It is a pleasure to be opening a debate on Afghanistan only two weeks after a Commons debate was initiated by the Government themselves—perhaps because the war in Afghanistan has been so eclipsed by the Hutton report and more tragic events in Iraq. The Commons debate opened by Mr Gareth Thomas focused mainly on development, which is one reason why I shall concentrate today on security for development.

Just over two years ago our intervention against the Taliban was critical in the war against terrorism. I supported that war because it had the support of the United Nations and, most important, of most of the Arab states in the region. I regret that since then our attention, our assistance and so many of our troops have been drawn off to Iraq. We are plainly not giving the Afghan people the same priority. In this context, however, I welcome the commitment of the new NATO Secretary-General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who clearly intends to take Afghanistan as seriously as his predecessor. He is trying to expand the numbers and the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and to widen the membership of the US-led coalition forces fighting Al'Qaeda. Apart from the US and the UK, the Germans and Canadians have already sent substantial forces to Kabul and over 10 more of our NATO allies have expressed an interest in expanding ISAF beyond Kabul.

The mandate is widening, and yet very little has happened. I understand that our own FCO has had to go round persuading our NATO allies to make actual contributions of troops and resources, and I hope that the Minister can give more details of progress. Can she also comment on the German defence Minister's statement last week that ISAF will be led from August by the Eurocorps?

Meanwhile, many people believe that the situation is deteriorating. Casualties among both NATO troops and NGOs have been mounting. Most recently, and for the first time, there have been suicide bomb attacks. Two such attacks in Kabul only two weeks ago killed first a Canadian soldier and one Afghan, injuring 11 others, and then the following day a British soldier was killed and at least nine others were injured.

Aid workers are increasingly targeted. When Bettina Goislard of UNHCR was murdered in Ghazni in November, she was the 14th aid worker to have died last year, among 84 European peacekeepers killed since the Taliban was ousted. UN missions are still suspended in many parts of the country. Tearfund is the latest charity to pull out of the south. Hundreds of Afghan civilians have died, including a party of schoolchildren hit by the Taliban in Kandahar last month. Some will say that that is the price of war. We all deplore the loss of life among British soldiers and others who are trying to help in Afghanistan. But we are learning a new lesson in peacekeeping: war and peace go hand in hand, and in spite of appearances we are still at war with the Taliban, just as we are at war with elements of the Ba'athists in Iraq.

It is not a war which we can end, because it is in the nature of a country such as Afghanistan—a nation which welds together different ethnic groups and minorities—that not all Afghans are looking for unity. Among the Hazara people in the north who were persecuted by the Taliban, we would find warm support for the new nation and reconstruction. Hazara children get up very early to walk three hours to school and three hours back, demonstrating that normal life has resumed in many parts of the country. In the south and east, however, many families fear to go out of their houses. Many of the Pashtun who do not support President Karzai are vulnerable to pressure not only from the Taliban, but from their own commanders and drug dealers who hold small communities to ransom.

We are dealing with a civil war in isolated mountainous areas that history suggests is impossible to win permanently. That fact is also exploited by the so-called Al'Qaeda network, linking former Mujaheddin and their Pakistani backers who live in twilight zones along the border. There, thousands of mainly US coalition forces seem holed up for years in their efforts to defeat invisible terrorists. Many so-called terrorists are no more than elusive Taliban with motorbikes and mobile phones who can inflict pain out of all proportion to their strength.

Perhaps the Minister will agree that, in the public mind, that is no longer the necessary war that we went to fight when the Taliban was driven out, but an open-ended war of containment in a no-man's land in which there are only losers, including the intelligence services. The US-led coalition is not winning this hidden war any more than it is in Iraq, otherwise it would surely publicise its successes. Is it not a fact that we in the UK have a different approach? We are rightly concentrating less on the mountain war and more on security surrounding the elections and countering the drugs trade.

The more urgent war is the one for hearts and minds, especially among the Pashtun, who are being told by some that elections and democracy are mere enemy tactics. Incidentally, I spoke to the moderate Pashtun leader Ahmed Gailani this morning, who happens to be in London. He pointed out that the Pashtun still have not been given their rightful place in government, a situation which may change only with free elections in the Pashtun areas.

One way of giving local people more confidence has been through the provincial reconstruction teams, which provide stability in areas where aid workers are already active. However, so far those are mainly in the north. There is still some confusion between military and humanitarian work, but a good UK-led model has been established in Mazar-i Sharif. More than 50 NGOs are working in that area and co-operation has been good.

It is widely acknowledged that that force has provided a degree of stability in Mazar and has played a mediating role between rival northern commanders. However, many NGOs are concerned that the other US-led PRTs do not follow the same pattern. There are a number of concerns about the attitude of US soldiers, but I will simply quote from a note from an Afghan NGO after its representatives had met a US-led PRT. It said: They need to share information with NGOs (via the UN), and not just extract it from us". A greater concern has been the role of militia who answer only to themselves. That is a familiar problem for those engaged in the peace process in Sudan and elsewhere—that proxy commanders who are not so engaged in nation-building can be easily manipulated by the Taliban. Lakhdar Brahimi, during his last briefings as the outgoing UN special representative, said last month: For too many Afghans, the daily insecurity they face comes not from resurgent extremism associated with the Taliban but from the predatory behaviour of local commanders and officials who nominally claim to represent the government…The threat factional forces pose to the peace process has been increasingly compounded by the terrorist tactics of extremists aimed at causing the peace process to fail altogether". The Minister will know how much influence radical elements in Pakistan, and specifically politicians in the north-west frontier province have on the border provinces in Afghanistan. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-e Islami party of Afghanistan, broadcasts freely from Peshawar. Can the Minister say how far the latest India-Pakistan agreement has enabled President Musharraf to put more pressure on the MMA coalition in that province to support anti-terrorism measures there? Will that have any effect? What has happened to the non-intervention pact signed by Afghanistan's six neighbours? What guarantee of security does the coalition provide today for people living along the Pakistan border?

What progress can the Minister report with security sector reform, one of the UK's key objectives? Army and police training is still painfully slow and inadequate, with thousands of defectors. Can we do more to help? Only a handful of our police advisers have gone out from the UK, and we are training a very small number of Afghan police officers in the UK. Once again, comparisons with Iraq are inevitable.

Drug control, despite some success with the Iranian customs, is a major challenge. On the plus side, British intelligence apparently contributed to coalition success in an anti-narcotics raid in Badakhshan last month, but it is certainly not enough and is not meeting any of the targets in the Government's PSA. The UN programme and any attempts at diversification will be held back by the failure of central government to control areas in which militias are involved in the opium trade.

I cannot of course mention every initiative which we are supporting in Afghanistan, most of which are extremely good. The BBC World Service continues to be a flagship of objectivity in promoting democracy at a community level and publicising the all-important registration process. Joan Ruddock made a remarkable speech in the Westminster Hall debate about the need for greater participation of women, recognising the achievements to date but pointing out the discrimination and injustice which continues. Women still form about only 20 per cent of the electorate, but there is still time to improve that figure.

Afghanistan is a vast country and the NGOs are already suffering overstretch because of the responsibilities given to them to make up for weaknesses in government services. I hope that the Minister can say something about how we rectify that problem. Mr Gareth Thomas made the important point on 29 January that NGOs cannot possibly cover the ground on their own. I know, for example, that Save the Children Fund has taken on an enormous task in managing a health programme around Mazar-i Sharif.

In conclusion, the uncertainties and the confusion at the end of a very long civil war are inevitably still delaying the process of reconstruction. Those people who believe in national unity are looking forward to the promised changes represented by the new constitution and the elections. But those changes require that the Government continue to command respect from all the commanders and that donors fulfil the promises made at Bonn, backed up by the coalition's claimed guarantee of security along the Pakistan border. I am sure that we will hear from the Minister about the planned conference in Germany.

However, I am not sure that the international community is keeping the promises that it has made to Afghanistan. The present political and military scene is still far from the vision of unity in Afghanistan which the international community presented after October 2001. The elections will tell, but the majority of Afghans outside Kabul remain unaware and uncommitted and are still dazed by the ravages of war, whose consequences are visible around them. I beg to move for Papers.

4.21 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, has provided the House with a well timed opportunity to look at the security situation in Afghanistan, particularly just after the NATO ministers' meeting in Munich at the weekend. He is quite right to express reservations about the failure of the international community to honour the promises that were made to Afghanistan at the time that we went in. I draw your Lordships' attention to the UN Secretary-General's warning to the General Assembly at the beginning of December. He said: The increase in attacks on United Nations staff and other international and Afghan civilians engaged in providing assistance and furthering the peace process is a matter of the utmost concern". The situation has continued to worsen since then. The 5,500 troops in the NATO-led ISAF force are woefully inadequate even for the task of maintaining law and order in Kabul and the north, while the Afghan National Army, estimated to number 7,000 men at the moment, has already lost 3,000 men through desertion, as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned, and is not an operational force. People in Afghanistan are not convinced that terrorism will be defeated when half the country is a "no-go" area and the suicide bombers are killing ISAF personnel and civilians, even in Kabul.

As the noble Earl said, NATO's response has been to create five new provincial reconstruction teams and the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, said that Britain would be prepared to lead one of those teams. Will the Minister say where the additional forces are to come from? The PRTs vary between 80 and 300 in size, so we are not talking about large numbers in the field, but they require logistical and back office support and there would have to be provision for rotation so that they did not have to remain there permanently.

The PRTs are not an adequate response to the level of insecurity in most of the country. I do not think that there is one in Badakhshan, as was mentioned by the noble Earl. If there had been, it would have been unable to stop or prevent the fighting between the two warlords who control the drug business in that area. The mandate of the PRTs is not precise and that may deter some of the candidates from signing up. But given the size of the PRTs, they are clearly not designed to cope with factional conflicts or terrorism. The Kandahar PRT has become a major target for terrorist attacks and the same is happening in Ghazni and Jalalabad. How does ISAF propose to cope with the escalation of terrorism by neo-Taliban forces and what will be the relationship between the expanded ISAF and the 11,000-strong US operation "Enduring Freedom", which continues to look for Taliban and other terrorist groups in the region and runs its own PRTs?

The noble Earl gave figures for casualties. In January, 15 people were killed and 60 were injured when two bombs exploded within minutes of each other in Kandahar city. The same day, 12 Hazaras were killed when they were travelling through the Baghran district of Helmand province. In the past six months alone 400 civilians have been killed in southern Afghanistan and in the past nine months 13 aid workers have been killed in the south and east.

Humanitarian agencies are leaving. The noble Earl mentioned Tearfund, a UK-based organisation which had 45 staff working in 28 villages around Kandahar. They are the latest to go. Not one NGO now works in the villages and rural areas around Kandahar and only MSF and InterSOS have a skeleton staff inside the city. The UN also says that it is suspending most of its operations in the south-east provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar after a series of explosions and the vandalising of a girls' primary school. Paktika and Ghanzni provinces are considered to be high risk areas. In the south, the UN has withdrawn completely, except for the immediate surroundings of Kandahar and one district in Helmand province.

Surely that is handing the terrorists a victory. They want Afghanistan to descend into the chaos and poverty in which only they and the drug barons, with whom they have a symbiotic relationship, can prosper. Instead of withdrawing, the response should have been to put more security forces into those provinces. Effectively, a line seems to have been drawn that cuts Afghanistan in half, abandoning all the communities south of that line to their fate. There will be no education for women below that line and anyone who collaborated with the UN or the aid agencies will be at risk of persecution or even assassination. A few days ago a district official in Uruzgan province was blown up, together with his wife, three sons and two brothers. If incidents of that kind continue to be unchecked and those responsible are not rooted out and punished, the extremists will flourish. Sooner or later much larger forces will be needed to deal with them, both in Afghanistan and abroad. It is suicidally short-sighted for the international community to withdraw in the face of that terrorist aggression.

How can the international community spend the money available for reconstruction if there is no one on the ground? The US has allocated for Afghanistan 1.5 billion dollars in 2004 and 1.2 billion dollars in 2005. No doubt there are comparable sums on offer from the European Union and other donors. The transitional assistance programme for the year ending March 2004 came to 815 million dollars. Will that money have been spent? If not, will it be possible to say how much of the shortfall is attributable to the security problem in the south and south-east? For example, how much will have been spent of the 8 million dollars allocated to narcotics control and drug cultivation?

The UN Secretary-General told the Security Council in July that cultivation, production and trafficking in illegal narcotics threatened not only peace in Afghanistan but had regional and global consequences. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, 1.7 million people, 7 per cent of the population, are directly involved in poppy cultivation and trading. They produce three quarters of the global output of heroin. In 2003 that cultivation grossed 2.3 billion dollars and people working for it earned around 3,900 dollars per family. That compares with an average national wage of 2 dollars a day. When those figures are looked at, the FAO's request for 25.5 million dollars over five years to finance alternative crops in the poppy growing areas is pitifully small. On the BBC's "PM" programme on Monday it was reported that there are now thousands of addicts in Kabul itself. They have one treatment unit with six places, which is totally inundated by the patients applying to be treated there. The problem is that there is no other crop which is anything like as profitable and the alternatives would require substantial capital input to start them up. Can the Minister say what positive suggestions were made at the international counter narcotics conference on Afghanistan held in Kabul a couple of days ago?

As the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said, our attention has been distracted by Iraq. Perhaps because of that we do not have the resources to ensure that Afghanistan becomes a democratic country not just with elections, but with functioning institutions, a state in which force is concentrated in the hands of the government and everyone joins together to defeat terrorism and to rebuild civil society. The war against Saddam may have removed one dictator, but it also seriously impaired our ability to counter the enemies of peace and harmony everywhere else. Afghanistan still presents a challenge to the ideals of freedom and justice to which the world has not yet risen.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate about Afghanistan and I am grateful to the noble Earl for having introduced it. I am particularly concerned about what has happened to women. I remember that years ago, when I was still a trade union official, one of my colleagues joined a group of women trade unionists who went to Afghanistan to see for themselves what the situation was. It was before the war which so devastated that country. It was when President Najibullah was in power. The regime was not popular in the West as it was seen as pro-Soviet.

However, my colleague, who was an experienced and respected trade union official, reported that women had access to education, to health and child care and to employment. Many were active in public life. She reported favourably on the progress that was being made.

Then of course there was the rebellion against the regime—a rebellion which was supported by America and ourselves, incidentally. Indeed, the National Security Adviser to the then President, Zbigniew Brzezinski, actually boasted of US support for the Mujahidin, referring to an "Afghan trap" which drew the Russians into invading with the results we now know.

The West continued to support the Mujahadin— many of them Islamic extremists—who at that time included Osama bin Laden. They were described as "freedom fighters". The Russians withdrew eventually after a brutal war, but the victors were certainly not democrats. On the contrary, they were themselves responsible for appalling attacks on civilians, much of the brutality being directed against women. The lawless anarchy was so great that when the Taliban took over, the population almost welcomed the relative security that it brought.

Some of the Mujahidin had been motivated by a general hatred of western culture, and in particular of the relative freedom that had existed for women. They had murdered teachers in schools where girls were being taught and burnt the schools down because they did not want women to be educated. The Taliban, as we know, while they brought more security, nevertheless introduced the most extreme aspects of Sharia law. Women were barred from education, from healthcare, from jobs and from public life and were forced to abide by the strictest dress code, suffering beatings for the slightest infringement.

Women who had been educated under the Najibullah regime attempted, at enormous risk to themselves, to pass on what they had learnt to girls in secret, as they were concerned lest generations of women would grow up without education and quite unable to earn any sort of livelihood. Women widowed in the wars were left with no alternative but to beg for themselves and their children.

I refer to those past events to illustrate that the past 20 years has seen a culture develop which is profoundly discriminatory towards women. Indeed, it is not too much to say that recent regimes, until the present one, have actually been led by individuals with an almost pathological hatred of women. The present regime is of course trying to restore rights to women. Some women have emerged to play a role in public life, but it must require enormous courage. It is difficult and enormously complicated. I understand that the rule of the regime does not extend much beyond Kabul. Indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, illustrated that in his interesting address today.

Parts of the country appear to be under the domination of the very warlords who were responsible for previous brutalities. Bin Laden has not been captured and the Taliban appear to be active in certain areas. Moreover, the drug culture which, for all their faults, the Taliban appear to have stamped out, has made a reappearance, much to the concern of neighbouring countries and to ourselves. And there is the culture of violence which so often accompanies regimes where there is drug dependency. The long years of war, food shortages, loss of homes with many people becoming homeless refugees in their own country, have had a devastating effect upon women, often left alone as a result of the casualties of war and often the sole support of young children.

We now have an obligation to try to bring peace to this ravaged country and, fortunately, there now seems to be international co-operation to that end. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will tell us a great deal more about that today. There is an urgent need to bring support and succour to the women of Afghanistan who have suffered so much in the wars that have ruined the country and for which they bear no responsibility at all. They are the real victims. I know that the Minister is herself concerned about these problems and I wait to hear from her with interest.

4.35 p.m.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, it is some 12 years since I was last in contact with a large number of Afghan refugees. I, like other speakers, am deeply grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for initiating this debate today. It gives us a chance to focus on an area that is almost being forgotten by the media in the light of other issues.

I want to endorse, without repeating, every word spoken by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, on the situation of women. There is a sliding backwards for women in Afghanistan because they cannot exert any of the rights which so many of us take for granted. They need our help and they deserve it. I hope that special measures can be taken, particularly through the provincial reconstruction teams, to help women. I shall be grateful for anything the Minister can say on that score.

One of the problems we are facing in Afghanistan is the crucial need to establish security, for security without development means no progress. It is a stultifying situation in any war zone simply to keep the peace and do no more. That is why the Mazar-e-Sharif provincial reconstruction team, led by the British, is being so successful. The clusters of lightly armed soldiers are there to assist in rebuilding, but the difficulty is that most PRTs have a vague mandate. Furthermore, they do not have security backing to enable them to concentrate on the reconstruction for which they were set up. They receive air support from the coalition, but they are not part of ISAF, although they have the ability to draw on ISAF's experience. Can the Minister say what we can do to give these provincial reconstruction teams better support to get on with the job? Can we not divert or extend some of the work of the NATO contingent running ISAF to help them with that support so that they can reconstruct?

There is good news coming out of Afghanistan. There has been growth in the economy and more than 2 million refugees have returned home. Yet, thank God, there has not been the kind of humanitarian crisis about which we hear too often in other parts of the world. The Loya Jirga is giving some legitimacy to the country at last. But it is easy to say that without a great deal more sustenance from the international community, the efforts of President Hamid Karzai and others may not succeed. We are at a tipping point with the situation in Afghanistan. Groups of people have been polled on the coming election and 90 per cent have said that they will vote. But of course that will not cover the whole country, as several noble Lords have said.

In addition to those first two issues, where else could we do more to help bring about stability in Afghanistan? Clearly, more soldiers and peacekeepers would make a big difference. I have enough experience in this field to know that it is probably better to divert people to help the reconstruction in Afghanistan than it is to have huge numbers protecting other places in the world, and I believe it to be necessary.

I said that the economy has, indeed, grown by some 28 per cent, but it is still less than half the size it was in 1978. Therefore, what can be done to help the economy to grow? Clearly, Afghanistan needs more food to be grown. However, without water that will not happen. I have heard the argument put forward many times that if we give the Afghans more water, they will simply grow more poppies. I consider that to be a thoroughly defeatist attitude. I believe that if we could devote more of the resources going through the PRTs to the provision of water and basic agricultural assistance, we could help the local communities to gain greater stability through their own efforts.

I note that less than 1 billion dollars of the 4.5 billion dollars promised at the Tokyo conference in 2002 has yet materialised. Further, there is a capacity problem in introducing the resources through development into the areas which are secure enough to start that off.

I have always believed that nothing succeeds like success. The message that gets around is that, when a local community begins to thrive because of the efforts that it makes itself, others want to copy it. Therefore, I hope that we can take the best examples from the great people in the NGOs, DfID and the Foreign Office who are working in Afghanistan and ensure that the messages of success, which do exist, although in too small a part, can be spread to the areas which have not yet engaged in development to any great extent. If we could concentrate more of the resource on water and agriculture, I believe that we would see success.

However, the final area on which I want to concentrate for a moment is the drug situation. Without tackling that to a greater extent, we shall not maintain whatever security we manage to establish through the forces which are there. The Counter-Narcotics Department, which has been instituted, has admirable goals: of 70 percent eradication by 2008 and 100 per cent by 2013. Indeed, we, the British Government, are financing that. But that team is poorly equipped. It is by no means able to reach the goals that it has set itself. Very few of the 28 staff officers in the Counter-Narcotics Department have the relevant experience; there is little money for communication or vehicles; and there is very little money for intelligence gathering, which is a particularly dangerous pursuit in the atmosphere which prevails in Afghanistan.

I know that Mirwais Yassini, the director of the CND, has given us some frightening statistics for the basic scheme which could help the country. He has referred to a need for 300 million dollars over three years. However, it seems to me that, unless we are prepared to make that effort, we shall lose out on the gains that we make from the security that we provide.

Afghanistan is an almost forgotten country at present. I believe we owe it to the bravery of people such as Hamid Karzai and those who seek to re-establish order in Afghanistan to do more than we have been able to do thus far. As a country, we have already made some good and thoughtful contributions. We have set the scene very well. However, we wish that others would copy us—not as a form of flattery, but as a form of vital necessity for ordinary Afghans.

In the debate which our colleagues from another place held in Westminster Hall on 29 January, one area was highlighted repeatedly—that is, the need to help the Afghan people to build up their police force and their judiciary. That is a critical element in continuing the security that foreign forces may help to bring. I hope that the Minister is also able to comment on that in her response.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, as I did in Brussels many years ago, and I want to thank and congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, on his initiative in holding this debate. After a year in which Iraq stole all the headlines and dominated debates in this House, it is important not to be distracted. We need to keep our eye on, and our commitment to, the crucial transition of Afghanistan from one of the most failed of failed states to one where there is stability, democracy, respect for human rights and economic development, which it is the international community's objective to bring about in that country, however unpromising the initial prospects.

During 2003, there were some signs of just that kind of distraction and weakening of political will and of the drying up of resources. I hope that the Minister will be able to demonstrate that that is not so. It is important to remember that, although the primary cause of Afghanistan's failure as a state was the Soviet intervention in 1979, it was the neglect of the country by the international community in the years following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 which contributed substantially to the disaster which befell Afghanistan in 2001.

Any consideration of how things are going in Afghanistan must begin, as did many other noble Lords, with the security situation. Without better security, there will simply not be stability, democracy and development in the country. And currently the auguries seem to me to be somewhere short of brilliant. The provincial warlords are still dominant; the writ of the central government does not run far outside Kabul; and the south of the country is bandit territory. It is good that some efforts have been made by deploying security and development teams in the north to remedy some of those problems. The fact that NATO, rather than a rotating cast of countries, is now in charge of security assistance to the government has real potential. Perhaps the Minister can say how the incoming Secretary-General of NATO is faring in his praiseworthy efforts to strengthen and extend NATO's presence.

But the running sore is the south. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the remnants of the Taliban are receiving substantial assistance from across the border in Pakistan. Of course, the tribal territories astride the Afghan-Pakistan border have been a source of marauding and destabilisation since the time of the British Empire. But it is surely high time for the US and NATO to enlist from President Musharraf more wholehearted support in clamping down on this than has been forthcoming hitherto.

As to the politics of Afghanistan, the recent adoption of a new constitution is clearly an important step forward. But the fate of previous constitutions does not encourage one to put too much confidence in that development alone. Should it prove possible to hold free and fair elections this summer, that will be an even more significant move. I hope that the Afghan Government and their external supporters will not be easily discouraged from that course, even if insurgent activities make it impossible to hold the elections countrywide. In Cambodia in 1992, it was not possible to hold elections in the part of the country controlled by the Khmer Rouge. The UN, rightly in my view, refused to postpone the elections and the Khmer Rouge were ultimately the losers.

However, there remains one serious weakness in the new Afghan political structure—the lack of the wholehearted support of the Pashtun tribes, without which no Afghan government can hope to achieve stability and sustainability. I realise that neither Gulbuddin Hekmatyar nor the remnants of the Taliban leadership are acceptable interlocutors. However, until it proves possible to win over the support of these tribes and to separate them from their former leaders, the whole construct that we are so laboriously putting together will remain fragile and vulnerable.

Some pessimism would also seem to be in order with regard to the production and trading of drugs. It would be helpful if the Minister could give the latest figures and the prospects in that respect. The drug problem is closely linked to that of security and to the political allegiance of the south of the country. If we cannot find alternative means of livelihood for the inhabitants of these arid and largely barren areas, we are not going to wean them from the drug trade. No amount of repression will on its own do the trick; there has to be carrot as well as stick, which I understand is also the view of Her Majesty's Government. It would be interesting to hear from the noble Baroness, as other noble Lords have asked, where she thinks last week's drugs conference in Kabul leaves this crucial issue.

Over the centuries instability in Afghanistan has occurred as much because of the meddling of its neighbours as of its own indigenous centrifugal tendencies. At least the country is now spared the fate of being a pawn of the great powers, as it was in the 19th and 20th centuries. But, in their place, it has neighbours as potentially unstable as itself. I should like to believe that they would have too much on their hands within their own borders to meddle in Afghanistan. But I do not believe that, so I shall repeat a suggestion that I originally made in this House two and-a-half years ago; namely, that we should canvass the possibility of building on the basis of existing commitments and getting a binding, legal international convention to which Afghanistan and all its neighbours would subscribe, and under which all would commit themselves to working for mutual security and the avoidance of any meddling in the affairs of others—a kind of central Asian OSCE, if you like. I have no illusion that such a convention would on its own solve all Afghanistan's problems; but it would, I suggest, provide a solid framework into which to insert the Afghanistan that we are trying to rebuild.

In the end we come back always to that basic task— the rebuilding of a state which has failed; and whose failure has, quite unprecedentedly, made it a threat to us all, because of the way Al'Qaeda ruthlessly exploited its weakness. This issue of failing and failed states is one of the crucial threats and challenges faced by the international community and we are still far from having mastered it. I shall not go into the question of how to stop states failing in the first place, except to say that, as with conflict prevention, we need to concentrate more of our efforts on avoiding the problem than on waiting for it to happen and then expensively and painstakingly remedying it.

In Afghanistan, we are well beyond that. The state failed and we are now trying to help it to rebuild itself. Afghanistan is of course not the only place that we are trying to do this. In Bosnia and in Liberia similar exercises are under way. If we fail to last the course and make a success of these state-rebuilding exercises, we should have no illusions—we shall have undermined the credibility of our whole approach to international relations and we shall have grievously set back the whole effort to find collective responses to challenges which in the past have simply been regarded as too difficult to be worth taking on. The implications of such failure would be far reaching and thoroughly negative. I would suggest, therefore, that it is surely worth a lot of effort and a sustained commitment to avoid that happening.

4.53 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, the noble Earl is indeed to be congratulated on introducing the debate about a sad country with a tragic recent history, where many very tragic events have recently taken place. Afghanistan seems to have become one of those countries which is almost a case study in what happens when many things go wrong, and we in the West look on feeling rather helpless— over and above the consequences of our rather ambiguous relationship with that country, to which the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, alluded, and the recent developments there towards an agreed constitution.

This is one of those debates when although the House is not very full, one is very aware of the weight of experience and knowledge around. I want to concentrate briefly on three areas of concern, some of which have been touched on by others—and perhaps in more detail. The first issue is the question of attacks on non-governmental organisations, including the case of the Tearfund workers.

NGO staff should be able to move around any country in some kind of reasonable safety because they are politically neutral and their primary concern lies elsewhere. But, sadly, as with the attack on the Red Cross worker in Iraq, that is no longer the case. The trouble is that we in the West can be our own greatest enemies. President George Bush may not have been altogether wise in ordering NGOs publicly to identify themselves as part of the US operations in the country or risk losing their funding. One wonders why that step was taken. If Bishops wanted to get some kind of public credit for every good deed done in their dioceses, there would be some very interesting newspaper headlines.

The sad plight of Tearfund in southern Afghanistan is another frustrating case in point. It was working in 28 villages within a 70-kilometre radius of Kandahar—the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, spoke about this earlier—with a team of 45 staff. In the past six months, 400 civilians have been killed in that part of the country. We are also told that 13 aid workers have been killed in the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan in the past nine months.

We can surely endorse the hope expressed by Nigel Timmins—Tearfund's operations manager in Afghanistan—that it will be able to return to the Kandahar region as soon as it is safely possible.

Secondly, I turn to the area covered by the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, which is the increasing problem of drug dependency and the alarming growth in power of the drug barons. According to recent reliable statistics, around 4 per cent of the Afghan population are habitual users of heroin. Opium production accounts for 50 per cent of the country's GDP, which suggests that not nearly enough progress is being made on reconstructing the country, or setting up an economy which is not only viable and legal in international terms, but also not so dependent on only one thing.

Opium growth has increased hugely since the war. I am reliably informed that one of the basic causes is that the purchase of the seeds fuels this instability because opium farmers have to pay back the costs with the crop itself—a classic case, if ever there was one, of a vicious circle. The problem has, of course, far wider implications. One is reminded of the wise remarks of St Augustine in one of his sermons that, swollen rivers are made out of small drips of water". Not only is the drug trade undermining Afghanistan as a nation, it also funds international terrorism. We are told that the Afghan Government are looking for 300 million dollars to set up a fund to reduce opium production by 70 per cent within four years. I am reliably informed that the UK has already agreed to contribute in the region of 128 million dollars over the next three years. Big initiatives so often have small beginnings. It is important—I would say vital—that the international community sees the importance of this campaign, not just for our own safety—that would be a very cynical motivation—but to alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people.

Thirdly, there is the plight of women, a matter alluded to by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. I know we must tread carefully because different countries have different cultures, but the facts speak for themselves. Village life in many places seems to lock women into a constant production line. Girls are engaged at 10, married at 12 and give birth, preferably to a boy, constantly from the age of 14 until they can no longer do so, often because they die in childbirth. The country has the highest known rates of maternal mortality.

I shall not, I hope, fall into the trap of cultural imperialism, of dictating to Afghans about their marriage practices and family life. But it seems to me that—if I may indulge in something of an understatement—important issues need to be addressed about education, health precautions and hospital care.

Much of what is needed is dependent on the restoration of a proper peace. That seems all too scarce outside Kabul and even in Kabul there are serious concerns. The NGOs fear that the provincial reconstruction teams are not working well enough, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said. Can the Government and other Governments deny that they have been distracted by the problems in Iraq and that resources are spread too thinly? The enormous sums now being spent on Iraq show up the forgotten state of Afghanistan, which has experienced no fewer than 23 years of war and drought.

It is worth noting that in his introductory speech, the new NATO Secretary-General said that his number one priority was not Iraq, but Afghanistan. There are signs of hope in Afghanistan. As a Christian and a theologian, I believe fundamentally in the virtue of hope. Hope often begins when situations seem to have irretrievably broken down.

One sign of hope is the new constitution, but that has involved making deals with many of the warlords and there are perhaps now more risks than ever. The withdrawal of organisations such as Tearfund does not bode well. The recent deterioration in security could make it more likely that the decline in asylum applications from Afghans will be reversed, so it is in the Government's interest to work harder for peace and security in that country.

5.1 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, when your Lordships read the list of speakers today—indeed, when your Lordships heard the speeches that have already been made and hear those that I am delighted to know will be made—many may have wondered why I am attempting to speak when I do not have military knowledge or knowledge of overseas aid or of working overseas. One thing has bitten me: curiosity. I have never been further east than Damascus, yet Afghanistan is a land of enormous mystery, as we have heard in the debate.

I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for initiating the debate and for all his work since I knew him almost 40 years ago at Oxford to attempt to benefit situations that are endemic but, at present, unique to Afghanistan. I must say that his Motion is a fair mouthful. Like the right reverend Prelate, I shall attempt to concentrate briefly on three items with which the Minister may be able to assist me—indeed they may be raised by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, who is to follow me.

First, the Motion refers to defeating terrorism. Am I right in thinking that the current strength of ISAF is about 5,500 troops? Is that not a substantial drain on United Kingdom forces, let alone on NATO forces, which are otherwise committed elsewhere—quite rightly, as the right reverend Prelate said? Afghanistan is a major problem. If we take our eye off Afghanistan and concentrate unduly on Iraq, there may be longer-term problems. Am I right in thinking that about 5,500 troops are spread over 38 provinces of that enormous country—or perhaps they are less spread? Am I right in thinking that there is a substantial number— approximately 8,500—of United States forces still in the north of the country?

We have heard a great deal in the debate about the link to terrorism, which is interwoven in the noble Earl's Motion, and to the Taliban. My noble friend Lady Chalker referred to warlords and the drug trade. I hope that I am not unduly naive but not cynical when I wonder how much is indeed what perhaps I may call "normal warlordism" in that enormous country. We have heard about tribal problems with the Pashtuns and other tribes in the north. What concerns me a trifle is how much of that customary disorder is tolerated by Pakistan. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I think it was, referred to further efforts that might be made to speak to leaders in Pakistan.

What rather shocks me is that 14 aid workers have lost their lives during the past nine months in the south of Afghanistan. Is it really true, that, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned, 400 civilians have lost their lives? It is a big country and we might consider the loss of life on the roads or elsewhere in this country, but have 400 people been murdered?

I understand that there are more than 100,000 armed militiamen who may have a rifle or be available. In moving his Motion, the noble Earl mentioned that there may be a militiaman this morning with his rifle and motorbike, but this afternoon or this evening he may no longer be a militiamen because he has put away his rifle. That adds to the considerable problems of security and terrorism.

I for one will relish hearing what the Minister has to say about the coupling of national reconstruction of economic and normal life in Afghanistan with security. What is the basic infrastructure in Kabul, let alone elsewhere in the north or the south of Afghanistan? Is it still basic? Is it improving? I certainly hope so.

I understand that the Finance Minister, Mr Ashraf Ghani, is looking for about 20 billion dollars to try to set up a strong central government within reach of Kabul. I think that my noble friend Lady Chalker mentioned that 1 billion dollars had arrived of the 4.5 billion dollars that were promised at the Tokyo conference. That is a tremendous start and, as the right reverend Prelate said, great events tend to start fairly slowly, but there seems to be some hope. I think he mentioned the figure that has been promised, and I hope that it is delivered by the Government; no doubt the Minister can confirm that.

We have heard that coupled with security, terror and the economy is the appalling problem of opium and other drugs. I was interested to hear of a drugs conference that may have been quite successful in Kabul last week. The noble Lord, Avebury, mentioned that 75 per cent of heroin worldwide originates in Afghanistan. I understood that 90 per cent of the heroin consumed in the UK originates in Afghanistan and comes here by devious means. Is it really the case, as I understand it, that in 26, 27 or even 28 of the 32 provinces of Afghanistan, the economy is to no small degree dominated by the drugs trade?

We have heard from my noble friend Lady Chalker and others of the necessity of finding some other form of sustenance for the inhabitants of those dry, arid provinces. It is fine for me and other noble Lords involved in agriculture in places such as Angus in Scotland. It is a little different in Afghanistan, and I have sympathy for the farmers there. I understand that it is estimated that 3,600 tonnes of opium left Afghanistan in 2003. Enormous sums are paid to producers in Afghanistan, of which 25 to 30 per cent goes to the Taliban, which is a serious problem.

I was going to ask about the wonderful work of the United Kingdom forces in Mazar-i-Sharif, about which I have heard, but as soon as I sit down we will hear from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, who has more practical experience and much more detailed knowledge than I have.

Will the Minister alleviate my curiosity to a small extent by spelling out the long-term aim of the United Kingdom's defence forces and what this country can do to assist economic development, in whatever way, starting with civil agriculture, in Afghanistan? What is unique to that enormous country that is different from other forms of aid, which is no doubt very well spent by the noble Baroness and the Government? I thank the noble Earl. Lord Sandwich, for introducing the debate. Everyone appreciates his enormous expertise. I thank noble Lords for allowing a curious Back-Bencher to raise his voice today. I look forward to hearing the noble Baroness's response.

5.11 p.m.

Lord Boyce

My Lords, I, too, welcome warmly the noble Earl's initiative in bringing the House's attention back to Afghanistan. As has been said many times today, affairs there have been overshadowed by events in Iraq. However, what needs to be done in Afghanistan poses a significantly greater challenge than that which confronts us in Iraq.

When the United Kingdom inserted and led the first International Security Assistance Force into Kabul in January 2002, I said that we would be in for a long haul, and nothing has happened since then to change my view. The warlord culture in Afghanistan, so very different from what happens in Iraq, complicates enormously the task of trying to help the country to a new, cohesive future. The problems that we encounter today, with the activities of the Taliban and the difficulties in managing the Pakistan border, exacerbate the challenge that confronts us. I support, in particular, the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, on the need for more Pakistani involvement.

There are several areas on which we need to progress, if we are to move forward the process of making Afghanistan a stable country in harmony with itself and its neighbours, ranging from economic, aid, reconstruction, diplomatic, counter-narcotics, security and so forth. I shall concentrate briefly on some aspects of security.

First, I was delighted when NATO took over the International Security Assistance Force. It was good for the country, because of its multinational nature, good for the region, and good for NATO to show its military value. I now hear talk about expanding NATO/ISAF out of Kabul. Can the Minister say whether it is about expanding the ISAF per se into another city, or expanding the ISAF effect through, say, provisional reconstruction teams (PRTs)? If it is the former, where will the 5,000 or so troops required for that come from? A Kabul-type operation in another city will require 3,000 to 5,000 troops, and we cannot afford to deplete the contingency in Kabul. Such an increase in commitment is well beyond the capacity or will of the Eurocorps, which, I understand, might be the next duty formation, or, if it is not, beyond the capacity of whichever NATO high-readiness force headquarters or composite headquarters has the next rotation. How will the force protection of such a second ISAF be managed, as the United States is already overstretched? That is entering bottomless-pit territory, and we would need to proceed with extreme caution.

Secondly, if we are talking about expanding the ISAF effect through provisional reconstruction teams, that holds more promise. I commend the work done by the United Kingdom provisional reconstruction team in Mazar-i-Sharif and reinforce the noble Earl's comments. The small team is made up of around only 20, compared with, for example, the 200-strong German PRT, most of which is force protection, working under NATO command since January in Kunduz. Our UK team is highly effective and is deploying our Armed Forces' unique talent for such work in establishing relationships, friendships and so on through charm, good humour and sheer professionalism. It does not have an aggressive stance—the same cannot be said for some other PRTs—and is an ideal model, if that is what is meant by expanding the ISAF effect.

Thirdly, if we are not to be in Afghanistan for ever, we must be able to hand over to the country responsibility for its own security. The Afghan army and police are the apparatus for that, not least to build indigenous confidence, but they need to be recruited, trained and retained. It has already been mentioned that that is not happening very quickly at present. In parallel with the training and construction of the Afghan army and police force, the process of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) of the tens of thousands of militia, who by and large are not working with the grain in so far as concerns overall security, needs expediting. What progress is being made on those two important fronts?

The final security issue that I wish to mention is the command structure. The United States forces, which also provide force protection for most PRTs, for example, operate separately from NATO. Notwithstanding the different roles of the United States forces and NATO, the separate command structure complicates the overall task. A unified command would surely be more sensible, and we should encourage the United States, if they are considering the possibility of the European command taking over responsibility for Afghanistan from the central command—I understand that there is some thinking along those lines. The SACEUR is the commander-in-chief of EUCOM and also commands the NATO forces, so the significance of having EUCOM take over in Afghanistan is that the commanders-in-chief would be one and the same man.

The efforts of NATO and the United Nations in Afghanistan are to be commended, but there is a long way to go before a satisfactory security situation is established. We must ensure that our eye does not leave this ball, or indeed the Afghanistan ball in general. This debate serves that purpose well.

5.17 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am very much indebted to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for this opportunity. My noble friend Lord Lyell used an emotive phrase a moment ago, when he asked how much this was "normal warlordism". That serves to remind us what an extraordinarily new and important thing we are attempting in that part of the world. In the past, on such an occasion, we have always tried to empower one faction or another to take over and be friendly to us. We are now trying to hand over to the indigenous people the ability to control their own affairs. That is an entirely praiseworthy and splendid thing to do. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, failure would be an unmitigated disaster, not merely in the region, but for the whole perception of what good government and world co-operation now are.

The Government pin their hope on the success of democracy, as do we. However, as has been said often already, democracy cannot take place except in a fairly settled and secure environment. I was therefore surprised to read the following comments by the Minister of State during a recent Westminster Hall debate: We are examining what support we can provide to a district stabilisation programme, for which the Afghan Government are seeking support, to spread the authority of the state from Kabul to other districts, particularly in the south and east. That programme will rebuild the institutions of the police—such as police stations".—[Official Report, Commons, 29/1/04; col. 148WH.] It is a bit late still to be examining that. Much of what is going on is happening a bit late, including the arrival of money. It is not enough to deliver promised aid a month or two before the election that it is intended to secure, because it must then go through the labyrinthine pipes and corridors that deliver it in the form of cement-mixers, schools, teachers, etcetera. We are using sandbags to build a wall against a tide that is already rising. There is an urgency about this that the media have lost sight of, and therefore there is a danger that we will lose sight of it as well.

Can the noble Baroness tell us what progress towards democracy has been made in terms of what percentage of the presumed electoral population has been registered? More particularly, in which provinces have they been registered? I was recently on a parliamentary delegation to Pakistan, and I see this from a slightly Pakistani angle, perhaps. I see the present regime in Kabul through their eyes, as being friendly to the Northern Alliance and its successors, and them being friendly to India. The old bugbear of Indian encirclement is raising its head in that part of Afghanistan that is next to Pakistan, and moreover next to that part of Pakistan over which the central government of Pakistan have least control.

I was encouraged to hear that the Pakistan army is now deployed in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. I was not entirely surprised to hear reports that the concentrations of terrorists—if that is what we call them—in those areas had a tendency to disappear 24 hours before the army launched an attack on their positions.

It therefore becomes clear that what is essential for the stability of this area, externally as well as internally, is proper Pashtun representation in the government that emerges. That will have to rest on the electoral infrastructure now being put in place in this south-east region, in which there have been so many casualties. It was alleged by Mr Kevan Jones in another place on 29 January that £40,000 a head was being offered for the assassination of aid workers in that area. The Minister will probably not want to comment on that, but it lurks as an unpleasant memory in my mind if in none other.

Like my noble friend Lord Lyell, I speak with great diffidence among so many noble Lords who know so much more than I do about this problem and this area. However, I understand that so far the response of the international effort, led by the Americans, is to increase the number of PRTs deployed in that area. Will the Minister confirm that they will be manned using the same number of people as are already there? This is a dangerous thinning out of the effort in what I regard as the most crucial area of all.

Democracy will not arrive for more than a minute without some sort of physical stability. It will not survive for more than a minute unless there is some sort of economic stability. In the same debate that I referred to earlier, the Minister of State said that at the conference last March, The international community responded at that development forum, pledging more than two billion dollars for this financial year to fund some 90 per cent of the Afghan Government's budget. The Afghans believe that they will be able to raise the remaining balance".—[Official Report, Commons, 29/1/04; col. 144WH.] That involves some 10 per cent. The right reverend Prelate told us that the poppy trade delivers something like 50 per cent of the GNP, and it is our aim to reduce that contribution to nothing. That means that the Afghans have nothing but aid to live on until some alternative source of revenue is produced.

Some years ago, I was in Thailand, looking at their operation to eliminate the growing of poppies. That effort was a bit easier there, because of the terrain and communications. Farmers who removed their poppies, which involved a 12-month cycle, were able to replace them with salad crops, which involve more of a 12-week cycle, and fly them down crisp and fresh to Bangkok, where they fetched a good price. This was a good system—it was better than that for coffee, which has a regenerative cycle of one to two years. What is being replaced here, if we go back to the traditional crops, is apricots and almonds and dried fruit. The trees have all been burnt down. That is like cutting down the olive groves in ancient Greece: it was the worst thing that could be done. How long will it be before those can be brought back? Ten years? Fifteen?

Afghanistan's international benefactors must either be prepared to shoulder a heavy load for a long time or discover some innovative form of product. If they do not, they will have to abandon the scheme, which will put us back 25 to 50 years in world history. The first alternative needs to find some means of preventing Afghanistan becoming debased into an aid-dependent community. We have a duty to those people. We have a duty to our own people to curtail the sale of heroin on our streets, but we also have a duty to give the people whose living we are taking away something honourable, constructive and worthwhile to do. I would like to hear what the Government's intentions are.

We must also avoid donor fatigue. We have set our hands to the plough, and we must drive it to the end of the furrow. That will cost us. As I have often said in the Chamber, it is time that we woke up to the fact that we will not have an impact on the acute unfairness and immorality of the difference between the wealth of our part of the world and the poverty of others, unless we pay for it. That will be electorally unpopular and dangerous. We need an all-party agreement on a programme and a proportion of the budget, so that resources will not be chiselled away at every election, with parties saying, "We'll reduce taxes more than them because we will give less away to the third world".

It is a straightforward and painful moral problem, and we must face it. Afghanistan is at the leading edge of it, and I hope that the Minister will take to heart my plea that some sort of talks should be started between the parties, so that dealing with the matter can be made politically feasible.

5.27 p.m.

Baroness Northover

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for introducing this important debate. In his cogent speech, he made it clear how complex and difficult the situation in Afghanistan was. It is vital that we do not follow the media in sweeping Afghanistan from the front pages, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker of Wallasey, and the noble Lord, Lord Elton, have just said.

As the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and my noble friend Lord Avebury emphasised, there was international consensus on taking action in Afghanistan, unlike the position with regard to Iraq. We must do our best in difficult circumstances to build on that. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, is right: we must stay the course, when dealing with failed states.

There has been some progress in Afghanistan. It is to be welcomed that the Taliban has been removed from power. There are greater freedoms for the people there, especially women and girls, and the first steps are being taken towards the establishment of a new constitution. However, all that is—to say the least— patchy, fragile and possibly unsustainable. The noble Baroness, Lady Chalker of Wallasey, was right to say that the country was at tipping point. Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and there is precious little security in the south and east, where the Taliban still operate and the drugs trade shows every sign of sky-rocketing.

With continuing massive insecurity in Iraq, as shown by today's and yesterday's atrocities, the focus of the US and UK Governments is, as others have said, above all on Iraq—not only their focus but their funds and troops are directed to that engagement. At the end of his two-year posting, the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, rather bitterly commented that he had repeatedly asked for an expansion of ISAF: We were told there were no troops. But then they found 150,000 troops for Iraq". Now the US talks of trying to involve NATO in Iraq. NATO is already over stretched in its activities in Afghanistan on its first such venture outside Europe. What are the noble Baroness's thoughts on the US point of view?

I note that last week NATO defence ministers agreed to expand their forces in Afghanistan. However, they did not say which countries had offered to send more troops. Nearly 6,000 NATO troops are stationed in Kabul. The outgoing deputy commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Major-General Andrew Leslie, said that ISAF should expand its force to up to 12,000 troops in order to maintain security, and that NATO troops could be in the country for up to 10 years. Clearly, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, agrees that it will be, as he puts it, a long haul. Does the noble Baroness also agree? I note that NATO has given no timetable for additional deployments. Could the Minister tell the House what is proposed, by whom and when?

There is also the problem of insufficient funds. Time and again, President Karzai has pleaded for more funds. The US and the UK promised that they would not turn their backs on Afghanistan; in particular, the Prime Minister emphasised that, as has happened so often in the past. As we have heard from other noble Lords, in Tokyo in January 2002, and subsequently, international donors promised some 5 billion dollars towards the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Could the noble Baroness update us on how much has been delivered, as President Karzai has complained that it has been slow in coming? In March, there will be another donor conference to try to move things forward. Perhaps the noble Baroness could tell us what the UK Government seek to put on that agenda.

The Minister was kind enough to give me a Written Answer to my Question last year about the differential between UK spending on military operations and reconstruction. She told me that in 2002–03 the UK spent £310 million supporting military operations in Afghanistan. It spent only £75 million on reconstruction. It is troubling to note that the allocation for reconstruction in 2003–04 is £55 million, even though the situation has hardly improved. I wonder why. There is an imbalance between military spending and reconstruction, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, argued, surely security and development must go hand in hand if Afghanistan is to be secure and to prosper.

I now turn to one of the most pernicious activities currently taking root in the country; namely, the cultivation of opium, which others have also addressed. The removal of the Taliban had the effect of allowing opium production to seize hold of the country. The UN report in the autumn of last year pointed out that production was up 6 per cent; but, even more significantly, many more areas now have opium production. Poppies are being cultivated in 28 of Afghanistan's 32 provinces, double the number from the 1990s. I have here a map, which my noble friend Lord Avebury gave me. I very much wish that it could be reproduced in Hansard because it makes a very telling point about the extension of poppy production.

The UN's annual report on poppy cultivation in Afghanistan warns that, Afghanistan risks becoming a state controlled by narco-terrorists". Here, we must bear in mind our own interest; that 90 per cent of the heroin on British streets comes from Afghanistan. Where does the Minister now stand on the Chancellor's commitment in 2002 to reduce opium production in Afghanistan by 70 per cent in five years? She may remember that last year I pointed out that the Government felt that they could claim, in a press release from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that the UK was, on track to meet its target of eliminating heroin from Afghanistan on UK streets over ten years"—[Official Report, 4/11/03; col. 687.] Does she still feel as optimistic?

Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN office on drugs and crime, has asked that foreign troops target traffickers if the war on drugs is to be won. US and NATO-led forces so far have resisted calls to tackle drug traffickers, saying that their first responsibility is to maintain security. Last Monday, NATO's Secretary-General argued that counter-narcotics operations were not the prime responsibility of international peacekeepers. But on Tuesday, Mr Costa repeated his warning that Afghanistan was at risk of becoming a "narco-state" because corruption was aggravating the drugs problem. He said: The more we tolerate [corruption], the more dangerous the situation becomes". Does the Minister feel that the distinction between maintaining security and dealing with the opium problem and trafficking can be sustained under the circumstances?

I briefly turn to a few more matters. On 29 January in Westminster Hall during a debate on Afghanistan, to which reference has previously been made, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Gareth Thomas, said that 4 million children are back at school, 37 per cent of whom are girls. Obviously, that is very welcome. Does the noble Baroness believe that this level can be sustained and increased? We hear reports of a backlash against girls in school, as well as school buildings being used for purposes other than education. As the noble Baronesses, Lady Turner and Lady Chalker, made clear, it would be terrible to see things slipping backwards again. Could the Minister say something about the participation of women in the political process? Could the moves on that front be sustained? Could she also say something about the rehabilitation back into the community of the 8,000 or so child soldiers that UNICEF has identified?

Given that Afghan clerics have called for a holy war on those who attack Muslim lands, could the Minister comment on the safety of UK aid workers? As we have heard, the period since August last year has been the bloodiest since the Taliban's fall. The killing of a UN aid worker in November led to the UN pulling out its international staff from rural areas in the south and east. Are there any signs that they might be re-instated?

As other noble Lords have pointed out, on 4 February the Tearfund announced that it had decided to pull out as well, noting that in the previous nine months 13 aid workers had been killed in southern and eastern Afghanistan, and that increased and sustained support was needed to ensure areas were safer so that people could rebuild their lives. That is a very sad development and shows the importance of increasing security.

As in the case of Iraq, security must be established in Afghanistan if its political and economic reconstruction can effectively move forward. Given how insecure most of the country is, and its importance to the region and to the world, let alone to its citizens, it is clearly vital that the UK and the US do not forget their responsibilities in Afghanistan as they battle with the problems that are now so evident in Iraq.

5.38 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, the quality of the debate has been excellent. I, too, thank the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for introducing it. I also congratulate the Minister on her stamina in answering for the Government in these two debates, as well as the earlier Statement.

We on these Benches understand the scale of the challenge that remains in Afghanistan. The country is huge. The terrain is some of the most inhospitable in the world. There is virtually no tradition of political stability. Members of the Opposition endorse what the Government are trying to do, but we will press for more action in some areas.

The events of September 11 brought dramatic changes to the political landscape in Afghanistan. In 2001, despite already being overstretched, our Armed Forces made a highly professional contribution to the operations there. The military situation remains fluid and volatile. Once again, British troops are in harm's way and continue to perform their duties magnificently.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, drew the attention of the House to the death two weeks ago of another British serviceman, a young TA soldier. At this time our thoughts are with his family, with those who were wounded, and with their families. How unfortunate that a British soldier died only 24 hours after a Canadian soldier also fell victim to a suicide bomber. Unfortunate, too, that both men died in soft-skinned vehicles, in the case of the British vehicle with even less protection than that given to troops serving in Northern Ireland. The British contribution to ISAF is small, but that is no reason why our troops should not be properly equipped. Can the Minister confirm that vehicle patrols in Kabul are now sent out only in Saxon armoured vehicles?

My noble friend Lady Chalker mentioned the excellent work being carried out by the 85 British troops in the provincial reconstruction team in Mazar-i-Sharif. Several noble Lords were concerned that NATO cannot do an effective security job in Afghanistan unless it is given more troops. One agency to which I spoke believes that between 5,000 and 10,000 extra troops will be required. If NATO does make a specific request for additional troops, will Her Majesty's Government be minded to provide a further contribution?

Despite the significant advances that have been made in Afghanistan, huge challenges remain. As the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, the most urgent is security, in particular in the south and east where Taliban insurgents continue to encroach. Restoring adequate security throughout the country is essential to facilitate the implementation of reforms and projects, as well as the resumption of private economic activity.

Because of threats to the safety of their staff, some NGOs are finding it difficult to operate and are starting to run down their operations. I pay tribute to the contribution of those bodies that continue to function despite the difficult circumstances. I am particularly impressed with the work of the Afghan Mother and Child Rescue charity, of which my noble friend Lady Rawlings is patron.

As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, the Afghan recovery is being severely hampered by a lack of international commitment to reconstruction. The UN and the World Bank have estimated the cost at between 13 and 19 billion dollars. Donors, however, remain reluctant to commit to such large figures. Several noble Lords were concerned at the continued emphasis on Iraq by the international community, which is a major problem. My noble friend Lady Chalker pointed out that Afghanistan is now a "forgotten place", but the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, rightly said that Afghanistan is a much more serious problem.

Afghanistan's provinces are ruled pretty much as independent countries by former warlords who, while rejoicing in the official title of provincial governors, still keep their robber baron habits. They have no intention of handing over their regional revenues to Mr Karzai's budget, so he depends on aid handouts from abroad. Hence the Karzai government does need to know definitively what they can expect in terms of pledges and commitments.

After two decades of war, Afghanistan has few schools and hospitals, and even fewer roads. Even basic provisions such as water and electricity are in short supply. Only three out of 32 provinces are connected to the capital by phone.

The Taliban have regained control of at least five districts along the border with Pakistan and Iran. Over the past two months, at least 280 people have been killed and hundreds more wounded in clashes between rival factions, battles between the Taliban and coalition forces, or in attacks on government and international aid agency workers. It is also believed that Taliban groups are re-forming in Pakistan.

Lieutenant-General David Barno, the American commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, says that he expects to bring Osama bin Laden to justice by the end of this year. Do the Government share the general's optimism?

The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, rightly mentioned the predicament of women and girls in post-conflict Afghanistan. It still remains an important source country for human trafficking in the form of the exploitation of prostitutes, forced labour, slavery and the removal of body organs. Most noble Lords mentioned the campaign against narcotics. Britain agreed to take the lead, but as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth said, illegal poppy cultivation is increasing.

My noble friend Lord Elton pointed out that if we are to tackle the drugs trade in Afghanistan it is vital that we help the Afghans to make a living legally and work with them to develop new sources of income and new livelihoods, difficult as it is. My noble friend Lord Lyell pointed out that 90 per cent of the heroin that reaches the streets of Britain comes from Afghanistan. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said that the Government have committed themselves to eradicating opium production within 10 years, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister what progress is being made.

Continuing arguments about the size and condition of the Afghan army have delayed the disbursement of funds allocated for the soldiers. Many have not been paid. The size of the army, and its effectiveness, is still way short of the level where Mr Karzai can use it to bring the warlords into line. I am told that 3,000 men have already deserted the new army and defected to their warlord employers. We cannot have an international programme costing vast sums of money that trains people who then go back and serve the warlords.

The problem of mine clearance is immense. It will require many years of continued effort and the courageous and dedicated work undertaken by a few agencies.

It is excellent news that the transitional government signed a new constitution paving the way for elections to be held later this year. But planning for the elections is not on course and registration has hardly started. The minimum number of police to ensure the safe conduct of the elections, not to mention the security of monitors, will not be trained in time. Large areas of the country remain too dangerous for registration or other preparations to be made. Further areas are snow-bound and inaccessible. In the light of this, is the Minister confident that it will be possible for free elections to take place?

My noble friend Lady Chalker pointed out that there is some good news coming out of Afghanistan. One important sign of progress is that the Standard Chartered Bank has opened an office in Kabul. According to Ahmed Rashid, writing on BBC Online, despite the cash shortages, Afghanistan is slowly on the road to stability. He points out that the, two essential processes of building a nation through political and economic reconstruction while building up the institutions of state and government are beginning to take place". The Afghan Government deserve considerable credit for the way in which they have taken the lead in the development process, last year holding the first Afghanistan development forum in Kabul.

With the help of the UNHCR, more than 2.5 million Afghan refugees have returned, beginning the process of rebuilding their lives and communities after years of conflict. Thanks to the end of the drought and work by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, grain production increased by 80 per cent in 2002. A record harvest is expected for last year, dramatically reducing the need for humanitarian aid.

5.50 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for initiating the debate today. I thank him also for the assiduous way in which he has pursued this issue through oral and written parliamentary Questions over the past six months or so. I thank, too, all noble Lords who have shown such a very active interest in the continuing efforts of NATO and the United Nations to improve security in Afghanistan. Helping the people of Afghanistan to rebuild their country is important, not only for Afghanistan itself but, as many noble Lords have pointed out, for the contribution it makes to defeating international terrorism.

In introducing the debate, the noble Earl asked your Lordships to consider the efforts made by NATO and the UN to help the Afghan people to defeat terrorism and improve security. Sadly, there are many countries around the world where people are struggling to defeat terrorism and to improve their own security. One of the first duties of any government is to provide for the security of their people. Without security there is vulnerability to attack from external forces and vulnerability to terrorism; there is bloodshed and criminality; democratic institutions become compromised, justice imperilled and law and order breaks down; health services do not function, children do not go to school and, at all levels, most normal life as we know it—work, leisure and family life—becomes all but impossible.

One of the most appalling problems that faced Afghanistan in the period up to October 2001 was that the entire country was characterised as a haven that harboured, sustained and supported terrorists. In these circumstances, the noble Earl is asking the House to consider how multilateral institutions—in particular NATO and the UN—have helped the people of Afghanistan to rid themselves of the scourge of terrorism and to provide the security that is the bedrock of peace and prosperity.

That point was picked up very ably by the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker. She rightly said that security without development is stagnation. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, re-emphasised that point. The noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, was also right to say that there is some good news, a commodity which the noble Earl feels is in very short supply at the moment.

Foremost, the 2 million returning Afghans are, to some extent, testimony to their own belief and their desire to engage positively in their country's future. I agree strongly with the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that the international community should remain committed. I shall do my best to persuade the noble Lord and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that, although much remains to be done, there is a good degree of evidence about that international commitment.

The threat of terrorism that we face crosses national and geographical boundaries. In doing so it demands a multilateral response. Both NATO and the United Nations are powerful vehicles for providing this. They are far from being perfect but both institutions are learning—as, indeed, are we as a government—how to respond to these awful multinational threats.

NATO has supported efforts to defeat terrorism and improve security in Afghanistan from the outset. On the day after the terrible events of 11 September 2001, NATO invoked Article 5 of its constitution, confirming that the terrorist attacks on the United States constituted an attack on the whole alliance. That was a very important starting point. Then the United Nations also reacted very speedily, confirming through UNSCR 1368 that action to prevent further terrorist attacks was permissible under Chapter 51 of the UN charter. Both NATO and the UN immediately affirmed the legitimacy of coalition military action in Afghanistan when it began on 7 October. So both multilateral organisations were responsive and speedy in their reactions.

As the coalition response got under way the United Nations monitored the situation closely and impartially. A matter of weeks after the Taliban fled from Kabul the UN hosted a conference in Bonn at which a broad spectrum of Afghans came together to discuss how to reconstruct their country. With significant international support this conference produced the Bonn agreement, a template for the political regeneration of Afghanistan.

But it was absolutely clear that military peacekeeping on the ground would be vital and, following the Bonn agreement, the UN Security Council authorised the creation of a security force for Kabul. The resulting International Security and Assistance Force—ISAF—was not a UN or a NATO peacekeeping force but a coalition of the willing, albeit with NATO member states contributing the vast majority of troops. It was of course important to have legitimacy from the UN, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, stressed.

The UK provided the first headquarters and the first commander for ISAF, followed by Turkey and then a joint German and Dutch HQ. NATO played a crucial role by agreeing to provide practical assistance consisting of a headquarters, strategic control and political direction.

By early 2003 it was obvious that only a limited number of countries had the military structures necessary to fill the role of lead nation, and so NATO began providing enhanced support in April 2003 and took over the leadership of ISAF the following August. NATO's ongoing commitment to leading ISAF has ensured a degree of continuity and stability that was not possible when a new lead nation had to be found every six months. But, of course, non-NATO countries, including Albania, Azerbaijan, the three Baltic states and New Zealand, continue to make very important and valuable contributions to ISAF.

The continuing engagement of the United Nations has also been vital. The UN has played its part by passing successive Security Council resolutions extending the six-month mandate originally provided by UNSCR 1380. In response to a request from President Karzai and the Afghan Government, the UN Security Council expanded the ISAF mandate in October 2003, authorising ISAF to operate beyond Kabul both in the form of provincial reconstruction teams and on limited temporary deployments.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked about the position of ISAF and its composition. ISAF consists now of some 5,500 troops from 32 nations under NATO leadership. The number of contributing nations and the size of their contributions is constantly changing. I shall not go into the full list now but I shall write to the noble Lord with that list because it is impressive. Each country decides the size of its own contribution within the framework of ISAF's requirements. The German-led PRT in Kunduz came under ISAF command on 30 December. It was the first to do so.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, asked about the possible expansion of NATO's deployment into the ISAF mission. It is indeed right that NATO is considering the feasibility of expanding the ISAF mission. It has so far concentrated on the German PRT I mentioned earlier. Plans for temporary deployments and further expansion will depend on nations providing the troops and the capabilities. Contributors will obviously need to plan carefully before making any further commitments. Proposals for further ISAF expansion have not been finalised and there is not a specific timetable for the expansion of the PRTs. However, in answer to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, we expect NATO to take over some—possibly up to five—of the PRTs before the Istanbul summit in June.

I should stress, particularly to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, that planning does not include blanket coverage over the whole of Afghanistan with NATO forces. Coalition forces continue to carry out missions under Operation Enduring Freedom throughout the country and to engage Taliban and Al'Qaeda forces.

As to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, with regard to the vehicles used by British soldiers in the current deployment, I hope he will appreciate that we take the security of our forces very seriously indeed. I agree wholeheartedly with his remarks about their courage and tenacity in pursuing their mandate. However, I hope he will understand if I do not go into detail about the specific policies and arrangements for their security at the moment because that might jeopardise their safety. I can assure the noble Lord that, following the recent suicide bomb attacks, extra armoured vehicles have been delivered to the British troops serving in Kabul.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, expressed concerns about the PRTs. It is important to remember that PRTs are not security forces. Their aim is to facilitate reconstruction by helping to improve the security environment. They were originally established under Operating Enduring Freedom but their focus is on stabilisation and reconstruction. That means that they sit fairly well under ISAF, with its emphasis on security, rather than with the war-fighting role of the OEF.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked what was being done to encourage greater activity with the PRTs. Representatives from the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and DfID have presented what they called a PRT roadshow in Oslo, Helsinki, Berlin, Rome and NATO headquarters in Brussels as a means of informing other nations about how PRTs work and how other nations might contribute. The team has also briefed officials from Poland, Turkey and New Zealand in London, and that briefing exercise is currently being undertaken in Ottawa.

The noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, asked what more could we do in relation to PRTs. The UK has led a PRT in Mazar-i-Sharif since July, which a number of your Lordships mentioned. The team is under the military leadership and it is run under the OEF. The UK PRT may transfer to the ISAF command as the NATO planning develops. It consists of about 100 mainly military personnel but includes representatives from the FCO and DfID, along with representatives from the Afghan Government and coalition partners. The make-up of the PRTs changes, given the particular role a particular PRT is undertaking. My right honourable friend Geoff Hoon announced on 7 February that the United Kingdom is prepared to command a group of PRTs in northern Afghanistan. I hope that gives the noble Baroness some more information.

The noble Baroness was also very concerned, as was the noble Lord, Lord Elton, about security for the election process. Security will be essential in ensuring that all sections of society can participate in the elections which are due later this year and that they are able to do so without fear of intimidation. It will obviously be a matter for President Karzai to judge if the June elections are achievable. The Afghan Government and the UN are currently finalising an election plan, and we expect an announcement to follow soon, once the plan has been agreed by President Karzai.

The UK and our international partners are doing what we can to support the preparations. We have given £3 million to support the registration process, which concerned the noble Lord, as part of the overall EU contribution which is currently running at some 20 million dollars.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and the noble Lord, Lord Elton, were all concerned about what is happening over narcotics. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, has been extremely tenacious on the question. This is not an ISAF question because ISAF has not been asked to contribute directly to the counter-narcotics work. But one of the effects of the stability we are trying to achieve in Kabul should be, we hope, the creation of a more lawful environment in which it is less easy for the drug criminals to operate. Tackling illicit drugs problems is an area where the UN, however, plays a very active role. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime is working closely with the Afghan Government to help implement the Afghan drug security strategy, together with the United Kingdom, and to co-ordinate with other international bodies in that respect.

The United Kingdom is investing £70 million on sustainable measures over the next three years to support the implementation of the Afghan national drug control strategy, which we helped the Afghans to develop. So I hope that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth and the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, who also raised important questions on this issue, are, to some extent, heartened by that.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, also wanted to know the outcome of the recent conference on this important topic. More than 200 Afghan and international delegates attended; it was the first time such a high-level group of Afghan officials, including Ministers, governors and police chiefs had come together to discuss the drugs issue, so it was a very important conference. Action plans were agreed by delegates in the key areas of increasing law enforcement, reducing demand and persuading farmers who grow the opium poppies to take up alternative livelihoods, an important point made so clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Lyell.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, wanted to pursue the question of alternative livelihoods. DfID is funding research into the alternative livelihoods to identify sustainable alternatives to poppy growth in Afghanistan. It is working with the Aga Khan Development Network programme in Badakhshan to continue and to expand support for sustainable economic and social incentives to enable farmers to improve their livelihoods and actively reduce and ultimately eliminate poppy cultivation. I can write further to your Lordships on that important point which I know concerned most noble Lords who contributed to the debate.

Other questions were raised about economic development. The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, said that the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker and the noble Lord, Lord Elton, were very much concentrated on this point. The World Bank and the Afghan Government are undertaking a revised assessment of what financial assistance Afghanistan currently needs. We expect this to show that the Afghan economy has indeed increased as has the capacity to absorb aid. That is a very positive sign, which normally appears two to three years after the end of conflict in any country.

We will also be participating in the next conference, mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, which is due to take place on 30 and 31 March this year in Berlin. On the question of how the economy might be expanded and what aid is needed, the exact agenda is still to be discussed. However, donors will be invited to evaluate their pledges and to reaffirm their commitments to Afghanistan. We expect this to show that Afghanistan's capacity has been substantially increased, and I hope that will give the opportunity for donor countries to think about some new ways in which they might deploy the resources available.

My noble friend Lady Turner of Camden, the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, were very concerned about the position of women in Afghanistan, as was the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. In March 2003, Afghanistan publicly demonstrated its intention to restore full and equal rights for women by ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. That was a welcome move. In the same month, the EU sponsored a resolution welcoming the progress that Afghanistan had made to improve the situation of women and urging the Afghan Government to ensure that a legal framework protecting women's rights was put into place. The number of children attending school has risen; 37 per cent of those students are girls, and a third of teachers are women. The Commission on Human Rights' special rapporteur on violence against women submitted her report on women and girls in Afghanistan last October.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, will, I hope, be pleased to know that currently 23 per cent of the delegates to the constitutional Loya Jirgah, which agreed the constitution, were women from right the way across Afghanistan, and that Articles 22, 43 and 44 of the new constitution enshrine women's rights. However, I agree with the noble Baroness—I think it is terribly important that these issues are sustained. We know what pressures there are about women's rights— we should not be in any sense complacent about what is happening. When it comes to the way in which education is moving and women are getting a foothold in the democratic institutions, we should work very hard at sustaining those into the future.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, spoke about some of Afghanistan's neighbours' attitudes. I agree with them that the India/Pakistan agreement is enormously important. We want their engagement to recognise that the potential for destabilising impact, if there were to be any renewed conflict in Afghanistan, would be very serious. However, I think that is an example of useful dialogue—a good example of what can be done when neighbours take steps to try and reduce insurgency and extremist action across borders. The six-neighbour non-intervention pact which the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned, is also an important point.

Much is being done to disarm the private militias. President Karzai announced the start of the first demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration pilot scheme in Kunduz in October. Further schemes have since been introduced in Kabul, Parwan and Mazar-i-Sharif. Again, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, was very keen to know more about what is happening there.

The UN-led DDR process will involve channelling former combatants into civilian life. The UK has contributed more than £2.5 million to the UN as part of the DDR process. ISAF also plays a role in supporting the efforts which have been led jointly by the UN and Japan, importantly, to demobilise, disarm and reintegrate these individuals.

I could also report to your Lordships successes in health. The UK provides 19 per cent of the European Union's package of aid. Of that, £17.5 million is going on health, rebuilding 72 hospitals, clinics and women's healthcare centres. Of course, we recognise and very much regret that a great deal of pressure has been put on the NGOs, as the right reverend Prelate reported to your Lordships, and that some have been forced to limit or to curtail their activities due to a lack of security, especially in the south.

I agree with what the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said about the deplorable murder of the young Frenchwoman working for the UN. That was an horrific deed, which underlines the threat that the United Nations faces in Afghanistan. However, the United Nations is not allowing itself to be bullied out of Afghanistan. It continues to work towards disarming militias and registering voters to ensure that the national elections are as successful as possible.

In short, NATO and the UN have been central to the international effort to defeat terrorism and improve security in Afghanistan. From the moment of the initial declaration through to the work currently undertaken, the roles of NATO and the UN are quite different, but are increasingly converging. As the UN makes progress with DDR and planning for the elections, NATO is working towards improving security and building Afghan confidence that these processes are meaningful steps towards Afghanistan's rehabilitation. It is often said that without security, all other efforts to reconstruct Afghanistan will fail. The support provided by NATO and the UN to improving security is therefore a key element in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

I thank the noble Earl once again for bringing these matters to our attention so forcefully in such an excellent opening speech. I thank all noble Lords for the contributions this evening.

6.12 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, we have galloped through the debate and I have a minute or two to respond to some of the points made. I am sure that we are all more than grateful to the Minister and admire the skill with which she manages to answer individual speakers so well. However, there were some disappointments in what she said. I note that the feasibility of expanding ISAFs is still under consideration and that there is no specific timetable for NATO. Some of us who spoke about that will be very disappointed.

Other points were made about the PRTs which, in the time available, the Minister could not deal with in full. However, the discrepancies between the different PRTs must be taken more seriously. My noble and gallant friend Lord Boyce was perhaps most powerful in talking about a unified command structure in Afghanistan. It is absurd that we have so many nations participating, but still no unified structure. I recognise that it is an experiment, as others have said, but it is one of our very serious Foreign Office and defence problems.

I would like to thank individuals who have contributed. The analysis of the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, about the origins of the Taliban and the Mujaheddin is absolutely correct. The word Taliban did not exist previously; it was created by the United States to refer to resistance to the Soviet Union. The noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, and my noble friend Lord Hannay, both made strong development points.

The right reverend Prelate was enticed away from the General Synod debate, which was probably much more interesting.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, I can assure noble Lords that it is much nicer to be here.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate gave us the first signs of hope. He mentioned the new constitution, to which we should say, "So far, so good".

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, made a passionate speech in favour of an all-party approach to this problem, which needs addressing. He was the first to say that we are attempting something quite new and that failure would be catastrophic. I also point out to him that olive trees regenerate very quickly, even if they have been destroyed by the Taliban. Many thanks to other noble Lords whom I cannot mention individually.

Finally, I pay tribute to the Ministers in Afghanistan who are wrestling so hard on meagre resources. I would like to single out Anif Atmar, the Minister for rural reconstruction with whom the non-governmental organisations have developed a very good relationship. We should wish good luck to UNAMA, whose work under Reg Austin—the most experienced electoral officer in the UN—must be supported right up until the elections take place, which includes providing resources as well. We hope that the Minister has been fortified enough by this debate to face her Euro-critics in the forthcoming debate. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.