HL Deb 18 March 2004 vol 659 cc331-3

11.18 a.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, the security situation in Afghanistan remains fragile, particularly in the south and east. Sporadic attacks continue against both international and Afghan forces, as well as the UN and NGOs. The international community, including the UK, is responding with increased commitments of troops and resources, including the extension of the network of provincial reconstruction teams. In the long term, Afghanistan must have an effective national army and police force.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, although the NATO spokesmen, including Mr Hikmet Cetin, the senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, keep reiterating that security is their priority, does the Minister really consider that the addition of a few extra PRTs is an adequate response to the huge growth in drug cultivation and processing which is fuelling the resurgence of armed factions in the main poppy growing areas, such as Badakhshan and Oruzgan, where just last week there was a clash between the local drug mafias'? Should we not face up to that threat? Have the Government any proposals for the NATO summit in June to deploy additional forces capable of taking out the narco-terrorists?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is right. Security remains a great concern, and it is a priority for ISAF and for the UN and NATO generally in Afghanistan, particularly in the south and east. I reiterate that the international community, including the UK, is responding. UN Security Council Resolution 1510 expanded the mandate of ISAF beyond Kabul, so that work is now in hand to plan and resource those activities beyond Kabul.

The UK is leading a PRT in Mazar-i Sharif, and the UK is now planning to run a forward support base for all PRTs in the north. The number of PRTs is increasing substantially from 10 to 15 by mid-2004, and that will improve the security environment. The United Kingdom PRT has played a major part in assisting the UN and the Afghan Government to, for instance, broker a peace agreement between two powerful local commanders after long-standing tensions flared up into violence. The PRTs are doing practical work on the ground to improve the security situation.

Lord Elton

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that many of us maintain a deep anxiety that Iraq is attaining the priority call on our armed effort and that of our allies? Afghanistan will not be rescued by five extra PRTs, but by serious co-ordinated military activity taking place and not merely being planned. Does she agree that if Afghanistan fails, if democracy does not take root in Afghanistan, the results in Iraq will eventually be catastrophic, and this ought to have priority?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, we do not believe that Afghanistan will fail. We are extremely optimistic about the future for Afghanistan. Some 32 nations are involved, with 6,000 troops between those 32 nations involved in contributing to the operations in Afghanistan; and to building up the transitional Afghan Government's resources as far as police training, a national army and the provincial reconstruction teams are concerned. We firmly believe that the increase in real terms in the defence budget announced yesterday by the Chancellor will mean that there will not be any occasion for overstretch.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one or two us do not know what a PRT is? It would help if we could hear what it is.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, a PRT is a provincial reconstruction team. It is made up of approximately 100 military troops. Increasingly, the teams are coming under ISAF, which is UN sponsored—

Noble Lords


Baroness Crawley

My Lords, ISAF stands for International Security Assistance Force. That comes under the UN, and it is contributed to by NATO. Other PRTs come under Operation Enduring Freedom. If the noble Lord would like me to continue, I will write to him.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the only major success of the Taliban was to eliminate the poppy harvest? Now, with the resumption of that harvest, something between 20 and 30 per cent of the Afghan gross national product is dependent on that drug production. What does she see as the link between the increased incidence of the growth of poppies and the lack of security in the parts of Afghanistan that we have been concerned with?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend that tackling the drugs trade cannot be separated from creating a strong economy and a secure security environment in Afghanistan. The UK is the lead nation with responsibility for co-ordinating international counter-narcotics efforts. The UK is building up a more effective state, working with the Afghan Government, so that we can develop the licit economy to create alternatives to poppy cultivation, such as fruit growing, poultry rearing, and developing traditional livelihoods such as the carpet-making industry.

Lord Bramall

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that whatever anyone may have thought about the war in Iraq, we must now see it through to a conclusion? That means handing over political power to the Iraqi Government as soon as possible, and leaving enough troops there to control the security situation until the Iraqis feel that they can cope. Then, as far as Iraq is concerned, all we can do is keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best. Does she also agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that Afghanistan—which is far more relevant to the war against terrorism—must not be allowed to fail, and if necessary should be reinforced?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, as I said in my first Answer, we are reinforcing both troops and resources in Afghanistan, and we do not expect either country to fail.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that there have been continued complaints from those concerned with ISAF that it has far too few helicopters and it needs considerably more troops in order to be able to extend its effective operations outside Kabul? The figures of another 5,000 to 6,000 troops, and certainly another 10 to 15 helicopters, have been mentioned. Are Her Majesty's Government concerned to make sure that the American pressure for its NATO allies to provide more troops for Iraq does not cut entirely across the long-term commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan first with security, which we must maintain?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I do not believe that there is any danger of that happening.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, does the Minister agree that armed personnel engaged in humanitarian activity should be required to wear clearly visible military clothing, to avoid confusion among locals to help to avoid casualties? What steps are Her Majesty's Government taking to ensure that military and humanitarian personnel are clearly distinguishable?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I will write to the noble Baroness on the detail of that question about clothing. We are continuing to improve the security situation for NGOs throughout Afghanistan. We realise that some recent attacks the sporadic attacks—that I referred to earlier—have been on NGOs, and we take their security seriously.