HC Deb 29 January 2004 vol 417 cc143-78WH

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

2.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas)

I am grateful to you, Sir Nicholas, and to Mr. Speaker for allowing this Government-initiated debate on the development challenge in Afghanistan. The development of Afghanistan is of considerable importance and interest to many hon. Members beyond those present today. It is appropriate that we are taking the opportunity to debate the country's future and, hopefully, to reflect on the progress that has been made over the past two years. I am sure that hon. Members will want first to join me in expressing our condolences to the family and friends of one of our soldiers who was killed yesterday in Kabul and in wishing the four other British soldiers and their interpreter who were injured in the same blast a full recovery. This dreadful incident is an all-too-powerful reminder of what the people of Afghanistan have had to endure for far too long.

Before November 2001, Afghanistan had been the scene of two decades of internal and external conflict, forcing millions of refugees to flee their homes. It was a wrecked country, one of the most heavily land-mined in the world. Under the Taliban, schools and hospitals for girls and women were closed; women could not leave their homes without a male relative; extremist religious laws were enforced; men were jailed if their beards were too short; television was banned; and, as we all know, one of the world's worst terrorist groups, al-Qaeda, was allowed to operate with impunity.

Today, women in Afghanistan are returning to work and girls are going to school again. Television and radio are flourishing, and more than 2 million refugees have gone home. Afghanistan now has a constitution that guarantees the equal rights of all citizens—men and women—and religious freedom, surely the latest sign of the political, economic and social development that is occurring there. However, the achievements and the progress of the past two years cannot and should not hide the fact that Afghanistan remains one of the poorest nations in the world. It is facing major additional and parallel security challenges, particularly in the south and east of the country where the Taliban still operates, and the destabilising impact of the drugs trade, which reaches far beyond the borders of Afghanistan and has a particular impact on this country.

Afghanistan remains a high priority for my Department and for the Government, too. During my visit there in December, I reaffirmed to President Karzai our long-term commitment to the country's development. We have already committed £322 million to humanitarian and reconstruction assistance over five years, and we have spent £155 million of that since September 2001. We also provide significant levels of aid through multilateral assistance, through our contributions to, for example, the United Nations, the European Union and international development banks.

The debate is timely, given that it is two days after the final step was taken in agreeing a constitution that will pave the way for the country's first democratic elections planned for later in the year. It gives us the opportunity to reflect on the progress that has led Afghanistan to this point and also provides us with the chance to look ahead at the challenges that will face its first democratically elected Government. As hon. Members will know, back in December 2001 with the support of the United Nations, Afghan leaders met in Bonn and agreed the process for political transition in Afghanistan. In June 2002, a broad-based transitional Administration elected Hamid Karzai for two years.

One of the priorities of the Bonn process was to make Kabul safe by deploying a multinational force. As a result the International Security Assistance Force was created in December 2001, coming under the command of NATO in August last year, and having its mandate expanded in October to allow it to operate beyond the Kabul region. British forces have played an absolutely essential role in providing security, both as part of ISAF and beforehand. I would like to pay tribute to the work of our soldiers and, indeed, to the other staff whom we have deployed, who continue to do hugely important work in Afghanistan.

As well as providing security, the UK has also played a key role in keeping the democratic transition laid down by the Bonn process firmly on track. We have given some £2 million from the global conflict prevention pool operated by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my Department and the Ministry of Defence, and £1 million from my Department's bilateral programme to support the voter registration process for the coming elections. My Department has also provided £500,000 to support the population consultation process on the constitution which involved many ordinary people throughout Afghanistan.

To complement the Bonn process international donors met in Tokyo in January 2002 to discuss the reconstruction of Afghanistan, pledging some $4.5 billion over a varying time scale. I am pleased to say that that total has now increased to some $5.2 billion, and Afghan Government figures confirm that the international community is delivering on those pledges already, with some $1.8 billion provided by donors in 2002–03.

The Afghan Government deserve considerable credit for the way in which they have taken the lead in the development process, holding the first Afghanistan development forum in Kabul in March last year. In advance of that meeting, my Department was able to fund a team of consultants to work with the Ministry of Finance to prepare its national development budget, developing the capacity of the Ministry and therefore of the Afghan Government. The international community responded at that development forum, pledging more than $2 billion 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 from their domestic revenues.

Another international donor conference is planned for March this year to ensure continued donor coordination and complementarity. That conference will be able to point to major development landmarks over the last two years. Four million children are back at school, and 37 per cent. of those pupils are girls; that proportion is up from some 5 per cent. in 2001. In total there are now 6,500 functioning schools with more than 70,000 teachers, a third of whom are women. Since 2002, 12 million children have been immunised against polio and 16 million children have been immunised against measles, saving in the process an estimated 30,000 lives.

At the same time UN agencies have been working to improve health facilities. UNICEF, for example, has refurbished the Malalai hospital, which is the largest maternity hospital in Kabul, with some 15,000 children being born there every year. Under the Taliban the hospital suffered from poor hygiene and a lack of qualified staff. There was no blood bank in Kabul, and patients often had to get their own medicines and find their own basic medical equipment for operations. On top of that conditions were made even more difficult by the all-too-frequent power shortages.

Women are increasingly taking part in politics. The new constitution guarantees women 25 per cent. of seats in Afghanistan's new lower House, as well as equal rights and duties before the law.

Human rights abuses, massacres, the abduction of innocent citizens and the systematic burning of houses, combined with a severe drought, led millions of Afghans to flee to Pakistan and Iraq in the five years before the end of the Taliban regime. With the help of the UNHCR, communities are returning to Afghanistan; more than 2.5 million Afghan refugees have returned so far, beginning the process of rebuilding their lives and communities after years of conflict. Thanks, too, to the end of the drought, and work by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, grain production increased by some 80 per cent. in 2002, and we are expecting to see a record harvest for last year as well. That improving harvest and the greatly improved security situation have dramatically reduced the need for humanitarian aid.

Despite the significant advances that have been made in Afghanistan, huge challenges remain. The most urgent of those is security, particularly in the south and east, where Taliban insurgents continue to encroach, and to put development at risk. Because of threats to the safety of Afghan and international staff, some non-governmental organisations and international organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to operate in certain parts of the country. I hope that the House will join me in praising the contribution of those bodies in continuing to operate where they are able to do so, despite the difficult circumstances.

The overall effect of the security threat on the provision of humanitarian aid and on reconstruction in some parts of Afghanistan is serious. The international community is heavily involved in helping the Afghan authorities to try to deal with the problems. Afghanistan's six neighbours have signed a nonintervention agreement, promising to try to help to provide the security, stability and territorial integrity that Afghanistan needs after so many years of conflict and deprivation. International coalition forces continue to try to counter Taliban fighters in southern and eastern Afghanistan, and the deployment of joint civil and military provincial reconstruction teams, including by the British Army, is facilitating security sector reforms and building the authority of the Afghan Government.

The UK leads a PRT based in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. It is one of 13 planned and operational teams in the country. It is a joint MODFCO-DFID-led operation, with some 100 military personnel as well as development and political advisers. That PRT has three main objectives in the region: to help to expand the authority of the Afghan Government, to facilitate security sector reform and to facilitate development in the region. It has had successes in all three areas, in particular in security sector reform: the police have been able to deploy from Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif and a number of heavy weapons have been removed from local factions to the guard of the new Afghan national army. The UK is also working to support the Afghan police in helping to build the national army, and it is assisting with the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants. Recently, an agreement was signed to begin the demobilisation of some of the heavy artillery belonging to powerful militia commanders.

On 15 January, the first heavy weapons tanks and heavy artillery started to move to cantonments outside Kabul, under the supervision of the international peacekeeping force, ISAF. Weapons from militias in Kunduz, Gardez and Mazar are all being handed in under disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programmes. To date, some 2,240 personnel have been demobilised, of whom 1,700 have completed reintegration interviews and made their final selections for their new livelihoods and the training and support that they will want. Agriculture vocation training, small business support, de-mining and joining the Afghan national army or police continue to be key choices for those who have worked and fought with the militias. Those DDR programmes aim to disarm a total of about 100,000 militia men nationwide.

The second major challenge is to deal with the drugs trade. That will be an important step towards ensuring greater security. Those who profit from the trade have a strong interest in undermining an effective Afghan state.

As the final milestone of the Bonn agreement, the elections will be an important step towards the peaceful and democratic Afghan state that we all want to see. It is essential that those are seen to be fair and legitimate. That fair, democratic process should allow Afghan policy makers to re-establish Government legitimacy and pave the way for the Afghan people to elect a representative Government that truly reflects their own aspirations.

There is still a challenge in continuing to help the most vulnerable people. Until the Afghan Government's capacity has grown sufficiently, the international community will have to continue to provide services where the Afghan Government cannot. For example, UN agencies are supporting the remaining Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan and assisting their voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan two vulnerable groups are receiving food and shelter, and they are still in receipt of vaccination programmes that are helping slowly to eliminate the threat of polio and measles.

Although we are meeting those immediate challenges, there are two much longer term challenges among the underlying causes of poverty that must also be addressed. An effective, functioning Government are central to long-term development. We must work with the Afghan authorities to strengthen the public sector and build the capacity of their Government to deliver the services that we expect and have come to rely on in the UK. In that way the Afghan Government will be able to provide services, such as the schools and hospitals that the Afghan people rightly want to see in place.

We are, therefore, promoting and supporting the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund as a mechanism to allow donors to pool their resources, reduce transaction costs, improve co-ordination and allow the Afghans themselves to prioritise how money should be spent. The private sector, too, will play a vital role in the development of Afghanistan. In the past two years we have seen economic growth at a rate of some 30 per cent. However, it will still take a concerted effort by the international community to support the development of an effective private sector and help Afghanistan to establish international trade. One important sign of progress is that the Standard Chartered Bank has opened an office in Kabul. That is, hopefully, the first of a number of major western businesses looking to move to Kabul and set up operations.

The development of a proper transport and energy infrastructure, too, will be fundamental to the development of the private sector and a functioning state. We have already provided some £12.7 million to clear Afghanistan's debts with international financial institutions. That in turn has allowed the Afghan Government to unlock further highly concessionary loans that are being spent, for example, on funding repairs to 112 km of roads in northern Afghanistan by replacing bombed-out concrete sections and broken bridges. Those repairs will vastly improve access to health care, education, employment and local markets there. If we are to tackle the drugs trade in Afghanistan, it is critical that we help the Afghans to make a living legally and work with them to develop new sources of income and new livelihoods.

I am sure that hon. Members will be aware of the figures released by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in October last year, which showed that opium poppy cultivation increased by 8 per cent. in 2002. The production of actual poppy numbers rose by some 6 per cent. The survey also revealed that in traditional areas where the Afghan Government have been able to exert control, cultivation has decreased and moved into more marginal areas. Although the area covered with opium poppy has increased, poppy production has decreased where security has been effectively established.

That UN survey is a reference point for our work as the lead nation in dealing with counter-narcotics in Afghanistan. The increase in opium cultivation is unwelcome, but it is not unexpected when one looks at other countries, such as Pakistan and Thailand, where drug cultivation has taken place and where evidence shows that cultivation tends to increase before eventually declining. The production and processing of narcotic drugs inevitably grossly distorts the Afghan economy and, by supporting criminal and terrorist activity, jeopardises the security and stability of the region, as well as the development of the country itself. We need to be realistic about how long it will take to end the illegal production of opium poppy.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)

What is the Government's preferred approach to tackling opium cultivation? Do they consider it better to deal with the poppy fields first and provide alternatives afterwards, or to provide alternatives to farmers first and then tackle the fields?

Mr. Thomas

Essentially, it is for us to support the Afghan Government in making those decisions. We are working with them to achieve both objectives. We have committed £70 million over the next three years to support the implementation of the Afghanistan national drug control strategy. There are a number of pillars to that. We need to improve the enforcement of drugs laws and help the Afghans to eradicate opium fields and promote alternative livelihoods for poor farmers.

We also need to help to improve the effectiveness of the country's drugs institutions. We want to help to improve public awareness campaigns about the risks of growing opium poppy to persuade farmers to look at alternative livelihoods much earlier in the agricultural cycle than they might otherwise have done. The international community is working alongside the Afghan authorities to enforce legislation banning the cultivation of poppy. We are trying to assist with the demobilisation and disarmament of militias. We are also helping to build an effective, multi-ethnic national army and police force, under democratic control, which can work with the international community to tackle the eradication of opium poppy.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend agree that drugs are a problem for Afghanistan not only for the reasons that he has stated but because there is evidence that the number of addicts in the country is increasing? It is estimated that there are 25,000 addicts in Kandahar, which is difficult to cope with as the country does not have the medical infrastructure to assist them.

Mr. Thomas

My hon. Friend is right. It is interesting that a number of neighbouring countries have also been heavily hit by poppy growth in Afghanistan. They are working alongside countries such as Great Britain and organisations such as the UN agencies to examine what else they can do to tackle the drugs trade.

The international community is also working to rebuild the legal system, which will have an impact in tackling the opium trade. 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—and courts so that the legal system and the legal authority of the Afghan state can be restored in areas which for far too long have failed to submit to the will of the national Government.

Given that 20 to 30 per cent. of those living in rural areas of Afghanistan are at least partially dependent on poppy growing, it is essential that alternative livelihoods are promoted alongside eradication. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) referred to that. He and other hon. Members will be pleased to know that we have committed £20 million over three years to our livelihoods programme in Afghanistan. In Badakshan, we are working in partnership with the Aga Khan Development Network to provide farmers with tools, training and sinks to grow alternative crops. A number of pilot projects are under way, for example in small-scale poultry farming and apricot drying, and there is a project to encourage women to grow agricultural produce.

One of the reasons why people in rural areas of Afghanistan support the poppy trade is because there is a lack of access to forms of credit. In Badakshan, we are looking at establishing a micro-credit project that will extend access to the finance that people need to buy tools and so forth, so that they can engage in more legitimate activity. In eastern Hazarajat, we are working with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to help farmers improve their production. We are also helping in the development of non-farm enterprises that add value to agriculture production, such as processing.

In conclusion, the people of Afghanistan, who are supported by the international community, have come a long way in reconstructing their country in the past two years. This year is crucial for Afghanistan. Elections will see the culmination of the Bonn process: the establishment, hopefully, of a democratic and representative state. The Government's capacity to administer resources and deliver services is developing quickly, and we are seeing the emergence of a police force and a national army, which are prepared to provide law enforcement. Elections will not be an end for Afghanistan, but a beginning in the truest sense. We will be able to celebrate, with the Afghan people, the establishment of a constitution and a Government whom they have shaped and chosen. However, we must remember that the challenges facing that Government will remain huge and that the continued support of the international community in providing resources and expertise will continue to be vital.

The UK remains committed to helping the Afghan people with their long-term goals of developing their country and ensuring sustained poverty reduction. I am sure that the whole House hopes to see that in Afghanistan, and I look forward to hearing hon. Members' views about the challenges that remain.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair)

Before I call the spokesman for the Opposition, I draw hon. Members' attention to the fact that although the House has adjourned, this Chamber has not, and we still have quite a debate ahead of us.

2.56 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con)

I, too, send my condolences to the family and friends of the soldier who recently died in Afghanistan, and to the families of the wounded. The Opposition welcome most of the Minister's comments, although we might have reached slightly different conclusions on a few things. We also feel committed to Afghanistan for a number of reasons.

The events of 11 September brought dramatic changes to the political landscape in Afghanistan. In 2001, our armed forces, despite already being overstretched, made a highly professional contribution to the operations in Afghanistan. What we achieved there with the Americans, and a number of other allies, considerably pre-empted further terrorist action. We must remember that Afghanistan was linked to Osama bin Laden and was the Taliban's principal base in the world. Although there has since been a terrorist attack in Bali and we have lost a consulate in two ghastly incidents, one can only imagine how much worse the terrorist situation would be had the Afghan operation not taken place. None the less, it is vital that we avoid the risk of Afghanistan lapsing back into the category of a failed state and it providing fertile territory for anti-western resentment and future global instability. The Minister recognises that.

Since 1980, I have been a financial supporter of an Afghan charity, now called Afghanaid. In the old days, it struggled to provide medical supplies and food behind the Russian lines. My father-in-law played a prominent role in drawing up the plans for clearing mines in Afghanistan. He is no longer the director of the UN de-mining operation, but he operated over there as a freelancer more than once. I saw the military action that we took two and a half years ago as the first opportunity in more than two decades for peace and stability in that unhappy country. None the less, I put a less optimistic gloss than the Minister on the situation there.

My first point is that the lessons that should have been learned from Bosnia and Kosovo seem to have passed unheeded. In the early stages, focus was so heavily placed on the combat phase that plans for the long-term future of Afghanistan were squeezed out. Although the MOD, DFID and counterpart organisations in other countries co-operated well over Kosovo, co-operation was not nearly as effective in Afghanistan or, indeed, Iraq, which is a matter for another debate.

Secondly, the challenges to creating security and economic development in Afghanistan are immense. That is surely uncontentious: the country is huge, the terrain is some of the most inhospitable in the world and there is virtually no tradition of political stability or institutions that date back to the pre-Taliban days. Despite that, however, had the Government spent more time considering the implications of post-conflict security and reconstruction, Afghanistan would be in better shape today. There are parallels with what happened in Afghanistan with what has gone on in Iraq, as highlighted in the recent National Audit Office report on Iraq.

The Minister reported quite a lot of progress since 2001, but it has taken us a long time to achieve that. Furthermore, there is evidence that some NGOs are starting to run down their operations because of fears for their security. Inevitably, that hits the vulnerable most heavily.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

indicated assent.

Mr. Brazier

The hon. Lady nods. There have been constant reports of kidnapping, extortion and acts of terrorism, all aimed at destabilising the country. According to the logic of the terrorist, if he kills those distributing food and bringing hope to the people, he improves the environment for reaping the crop that he wants. For many Afghans today, it is unsafe simply to get on with ordinary life. There is huge frustration in the country at the slow pace of reconstruction.

Many problems arise from three main causes: the need for the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of those whose lives have been based around a military existence, the alarming increase in the opium trade, and the risk that the financial support of international donors, which has been so critical to recovery so far, could weaken prematurely. I was glad to hear the Minister's robust remarks on the last point, but he obviously cannot speak for the international community as a whole. We can be leaders in the international community, but we cannot speak for it collectively.

There is no neat division between the military and civil parts of Afghan society. There are several different groups of armed men, which to some extent blend into each other. There are those who have been in either the army or one or more of the many militias for all their working lives and, in effect, see the military as a career, those who are conscripted or absorbed compulsorily for short periods, and a vast number of Afghan males who keep a gun at home because that has been the way of life for many generations. The soldiers and militiamen who were more recently mobilised for one reason or another find it easier to return to a civilian life, in some cases to what they did beforehand, even if that was subsistence agriculture. However, for people who have basically known nothing but soldiering of one sort or another for all their working lives, the change is much harder.

The Minister briefly mentioned measures to find other things for such people to do. It is not good enough to ask them simply to hand in their arms. They will of course not do so unless there is something else for them to do. If a line is to be drawn under the era when those who were armed were those who reaped the rewards, disarmament must go hand in hand either with real alternatives for employment that benefits the community as a whole and is seen to be beneficial by the individuals concerned, or with the training and education necessary for such employment. At a time when trust is preciously thin on the ground, links with individuals and communities need to be built.

The Minister mentioned that Afghanistan produces a substantial proportion of the world's illicit opium and talked about some measures that we are taking. He also mentioned, rather briefly I thought, the impact that that production has on our country. Let us be clear: Afghanistan is, by a very long way, the main producer of opium in the world and by far the most important factor in putting opium on British streets. As the interim Government close down production in traditional poppy growing areas, cultivation spreads to new parts of the country.

In October last year, the UN stated that Afghan opium farmers and traffickers had brought home about $2.3 billion so far that year and that production had increased by 6 per cent. on the previous year. Yet the country is nominally run through the UN by outside powers. The director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime warned that the country was at a crossroads and that it risked falling into the hands of drug cartels and narco-terrorists. We really must not allow that to happen.

The Taliban regime was monstrous and horrible and operated on the basis of oppression. I will not bother to repeat the appalling evidence that the Minister gave us, although I acknowledge every word of it. However, we must recognise that we will be in serious danger of creating a power vacuum if we do not replace the Taliban with a full structure. There is a danger that that vacuum will be filled by something equally bad—powerful drug and terrorist factions. We must therefore tackle that illegal trade.

We should be clear about where the official Opposition stand on the dilemma mentioned by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). More active measures to stamp out opium growing and the opium trade must come alongside, not after, measures to provide alternative employment. [Interruption.] Well, the Minister could have made his reply a little clearer. He asserted that these were matters for the Afghan Government and that we could encourage them. Given that the Afghan Government are wholly supported by outside agencies, which fund them, provide their infrastructure and educate those who work within them, Britain is not simply a third party, and we must insist on the toughest possible action wherever possible.

Mr. Gareth Thomas

The hon. Gentleman is painting my remarks a tad unfairly. Of course we are working very closely with the Afghan authorities. We are seeking to develop their capacity to respond to the drugs trade that exists on their doorstep. We are providing resources and expertise to identify areas where drugs might be eradicated. We are also providing the alternative livelihoods that will be essential in the long term if we are to prevent the drugs trade from taking hold in the way that he suggests.

Mr. Brazier

I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification, but I must qualify it to some extent. We should be clear about the fact that the figures show that we are losing the battle, so more needs to be done. Six per cent. growth in drugs production in a country that is being run by outside agencies, to which we are a major contributor, is not a success.

Mr. Kevan Jones

As the hon. Gentleman said earlier, Afghanistan has had no Government structures. I was there in November, and despite its vast size and the fact that a war is going on in the south, where most of the poppy growing takes place, the efforts undertaken by the British and other members of the international community are making a difference. Does he not agree that it is very difficult job?

Mr. Brazier

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I thoroughly agree, and I do not deny for a moment that it is very difficult to operate in Afghanistan. I am glad to hear the Minister provide more evidence of what the Government are doing, but the fact remains that the country is by far the biggest player in the opium market and there have been substantial further increases in its capacity, so we should be deeply worried. We and our allies must step up our efforts because we are losing the battle and there is a danger that a bad situation will get a lot worse.

Mr. Thomas

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we must not be complacent about the drugs trade. I hope that he and other hon. Members will draw further reassurance from the fact that a major narcotics conference will take place in Afghanistan next month, and we shall consider how to scale up our response to he drugs trade. I should, however, draw his attention to another small point that was flagged up in the UN survey. Last year, there was a decline in opium poppy production in those areas in which security had been reestablished.

Mr. Brazier

I accept all that. My most important conclusion is that the restoration of security has to override everything else. None of the other factors—not schools opening, not hospitals operating—are worth anything at all unless security is firmly re-established, because without security they can disappear overnight, as has happened so often in Afghanistan.

In last month's report the situation in Afghanistan, the International Monetary Fund was cautiously complimentary about some progress made in rebuilding institutions and in implementing economic policies. However, it was fearful that some huge challenges remain to be overcome to ensure that the economy continues to recover. Such challenges were tragically brought home to us by those two terrible attacks in the past few days.

The IMF points to a possible Catch-22 situation in relation to securing the necessary funding. On the one hand, aid may well be withdrawn if the political and security situation deteriorates further—either deliberately withdrawn or de facto withdrawn as aid agencies pull out. On the other hand, creating a stable and widely recognised authority requires sufficient funds. That is a Catch-22 situation indeed.

It is essential that we should not walk away from our responsibilities to Afghanistan, and I welcome the closing lines of the Minister's speech for that reason. The country has survived more than 20 years of conflict, interspersed with earthquakes and droughts. Afghanistan is a country of brave, resilient people, to whom we in the west owe a tremendous debt. The Afghan mujaheddin played a pivotal role in breaking the Soviet empire, and all that that terrible colossus stood for, and thus helped to stabilise the global dynamics of power. During the course of that incredibly brave resistance, 1 million out of 15 million Afghans died, and a further 7 million lost their homes—the biggest single refugee crisis that the world has ever seen. It also threw up that remarkable leader Masood. He had such an impact in the Islamic world that Osama bin Laden felt unable to mount his horrific attack on the United States until Masood had been murdered in the most cowardly fashion. He was only able to go ahead with the 11 September attacks two days after that murder.

We now have the chance to repay the debt that we owe the Afghan people, by helping them build a strong, free and democratic country. The Opposition endorse all that the Government are trying to do on that, although we may press for more action on certain things.

I finish on a positive note. It is excellent news that the transitional Government, led by the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, signed a new constitution earlier this week, paving the way for elections later this year. The constitution envisages a strong presidency and enshrines equal rights for men and women. It permits religious freedom, in a thriving democratic state. Our responsibility, as part of the liberating force, is to ensure that that dream becomes a reality. We liberated the Afghan people from the repression that they had suffered for far too long. Now we must remove the instability and criminal activity that have appeared in its place. To ensure that those free and fair elections take place, we must focus on existing obstacles in a systematic manner and be prepared to invest for the future of Afghanistan. That is important for our own security too.

The Minister mentioned progress—some rather belated—in many things, from health to education. However, that all depends on security, which is critical to Afghanistan and to those developments. The people of Afghanistan must, of course, take control of their country. The UN forces, including our own, must help them to move forward and Afghanistan to become the stable and viable country that it has the right and the eventual capacity to be.

3.15 pm
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)

I join the Minister in extending my condolences to the family of the soldier who was killed and those who were injured. However, I cannot echo the Minister's optimism. As the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said, the Minister was quite upbeat when he gave his presentation. I understand why he has to be upbeat, but I am much more concerned about what is happening in Afghanistan and the threats to its long-term survival, which I shall talk about later.

It is worth reminding Members of the timeline of events. In November 2001, the Taliban fell. A month later, the interim authority was set up. In June 2002, Hamid Karzai was elected president. As the hon. Member for Canterbury said, President Karzai signed the Afghan constitution into law earlier this week. Much has happened in the past couple of years. It is also worth reminding Members of what the Prime Minister said a couple of years ago about Afghanistan. He said that we will provide strong diplomatic and economic support to the aspirations of Afghan parties committed to an inclusive, democratic political structure, committed to the welfare of all Afghan men, women and children… We want to see a country with a Government representing all the people of Afghanistan, occupying a proud place in the community of nations, growing economically, enriching its people and liberating their potential." —[Official Report, 11 November 2001; Vol. 374, c. 863–64.] It is also worth considering what progress has been made according to the criteria set out by the Prime Minister. Clearly, security is the most significant concern, and the one most likely to stop the Prime Minister's vision of Afghanistan being realised. Developments in the past couple of days, and reports that 60 suicide bombers may have slipped into Afghanistan and may be about to take action in the way that we have seen in Iraq, are threatening the country, foreigners and NGOs based there. I wonder whether the Minister recognises the description of the security situation that I received from an agency working there.

A couple of days ago, I spoke to several organisations that are very active in Afghanistan. I was surprised to find that they were unaware that this debate was taking place. That is not intended as a criticism, but there should be some mechanism through which the Government can inform organisations of a debate in advance. Those organisations say that security in the south is deteriorating daily, which is restricting movement and making projects less effective, and that the atmosphere is tense. Very few expatriate international NGO staff are now working in the south. Extremists, bandits, local warlords and the opium mafia are causing security alerts.

I would welcome the Minister's comments on the US operations in the south, which are not conducive to the development of trust of foreigners in local populations. There are also concerns that NATO cannot do an effective security job in Afghanistan if it is not given the troops to do it. Does the Minister recognise that picture, which is not an optimistic one? He will know that on 12 December, Lakhdar Brahimi, the outgoing special representative of the UN Secretary-General, warned that the UN might soon have to abandon its two-year effort to stabilise Afghanistan unless security improved. Does the Minister concur with that view?

The agency to which I spoke said that it believed that between 5,000 and 10,000 extra troops might be required to guarantee the security of people in Afghanistan. Will the Minister also comment on that? Several agencies mentioned the provincial reconstruction teams to which the Minister referred. Although their view is that the PRTs were contributing, they have concerns that their remit, which seems to be a dual one of security and humanitarian work, is making it difficult for them to do either effectively. One of the organisations alleges that the PRTs are less effective at the reconstruction work than the NGOs, for instance. Is there an ongoing process of monitoring their work to see whether they are up to scratch?

Mr. Kevan Jones

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says about the PRTs. I visited the British PRT at Mazar-e-Sharif in November. The work that it was doing was making a real difference. It was a combined effort between staff from the MOD, DFID and the Foreign Office. One of the complaints that I received from the Royal Army Medical Corps was that the NGOs would not work with them. I find it strange that certain NGOs are putting out a line that the PRTs do not want to work or co-operate with them.

Tom Brake

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interesting intervention. Clearly there is a need for the PRTs and DFID and so on to establish stronger lines of communication with the NGOs, so that any issue about NGOs not being willing to work with the PRTs is resolved. We want the most effective development to be taking place. I welcome the Minister's comments on security and the PRTs. Not having visited Afghanistan, I am not in a position to say whether that is true, but there is concern that to a certain extent the PRTs are about window-dressing and providing positive PR from the point of view of the US and other players rather than necessarily delivering all they could from the point of view of the Afghan people.

Mr. Jones

I am sorry that I have to intervene again, but I do not accept that the PRTs are window-dressing. In the north, the week before we arrived, because of the sterling efforts of the British PRT—the MOD, the Foreign Office and DFID—a cease-fire had been negotiated between the two main warlords, Dostum and Atta, which helped the security situation and the daily lives of the people whom I met in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Tom Brake

Indeed, and I respect the hon. Gentleman's experiences. However, I suspect that he was not present to see the work of all the PRTs and that he did not visit every site in the country. Although he may have seen a good example, it may be that elsewhere—I am simply conveying to hon. Members what has been conveyed to me—there are concerns about the PRTs' effectiveness. I am sure that the Minister would like to comment on that when he responds.

The second issue that I would like to raise is opium production, on which the Minister touched at some length. He will be aware of the commitments that have been made. In a debate in the House of Lords on 4 November 2003, the Government committed themselves, in the comprehensive spending review, to reducing opium production to nothing within 10 years.

I know that the Minister has said—this was said in the Lords—that it is natural for there to be a period in which we have to build up effective institutions, so one might expect an increase in production while that is happening, but does he think it realistic to achieve an eradication of opium production in 10 years? Does he want to reconsider that challenge and come forward with something more realistic, particularly given the increases in production in the past 12 months?

Associated with opium is the issue of HIV/AIDS. It seems that there is an extremely small number of cases in Afghanistan—according to a World Bank report, 11 have been reported—but that may have much to do with the fact that the infrastructure that would enable testing to be done and statistics to be collated is simply not there. If there really are only the 11 cases that have been reported, one has to wonder why the global health fund is about to allocate some $3 million to Afghanistan. Presumably, a significant proportion of that will be spent on tuberculosis and malaria, rather than on HIV/ AIDS, but I should appreciate some comment from the Minister. Have the Government any concerns that there may be a hidden epidemic that is not being picked up because of the absence of an adequate health infrastructure?

That grant of $3 million or more is due to be assigned in March, and I would welcome the Minister's comments as to how it will be possible to monitor the project effectively. I recently had a meeting with Dr. Feacham of the global health fund, who expects the number of projects that it funds to increase significantly. He also anticipates the need to strengthen the structure at the centre to ensure that that increase in projects is properly monitored. I am therefore interested in how the Minister envisages tracking the money to ensure that it reaches the places where it is most needed.

I know that one of the Government's key priorities is to focus on income generation, but have they had any discussions with the Afghan Government about HIV/ AIDS and do they intend to play a more active role in that regard? The Minister painted a positive picture of what is happening in relation to democracy. Is he aware of concerns expressed by Amnesty International about the extent to which it was possible for some delegates to express their views about the constitution? I refer him to a press release that Amnesty issued on 6 January in which it expresses those concerns: Dominance by strong political and armed factional leaders and the absence of the rule of law in many parts of the country contributes to an atmosphere of insecurity that, it argues, actively stops delegates from expressing their views openly. Can the Minister give us some feedback on that? A significant number of Afghans are now registered to vote—upwards of 500,000—but that is out of a potential electorate of 10 million. There are clearly parts of the country where it will be difficult for voters to be registered. That being the case, does the Minister feel that it will be possible for all ethnic groups and women to participate properly in the elections and in the voter registration process? Will ethnic groups such as the southern Pushtuns be able to participate? The bottom line is, is the Minister confident that it will be possible for free elections to take place?

Next is the issue of funding. Many organisations that previously received aid are now having their funding channelled through the Afghan Government. I would be interested to know whether that process has been evaluated to see whether the distribution of aid by the Afghan Government is as effective as that of the NGOs.

I would particularly appreciate hearing the Minister's views on the time for which projects can be funded. As far as I am aware, the longest period for which funding can be granted is two years, and many projects receive funding for shorter periods. If so, from a development point of view, shorter funding periods would clearly make it difficult to ensure that longer term projects get off the ground and continuing running successfully.

The level of aid is also a concern. I understand that, at the Tokyo conference, £5.2 billion was pledged in aid to Afghanistan, but that by September last year only 40 per cent. of that aid had been delivered. Does the Minister have any more up-to-date information, and can he say whether any of those commitments have been converted from verbal pledges to something more concrete?

Mr. Thomas

I can clarify the situation. A total of £5.2 billion was pledged over a number of years, and the amounts transferred from those donors who had pledged money to the Afghan Government are proceeding as expected—£1.8 billion in the first year, and almost £2 billion last year. As I said, a donor conference is scheduled shortly to discuss the next stages.

Tom Brake

I thank the Minister for that intervention. I take it that he is confident that the next tranche will be agreed at that conference and that the money will be made available. It is good news.

I turn now to education. The Prime Minister referred to liberating the potential of the Afghan people, which clearly involves education. The Government rightly focus on gender issues, and part of that is ensuring that girls receive education. The recent attacks on girls schools in Kandahar, Sar-e Pol, Zabol, Lowgar and Vardak provinces has not helped in that process. Notwithstanding the fact that the Government's main focus is on income generation, are they actively involved in trying to improve security at schools? That will obviously be wrapped up in the whole issue of security, but are the Government involved in any special initiatives?

Those are the key parts of the development challenges on which I wished to focus, but I have identified many more challenges than solutions. It is an extremely difficult environment in which to operate. The Minister will know that the Liberal Democrats supported military action in Afghanistan. The situation is not yet stable, and there is every risk that the country will revert to the warlordism of the past. It is possible that an unrepresentative Government may be elected in Kabul who represent the capital city and not the provinces.

The Minister said that the United Kingdom has to make a long-term commitment, and we would certainly support that. Resources have to be provided to work with the international community. I hope that the Minister will say whether he feels that between 5,000 and 10,000 more troops may be needed to stabilise the situation. If we do not stabilise it, Afghanistan could once again be the scene of a bloodbath, which has been all too common in its recent history.

3.35 pm
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)

In the media age in which we live, it is strange to think that less than two years ago Afghanistan was in every national newspaper and on every news channel every night. I welcome the debate because it continues to highlight the problems that that country faces and reminds us that we have troops and personnel serving there. I also express my condolences to the families of those who were injured this week and of the individual who was killed.

In November last year, I had the privilege of going to Afghanistan, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) and for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby), to visit British troops in Kabul and in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north. I want to put it on the record what a privilege it was meet those individuals, not just military personnel, but people from DFID, the Foreign Office and our intelligence civil service who work out there and do not get credit for their work. They work very hard on our behalf and on trying to reconstruct a country that has gone through the tragedy described in the debate.

It has already been stated that Afghanistan has been torn apart in the past 25 years. It was on the front line of the cold war in the 1980s, and as the Berlin wall came down it seemed to be ignored. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said that we should learn from that lesson; we should not ignore failed states. The international community took our eye off Afghanistan and allowed al-Qaeda to bankroll a terrible regime, the Taliban, which not only inflicted horrendous torture on the Afghan people, but planned the events that led to the tragic consequences of 11 September.

My speech has four main themes: the impressions that I gained on my visit and the issues of security, political stability and drugs. As I flew into Afghanistan from Pakistan, I was struck by the vastness of the country. A military person I met described it adeptly as a 12th-century country with cars. It is certainly mountainous and basic communications that we take for granted are not there. In many parts of the country, roads are either non-existent or dirt tracks. People have to recognise that when they talk about ensuring that authority reaches every part of the country.

It is also important to remember that parts of Afghanistan have never been governed by any form of government for many years. The country has gone through the trauma of the past 25 years of war. I was struck by the area in and around the Kings' palace in Kabul, which is reminiscent of Berlin in 1945 with street after street of burnt-out and bombed-out buildings. People sadly eke out an existence, living in those burnt-out buildings.

Another issue that has been raised, which we need to take into account when we consider trying to reconstruct Afghanistan, is the legacy of the conflict. There are 10 million munitions and mines that lie not only across the countryside, but in towns and villages. People are dying on a daily basis. It is estimated that 400,000 people have died since 1979, killed by either unexploded ordinance or mines. Unfortunately, many of them were women, and children playing in fields.

I also came away from Afghanistan with a sense of optimism. I was quite disappointed with the speech by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), because a lot of good work is going on there. The Afghan people I met were certainly a cause for optimism. I had the privilege, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw, of going out on patrol with the Gurkhas in a suburb of Kabul. We went into individuals' houses and met ordinary Afghanis. What summed it up for me was the sense that these people are sick and tired of war; they want peace. It was summed up by a comment made when I visited the kings' tomb, from which there is a fantastic panoramic view of downtown Kabul. A 22-year-old medical student came up to me and said, in perfect English—better than I can manage sometimes—that he had throughout his life known only war and destruction, and the one thing he wanted for his family in the future was peace and security.

We make the mistake of thinking that because people speak a different language and look different they want different things from us. I do not think they do. Most people just want peace and security and a family life.

Mr. Brazier

The hon. Gentleman has had the direct experience of a visit, which sadly I have not. I put it to him that there is nothing inconsistent between what he rightly says about the wishes of those extremely brave people on the one hand and the fact that it takes only a small minority, through the use of terrorism, to continue to thwart those aspirations. That is why it is so important that the outside community continues to emphasise the military and security side for a long time.

Mr. Jones

I totally agree and will turn to security issues later. The hon. Gentleman is right: terrorism can wreck the fragile peace. I am not going to give the impression that everything in Afghanistan is wonderful—I do not think it is; the peace is, in parts, very fragile.

The other matter worth dwelling on is the damage the Taliban did to Afghanistan, in terms not just of physical destruction, but of psychological scars. I pay tribute to MOD and DFID staff and others who are working there on reconstruction projects. I went to a girls school just outside Kabul that had been reconstructed with the help of military personnel. It had 3,000 pupils who sat in two-hour shifts. The head teacher movingly said that she and the deputy head had been arrested during the Taliban years for the horrendous crime of teaching girls privately in their homes once the Taliban had closed all the girls schools. It is only when we face someone who has been through that—tortured and put in prison for doing something that we would take for granted—that we recognise the problems as well as the horrendous nature of the Taliban regime.

We also visited nursery school projects and a footbridge in downtown central Kabul that was being built by civil military reconstruction teams of the British Army. Those people are making a difference to the lives of ordinary Afghan citizens, for which they are being thanked and recognised. We need to place on the record the thanks to those individuals.

The hon. Member for Canterbury referred to the security situation. We are not deluding ourselves: unless we have security, not just in Kabul but also in the provinces, the transition towards democracy and the development of that country will not be achieved. However, if the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington just asks for more troops, he does not understand the process. The Afghan people must take responsibility for their own security. The key effort is the training of the Afghan national army, a difficult task because we are dealing with people who, as the hon. Member for Canterbury said, have a lifetime commitment to warlords and a way of life that does not necessarily fit clearly and easily with the military discipline of a modern army. The idea is to train that army and to get it out into the provinces to provide the security that people want. That will be better received in certain parts of the country if it is done by Afghanis rather than by foreign troops.

Tom Brake

How long does the hon. Gentleman think it will take to train the Afghan army and how long will it be before it can be deployed in the provinces, because there are security problems now?

Mr. Jones

I understand that the army is being deployed. There were elements of it in Mazar-e-Sharif when we were there. It is also moving down into Kandahar and other provinces, but that will take time. We must recognise that this will not be a quick solution to rebuilding Afghanistan. There is a genuine multinational effort by the British, the French and others to train and equip the Afghan national army. It is important that the central authority of the Government in Kabul is spread out into the provinces.

The hon. Member for Canterbury mentioned terrorism. I agree that some al-Qaeda, Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami Gulbaddin—HIG—people are hell-bent on fracturing the delicate peace. Afghanistan has been used to the militaristic way of life, to which he referred, and there are large amounts of weaponry in the country.

There is increased activity and movement from Pakistan back into southern Afghanistan, which is causing a problem for the reconstruction efforts there. It is important to recognise that stopping that insurgence will mean more co-operation with Pakistan. Although the Pakistani Government are working closely with coalition forces to eradicate some elements and to deal with the people who are coming across from the tribal territories in the north of Pakistan, such activity is a source of money and individuals continue to attack coalition forces and Afghan projects in the south of Afghanistan. However, Task Force 180 and operations such as Operation Mountain Viper are having some success.

The Taliban are moving away from fighting in mass formations and turning towards suicide terrorist bomb attacks and small attacks, like the one that tragically occurred in Kabul this week. In addition, there is evidence that aid workers are being targeted in the south, which we were told about. One individual told us that as much as £45,000 was being offered as a bounty in parts of northern Pakistan for the death of aid workers in southern Afghanistan. That is for one simple reason: those people do not want peace or stability and they see that aid workers make a difference. Security must be a vital consideration. The situation in the south is slowly improving. It will be a long haul and we must be committed to the south militarily and in terms of aid.

On political structures, during our visit to Afghanistan we had the honour of meeting President Karzai—an impressive and brave individual—and it is important that his authority and the authority of the central Kabul Administration are extended to the provinces. There are bright hopes for the agreement on the constitution, especially with the Loya Jirga reaching that resolution.

I will think again about the constitution. We were told by President Karzai that there were about 100,000 contributions from different citizens before the constitution was agreed. That represents a new process in open democracy. I do not accept that the PRTs are window dressing. They are making a real difference in the country and need to be spread out.

I visited the PRT in Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north. It is a good model of co-operation, with the military providing security and the staff from DFID the Foreign Office working closely together. We must take credit for stabilising a tense situation in Mazar-e-Sharif, with a small group of 80 British personnel working between two heavily armed warlords. Credit is due to those individuals. A week before we arrived, they managed to separate those warlords and stop them fighting. The Minister referred to the moves that have been made to disarm some of those groups. Those moves have yielded not only small arms, but the heavy weaponry that it is vital they give up if the central authority is to be maintained.

President Karzai has boldly taken a hard line, again with the help of the PRT in Mazar-e-Sharif, in removing police chiefs and provincial governors who were not doing their job. He could not have done that without outside intervention, but he should be given credit because he means business. There is also a general feeling that people are fed up not only with war, but with the warlords in different parts of the country. The eagerness of some of those warlords to join the central Administration shows that the way in which they used to operate is coming to an end. We must encourage them to become part of the mainstream political process in Afghanistan.

There are to be elections this year under the Bonn agreement. That has pressed the Afghan Administration into a tight time scale. I am not optimistic that it will be possible to hold both presidential and parliamentary elections by June this year because of the security situation and the huge task of voter registration. However, I hope that at least one of those elections takes place early, preferably the presidential election, because President Karzai needs something bolster his authority if he is to press on with the difficult task before him.

The drugs issue has been mentioned and it is not a positive or happy tale. Some 90 to 95 per cent. of the heroin that reaches the streets of Britain comes from Afghanistan. That is quite a remarkable feat because 15 years ago, before the Taliban, the country produced no opium. When the poppy fields in Pakistan were eradicated, production moved from that country into the lawlessness of Afghanistan. Production is increasing not only because of the vastness of the country, which makes locating it difficult, but because basic agricultural income in many rural areas is non-existent. Prior to most of the conflict in Afghanistan, the country's main product was, I understand, dried fruit. Unfortunately, over the years, as the irrigation systems were destroyed and the orchards burnt and cut down, that trade ceased. People in rural Afghanistan have a problem finding a source of income. There are two ways to deal with the problem: eradication of opium fields and the provision of employment and alternatives to those rural populations, although I gather that work is being done on that.

Drugs production is also creating an internal problem of addicts, mainly involving people returning from Pakistan and other places with a drugs habit. Drugs are also creating a huge problem for some of Afghanistan's neighbours. For example, it is estimated that there are 2 million heroin addicts in Iran. It is to the credit of the Foreign Office that its policy of co-operation with Iran is paying off in that customs officers are now liaising on drugs coming through Iran from Afghanistan. The other major route is up through the former Soviet republics. The problem has to be tackled on two fronts: eradication and the provision of alternatives.

The other aspect, which needs to be dealt with at a political level, is that some warlords are, if not directly involved in the trade, certainly taking a cut for allowing heroin to pass through their areas of control. That can be done once only the authority of President Karzai and the central Administration have been strengthened. In the next few years, there will probably be an increase in poppy production, but we should not give up hope. As the security situation improves, certainly in the south, we can get to work not only on eradication but on the provision of alternatives for the rural communities.

In closing, I want to sound a note of optimism and give a warning. The situation in Afghanistan was allowed to happen by the international community. We cannot afford to allow Afghanistan to go back to where it was; that would be a tragedy. No matter how difficult it gets in the coming years, I hope that the British Government and others remain committed to ensuring that the people of that beautiful country who, like the rest of us, just want to get on with their lives, can do so in peace.

3.57 pm
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

I join others in paying tribute and expressing condolences to the British soldier and his relatives. We also remember other soldiers, such as the Canadian who recently lost his life, the many aid workers who have given their lives in the service of Afghanistan, and the country's civilians. There were some tragic incidents early in January in which 15 civilians, most of them children, were killed near an army base. There has been great sacrifice. In post-war Afghanistan there is still hardship and loss of life.

I was delighted that the spokesman for the official Opposition, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), referred to Afghanaid, an organisation that I support. It has been notable in staying with Afghanistan for such a long time and doing such valuable work. There are many aid agencies but, like the hon. Gentleman, I would single out Afghanaid.

I shall speak about women and girls in Afghanistan, and the gender aspects of reconstruction and the assistance being given by the international community. Without the participation of women in the reconstruction, there is no hope of real democracy and little hope of sustainable peace. The women have not waged the wars, nor have the girl children been active in them over many decades, but they hold the possibility of peaceful reconstruction because of their influence within the family and because large numbers of households are now entirely dependent on women, the men having been killed. Women are the majority of the population in Afghanistan, and whenever the international community moves to support the country, we should look critically at where and how support is being given to them, if at all.

I shall refer a great deal to the UN Secretary-General's most recent report on the issue, which is called "The situation of women and girls in Afghanistan". It refers to several very positive developments, and I want to mention some of the main ones. Of course, I shall also refer to the challenges and difficulties, which are particularly pronounced in terms of the position of women.

As the Minister said, the participation of girls in particular in education has greatly increased, which is enormously welcome. When I first asked about the position of women in Afghanistan, however, the answers that I got from Ministers suggested that we could solve the problem of women's oppression simply by getting girls into school. I said then, and I say now, that we do not have 10 or 20 years in which to tackle the oppression of women in Afghanistan. Women of all ages have had their lives blighted, and they need the international community's assistance now. They may prioritise their daughters' needs, but they, too, require our help and support. Many of them must work; if they do not, the whole family will remain dependent on food aid. If we are to be able to discontinue food aid, as we should, so that Afghans can grow and import their own food, we must enable women, where they are the sole head of household, to be productive. If such women do not have cash to buy food, there will be no sustainable economy.

There was a 37 per cent. increase in the enrolment of girls in school in 2002—03. The "back to school" campaign has been enormously successful, and everyone involved should take great credit for that. DFID has been very supportive of the campaign. When I was in Afghanistan about 15 months ago, there had been little progress on the ground, but, as the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who have both recently visited the country, said, there have been enormous improvements, which are borne out by the statistics.

We also need to focus on adolescent girls, who did not have an opportunity to receive an education during the Taliban years and who will obviously not go and sit in a primary school class. They, too, will have a major influence on the growth of the family structure in Afghanistan and on future relationships with their menfolk and children.

Mr. Kevan Jones

It is important to note that many women in their early 20s missed out on their education under the Taliban. There were 23-year-olds sitting in the classrooms of the school that my hon. Friends and I visited. That is not ideal, but it shows the thirst for knowledge among young women.

Joan Ruddock

I accept my hon. Friend's point entirely, and I have also seen evidence of that. As he says, the situation is not ideal. We must give young women a basic education, but we probably also need to consider how to develop work opportunities for them. A lot of work has been done in a short time, but we must be cognisant of the fact that only about 21 per cent. of women in Afghanistan are literate, compared with 51 per cent. of men. That gap must be closed, and the problem needs emphasising as we provide for the education of women of all ages.

As we know, many women have returned to the work force. The hon. Member for Canterbury suggested that there had been no real stability at any time in the past. However, there was a time when women were educated and when universities and secondary schools were open. In Kabul—

Mr. Brazier

The hon. Lady anticipates what I was about to say. I said earlier that there were few enduring structures, but Kabul, which houses a relatively small proportion of the population, was the one exception. Indeed, it almost verged on the cosmopolitan for a few short years before the communist era.

Joan Ruddock

Indeed; the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. However, we should remember that at the time—this went on for quite a few years—women held half the local government jobs and formed half the civil service, took about 60 per cent. of teaching posts and were about 40 per cent. of the total number of doctors. Those women and their daughters provided the backbone of the secret teaching and health assistance given to women and girls during the Taliban period, when women dared not work and were prohibited from working, and even at times from going on to the streets.

A group of women is still active and articulating the rights of women. When I started asking questions in the House, people said to me, "Who are you to try to impose western values on Afghan women?" I said, "I do not seek to do that in any way. I seek only to echo what Afghan women are telling me." Those women continue to tell that story. Human rights are universal, and human rights are women's rights. Those women want their women's rights. It is a matter of choice for the individual woman whether she exercises those rights, but they must be enshrined in the legal process.

Women are being employed as teachers and health workers, and international agencies are beginning to employ women in other areas such as immunisation campaigns, the joint electoral management board and the UN mine assistance service. That is important—Afghan women who wish to work in less conventional fields must be enabled to do so; they will then be seen as role models. There used to be many women engineers in Afghanistan, or rather, there were not many engineers, but a significant number of them were women. It is important that the international community works hard to ensure that those women who are available are employed. If the Minister has the figures, I would be interested to know how many Afghan women are being employed in Afghanistan by the various guises of the British Government.

The Minister raised as a positive issue the recent progress in maternity services. He referred to the huge successes at the Malalai hospital. That is a success, but the figures that we have for the whole country—it is difficult to collect statistics, so they may be flawed—show that Afghanistan still has the second highest maternal mortality rates in the world. It is a shocking figure: there are 1,600 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. Currently, about 15 per cent. of deliveries are attended by trained health personnel. That must be a priority, as the loss of women in childbirth is a preventable tragedy. The international community must try to ensure that support is given.

I turn to the consultations on the constitution, to which other hon. Members have referred, and the Loya Jirga, and to the participation of women in that process. It was suggested at the time of the Bonn agreement that women were unlikely to participate in the various stages of the process, but women came to that first Bonn conference and demanded their right to participate. We had it written into the Bonn agreement that the first stage of government should be set up in a gender-sensitive way. That was not much, but it was extremely important.

I pay tribute to the many women in the international community and in women's NGOs, which are particularly strong in the United States of America. Women in networks all over the world came together to support the women who went to the Bonn conference. I was present at a parallel meeting that we held for Afghan women from Afghanistan and the diaspora to hear, alongside western women, how we could continue to support them in their new situation during the two-year transition to a democratic state.

Despite all those efforts, not enough was done to support women in the run-up to the Loya Jirga, and not enough was done to provide security. There were many reports of huge intimidation in villages where women wanted to participate but were not allowed to do so. Many women were told by their husbands and fathers that they would not be permitted to travel, because it was considered un-Islamic for women to travel alone or in groups without male protection. There was much that we could have done. However, although I believe that not enough was done, these heroic women went to the constitutional Loya Jirga and the consultation processes and said their piece. They were often ridiculed and found themselves in situations that I, as a woman of my age in this country, can remember being in when speaking in some very male forums in the past—occasionally, in the House of Commons.

As several hon. Gentlemen said, those women have been tortured and imprisoned, and they risked rape constantly as they moved around the country without male—and possibly armed—protection. They have achieved so much for themselves. I pay tribute to their enormous courage in attending the Loya Jirga, participating in it and saying what they had to say. There were more than 100 women there—they were around 20 per cent. of the delegates—and one of the vice-chairs who was elected was a woman, which was an enormous achievement. It was even more significant that the draft constitution did not contain equality of rights for women and men, despite the fact that the new state ratified CEDAW—the universal convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women—earlier this year. It was only through the women themselves participating in the Loya Jirga, and supported by pressure from the international community of women, that they managed to secure a final version of the constitution in which equal rights for women and men are enshrined. Again, that is an enormous achievement.

I pay tribute to our Government, who have been supportive of activities in support of women, albeit that much of that support is delivered as aid and assistance, and have begun to provide the help that makes it possible for women to become political candidates and participate in the political process, and enables them to have the courage to come forward and participate in a way that is, I have to say, alien in their culture. That is important.

The appointment of a woman ambassador to Kabul is inspired. I have met Dr. Rosalind Marsden. She will be able to take things forward in a way that the excellent Ronald Nash, our previous ambassador, was not always able to. It can be difficult for male representatives in an Islamic society to have that link with women; it is undoubtedly easier for a woman ambassador. I am particularly delighted by that appointment.

As the Minister said, 25 per cent. of places in the lower House are now reserved for women. President Karzai played a positive role in that change. He recognised the importance of women and their place in the future democracy of the country.

This week, I participated in the first of what will be three video conferences between women and men from London, together with Americans and a group of women in Kabul. We used the facilities of the World Bank and discussed leadership and methods of enhancing the roles of, and opportunities for, women. It was a most remarkable occasion. I thank the Government for the support that they gave to that particular programme.

As I said, CEDAW was ratified by Afghanistan earlier this year, and it would be important if the optional protocol had been signed by Afghanistan. It is to our shame that the United Kingdom has not signed it. I know that a review is under way, but I urge the Government to sign the optional protocol, not because I believe that there are likely to be many women in the UK who will have a case of inequality under the convention for which they would seek redress at the United Nations, but because it would set an important example that could be critical to an emerging state such as Afghanistan.

I wish to put on the record some other worthy positive points. I refer to the work of the Ministry of Women's Affairs in Afghanistan, which is led by Habiba Sorabi. I met her when I was in Afghanistan, and I also met Dr. Sima Samar, who was the first Minister for Women and now heads the Human Rights Commission. They are both extraordinary women and run organisations made up of many other extraordinary women. Out of the 32 Afghan provinces, 29 now have regional Ministry of Women's Affairs offices. They are desperate for more support and for training in leadership and management. They will need huge support if they are to enhance services in the provinces—that is critical. They also need to be able to widen and deepen the networks of women from which can come candidates for elections and which make possible the greater participation of women in the political process.

We have heard today that 500,000 Afghans have been registered for the elections that are due to take place in June. Sadly, only 19 per cent. of those 500,000 Afghans are women, which cannot be acceptable. The process began badly for women registrants. Those who registered were required to have their photographs and a thumb print taken. There has long been in Afghanistan a taboo on photography, which developed particularly under the Taliban regime, but it is a sensitive issue in respect of women. Initially, when women themselves and the male members of the families found that the women's photographs were required, women were prohibited from going to the registration office. That rule was then dropped, which was a sensitive response, but women still face real problems in becoming registered. I ask the Minister to consider all the ways in which UK personnel in Afghanistan, and the programmes that we support in the wider international community in support of the UN registration process, can improve the proportion of women who are registered for the election.

I hope that much of what I have said is positive. I usually try to be brief in debates. I assure you, Sir Nicholas, that 10 minutes is usually my limit. I am aware that we have a little more time today, so I crave your indulgence now by talking about the challenges in Afghanistan.

As I said, there is a need for equal rights to be written into the new constitution and to be ensured under it. We should also ensure that CEDAW has been accepted. However, the constitution contains a phrase that, translated, says that no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam. As we all know, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of interpretations of the law of Islam. There is a spectrum of interpretation throughout Islamic states. Sharia law does not have to be oppressive to women in any sense. None the less, certain interpretations of sharia law are extremely oppressive to women. I will give an example that may seem trivial, but which indicates the difficulties faced by women in respect of the constitution and Islamic law.

Early this month, a woman singer appeared on Afghan television for the first time in decades. Women singers had been banned and had not returned, even post-Taliban. The singer was completely covered, and she was also wearing a head cover. The Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction over what is or is not contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, immediately ruled that a woman Afghan singer on television was un-Islamic, and she was taken off.

I have not yet been told or been given any evidence that Afghan women singers have reappeared, but I am delighted to report that I have been told that the television bosses have decided to put Afghan women singers back on the television. That may seem trivial in the scheme of things, but it is very important. Women's singing, and traditional Afghan singing, is very important to Afghan people and their culture, and it is heard everywhere now that tape recorders are no longer banned. So singing is important, but it is important also that we understand that that aspect of the Supreme Court's potential for rule over the constitution could disadvantage women. The international community must take every step that it can to try to influence the transitional authority, which has many progressive people in it, to support equal rights for women in the constitution. I believe, as do many Muslim scholars, that equal rights for women are in no way contrary to Islam.

Mr. Thomas

I understand my hon. Friend's point in the context of her overall argument about the need to continue to challenge the oppression of women in Afghan society. Does she agree that not only is it extremely positive that the original ban on Afghan women singers has been overturned, but the lead taken by President Karzai and other Ministers in his Government in getting that ban overturned is extremely encouraging?

Joan Ruddock

My hon. Friend is correct: President Karzai was extremely important in that decision, as were the other Ministers, whose names I have momentarily forgotten, who are recorded as having supported him. One role of the international community is to support not those who lean towards us, but those who lean towards establishing the right of law and equality within their nation state.

I spoke about the small proportion of women who are registered for the forthcoming elections. That will be one of the biggest challenges facing Afghanistan and the international community. As we are supplying so much finance and security, we have a duty to ensure that women can participate in the elections, but that will be enormously difficult. I make a plea, as I have so often done in the House, that we address the issue of security; it is not just about dealing with armed factions and warlords fighting each other, although it is important to broker peace deals where we can—that was very important in Mazar. It is also about dealing with things on a lower level. Bandits on the roads often make it impossible for aid workers and women to move about, which must be addressed. It must be made possible for women to go to polling booths, however they may be established. One can imagine that the system will be far from perfect because of the huge difficulties, but we must ensure that it is secure.

Although I am aware of the very good work being done by the British in Mazar, I rather side with the British Agencies Afghan Group, which repeatedly questions whether the provisional teams are the best security model. We must keep looking at that issue and asking, "How can we achieve the objective so critical in a democratic election of making it possible for people to vote?" We must find ways of extending the NATO security mandate so as to achieve our specific objectives for the next, most critical, stage of the Bonn process.

I now move on to the subject of Afghans developing the security sector. We have repeatedly been told that the establishment of an Afghan national army could solve security problems in the long term. I do not think that any of us would disagree with that. However, I am told, and the Minister may be able to confirm it, that 3,000 men have already deserted the new army. That is a tragedy, and we need to understand why it has happened. When I was there, soldiers were being paid nothing. I asked the Americans who were providing the support how they could recruit for the army if there were no wages. They said, "Yes, but they get their accommodation, they get their food, they get their training." I replied, "These are men who have a wife and maybe eight children. They have to have support for the families." I believe that some payments are now being made.

What intelligence does the Minister have on the reasons for those men deserting? We cannot have an international programme, costing a huge amount of money, that trains people who then go back and serve the warlords, with better training and, perhaps, weapons. That is a critical issue, and I would like to hear more from the Minister on what is happening there.

Mr. Jones

Without having the audacity to take the Minister's role, I can tell my hon. Friend that she is correct about the problem of people deserting. I have visited the Afghan national army college in Kabul, and I understand that that desertion occurred mainly in the early days of the army's formation, when the warlords were asked to deliver up quotas of individuals. There is a question mark over how willing some volunteers were.

Joan Ruddock

I agree with my hon. Friend—that was an additional reason given to me. It is important to understand the dynamics of that, and how we can correct it.

Mr. Brazier

The hon. Lady makes a powerful point. The armed forces should give a higher priority to deciding how to divide a finite pot of resources. There is an unhappy parallel with a number of other places. I remember discovering, on a Defence Committee visit to Kosovo, that the police, who were critical to restoring some law and order there, were being paid one fifth of the salary that local translators working for the UN forces were getting.

Joan Ruddock

Indeed. That problem exists everywhere in post-conflict situations in which the international community is involved. We have to live with some of that; I am not sure that all that can be changed. The hon. Gentleman certainly raises another important point.

I turn to the development of the security apparatus in Afghanistan. I have spoken about the army, but there are also important police training issues to address. When I was there, I went to the women's prison, in which all the prisoners had committed what were termed "sex crimes"—a sex crime was a woman running away from the husband who beat her. One woman had been divorced by her husband, and had lived with her parents for four years. Her uncle then told her that she had to marry, so she married a second time. Her first husband then came back and had her and her husband arrested for adultery, and she was imprisoned. In her case and that of other women, there was no option but to take the children into prison as well.

The international community is making real efforts to support the development of the judicial process, and it is trying to ensure that women are not imprisoned for their own security, as the police chief described it at the time. Having committed sex crimes, those women were at risk of being murdered by their own families. That is a very delicate and difficult situation.

Many women also told me that when crimes were committed against them, they could not go to the police because they were unsympathetic and completely unwilling to address the needs of women, especially those who had been beaten by male family members. Amnesty International recently produced a report outlining the horrific experiences still being suffered by so many Afghan women. Many are still subject to forced marriages. We all accept arranged marriages; different cultures have different means of organising marriage. An arranged marriage is the norm; forced marriage is quite different. Under sharia law, the settling of village disputes through the gift of a girl from one family to another, supposedly offended family is not uncommon. The women whom I know in Afghanistan want that issue to be addressed.

We need to do what we can to ensure that a gender-sensitive judicial process is developed and that the police have specific gender training. Of course, women should be recruited to the police service and to the army. The Minister is familiar with UN resolution 1325, in which we pledge to involve women in post-conflict situations and in reconstruction. I have already asked about the staffing; I hope that there will be women in the provincial reconstruction teams. If we are trying to influence security and the operation of justice, we need women in those teams who can talk specifically to women.

One important feature of the development of, and support for, rights for women in Afghanistan has been the involvement of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA. It has done superb work. When I was there, the gender adviser to Mr. Brahimi was the key to bringing together women's organisations in Kabul and further afield. That was developing swiftly. Unfortunately, the woman who held that post subsequently left and it remains vacant. In this critical period of the progress towards elections, the post of gender adviser to UNAMA must be filled. I hope that the Minister will make inquiries about why that key post has been left vacant for so long.

Like many people who are concerned about Afghanistan, I believe that the most serious challenges are to do with security, the rights of women and, in particular, the capacity building that is taking place but which needs to be increased. The British Council is now playing a significant role in support of that. Womankind, a British non-governmental organisation, is also supporting it. However, much more needs to be done, and I urge the Minister to examine seriously every aspect of our support for reconstruction and democracy in Afghanistan so that we can see precisely how we are delivering for women on the agenda that they have set. Only a week ago, 500 women marched through Mazare-Sharif to highlight the right of women to vote. I hope that the PRT noticed that. Afghan women are visible and active, and we must respond.

Do the Government agree with the UN Secretary-General that there should be a new Bonn conference so that the international community can try to move forward on many of the issues that I have mentioned and to which the Secretary-General is particularly committed—the progress towards democracy and the enhancement of security? I would be interested to know what is the Government's view on that. I do not have a view, but that has been proposed and it could be important. I believe that I am correct in thinking that the moneys pledged by the international community to the reconstruction of Afghanistan amount to less than what our country alone has spent on the war in Iraq. As donor conferences keep recurring, it may be necessary to take the process forward through something as significant as a second Bonn conference.

4.38 pm
Mr. Gareth Thomas

I say again that I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for allowing this debate to take place. The quality of the debate has been excellent, even though we have been few in number. There is broad agreement among all hon. Members who have spoken about the scale of the challenge that remains in Afghanistan. I am an optimist about its future.

Mr. Brazier

The Minister is right to say that there is consensus about that. However, I want to add my support to the request of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake): the next time we have an important debate of this sort, the Government should take the trouble to send notification to the various interested parties so that they would have more opportunity with regard to briefing.

Mr. Thomas

I shall reflect on that. When debates are advertised in the usual way in the House, they often attract considerable publicity. I can only think that, sadly, other events this week have detracted from this debate. However, I will reflect on the comments of the hon. Members for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and for Carshanlton and Wallington.

We should celebrate the progress that has been made in the two years since the end of the Taliban regime. Of course I recognise that that progress has been from an extremely low base. We will have to continue to support Afghanistan over the long term if the challenges that we have discussed are to be properly addressed, and I am completely convinced that the Government will want to do so.

Many hon. Members took the opportunity in the debate to praise the leadership that President Karzai showed to the Afghan people. I join them in echoing that sentiment, and also in praising the contributions of a number of other Ministers in the Afghan Government who have shown real and remarkable leadership. I am thinking in particular of the Finance and Interior Ministers, who are doing a superb job. The one sour note, which shall touch on briefly, was the hon. Member for Canterbury's suggestion that co-operation across Whitehall had been poor in terms of preparation and for post-conflict Afghanistan. I completely reject that suggestion; the provincial reconstruction teams are a classic example of effective, joined-up government working.

Mr. Brazier

With respect, that is not quite what I said. I said that forward planning by DFID had been poor, compared to earlier operations such as that in Kosovo. Once the combat phase was over, co-operation was very good.

Mr. Thomas

Also with the greatest respect, post-conflict preparation was not poor. The fact that so much progress has been made in such a short time is a tribute to the work of the staff in my and other Departments across Whitehall, and the way we have worked effectively with other international agencies and donor countries.

Clearly the security issue is the major challenge, and hon. Members are absolutely right to flag up just how serious that situation is in the south and the east of the country. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked me specifically about the number of troops, and whether extra troops are needed. I entirely accept that extra troops would be extremely useful, but we also need to ask whether there is more we can do with existing troops. NATO, which is taking the lead on this issue, is looking to raise additional resources such as soldiers and an expansion of the support infrastructure for those soldiers. The decision of the Germans to establish another provincial reconstruction team in Konduz is one example of the success of NATO's work; over 300 new troops will be coming online.

Tom Brake

If NATO does make a specific request for additional troops, will the UK Government be minded to provide the same?

Mr. Thomas

We continue to hold discussions with our colleagues in NATO and elsewhere, and to monitor the situation. As I say, we have troops stationed in PRTs providing security in Kabul, and we have looked at how those troops are tasked. We will continue to discuss with the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and other partners within ISAF what else we can usefully do regarding security.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington also took issue with the effectiveness of the PRTs. I join my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) in expressing surprise that he should want to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) mentioned the success of the British PRT in securing a ceasefire between the militias of General Dostum and General Atta, but the British PRT has had more successes; for example, its presence has enabled the Afghan police to deploy from Kabul into the area around Mazar, helping to establish a sense of security on the streets and in the rural areas. That, in turn, is enabling other reconstruction work to take place.

Tom Brake

I simply want to clarify the fact that I was quoting information I had received from an organisation that was active on the ground in Afghanistan. If the Minister is confident that the PRTs are delivering the goods, presumably he can demonstrate that by comparing the effectiveness of the work that the NGOs used to do with that of the PRTs.

Mr. Thomas

I am grateful for the clarification. It is not a question of either the PRTs or the NGOs operating in Mazar. To take our PRT as an example, the adviser who is seconded to it is tasked with providing a measure of communication in the Mazar area between those seeking to provide security and those engaged in reconstruction. I am confident about the success and effectiveness of our PRT because of the strength of the communication—facilitated by our adviser—between it and the NGOs. The fact that more than 50 NGOs are operating in the area is testimony to the security that our troops and our PRT have helped to deliver.

Some of my officials who work in Afghanistan are being deployed to other PRTs, to help to spread the lessons that we have learned from the success of the British PRT in Mazar. That is further confirmation of its value.

Joan Ruddock

One of the concerns that I have heard from NGOs is different from that of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. The worry that has been expressed to me is that, where there is a combination of military people enforcing security and delivering assistance, all of them may form a target for those who wish to engage in warfare. Thus, aid workers from NGOs become targets because of the confusion that arises as to a possible dual mandate. Can the Minister tell us that that has had no effect? It would be helpful if he could.

Mr. Thomas

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. The communication that our development adviser attached to the British PRT has been able to generate between those who provide the security and those who seek to do the reconstruction is having a positive effect. Sadly, however, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham said, it is clear that, apart from any confusion that may exist with the military, aid workers are being deliberately targeted by Taliban and al-Qaeda people. They are seen as a soft target. That is the real issue for NGOs—and for those who support them, including ourselves—rather than any question of confusion with the PRT.

My final point in terms of security is that, on top of the work of PRTs, the Afghan Government are seeking to establish a programme of works to stabilise districts throughout the country, including in the south and east, and to ensure that the courthouses and police stations—out of which the Afghan police and judiciary can operate—are in place. We are working with the Afghan Government to consider the support that we can give, in terms of design and financial support, to complement such a programme. That is a further step towards providing the better security that nobody would deny is necessary.

Every hon. Member touched on the issue of drugs. The picture seems bleak when one considers the statistics, but one note of optimism is the fact that poppy growth and production have declined in areas where security has become more effective. That reinforces not only the importance of security for Afghanistan's general development, but the basic need to ensure security before we continue to tackle the illicit drugs trade. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked whether the target of complete elimination in 10 years is realistic. It is right to have that target, because it imposes pressures and challenges on all Departments, which in turn enable us to focus our work with the Afghan Government and other donors. We know that the target is challenging from our experience with Pakistan and Thailand, where it took a long time to eliminate the drugs trade, but we can learn lessons from those experiences. If we continue to increase the sense of security around Afghanistan and to develop the alternative livelihoods to which hon. Members, including me, referred, we can be confident that the 10-year target will be achievable.

A number of hon. Members mentioned voter registration and whether elections will take place. We continue to be optimistic that elections can take place on time this year, particularly the presidential elections. Electoral registration began in eight regional centres in December and is due to move to rural areas in some months. So far just over half a million Afghans have enrolled to vote, with women comprising 100,00 of that number, which is some 22 per cent. That indicates the challenge that registering women poses, because of voter intimidation, which prevents women from registering, especially in rural areas, and some cultural issues. The United Nations remains confident that it can meet its goal of registering 10 million Afghan voters, but I acknowledge the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford made. We need to continue to focus on ensuring that woman are registered to vote and can play their full part in the democratic process.

Tom Brake

On voter registration, are the Government, if they take any view at all, seeking for 10 million Afghans to be registered as a target for the elections to be considered legitimate?

Mr. Thomas

We have not set a target. We are seeking to support the UN and the Afghans to get as many people registered as can be. I hope that we can go beyond 10 million. As I said earlier, we have already provided £3 million to help fund the voter registration drive. Were the UN to tell us that a lack of resources meant that voter registration would not be as complete as we would have liked, we would consider providing further financial support to make things happen. That is how seriously we take the issue.

Financial flows were a concern of the hon. Member for Canterbury and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford. Over five years, we have committed £320 million, half of which has already been spent. We are considering what other financial support we can provide in this financial year and in the longer term.

I met Finance Minister Ghani almost two weeks ago to discuss Afghanistan's financial needs for the coming financial year. We also looked ahead to the conference in March, when the international community will focus on those needs and on the issues that my hon. Friend mentioned in respect of the country's general political development. I am sure that the rights of women will also feature strongly in the discussions.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington made some specific points about money being given to NGOs as opposed to the Afghan Government. The vast majority of aid continues to go directly to implementing agencies, be they UN bodies or NGOs, and not to the Afghan Government. Indeed, only 20 per cent. of aid goes through the Government. Clearly, it will make sense gradually to scale up that amount as they develop the capacity to spend the money effectively on police salaries, health, education or whatever. The crucial point is that they should spend it on their priorities. Although I acknowledge the work of NGOs, they inevitably have an impact only in the areas where they work. They can demonstrate good practice, but we want the Afghan Government to have the capacity to decide their priorities for themselves. We want their reach to extend to all areas so that they can provide services that they want to provide.

The hon. Gentleman asked about HIV/AIDS. The initial estimate by the Ministry of Health in Afghanistan is that there are 300 cases, of which 22 have been confirmed. The World Health Organisation is conducting its own assessment, but it is not yet complete. We have committed £2 million to the WHO, which will, in part, support that assessment. A national AIDS control programme for Afghanistan was launched in June last year, and several donors are coming together to determine what else needs to be done in the fight against AIDS and perhaps to ensure that some problems that exist in other parts of Asia do not develop in Afghanistan.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford spoke about the position of women, and I completely endorse her opening point. There are clearly some remarkable women in Afghanistan, who were able to defy the Taliban and who continue to campaign, in the teeth of intimidation, for women's rights. Although the lack of security and of the rule of law affects everyone in Afghanistan, it inevitably has a particular impact on women.

The social and cultural barriers to which my hon. Friend alluded, and on which the Taliban based their discrimination against women, continue to exist in many scenarios and in many communities. The international community must continue to support women's organisations that are campaigning hard against such barriers. On occasions, we must be able to raise our concerns over how things are going.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the figures for maternal mortality. We are funding several international organisations, which are taking the lead on health issues, and we will continue to consider what else we can do on the issue.

I agree with my hon. Friend that good progress has been made but that there is a massive unmet need in terms of women's education. It is encouraging that the primary schools that are opening are allowing older children and, in some cases, women to enrol. That is good news, but the fact that so many women are still illiterate is a source of concern and a challenge to the international community. Another point of optimism is that universities have started to reopen and are clearly admitting young women too.

My Department has given some £700,000 to UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, which is focusing on the development of women's leadership in Afghanistan, providing support to the Ministry of Women's Affairs. The Ministry is looking at the issues of livelihoods for women, increasing the involvement of women in local development councils and increasing income generation opportunities for women in all sorts of ways.

My hon. Friend also asked me about the optional protocol, which we have not yet signed. Although my Department does not have the lead on that area, I will bring her concerns to the attention of my colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry, who do. She also asked whether my Department employs Afghan women. We have seven staff in our Afghan office, three of whom are women. Not only is our ambassador in Afghanistan a woman, but so is the Foreign Office lead in our PRT in Mazar-e-Sharif. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.

When it comes to the desertion of troops from the Afghan national army, my hon. Friend's concerns are broadly right. I cannot comment on the exact number of deserters. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham acknowledged in his audacious last intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford, we believe that that is about not finance, but the quality of those encouraged by militia leaders to join the Afghan national army in the first place. We do not believe that it will be a problem in the future.

The issue of getting salaries to those in key positions in the army and the police is clearly a major concern. One of the issues that we have grappled with is providing support to the Ministry of Finance to ensure that it can get the salaries of policemen and the army to those stationed a long distance from Kabul. We have had some success, but I acknowledge that there is further work to do.

Tom Brake

I would like to make a final point on the issue of girls schools. I referred to a number of attacks in various provinces, and asked the Minister whether the UK or Afghan Governments were involved in any specific initiatives to improve security at girls schools so that girls are not deterred by violence from attending school.

Mr. Thomas

I re-emphasise that we do not need to see security in specific places to deal with specific situations; we need an improvement in security per se. That is why we are seeking to extend the PRTs and are considering the district stabilisation programme that the Afghan Government want to bring forward. That is why we are training an Afghan army and an Afghan police force. We are working with our international partners to achieve that, so that not only girls who are educated in girls schools but others who want to get on with their lives, who my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham referred to, can do so safe in the knowledge that there is a secure environment in which they can live. We are not there yet; the situation is massively better than it was in November 2001, but there is an awful lot more to do, as all the speeches this afternoon have acknowledged. My Department and the Government remain committed to doing what we can alongside our international partners to achieve the progress that we know is necessary.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Five o 'clock.

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