Kabul Conference

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Wednesday 21st July 2010

(13 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Hansard Text
Lord Howell of Guildford Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, with permission, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows.

“Mr Speaker, with permission, I will make a Statement on the outcome of the Kabul conference and on progress in Afghanistan.

My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister today paid his respects to the four servicemen to die in Afghanistan in the past week. They died in the service of their country and the whole House will join me in expressing its gratitude to them and the British forces in Afghanistan. The past month has been a difficult one, but we should not lose sight of what has been achieved since the London conference on Afghanistan six months ago.

I would not want to minimise in any way to the House the immense challenges that we and our allies continue to face in Afghanistan, or the difficulties and dangers we continue to encounter on a daily basis. Bringing security and stability to Afghanistan remains an exceptionally demanding task for the men and women of our Armed Forces, our diplomatic service, and those involved in development. Their work is rarely less than outstanding on a daily basis. There will continue to be setbacks and discouragements, even while progress is being made. We must therefore always guard against over-optimism, but we must equally guard against listening only to bad news or failing to notice the millions of Afghans who want us to succeed.

In the past six months, our troops have consolidated their position in Helmand, taken the fight to the Taliban and trained hundreds of Afghan troops; our diplomats and aid workers have worked with Afghan colleagues to promote a more inclusive political process and intensify our work, including on education and governance; and the Government of Afghanistan have acted on their London commitments and drawn together for the first time a cross-government strategy to deliver widespread reform.

As the Prime Minister said, our objective is a stable Afghanistan able to maintain its own security and prevent al-Qaeda from returning, so that within five years we can drawdown British combat troops.

The NATO objective in Afghanistan is simple—to assist the Government of Afghanistan in exercising their authority and influence across the country, paving the way for reconstruction and effective governance. This requires the protection of the population, the provision of more effective governance at every level and the creation of an Afghan security force able to maintain security and prevent the return of Al-Qaeda. This is the strategy that UK forces are helping to implement, through their training and partnering of Afghan troops, and their efforts to create the opportunity for more effective local governance in central Helmand. General Petraeus, the newly appointed commander of ISAF, has made clear that this remains his approach.

Together with my right honourable friend the International Development Secretary, I attended the Kabul conference yesterday, following visits I made to China, Japan and Oman. Some 40 Foreign Ministers and international organisations—including the UN, NATO, the EU and the World Bank—attended, in what was an unprecedented event for Afghanistan. It was also unprecedented in the number of Muslim partners represented at such a conference. It showed the world that Afghanistan is increasingly able to run its own affairs, and was a further step in the process of transition from direct international military and civil intervention to Afghan leadership.

The conference issued a communiqué agreed among all participants, which builds on the progress made in the last six months. It establishes the Kabul process, an Afghan-led process which aims to accelerate Afghanistan’s ability to govern itself with accountable government, reduce dependence on the international community, enhance its security forces and provide better protection for the rights of all its citizens. This is a single implementation plan for the coming years. International donors including Britain have committed themselves to realign their funding behind the Kabul process. This is a significant achievement for a country as beset by conflict and poverty as Afghanistan. The Kabul process holds out the prospect of a more secure future for Afghans.

The Afghan Government made yesterday a number of important commitments: to concentrate efforts on a limited number of national programmes and projects to transform the lives of people and reinforce the relationship between state and citizens; to have Afghan security forces take the lead on security throughout the country by 2014 and to set up an Afghan NATO board to analyse whether provinces are ready to begin the transition process; to create a lean, effective and appropriately paid public service, retiring those civil servants who are unable to perform or are not needed in a renewed and revitalised civil service; to ensure that the wealth generated from the mining sector is invested to benefit future generations; to require new national development programmes to be designed with international partners to ensure the highest standards of accountability and transparency; to amend the criminal law to increase penalties for the failure to disclose assets and to take to trial Ministers and other high-ranking officials who do not comply; to strengthen the High Office of Oversight for Government Accountability and the Major Crimes Task Force in order to tackle corruption; to establish a commission to find ways to bring together the public and private sectors to stimulate accelerated economic growth; to work with parliament to strengthen its constitutionally mandated role; to improve financial management and agree a system with donors in order to allow more donor funds to be channelled through the Afghan budget.

This Afghan plan will be supported by the UK Government and by international partners. On 10 June, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced an additional £200 million in funding to promote stability and development over the next four years. My right honourable friend the International Development Secretary will set out further details on this in a Written Ministerial Statement tomorrow.

Britain will intensify and reinvigorate our development efforts, increasing the pace of work and the achievement of specific results, in line with the Government of Afghanistan’s priorities. We will work closely with the Afghans, the United States and others to accelerate the stabilisation effort in central Helmand and the 81 key districts targeted under the ISAF plan. We will work with others to ensure the successful implementation of the agreed peace and reintegration programme and help to support the forthcoming elections, and we will invest in improving the quality and effectiveness of the police. Our overall aim is speeding up the pace of transition to Afghan security leadership.

We will also support the Afghan economy and help new jobs through investment in mining, roads, power and irrigation, and by bringing community-driven development to isolated areas of the country. We will help the Government of Afghanistan to deliver vital services and to tackle corruption, providing increased support for education, including technical and vocational training, and for the administration of justice.

Our international partners have committed themselves to do their part to support the Kabul process. Afghanistan’s near neighbours will work to accelerate regional economic co-operation. An important milestone was reached in the days before the conference with the conclusion of the Afghanistan-Pakistan trade transit agreement. This much desired economic measure has taken some 40 years to achieve.

The Kabul process is a major step forward for Afghanistan and an important staging post in Afghanistan’s development. There remains more to do, notably in the areas of governance. Measures to enforce transparency, anti-corruption and accountability have slipped and need to be brought back on track as soon as possible.

We will pursue this and other issues as part of the follow-up to the conference. The Kabul process contains strengthened review mechanisms, which include a more robust Joint Co-ordination and Monitoring Board in Kabul and an overarching annual assessment, which will report to an annual Kabul ministerial conference. My department, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development will be closely involved in that process.

The Kabul conference has established a road map for more professional, functioning and mature institutions. There will be other important milestones this year, including parliamentary elections, the NATO Lisbon summit and President Obama’s review. Her Majesty’s Government will build on these steps to help to put in place the conditions for a stable, secure and increasingly prosperous Afghanistan”.

That concludes the Statement.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Howell of Guildford Portrait Lord Howell of Guildford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her considerable number of very important questions. I shall do my best to answer them, taking them in the order in which she raised them.

A functioning justice system is vital—the noble Baroness is completely correct about that—and we welcome the progress which the Afghan Government have made already in crucial areas of justice reform. We are working with the Afghan Government to clarify how they intend to drive forward progress, and with the wider international community, including the European Union—which the noble Baroness rightly raised and reminded me of—to establish how best we can support justice reform in Afghanistan. This is a vital area. I leave no one in any doubt about that.

The noble Baroness said that no mention was made of the parliamentary elections. I thought that there was a mention but, if there was not, I will say now that they are coming up. I shall check the Statement in a moment—I have not had time while listening to all her questions. Obviously the elections are important and it is vital that they are conducted effectively and efficiently.

On the general question of objectives between now and 2015, there is a clear and firm commitment to work for the withdrawal of all combat troops by 2015. That was the clear statement by the Prime Minister yesterday and by other of his colleagues. Obviously after 2015 some troops will still be there for training purposes but that will be the end of the combat involvement. It seems more than reasonable—indeed it is a sensible and strategic task—to place that date. This is not a rush for the exit; it is nothing like that at all. This is a firm harness of pressure on both the Karzai Government and the Taliban underlining the fact that there will be an exact and organised timetable up to that period. It makes sense to have the firm date which has been agreed. Of course, there is a dovetailing with the plans of Mr Obama, which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister discussed with him yesterday.

The noble Baroness asked about Taliban negotiations. Our view is that there are Taliban moderates—that not all Taliban are extremists. We support any moves which President Karzai makes in making contact with them if they are people who commit to the overall framework of a unified Afghan nation and to the conduct of that nation in a civilian, non-violent and democratic way. If they are prepared to talk, we support President Karzai making contact with them.

The noble Baroness asked about the need for a firm plan. The Kabul process, which my right honourable friend has worked on in the past two days, is the transition plan. The long list of commitments that I read out in the Statement made by my right honourable friend describes the bones of the plan. Obviously one cannot work out exactly to the minute at which point different bits will be achieved, but here is a very detailed set of commitments which will be monitored.

The noble Baroness then turned to the immensely important issue of women’s rights, and she is absolutely correct to lay emphasis on this. The conference communiqué contained clear commitments on women’s rights, including implementing a national priority programme for human rights and civic responsibilities, mainstreaming gender equality across all programmes, and undertaking a human rights, legal awareness and civic education programme targeting communities across Afghanistan.

The noble Baroness is not right in saying that there were no representatives of women’s organisations at the conference. Representatives of civil society, including women’s organisations, were at the conference and presented a statement to participants on behalf of civil society organisations including women’s groups. In addition, a separate conference on women’s rights was organised by the Afghan women’s movement, which was attended by around 200 women from all 34 provinces in Afghanistan and played a key role in contributing to the civil society statement made at the conference. So, although I totally understand her concerns and priorities, I hope she will accept that the problem is at least recognised and is of course vital and central. There can be no balanced future for this nation without the role of women being fully and properly recognised in building that future.

I think that that covers most of the noble Baroness’s points. On the question of how the extra moneys will be spent, I cannot give precise details at this point, but a system has been set up to monitor them very carefully indeed. We are determined to see that there is no filtering away of these funds into corrupt practices or dubious activities. We will make absolutely sure that they are spent in effective programmes in line with what I know will be the wishes of your Lordships and indeed of the whole British people.

Baroness D'Souza Portrait Baroness D'Souza
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. May I, on behalf of the Cross Benches, offer profound sympathies to bereaved families and, once again, pay tribute to the courage of the forces fighting in the south of the country?

I would like to ask two very brief questions. First, in view of very recent events—the killing of soldiers—what measures are being taken to prevent and/or weed out any Taliban presence in the Afghan national army? The second question, which the Minister certainly alluded to, is what new measures will now be taken as a result of the Kabul conference to ensure that aid is actually used to build and improve infrastructure in the form of transport, health and education facilities?

Lord Howell of Guildford Portrait Lord Howell of Guildford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness both for her questions and, indeed, for the brevity of her questions.

Of the tragedies which we have seen in recent times, the appalling killing of military personnel, very tragically including three British soldiers, by a member of the Afghan forces was a horror. There have been other incidents of a similar kind, but I think that my answer has to be that there is no question of this being a general problem. It does not in any way deter us from the overriding commitment of moving forward to the transition and enabling a proper, well-trained Afghan force, and indeed Afghan police force, to take over the security of their own country. However, there has to be very careful monitoring and watching to make sure that this kind of tragedy does not occur. It is something that one just has to watch for. There can never be any guarantee that personnel will not somehow be perverted, twisted or lose control of themselves and do terrible things; but the whole system is being very carefully monitored and watched, and we hope and pray and work to ensure that it does not happen again.

As to the destinations of aid, these can be tightened up. Of course there have been criticisms that not all aid is reaching the right points. We have strengthened a number of the monitoring processes, and they will be even more strengthened as a result of the Kabul conference in order that we may continue with the infrastructure development, which has gone on apace. We should not underestimate the fantastic things that have been done in the years since the original invasion. I shall share with your Lordships one figure that quite surprised me when I looked at some of the briefing for today. The Afghan economy is growing incredibly fast—last year it grew at 22.5 per cent. We could do with that kind of growth here.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Statement and welcome the £200 million in additional funding to support stability and development. I recognise that the Afghan Government, with our support, favour a broad dialogue with the Taliban—the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, spoke at some length today about what that means—but I wonder whether we are exercising leverage with Pakistan, which is critical to the success of our mission given the role of the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency in supporting the most violent and reactionary elements of the Taliban in terms of the reconciliation. Unless the Pakistanis lean on their friends to desist from disrupting the peace and reconciliation that there is, we are not going to get very far. I notice that the Foreign Secretary sets great store by the UK-Pakistan strategic dialogue. Does that include a security dimension, and are these talks happening in that format? Finally, will the Minister tell us whether the Prime Minister intends to appoint a new special envoy to Afghanistan given the departure of Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles? Surely a regional approach dealing with India, Pakistan and Afghanistan would be facilitated if we did not rely solely on the Americans and had our own sources of influence in those capitals.

Lord Howell of Guildford Portrait Lord Howell of Guildford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to my noble friend. On her second point, William Patey, a very able ambassador, is appointed to be our man in Kabul and fulfils that role. I had the pleasure of meeting him only two or three days ago when he was here. I was enormously impressed by his experience and grasp of the complexities. This is, in effect, not quite the replacement but the development of the role that Sherard Cowper-Coles had previously. He has now completed his assignment there.

Pakistan’s role is vital—my noble friend is completely correct. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has visited Pakistan and discussed in detail with the Pakistani leadership how we can work more closely together, how we can support them, and how in particular they can achieve their twin aims: to defeat—that is a strong word—the Taliban elements on their own territories and their side of the border; and to help contain—that is perhaps not quite such a strong word—the Taliban activities on the other side of the border in the Pashtun-related areas. This dialogue is crucial. Without sensible progress on that front, there will be no stabilisation in Afghanistan. That is why we place the highest priority on a very close dialogue with our Pakistan colleagues.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Portrait Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree with every word that the Minister said about William Patey. He is an excellent diplomat, one in whom we can have the utmost confidence. Perhaps I may remind the Minister that, on a recent occasion when we discussed this issue, he assured the House that the 2015 date was not a “deadline”. It now seems that it is a firm date. It is a bit hard to discriminate between a firm date and a deadline. The problem is the implied comfort that it gives to the Taliban.

Can the Minister tell us what action is being taken in relation to Yemen? There is a genuine fear that the Taliban are melting away in the way that Osama bin Laden has evaded all capture over recent years, however hard the allied forces have tried. The Taliban will melt away into Yemen and will simply re-emerge after 2015. What can the Minister tell us about that?

I return to the point made by my noble friend Lady Kinnock. She did not say that there were no women at the conference. She said that the women at the conference did not feel that their concerns were being taken seriously. I can understand that. There are 10 important commitments in the Statement, but there is not a single mention of women, although the noble Lord in answering the question said that the issue was immensely important. If it is immensely important, why is it not mentioned properly and prominently in the Statement?

Women had a terrible time under the Taliban. We all remember those terrible newsreels of women being shot in the football stadium. The Government have to do better on bringing women’s points more to the fore. I would suggest that, among the many able women I see on the government Benches, it might be sensible to ensure that there is an envoy on women for Afghanistan so that we can be assured that women’s rights are being properly dealt with.

Lord Howell of Guildford Portrait Lord Howell of Guildford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The noble Baroness again raises a vital point and perhaps I may reassure her. The communiqué also develops and strengthens commitments made initially at the London conference in January to implement the national action plan for women and the elimination of violence against women in law. The noble Baroness probably took part in that very constructive conference. Certainly, I would be the first to recognise the valuable work done by the previous Government in creating that conference and in providing a foundation on which to build.

We welcome the Afghan Government’s continuing commitment to protect the human rights of the Afghan people, which is enshrined in the Afghan constitution and the national action plan for women. If it was not in the 10 commitments in my right honourable friend’s Statement, I will note that and see that it is pointed out in my department. It is certainly plumb in the middle of the communiqué, which is valuable.

As to what women’s organisations felt, I am sorry if I got that slightly wrong. I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, was saying that they were not represented, but she did not say that; she said that they were not satisfied. I obviously cannot comment on the state of satisfaction except to say that the endeavour was there and the realisation is there, as is the central importance of women’s role in all this. Given the horrors of women’s treatment in the past and the evil viciousness with which under Taliban rule girls’ schools were closed, women were abused and so on, this issue could not be other than absolutely central to the future. I emphasise that and I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, raised it again.

On the date by which combat troops will be withdrawn, I think that I said the other day—I am always ready for correction—that it was an aspiration. Perhaps that word was a little weak, because of course it remains an objective. However, one cannot in a thousand years be sure that everything will work exactly to plan. We just do not know. I think that the Deputy Prime Minister in another place made a point about it not necessarily being crystal clear or carved in concrete or whatever. That is our plan and our intention; it is the firm Kabul process and what it leads to.

As to the Taliban melting away and the old story that the Taliban disappears by day and comes back by night, one would not want to underestimate the fact that in the next five years—five years is a long time—there will not be a free ride for the Taliban. The combat troops—our marvellous troops—will continue to fight and to carry on their operations. The American surge army is still not complete. There are another 30,000 American troops to come. The Taliban will have a very hard time. If it thinks that at the end of five years it will be intact, it will have another think coming. I hope that that will reassure the noble Baroness to some extent on the important points that she raised.

Lord King of Bridgwater Portrait Lord King of Bridgwater
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there will be considerable sympathy in the House that he has to face these attacks over the incredibly difficult situation that this Government have inherited? I think that a more constructive approach would be generally welcome.

I quickly make the point that the noble Lord did not answer one question asked by the noble Baroness, which was whether there is any evidence that the Taliban has gone to Yemen. Al-Qaeda certainly has. Yemen is an extremely dangerous place. However, most of the Taliban who are killed by coalition forces are dying within 20 miles of where they were born. I strongly support the suggestion that the Government should not treat the Taliban as one uniform mass of hopeless people but recognise that in many cases the Taliban represents villages, different outlooks and different tribal backgrounds. We need to see whether we can establish a sensible dialogue with those who do not wish to see their country destroyed.

Undoubtedly, one of the most disappointing things relates to the amount of money that has gone—or was meant to go—into improving the condition of the people. Much of it has been wasted and or has not been possible to spend because of the lack of security. I welcome in the Statement the idea of concentrating on a few simple objectives so that the people of Afghanistan can see ringing benefits. In that connection, if we can concentrate on safe transport on main roads—so that people can get their goods to the market—electricity and water, people in Afghanistan will be able to see some real benefit coming from the brave work and tragedies that have gone into attempts to make the country secure.

This is going to cost a lot of money. One of our complaints in NATO is the lack of active military support from a lot of NATO members. Can I take it that those NATO members will at least be prepared to make substantial cash contributions to this continuing effort?

Lord Howell of Guildford Portrait Lord Howell of Guildford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my noble friend for his wise words. He is right, of course, that part of the battle is against young men who are near the homes where they were brought up, which makes it a local battle and not a nationwide battle at all. As to driving out al-Qaeda, there is evidence that there may be some al-Qaeda training units left in Afghanistan, but they have dispersed. People ask whether, in that case, we will look at other areas where they may have gone—Yemen, Somalia and so on. We have to watch these things carefully, but it is fairly clear that al-Qaeda is more dispersed and that the comfort that it originally had, using Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban for its operations, has been significantly disrupted to the benefit of our security and that of the wider world.

We are contributing more resources and we are looking to our allies to make similar contributions—obviously, the Americans are making a substantial contribution. We think that this money can be focused on the real needs of the Afghan people, although I repeat that we should not underestimate the fact that in some areas—not all—very remarkable progress has been made in recent years. There are signs of the return of real economic growth and growing prosperity for a people who have suffered very greatly in the past.

Lord Ramsbotham Portrait Lord Ramsbotham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I presume that the clearly stated NATO aim in the Statement applies also to all other countries that are at this moment helping and supporting Afghanistan. We hear quite a lot about Pakistan and its involvement but we hear little about India, yet there are reports of considerable and growing Indian influence within Afghanistan. Can the Minister tell the House whether India was represented at the Kabul conference and whether it is a signatory to the motives behind the NATO objective?

Lord Howell of Guildford Portrait Lord Howell of Guildford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am pretty sure that India was represented at the Kabul conference, as were the other regional powers. We are concerned to see that regional co-operation is strengthened. As to the particular documents that India signed, I will have to write to the noble Lord with the details, but clearly India is a key part in this. I have absolutely no doubt that, when my right honourable friends visit India in considerable numbers the week after next, this issue will be high on the agenda.

Lord Rowlands Portrait Lord Rowlands
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In order to help us to assess progress in the future, can the Minister tell the House in how many of the 34 provinces the Afghan Government’s writ effectively runs? When we talk about an Afghan Government, in how many of the provinces does that mean anything?

Lord Howell of Guildford Portrait Lord Howell of Guildford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I cannot say precisely because the situation is fluid and any figure that I hazarded for the noble Lord at this moment may well be wrong. Certainly the strategy is to increase the number steadily over the next five years. As each area becomes manageable under the Afghan authorities and Afghan security forces, it will be possible for the international military forces to run down. I cannot give him a precise, mathematical figure. I shall try to find out for him and send him a note about it.

Earl of Sandwich Portrait The Earl of Sandwich
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I welcome the Statement on the Kabul process but feel that an opportunity has been missed today. The Minister referred to the Written Statement that is to be issued, but why could we not have had a joint Statement on development and diplomacy at the same time? That would have given the Minister a better opportunity to reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, on the role of women and civil society.

I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord King, and point to the corruption that has occurred in large projects, many involving American security firms and people with whom the Afghans have nothing to do. If we are to have an Afghan-led process, must we not now concentrate on the non-governmental organisations, which are not mentioned today but will be in the Written Statement from DfID? I hope that the Minister will emphasise that to his ministerial colleagues.

Lord Howell of Guildford Portrait Lord Howell of Guildford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the noble Earl. My department is working extremely closely with DfID and the Ministry of Defence on all these matters. This was a question of the best method of informing both the other place and your Lordships’ House. It was deemed that the Foreign Secretary should set out the overarching details today, which I have repeated, and that other of my right honourable colleagues should set out the parts that they are going to play. I have no doubt that there will be Statements beyond the one from the Secretary of State for International Development. That is the way in which information will come forward. My Statement was long enough; if I had covered other departments’ aspects, your Lordships would have become a little weary. However, I take the point. This is an overarching and coherent strategy that runs across departments here and right across the scene in Afghanistan.

The question of sub-national governance activity is very important. The task force co-ordinated by the Afghan Independent Directorate of Local Governance and UNAMA and the sub-national governance policy passed by the Afghan Government in March are being strengthened. They are important steps towards strengthening local government and district delivery. The noble Earl touches on the even more fundamental point that, although in every one of these endeavours Governments can do great things and signatories can approve government documents, it is at the sub-governmental, semi-governmental, non-governmental and voluntary level that often the real weaving together of a better future is achieved.