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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 17 June 2008

[David Taylor in the Chair]

Helmand Province

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

9.30 am

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor. I thank Mr. Speaker for allowing this important debate. Britain is at war, and we have spent too little time discussing and scrutinising what the Government are up to. I also thank the Minister and his team.

I start by paying tribute to our troops who have died in Afghanistan, their families, the injured and those who remain in the Helmand desert.

On 11 September 2001, the west had the sympathy of the vast majority of people in the Muslim world, who were against attacks carried out by a load of nihilist extremists. In the days following those attacks, western Governments—including our own—realised the enormity of the problem that we faced and within months had successfully defeated the Taliban and expelled al-Qaeda from its operating base there. Afghans literally danced in the streets in gratitude for their release from a mediaeval regime and from their hated Arab guests. At that point, there was a massive opportunity to make progress and good will on the part of the Afghan people to accept foreign aid and development. Although General McColl managed to get a tiny £2 million for development from the Department for International Development, the reality in Whitehall was that we were not concentrating on Afghanistan or more generally on al-Qaeda. Instead, we were focusing on a crazy and quite unnecessary invasion of Iraq.

Despite our early success in toppling the Taliban, almost everything we did afterwards undermined the massive amount of good will we had across the Muslim world after 9/11. Today, al-Qaeda are no longer seen as a bunch of extremist crazies; they are, to some extent, seen as heroes fighting against what they perceive to be an arrogant west. I fully accept that—with the possible exception of Iraq—our Government have acted in good faith and realised the seriousness of our situation, but I also believe the way we have executed this operation has been incompetent and half-cocked.

An awful expression that does the rounds in Whitehall these days is, “We are where we are”. So, where are we now in Helmand province? There are 102 British dead and hundreds have been grievously wounded, many of whom would be dead were it not for modern protective equipment. That is why so many people survive but lose limbs. No one knows how many Afghan civilians have been killed and some say that 7,000 Taliban are dead. We should remember that those people are mostly local people with extended families. The Taliban’s in-country command and control is in bits and we have killed many of their experienced commanders and tribal leaders. We might think that that is a good thing, but a newer,
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younger, more radical group of leaders might be emerging who are less likely to negotiate. That means we are facing more asymmetric attacks.

Despite gigantic spending by the UK, minute amounts of reconstruction have taken place. Last year, there were only 57 doctors in Helmand for a population of more than 1 million people. We have been there for three years, so that has happened on our watch.

Where is the security? To the Afghan population, the most visible sign of the Afghan Government is the Afghan national police. We must do more to get the police under control, because at the moment we are not doing anywhere near enough. The roads and security infrastructure that we have built are often used to make it easier for the police to rob people. The other day, I spoke to an interpreter I used 18 months ago in Lashkar Gah: he told me that a teenager was recently abducted from his small settlement and returned in the most awful physical condition, having been repeatedly raped over three days.

Although the UK has taken the lead on narcotics, heroin production has massively increased. Many millions of small arms, well over 30,000 artillery rounds and probably 100,000 Apache rounds have been fired, but to what effect? I have not been to Helmand for more than a year, but I think I am the only person in the House who has been to Helmand outside the Ministry of Defence, Foreign Office and DFID envelope. I have been there a couple of times at my own expense to talk to and spend time with ordinary Afghans. Before we arrived in 2006, Helmand was a pretty quiet place. There were 40 US troops in the base at Lashkar Gah, and at that time I wandered around the town and asked people whether they welcomed the arrival of the British. They said, “If the British bring security and reconstruction, they are welcome, but if you cannot bring peace and development, you should go home.”

The Afghans themselves will decide who wins in Helmand and whether that will be the corrupt and frankly remote Afghan Government backed by the international community or the Taliban. It is incredibly important to focus on the needs of the ordinary Afghan, because the consent of the people is, in military terms, our vital ground. Three years after the arrival of UK forces, the Afghan civilian population can quite reasonably be disappointed. We still have their consent, but it has declined rapidly and markedly in the past three years. The Afghan people do not want the Taliban back, but that does not mean they will support us.

On the military, when Colonels Worsley and Messenger were busy setting up the provincial reconstruction team and Camp Bastion, others were busy—mainly in Kandahar—writing a joint plan for Helmand province. When 3 Para and Stuart Tootal arrived they were accompanied by a huge logistical chain. People were pretty confident that there would be enough troops to secure the area around Lashkar Gah and implement the plan—the ink-spot strategy—whereby development could take place and reconstruction would slowly spread across the province.

General Omar Bradley said that amateurs talk tactics, but professionals talk logistics. At the weekend, a modern British general said to me that he would change that comment: he would say that professionals talk command and control. That was a problem we faced in summer 2006, when there was a massive deviation from what
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sounded like a pretty reasonable plan. That deviation has set the whole tone for Helmand ever since and has resulted in massive violence. Partly because of that, reconstruction and development have been minuscule.

In summer 2006, we found ourselves with an extremely confused command and control structure. There was the Government here, the chiefs of staff, the NATO command chain, a Canadian brigadier general in charge in Kandahar, a British 3-star in Kabul, a commander of the Helmand taskforce, and the commander of the British forces—the brigade commander for the Paras, who was in an ill-defined and difficult position. At the same time, there were a load of Afghan district governors around Helmand, the governor of Helmand himself, and President Karzai. Those were all conflicting interest groups.

The result of the lack of clear command and control was the decision to dump the Afghan development zone plan and move relatively small numbers of troops to remote locations in the Government district centres in northern Helmand. That turned what should have been a slowly spreading ink-spot strategy into a violently flicked ink splatter. The result of what is now known as the platoon house strategy has been the deaths of dozens of British servicemen and hundreds of civilians.

Inevitably, any thought of development was a low priority when the British were dealing with that very difficult military situation. At the time and since, a number of British officers have complained that although there were things that they could have been doing in those areas, they simply did not have the budget to do them. The number of troops that we had in the new situation was just too low to make them anything more than self-defending targets for the Taliban. Thousands of refugees were created, and the towns sustained large amounts of damage and ceased to function properly. That was hardly the security and reconstruction that the Afghan population had expected.

Later, the military realised that after the platoon house strategy, there was an urgent need to get on with the hearts and minds effort. That was an unintended consequence of the platoon houses. Perhaps not unreasonably, the civilian agencies, including DFID, considered development activity far too dangerous because of the violence. Over time, that has become a problem, born of the military’s view, which is still held, that the civilian effort in Helmand, particularly that of DFID, has failed them.

What of DFID? Even if the military had stayed with the plan and got everything right, there would still have been the difficulty that military personnel could never on their own solve the problem. NATO and our Government understand that all that the military can do is to provide the secure environment in which other things can happen and take effect. We talk an awful lot about the comprehensive approach—security, governance and reconstruction—and it sounds great, but a villager in Helmand could be forgiven for asking where that is and what the British were talking about.

Where is the reconstruction in Helmand? The British effort falls largely to DFID, but that is not an organisation charged with supporting the military effect. It likes to remind us that it is charged by law with the higher purpose of poverty reduction. Its whole philosophy and
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method of operation means that it is simply not geared to support military operations. As one senior officer put it,

That statement came this weekend from a very senior serving general. People can wag their heads, but that is the truth; it was said by a 3-star or 4-star general this weekend.

DFID believes that the best way to help a country is to support it with long-term initiatives. As one senior DFID official put it to a friend of mine,

DFID is not there for such initiatives; instead, it wants to undertake long-term projects working with Government Ministries. That is fine in theory, but in Helmand we do not have the time for that. DFID is simply not configured to do what the major on the ground needs to be done before, during or after military operations. It is not configured to help that major to regain hearts and minds.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. Does he agree that there is a sad degree of repetition in this debate? Just a few years ago, when we had the debates on the invasion of Iraq, we were repeatedly assured that DFID would be there, just behind the armed forces, and that reconstruction would take place in Iraq. Is it not sad to hear exactly the same story about what is taking place in another country a few years later?

Mr. Holloway: Of course it is a tragedy, but as I will go on to say, we cannot blame the DFID staff for it. The problem is systemic.

Mr. Brazier: It is the Government.

Mr. Holloway: Indeed. To follow on from what my hon. Friend says, it was under huge pressure that DFID put people into the provincial reconstruction team in Lashkar Gah, but since they arrived there, they have found it hard to leave the compound. When they do, it is mainly to visit the provincial capital, where the PRT sits. According to another friend of mine, many projects are evaluated on the basis of digital photographs taken by the military. According to a parliamentary answer, the cost of keeping an official in Helmand is £250,000 a year. Of course, a large component of that is security. I accept that some of the work is highly impressive—it ought to be, given the money that is spent. I also accept the commitment of DFID staff, who try to do the right thing.

Another very experienced person I spoke to, who is not entirely unknown to the FCO’s payroll, said,

Someone else, who is well known to DFID staff in Afghanistan, described their working arrangements as “ludicrous, completely ludicrous”, as they work six weeks on, two weeks off.

I should like to hear later whether the Minister agrees with that assessment and that the working pattern should be changed.

The Minister has had a team of people working on this debate, and I am sure that when he speaks he will list all the wonderful achievements of DFID in Helmand, but unfortunately many people, certainly in the military, would not agree. Anyway, even if we have carried out a gazillion projects successfully in Helmand, what does that really matter if ordinary Afghans do not feel that we have made a difference to their lives?

A friend of mine recently turned down a job working in the PRT. She said that there was no point in going there because she did not feel that she would be able to achieve anything. She said:

I think that DFID is sending or has sent about 40 new people to reinforce the civilian effort. It will be interesting to see whether that large influx of people makes a difference. I hope that it does, but I do not know. It may be too late.

Why have we not pumped money into the Afghan and international non-governmental organisations that do exist? Why have we not stepped up the cash-for-work schemes? Why have we not made more use of the local village shuras and got stuff in at ground level? What about the national development programme or the unused capacity of the Bangladeshi charity? Perhaps that is why the Minister is going to Bangladesh later today; I do not know. The Central Asia Development Group has just finished a major project for USAID—the United States Agency for International Development—and has bags of capacity right across the province; why are we not paying it to do some of the work? Why are we not using private companies that will take the risk? I am talking not about men with gun trucks, but about people who can get out a little further. They can be directed by DFID staff inside the PRT. The Germans are doing very well in this respect. Why can we not try to persuade the Germans to get down there and do some of the work? I hope that the Minister will have some answers to these questions.

The new brigade commander in Helmand, the razor-sharp and remarkable Mark Carleton-Smith, went out to Helmand a few months ago, determined to change the focus from dealing with the Taliban to dealing with the needs of the Afghan people. I have no idea whether his initiative is responsible, but I have the feeling that a shake-up is going on in Whitehall on precisely this question of what we do with the civilian effect. Unlike the Minister, I do not have chapter and verse on what DFID has been doing in those years, but I do know that a shake-up is taking place. I shall give the House a taste of it.

For example, the Prime Minister’s delivery unit is reviewing public service agreements on conflicts and reporting to permanent secretaries. A stabilisation and civil effect review has been set up by the Cabinet Office, and the taskforce will report to permanent secretaries on 1 July and to Ministers in September. A couple of
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things that have been a particular focus for them are specific questions on staffing in the Helmand PRT and risk management for personnel, and the feasibility of producing a framework that incorporates the FCO and the MOD. I would like to hear the Minister’s view of that. The Government are also considering setting up a civilian reserve corps, and a cross-Government capacity for interpretation and translation.

I do not complain that the Government seem at last to have woken up to the fact that there are problems. I do not complain that new staff are heading out there. I do not complain about DFID staff, or that the Government have belatedly sent one their most able people—Hugh Powell—to Lashkar Gah. That was long overdue. However, I complain bitterly on behalf of our troops sitting in the Helmand desert, in the green zone and in remote locations, and I complain bitterly on behalf of the Afghan civilian population, who had such high hopes of us.

I wonder what on earth the Government have been doing. The Defence and International Development Committees go out there regularly. Every time we are given the same good news story, but it is not reflected on the ground. It is like smoke and mirrors, with everyone lying and deluding themselves. That is certainly how it feels from my perspective. As one Government employee put it to me yesterday:

It is bad enough that, on the home front, money is wasted and spin machines come into action, and that ideas are not executed properly or were half-cocked in the first place. The Government saw great opportunities and important things that needed to be done, such as spending more money on the NHS and health and the new deal, and they won that argument massively. But the problem is that the same arts used when confronting failure here are also applied to Helmand province, and I am sorry to say that the matter is too serious for that.

It may be against Conservative party policy, but I believe that it is time for DFID to come back under the control of the Foreign Office, becoming once again an arm of British foreign policy. The lessons of history tell us that we need unity of command for counter-insurgency. The NATO set-up lacks coherence, and even in Britain people have often not been conducting a single policy. It is time to adopt the Templar model from Malaysia. We need an overarching boss to be in charge, and a committee system. Even in Whitehall, no one is in charge. It could be argued that we have Cabinet Government. Fine, but where is the War Cabinet? As I shall say later, this policy has potentially catastrophic effects for people in Britain.

Let us not kid ourselves. We have been there for three years, but an awful lot of people in Helmand are disappointed, and some of them are pretty angry with us. One of our commanders described it as a

It is like an aeroplane, but we need to watch out or the plane will land. Does the Minister agree?

What should we do? I have focused on Helmand province, but I fully acknowledge that the picture is not gloomy everywhere, that large areas of Afghanistan are at relative peace and that reconstruction development is taking place. However, I guess we should expect that, given the hundreds of billions dollars of taxpayers’ money from across the world being spent there.

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