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Double War? Double Catastrophe?

In a Westminster debate on Afghanistan earlier this week I warned about the dangers of the “Colombianisation” of Afghanistan.

Our troops have been given a “mission impossible” in the Helmand Province and our 5 year campaign to cut the heroin trade has spectacularly failed.It has resulted in the biggest poppy harvest ever and the lowest price of the drug on the streets of Britain. Disappointingly, Geoff Hoon MP failed to make any attempt to reply to the debate preferring to stick to his civil service brief.

Below is my contribution to the debate.


Paul Flynn: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in October 2001:

“We act because the al-Qaeda network and the Taliban regime are funded in large parts on the drugs trade. Ninety per cent. of all heroin sold on the streets of Britain originates from Afghanistan. Stopping that trade is directly in our interests.”

The hope that was shared by the Government and the Opposition, almost unanimously throughout the House, was that there could be a twin battle against the threat of terrorism and, rightly, against the Taliban and their mediaeval cruelty while also destroying the refuge that al-Qaeda had enjoyed in that country. They were seen to be worthwhile objectives and were supported almost unanimously throughout the House. We would have a twin campaign—a double war and a double victory.

We see now, however, that we have not secured a double victory but, if anything, a double catastrophe. We have been reminded of the drugs situation. Not only has Britain taken the lead, but the spending will increase to more than £200 million—we have spent more than £100 million already, £21 million of which has disappeared without trace and greatly antagonised the Taliban farmers. It was meant to be paid to them in compensation, but it disappeared in what for the past two centuries has been the endemically corrupt system of government in Afghanistan—there is a long history of that. Freedom of information investigations have turned up some of the documents that were needed for the Taliban farmers whose crops were destroyed in 2003 to receive the compensation due to them.

They have not received that compensation and they rightly feel cheated. In fact, the efforts that we made in destroying those crops gave a further inducement to those farmers to plant more crops. We find ourselves in the ridiculous situation where our actions there have not reduced the crops—production fell by 2 per cent. in the year before last, but it is now up by 60 per cent., to the highest it has ever been.

The idea was to stop the heroin on the streets of Britain, but if we go a few hundreds yards from this place, we can buy heroin more cheaply in real terms than at any time. That is utter, abject failure. As I said in my intervention on the right hon. Gentleman, even if we had successfully destroyed the entire crop, the supply of the heroin would not be affected—it might be affected temporarily, but that would only increase the price and thereby the crime on our streets. The reaction would be an immediate increase in cultivation in Laos, Myanmar and elsewhere in that string of countries, exactly as has happened in Colombia. We should have learned the lesson: America spent billions of dollars trying to destroy the crops in Colombia. It had some success in that it reduced Colombian production, but production greatly increased in Peru and Bolivia in keeping with the “squeezed balloon” principle.

A splendid report by Lord Birt and the strategy unit, published under freedom of information legislation, clearly makes the point: we cannot destroy the drugs problem on the supply side. We can do it only in other ways. The situation is one of abject, utter failure. The lives of British troops are being sacrificed to an impossible cause. As always, I praise the heroism and professionalism of our soldiers in Afghanistan; I have met some from my constituency. Given the combat that they face, they are doing a splendid job in circumstances as difficult as anything faced by soldiers for many years.

I turn to what has been happening recently. A short while ago in the House, I raised a question with the Secretary of State for Defence about the endemic corruption of the Karzai Government—not so much of Karzai himself. I am sure that he is a good and idealistic man, but he is running the country in the only way possible: by doing dirty deals, through bribery and by using an army of provincial governors and police chiefs. I asked the Secretary of State:

“With Karzai increasingly appointing warlords, ex-Taliban leaders, criminals and drug dealers as police chiefs and provincial governors, is not the likelihood that oppression by these provincial governors and police chiefs will greatly increase the danger to our soldiers?”

We are associated with that rotten Government. There was an election, so they are a democratic Government, but as a western democracy we would not recognise them as a fair Government. The Secretary of State gave me an interesting answer. In a bit of a cheap shot, about which I later wrote to him, he decided that I was attacking one man. I was not; I was attacking the generality. He referred to the only star, the only provincial governor about whom we could talk with pride. The Secretary of State said:

“My hon. Friend should be careful in what he says...The description he has given of the governance of Helmand is far from the truth.”

I did not mention Helmand in the question, but that is what he said. He continued:

“Governor Engineer Mohammad Daud is a very brave, committed and non-corrupt individual, which is why we want to support him so much. He is a force for good in Helmand province.”—[Official Report, 10 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 189.]

The Secretary of State was absolutely right and entirely fair, but last month Mohammad Daud was sacked. He is no longer the provincial governor of Helmand province; clearly, in that province there is no place, certainly in the Karzai Government, for someone with idealism who is non-corrupt. Mr. Daud could not survive there. Not only was Mr. Daud non-corrupt, but he achieved what has probably been the most promising success in Afghanistan by negotiating the deal that has brought temporary peace in Musa Qala. There is an interesting set-up there, which I think gives hope for the future.

Yes, we agree that there have been great gains in Afghanistan as far as women and education are concerned. However, it would be a mistake to believe that women are educated on the finer points of Plato’s “Republic” or the writings of Voltaire. They are educated in sharia law. There is no way of altering that; it is part of the culture of Afghanistan. The Taliban attacks on the schools and their murder of teachers and others involved is wickedness on a terrible scale. Of course we have to fight to try to stop that happening. However, do we have an attainable aim? Can we really do it? I believe that we can defend the gains that we have made around Kabul. For all the control that he has, Karzai is really the mayor of Kabul. The rest of Afghanistan is farmed out to warlords and provincial governors who still run the bulk of the country.

Since our February Westminster Hall debate on Afghanistan, we have been arguing about our going into Helmand province and trying to extend there. That was mission impossible; we cannot take control in that area. We can defend the gains around Kabul and use Karzai’s influence on the warlords, but that is the maximum that we can gain. That is not just my opinion. In our February debate, I gave a very pessimistic assessment of the situation and suggested that we were heading towards a British or NATO Vietnam.

Having heard suggestions that we should escalate the number of troops in the country, I am extremely worried that such a situation will come about, in which we are fighting not a traditional war between nations but an insurgency. We know the result of that from Chinese, US and French involvement in Vietnam and the humiliation of various other western nations with great sophisticated armies. I do not want to make too close a comparison with the Russians on this issue, but what is happening now was exactly forecast to me by a member of the Duma when we invaded in 2001.

At the moment, the hope of getting out with some dignity is the Musa Qala deal. I wrote to and asked the Secretary of State for Defence about that. I suggested to him that we had withdrawn British troops from Musa Qala, and that that had seemed a sensible thing to do. He said that we had not withdrawn the troops, but redeployed them. There is a subtle difference, perhaps; I do not know.

The Taliban are still in Musa Qala; they are inactive but present. We are not there, and a deal was done by the people who run the place so that they could recruit their own army, which I understand we are helping to finance. All that has resulted in a period of calm, without hostility.

There is hope, although there is some nervousness in the Government about whether the situation will break down. Questions have been raised about the loyalty of the army, given that many of its members are certainly former members of the Taliban. However, in the context of looking for an optimistic solution, the Musa Qala deal has been good. We should certainly try to extend it to Sangin province.

After February, when we went in, we had lost seven troops in Afghanistan, most as a result of accidents. Since then, I believe that we have lost another 35, mostly in combat. That is a sad and bitter price for their families to pay.

There is an answer. I was disappointed to hear what the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling said about the serious suggestion of using poppies for medicinal purposes as morphine. He said that the market was flooded, but it is not flooded as far as the developing world is concerned. The chance of a person in the developing world with a terminal illness or in terrible pain getting morphine is very small—only 6 per cent. Following the suggestion might well reduce the price of morphine.

In the western world, we know that if we face terminal pain we will almost certainly be supplied with morphine, that greatest of painkillers. However, there is certainly a market in the world that needs to be supplied. Médecins sans Frontières says that it has great difficulty in getting supplies and providing people with the boon of morphine and codeine. Yes, there is a great legal market supplied by Turkey, India and Tasmania, but it is not saturated. The suggestion in respect of poppies is practical. There are ways of growing them so that they go down the medical route rather than that of drugs of abuse. We should take up the proposals made by the Senlis council. There is support from Afghan farmers, who are either bribed from one side or attacked from the other. The new governor of Helmand province, Mr. Wafa—a bit of an unknown quantity—has a plan to spray the poppies with herbicide. We can only pause to recall past experience of spraying crops.

I do not know whether Mr. Wafa intends to spray them from the air, but the Karzai Government oppose the plan. However, we know that in most such cases, the decisions are taken by the United States as it exercises its influence over Karzai. Another catastrophe could take place; the people will certainly be further antagonised. We can congratulate our troops, who recently achieved a significant military victory. Their reconstruction work has been virtually frozen for some months now. They were virtually confined to their barracks because of the ferocity of opposition from the Taliban and some of the civilian populations. Adding crop spraying to the list of what are perceived to be our crimes as the farangi in that area will further add to the difficulty of ever winning hearts and minds there.

There is no quick fix, but neither is there a slow fix. We must recognise that our mission in Helmand province is unattainable.

There is another danger. As a member of the Western European Union Defence Committee, I speak to people from more than 40 European countries. I know the views of fellow members of NATO such as France, Germany and Italy. Their views are different from those of this country, Canada and the Netherlands. I do not believe that there is any situation in which they would go into Kandahar or Helmand province. They regard that as a step too far and something that would be a suicidal mission for their soldiers.

Canada, Britain and the Netherlands have lost a great many troops. One questions whether they died in vain. It would be an act of criminal folly for us to send more troops on a mission for which there is no possible victory. Our best course of action would be to consolidate the gains that we have made around Kabul and to use our influence with the Karzai Government for benign ends. We should not continue with what we are doing in Helmand but seek a dignified retreat from the province. We will not call it a retreat, of course—we will dress it up as a deal—but we must get out of there. We can work with warlords who could use their influence to bring peace, but we will not achieve some kind of Scandinavian democracy in the area, as many here claim is possible. It is unattainable.


Below are some more extracts from the debate.


Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): I believe that the number of troops NATO has in Afghanistan at the moment is about 30,000, not all of whom are combatants. The Soviet Union had 120,000, killed 1 million Afghanis and lost 50,500 casualties. How many troops does the right hon. Gentleman think NATO needs to have to secure a military victory?

Sir John Stanley: I say to the hon. Gentleman that our approach is fundamentally different from that taken during the Soviet occupation. There is no way that we are going to employ the sort of tactics employed by the Soviets because they successfully and unequivocally alienated the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. We have a totally different approach and I do not believe that we need forces of anything like that number to be able to win politically in Afghanistan or to contain the Taliban.


Paul Flynn: Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that if poppy cultivation in Afghanistan were reduced, production would inevitably increase in Myanmar, north Pakistan, Kazakhstan and a string of other countries, which could lead to the Colombianisation of a large part of central Asia?


Sir John Stanley: I certainly recognise the force of what the hon. Gentleman says, in that the market is international. However, we must consider the issue in the context of Afghanistan and its relation to the UK. The overwhelming proportion of the heroin sold on the streets of our towns and cities comes from Afghanistan. Poppy production in Afghanistan is also directly contrary to our security objectives there, as it produces a lot of money for the Taliban and finances their recruitment. Against those two criteria, we must be persistent and determined in trying to effect the gradual but ultimately total eradication of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan.


Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): I immediately disagree, however, with my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn): now is not the time to plan a withdrawal from Afghanistan. I say that in the light of a recent visit I undertook with the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling—


Paul Flynn: I did not say withdrawal from Afghanistan, but from Helmand province.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am told that one of the main problems with drugs is that we are not going after the dealers or the manufacturing facilities. We should follow the American model in Colombia. I commend the Minister for looking at some of the Colombian figures because they have had great success in reducing the amount of coca-growing areas in Colombia.


Paul Flynn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way? There was a 20 per cent increase last year.


Paul Flynn: Is the Minister going to use all his time to read his civil service brief or will he make any attempt to answer the points raised in the debate? That is the convention of the House.


Mr. Hoon: I am sorry that I gave way to my hon. Friend