POPPY CULTIVATION IN AFGHANISTAN – 11 July 2007

Dr Julian Lewis: I start with a simple proposition, which is that the attempt to eliminate poppy cultivation in areas where security control has not been established will not succeed and is likely to fuel the insurgency. That has always been my view, and nothing that I have heard this morning has changed it.

There is a problem in our dealings with our American allies on the issue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Tobias Ellwood) on securing the debate and on proposing imaginative ideas that will certainly bear fruit if applied in areas where a significant degree of security control has been established. He referred to General Jones, the former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, whom I had the privilege of meeting at the Royal College of Defence Studies last year. I do not know whether his views have since changed, but I was dismayed by his emphasis on poppy eradication even at the expense of winning hearts and minds. I felt that that was absolutely the reverse of the right emphasis for our activities.

It is a technique of unrepresentative, militant minorities down the ages – when they cannot succeed in convincing the mass of the population or even a significant sector of it of the rightness of their cause – to look around for some other area of activity that they can use to seduce people to their side. As a number of speakers have said, that is why the Taliban, having sought to suppress the poppy crop when they were in control of Afghanistan, reversed their position as soon as they lost control of the country. They did so, not as suggested by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), with some of whose analysis I agree, because they wanted money to buy equipment, but because they wanted to create a common interest between themselves as insurgents and a vast swathe of the population that is economically dependent on the poppy crop.

I have made a distinction between eradication in areas where there is a degree of security control and eradication in areas where this no such control. In areas where there is no security control, we are in danger of allowing ourselves to be diverted from the primary strategic military goal of containing and eventually eliminating the insurgency. We did not go into Afghanistan to fight the drugs trade, and I would be surprised if many of the people who took the decision to go into Afghanistan knew –or, if they did know, even gave a moment’s thought to the fact – that we would find ourselves cheek by jowl with the people who produce the crops that are behind a great deal of the drugs taken on our streets.

Paul Flynn: Has the hon. Gentleman entirely forgotten the rhetoric before the war? Dealing with the fact that Afghanistan was a centre of heroin production was not the main aim of the war, but it was certainly one of the sub-aims.

Dr Lewis: No, I have not forgotten that, because I never heard it in the first place. I entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I remind him that 48 hours before the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, General Masood was assassinated by people who were clearly part of the conspiracy. Why did they assassinate the man who would undoubtedly have been Afghanistan’s predominant and most effective leader in the event of an invasion? They did so because they knew that what was about to happen in America would inevitably lead to the invasion of Afghanistan because the conspiracy behind it was based there. Narcotics did not come into the question of the invasion at all, and if they did, they should not have done, because the invasion was an attempt to respond to, and eliminate the source of, the dreadful terrorist attack that took place. We must not allow ourselves to be diverted from that aim, for precisely the reason that the hon. Gentleman twice mentioned in his speech: even if we succeeded in completely wiping out the poppy crop in Afghanistan, do we think for one moment that the laws of supply and demand would not lead to crops being sown and harvested in countries that were even more inaccessible?

Mr Nigel Evans: Several colleagues have been to Afghanistan and know far more about the issue on the ground than I do, because I have never been there. However, is not part of the problem the fact that the drugs trade is so rife because the Taliban sell what is produced to carry on terrorism? Drugs are an integral part of the war against terrorism.

Dr Lewis: The Taliban may make money from the drugs trade, but that is not what they need to carry on a successful insurgency. What they need is a number of willing recruits to keep the insurgency going and the support – passive or active – of a significant swathe of the population. The only way to defeat an insurgency, as we have learned over many years in a number of long campaigns, is to isolate the militants from significant parts of the population. If, by taking action to suppress the poppy trade, we create common cause between a significant part of the population and the militants of the insurgency – as we are – we will be sowing the dragon’s teeth and making our eventual success problematic. We must focus on the primary aim, which, if we are talking about winning hearts and minds, must be to avoid at all costs doing anything that forces people who would not normally be inclined to side with the insurgents to do so.

In areas where we have established a reasonable degree of control, a scheme such as that suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East would be of great benefit because it would act as a beacon and an incentive and might even send signals to farmers in areas where we had not established security control that there was a better future to which they could subscribe. However, let us make no bones about the fact that, as I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend, even if a farmer wanted to sign up to such a scheme in an area where the Taliban were still running rife, the first thing that the terrorists would do would be to kill him to intimidate the rest.

Mr Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: One point that has not been brought out in the debate at all is the fact that the problem of addiction is getting significantly worse in Afghanistan itself and even worse in Iran. Iran is co-operating with us on drugs eradication. Does my hon. Friend not believe that it is vital that we get a regional buy-in from both Iran and Pakistan if we are to succeed in Afghanistan?

Dr Lewis: I certainly believe that just as the Taliban seek to create a common interest with that part of the population that is dependent on the opium trade for its living, it would be immensely politically beneficial to see whether a common interest of the sort that my hon. Friend describes could be used to strengthen relationships with neighbouring countries. I therefore entirely support what he says.

I revert, however, to my central point: if an insurgency is to be defeated, it is vital that we do nothing to increase the insurgents’ appeal to large numbers of the population. We are engaged in a counter-insurgency operation, not a social engineering operation, and we must not confuse the two.