CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

DEFENCE (FRONT BENCH) – AFGHANISTAN – 26 February 2007

[Mr Tom Watson: One of the key indicators of success for our reconstruction effort in Afghanistan will be the number of peasant farmers whom we can unshackle from their dependency on the narcotics economy. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that if there is a large-scale increase in poppy eradication in the short term, we might drive those peasant farmers into the hands of the drug warlords and extremists whom we are in Helmand to remove them from?

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): My hon. Friend is correct, in that we have to get the right balance between eradication, as an aspect of counter-narcotics, and force security. In my view, as I have already said to the House, there is no point in seeing that aspect of counter-narcotics outwith the other more complex aspects of the counter-narcotics regime. The answer to this will be our ability to improve the governance of the province, the engagement of that governance with the farming community and its people, and the ability of the local government to offer people alternative livelihoods that can support them through the transition from poppy. The process is complex.

However, there is undoubtedly a connection between narcotics and those who wish to attack our forces and to prevent development in the region. That is the case for very obvious reasons: those people take advantage of the chaos that has been there hitherto. The fact of the matter is that there was an increase in poppy cultivation last year in Helmand, where we have significant responsibilities. That was disappointing, but the early signs are that the Afghan eradication force is making some progress this year. However, we should be neither over-optimistic nor over-pessimistic about that. Our ability to deal with the problem will be seen over a longer term than most people would wish, and it will also be a function of our ability to improve governance.]

Dr Julian Lewis: May I urge the Secretary of State to take a little more notice of what the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr Watson) just said? The hon. Gentleman was, like the Secretary of State, a Defence Minister – but sadly, for all too short a time – and he shares the views of senior military commanders, who believe that suppressing the poppy trade is counter-productive at this stage, in terms of counter-insurgency doctrine. Does the Secretary of State not realise that Taliban commanders are reported as saying that the reason why they support the poppy farmers is that it will make it impossible for NATO to defeat them if they have that support, going both ways? Will he do everything that he can to urge a reversal of the counter-productive strategy of poppy eradication?

[Des Browne: Let me say to the hon. Gentleman, and the House, that I do not think I can be accused of not understanding the subtlety of his point, which is on an issue that we have discussed in the House on a number of occasions. The fact is that the picture varies between and within provinces in Afghanistan. In some areas, where there is access to governance, security and development, reductions have been achieved and sustained, and in some cases, the ambition this year is to reduce poppy production to nil. Whether that is achieved or not, it is at least an appropriate target. I have said repeatedly that counter-narcotics needs to be seen in the context of security and the economic challenges facing Afghanistan, and that is exactly what the hon. Gentleman says. We are currently helping the Afghan Government with a number of their shorter-term counter-narcotics activities, but ultimately we can do that only where the environment is secure, and where it leads to a strong, legal economy. That is what will break the hold that narcotics have over the people of Afghanistan. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not need any lessons from him on the challenges and issues in relation to security that that work involves. Indeed, at the beginning of the answer that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), I made that perfectly clear.]