Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Afghanistan: a day when good news may be buried

Obviously the coverage of today's business in the House of Commons in this evening's and tomorrow's media will be dominated by the emergency debate on the intrusion on privacy by the press. However, there was an important statement by the Prime Minister just after his question time on the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It is not so much the withdrawal itself that I want to praise, but the optimism for the future of the country which Mr Cameron expressed. He emphasised our continuing role in maintaining a staff college, something which President Karzai had specifically requested, and which the UK has a good reputation for. He also said that there were good prospects for the economy, because of fertile land and rich mineral resources. He stressed the importance of building roads which would enable Afghans to bring legal produce to market and not leave them in the hands of the opium poppy barons.

On this latter point, there is surely still a case for licensing poppy production for the production of medical opiates in addition to the growing of wheat. This would speed the introduction of foreign exchange into the economy, given the existing expertise of Afghan farmers in raising poppy and the lead times in conversion to food crops. Nevertheless, the inflation in world wheat prices, exacerbated by the disastrous fires in Russia last year, while bad news for us in the West, could not have come at a better time for Afghanistan.

Sadly, it was not until forty minutes into the debate on the statement that the future of women in the new Afghanistan was raised. Anne Clwyd, the Labour member for Cynon Valley, expressed her concerns and she was joined later by LibDem Stephen Gilbert and the Conservative Mary Macleod. I have the simple though perhaps naive view that, for whatever reasons we invade another country, we should not leave it in a worse state than which we found it. We should have learned our lessons from Iraq where religion-fuelled violence has increased and the position of women has declined since the elimination of Saddam and the Ba'ath regime. It was somewhat reassuring to hear the Prime Minister restate that, if the Taliban were to come back into the Afghan fold, they would have to sign up to the existing national constitution.

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