Lord Soley

I have just returned from a visit to Helmand province in Afghanistan. There were about 15 members of both Lords and Commons and it was a very interesting and useful visit. The schedule was  a demanding one. I was ready for a 4am departure on Monday morning but ice on the aircraft delayed us until 11am. After a flight lasting 11 hours in a military transport we arrived, had a 90 minute rest and then went straight into the programme.

My 90 minutes rest was organised by a young soldier in the tent with his colleagues. We then had breakfast together before continuing the programme. We flew from Kandahar to camp Bastion in a Hercules at night with the lights out and wearing body armour and helmet.

I don’t have the space here to describe the whole trip but I was very impressed by the courage and professionalism of our people there and their commitment to helping achieve stability in Afghanistan. I was particularly impressed by the efforts to train Afghan soldiers and watched them learning how to clear mines – a particularly important task as there are still thousands left from the Soviet era and they are collected and recycled by the Taliban to lay as traps for the international forces and Afghan police and soldiers.

The Royal Marine Commando’s have suffered casualties recently and spent some hours showing us their equipment and discussing the stress of service life in in an operational theatre. Three injured soldiers were being flown home as we arrived. The medical provision is excellent. There were virtually no complaints about equipment which was very gratifying as I remember hearing a lot of complaints when I visited Iraq seven years ago.

We received good and realistic briefings on the situation there. No one expects this to be easy or quick and with the new US administration there is hope for a review of strategy. Corruption is a major threat to the success of the present Afghan government.

There were quite a few complaints that media coverage focused too much on the negative and left out many of the achievements and they quoted examples such as the number of children getting an education now.

This is only a brief snapshot of my visit and I hope to be able to use the information I gained for debates and questions in the House.

14 comments for “Afghanistan

  1. Croft
    16/02/2009 at 9:45 am

    Well I think we’d all like to see some realisable strategy. We’re 7 years in and still neither the Afghan government nor the coalition have real control of anything but a fraction of the country and poppy cultivation is amongst the highest it’s been. It’s one thing to expect people to fight and die for an end goal but it’s hard to see where we are as much more than a holding position until we think of a new strategy.

  2. 16/02/2009 at 10:34 am

    As an ex-Navy guy, I’ve always been very impressed with the professionalism of my Army comrades, and, of course, the Royal Marines. I am saddened by the lack of newspaper coverage of the work they are doing in Afghanistan, and disappointed that we make life difficult for them by being so slow to replace completely inadequate and life endangering equipment like the snatch landrover.

    Whilst we make our markets inaccessible to Afghan farmers through the tariff barriers of the EU, they will continue to farm the only commercially viable crop, opium and will thus continue to be in the pockets of warlords and the like. With this sort of myopic policy, we are asking our soldiers to fight with one arm behind their backs. We need to learn the lessons of the Malaysia campaign all over again. Hearts and minds – hearts and minds win wars.

  3. 16/02/2009 at 1:34 pm

    British policy in Afghanistan is clearly failing. The key to turning this around is to buy the poppy crop from the farmers and use it relieve terminal pain in less developed countries where currently millions of cancer sufferers use suicide as a way to escape their misery.

  4. Bedd Gelert
    16/02/2009 at 8:28 pm

    Lord Soley, I appreciate it may be difficult to give a completely candid answer to this question, but do you have a response to the view which Simon Jenkins expressed on a Radio 4 debate recently that we might [to paraphrase] need to ‘cut and run’ from Afghanistan, because the only alternative that he could see was to ‘cut much later’, after more lives had been lost. [Please note I’m not quoting him here, just giving the gist of his point of view.

    My own two penn’orth is that even in financial investments decision it is easy to fall for the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ or as I like to think of it ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’.

    It was illustrated by Evan Davis in a discussion about what to do if one had lost one’s theatre ticket. Most people would think ‘Well, I’ve spent £30 quid already, I might as well buy a replacement, because if it was worth it the first time, it is worth £30 now to replace it – otherwise I’ll have spent £ 30 quid for nothing!”.

    But the thing is nothing is going to bring that £30 ticket back. So you can either stay at home and enjoy a cheap night in – or spend a tenner down the pub.

    It is relatively easy to say to someone ‘Forget about the ticket, forget about the show – it wasn’t meant to be’.

    It is far harder when lives are at stake – but as bankers [and I suspect Government these days…] it is all too easy to ‘throw good money after bad’ and sometimes one needs to face up to the reality that a positive outcome may not be achievable.

    p.s. having read the article again, I think I remembered the conclusion incorrectly, so I thank my lucky stars that I am not the one deciding whether to commit more troops to Afghanistan…

  5. Clive Soley
    17/02/2009 at 10:03 am

    Thanks for the comments.

    Buying the poppy crop looks good at first sight. There are problems not least that paying for the crop would increase supply. There is no shortage of land suitable for poppy cultivation.

    The alternative option now being tried is to provide wheat seed free of charge – in effect subsidising wheat production. The point about protected markets like the EU is valid but subsidising wheat production in Afghanistan has a good chance of working.

    Should we cut and run? No. That would be a betrayal of those in Afghanistan who are risking their lives and sometimes paying with their lives to help develop the country. This includes British troops only one of whom told me that he favoured leaving the country.

    The broad aim, as always with failed or failing states, is to get sufficient security to allow development to take place. What makes this difficult is when the government fails to tackle corruption so the population lose confidence. The Taliban and other groups know this and it is one of the reasons they also kill aid workers and key government officials. Development challenges their power base whether they are war lords, drug barons or Taliban.

  6. 17/02/2009 at 10:51 am

    provide wheat seed free of charge

    An excellent but tiny first step. If we are serious, we need to do far far more than this such as allowing Afghanistan to sell their wheat to EU and USA markets, without a tariff barrier, and other products, for a while until they are back on their feet. Let’s see more agricultural products follow. If we don’t why should we expect the populace support the troops who are interfering with their only viable crop (in their eyes)?

    Growing poppy seeds destroys growers, middle men and users through corruption lawlessness and human destruction. Let’s get real.

  7. Bedd Gelert
    17/02/2009 at 2:15 pm

    Lord Soley,
    If you don’t think we should ‘cut and run’ [ and I accept that as a principled point of view] I think we are entitled to ask some searching questions such as ‘What does success in Afghanistan look like ?’, ‘What are our military objectives ?’ and ‘How long are we prepared to have troops out if the situation doesn’t deteriorate, but doesn’t get any better either ?’

    Are we willing to tolerate the status quo for 5 years ? 10 years ? 30 years ? Longer than we were willing to tolerate our presence in Northern Ireland ?

  8. 17/02/2009 at 6:12 pm

    At the moment the profits from the poppy are going to the Taleban, who are disliked by the majority of Afghans. They would be happy to sell to the WHO, knowing that their product was going to relieve widespread suffering. Satellite surveillance can identify new areas of cropping, and these can be dealt with meaningfully, either by destroying them or by bringing them into the medical stream.

    Nothing is perfect. Perfection is not on the agenda. Sure, some may “leak” to the black market, but at the moment ALL of it is going to the black market.

    I have debated this matter in detail with HMG, and in 30 years of campaigning I have never heard such a thin case for maintaining the status quo.

    Evidence suggests that Hamid Karzai’s brother is involved in the drug trade. There is a presidential election in August. Now is the time for the Government to be talking more positively about buying the opium and sending it to countries where is is desperately needed.

    You have probably known someone who has died of cancer. I hope that my colleagues were able to control their pain adequately.

    Just imagine what it would have been like for them to have no opiates. Then multiply that by 6 million. That’s the number who die each year without relief. Is there really a case for our troops to stand by and let it go to our streets, with all the costs that that situation entails?

  9. Clive Soley
    18/02/2009 at 10:42 am

    I think the issue of pain relief and dealing with the poppy crop in Afghanistan are two separate issues. Subsidising wheat encourages sustainable agriculture and in a country where corruption is endemic I would worry about using poppy production not least because controlling output and destination would be very difficult. You don’t have to worry about such matters with wheat.

    Opening some of the protected markets like the EU would involve negotiations between a wide range of states and the international organisations dealing with trade. Why not just subsidise wheat as is now being tried?

    What does success look like? Development projects increasing faster than at present (although a lot is already being achieved but not so much in the South). It would see a better trained and deployed army and police force. It would see an improved civil service and (particularly important) the emergence of an effective legal structure for the country. In many respects the rule of law is more urgent then democracy. There is another election due later this year. That may also help.

    The most immediate need is for the population to feel safe – security precedes development.

  10. 18/02/2009 at 2:42 pm

    Lord Soley, I think you prove the point of why it is so important for politicians to be encouraged to visit our troops in action. You witness the problems first hand and, with your experience, you can differentiate between the achievable and those things that us arm chair warriors would like to see happen.

  11. 18/02/2009 at 2:56 pm

    Dear Clive
    I hope you do not mind my extending this exchange. It is a subject very close to my heart, both as a doctor and as someone who thinks, like you I am sure, that warfare is a problem, not a solution.
    Pain relief and dealing with the poppy crop in Afghanistan are issues that are closely related. The unmet need for analgesics for terminal pain in LDCs means that more opium (the precursor for medical heroin and morphine) will be needed. At present the Afghan opium is going to benefit the both Taleban and a chain of assorted criminals leading all the way to our streets and burgled houses.
    Controlling output and destination of licit Afghan opium would be a challenge, but not an insuperable challenge. I envisage an operation under the control of the WHO, who would buy the crop, and process it in Afghanistan. This would boost the Afghan economy, and lessen the mass of material to be moved. The WHO would gain experience in establishing and maintaining security of the delivery chain, which could be rolled out to other areas.

    The WHO would also have the role of training doctors in LDCs to administer opiates. At present some doctors in LDCs regard opiates as dangerous, and on diagnosing terminal cancer or HIV they simply give the prognosis and tell the patient that nothing more can be done from them. Suicide by hanging or jumping in front of a lorry is not infrequent.

    If there are farmers who would rather switch to wheat, then this is very welcome, and could run alongside to poppy/medical undertaking. It need not be an either/or situation.
    “Opening some of the protected markets like the EU would involve negotiations between a wide range of states and the international organisations dealing with trade”. I do not grasp why the EU need be involved, except possibly to help fund the medicalisation operation. We need a short supply chain from the Afghan factories to the recipient countries.

    There has been a 6% fall in opium production according to UNODOC, but most of that was due to drought. I am unaware of any claim that our presence in Helmand has caused a significant reduction in land under poppy production. I have read anecdotes of our patrols wading through poppy fields, waving to the farmers who are tending the crop.

    What is the policy? It seems to be for our troops to turn a blind eye to poppy farming – understandably, because of the need to keep on friendly terms with the locals. If so, what is the mission of our troops? Is it just to create a better trained and deployed army and police force, and to see an improved civil service and (particularly important) the emergence of an effective legal structure for the country? Lord Malloch Brown (who is in correspondence with the Green Party Leader on this matter) says that the aim is to achieve “a reduction” of opium production, but it is unclear when, or if, cessation of opium production in Afghanistan will be successful. I know of no evidence that cessation is an achievable objective, which means that the Taleban and criminals will continue to benefit from the illicit poppy trade for the foreseeable future.

    Against this dismal prospect, purchase and medical use of the poppy crop seems an eminently sensible course of action.

  12. Clive Soley
    20/02/2009 at 10:23 am

    Alfred. Thank you for your comment. I regard these visits as an important part of our work.

    Dr Lawson. My reference to the EU was about wheat not opium.

    I still have a problem with your policy proposal. Afghanistan has no effective government,legal or policing structure. I just don’t see how the World Health Organisation could possibly police and control the type of operation you propose.

    I accept that opiates for medical use are available in developed countries but not the less developed ones but surely the answer to this is the production of the necessary drugs in countries which can control output and destination.

    Using a failed state as a production facility is full of dangers and could entrench the war lords and drug barons. Alternative crops, subsidised if necessary, also produces food for Afghans.

  13. 20/02/2009 at 10:59 am

    Dear Lord Soley

    As you say, Afghanistan has no effective government,legal or policing structure, but this is because the influence of Government does not extend to the regions where poppy is grown.
    So it is a chicken and egg situation: poppy is illegal, so prevents legitimate government’s writ from running, and this governmental incapapcity prevents legitimisation of the poppy, in the view of HMG.

    On the other hand, the Green Party, the Senlis Council, the European Parliament, the Red Crescent and an increasing number of other agencies all hold that a transformative effort to purchase the crop would bring these regions under Government influence, and pull the rug out from under the Taleban at the same time.

    This is after all, the mission of NATO – to bring the rule of law. It is very clear that we are making very little progress
    under the present set of rules.

    The World Health Organisation would have the remit of buying, processing and forwarding the medicines. Police and control would be provided by the increased NATO presence initially, and by the Afghan forces as the operation becomes stable.

    “I accept that opiates for medical use are available in developed countries but not the less developed ones but surely the answer to this is the production of the necessary drugs in countries which can control output and destination”. The point is that the Afghan Government should be able to move to the position of being competent to do this. From the words you use, it suggests that you share the view of others, that Afghanistan is at the moment heading to “failed state” status. As things stand, it certainly looks that way, and we must do everything we can to avoid it . Purchase of the opium is the best way of avoiding Afghanistan becoming another Somalia.

    Many thanks for giving thought to this radical change of policy. You may care to discuss it with Lord Malloch Brown, who has been in correspondence with Caroline Lucas on this issue.
    Best wishes
    Richard Lawson

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