Afghanistan may never be 'viable state' warn MPs

Malcolm Bruce says British troops have made 'real progress' but are unlikely to leave a viable state in Afghanistan

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The UK might have to recognise that creating a viable state in Afghanistan is not achievable, an influential group of MPs has said.

The Commons international development committee said the UK should reconsider its ambition of building Afghan government institutions in favour of more traditional aid targets.

These especially included improving the lives of Afghan women, the MPs said.

Ministers said much had been achieved but "massive challenges" remained.

The report said it was vitally important not to abandon the people of Afghanistan - especially the country's women - after UK troops end their combat role in the country at the end of 2014.

After this point the country's future was uncertain and the Department for International Development (DfID) needed to be flexible in its approach, the MPs said - this should involve moving its focus away from building a viable state to more traditional aid projects.

'Litmus test'

In a debate on the report in Parliament, committee chairman, Lib Dem MP Sir Malcolm Bruce said: "Of course the committee would wish to see, in due course, that Afghanistan can function as a normal state and certainly not a rogue state.

"But we have some degree of scepticism whether a British government fund of £178m a year can in itself really achieve a viable state.

"The danger is if that becomes the overriding focus it may be at the expense of delivering material, practical progress in terms of livelihoods, the rights of women, health and education."

Sir Malcolm said that while DfID would not be able to maintain a base in Helmand province when UK troops withdraw, aid projects must continue through local partners.

International development minister Alan Duncan told MPs that "nobody is yet suggesting" that Afghanistan was a fully functional state.

But he said UK efforts had made "a big difference" to a lot of people by helping to improve basic services and support economic growth.

Start Quote

Our focus should be on the position of women and girls and this will remain a key focus of our development work in Afghanistan.”

End Quote Alan Duncan International development minister

"Our commitment to this desperately poor country will continue for many years to come," he added.

The MPs' report also expressed concerns that talk about women's rights in the country had not been followed by "practical action".

Women in Afghanistan had made gains since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, the cross-party committee said, but they continued to face "enormous disadvantages".

On a recent fact-finding trip, the MPs were concerned the situation for women appeared "to have deteriorated in some respects since our last visit in 2007".

'Big difference'

The committee urged the government to do more "to combat violence against women through support for women's shelters and legal services" and to ensure education for women and girls was a major focus.

It said the treatment of women after troops left would be the "litmus test" of whether the UK had improved the lives of Afghans.

Mr Duncan welcomed the committee's recommendations on women's rights.

He said: "We completely agree that our focus should be on the position of women and girls and this will remain a key focus of our development work in Afghanistan."

For Labour, international development spokeswoman Rushanara Ali said human rights and female empowerment should be much more central to the aid agenda and the goals of economic development and poverty eradication were "too narrow".

The charity Oxfam said international aid had meant a record number of boys and girls now went to school in Afghanistan.

But it added: "Huge challenges of extreme poverty, the position of women and corruption remain.

"The hard-won gains of recent years need to be secured and aid needs to target the most vulnerable, boost the position of women and support local initiatives to hold Afghanistan's authorities to account."

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