Edward Davey: You Ask The Questions

The Liberal Democrats' spokesman on Foreign Affairs answers your questions, such as 'Why does your party support Karzai?' and 'Would you work with the Tories?'
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The Independent Online

If we're in Afghanistan to build a state, why are we not in Somalia, to oppose the Islamist takeover? STEPHEN RADCLIFFE, KETTERING

I don't think the main purpose of the Afghan mission is to build a state, though I accept some aspects of state-building will be required before our troops are withdrawn, especially an increase in the size of the Afghan National Army and the building of a more reliable, less corrupt police.

Rather the main objectives in Afghan should be to deny al-Qa'ida its bases in and around the Afghanistan and Pakistan border, and as a necessary part of that, to bring some sort of stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan. You are right, however, to stress the need to do what is possible to help Somalia back from the total failure of its state – though I would not be proposing a Nato-led mission for this. Of course, the African Union's mission in Somalia – Amison – is trying to stabilise the security situation there, and the urgent issue would be to bolster Amison financially so they can create the security needed for reconciliation and a proper political process.

Why does your party support Hamid Karzai when there is no serious doubt that he is corrupt? TIMOTHY MARGOT, COVENTRY

We don't support President Karzai: we were the first party to call for a re-run of the corrupt August poll and the first party to call for a Government of National Unity, exactly the opposite of what Karzai wanted.

We continue to push for a more credible political strategy in Afghanistan – whether that's the international dimension, involving Afghanistan's regional neighbours, or the national or the local level. Nationally, it looks as if the mission will have to work with Karzai, but we have urged that massive pressure is put on him to sack corrupt ministers and others, with the clear threat of a "Plan B" that bypasses Karzai so Isaf/Nato deals direct with local leaders if he fails to lead political reform. The forthcoming London Conference and proposed Loya Jirga will both be critical to assessing whether we should move to such a Plan B.

What possible sense can there be in bombing to destruction Afghanistan's poppy crop? We're destroying the livelihoods of very poor people, in case you hadn't noticed. SUSANNAH SMETHWICK, GLASGOW

I agree that the only sustainable way of tackling poppy production in Afghanistan is the carrot not the stick – which means an approach to provide alternative means of earning livelihoods. Some good work has been done in promoting other crops, including wheat. Seed and fertiliser distribution and irrigation projects do exist in parts of Afghanistan – but much more is needed. Economic development, especially rural agricultural support, must be part of the political process to peace. That will include improving the transport infrastructure, so Afghanistan's legitimate crops such as its fabulous tomatoes, can be taken to market.

Yet disrupting the poppy cultivation is vital to British interests and vital to building the peace. And winning the assistance of key players like Iran will be easier if the drugs trade is tackled, given Iranian youth suffers relatively more from drug addiction than any other country.

The 7/7 bombers were middle-class Englishmen born and brought up here. So why are we sending men to die in Afghanistan in the name of national security? RALPH LOUDON, WOLVERHAMPTON

You're absolutely right that terrorists have come from our own communities, and indeed other countries besides Afghanistan. Yet that means we need more than one policy to tackle the threat of terrorism – it is not a question of the Afghanistan mission or something else. Plus it's been clear for a long time that Afghanistan is not simply about terrorism: it's become increasingly about the stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the region – and that's why a military-only solution will not work: we have to have a political surge in Afghanistan and a development surge in Pakistan.

Now that your party has run out of political capital from opposing [the] Iraq [war], will you demand troops be pulled out of Afghanistan too? TERENCE KERRIGAN, CAMBRIDGE

Liberal Democrats didn't oppose the Iraq war because that was the popular thing to do. Likewise our position on Afghanistan has not been developed to fit in with the opinion polls. Indeed, while we have been strong in our criticisms of the strategy in Afghanistan until recently, we have not questioned the overall objectives. We think there are encouraging signs that both the US and UK governments are ready to adopt the type of political strategy we have advocated, which would give the mission a chance of avoiding failure and even of success. So we are not demanding the troops are pulled out of Afghanistan, even though the polls say that might be popular.

Do you think Obama's dithering over whether to send more troops to Afghanistan was justified? DAVINA SAMUEL, LUTON

Yes. I'm glad we have a US President who thinks before he acts.

Should we be backing repressive regimes in Colombia and Venezuela? MARY COTTER. FROME

No, and Britain, especially within the EU, should be pushing much harder for improvements in the human rights records of both these countries. We should consider using EU trade agreements as bargaining counters and ensure there is a ban on the sale of any arms and equipment that could be used for internal repression.

Is opening up the Islamic world to democracy the great challenge of the 21st century? MATTHEW CLARKE, BIRMINGHAM

It is one of several great challenges. Moreover, we should not approach this with the idea that Islamic countries should have democracies just like us. Or that we know what their democracies should be like. There are many in the Islamic world who live in democracies, even if their elections and institutions don't always function as some might wish. It's always worth having a wider perspective on this type of issue – whether it's a historic one, remembering that less than a century ago, women didn't have the vote in the UK; or an international one, remembering that non-Islamic populous China has a way to go before it has recognisable democracy; or even a domestic one, given the need to renew our own democracy in the UK.

Do you belong to the Liberal or Social Democratic wing of your party? AMINA SYED, BIRMINGHAM

I don't recognise these wings in the party, but that may be because I joined the Liberal Democrats in 1989 and was not a member of any of its predecessor parties. If you pushed me, I guess I would have been a member of the Liberal Party, but that's mainly because the Liberals have such a proud historic political tradition in Britain – given it was Liberals that fought for free trade when the Tory aristocrats preferred protectionism, given that it was a Liberal government that brought in the state pension and Liberals like Beveridge and Keynes that did so much to promote free state education and the wider welfare state. As an economic and social Liberal Democrat, I think that's an inheritance the party can be proud of.

Who's Vince Cable's bigger rival – George Osborne or Nick Clegg? CHLOE RADCLIFFE, SOUTHAMPTON

Boy George is no rival to Vince. That's why the Tories will end up refusing to have a "Chancellors Debate" during the general election – Osborne is their Achilles heel. As for Vince and Nick, I remember under Paddy how we were criticised for being a "one-man party". Now we have at least two of our front bench who have become household names, some commentators seem to think that's a weakness. That's politics, I guess.

Will you work with the Tories in a hung parliament, yes or no? ALISON BOOTHE, EXETER

I think of parliaments with no party with an overall majority as "balanced parliaments" – more balanced than our "winner-takes-all" nonsense, which saw Blair win a majority of 63 on 35 per cent of the vote. What Nick Clegg has consistently said is that voters are kingmakers, not the politicians. We're going to focus on campaigning on our beliefs such as a fairer tax system, reform of the political system, and climate change, and look to maximise the number of votes and seats we receive.

How many seats do you predict the Liberal Democrats will have after the election? Go on, give me a number JULIETTE THORS-MULLER, BRISTOL

No numbers – but more than we have now!

What book on foreign affairs should I buy my dad for Christmas? RACHEL ARMSTRONG, NOTTINGHAM

I've just started Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field, edited by Antonio Giustozzi, as I think we need to understand what we are really dealing with there – so you might try that.

What do you think you deserve as an MP's salary? WILLIAM BENNETT, LONDON

I strongly believe that MPs should not set their own pay – so I'm not going to break that view by giving you a number. A genuinely independent body should set our pay, and we should have to accept whatever they put forward. But given the public sector pay restraint we will see in the next few years – whoever gets elected – MPs must be first in line if pay freezes or ultra low pay settlements are required to sort out the public finances.