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Afghanistan

Volume 124: debated on Tuesday 8 December 1987

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12.37 am

It is right that, as we approach the eighth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, we should debate the matter in the House. Moreover, Mr. Gorbachev has recently talked to the Prime Minister and he is now engaged in negotiations with the President of the United States of America.

British policy has two strands — humanitarian and political — and I should like to consider both. The United Nations General Assembly recently debated Afghanistan and concentrated on Soviet withdrawal. The Soviet Union has expressed a desire to withdraw and the PDPA—the Afghan Communist party—has said that it is ready to compromise with the Afghan resistance and wishes to end the war.

What proposals have emanated from Kabul with Soviet support? First, the regime declared a ceasefire, which did not succeed. It amounted to a demand, which nobody expected the Afghans to accept, that they should surrender in return for nothing whatever. A coalition was proposed, but all key posts were to be reserved to the PDPA. The regime called for refugees to return to Afghanistan, but the evidence is that, even if official figures are to be believed, less than 2 per cent. of the refugees have done so.

The Afghan regime adopted a constitution that has been endorsed by a hand-picked assembly, although the Afghan people have not been consulted. The constitution enshrines the leading role of the PDPA and its front organisation, the National Front, and draws heavily on the soviet constitution. It is no surprise that Dr. Najib told the PDPA conference in October that the Communist party would keep both its dominant position and the presidency.

Kabul's reconciliation proposals have not been accepted by any credible Afghan group outside the ruling regime. As my noble Friend Lord Glenarthur said to the United Nations General Assembly on 10 November,
"it is not reconciliation but capitulation which is on offer."
The Afghans will not accept a regime dominated by the PDPA or whatever name it may subsequently adopt.

The massive violation of human rights in Afghanistan was once again condemned by a record majority in the latest United Nations resolution on human rights, cosponsored by the United Kingdom. The United Nations resolution was a diplomatic success. Pakistan and her friends overcame one of the largest diplomatic offences the Soviet Union has ever mounted. A record 123 countries sent a clear message to the Soviet Union on 10 November which demanded, as Britain has done eight times before, that the Russians should translate their words into deeds, withdraw their troops and let the Afghans decide their own future.

But diplomatic successes on their own are not enough. While these processes run their course, contrary to Soviet propaganda, as the House knows, the war continues with unmitigated ferocity and cruelty. While talking of withdrawal, the Soviet and Afghan forces have launched major offensives this year in the Kandahar and Pakhtiar areas. The Kandahar offensive did not secure the city and that in Pachtiar was beaten back in a major success for the resistance. At the same time, there have been continued violations of the Pakistan-Afghan border and large numbers of Afghan refugees, including women and children, have been indiscriminately slaughtered. As the United Nations special rapporteur, Felix Ermacora, said, it is a situation approaching genocide.

We see little in Britain on the television or in the newspapers about Afghanistan. It is a war that has not been reported in the way that Vietnam and other wars were. The Russians do not accommodate journalists, as the Americans did in Vietnam. They have not taken any western correspondents on operations because they obviously do not want to show what they do when they go into a village and slaughter the inhabitants. They have offered conducted tours of Kabul, Jelalabad and Paghman, but those have yielded little in the way of news.

The alternative for the newsman is to go with the Mujahideen, and those journalists and others who have done so and have undertaken the tremendous danger and discomfort of that course deserve every respect. In addition to the dangers of the war, the terrain is unsuitable for vehicles and television cameras must be transported by horse or on foot. Therefore, the level of coverage given to this war in the news media has been very low and is declining. People are now less well aware than they were of what is happening, but I believe that the British people, deep down, do not care any less about the tragedy that is being enacted in Afghanistan, about the hundreds of thousands of people who are dead or maimed, including women and children, or about the homelessness, destitution and starvation that has been caused and is experienced in that country.

I am pleased that the Government are supporting the Afghan information office, which is chaired by our former colleague in this House, Lord Cranborne, and which has set up an information office in Peshawar to provide detailed and factual reporting of what is taking place. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties would wish to recognise the courage and dedication with which that effort is carried out and to hope that the vital grant that is provided by the Government — vital but small in comparison to the need and scope of the work—can be increased as a matter of urgency within the next few weeks so that that work can continue.

I know, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will confirm, that the Government believe, as I do, that public support for the plight of the Afghan refugees and the struggle of the resistance is as vital now as it has ever been —public awareness is essential if there is to be public support, and the Government have a crucial role to play in this.

The Government have given vital support to the voluntary organisations. I believe that we are making available in total this year £5 million for humanitarian assistance to Afghans, including £3·5 million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — that is about one fifth of our total funding for UNHCR—and about £370,000 to Afghan Aid. In addition, £25,000 has been provided for the Afghan information office, which I have already mentioned, and which is an important but exiguous sum in relation to the importance and magnitude of the task.

For nearly eight years of war, Afghanistan has been suffering from an increasing and ever-more tragic refugee problem year by year, and it is now the biggest in the world. More than 5 million Afghans are refugees in Pakistan and Iran. About 2 million people are refugees in their own country. About one Afghan in two no longer lives where he or she did when the Soviets invaded. An immense effort has been made by the international voluntary agencies to try to cope with the problem. Most Afghans now have little of no means of support. Several private voluntary organisations have been trying to help. Afghan Aid and Health Unlimited are justifiably well known in this country, and similar organisations operate from the United States, Norway, France, Germany, Austria and Pakistan.

Lack of co-operation from the Afghan Government has compelled those organisations to operate their programmes clandestinely across the frontiers. Funding the work has proved difficult. Obviously, official donors usually operate through recognised Governments, but that has proved virtually impossible with Afghanistan. Government-sponsored international bodies, such as the International Red Cross, are bound by international law and cannot work in a country without the approval of the recognised Government. In the case of Afghanistan, the Kabul Government refused to grant access to such organisations.

There was also lack of interest by the West during the first years of the war when people believed that a Soviet victory in Afghanistan was inevitable. Many Governments were unwilling to provide money for aid to Mujahideen-held areas, now amounting to three quarters of the country. Therefore, medical aid to Afghanistan has been limited to the efforts of private voluntary organisations. Medical and paramedical staff of such agencies take great risks associated with clandestine missions inside Afghanistan to take medical aid to a population that is deprived of even the most basic health care facilities. Recently, a substantial United States Government-sponsored programme was started to step up the health service inside Afghanistan, through Afghan paramedical staff.

Before the war, Afghanistan was developing a national health service in rural areas. After the coup in 1978 and the killing or imprisonment of doctors, many doctors fled abroad. There is now a desperate shortage of qualified medical and paramedical staff. The war ended immunisation and eradication campaigns and public health programmes. Then came the horrors of the war itself—the wounded, the maimed, the 2 million displaced persons within Afghanistan, and the problems of the refugees. Before the war, infant mortality was estimated to be about 18 per cent. Recent surveys show that the under-five mortality rate is 30 to 40 per cent. One in three children dies before he or she reaches the age of five.

It is estimated that only 30 to 40 Afghan doctors have remained in Mujahideen-controlled areas—that is, about three quarters of the country. They and those of the Mujahideen who have done first aid courses at Pershawar cannot possibly cope. Private organisations have clandestinely sent more than 500 doctors and nurses, inspired by humanitarian and professional ideals, across the border. They have set up clinics in many parts of the country, and carry supplies on horseback for weeks and months at a time. They work under tremendous pressure. Many clinics, some bearing a red cross on their roofs, have been bombed. The doctors have given more than medical help to the Afghan people. A French doctor, Philippe Augoyard, was captured by the Russians and held in goal for five months. During one of his cross-examinations, he was told:
"We know that you are not supplying weapons to the Mujahideen but you are doing something worse—you are giving hope to the Afghan people."
That is a vital function that the Government have continued to support.

Crucial to the survival of the millions of refugees have been the Government of Pakistan. They bear the burden of approximately half the world's refugees today. They have withstood massive political and violent pressure, aerial attacks, and terrorist bombs that have been planted in bazaars, indiscriminately killing hundreds of men, women and children.

When the war is over, there will be a massive task facing Afghanistan — reconstruction, resettlement of the population, and rebuilding of the economy, administration and education. That will require not only technological expertise but a political structure that has the consent of the population. Where have we got to? The negotiations at Geneva, under the auspices of the United Nations, have, on paper at least, so far shown agreement that, after settlement, Afghanistan should be non-aligned, that there should be no future external interference or intervention, and that refugees should have the right to return home safely. But there is still a deadlock over the timetable for withdrawal. Although Moscow and Kabul seem willing to accept a 12-month withdrawal period, that is still well beyond what is necessary, and a date has not yet been decided. The Russians are not yet prepared to risk allowing the Afghans to decide that their future should be other than Communist, whatever happens in Geneva.

I know that yesterday my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pressed Mr. Gorbachev for an early withdrawal, and I hope that President Reagan is doing likewise. Soviet withdrawal is essential to a solution to the agony of Afghanistan. The Russians must accept that real rather than cosmetic steps are needed, and they must come forward with a firm date for early withdrawal in 1988 so as to secure a transition to an independent arid nonaligned Afghanistan. Kabul's present proposals cannot bring about that transition; there is a very long way yet to go.

Dr. Ermacora, the United Nations rapporteur, has put together in the past five years a peace plan that does not include the timing of Soviet withdrawal but provides for the return home of the 5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran, as well as for United States and Soviet guarantees of the settlement.

Outside the scope of the United Nations talks, there has been an understanding of how Afghanistan will be ruled in future, which must include discussions with the seven-party alliance of the Afghan resistance. Kabul has offered so far only a constitution that would confirm the Communist party's dominance. The American Secretary of State has said that the announcement of a timetable for withdrawal must precede work on forming a transitional Government, and that if a timetable were agreed the United States would work to help create a transitional Government.

The plan that is reputedly being proposed by Dr. Hammer in his shuttle between Moscow, Kabul, Islamabad, Peking, Rome and Washington calls for phased withdrawal of Russian troops, with an agreed ceasefire policed by United Nations observers, leading to a conference to discuss the formation of a new coalition Government to be headed by former King Mohammed Zahir Shah.

However, many of the Mujahideen believe that the right to decide the future of Afghanistan belongs only to those who have been fighting against foreign influence, and the right should be exercised only after unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan by Soviet forces. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, regards the Communists as the only reliable guarantors of security and continues to insist that any withdrawal must leave the People's Democratic party of Afghanistan as the dominant force in the post-withdrawal Government. That attitude seems to the guerillas to be an attempt to achieve by diplomacy what the Soviet army has failed to achieve by force in eight years of savage war, and the gap remains wide; if the Mujahideen are not involved in the negotiation process, it is inevitable that they will not feel bound by any agreement. They have said over and over again that they are prepared to sit down and negotiate with the Soviet Union. That would not be a simple process as the seven parties making up the Mujahideen alliance have not agreed on what sort of Government should appear or who should run it. Nor would their authority necessarily be accepted by Mujahideen commanders within Afghanistan.

Despite the difficulties about the unity of the Mujahideen, it is clearly vital, if there is to be peace, that they should be part of negotiations about the future of Afghanistan. They are the logical spokesmen for the majority of people, and if they are not included in negotiations they are likely to continue to fight, which could be used in turn as an excuse for the Soviets to remain in the country.

The plight of Afghanistan, tragic though it is for those involved, is also a major issue. The Soviet Union's behaviour there is the main contemporary test of its alleged commitment to new thinking in foreign policy. Withdrawal would show that Mr. Gorbachev means business and has the authority to transact it.

It will not be easy for the Russians to accept a representative regime in Kabul by allowing a process of genuine self-determination to take place. But it is essential that they bring their troops home if they are to end the widespread international comdemnation of their actions and if they are to help to bring peace to Afghanistan.

Today, popular acceptance of and respect for the central state authority in Afghanistan have broken down. That has happened twice before in the past 200 years of Afghanistan history. They can be re-established in the minds of the people of that country only if a future political leadership has some perceived roots in the past, is not imposed from outside and is seen to be capable to working in the present conditions. A Marxist regime imposed by force from outside cannot possibly have that effect in the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan.

Whether the Soviets work to heal the devastation and suffering that they have caused is the litmus test of their good faith, not only in Afghanistan but in international affairs generally. The withdrawal of their military forces is essential.

The Government's policy in this crucial area should have four themes: first, to continue to press for an early Soviet withdrawal; secondly, to urge the inclusion of the Mujahideen in the negotiating process; thirdly, to give the Afghans as much humanitarian assistance as we can afford; and, fourthly, to offer strong moral support, based on greater public awareness of the misery that has been suffered by the people of Afghanistan.

1.3 am

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad) on choosing this important subject for debate tonight. It is not a matter to which hon. Members are often able to turn their minds, but it is none the less crucially important for that. The turnout on the Government Benches tonight —at this hour—is a tribute to that.

There have been some remarkably optimistic and important developments in East-West relations, exemplified today by the signing of the agreement on intermediate weapons in Washington. Great expressions of good will are being made hourly, in more and more lavish terms. There is no doubt that conditions in the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States and her allies are far better for a rapprochement across the broad spectrum between the Soviets and the free West. However, progress should now be restrained until the Russians right a most wicked and terrible wrong, namely, that in 1979, by a large-scale and cruel military intervention, they raped Afghanistan. By any standards, the invasion was a grotesque and entirely unprovoked act of force against a small, non-aligned and independent country.

It is important that when we discuss these matters we do not forget the background of that monstrous crime. To this day, despite the odd hopeful but largely irrelevant noise from the Soviet Union, innocent Afghans continue to be butchered by a brutal military regime. That regime will stop at nothing, and no crime or act of wickedness has been spared in the prosecution by the Soviets of their war against Afghan civilians.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury said, terms for a settlement were recently offered to the Afghans. In his speech to the United Nations, Lord Glenarthur rightly described those terms as likely to lead not to reconciliation but to capitulation and the Afghans should have no truck with them. However, all is not total gloom, because, following our noble Friend's speech to the United Nations on 10 November, by a vote of 129 to 19 the United Nations adopted a motion urging the immediate settlement of this appalling situation. The nations voting against included such luminaries of democracy as Bulgaria, Cuba and Czechoslovakia. There were just 19 votes against a motion that urged an immediate settlement and the taking of immediate steps to end this appalling situation.

Just over a year ago Mr. Gorbachev described the Afghanistan situation as a "bleeding wound". A year later the bleeding has not been staunched. In fact, things have got worse. I hope that at the dinner being held at the White House tonight the President of the United States will not forget to remind Mr. Gorbachev that if he and his nation wish to be treated as moral equals of the nations of the free West they must withdraw from Afghanistan.

The United Nations report on the situation in Afghanistan said:
"In spite of the political declarations concerning peaceful reconciliation, there has so far been no marked change in the human rights situation in the country: fighting is continuing, particularly in the border areas; many wounded persons are crossing the border and the number of refugees is increasing steadily".
As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury rightly said, the Afghan war is not adequately reported in this country. The public feel strongly about it, yet it seems no longer to command the sort of news attention that it once did. The British public should be aware that the situation approaches genocide. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have been killed and maimed, and 5 million Afghans have been forced to live outside their own country. Until the Soviets withdraw and leave this tragic country to try to rebuild its life and its role in the world, we would do well to resist the blandishments offered by the Soviet Union. We should return again for the moment to the principle so effectively used by Dr. Kissinger of the carrot and the stick.

I warmly endorse the Government's general line on this matter. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury, I welcome their support for the Afghan information office and hope that it will be continued and, if possible, increased. I welcome the robust line taken by my noble Friend at the United Nations. We should not forget that our words of support are cherished thousands of miles away by those heroes who are defying the wicked Russian campaign against them.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the nub of the problem is that the only test of their good faith in future, having gone this far on arms control and shown a desire for glasnost and a broader understanding throughout the world, is for the Soviets to behave in the way that they must behave if they wish to be treated as equals. Only by withdrawing their forces can the Soviet Union show the world that they have truly changed and desire to be treated as equals. I hope the Minister will agree that we must have irrevocable and unbreakable guarantees and commitments from the Soviets about the withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan.

1.12 am

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad) in raising the subject of Afghanistan on this night of all nights, when the festivities in Washington—which are of importance to the Western and Eastern worlds—may disguise the fact that one of the participants in those celebrations, the Soviet Union, still has about 115,000 troops in Afghanistan.

More serious than the number of troops it has in that poor country are the tactics against civilians which it has ceaselessly and mercilessly carried out during the eight years since the invasion, and I endorse the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad) and for Crawley (Mr. Soames) describing the horror that has occurred in that country. Too often the West has remained silent, or unaware of those events.

We should pay credit to ITN, and particularly to Mr. Sandy Gall, for bringing to our television screens images that otherwise would have been denied us. We should contrast the television coverage of the Vietnamese war, particularly in America — on my visits to the United States during that war I saw almost nightly the problems which most disturbed the American people—with the way in which the Soviets are able to keep out the press. The result is that we rarely see the images of the awful suffering in Afghanistan. Apart from the efforts of ITN, we are unable to appreciate the horror that can come to a country, when one third of the population is reckoned authoritatively—over 5 million people—to have become refugees and more than 3 million of these have gone into Pakistan.

The horror of that must be taken into account when we consider our relationship with the Soviet Union. We cannot ignore it and pretend that, just because of glasnost and an INF treaty, we can imagine that the Soviet Union has the same criteria and moral values as ourselves.

I hope that in the days that follow the signing of the INF treaty, we do not slip into the comfortable assumption that we are dealing with a country that behaves as we in the West try to behave. That is self-evidently not the case. My desire to put that point on the record is one of the reasons why I wanted to speak this evening.

The difficulty facing the leader of the official Soviet-backed Government in Kabul, Dr. Najibullah, may perhaps provide the first clues why the Soviets are beginning to consider seriously firm action about withdrawal. They should not be considering just withdrawing 5 per cent. of their troops; they should be considering serious negotiations. That at least is something that Western Governments and many nonaligned countries have insisted upon in the resolution passed on 10 November in the United Nations. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will refer to that in her speech.

I am delighted that the 12 members of the European Community not only endorsed the United Nations resolution, but found the time during the weekend summit in Copenhagen to go further:
"The Twelve paid tribute to the Afghan people's spirit of independence … They believe there should now be … new impetus in the peace negotiations and call on the Soviet Union to:
withdraw all its troops by a date in 1988 according to a fixed timetable;
agree to the establishment of a transitional government, whose independence could not be contested, to make preparations for a new constitution and a genuine act of self-determination;
recognise that the participation of the Afghan resistance is essential to a comprehensive political settlement."
The last of those terms is vital. We cannot agree to a settlement in Afghanistan which leaves a quasi-Communist, Soviet-friendly Government in Kabul. The battle has been too vicious. We must insist upon some solution that guarantees independence for the country and self-determination

The difficulty has been that the seven or so groups of the Mujahideen have not always been able to be concerted in their efforts—other than their military efforts—partly as a result of geography and partly for local reasons. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister will take it upon the Government and herself to take a lead in that matter. We might be able to encourage a formation of the Afghan resistance fighters perhaps around ex-King Zahir Shah. I understand that he now lives in Rome and is at least contactable. One of the Afghan rebel leaders visited this country recently and said that he believed that there was increasing support for the ex-king as a focal point to bring together otherwise diverse groups. That is essential if we are to give the help to that country which is so vital.

Western aid must continue. The United States is a major provider of such aid, and that aid enables Stinger missiles to be used by the Afghan resistance to such devastating effect. We have heard from ITN that the Soviet tactic for aircraft and helicopters was to fly low and bomb not military targets but villages, and their accuracy was devastating. At least the Stinger enables the Afghans to force those helicopters and aircraft to heights where their accuracy is not as devastating, and so gives innocent civilians a chance of survival. Once a village has been bombed, whether or not accurately, most villagers become refugees. The dirty work of the Soviet Army is done in a different way, as those pitiful people cross the borders into Pakistan, which is already struggling to cope with the refugees there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury has made most of the vital points, so my remarks are deliberately brief. My purpose is to underline the human tragedy in Afghanistan and the facts that the nation with which the Americans are negotiating in a "realpolitik" sense about an INF treaty is still practising atrocities that we do not consider acceptable for a civilised nation, and that we must judge the Soviet Union accordingly.

I urge the Government to continue their valiant efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan by ensuring that in every council on which we are represented we make a clear case that Western Governments find the continued Soviet presence in Afghanistan utterly unacceptable. That is why the statement in Copenhagen is so valuable and the overwhelming vote in the United Nations on 10 November so vital. I ask my right hon. Friend whether she can give us comfort by telling us whether any more can be done by individual Governments, particularly to encourage the Afghans to group around the ex-king, so that a sensible and credible alternative can be provided to permit self-determination in that so afflicted country.

1.22 am

I agree with the hon. Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor) that the timing of the debate has a happy relevance because of the superpower summit now taking place in Washington. We know that, after addressing themselves to the INF treaty, the two leaders will look at some major regional problems, and Afghanistan is the prime problem to be addressed.

As the hon. Member for Esher said, the declaration of the European Council at Copenhagen last Saturday is relevant. There is nothing in the declaration to which we take exception. Indeed, we endorse the key elements of it. The aim is to end the tragic human suffering in Afghanistan. We know that approximately 1 million people have died in that tragic and torn country. We condemn the continued violation of human rights, which have been well documented by Amnesty International over the years and which were set out graphically by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad) in his realistic and well-composed speech. The refugees, numbering approximately 5 million—the largest single exodus from any country — should be allowed to return to their country from Pakistan and Iran. The ultimate aim is to make Afghanistan a genuine, independent and nonaligned country.

We also accept the call of the Copenhagen summit for a new impetus in the peace negotiations. That impetus is set out in three specific proposals of the Copenhagen summit. The first is that the Soviet Union should withdraw all its troops by a date in 1988 in accordance with a fixed timetable, and I agree with that because we yield to no one in our condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and its continued occupation of that country.

The summit then called for the establishment of a transitional Government whose independence could not be contested, and in our judgment it is only by the formation of such a transitional Government that the way through to the objective of a non-aligned and sovereign Afghanistan can be effected. The summit also said that the participation of the Afghan resistance was essential to a comprehensive, political settlement.

The faults of the rebels have been detailed by other hon. Members — the element of corruption, the disunity among the rebels and the presence of Islamic fundamentalism in elements of the coalition in Peshawar. All that does not fit in well with the rather naive idealistic picture of the rebels sometimes painted by Conservative Members. Nevertheless, with all their faults, the rebels represent the necessary element to build the future of that tragically torn country.

The Twelve ended their declaration by saying that they remained
"ready to contribute constructively towards the achievement of an acceptable settlement."
It is difficult to think of something specific that the Twelve can do to assist the Afghan people in that aim, but we can assist in a humanitarian manner in respect of the refugees in Pakistan. We endorse the efforts that the Government have made in that respect. There may be the possibility of helping to lean on the correct people to see whether an acceptable form of transitional Government can be achieved. However, that is probably more likely to result from the super-power summit than from anything that the Twelve can do.

As a result of our experiences in the 19th century we could have advised the Soviets on the danger of invading Afghanistan and becoming enmeshed in what is now their ninth year of occupation. The Afghan people are hardy, the terrain is hardy and the Afghan people will never lose. Even if they face reverses, their morale is now high because the Soviets have lost their air supremacy as a result of the supply of both Blowpipe and Stinger missiles to the rebels. We talk about glasnost, and everyone knows that the British Government must have connived at the transfer of Blowpipe missiles from Shorts in Belfast to the Central Intelligence Agency, and, thereafter to the Afghan rebels. In the spirit of glasnost, why will the Government not tell the British public what they are doing?

The Soviets now realise that they cannot win, and they dare not lose in a dramatic fashion. They perceive that they made a historic error in December 1979. A stalemate has been reached, but the lines of communication from the Soviet Union to Afghanistan are much easier than was the case when the United States was waging its war in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The Soviets have had to pay, and properly so, a major price over the years: an economic price, in the drain on their resources; a human price, with — it is said —between 30,000 and 40,000 casualties in the war; and, certainly, a price in terms of international good will. The vote in the General Assembly on 10 November has already been mentioned: a record majority of 104 against the Soviet position, which included even Iran. The Soviets have been working extremely hard on Iran in the context of the Gulf war over the past months, yet Iran felt the need to maintain its Islamic solidarity with the people of Afghanistan. Let me say in passing that it is sad to see the names of some of those countries, particularly those that abstained in the vote at the General Assembly. Nevertheless, it is heartening to learn of such a record vote of protest against the Soviet position.

Mr. Gorbachev spoke in 1986 of the "bleeding wound." He himself inherited that commitment, and he finds himself in the difficult position of getting off the hook. As the United States learnt in Vietnam and perhaps has yet to learn in Nicaragua, local morale is more important than the most sophisticated military hardware. Mr. Gorbachev has now probably recognised that the stratagems that he has adopted over the past months in terms of damage limitation are clearly not working.

It seems pretty clear that the Soviets are not prepared to increase their commitment of military personnel and resources within Afghanistan. They have used a series of stratagems; for example, the replacement last year of President Babrak Karmal by Mr. Najib, who was thought to be a more acceptable individual; a so-called ceasefire; a national reconciliation; and the calling of a grand assembly of tribal leaders. All those strategems were designed, if possible, to lead the conflict along lines acceptable to the Soviet Union, but all of them appear to have failed. Indeed, it is said that Mr. Najib's position may well now be in danger.

Two weeks ago the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister, Mr. Vorontsov, met the United States State Department official, Mr. Armacost, and—it is said—indicated that during the current negotiations in Washington the Soviets would make a major statement about the timetable of troop withdrawals. We await with interest what will emerge from Washington. As I understand it, the position in September of this year was that the Afghans had offered a 16-month withdrawal period, while the Pakistani side announced that its maximum would be eight months. The eight-month difference would not seem to be unbridgeable if there were sufficient guarantees about what would happen during the interim period. Clearly, there has recently been a substantial degree of movement, and we hope that that can be taken further at the superpowers summit.

We ask ourselves whether the aim is clear, which is to arrive ultimately at an independent, non-aligned Afghanistan, which can chart its own future. What should now be our reaction? Do we wish to crow over the Soviets' discomfiture and exult in their embarrassment? Clearly, there are elements on the Right wing in the United States who rather use the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan for those purposes. Do We seek to score points, or do we seek as far as possible to ease the way for the Soviets to withdraw, leading to the aim that I have mentioned of national sovereignty of the Afghan people?

We recognise the Soviet mistake, that tragic blunder, of invasion, and the human rights violations, which are well documented. But surely, ultimately, the most constructive thing that the West can do is to seek to help the Soviet Union out of the hole that it chose to dig for itself. The Soviet Union is also a proud country. There is no question of the Soviets scuttling from Kabul in the way that the Americans scuttled out of Vietnam. There must be a transitional Government, though not, I stress, a Government such as the Soviets are now seeking to have; one which is effectively under the control of their own nominees and which will be simply a Soviet puppet, with perhaps elements brought in from the rebel groupings.

In spite of all the hesitations that one has about the rebel groups—and there are said to be some differences between those rebels who are fighting within the country itself and the coalition in Peshawar, which is the favoured element of the West — there are the makings of an independent, non-aligned Islamic country. Perhaps here, as has been the case elsewhere, the real political problem is that of how to effect the transition. Spain had a king, and he played a major democratic role in easing that country from the Franco regime to the happy democracy that it now enjoys.

I note what has been said, for example, by the hon. Member for Esher, that perhaps, on lines not unlike those in Spain, a suitable figure for this transition would be the king, Zahir Shah, who resides in Rome.

I understand that he has said in terms that he would not co-operate unless he had the agreement of the rebels. I suspect that I met the same rebel leader as did the hon. Member for Esher. He indicated that although he represents one of the more moderate elements in the coalition, he would be in favour of such a solution. For the classicists among us, like the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), one might devise a formula like a rex et machina to resolve the tragedy in Afghanistan.

I believe that the British Government can play a role in encouraging and helping. We should show that we have a concern for Afghanistan. I make the point in passing, that if we showed that same concern for human rights, which is very proper in Afghanistan, elsewhere in the world, in areas such as South Africa and Central America, our credibility and the force of our arguments would be immeasurably improved. That said, we should shun cold war rhetoric and seek constructively to find a way forward, as set out in the declaration of the European Council, and say that a country such as Afghanistan, though geographically in the backyard of a super power, can nevertheless achieve national sovereignty and chart its own chosen course in the world.

1.38 am

I am most grateful, Mr. Speaker, to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad) for instigating this debate and to all my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) for their participation.

There is no doubt that the debate is timely. The eighth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is due within days. Last month a record number of countries—123 — again made it clear to the Soviet Union that Soviet troops should be withdrawn immediately and that the Afghans should be allowed their right to genuine self-determination.

As a number of hon. Members have said, three days ago in Copenhagen the European Council of the Heads of Government of the Twelve called on the Soviet Union to withdraw all its troops by a date in 1988, according to a fixed timetable. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reinforced that message again with Mr. Gorbachev when she met him at Brize Norton.

Yet the position on the ground in Afghanistan remains the same. It is important that the international community, and the British people, as represented in the House, should pay tribute to the incredible fortitude of the Afghan people through all these long years—the same Afghan people who are the subject of aggressive military campaigns. The United Nations special rapporteur has documented over 14,000 civilian deaths in the past year alone, and 49,000 in the previous two years. Some 5 million Afghans have fled their country, with some 3 million going to Pakistan. The exodus continues at 4,000 to 5,000 a month.

I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor) in praising Sandy Gall for bringing to public attention what has been happening in Afghanistan. He and other journalists have done a valuable job.

However, it is not only what has happened in Afghanistan, it is what is continuing to happen and the costs that it is imposing on the people of Pakistan. A wave of terrorist bombing in recent months on Pakistan territory has caused hundreds of innocent deaths. We should pay tribute to the patience that has been shown by the Pakistan Government in the face of those pressures, and to the principled and moderate stance that it has taken in the negotiations thus far.

Above all, as hon. Members have said, this debate is timely because Mr. Gorbachev visited Britain yesterday and is engaged in discussions with the United States President today. The future of Afghanistan, sadly, lies in Soviet hands. It is for the new Soviet leadership to show by its actions on Afghanistan whether new thinking has permeated Soviet foreign relations.

We must recognise that there seem to have been changes in Soviet attitudes on Afghanistan in the past two years. At Soviet behest, the Kabul regime now talks of "national reconciliation" and of welcoming the resistance back. It also talks of paying due account to Afghan traditions and Islam. The Russians talk of withdrawing from Afghanistan and have dropped broad hints that a gesture on troop withdrawal might be forthcoming.

I have to ask, how far do the deeds match up with those welcome words? Do those welcome words have a foundation? The House must judge for itself. The so-called policy of national reconciliation has been on the Kabul regime's terms. It is known by the Afghan people for what it is. As my noble Friend the Minister of State said, this so-called national reconciliation is merely an invitation to capitulate.

I must tell the hon. Member for Swansea, East that I do not believe that the coming of Najib as president, under a new constitution rubber-stamped by a new assembly, shows the true face of so-called national reconciliation, particularly when one realises that he is a former secret policeman of KHAD.

It may be that outsiders are welcome in Kabul, but only if they are prepared to accept the continuing dominance of Moscow's client, the PDPA, which is the Afghan Communist party. Its leader recently made it clear that the PDPA intended to maintain the dominant position in the state. He has been appointed president under a new constitution, which gives the president sweeping executive powers.

Thus, one can sum up by saying that the efforts of Moscow and Kabul over the past year seem merely to have been designed to try to win on the political front what they have failed to win militarily. I do not believe that anyone has or should be deceived by that. The Russians have not yet withdrawn their troops. Instead, in this year's campaigns they seem to have been playing an even more active part in offensive operations. I understand that morale among the regime troops remains, understandably, at rock bottom. If they were not fighting, perhaps it would be better.

We had hoped for progress at the United Nations talks but there has been only prevarication on the part of Moscow and Kabul. As the months go by in the delay between sessions, so the next so-called concession made by Kabul is more than cancelled out. Kabul's offer at the last session in September of a timetable of 16 months, to which the hon. Member for Swansea, East referred, was so clearly not serious that it remains unclear when a new session can be expected to convene.

We support the unrelenting efforts of the United Nations Secretary-General's personal representative to bring about a successful conclusion to the talks. What is needed is a decision in Moscow that the time is now right for settlement. The Afghan people deserve no further delay.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury carefully and thoughtfully introduced the debate. I should say to him that the Government fully support the excellent work done by the Afghan information office in its efforts to provide factual reports of the situation on the ground and to build up public support in this country for the Afghan refugees and resistance. I have taken careful note of his comments and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) with regard to the need for the Government's financial support to be increased. Certainly that will be considered carefully.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury also talked about aid for Afghanistan. He referred to the immense effort made by international agencies and by private and voluntary organisations to help the Afghans who have become victims of the war. I entirely agree. The Government pay tribute to the excellent work done year after year by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross in their efforts to help the refugees and the war wounded. However, it is the private voluntary organisations such as Afghanaid and Health Unlimited that perhaps deserve most praise. They are working to help Afghans inside the country who have been deprived of services of all sorts for eight years.

Medical facilities are deplorable in many areas and it is only the lucky ones who are adequately treated or manage to reach the border. Food is short in some areas as a result of the deliberate destruction over the years of irrigation canals and the economic infrastructure. We express our admiration for all those who work in those organisations, often at great personal risk, in order to help the Afghan people.

The evidence of the deep concern felt by voluntary agencies in this country is provided in the recent report published by the British Refugee Council, in conjunction with 10 other voluntary agencies, including Oxfam, Christian Aid, Ockenden Venture, Salvation Army and the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development. That report gives a clear account of the problems facing the largest refugee population in the world, the large numbers of displaced persons inside the country and what needs to be done. I hope that that report will be widely read and digested as a valuable source of information about the real situation and the need for still greater efforts to help the Afghan people.

The Government attach considerable importance to the successful and satisfactory resolution of the Afghanistan problem. The Government will continue to provide substantial aid to the refugees and victims of the war. We will continue to do our best to inform international opinion about the real situation in that country. Information has become increasingly hard to come by because journalists face the threat of capture or worse as the Russians try to hide the true facts from the world. We admire the courage of the Afghan resistance and we welcome the way it has grown in political co-ordination. As the House may know my noble Friend the Minister of State met two leaders of the resistance alliance in London last week. It is clear to everyone involved in the debate and, I hope, to everyone outside the House that the resistance both inside and outside Afghanistan has to be involved in any settlement that takes place. That settlement will have to be on the terms of the people of Afghanistan and not imposed from outside.

It is high time that the suffering was brought to an end. We would much prefer to devote our resources to help the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Therefore, a new and urgent impetus is needed in the search for peace.

I understand that the Russians have certain concerns. They have said of late that they do not want bloodshed in Afghanistan after their withdrawal. They say that they have security interests on their border. They no doubt want the next Government in Afghanistan to be friendly to them.

It is high time that the Soviet Union ceased playing for time. The fact is that the United Nations settlement meets their concern that there should be no "non-interference". The best way in which to avoid bloodshed is to bring about a settlement which allows the refugees to return, involves the resistance and allows the Afghans themselves to sort out their own future. As in any situation where war has prevailed for many years, the transition to peace will not be easy, but there are ways forward if only the Soviet Union will bring itself to take the necessary decisions. Those decisions are not easy, but they must be taken. There is no other way forward.

The European Council at the weekend drew attention to the need for a transitional Government whose independence could not be contested to take charge during that difficult period. Such a credible transitional Government could put in hand the necessary preparations for independence, such as for a new constitution and for a genuine test of self-determination. This surely is the best way forward to build confidence in the run-up to the restoration of independence.

There has also been talk of Afghanistan achieving a neutral status. This might be another confidence-building development to help the new Afghanistan on its way. Certainly there can be no solution which adds up to the Russians imposing a Government of their choice dominated by their stooges, on the Afghan people against their will.

Above all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley said, and as the European Council has made clear, the Soviet Union should agree to withdraw its troops as soon as possible in 1988. It should send the Kabul regime back to the conference table at Geneva as soon as possible with instructions to this effect. That would raise confidence considerably among the refugees and the resistance. The Russians should accompany this, as the European Council has made clear, with an acknowledgement that they will allow the Afghans to form an independent Government which is freely chosen. I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Swansea, East endorse what the European Council said at the weekend.

This cannot be a popular war for the Soviet Union. Almost the entire international community condemns it. Soviet men are being killed and wounded. For what? This year has been another year of military stalemate, a year of still further flows of refugees to Pakistan, and a year of grave and massive violations of human rights, as testified by an overwhelming majority of countries during deliberations on human rights at the General Assembly. It has been a year of efforts by the Kabul regime to broaden its base, without success.

Now is the time for a fresh start. The Government will take every opportunity in every forum to bring the illegal occupation of Afghanistan to an end. We shall try to contribute constructively to a settlement. A political settlement is available if only the Soviet Union can have the foresight to take it. We call on Mr. Gorbachev to do just that. We need an irrevocable guarantee from the Soviet Union.

Perhaps I may end by quoting what a Soviet father wrote to the General Secretary after losing his son in this pointless war:
"Mikhail Sergeevich, I am not a politician nor a diplomat but only a simple Soviet citizen and it is, of course, difficult for me to make out the details of international affairs. But I would like to ask you, for the sake of what ideals and interests are the young lives of our sons being laid down in Afghanistan, how can this be combined with the perestroika which is taking place in our country? Please explain to me. I am deeply convinced of your power to stop this unnecessary sacrifice and tribute to the thoughtless undertakings of your predecessors. I implore you to stop this appalling bloodletting in Afghanistan in the same way as you have done so much that is useful in the two years of your leadership … … Peace, Mikhail Sergeevich, is needed by both large and small countries".
I think that all those here in the House would agree heartily with that sentiment. We want to see an end to the ravage of Afghanistan and we want to see a beginning to the freedom of her people.