House of Commons
Monday 23 November 2009
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
With permission, I would like to make a statement about the serious flooding in Cumbria and other areas of the country in the past few days. I have to report that PC Bill Barker lost his life in the floods in Workington while protecting the public. I know that the House will wish to echo the tribute paid by the Prime Minister on Friday to PC Barker. He was a very brave man. I also have to report that Michael Streeter, a contractor working for the Environment Agency, died following an accident on Selsey bill in West Sussex, where he was maintaining defences. There has been one other fatality—Mr. Chris Wheeler, a canoeist—and a woman is missing in Wales. Our thoughts are with all their families and colleagues.
The flooding was caused by sustained rainfall from Wednesday evening onwards. In some parts of Cumbria there were unprecedented amounts of rain, totalling more than 300 mm—that is more than 12 inches—in 24 hours. The worst affected areas were in west and central Cumbria. Around 1,300 or more properties have flooded, mainly in Cockermouth, Workington, Ulverston, Burneside, Kendal, Keswick and Eamont Bridge, but also in a number of small villages.
As the forecast heavy rain arrived, silver and gold commands were quickly set up, and many residents were evacuated, some by helicopter. Some went to stay with family and friends; others have been housed in reception centres set up in Kendal, Cockermouth and Keswick. Many local roads have been affected, the west coast main line was temporarily suspended, and six bridges have collapsed due to the force of the water. Workington has lost Northside bridge, and the Calva bridge has been seriously damaged. Councils are making arrangements to ensure that residents can get access to essential services. More than 1,000 properties lost electricity, 40 were without mains water, and 12,000 were left without landline phones. Efforts are being made by the utility companies to restore supplies, and most of the landlines are now working.
I saw for myself on Friday and Saturday in Cockermouth just what an effect the torrent of water had on homes, businesses and communities. It is utterly devastating, and the House will wish to express its sympathy to all those affected. The House will also wish to pay tribute to all those who have been involved in responding to the emergency, in particular those who worked so hard throughout Thursday night and into the weekend, led by chief constable Craig Mackey. That includes the staff of the fire, ambulance, and police services, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Mountain Rescue England and Wales, our armed forces, local authorities, the Environment Agency, the voluntary sector and, of course, the communities affected—neighbour once again helping neighbour, and showing the best of human spirit. I would also like to thank all the MPs in Cumbria, who have been working so hard to look after their constituents.
The Government and local councils will do everything possible to help people to rebuild their lives, although we know that it takes time for homes and buildings to dry out. Council homeless teams are arranging longer-term accommodation for those who need it. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government activated the Bellwin scheme for the worst-affected areas on Friday morning. That scheme helps local authorities with the cost of emergency assistance and clean-up. In recognition of the exceptional nature of the floods, he has extended the scheme to allow authorities to claim 100 per cent. of the costs incurred, as was the case in 2007.
The Prime Minister announced, during his visit on Saturday, £1 million in community recovery grant, to match the amount being given by the regional development agency to support the many small businesses that have been severely affected. The Department for Transport will also provide emergency funding—as it did two years ago—to help with repairs to bridges and roads.
Cleaning up the mess has now started, and Cumbria county council is leading the local recovery effort. There will be a ministerial meeting later this afternoon to look at what more needs to be done to help. However, I must advise the House that further heavy rain is forecast overnight, and there may be some further flooding. The Association of British Insurers has urged people who have been flooded to contact their insurance company as quickly as possible. Its first priority is to ensure that every claim is dealt with promptly, and it will do everything that it can to help customers to recover.
As with all major flooding, there will be lessons to be learned, although I have to say that the response of the emergency services was very impressive. We will work with the Environment Agency and others to ensure that the lessons are learned. In the two years since the 2007 floods, the Environment Agency has completed 106 flood defence schemes, protecting more than 63,000 additional homes in England and Wales, including in Carlisle. As I saw for myself on Friday, the new £40 million flood defence scheme there, built after the 2005 floods, helped to prevent flooding to around 3,000 properties last weekend.
The House will know that, in the decade to 2007, we more than doubled spending on flood and coastal erosion defence. We are investing a record £2.15 billion over the current three-year spending period. We have also responded to the Pitt report by setting up the Flood Forecasting Centre, to provide better early warning of flooding; invested £2 million in improved flood rescue capability, including improving co-ordination of rescue boats; set up a £5 million scheme for household flood protection; and encouraged 140,000 additional people to sign up to receive flood warnings in England and Wales.
We have also introduced the Flood and Water Management Bill that is currently before the House. I would like to thank the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for its scrutiny of the draft Bill, and I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will help in getting that important Bill on to the statute book.
Although we cannot attribute this particular event to climate change, we can expect to see more extreme weather in the years ahead. That is a future that we must prepare for. I will, of course, keep the House informed of any further significant developments.
I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement a short while ago. On behalf of the official Opposition, I extend our sympathy to the individuals, families and businesses affected by the floods. I, too, saw the scale of the damage when I visited Keswick and Cockermouth on Saturday. The effect on people’s homes and local businesses is dreadful. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) has been touring the affected areas today, and the Leader of the Opposition will be visiting this week.
We pay tribute to the dedicated professionalism of the emergency services, and in particular to PC Bill Barker, who tragically lost his life during the rescue operation. We also remember the Environment Agency contractor and the canoeist who have died in the past few days. Our thoughts are with all their families at this difficult time. I applaud the tremendous efforts of so many volunteers who have been working to support the community throughout the past few days.
As I made clear at the weekend, we on the Opposition Benches have pledged our full support for all the measures needed to help the communities affected. Although most insurance policies will cover the costs of alternative accommodation, it is the length of time away from their homes that will weigh most heavily on local people. We recognise that there are issues of safety, but even if families cannot move back home immediately, does the Secretary of State agree that they should be allowed the chance to inspect the damage at the earliest opportunity, as I understand some have been today?
Regrettably, hundreds of families will be out of their homes for Christmas because it can take many months for flood-damaged houses to be fit for habitation. Although I appreciate that housing stock needs time to dry out, does the Secretary of State agree that we need a concerted effort to get people back into their homes and businesses as soon as practically possible? We must do all we can to avoid a repeat of the situation after the floods of 2005 and 2007, when some people were displaced from their properties for months on end or even years.
Clearly, the situation with broken or potentially unsafe bridges is causing real problems for the local community. Can the Secretary of State indicate what role there might be in the short term for Army engineers to erect temporary crossings?
We appreciate that the affected areas saw record rainfall on Thursday, and that the water rose to such levels that flood defences were overwhelmed. However, when some of these communities have been flooded twice in four years, does the Secretary of State agree that there should be a formal review of flood defences in the area, not just to understand fully what happened, but to assess future needs? Does he also agree that, across the country, we will need to consider augmenting hard flood defences with alleviation measures such as natural upland drainage systems?
We have welcomed the introduction of the Flood and Water Management Bill and we will back the necessary measures to implement the Pitt review recommendations for flood prevention so that they become law at the earliest opportunity. Has the Cabinet Committee specifically recommended by Pitt to improve the country’s ability to deal with flooding met?
Our climate is changing and bringing with it more extreme weather. Inevitably, there will be floods that cannot be prevented, but when one in six homes are at risk of flooding, is it not essential that effective measures be put in place to prevent future incidents where that is possible? We on the Conservative Benches are committed to working constructively to that end, but does the Secretary of State agree that, as the clean-up takes place, as we move from emergency to recovery and as media attention moves on, we must continue to remember the individuals and families who have been affected by these events and maintain every effort to ensure that they can return to normal life as soon as possible?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his words of appreciation to all those who have worked so hard, and for his visit on Saturday. I can inform the House that the Minister with responsibility for flood recovery, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination, was in Workington and Cockermouth yesterday; and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), is in Cumbria today, as is Lord McKenzie of Luton. I know from personal experience that people on the ground appreciate such visits, because they help to show that people in very difficult circumstances are not forgotten. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about the need to be there to support people in the long term, not just in the immediate aftermath of the flooding.
I understand completely the wish of residents to be able to get back into their homes. I spoke to two or three who made that very point to me on Saturday morning. The police and the engineers have to be sure, however, that structures are safe for people to go back into. The torrent of water that went down Main street in Cockermouth, in particular, was extremely powerful, and they need to check that buildings are safe. However, I am sure that the police will seek to enable access as quickly as possible, subject to that requirement.
On bridges, we will, indeed, look at what can be done. I am happy to confirm that the Cabinet Committee that Sir Michael Pitt recommended has met, and, as I have already told the House, we will have a ministerial meeting later today.
The hon. Gentleman referred to previous flooding. He will be aware that a flood defence scheme was put in place in Cockermouth in the late 1990s, and it was topped up a bit in the wake of the 2005 floods. However, it was completely, as he said, overwhelmed.
In the case of Keswick, where a scheme has been under consideration, I am advised that it, too, would have been overwhelmed by the scale of the water that we saw. However, I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that we will look in particular at what can be learned in relation to flood defences in Cumbria.
Upland flood storage, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is part of the approach that the Environment Agency takes in trying to find a way to manage water. One can either defend places using higher walls as the water comes through, or try to reduce the rate of flow by storing it elsewhere, which flood plains have done naturally for many years.
I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his expression of support for the Flood and Water Management Bill, which will complete the process, which we have already started, of implementing Pitt’s many recommendations. That has not stopped us getting on with a great deal in the past two years, as I have already indicated to the House, but it will clarify the law, where required, both on the responsibilities of local authorities, and on reservoir safety, which was an important recommendation of Sir Michael’s report.
In thanking the Secretary of State for his statement, may I add my thanks to all those who have worked heroically since the early hours of Thursday morning to protect residents, homes and businesses throughout Cumbria? My brother-in-law is a member of Cumbria constabulary, and I have many friends in the force. They, like the whole community, are devastated by the loss of PC Barker, and I join the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister in conveying my sympathy to PC Barker’s family. I assure them of our prayers of support and immense gratitude for his service to our community and for his heroism. I also join the Secretary of State in his expressions of sympathy to the families of Michael Streeter and Chris Wheeler.
Throughout my constituency, the police, the fire service, the ambulance service, the coastguard and South Lakeland district council deserve our thanks and praise, as do the volunteers in mountain rescue and in bay search and rescue. Our whole local community, and our local media, deserve praise, too. As of yesterday afternoon, the flood relief fund stood at £140,000 from voluntary donations alone, and that makes me extremely proud to be a Cumbrian.
Since Thursday morning, I have visited residents and businesses in my constituency in Kendal, Burneside, Staveley, Windermere, Bowness and Ambleside. In each place, I have found people who have been devastated by the floods, but they are determined to work together and refuse to be cowed by the devastation. Indeed, the catastrophe has brought our community even closer together. On Thursday, as the River Kent was bursting its banks on Aynam road in Kendal, I joined dozens of volunteers in a desperate and, I should say, successful bid to move to safety thousands of Christmas presents bound for orphanages in eastern Europe before the flood waters encroached on the warehouse.
I walked with a family of local volunteers back to their home on Aynam road. Our mood of optimism and common endeavour fell as we discovered that the children’s downstairs bedrooms had been flooded. It was heartbreaking to witness. There, in one vignette, I saw the camaraderie and common endeavour on the one hand, and the deep and devastating loss and upset on the other.
Only 10 days ago, I took United Utilities and Environment Agency representatives to Burneside, where I pointed out to them the risk of flooding. United Utilities said that the cause of flooding was the inadequate capacity of the Kendal drainage system, but that an upgrade was a low priority. I am afraid that we have now paid for that complacency; homes in Kendal and Burneside flooded on Thursday. In most cases, they flooded because of a drainage system that was seriously undercapacity. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need an upgrade as a priority?
I thank the Secretary of State and Environment Agency officials for keeping me well informed throughout the past few days, but may I ask him why residents on the Environment Agency’s flood watch call list were not given targeted warnings at all, or, in the case of Burneside, were texted six hours after their homes had been flooded? Given that the national Flood Forecasting Centre has the know-how to predict with pinpoint accuracy the likely communities and streets that will flood, why has it not been allowed to convey targeted warnings in advance to residents and businesses?
Will the Secretary of State ensure that insurance companies do not respond to the disaster by hiking up insurance premiums in the affected areas, or by massively increasing the insurance excesses? Does he agree that local authorities should be given the right to turn down any planning application for building in flood-risk areas? Will he acknowledge that the delay in the arrival of the Flood and Water Management Bill has meant that confusion remains over who is responsible for so many aspects of flood prevention?
I spent yesterday in Ambleside and Bowness with my family and saw businesses carrying on as usual, refusing to give in to the elements. The spirit out there is indefatigable and the message that those enterprises want me to get across is that the Lake district is very much open for business. The floods have been devastating, but we are made of stern stuff in Cumbria, and we are determined to carry on.
Finally, will the Secretary of State join me in calling on the British people to support Cumbria by continuing to visit and enjoy the festive spirit in Britain’s most spectacular county?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his words of sympathy and eloquent appreciation of the efforts that the community is making; obviously, he has been at the heart of those in the past few days. I want to echo the point that he made about the local media. At times such as these, local radio in particular, but also local television, are tried and trusted sources of information about what is happening and where people can go to get assistance.
I turn to the warnings. Obviously, a flood warning was issued to Kendal. However, much depends on the nature of the flooding; there is no warning for surface water flooding, by definition, because unless we know exactly where the rain is going to land, it is hard to indicate where surface water flooding may arise. That is why one of the measures in the Flood and Water Management Bill is to give the local authority, the upper tier or unitary authority lead responsibility for bringing together all the people with responsibility for bits of the drainage infrastructure—they could be the private owners of culverts, the Highways Agency, the council and others—to do precisely what the hon. Gentleman has suggested needs to be done to deal with the problem. I should add that we are also dealing with the legacy of 150 years of paving, tarmacking and concreting over all the land in our towns and cities. If that is done and huge amounts of rain fall out of the sky, where will the water go? That legacy has to be dealt with.
Local authorities do have the powers in respect of building on floodplains. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we strengthened the planning guidance; the Environment Agency must now be consulted on planning applications. I am happy to report that in the vast majority of cases the decision goes in line with what the Environment Agency has to say about whether it is safe to build on a floodplain. It all depends on whether homes can be adequately defended.
I very much echo the hon. Gentleman’s final point. I hope that people continue to visit Cumbria and support businesses there. As one shop owner in Cockermouth said to me on Saturday, once things are up and running again, the most important thing is that people come and use the shops, to help businesses to get back on their feet.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the prompt action that he and his colleagues have taken. I echo the respect that he has shown for the emergency services in Cumbria. We are very proud of them; they have done a brilliant job.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way for us to demonstrate our long-term commitment to the recovery process, which is now inevitable, is to make an announcement soon about the additional resources that will be available to repair the bridges that we have lost? Until we are clear about how we will do that, the long-term health of the Cumbrian economy will still be a concern for many.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. In relation to the bridges, there is a well established scheme, which, as I mentioned a moment ago, operated in 2007, in which the Department for Transport helps with costs that exceed 15 per cent. of the highways budgets of the affected authorities. That paid out a considerable sum in the wake of the 2007 floods. Precisely what will be required will depend on the nature of the damage. We will not know the extent of the damage until engineers have had a chance to inspect all the bridges. In many cases, the high water levels make that very difficult at the moment. I spoke to the Secretary of State for Transport on Saturday evening. Folk from the Highways Agency are working to support the local authorities in undertaking this work, and we will do everything that we can to help.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I and my constituents pass on our condolences to the family and friends of PC Barker. I phoned the chief constable on Friday to pass on those condolences. I also thank the Secretary of State for his customary courtesy since the crisis broke in keeping Members of Parliament in the county informed of developments. I wish that every Minister would follow his example.
My constituency, on the eastern side of Cumbria, has been less affected on this occasion than it has in the past. When I visited those in Appleby and Eamont Bridge who had been affected, on Saturday, their hearts went out to their fellow Cumbrians in the west of the county who had been devastated. In Appleby, the experiment by the Environment Agency of individual household floodgates worked about 98 per cent. of the time. The two occasions on which they did not work were in one house that was way below the river level and one that had a wonky doorstep. I plead with the Secretary of State to consider a small-scale scheme in Eamont Bridge, where we will need something different from and better than individual floodgates to help.
I also thank the emergency services in Cumbria and all the other volunteers. I echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton). Devastating though this is for the individuals in Cumbria who have been flooded—and there is nothing worse than seeing a house that has been flooded—Cumbrians will get on with drying their places out. We will pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, but we cannot rebuild the bridges and the infrastructure. Cumbria is 300 miles from London, and we depend on transport links to London, and on having the best transport links in our county. I plead with the Secretary of State to ensure that we get our bridges rebuilt, not just our trunk roads.
We have a record amount of flooding in Cumbria. We also have the record for the longest serving temporary Bailey bridge in history. The bridge over the River Eden between Penrith and Langwathby was washed away in 1968, and we are still using the Bailey bridge, which has survived various floods. I know that the Secretary of State will not wish to go down in history as installing the largest number of temporary Bailey bridges.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that important bit of history and for reminding the House that flooding has occurred before and damaged infrastructure. He will be aware from what I have already said that I am acutely conscious of the point that he and other hon. Members have made about the disruption to transport infrastructure. The fact that the Papcastle bridge near Workington is reported to have reopened will offer some relief, given that one bridge has gone and the other is in serious danger. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination was briefed on this in her meeting with local authority leaders yesterday, and we will follow that up in the way that I have already indicated.
I also echo what the right hon. Gentleman said about the benefit of the flood guard defences. It will not be possible in every case to build a flood defence scheme, but we need to prepare for the future by making our homes more resilient and that is one very good example of how to do it.
My right hon. Friend the Minister will be meeting the insurance companies—as we did after the 2007 floods. To give an example of the quick response by one insurance company, when I visited the rest centre in Cockermouth for the second time on Saturday, one insurance company had already turned up and was dealing with people’s claims there and then. That shows how it is possible to respond. Insurance companies are very conscious of the need to help people to deal with their claims as quickly as possible, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we will follow that point up.
People in Northumberland, some of whom have only recently returned to their homes after the floods of more than a year ago, will be full of sympathy for their neighbours in Cumbria in this crisis. Will the Secretary of State take particular note of the work done by military search and rescue in rescuing people in the current operation and draw the Secretary of State for Defence’s attention to the need to review carefully the lessons from what has happened on the number of helicopters and crew that we need to deal with disasters?
As I have indicated, we will indeed learn all the lessons. At one time, in the early hours of Friday morning, the only way to rescue anyone from Cockermouth was by helicopter, because the force of the water was such that the rescue boats could not be used. I pay particular tribute to the skill of those crews, flying in very difficult circumstances indeed.
The establishment of the Flood Forecasting Centre is a welcome development and a good example of investment in the science that we need in that area. However, given the abnormal weather events that are occurring and, of course, climate change, is my right hon. Friend satisfied that sufficient resources are going into that? Will he also ensure that the best scientific advice is sought, to ensure that Britain is at the forefront in that field?
The establishment of the Flood Forecasting Centre has been a great step forward. I have visited it and seen EA and Met Office staff sitting side by side, issuing a single, unified forecast, which is a great step forward. We were all well aware that the rainfall was coming, which shows the benefits of one of the recommendations of Sir Michael Pitt’s report. The Flood Forecasting Centre is certainly working effectively, and I have put money in to make that to happen.
Does the Secretary of State accept that many of the tourists who go to Cockermouth are lovers of Wordsworth’s poetry who go to see his birthplace, which is a tourist magnet in that part of the world? Can the Secretary of State assure the House that the National Trust will be given every necessary help to ensure that that birthplace and wonderful historic house is restored?
I am sure that the National Trust—I believe that one of its representatives was on the radio this morning—will do everything that it can to ensure that that great tourist destination and an important part of Cumbria’s history is available for people to visit. I am sure, too, that the local Members representing Cumbria will play a part in doing that. In addition to those Members who are in the House today, may I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Copeland (Mr. Reed) and, in particular, for Workington (Tony Cunningham)? He has been hard at it since the crisis started, looking after his constituents, which is typical of the care and concern that all Members who represent Cumbrian constituencies have shown for the people whom they represent.
Clearly it is not feasible to design bridges and other structures to withstand a once-in-one-thousand-year event. However, could the Secretary of State please tell us how the frequency and risk of such events are calculated, when they were last calculated and whether a recalculation, with consequent changes to the design of structures such as bridges, is likely to happen?
My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. The standard that the Environment Agency currently uses is based on the best assessment that it can make, but he is right that the degree of protection that it offers will change as the climate changes and we have a better understanding of the greater risk that we face in the future. However, if I may, I will respond to him in a letter with some more detailed information.
Business and home owners, and not just in the current flood-damaged area but in other flood-risk areas, will be concerned about their prospects of obtaining buildings and contents insurance. The Secretary of State has already indicated that discussions will be held with the insurance industry. Could he urge it to ensure that there is comprehensive advice and information about people’s future insurance arrangements, and not just compensation for the current damage?
I will certainly do that. The hon. Lady raises a very important point. The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination will follow it up in her conversations with the insurance companies, and the regional development agency is offering helpful advice to businesses that are facing a tough time.
Will my right hon. Friend urge the Government business managers, including my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, to allow an early date for the Second Reading of the Flood and Water Management Bill before Christmas, to allow it the maximum opportunity to get through all its stages before Parliament is dissolved?
In 1953, 58 people living on Canvey Island in my constituency were killed in the flood of that year. Will the Secretary of State and the Government ensure that their planning inspectors and the Environment Agency do all that they can to stop local councils going ahead with building on flood plains? Castle Point borough council is stupidly planning to build hundreds of houses on Canvey Island’s floodplain.
As the hon. Gentleman has heard, we have strengthened the planning guidance to make it clear that local authorities must take flood risk into account, and to ensure that the Environment Agency—the experts—is consulted. I would expect local authorities in all circumstances to listen very seriously to what the Environment Agency has to say about particular applications.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Before we commence today’s business, may I draw to your attention to the early-day motion on the Order Paper, which has attracted growing support? It calls for a debate, that can be amended and voted on, on Afghanistan. Will you consider that matter when you decide what we are to vote on in the Queen’s Speech?
Debate on the Address
Debate resumed (Order, 19 November).
Question again proposed,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and Defence
I am pleased to open today’s debate, and I apologise that a prior diplomatic engagement means that I will not be here for the wind-up speeches.
Reviewing the debates that we have held since 2005 on successive Gracious Speeches, we can see that two sets of issues have dominated them. The first includes terrorism, weapons proliferation, and broader instability; the second involves the conditions for wider global security and prosperity. Over the past four years, UK leadership in pursuit of British interests and values has supported important changes in both areas. Two examples relate to conflict situations. In Iraq, the overall security situation is now stable and the capability of Iraqi security forces continues to improve. We hope that the progress of the past two years will be consolidated following national elections early next year. In Kosovo, now an independent state, last week’s local elections showed that different ethnic communities are increasingly coming together to build a more peaceful and prosperous future.
Meanwhile, in respect of the broader conditions for global security and prosperity, London’s summit in April co-ordinated international efforts to revive the global economy, and the prospect of EU membership continues to drive reform and progress in Europe’s neighbourhood. Turkey has made progress on human rights and judicial reform, Serbia has stepped up its co-operation with the international war crimes tribunal, and the European Commission has recently assessed that Macedonia is ready to start accession negotiations. The biggest concern in the western Balkans is now Bosnia, as I set out in a written ministerial statement last week.
Activism, multilateralism and internationalism have given Britain real influence. We will capitalise on that in this parliamentary Session. I do not need to tell the House that the biggest challenge is obviously Afghanistan and the related problems in Pakistan. I identified this as the No. 1 foreign policy priority for the Government in my first week as Foreign Secretary, and it continues to be so today. All hon. Members will no doubt want to join me in paying tribute to the 98 soldiers who have given their lives in the year since the last Queen’s Speech, to the families left behind, and to the wounded. My visit to Afghanistan last week reinforced for me the bravery, commitment and professionalism with which all parts of the UK team—soldiers, diplomats and aid workers—are taking their work forward.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that, last month, the Dutch Parliament held a vote following a debate on its military mission in Afghanistan. The German Parliament is due to hold a similar vote next month. May we have a debate and a vote on this matter in the British Parliament, as the amendment on the Order Paper calls for? We have not had such a debate since the beginning of our engagement in Afghanistan eight years ago.
I think you made it clear, Mr. Speaker, in response to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)—or rather, as it was not quite a point of order, an important issue none the less—that you would seriously consider this matter, also raised by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price).
I am sure that the Foreign Secretary is right to feel, as we all do, that we should be concerned about the morale of our troops fighting on active service abroad. Will he therefore try to ensure that those in the armed forces who are returning from action get priority for local housing when they get back to this country, as they need local social housing if they are not to become homeless, as has happened to a number of returning soldiers in Essex?
As I think the hon. Gentleman will know from the recent Command Paper in respect of provision for armed services personnel, that is one of the issues under discussion, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will be happy to say more about it either in the summing-up speech later tonight or in direct response to the hon. Gentleman.
There were important undertakings for everyone to welcome in President Karzai’s inauguration speech, but I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say that it is key that they are implemented. His commitments to reach out to his opponents, to promote national reconciliation, including through a Loya Jirga, to strengthen the Afghan security forces and to stamp down on corruption are right and important, but implementation is going to be more important than the words.
It is critical that NATO and, over time, the Afghan national army have sufficient strength to beat back the Taliban, but success depends on aligning military resources and development assistance behind a clear political strategy that addresses the root causes of the insurgency rather than just its symptoms. Three points are key.
The first is the Afghan people and their loyalty. Improving security is about protecting them from Taliban bribery and intimidation, and improving governance, especially at the local level, is about convincing them that it is in their interests to help Afghan and coalition forces do so. The second is the insurgency. Not all insurgents are ideologues; in fact, a minority are. Some fight for money or out of fear. As we ratchet up military pressure, we need to support the Afghan Government in efforts to reintegrate former insurgents back into their villages. Thirdly, we need to support constructive roles for Afghanistan’s neighbours. The country has historically been a chessboard for the battles of others. We must ensure that Afghanistan is a friend to all, but a client of none.
I think I have said to my hon. Friend on a number of occasions that President Karzai’s commitment is to follow any evidence with which he is presented. He talked on Thursday about a culture of impunity, which I believe is important. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree with me that the absolute key is going to be actions rather than words. While we welcome the setting up of units and task forces and the passing of laws, the absolute essence of progress is going to be seeing those turned into reality.
Despite not having supported our initial involvement in Afghanistan, I agree with the Government that the message we send out has to be very clear. Can the Foreign Secretary therefore square the circle regarding some of the contradictory messages that have issued from the Government recently—for example, we heard from the Prime Minister that the presence of British troops is essential in Afghanistan to safeguard the British people from terrorism, yet we also hear that if President Karzai does not clean up his act, British troops will be coming home?
It is very important to be clear about this. Members on both sides of the House have supported a British military presence in Afghanistan because of the security risks that would arise from the rolling over of the Afghan security forces by the insurgency. We know that Afghanistan was the incubator of international terrorism in the 1990s—and the incubator of choice for al-Qaeda. We also know about the dangers for Pakistan that would come from the opening of safe space on the Afghan side of the border for al-Qaeda forces, which are currently under significant pressure.
In respect of conditionality, it is important to be clear, first, that the Government never pay money to Governments abroad for development assistance unless they are sure about how that money is going to be spent. It is certainly a condition placed in a number of countries that when development assistance is paid, we want to ensure that it is followed through down to the ground. In respect of Afghanistan, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will confirm that condition, although I think I am right in saying that it is PricewaterhouseCoopers that undertakes the international audit to ensure that the money is properly spent. There is also a World Bank trust fund, which is the core means of achieving that, but it is also the case that in other countries where we do have concerns about whether the money will reach those for whom it is intended, that money is not paid through the Government. That is a different question from whether or not the number of British troops has increased, which the Prime Minister has said will be done on the basis of proper burden sharing with allies or with reference to the wider debate. If the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at what the Prime Minister, I and other Ministers have said, he will see that we have kept to that level of detail, which is important.
With respect, the Foreign Secretary still has not explained the contradiction: on the one hand, the Government say that British troops are in Afghanistan to protect British citizens from terrorism, and, on the other, that if President Karzai does not clean up his corrupt Government, British troops will come home. That contradiction sends out mixed messages to the British public and to our forces in Afghanistan.
Before the hon. Gentleman takes congratulations on his intervention from those sitting two Benches behind him, I will try to explain why I do not agree with him. There is not a contradiction, because that would suggest that the interests of the Afghan people and our interests in developing a proper partnership between the Afghan Government and the international community are different. The Afghan people are the first to say that corruption is a sap on the loyalty that they feel to their Government. In any counter-insurgency, it is critical that the population’s loyalty to their Government is maintained. We are in Afghanistan to ensure that its territorial integrity can be maintained, and that a safe space is not created for international terrorism there. It is consistent to say, clearly, that what is in the Afghan people’s interest, and our interest, is a Government whom they can trust. It is right, and essential, that we continue to make that point.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with the report in a newspaper last week that if foreign forces, including ours, were not in Afghanistan, the Afghan Government would fall in a matter of weeks? If that is anywhere near the case, how can they be a popular, democratic Government, and how can our presence be described as anything other than an occupation?
Put simply, because the Afghan national army and associated security forces are being built up from a very low level. All polling evidence, and any conversation with ordinary people in Afghanistan, tells us that they do not want to go back to the Taliban, that they fear Taliban misrule, and that, without foreign forces, their own forces would be unable to withstand attack. Over the past few years, the Afghan national army has been built up to some 90,000, which is a significant step on the road to the 134,000 that General McChrystal has set as an interim target, which has been brought forward to next November—a challenging, but none the less important, time scale. It is completely reasonable that we stick with that plan to build up Afghan security forces so that they can withstand the insurgency. I do not believe that my hon. Friend will find either a majority of Afghan people who seek a withdrawal of British troops, or a majority who suggest that Afghan forces will be able to withstand the insurgency on their own—they will not be able to do so at the moment.
The Prime Minister has clearly said that one of the criteria for keeping British troops in Afghanistan is that the Afghan President cleans up his act against fraud. When will the Government set out what they mean by “cleaning up his act” so that we can judge whether he has met such targets?
If my right hon. Friend refers back to the Prime Minister’s speech at the Mansion House last Monday, he will see that of the five areas set out by the Prime Minister, one concerned action against corruption. He went into some detail, for example in respect of the task force that had been set up two days before the speech, by Interior Minister Atmar, whom I met last Thursday in Kabul. The prosecution powers of that task force and its investigative powers need to be turned into a proper legislative form once the appointment of the new Interior Minister, or the reappointment of the existing one, takes place—
What the Prime Minister was setting out was a matter of common sense. The actions of the Afghan Government in respect of how they deliver services and make appointments will be important in determining how the Afghan people see their Government. That will be important to the success with which a counter-insurgency is pursued.
Does the Foreign Secretary accept that it is a question of not just President Karzai but political figures such as Abdullah Abdullah taking some responsibility for Afghanistan as a country, and starting to act in the national interest? They need to deal with corruption collectively, and to act in the collective interest of the country rather than in tribal and individual interests.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Afghanistan now has a presidential system, but it also has some significant Cabinet Ministers who hold significant power. As for the opposition, they too have an important role to play.
I met Dr. Abdullah in Afghanistan last Thursday. While he has made clear that he does not wish to join a Government of national unity in Afghanistan, he can play an important role in helping to promote a unity programme for any Government. I think that there are significant issues that could bring different sides together; and, as my hon. Friend suggests, if Dr. Abdullah is to become leader of the opposition, he will be able to play a constructive role in that capacity as well.
Hon. Members will know of the ethnic divisions that exist in Afghanistan. An important part of the job of the new Government is to ensure that all parts of Afghan society feel that they have a stake in the political system, at local and national level. As my hon. Friend pointed out, opposition figures have an important responsibility in that respect.
I said that one of the three key tasks for the counter-insurgency related to the region, and especially to Afghanistan’s neighbours. One neighbour is more important than any other: Pakistan. For years insurgents have flowed freely backwards and forwards across the Afghan-Pakistan border, and that is not going to stop any time soon. In the last year, however, the Pakistani army has taken the fight to the Pakistani Taliban in Swat, south Waziristan and elsewhere.
I considered it noteworthy that the Chief Minister of the North West Frontier province, Asfandyar Wali Khan, who represents the secular Awami National party in Pakistan, was present at the inauguration of President Karzai. He reported to me the significant progress made in the Swat valley, where as recently as June and July there were some 2.8 million internally displaced persons. Those IDPs have now returned to their houses, and the Pakistani authorities have been able to establish order. The situation in south Waziristan is obviously one of more recent conflict. The insurgents are now, for the first time, being squeezed on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. That is true in the south of Pakistan and also in the east, which I visited earlier in the year.
Our Government will continue to support the action of the Pakistani Government. I assured President Zardari of that last week. We will also encourage Islamabad to focus not just on the Pakistani Taliban, who are a direct threat to the Pakistani state, but also on al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. We will continue to help mitigate the effects of conflict on the Pakistani people with additional humanitarian assistance for those who have been displaced and development assistance to help them to rebuild their lives. The Department for International Development recently committed more than £665 million over four years to Pakistan. We have had some success in getting the European Union to increase its contribution and also to focus on issues such as trade and constitutional and political reform, but we will continue to push for a greater effort.
Is my right hon. Friend at all concerned about reports in today’s newspapers that the United States has been funding militia groups in Afghanistan that could possibly spread to Pakistan? Does that not constitute a revisiting of United States support for militia groups at the time of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and could it not sow the seeds for future problems?
I have not seen the reports to which my hon. Friend has referred, but I do not think that the parallel with the mujaheddin fight against the Communist regime—against the Russians—is very apposite. The truth is that in Afghanistan the state will never have a monopoly on violence, and it is as well to be clear about that. It is also true that informal security arrangements at local level have historically been an important part of the balance of power, especially in the south and east of the country. I think it essential for the development of governance arrangements and local policing to take account of that. However, I shall be happy to look at the reports cited by my hon. Friend and write to him about them.
The multiple insurgencies in Pakistan reflect the whole history of the region, especially that of the entire federally administered tribal areas. The hon. Gentleman will know at least as well as I do that, since 1900, the history of those areas has been extremely fraught. Economic development has never taken place there, political integration with the rest of Pakistan has never properly taken place, and the Pakistani forces have never been properly established a security presence there.
I am happy to go into that, but the truth about the terrorist presence in the Punjab is that at its heart is an organisation called Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is conducting its terrorist operations on the issue of Kashmir. That is its mission. I will be very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman and to go through this with him. He raises an important point, but we should not simply believe that every bombing that takes place in Pakistan has a “Taliban” label. In the case of the Punjab, it does not.
Although the war in Afghanistan consumes more of my attention than any other policy area, the Government continue to work for peace and reconciliation in key conflicts around the world. Across the international community, and perhaps especially throughout the Arab world, there is a strong sense that the middle east peace talks are stalled. This is dangerous for the middle east and, I believe, ultimately dangerous for us.
There is more consensus in the international community than for many years about the basis for a resolution of the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. The Clinton parameters of 2000-01 broadly encapsulated the terms for a viable two-state solution, but the parties are moving further apart, and those Palestinians and Israelis who are committed to the idea of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as a shared capital and a fair settlement for refugees, appear smaller in number and weaker in politics than ever before. The US Administration are engaged in a good-faith endeavour to bridge the gap. Their leadership and determination offer the best current hope of progress. We will continue to support these efforts—for example, supporting Prime Minister Fayyad in his economic and security efforts, and delivering aid into Gaza—and like the US and many others, we will continue to reinforce to the Israeli Government, as I will later today when I meet Deputy Prime Minister Shalom, our deepest concern about settlement activity, including in East Jerusalem, which is not just illegal, but provocative and prejudicial to the chance of peace talks. Israel’s democracy and values should place it at the heart of the international mainstream, but these acts only play into the hands of those who wrongly seek to delegitimise its very existence. We will not give up on the dwindling opportunity to deliver a two-state solution, because the alternatives—for the people of Israel, Palestine and the region—look so much worse.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments about the urgent need to resolve the political situation posed by the settlements, but will he tell us if there is any hope at all of an end to the blockade on humanitarian aid to Gaza, which is still at crisis point? The lifting of that blockade is urgently needed.
My hon. Friend is right to refer to this as a crisis, except for the fact that, given it has been going on for so long—since the war of last December and January of this year—the word can become cheapened or devalued. My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue, however, and we continue to raise it. The number of aid trucks being allowed in has risen since early spring, but it remains below the United Nations level—500 trucks a day is, I think, the estimate of what is necessary. My hon. Friend makes an important point, because the danger is that the only people who gain from the current policy are Hamas.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that, under the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 and the Geneva Conventions (Amendment) Act 1995, our country has not only a right, but a duty, to pursue in criminal courts those who are responsible for grave breaches of those conventions. As a matter of urgency, will he therefore speak to the Director of Public Prosecutions with a view to issuing warrants against those who have been found by the Goldstone report to be clearly and flagrantly in breach of those conventions?
My reading of the Goldstone report suggests that it raises issues for the state of Israel, rather than for individuals involved in the conflict. We have made it clear that the first step in response to that report is for a full and transparent independent inquiry into the allegations to take place.
On conflict in Africa, in the past year we have seen glimmers of hope in Somalia, with the appointment of President Sharif and the inclusive nature of the Djibouti process. That is important because stability in Somalia will come only through agreement to share power at clan and regional level, and instability there has severe implications for not only the horn of Africa, but the rest of the world. Piracy is just one aspect of that. The House will be pleased to learn that the unity and resolve of the international community in responding to this issue has meant that of those ships following the route that is protected by the EU forces and other navies and complying with industry-agreed best practice, just one has been hijacked in the gulf of Aden since last December. Safety in the 1 million square miles of the Somali basin is, however, much harder to deliver, as, unfortunately, has been proved by the kidnap of the British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler. The thoughts of the whole House will be with them and those working for their release.
In eastern Congo, the humanitarian and human rights situation remains dire, but the rapprochement between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo means that for the first time in years there is a real chance of progress.
I will not give way, as I must make some progress. On Sudan—next door to the DRC—we will never forget the continued suffering in Darfur, and we will press Khartoum to act on the bold proposals of the former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, to promote peace, justice and reconciliation. The year 2010 will also be critical for the implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement. After two decades of war, the elections scheduled for next April and then the referendum on self-determination for the south in 2011, will pose major challenges.
In addition to those conflict zones, the political and humanitarian situation in a number of countries is of major concern to Members across the House. The progress made in Zimbabwe over the past year is fragile; there have recently been reports of increased violence and intimidation against Movement for Democratic Change members and civil society activists. We want the inclusive Government to succeed and support the political and economic reform programme that ZANU-PF and the MDC signed up to last September. Additional support from us and from other international donors will depend on the progress made by the parties under this agreement.
The year 2010 will also bring elections to both Burma and Sri Lanka. Unless Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners are released and can participate, and there is genuine dialogue with ethnic leaders and the political opposition, Burmese elections will not have credibility. On Sri Lanka, we welcome this weekend’s announcement that from 1 December internally displaced persons will be allowed out of the camps. We hope that that will lead to the unrestricted freedom of movement for all IDPs. After 26 years of conflict, we want to see lasting peace, which will require an inclusive political process and genuine efforts towards reconciliation.
Finally, on the challenges of conflict, and its dangers, I need to talk about Iran. The brutal crackdown against peaceful protestors after the June elections was shocking. The increase in the number of countries supporting a strong resolution on Iran’s human rights at the United Nations last week illustrates international concern. The discovery of the covert nuclear facility at Qom and its inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency raised further questions about Iran’s intentions and, indeed, about whether there are any other nuclear facilities in Iran that have not been declared. Iran seems determined to reject the Tehran nuclear research reactor proposal for the manufacture of its low-enriched uranium—LEU—outside Iran. That proposal provides a clear and obvious way for Iran to show that it means what it says about a peaceful nuclear programme—its rejection would be telling and ominous, as is the continued refusal to set further dates for meetings with the E3 plus 3. As agreed in September in New York, we will assess next steps on the dual track in the light of these developments.
Will the Foreign Secretary say explicitly that the United Kingdom would oppose any new proposal for Iran that did not involve its allowing its uranium to be transferred overseas for enrichment?
We support director general el-Baradei’s proposal, which he has developed with us, the Americans and the French. The argument is actually not about whether the LEU eventually goes out of Iran—some of Tehran’s counter-proposals involve it doing so, although at a tempo and a stage not in accord with what director general el-Baradei has said.
Despite the challenges, there are a number of opportunities on the horizon on which the Government will seek to capitalise in this Session. The first is climate change and its relationship with economic recovery. I am delighted that at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting this week climate change will be a major theme. The Commonwealth is a unique network of soft power, bridging races, religions and regions. Climate change affects us all and it would be fitting if, in its 60th year, the Commonwealth sounded a warning about climate change, called for political leadership on the issue and showed how to find consensus on the big challenges that we face.
On development assistance, the UK will continue to show leadership. The draft international development spending Bill will make binding the Government’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent. of gross national income on international development from 2013.
The year 2010 will also provide the opportunity for a reinvigoration of key elements of international security. President Obama’s personal engagement and the prospect of an historic agreement between Russia and the US to cut nuclear warheads put us in a much stronger position to strengthen the non-proliferation and disarmament regime as we look towards the global nuclear security summit in April and the non-proliferation treaty review conference in May.
On weapons proliferation more generally, the brokering of a global arms trade treaty is progressing well. The US has for the first time committed to supporting such a treaty and there is a clear timetable leading to a diplomatic conference to finalise a treaty in 2012. That comes on top of last year’s convention on cluster munitions and the cluster munitions (prohibitions) Bill will implement in UK law the convention that bans the use, development, production, stockpiling, retention or transfer of cluster munitions.
In advance of the Lisbon Summit at the end of 2010, NATO will review its strategic concept. NATO needs to build strong ties with other organisations, particularly the EU, to modernise its structures so it has the right tools and capabilities to tackle the threats of today and tomorrow, and to build a frank and constructive relationship with Russia, not shying away from relaying tough messages on difficult issues.
Does the Secretary of State not understand that the theme throughout this debate—the underlying vein—is Afghanistan? The Afghanistan operation is notionally an article 5 operation of NATO, which requires and implies that there will be solidarity—that other people will step up to the plate. That is precisely what is not happening. NATO is threatened by the mismanagement of the policy as regards Afghanistan. It blows away article 5, which is the cornerstone of the NATO treaty and has endured for 60 or 70 years.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I understand the importance of the burden-sharing case; I devoted 3,000 words to trying to address it at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly last week. It is right that as the American Government come to a conclusion as regards the McChrystal review, all countries need to review their commitment to the NATO effort.
Yes, I have had that conversation. I have had a number of conversations with Canadian colleagues about foreign affairs and defence. The best thing that I can say is that I emphasised the importance of the Canadian contribution so far to the effort in Afghanistan and they promised to take my views into account as they develop their future policy. My hon. Friend will know that an election is due in Canada next year, as there is in this country. In Canada, there is a similar degree of unity about the Afghan mission as there is in this country—except in Canada the unity is against the participation of Canadian forces rather than in favour of participation, as is the case here.
The current policy was developed on the basis of the Manley report, which, in 2006-07, considered whether Canada should withdraw from Afghanistan at that time. It decided against that and set the timetable that was subsequently agreed with the international security assistance force. My hon. Friend makes an important point about the value of the Canadian role, which we continue to discuss with the Canadian Government and opposition.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who speaks for the Opposition, often says that he seeks bipartisanship on foreign policy—except on Europe. So, let me conclude on that happy note. The majority of the issues that I have covered today—from Russia to Somalia and to Pakistan—engage the UK bilaterally but also through the European Union. We benefit from a strong EU role, not least because we play a leading role in its foreign policy debates. I congratulate Baroness Ashton on her important appointment, which is a major achievement for Britain, and I look forward to working with her as vice-president of the Commission and as High Representative.
Our foreign policy priorities in the EU are clear: through the prospect of enlargement and enhanced partnerships, to transform our eastern neighbourhood and improve co-operation with those to the south; to focus on areas of conflict, above all Afghanistan, Pakistan and the middle east; and to set clear strategic partnerships with the great powers around the world. That will take negotiation and influence. It means reorienting priorities, changing budgets, challenging outdated thinking through strong coalitions, and hard negotiation.
Why did the Prime Minister allow himself to be outwitted by the French into conceding the key internal market and financial services job, with the result that a French Commissioner will be regulating the City of London while Baroness Ashton just hands out the Ferrero Rocher?
It says everything about the modern Conservative party that its members could see the appointment of a British person to the No. 2 job in the European Commission—the vice-president of the European Commission and the High Representative—as somehow a defeat or a concession. It is absolutely absurd to believe that the vice-presidency of the European Commission, the High Representative post—one of only two posts to be agreed last week—should be a defeat or a concession for the Government, the Prime Minister or anybody else.
The Lisbon treaty will facilitate the sort of foreign policy I have described, but the Lisbon treaty also heralds the end of European institutional reform. As the European Council unanimously concluded in December 2007:
“The Lisbon Treaty provides the Union with a stable and lasting institutional framework. We expect no change in the foreseeable future, so that the Union will be able to fully concentrate on addressing the concrete challenges ahead.”
Split infinitive apart, that is an excellent sentence.
The Conservative proposals seek to torpedo that consensus. Their five-year plan, which the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks has made it clear he would pursue throughout the next Parliament—if he were in government—to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe on major issues of social policy and criminal justice will isolate Britain and weaken our bargaining position. The isolation is domestic and international.
The director general of the CBI has said that opting out of the social chapter
“would be slow and painful, damaging the UK’s relationship with the EU and causing yet more upheaval for employers.”
The director general of the British Chambers of Commerce says:
“Britain wants a pragmatic approach to the EU—not an ideological one. We do not believe that the Conservatives’ new policy to opt out of European social and employment legislation is realistic, as it would require substantial UK concessions in return.”
The Conservative party needs all 26 other European countries to agree treaty changes, or protocols to treaties. The Conservatives need 14 countries to summon the requisite intergovernmental conference. I ask the right hon. Gentleman in his speech to name any countries that will support an IGC. The reason he cannot is that the truth is clear: not one of them supports a new IGC.
The Spanish Europe Minister says:
“I do not know of a single country in Europe that now thinks we should be spending any time to change the Treaty we have just spent eight years negotiating. It is really, really impossible.”
The Dutch Europe Minister says:
“There is more chance of a snowball surviving in hell than the EU restarting debates on Treaty change.”
The Polish Europe Minister says:
“Nobody wants to negotiate a new Treaty.”
The Irish Europe Minister says there is “complete aversion” across Europe to more treaty change.
The consequence of British isolation is British weakness. Bleating on about treaty change, we will be ignored when it comes to the serious business. No wonder that in 1999 Sir John Major said:
“We are in the European Union, we are going to stay in it and the belief that you can renegotiate is absurd, mad.”
I could not have put it better myself—absurd and mad, from the last Conservative Prime Minister.
Any hard-headed assessment of the UK’s interests leads only to one conclusion: the UK’s interests are best served if we are at the heart of the EU, shaping its policies and deciding its direction, not on the fringes, consigned to irrelevance. As we enter the last Session of this Parliament, Britain is stronger in Europe and stronger in the wider world. Our ideas lead debate, our troops and diplomats are on the front line and our development strategies are world leaders. It is a record to be proud of and one we are determined to build on.
The sentences on foreign and defence policy in the Gracious Speech were relatively without controversy and expressed sentiments that unite the House: the seeking of effective international co-operation, the combating of climate change, the objective of working for security, stability and prosperity in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the middle east, and the essential work towards preventing nuclear proliferation are important British national objectives, and everyone should be clear that they will remain so if there is a change of Government in Britain in the coming months.
I suspect that it will also be easy to agree that the most immediate and worrying of all our foreign policy challenges—indeed, the Foreign Secretary spoke of it as the issue that takes up more of his time than anything else—is the situation in Afghanistan and the related position in Pakistan, partly because sustained progress in Afghanistan has proved so elusive in recent years, partly because it involves such a major and intensive deployment of the British armed forces and partly because those armed forces are making very serious sacrifices, now totalling, as the Foreign Secretary reminded us, 98 British lives lost in action so far this year.
Once again, therefore, it is appropriate to begin by saluting the extraordinary efforts of our armed forces—something that is particularly in our minds after recent casualties and after Remembrance day, and something that unites the whole nation, even people who cannot imagine what circumstances are like in Afghanistan. But Ministers will agree that those of us who have been to see the work of our troops on the ground find only that our admiration for the work they do is intensified by seeing it in practice.
There is also a good deal of unity about what we are doing in Afghanistan, although that has not always been clearly and effectively expressed. Simply stated, our objective must be to help Afghans reach the point where they can look after their own security without presenting a danger to the rest of the world. That means doing our utmost not to let Afghanistan fall back into even greater chaos, and it means that, in spite of the immense difficulties involved, the consequences of failure are so serious for the spread of international terrorism, for democracy in Pakistan and for the operations of NATO that it is much better for the world to succeed in that endeavour than to abandon it.
In our view, there are at least four crucial elements for a revised strategy to succeed because, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said at the beginning of the debate on the address, immediate withdrawal cannot be in our interests, but the status quo is unacceptable as well. The first requirement is the use of true counter-insurgency techniques, about which so much has been learnt in Iraq and in operations in Afghanistan, thus protecting and winning over the local population. The second requirement is the accelerated training of Afghan security forces, about which the Foreign Secretary has spoken. The third requirement is the effective political strategy, which so many people have long called for. The fourth requirement, in our view, is the appointment and acceptance by the Afghan Government of a strong and effective international figure to co-ordinate the economic and development effort and to help to drive that political strategy. We hope that all those elements will be present in the statement now awaited from President Obama.
Several questions arise for the Government, and perhaps the Secretary of State for Defence can address them when he responds to the debate. First, are the British Government closely influencing the thinking of the US Administration, so that we can be confident that President Obama’s forthcoming announcement is one that the British Government wholly endorse?
Secondly, if the US announcement includes sending large numbers of additional forces, do Ministers envisage extending the number of British forces deployed beyond the 9,500 recently announced? Can they say more about the increase of 500 troops recently announced and about when they expect the conditions set for going ahead with that increase, which includes a greater contribution from other allies, to be met?
Over the past few weeks, there has been a proliferation of speeches from the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, proposing initiatives for achieving the aims in Afghanistan and presenting a strategy. Although that intensified effort to communicate with the public about Afghanistan is welcome, I hope that the Defence Secretary will clear up one or two important issues that those speeches have raised and questions that they have posed.
On 6 November, the Prime Minister said that military action in Afghanistan is
“our first line of defence”
“the mission must not fail”.
That issue was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), who has since left the Chamber. At the same time, the Prime Minister set five tests for Karzai’s new Government—on security, governance, reconciliation, economic development and engagement with neighbours. Those tests appeared to be in conflict. The Foreign Secretary sought to explain in his speech that the Prime Minister was referring to tests for development assistance and that they did not relate to our military presence in Afghanistan, but that is not how the Prime Minister’s speech read on 6 November, and it was not how it was understood at the time, so I hope that the Defence Secretary will confirm the Foreign Secretary’s clarification.
Ten days later, the Prime Minister gave another speech on Afghanistan and spoke of starting to hand provinces over to the Afghans in 2010 “if at all possible”, and raised the prospect of a timetable for such handovers. Do Ministers agree that it is not possible to have a timetable in a province such as Helmand, which would set a timetable for the Taliban to work to, as well as everyone else? Will they be careful not to exaggerate the significance of such timetables, despite the pressures of a general election campaign here in Britain?
Thirdly, the Prime Minister used the same speech to re-announce the idea of hosting a conference in London to set out a plan for handing Afghanistan back to the Afghans. He first announced the proposal in September, saying that the conference should be held
“before the end of this year right after the inauguration of the new Afghan government.”
But that is now. Clearly the conference is not taking place now, and some NATO Foreign Ministers have told me that they are not at all sure it can or should be held early in the new year, as the Prime Minister has now suggested, because it would not be adequately prepared. Can Ministers say when they really expect the conference to take place? Would it not be wiser for the Prime Minister to have a sound basis for such announcements, rather than making repeated announcements—indeed, the same announcement—only for the promised action not to take place?
Finally on Afghanistan, I hope that Ministers will comment on the latest reports of serious inefficiencies in the provision of appropriate equipment. If it is true, as reported in the press today, that £149 million has been spent upgrading 900 armoured vehicles, which are not then suitable for use, I know that my hon. Friends in the shadow defence team will have some very searching questions to ask, and they will not be satisfied with answers that are less than frank.
Of course, any strategy for Afghanistan will work only if there is a sufficient effort in Pakistan to deal with those who seek to undermine democracy in that country. The Foreign Secretary rightly spoke of the need to address al-Qaeda in Pakistan as well as the Taliban. Just like in Afghanistan, military involvement is only one of the tools needed to ensure long-term stability. In Britain we will need to continue, in the years ahead, to assist the Government of Pakistan with education, health care and employment, particularly in areas that have been affected by the recent campaigns against insurgents.
I have listened very carefully to the right hon. Gentleman. Does he envisage a point any time soon when British troops will withdraw from Afghanistan? Would he, on that same basis of dealing with what he perceives to be insurgency, therefore deploy British troops into Pakistan or other countries? It seems to me that there is a counsel of constant intervention rather than withdrawal.
No, I am not suggesting deploying British troops into Pakistan. The Foreign Secretary spoke about the efforts of the Pakistan army to deal with the situation in Pakistan, and that is something that we should support. As for setting a date or announcing that British troops will leave Afghanistan, I do not believe it would be helpful to the troops now working so hard there to set a date for their withdrawal because it would be extremely damaging to their efforts for people to think we were going to withdraw on a certain date, irrespective of the consequences. Ministers have spoken, as have Conservative Members, about the fact that we are not there for ever, and the huge efforts—which must be intensified—to make sure that Afghans can look after their own security, but setting a date now would be a mistake.
I am sure that the whole House hopes the shadow Foreign Secretary will get answers from the Defence Secretary in the reply to this debate, but even if he gets replies to the questions he has asked, we will not get the view of the House. If the Government refuse to give us a debate on a motion that we can amend, will the right hon. Gentleman take back to the shadow Cabinet the proposal that the Opposition use one of their days to have a debate on a motion that we can amend, so that we can get the view of the House which will then begin to shape the debate in the country?
There should be regular statements—we have always asked for quarterly reports—to the House on Afghanistan, setting out the resources involved and the objectives of the British Government. That is part of effective communication by the Government with the country, as well as with Parliament. It is consistent with the position that the right hon. Gentleman has taken, which my colleagues and I have also taken, on the deployment of British troops overseas into conflict, which is that there should be a vote in the House. It would be a tricky matter for an Opposition day to be used for that purpose, but the Government should present a motion when British troops are deployed into conflict overseas, so I entirely sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman’s point.
Does the right hon. Gentleman see the attraction of naming a date, given that we are looking back on eight years of failed outcomes, in relation to what we claim to be our aims in Afghanistan? Naming a date—some of our allies have named a date—changes the mindset: it takes us from believing in the fantasy of future victories and successes, and allows us to concentrate on the real endgame, which will mean a deal.
If the principal countries with a military presence in Afghanistan named a date, it would change the mindset in all sorts of ways—ways that would not be helpful. It would encourage those who are against our forces to believe in their own victory. That would be a great mistake. Even from the point of view of those who, like the hon. Gentleman, honourably and legitimately believe that we should withdraw from Afghanistan, it would be wrong to set a date; it would be the wrong way to go about a withdrawal, even if we believed in withdrawal.
What counsel does the shadow Foreign Secretary want the British Government to give to President Obama’s Government? Is it that they should send more troops and bring about a big surge? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that 71 per cent. of the British population is opposed to that? His party’s shadow Defence Secretary gave a speech last year in the House in which he spoke out against a surge.
I am not sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), or anyone else, can recall that particular speech. No doubt we can sort out that point. The advice that we would give to President Obama—indeed, we have given it to the US Administration—is the advice that I set out a few moments ago, when I spoke of the four essential aspects of a strategy in Afghanistan. They include an enhanced ability to conduct proper counter-insurgency operations that protect and win over the local population. Clearly, it is the view of the US military—and, I think, the UK military—that that requires a higher number of troops from the United States. I would be surprised if that were not part of President Obama’s announcement.
What is the shadow Foreign Secretary’s response to the suggestion that, although British troops are deployed to defend geographical areas such as Helmand province, the future is much more about particular functions being performed by British troops in association with an increased number of American troops? That would mean a move from geographical representation to carrying out a functional operation with American troops.
Again, it would be surprising if British troops were not working with an increased number of American troops, but it would be wise for us to take the military advice on how those troops should work together. There is a limit to the extent to which we politicians should make ourselves into armchair generals. The way that troops work together in a theatre of war is something on which we have to take the military advice.
But in reality we have not tested the military advice. People have been told that when General McChrystal arrived, he said, “Will somebody tell me what we’re doing in Helmand?” From a military point of view, we have to be realistic: there are things that we can do, and things that we cannot. It is not just politics that is the art of the possible. Helmand is not winnable in the military sense, and the sooner we realise that, the better. We can then focus special forces on getting the bandits and the people who are undermining things. We should do that, rather than spread our resources, with enormous loss of life and maiming, given that we are talking about something that cannot be won.
I do not think that we—or Ministers, actually—have argued that any of the situations in Afghanistan is winnable only in a military sense. That is why political strategy is required, alongside the military strategy. Of course it also depends on what we mean by “winning”. In this case, as I have defined it, it means getting the Afghans into a position where they can look after their own security without presenting a danger to anyone else. That is different from “winning” in the second world war, or previous conflicts that ended with the unconditional surrender of the enemy.
I will return in a moment to vital and related issues concerning Iran and the middle east, but I feel it is important, after recent events, to congratulate the Secretary of State on being here as Foreign Secretary at all. He has said that he was flattered to have been so seriously considered for the position of High Representative, but I think it is fair to say that he was not only flattered but tempted for a while, and that his continuation as Foreign Secretary was a decision that was made on balance, and with some agonising, rather than after a few moments.
The Foreign Secretary is shaking his head, so the decision was clearly made after a few moments but not communicated in Europe for a long time. In any event, his decision shows laudable tenacity or appropriate faith in the nation state or a conviction that, whatever happens, the Prime Minister will soon be gone. We consider all these motives wholly praiseworthy, so we have no hesitation in welcoming his continued presence.
We add our congratulations to the noble Baroness Ashton on her appointment as High Representative and wish her well in what will not be an easy job. Her appointment was the outcome of a murky process, to put it mildly. In this age of transparency, democracy and freedom of information, Ministers may wish to shed some light on whether it is true that the Prime Minister put forward three names for nomination as High Representative to the European socialist leaders. This has been reported in the press, and it has been said by European Foreign Ministers to us that three names were put forward by the Prime Minister before Baroness Ashton was accepted.
It appears that the names of the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) and the noble Lord Mandelson were also put forward, although Ministers have the opportunity to deny that if it was not the case—if Lord Mandelson’s name was not put forward. There is an icy stillness on the Government Benches. If it is true that, unlike the Foreign Secretary, the First Secretary of State was happy to be nominated as the High Representative, it is an important piece of information that the second most senior member of the Government was happy to depart the Government at this point. This would be not merely a rat leaving the ship, but the Lord High Admiral himself looking for a raft—although we are reluctant to suggest additional titles in case he is tempted to adopt them.
Although I suspect it is not the case that Lord Mandelson will succeed in displacing the Foreign Secretary, I invite hon. Members on the Labour Benches to agree with me that it would be inappropriate in the 21st century for the British Foreign Secretary not to be a Member of the House of Commons. I can see a few brave hon. Members—
I very much agree with the last point—that the Foreign Secretary should sit in this House.
We always enjoy the Mandelson speech from the shadow Foreign Secretary—I hope there is a lot more of it to come—and we always enjoy the European Union speech from him, because he always confuses it with the Oxford union. Can he tell the House whether he had any contacts at all with the ruling centre-right parties of Europe on those two appointments?
Yes, I very much had contacts with the ruling centre-right parties and the ruling socialist parties around Europe. I took the trouble to contact all of them and it turned out that many of them agreed with the view that I put to them that Tony Blair should not be nominated as president of the European Union. It turned out that there was widespread agreement on that, and the right hon. Gentleman was left floundering over there in Europe, finding out what it was like to be marginalised in Europe.
I think that is enough from the right hon. Gentleman. Marginalised he will remain.
The Foreign Secretary has denied the reports in the French media that there was a deal with the French Government that in return for Lady Ashton’s appointment as High Representative, the Government would agree to a French appointment to the internal market portfolio. Indeed, I received a letter from the Foreign Secretary today saying that such portfolios are a matter for the President of the Commission solely. It showed a certain touching innocence to think that there are no informal negotiations among national Governments about what portfolios are held in the Commission.
The Defence Secretary probably will not get into this later, but I hope Ministers will be able to say whether it is expected that a French candidate will be given the internal market portfolio, and whether assurances are being sought from the Commission and the French Government that if that happens, the single market will continue to go forward, and that liberalisation, particularly in services and energy, will continue to go forward. I hope we will be told whether assurances are being sought about the position of financial services and whether financial services will be included in the internal market portfolio. These are important considerations for the British national interest.
We wish Lady Ashton well in her appointment, but it would be a very serious matter if the price of adopting the Government’s third choice as High Representative meant that policy on the internal market and on financial services, in particular, was taken in a direction that was not in keeping with the interests of Britain. The Foreign Secretary says that a deal was not done, so we want to know what assurances are being sought on whether the policy will continue to go in the right direction, and what the implications might be for the City of London.
In summary, the Government spent too long promoting Tony Blair as president of the EU when they were not able to win widespread support for him, even among the socialists; they gave insufficient attention to protecting this country’s interests by not going for a senior economic portfolio in the Commission; and they have ended up with their third choice as High Representative, after falling out among themselves over who should go for it, and the First Secretary of State being willing to abandon the Government to go for it himself. That is a pretty sorry state of affairs in the Government of this country.
We are in many ways pleased that the Foreign Secretary has stayed in post, because there has been enough ministerial chaos in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This is a serious point, because it might be thought that a degree of experience, expertise and continuity in the conduct of foreign policy would be a good thing. However, in the two and a half years that the Foreign Secretary has held his office, he has gone through 14 junior Ministers, none of whom has been with him throughout, and there have been 12 Europe Ministers in 12 years.
Oh, there may be a 13th.
The most recent Europe Minister, Baroness Kinnock, lasted only a few months. Appointing her on 5 June, the Prime Minister said:
“Glenys…is an excellent Minister for Europe…remember this is about preparing for European Councils, people who will get on with the governments and the rest of the country and persuade them to do things. She’s an excellent appointment.”
Yet, three months later, the Prime Minister’s spokesman described her low-profile removal as “internal housekeeping”, saying that it was a
“sensible move for both Ministers involved as they both had experience in the subjects”
of Europe and Africa. He was asked what specific African experience Baroness Kinnock had, and the report of his answer states:
“He did not have the details in front of him so it was best to speak to the Foreign Office for details.”
That is how things have been moved around.
Lord Malloch-Brown, the wise eminence—I do not know how the Foreign Secretary has managed without his wise eminence, actually—resigned in July, not long after he admitted what we all know to be the truth: that there is a shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan. He said that the political future for Labour “looks incredibly bleak,” chiming in with another of the GOATs, Lord Digby Jones, because the marvellous things about this Government is that the GOATs not only resign, but wander around the pastures bleating afterwards. Lord Jones described his former colleagues as
“ambitious, confused, frustrated, worried and overworked”.
Looking at them today, I must say that that is a pretty accurate description.
The shadow Foreign Secretary has remarked on the two posts of President of the Council of Ministers and High Representative, but, given his party’s evolution and movement away from the mainstream of Europe, will he tell us when he thinks that a British Conservative will ever be in a position to take up such a post?
It may very well happen, but the matter will not come up for a few years now, so it is not exactly an immediate issue. On that subject, however, as I said in my answer to the right hon. Member for Rotherham, we have had no difficulty communicating and often agreeing with the mainstream in Europe.
I am not going to spell out who to the right hon. Gentleman, because I should like him now to keep for ever in his mind the paranoia about who has been plotting against him.
The High Representative will, however, have some serious work to do, and the Foreign Secretary mentioned some of the foreign policy areas on which Europe needs to work together. One is very much Bosnia, and he knows that I have mentioned the political crisis in Bosnia on many occasions in the past three years. I welcome his personal attention to the very concerning situation in that country; I very much welcome the extension of EUFOR’s mandate and its United Nations charter chapter VII authority, and I hope that the mandates of the international judges and prosecutors working in the state court will also be extended before their mandate expires on 15 December.
The recent communiqué on Bosnia sought to highlight the positive wherever possible, but the fact remains that the country is on a downward trend; that its future is under direct challenge from some political leaders, who deliberately block the work of joint state and entity institutions; and that the future of the Office of the High Representative and the international presence has become a pawn in the hands of some local politicians. However, I put it to the Foreign Secretary that offering the bait of eventual EU membership might not be enough to resolve the immediate crisis. Given that, for example, the Prime Minister of the entity of Republic Srpska openly and repeatedly asserts the autonomy of that entity as a more important goal than joining the EU, does the Foreign Secretary believe that the distant prospect of EU membership is enough to make the political leaders in the country approach talks in a more constructive manner? I hope that he agrees that if no progress is made, the time will soon come for the EU to reinforce its message to Bosnian leaders, with the threat of sanctions against individuals who are deliberately blocking reforms.
I also welcome Serbia’s continued commitment to joining the EU; we understand that Belgrade plans to apply for EU membership before the end of the year. However, a major block remains to Serbia’s EU aspirations: the arrest and actual transfer of the two remaining alleged war criminals to The Hague. Will Ministers clarify what the Government’s assessment is today of Serbia’s co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia? Can they assure the House that Her Majesty’s Government’s policy remains that ratification of Serbia’s stabilisation and association agreement with the EU is contingent on full co-operation with the International Court of Justice, and that that continues to mean the arrest and transfer of those two remaining indictees?
Would it not be fairer to Serbia if we made it clear now that one other condition, which the right hon. Gentleman has not mentioned, was that it would not have a veto over the applications of other states from the former Yugoslavia to the EU? If Serbia is admitted and Kosovo remains outside, Kosovo will not be able to come in for ever and a day. We need to be clear from the outset that Serbia’s right of veto on further admissions will not apply to other states of the former Yugoslavia.
That would certainly need to be formally or tacitly agreed in some way. We all want all the countries of the western Balkans to be able to join the European Union.
As the Foreign Secretary mentioned, another vital issue on which European nations need to work together is that of Iran. I add the Opposition’s condemnation of how the locally engaged employees of our Tehran embassy have been treated and express our concern for the fate of Mr. Hossein Rassam. We welcome the solidarity that other European countries have shown on the issue and hope that robust co-ordinated action from EU member states will follow if Iran continues with its harassment of our embassy staff. The dispute with Iran over its nuclear programme is serious, but we must not forget the human rights of Iranians, many of whom are suffering appallingly from the oppression of the Iranian state.
It is right that every attempt should be made to coax Iran into a meaningful diplomatic process. As the Foreign Secretary will recall, I have argued for some months that American outreach to Iran had to be backed by EU countries demonstrating to Iranians that if they reject negotiations, European nations will agree on a detailed set of sanctions. That scenario is looking increasingly likely, and we hope that those preparations will now be taken forward in earnest. Given the past difficulty in persuading all EU nations to adopt sanctions as tough as those that the British Government and Opposition have sought, we should be trying to win the argument for such sanctions now, to ensure that no time is lost if their implementation is required.
I want to remind the Foreign Secretary that although we understand the immense difficulty in securing agreement to sanctions, the Prime Minister has twice—in November 2007 and again in June 2008—announced sanctions on Iranian oil and gas that have never materialised. The announcement of such pledges and then the failure to deliver on them does not exactly strengthen the hand of the international community. In our view, we are approaching the time when much more serious measures need to be taken by the EU and other nations across the world; otherwise, we will face the calamity of Iran’s acquiring a nuclear weapon or the other possibly calamitous event of others taking matters into their own hands and launching a military attack on Iran.
The Foreign Secretary spoke of the middle east peace process. Like him, we fully support the Obama Administration’s efforts to restart negotiations on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like the Foreign Secretary, we regret that a way forward has not been found and we are also deeply concerned by the announcement last week that 900 new housing units will be built in East Jerusalem. We are also distressed and concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, especially as it seems that the UK has not yet been able to spend any of the funding earmarked for reconstruction there. This is another foreign policy issue on which the Prime Minister has made headlines in the past and then not followed through. He made several commitments in the wake of the Gaza conflict, saying in January:
“Britain is prepared to give naval resources so that we can monitor and stop arms traffic and arms getting into Gaza.”
However, astonishingly, he made that commitment to stopping arms smuggling without establishing first whether the UK had the capacity to do it, a point that my hon. Friend the shadow Defence Secretary made at the time. All that the Government have to show for that announcement are meetings between officials from various countries to discuss the issues, after which the Government conceded that the tools that the international community has at its disposal are limited and the challenges of interdiction are high. I suggest to Ministers that it undermines the credibility of the UK to pledge assistance but not see it through. This is a consistent pattern in foreign policy statements made by the Prime Minister.
May I put to the right hon. Gentleman the same question that I put to the Foreign Secretary about the Goldstone report? That report identifies a large number of flagrant breaches of the Geneva convention—the fourth convention and its first protocol. In this country, as a result of the Geneva convention Acts, we have a duty to pursue and prosecute those breaches. In those circumstances, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake—if he is ever in the position to do so—to talk to the Director of Public Prosecutions with a view to issuing the necessary warrants? The Foreign Secretary said to me that he thought that it was a domestic matter for Israel. Before the right hon. Gentleman is tempted to give the same answer, will he address himself to what he would do if Israel did not carry out any independent review of Goldstone?
The Foreign Secretary’s answer was not quite that it is just a domestic matter, because it is of course a matter of international concern. My answer is similar to his: we want the allegations made in the Goldstone report to be properly investigated by all the parties concerned. That is the Government’s position, and it is the position of the Opposition. I do not want to speculate about what should happen if that never happens. That is the appropriate way forward. The hon. and learned Gentleman now has the smile on his face of a person who has got the same answer from the Opposition as he did from the Government, but that is our position.
I also want to say a brief word about the situation in the horn of Africa, although I must finish soon to let other hon. Members speak. The situation in North Yemen, never mind the situation in Somalia—and the plight of Paul and Rachel Chandler—is also deeply troubling. There, our priority must be to try to ensure that the conflict does not spill over into surrounding areas. Our direct power in that area is limited, but we cannot risk either Yemen or Somalia turning into the next Afghanistan. What influence the UK has in those two countries must be brought to bear now.
The Foreign Secretary mentioned Zimbabwe, and I hope that the Government will urge Southern African Development Community states to put pressure on Mugabe to let him know that he will not be allowed to flout the power-sharing arrangement with impunity.
My hon. Friend speaks with the sense of outrage felt in this country and in many others about what has been happening in Zimbabwe, but it is not as simple as what we allow. Many things have happened in the past that we would not have allowed if we had the power to prevent them, but we have to work through other countries, especially the other southern African countries, to achieve anything in Zimbabwe. It is right that EU sanctions remain in place while Mugabe is in power and abuses are committed on such a large scale. However, the pressure that we exert must be through SADC members. I again call on the Government to ensure that co-ordinated work is done with our international partners to prepare for the day after Mugabe, with a comprehensive package of development and political assistance, which Zimbabwe will need at the time.
On Sudan, in our view the international community must step up its diplomacy in response to the dual crisis, in the south and continuing in Darfur.
I am sorry, but I must now conclude my remarks.
We hope that there is a successful Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. The Commonwealth has a role to play in conflicts and disputes around the world, but in our view the Government have neglected it over the past 12 years. We hope that they will put that right at the conference.
We are behind the efforts to secure agreement at the Copenhagen summit on climate change and look for a binding commitment to keeping the rise in global temperatures to below 2° C and to taking action on deforestation.
I join the Foreign Secretary in welcoming the Sri Lankan Government’s announcement. We have all strongly urged the Sri Lankan Government to honour their commitment and return all people to their homes by the end of the year. We want to see a process of healing and reconciliation, which is so desperately required in that country.
There are immense challenges in foreign policy, which we could all speak about at even greater length than the Foreign Secretary and I have. Where Ministers continue to do the right thing, we will continue to support them. However, there are many searching questions, such as those that I have raised on Afghanistan, that they must be prepared to answer. I hope that we will have those answers at the end of this debate.
When we debate foreign and defence policy today, the thoughts and feelings of us all will be with our armed forces and their families. Our responsibility in this House to debate and decide on the right policies, whether on the Afghanistan conflict or elsewhere, is a daunting one. Whether it is the fears of families with loved ones now on the front line or the tears of families with loved ones lost or seriously injured, the human cost and sacrifice made by those who send us here must never be forgotten in our deliberations. I join others who have paid tribute to the bravery and courage of our troops and their relatives, and it is therefore right today that we should focus on Afghanistan.
In an interview that he gave to The Guardian at the weekend, the Foreign Secretary seemed to be worried that the Opposition parties were about to break the eight-year cross-party consensus in support of the war. Although he has now had to leave his place, may I put it on the record for him that the speeches and interviews that he and the Prime Minister have given in recent days and weeks, in which they have talked about forthcoming changes in strategy on Afghanistan, have gone some way to reassuring us? It is true that over the past year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) and I have become increasingly concerned at how the war is being prosecuted. The lack of progress in both the military and civilian fields causes us, like many in the House and outside, to question the international security assistance force’s strategy and, therefore, Government policy.
In this debate last year, I argued that it was inconceivable to follow a strategy based on NATO troops remaining in Afghanistan for 30 years, as some had been arguing. Neither the British public nor the Afghans could support that. There therefore needed to be a change in strategy. Last year, alone in the House—alone from the Front Benches, at least—I advocated talking to parts of the Taliban and adopting a regional approach, involving countries such as Pakistan, India, Iran, China and Russia. I emphasised the urgent need for a new political and diplomatic strategy alongside the military approach.
When I read the Foreign Secretary’s speech to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly last Tuesday, when he spelt out, in much greater detail than I believe he had before, a political strategy to divide the insurgency and reintegrate the reconcilable back into the Afghan mainstream, I was therefore greatly encouraged. Although I have some lingering doubts, which I shall touch on shortly, his advocacy of a national reintegration organisation and an Afghan resettlement fund seems to be along the right lines. There must now be some serious resources and structures invested in winning over tens of thousands of Afghan insurgents.
Equally, it was welcome to see in the Foreign Secretary’s NATO speech more analysis of the importance of involving Afghanistan’s neighbours, even though he confined his detailed remarks, perhaps understandably, to Pakistan. Let me therefore tell Ministers that if the ISAF strategy is about to change in ways that we have argued for and that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have been alluding to, we will continue to support the mission in Afghanistan.
Yes, I do.
So that there can be no doubt or confusion, let me spell out in more detail the change in strategy that we hope President Obama will announce shortly—probably on Thursday. On the continuing and essential military approach, we have found the McChrystal review compelling. A counter-insurgency strategy that aims to give proper protection to Afghan citizens seems right, especially if that means a greater focus on the larger population centres. From the British perspective on troop numbers, I rather agree with the Prime Minister’s approach—that we would be willing to provide a modest number of extra forces, albeit with conditions. His conditions also seem right, but I would add the proviso that there must also be the political surge for which many of us have been pressing for months.
Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that the grave risk attached to the McChrystal strategy of expanding troop numbers in order to set up a counter-insurgency programme is that it will be insufficient and require more troops, and that there would then be an attempt to occupy the whole country? The situation would spin out of control, just as the whole Vietnam counter-insurgency strategy did. Is it not better to look for a different strategy that involves withdrawal?
There is a risk involved with anything that we do in Afghanistan; there is no risk-free option. The cost of withdrawal or of mission failure is absolutely huge. If the McChrystal proposal for more troops involved only a military surge, we would not be supporting it.
I want to go into more detail about the political strategic changes that we think are essential. Our key test for the new strategy is the shape of the politics around it. Clearly, we need the political change at national level in Kabul for which the Americans and our Government have been pressing, and President Karzai might now be making the right noises. However, if corruption is not tackled in practice, and if Karzai is not prepared to give away more power or to revert to more traditional power structures at provincial, tribal and village levels, I hope that the price he might have to pay has been clearly spelled out to him. We cannot expect our troops to put their lives on the line if President Karzai does not act. One would have thought he would realise that, like former Afghan leaders, he will face risks if the mission does not succeed.
Then we come to the international politics involved. Changes in the international dimension of the political strategy have at last begun to be made, but there is a huge amount still to do. The willingness of the Pakistan military to take on the Pakistan Taliban has been impressive, but there are still concerns that the Pakistani security forces distinguish all too readily between what they consider to be “good” Taliban and “bad” Taliban, with, outrageously, the “good” Taliban being those who are organising the Afghan insurgency. That cannot be allowed to continue.
We have to understand why the security forces think that. It stems from the traditional belief/paranoia within the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence—the ISI—that India intends to attack Pakistan. According to the ISI, India is seeking a friendly Government in Kabul to make such an attack possible from two fronts. In ISI minds, therefore, a Taliban Government—or, indeed, civil war—in Afghanistan is somehow preferable to a stable regime for Pakistan’s security. A Taliban regime might make overtures to India and make a joint pact—for example, on linked action on historic disputes over Kashmir and the Durand line. If the ISI were to change that view, the prospect of cutting off the Afghan Taliban leadership and direction, which currently sit comfortably in parts of Pakistan, would be greatly enhanced.
I support much of the hon. Gentleman’s analysis, but is he aware that the four last general manoeuvres that the Indian army have undertaken were all based on the assumption that it was going to invade and occupy Pakistan? Is he also aware that 80 per cent. of all Pakistani troops are, sadly, on the country’s eastern frontier with Kashmir, facing 500,000 Indian troops? I think we would all prefer more of those troops to be on the western front, dealing with Pakistan and its problematic provinces. India therefore has to be part of the solution, and finding some way of de-escalating the Kashmir dispute really ought to be the object of the foreign policy of this country and the other NATO powers.
I could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right. That is why we need this regional peace settlement to be at the forefront of debates on how to solve the Afghanistan conflict. Let us be absolutely clear, however, that it is not going to be easy. If one looks at the possibility of making real progress on India and Pakistan relations in the near future, I just do not see it. Indeed, when Obama talked about trying to resolve the India-Pakistan conflict in October 2008 and when President Clinton was appointed as mediator, even supportive commentators suggested that it was his first foreign policy mistake. Even people who share our analysis understand the problems.
The Foreign Secretary, answering my earlier question, rightly stated that the terrorist bombings in the Punjab were the result of terrorists linked to Kashmir. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that it is imperative for the security and safety of people in Pakistan that we get that process moving? If that does not happen, it will destabilise Pakistan—a country with which we have very strong links.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and the question is how we achieve that. If we have a full-frontal diplomatic assault, along the lines President Obama heard about, I do not think it will succeed. We need to look for behind-the-scenes reassurances, confidence-building measures and that sort of approach in order gradually to begin to change the dynamics. The Foreign Secretary does not have a brilliant track record with the Indian media, so I will not ask him or his colleagues in answering the debate to reveal whether any particular diplomacy is under way, but the House needs to know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is making this matter a priority. We need to know that real work is going on on this issue, and that the FCO is not just sitting back because it is all too difficult. Our troops are on the front line, so this is absolutely central.
Beyond Pakistan, part of the challenge of finding a regional peace solution is the deep history of distrust in the region—whether one speaks of Iran, Saudi Arabia, central Asian concerns or Russian fears—because if we are to bring the fighting to an end and achieve a sustainable peace, the regional political element needs to be developed and our Foreign Office needs to be engaged in that.
For the Liberal Democrats, the most critical test of any new political strategy is how it addresses the local dimension and the insurgents on the ground. There are three elements to this, the first of which is the self-evident need to promote the social and economic well-being of ordinary Afghans, who have to see that a non-Taliban future is possible and prosperous. Reconstruction and development is not contentious in itself; the concern throughout the House has been the apparent inability to deliver, which remains a concern.
The second element is local governance. Most of Afghanistan’s 153 municipalities lack basic justice systems, let alone other services. Of Afghanistan’s 4,000-odd villages, there is no governmental system beyond the tribal leaders. Yet the current Afghan system of government still directs almost all resources via Kabul, and nothing direct to the provincial or local level. Our country, with its strong centralising tendencies, is probably not in a good place to advise on this, but we really need to change that government structure in Afghanistan.
The third element of this local political piece is the critical need to talk to the Taliban. I was roundly condemned earlier this year for arguing that it was “time to take tea” with the Taliban, yet I am of the firm belief that this remains the right thing to do. To avoid misunderstanding, let me explain precisely what I mean— not least because I think I may differ a little in detail from the Government on the issue of what “talking to the Taliban” means.
I think it is shared territory that the Taliban are not some homogenous political grouping. As many others have said, they consist of the jihadists and the moderates—of those who take orders from either Mullah Omar or Haqqani, or those who obey their local tribal commanders; of the foreign Taliban and the Afghan Taliban; of the $10 a day Taliban and the Pashtun nationalists—so talking to the Taliban can mean many things in practice. There are some who suggest talking to the Taliban leadership, by which they tend to mean Mullah Omar. I have nothing in principle against that, yet unless we think they think they are losing, I do not think this will work. As many have said, they will believe that they have time on their side. I have been more impressed by those experts who have argued for talking to the local Taliban—the local insurgents.
Like others, no doubt, I have been influenced by an article called “Flipping the Taliban” in this summer’s Foreign Affairs, by regional and Taliban experts Fotini Christia and Michael Semple, who made the argument for grass-roots, village-by-village, tea-drinking diplomacy. I have since been confirmed in that view by a separate but equally excellent article written by the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway). I apologise to him if my endorsement in any way blights his promising career. In a passage sub-headed “Drinking tea can greatly reduce violence”, he writes as follows:
“One remarkable individual told me that a decent political officer, with the right support, a generous budget and plenty of time to drink tea with commanders and tribal elders, could reduce the violence in Helmand by up to 70 per cent. This is no vainglorious speculation: that sort of approach has worked before, when the British Empire had dedicated Political Officers in the region. It can work again—if there is the political will.”
Let us be absolutely clear: both articles are deeply realistic, and both understand the risks and the dangers all too well. Neither is putting forward tea drinking as a simplistic, glib, easy-to-do solution that would allow the military to pack up and go home. Both recognise that the best way to defeat the ideological Taliban is to win defectors from their own fighters, and that the best way to “Afghanise” the Afghan forces is to reintegrate former insurgents into the cause of law and order. Both appreciate that it is by understanding the issues of individual Taliban commanders that bribes, assurances and legitimate authority can best be bestowed in the cause of peace.
I am aware of it, and I will come to Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb in a second.
Given my welcome of the Queen’s Speech proposal for a Bill to strengthen the law against bribery, I should explain my mention of the word “bribes”. In the context of peacekeeping, and perhaps in that context alone, bribes are acceptable. The Americans used exactly that approach to persuade 100,000 Sunni militia to switch sides in Iraq, paying them each $300 a month, at a total cost of $30 million a month—a minor cost, given the costs of war, especially as it produced a massive reduction in the violence almost overnight. In their article, Christia and Semple calculate that $30 million a month would get us 250,000 Afghan insurgents for about $120 a month each—the current salary of a soldier in the Afghan national army. That would make a real impact. I am sure that Ministers cannot be as frank with the House about such counter-insurgency tactics as Opposition Members can be.
As the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) has reminded us, Generals Petraeus and McChrystal appointed this August the British Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb to mastermind a programme of reconciliation. That approach can be common ground among all those who have been critical of previous strategies.
I am afraid that I am completely at one with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam on that matter. There must be a danger of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Taliban or other jihadists if we pull out. Many people have recognised that threat. I do not want to overplay it, but we cannot dismiss it out of hand. Given that the price would be so high, even a small risk must be considered properly.
Will the hon. Gentleman take it from me that after a particularly fierce battle to the west of Kandahar in the red desert, one officer—on our side, as it happens—told me that one Afghan detachment had changed sides three times in 24 hours? I do not know how many bribes were offered to that detachment, but is he saying that good British generals should be bribing Afghans not to fight each other for the next 30 years?
As the right hon. Gentleman says, this is not an easy strategy—we have never claimed that it is. However, we know that it has worked in Iraq in the recent past and that members of the American and British forces are seeking to do the same, and we know from what has been said by Taliban experts that there is a history of conflicts being won and solved in Afghanistan in this way. When the Taliban won in 1998, they did so not because they had a huge army but because they persuaded lots of other people to join them. We must learn from the way in which they won, so that we can be the victors in the present important conflict.
The only surprising aspect of this apparently new approach to counter-insurgency—which we hope President Obama will confirm soon—is that it has not been tried more robustly before in Afghanistan. It seems that the Americans, at least during the Bush and Rumsfeld era, were reluctant to do so. Indeed, they did exactly the reverse. When Taliban commanders came over wanting to defect, they did not reintegrate them, but sent them off to Guantanamo Bay. That is hardly a recipe for encouraging splits in the rest of the Taliban. Even now, it seems that efforts to win defectors from the Taliban have been unstructured, under-resourced, and permitted only at individual level.
If the approach to reconciliation and defectors is really to change, and if that change is to be coupled with the other strategy changes that I mentioned earlier, the Liberal Democrats see some prospect of success in Afghanistan. If Obama’s new strategy is one we can support, we will play our part in trying to explain to the public why the conflict in Afghanistan is so important. Part of that must involve ensuring that the new strategy is properly implemented and robustly assessed. We will be looking for the metrics indicating the progress and success of the new strategy to which others have referred. While not yet pressing for definitive timetables for withdrawal—for, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has said, there are dangers in that—the House should be seeking to identify the steps on the path to main force withdrawal, perhaps in the lifetime of the next Parliament.
One of the main reasons why our party supported the mission in Afghanistan but opposed the attack on Iraq is our commitment to multilateralism and international law, and that is why we welcome the support in the Queen’s Speech for the Government’s efforts on nuclear non-proliferation. The all-important non-proliferation treaty review conference will take place next year, and I have been impressed by the FCO’s efforts to prepare for it.
Not all the keys to the success of the conference lie in the Government’s hands. Two critical questions will be whether the United States and Russia can ratify the successor to the strategic arms reduction treaty—which will include substantial reductions in missiles—and, of course, whether the United States Senate is of a mind to pass the treaty for a comprehensive nuclear test ban. Given the multiple pressures on Obama, I am not sure whether he will be able to pull that off, but he has shown a lead that I only wish others, including Britain, could emulate. In his willingness to drop President Bush’s idea of a ballistic missile defence system based in Poland and the Czech Republic, he has not only helped the thawing of relations with Russia but shown an ability to reassess accepted wisdom on nuclear strategy.
We believe that it is time for the Government to reassess their approach to the replacement of Trident, and to do so ahead of the NPT review conference. The stakes are high, and not just in regard to reform of the NPT or the next stages of multilateral nuclear disarmament. The signal that such moves and progress would send to Iran and North Korea, among others, would be extremely strong—perhaps not strong enough to resolve the specific nuclear confrontations, but perhaps strong enough to address the current impasse in both cases.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said about the NPT, but will he clarify one point? Is it Liberal Democrat policy not to replace Trident?
Many others have interpreted the position slightly differently, and we have been talking to those people. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) who is one of Parliament’s pre-eminent experts in the field, is examining precisely such issues.
On Iran, no one can doubt that the situation remains alarming, and I agree in part with the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. I also agree with others about the need to condemn the way Iran has treated our consular employees. The shocking recent International Atomic Energy Agency report says much about how Iran has been deceiving the world, yet the current question for policy makers on Iran is whether the diplomatic engagement and negotiations have reached the end of the road and it is now time for sanctions or whether there is room still for at least one more go at negotiations. Even if one could be sure that Russia would support tougher United Nations sanctions—and I am not—the recent discussions on a deal over uranium for the Tehran research reactor seemed to me still to have real life in them. As the Foreign Secretary alluded to earlier, it is true that the Iranians are insisting that any uranium swap occurs in Iran, not outside Iran, but would the Six really want to be responsible for walking away from the diplomatic route because they were unwilling to compromise on the detail of a deal? I hope not. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks may be right that we need to prepare some of the background for sanctions, but I would keep the tool of sanctions in the box at least for a little while longer, because if a deal is struck on the uranium swap, the chances of getting Iran to discuss the military dimension and the outstanding issues increases. Indeed, those chances could be improved if they were combined with a focus on other issues of common concern, especially, of course, Afghanistan.
While the nuclear issue as it relates to North Korea gets less attention in this House—it has not been spoken about today—I urge the Government to do all they can to get the Pyongyang regime back to the Six-power talks. Too often we appear to believe that North Korea is fundamentally a show for the US and China to work on with South Korea, and we underplay the role of the European Union. I want to speak more about the new EU High Representative later, but given Baroness Ashton’s success in trade talks with South Korea, perhaps she has the contacts and understanding to help make a breakthrough if the Council were to empower her to explore the options. This needs to be more of a priority for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Obviously, the nuclear issue is only one of many where a multilateral, multi-polar approach to foreign policy is essential. However, as other colleagues will no doubt speak at length on issues such as the climate change conference, the need for the G20 to collaborate on the economy, or the millennium development goals, I will not touch on them now, but I want to reflect briefly on some of the continuing challenges for multilateralism, beginning with the role of China.
There is much to welcome about the role of China, and the part it wishes to play in the world. China’s economic influence is well known, and the Chinese response to the global recession has been helpful. In some respects, the proposals from the Chinese on climate change reveal real leadership and understanding, but China’s approach in all too many countries and its focus on economic issues before and above any consideration of other, wider concerns, such as humanitarian issues or international law, is alarming.
Let me give a few examples. In Sri Lanka, the Chinese sold large amounts of weapons to the Sri Lankan Government and in return have been allowed many commercial opportunities, especially in terms of the development of a massive port in Sri Lanka that is of strategic economic and security importance to the Chinese. Far from not interfering in domestic politics, as the Chinese protest is their position, that policy was calculated and deliberate. While I welcome the Sri Lankan Government’s announcement that they are to allow those in the internally displaced person camps to move freely, surely that remains an inadequate response to the humanitarian disaster in some of those camps. Moreover, that announcement was certainly not a result of pressure from the Chinese, but it may well have been a result of pressure from the EU, which proposed not to renew the generalised system of preferences—GSP—plus trade concessions. I hope the Government and the EU are not going to go soft on the GSP plus trade concessions and our concerns about human rights in Sri Lanka just because of this weekend’s announcement.
The Chinese are easily the largest foreign investors in Sudan, and probably also the largest market for its oil. At the United Nations, the Chinese have blocked stronger international progress and appear to have done nothing behind the scenes to get the Khartoum Government to stop the actions of the Janjaweed and other Government-backed militias in Darfur.
Elsewhere in Africa, from Zimbabwe to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we see the Chinese winning knock-down deals, partly because their contracts come with no questions asked. There are apologists who say, “Well, the west has done exactly the same” or “China has brought lots of investment.” Well, that may be so, but I do not believe that such investments inevitably require a power such as China to adopt an amoral stance. There are plenty of examples of investment in developing countries being used smartly to lever improvements for their wider population—this is a question of political will. China would win more friends and influence, and would boost the multilateralism it professes, if it wielded its economic muscle in more enlightened ways—I hope that President Obama has been saying as much on his recent trip.
As we approach the end of the first year of President Obama’s first term, many commentators are circling to lambast him for the lack of progress, but on the big issues they are utterly wrong. On Afghanistan, they say that he has delayed, but I think that he is right not to rush. On Iran, they say that he has been too willing to focus on diplomacy, but I think that he needs to be encouraged to stick with it. On the middle east, they say that he has made little progress, but I think he has been courageous and right to expose Israel on the critical issue of the settlements. Prime Minister Netanyahu, Likud and their coalition partners are in real danger of totally isolating and undermining the moderate Palestinians and Arabs—people who have been patient and moderate despite all the humiliations. For Israel’s sake, I hope that the Israeli Government wake up soon and realise that while settlement expansion continues it is simply unreasonable to expect any Palestinian leader to negotiate.
Of course we know that Israelis still suffer dreadfully under the threat of terrorist attack, especially from the rockets of Hamas and others, and the international community must always remember to condemn such indiscriminate attacks made on civilians populations, but how does alienating Palestinians from their more moderate leaders in Fatah and elsewhere hinder and hurt Hamas? How does the continuing blockade of Gaza win over the Palestinians? Obama must try to get Netanyahu to face up to that political reality. If he does not, I fear that the long-term peace and security Israel rightly craves and deserves will be postponed still further.
I wish to touch briefly on two issues before concluding, the first of which is the European Union and the second of which is Iraq. We are to have a debate on European affairs shortly, so I will keep my remarks on the EU particularly short. However, given the significance of the recent final ratification of the Lisbon treaty and the decisions for the new President of the European Council and the High Representative, I want to welcome the opportunity Europe has to press ahead and act more effectively on the practical European and international problems that affect our constituents, be they on the economy, the environment or organised crime.
With the institutional wrangling over, the EU can be more effective on foreign and security policy than in the past. Of course that will not happen overnight—it was never going to—but with the sensible appointments of Herman Van Rompuy and Baroness Cathy Ashton, real progress will be made. The Foreign Secretary had argued that we needed a President of the European Council who would stop the traffic in Beijing. That was not only wrong, but it was the reverse of how he and his colleagues sold the provisions for this post in this House and in the public debate. The then Minister for Europe, the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy), and I both argued that these posts were rightly constrained by the requirements for unanimity on foreign and security policy, and were about greater efficiency and effectiveness. The Conservatives and others sought to ignore that reality; they scaremongered about European Presidents and Foreign Ministers as if the new posts came with great decision-making powers, whereas, in reality, they are the servants of the nation states. It would serve the argument against Euroscepticism better if the Foreign Secretary’s line on Europe was more consistent and if he left the confusion on Europe to the Conservatives. Pro-Europeans need to take the European debate to the Conservatives on foreign policy, be that on EU-Russia relations, the middle east or elsewhere.
The Foreign Secretary opened this debate with an upbeat assessment of the situation in Iraq, but when one reads a lot of the reports, one finds that the political and economic situation there is extremely fragile. Of course we hope that more progress will be made, but Britain and the others who invaded Iraq need to be there to ensure that we deliver on our development commitments. When the Iraq inquiry was announced, the Liberal Democrats raised serious concerns about its structure, timetable and membership. On the eve of its opening its public sessions, new concerns have arisen. The Cabinet Office recently published a protocol on the documents for that inquiry, which specifically excludes some documents even going to the inquiry and puts a series of restrictions on what documents the inquiry can publish. I do not believe that that is delivering on what the Prime Minister promised when he announced the inquiry. Many others are concerned about how the secretariat for the inquiry is being staffed not by lots of outside experts in a mixture with civil servants, but by people who were all in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or in the defence and the intelligence services at the time. We believe that they do not give the inquiry the independence that it needs.
Our foreign policy deliberations will remain scarred over the question of the Iraq war unless and until the inquiry is got right. We should have learned the lessons earlier and I believe that our efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere would be rather more effective if this inquiry had happened earlier. I hope that it will be able to deliver the full, independent and comprehensive verdict that we need to go forward.
I welcome some aspects of the Queen’s speech, particularly the international development spending Bill, which is about to be introduced, and the legislation on cluster munitions, which is in line with what the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has called for over a long period. I am also disappointed, however, that legislation has not been proposed to regulate private military and security companies and that the Government decided a few months ago that there would be a voluntary code of self-regulation. That is unfortunate and I suspect that we might have to revisit the issue in the future.
The Foreign Secretary referred to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that is coming up in Trinidad. I want to begin by concentrating on the Commonwealth aspect of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Too often, we ignore or downplay the importance of the Commonwealth. This week, it is important to give it renewed emphasis.
Reference has already been made to Zimbabwe. Of course, Zimbabwe will not attend the meeting because it has left the Commonwealth, but I hope that before too long Zimbabwe will be back as a member of it. Last week, I met the Foreign Minister of Swaziland, Lutfo Dlamini, who is part of a troika of Foreign Ministers from Mozambique and Zambia who, on behalf of SADC, have been trying to achieve political progress in Zimbabwe. He gave me a realistic and to some extent optimistic assessment of how things are going and the progress made, albeit with great difficulty. I hope that with the engagement of the other countries in southern Africa—particularly South Africa—we will see an acceleration of progress towards a truly democratic system within Zimbabwe and that that country will be back in the companionship and fellowship of the Commonwealth before too long.
Is the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee aware that Mr. Mugabe and ZANU-PF have recently completely ignored a decision of the SADC tribunal in respect of the occupation of a farm? Does that hold out much hope that Mr. Mugabe is prepared to move towards a more democratic, pluralist African state?
I accept that there are big problems. Another problem is the continued failure of the Zimbabwe Government, under the leadership of Mugabe, to allow Roy Bennett, a Minister, to be released from detention and to take his place within the political system. Other issues have also led to difficulties, but I believe that it is important that we in this country give support to those in southern Africa who are trying to achieve political progress in Zimbabwe.
I have also recently met trade unionists from Swaziland and Zimbabwe, who have expressed their concerns about the situation that faces so many people in southern Africa. In the context of Swaziland, it is unfortunate that the British Government decided, because of financial pressures, to close the high commissions in Mbabane in Swaziland and in Maseru in Lesotho a few years ago. Our new high commissioner in South Africa, Nicola Brewer, recently—last month—exchanged her credentials and went to Swaziland, where she gave an important message to King Mswati about the need to ensure that the Swazi constitution is upheld and that steps are taken towards democracy in that complex society. I hope that message will be received in that small but important Commonwealth country. I declare an interest: I was a teacher for Voluntary Service Overseas in Swaziland in 1971, so I retain an interest in the situation in the country.
I turn to another Commonwealth country—Sri Lanka. Reference has already been made to the announcement this week by the Sri Lankan authorities that they will allow the temporary departure of people still held in detention camps. A few months ago, up to 280,000 people were in those camps. Just last week, the United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, the British diplomat John Holmes, visited the camps in Sri Lanka. When he was interviewed for BBC world news on 19 November, he said that 140,000 people had been allowed to leave and that the situation was improving, but he drew attention to a number of concerns. The Sri Lankan Government need to act on them, including the fact that UN officials are still detained by the Sri Lankan authorities several months after the end of the conflict. That is not acceptable. The officials must be released as soon as possible.
If Sri Lanka is to become a prosperous state, it has to deal with its internal political dynamics and the feelings of alienation among a substantial number of its citizens. Tamil Sri Lankans are important to the standing of Sri Lanka in the world, because there is a huge diaspora, including in London. Many thousands are in my borough of Redbridge. Members of Parliament know from our conversations with our Sri Lankan Tamil constituents of their terrible anguish and concern about the situation in their homeland. It is important that there is real political devolution and reconciliation in that island in the future.
As part of its responsibilities over recent years the Foreign Affairs Committee has looked at a number of areas of the world. Last year, one of our reports highlighted the British overseas territories. We made a number of recommendations and criticisms, as a result of which the British Government established a commission of inquiry, under Sir Robin Auld, into the situation in the Turks and Caicos Islands. That led to recommendations for the suspension of the TCI Government and the reimposition of direct government from the UK.
A number of communications have been sent to me and members of the Committee over recent weeks from people living in TCI. Some of them are concerned about the bubbling discontent within society. People associated with the former Premier, Michael Misick, are lobbying and doing their very best to undermine the Governor, Gordon Wetherell, who was appointed last year.
Another concern was raised in a letter copied to me and other Members. The letter was sent to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, by Shaun Malcolm, a former leading opposition politician in the Turks and Caicos Islands. It says:
“I write to you in reference to your Deputy Chairman, Lord Michael Ashcroft, and the possibility that the Conservatives may form the next government in Britain.
We respectfully and sincerely ask for your written assurance that Lord Ashcroft will not be influencing, directly or indirectly, decisions regarding the Turks and Caicos Islands should the Conservatives win the next election, and if you are willing to give us these assurances then we kindly ask for you to work with us now to establish tangible safeguards towards this goal.”
The letter then goes on to quote the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee and praises three members of our Committee: the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), whom I see in his place, my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) and the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). They visited the islands, and on their recommendation, our Committee published the report. Shaun Malcolm says:
“As I am sure you are aware, under the guidance of the FAC, and in particular through the valiant efforts of these men…the Foreign and Commonwealth Office initiated a Commission of Inquiry”,
to which I have already referred. He continues:
“The Commission of Inquiry’s findings led to an Order in Council that has resulted in direct rule of the Turks and Caicos Islands coming into effect on August 14, 2009. Most thinking citizens and residents of the TCI are grateful for the intervention and look to work hand in hand with the British to rebuild our institutions of governance.
The people of the TCI have passed through an extremely dark period. The media in the islands was bought or intimidated, free speech was restrained, and much like dissidents in China, we had to go to the Internet to get beyond the intimidation of the local government to inform our citizens and the world community about what was happening here.
Your Deputy Chairman, Lord Ashcroft, and his son Andrew Ashcroft, have been deeply involved in the affairs of the TCI for much of this last decade, to the point where his bank, Belize Bank TCI, recently renamed as British Caribbean Bank, is now the largest banking institution within these islands, as stated by him. Sir Robin’s Inquiry found that many of the questionable transactions involving local politicians during these last six years were financed by Lord Ashcroft’s bank.
As well, their alleged involvement with local property development and environmental holocausts such as the Leeward Development on Provindenciales have caused grave concerns within our small territory.
Due to his willingness to contribute to both political parties, as well as the small size of our population and economy—only 30,000 citizens and residents in total—Lord Ashcroft’s wealth and his willingness to use it, has and does give him a level of influence that we feel puts any hope of democracy here at risk.”
And he goes on to—[Interruption.]
I wish to conclude on this matter by saying very clearly that serious questions need to be answered by the Leader of the Opposition—I hope that he will do so—and that the matters relating to the TCI and the fact that the Caribbean bank plays a role in other territories in that region, including Trinidad, need to be looked at very seriously.
In conclusion, much has been said in the debate about Afghanistan—[Interruption]—and Iran. The Foreign Affairs Committee has published serious reports on those countries, and there were debates in other places on them. [Interruption.] In the time left to me, I would say—
It is profoundly disturbing that the priorities of the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) are to give 30 seconds to Afghanistan and the rest of his speech to the Turks and Caicos Islands, but he must account for that. It is also profoundly disturbing that this country has been, for all practical purposes, almost continuously at war over the past 10 years—in Kosovo, Iraq and now Afghanistan. There has been no similar period since the end of the second world war in 1945 when that could have been said.
There is, of course, a question about whether those have been wars of choice or wars of necessity. In my judgment, both Kosovo and Iraq, whatever the arguments might have been, were effectively wars of choice. Neither this country nor its allies had been attacked. We chose wisely or unwisely—I believe, unwisely—to launch military operations in both those countries. Whatever the criticism of those two operations, we should not allow that to be used to create an assumption that Afghanistan, too, is a war of choice, because in my judgment that is not the case. Not only did it originate with the slaughter of more than 3,000 citizens, including some of our own, in the United States of America, but it is often overlooked that the intervention in Afghanistan had the unanimous approval of the Security Council of the United Nations, and to have been able to have the support of Russia and China as well as of western countries is very unusual and demonstrates the unique circumstances in the case of Afghanistan.
If Afghanistan was a war of necessity, however, that still gives rise to two other questions. Is it still a necessity that our military forces should be there? And can we win? Those are issues that I wish to address. Often one hears the suggestion that nobody can win in Afghanistan, and the example is used of the Soviet Union or the “great game” in the 19th century. That is profoundly mistaken. That does not guarantee that we will win, but it is an unwise historical argument. Unlike the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which was loathed by every Afghan, we are dealing with the Taliban insurgency, and even if the Taliban have some significant support among the Pashtun element of the population, it is worth remembering that that is only half the population of Afghanistan, and there is no evidence of any enthusiasm for the Taliban from the other half. It is worth remembering also that almost half the members of the Afghan national army, which is being created at this very moment, are from the Pashtun section of the population from the south of the country and represent that ethnic group.
Let the House recall too that when the mujaheddin were fighting the Soviets, the mujaheddin had strong support not only from the United States but from Saudi Arabia and a range of other countries in the international community. The Taliban have no support of that kind. The terrible casualties that they have caused have not, for the most part, been in direct combat; they have been through improvised explosive devices or suicide bombers. One does not win a war that way. One can attempt to destroy the political will of the other side—that is the objective—but one cannot win a war.
I am delighted that the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) is in his place. I read his article in The Guardian, in which he called for the withdrawal of British forces from Afghanistan. I greatly respect the right hon. Gentleman; he is a brave and courageous man and I hesitate to disagree with him, but I do. I believe that his article was wrong for a number of reasons. First, he used the argument that somehow by withdrawing from Afghanistan we could use the resources saved to improve the police and intelligence services in this country. He must know that to draw a link of that kind is profoundly unconvincing and unnecessary. I am no admirer of the present Government, but I would not for a moment argue that the intelligence and police forces in this country have been deprived of the resources they need for counter-terrorism because we have a war going on in Afghanistan. That is not convincing.
Secondly, also in his article, the right hon. Gentleman hardly mentioned Pakistan; indeed, I do not think he mentioned it at all. He must appreciate that a withdrawal from Afghanistan would have massive implications for the very welcome attempts by the Pakistani Government to deal with comparable serious insurgency on their own territory.
However, I thought the most astonishing thing about the right hon. Gentleman’s article was that it became clear that he was calling for unilateral withdrawal by the United Kingdom, not by NATO as a whole, although no doubt he would want that. He was very honest about that, saying that a British withdrawal, which he was calling for, would have
“momentous implications for UK foreign and defence policy. We would need to reinvent ourselves diplomatically and militarily. Treaties and international agreements would have to be renegotiated. In particular, relationships with our Nato partners, especially with the Americans—our most trusted and valued allies—would alter fundamentally.”
Is he seriously suggesting that he wants to recommend that series of events to the House and the country? It would be a massive betrayal of our allies in the middle of a war if the United Kingdom were simply to withdraw.
The right hon. Gentleman used an unfortunate phrase in the next paragraph of his article, when he said that we should be aware that our service personnel are being
“killed or wounded in support of difficult outcomes and flawed regimes in”
what he called
He may recall that the last person who spoke of faraway countries of which we know little was Neville Chamberlain in the 1930s, in circumstances that proved to be very serious indeed. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reflect on some of the arguments he has used.
There is a lot of interest at the moment in whether there should be a surge, and what decision President Obama will come to in that regard. I will not criticise the President for the time he is taking to reach a decision; I would rather that he spent eight weeks and made the right decision than eight days and made the wrong one. Indeed, I recall that a former President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, said:
“If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.”
That is appropriate. Given that the decisions President Obama has to take are profound, and given that he is getting conflicting advice on the issue, I think we can give him the right to take his time in reaching a correct judgment.
What would be the significance of an additional 30,000 or 40,000 troops? I am under no illusions; I do not believe that that, by itself, would mean that we would win the war and defeat the Taliban. However, the House should appreciate that decisions to withdraw or increase troops have not just a military impact, important though that impact is, but can have a profound political and psychological impact on allies and, more importantly, the enemy.
If we were to announce even the beginnings of a withdrawal, the Taliban would be entitled to say, “Why should we contemplate a political solution? Why should we contemplate any compromise in our aspirations? NATO and the west are about to withdraw anyway, so we can proceed on that assumption.” When a very large increase in American forces is proclaimed, as I suspect it will be, it will bring military advantages in a number of parts of the theatre of operations. It will also send an unmistakable signal to the Taliban that the political will of the international community has not been lost—that we are prepared to see the matter out and reach a proper solution. That will dramatically increase the prospects of the Taliban—not necessarily its leadership, but major elements of that organisation—being willing to seek a route of political compromise. If they are willing to do that, we, too, can welcome such an outcome.
I now turn to the strategy of the international community. I keep repeating the phrase “international community”, because we are part of an intervention that is endorsed by the UN Security Council.
I have listened carefully to everything that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said. British, American and other troops have been in Afghanistan for eight years. How much longer will they stay there, and what would he call a victory? Will those troops just go on to some other country to which it is perceived that the Taliban may have fled?
Let me answer the hon. Gentleman by making the following point. We did not go to Afghanistan to deal with the poppy trade, corruption or women’s rights, important though all those are. We went to stop al-Qaeda being able to operate from within that country. We have already achieved that aim, which was the primary reason we went there. Effectively, al-Qaeda has been emasculated within Afghanistan. The mischief that it can get up to from the caves in the mountains is of very little consequence, in terms of its Afghan operation. The question is how we prevent that situation from being reversed, and how we sustain it. That means that we cannot simply pull out and create a vacuum; that would give the Taliban free run of at least half the country, if not the whole.
The strategy has to have three components to it. First, as has been announced, there must be major training and enlargement of the Afghan national army, so that it can take over responsibility for security in due course. I hope that that can be done sooner rather than later, but that is not entirely within our control.
When that has been achieved, it will allow the gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan of our combat forces on the ground—perhaps all of them—but there should be a continuation thereafter of NATO air support to the Afghan Government. That is a crucial part of the strategy that has to be endorsed. We should remember that when the Taliban were ousted in the first place, we did not have NATO ground forces involved; it was NATO air support, primarily from the United States, combined with Afghan anti-Taliban forces, that drove the Taliban out of power. The Taliban had no air power, and there is no prospect of their having any air power. They cannot conquer Afghanistan simply by having people on the ground if NATO, even after withdrawing its ground forces in three or four years’ time, continues to give air support to the Afghan Government as and when required. That is the second component.
The third component has to be that we recognise that, even at that stage, the Afghan Government will not have full control over large parts of the country, particularly in the south. Therefore I hope the international community will reach a treaty agreement with the Afghan Government that even thereafter, if there is evidence of al-Qaeda or other terrorist activity going on in any of the areas of Afghanistan that the Afghan Government still do not control, we will have a treaty entitlement to send in special forces or military operations to eliminate that terrorist presence and thereby ensure the safety of the world and of our own international interests.
That is the practical way in which we can anticipate the gradual withdrawal of our combat forces on the ground, which will have major benefits in terms of reducing loss of life, but not surrender our obligations to the Afghan Government and our even more important obligations to the battle against international terrorism.
Let me make one final point. The Prime Minister has mentioned that he wants to offer London as the site for an international conference on Afghanistan early in the new year. That may be a very good idea, but I understand that the Foreign Office has not yet decided even who it would like to invite to that conference. I would suggest that included in the guest list need to be not just the members of ISAF, not just the Afghans and the Pakistanis, but the countries that are close to and border Afghanistan and have a crucial interest in its future—Russia, China, India, perhaps even Iran, Saudi Arabia, and some of the other Arab states.
I say that for two reasons, the first being that those countries have a strategic interest, just as we do, in preventing Islamic-inspired terrorism in the international community. In Russia, China, India and a number of other countries in the region, that is a strong preoccupation. The second reason is that it will be a way of reminding the wider public, including our own public opinion, of the point that I made when I started my remarks—that this is not just an American operation or a western operation, as Iraq undoubtedly was, but an international operation blessed by the Security Council of the United Nations. So the presence of Russia and China, not to provide troops, but to provide diplomatic and political support and in other practical ways, would demonstrate that the international community has a common will to ensure that terrorism cannot operate from within Afghanistan in the future. That will allow us not only to see a resolution of the problem, but to hold our heads high while we do so.
It is a privilege to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), as ever. He is right to focus on my proposal that we should reinvent ourselves diplomatically. I sense that in the country there is increasing unease about the way in which we use our armed forces and why they are deployed. I am glad to see that over the past fortnight a debate on Afghanistan has emerged, which was sorely lacking previously. I hope it continues.
As for the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s suggestion that I am advocating that we betray our allies, I have to say that I certainly do not advocate that. We must take a lead, however. As some of my hon. Friends and his right hon. and hon. Friends have said, we have been there for eight years now, and eight years is a long time. One of our most distinguished diplomats said that it may take 30 years. It may, in his historical perspective. Let us try explaining, back in the constituencies that produce the soldiers and those who fly our planes and sail our ships, that we will be sacrificing lives for the next 30 years—it is not an easy thing to do. It is probably also very bad politics and it is not the way to conduct a campaign such as this one.
I have heard all sorts of things this afternoon about how it might be possible to persuade the Taliban to come in, and so on. I will try to deal with that. I say this to the right hon. and learned Gentleman: I suspect that, like me, most serving and former Ministers are praying for an Afghan miracle, hoping that President Karzai will turn out to be a variation on Nelson Mandela and that, instead of risking their lives fighting the Taliban, British soldiers will be able to concentrate on what is portrayed—doubtfully, in my opinion—as the much safer task of training a new Afghan army. We can pray as much as we like; it is not going to happen.
I have no doubt that training will increase, because the Prime Minister has told us for the first time that our forces will be able to leave Afghanistan when we have helped to create an efficient, well equipped Afghan army capable of defending the remit of the Kabul Government against the Taliban. But right now, in the early winter of 2009, the American and British military commanders want combat troops. Trainers are very much their second priority. Without significantly increased combat capacity, ISAF will be capable of doing little more than protecting major towns and highways and, presumably, army training camps from serious Taliban damage.
At first glance, the training target may appear reasonable. After all, we used a similar ploy to extricate ourselves last year from southern Iraq. But southern Afghanistan is not southern Iraq: our troops confront a very different enemy, in the poorest and most backward of countries. Iraq, if it chooses, can develop its vast oilfields to help to pay for its new security forces; Afghanistan has nothing comparable. Iraq has endured notoriously dominant, centralised government for decades; Afghanistan has endured provinces run by warlords, drug barons and mullahs, where there is little evidence of anything resembling the effective influence of a centralised Administration.
Afghanistan, as we have heard, shares an impossibly lawless border with Pakistan, one of the most problematic countries on the planet: a nuclear-armed state whose very existence is threatened by violent religious fundamentalism, secessionist terror and institutionalised corruption. Since 2002, the Pakistani city of Quetta has provided a congenial home for the leadership of the Afghan Taliban, the shura, which continues to plot its Afghan operations while the Pakistani intelligence service looks the other way. To the north of Quetta, Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, along with Baluchi separatists, cross and re-cross the border, but our soldiers, hunting the Taliban, cannot move with the same facility.
The American and British forces cannot invade Pakistan as Afghanistan was invaded. It is true that these days the Pakistani Government, desperate for any discreet military help they can get, may turn a blind eye to the movement of American drones and special operations, if those movements succeed in killing prominent Taliban and al-Qaeda members. The Pakistanis know, however, that their fragile credibility would literally be shot to pieces if infidel armies were invited into the country to tackle jihadist terrorism.
As my right hon. Friends wait, along with the rest of us, for President Obama’s decision on whether to deploy more troops to Afghanistan, they repeat the mantra claiming that winning the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan aids immeasurably the prevention of Islamic terrorism inside our borders. They are convinced that we must continue to disrupt, through armed intervention, the links between the terrorists in Pakistan and those in the United Kingdom.
The argument for fighting terrorism in Afghanistan rather than in Britain was heard more often, from people such as me, after the murder by Islamic terrorists of 52 innocent citizens in London in July 2005, but we ought to remember that by 2005 few of the terrorists’ links can have remained in Afghanistan. The combined operations by American, Canadian and British forces over the previous three years had driven the Taliban and al-Qaeda leaderships out of Afghanistan, so that they were forced to find refuge in other ungoverned places. Chief among those was Pakistan, and they remain there, as the current wave of suicide bombings bears witness.
No doubt some will also have moved on to Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel—that huge ungoverned space that stretches across northern Africa. Others will have integrated themselves in cities such as Mumbai and Mombasa, and in locations closer to European targets. Some of those being trained as bombers and assassins in Afghanistan and Pakistan will have returned to their native countries. Some have moved back into Afghanistan, where currently they are killing our soldiers. I cannot believe that any politician, in this or any other country, assumes that the act of killing Afghan Taliban in large numbers will reduce the threat posed by an international terrorist organisation capable of adapting and regrouping as al-Qaeda has.
The significance of what my right hon. Friend wrote and is saying derives not from the fact that he was a distinguished Foreign Office Minister—although he was—but that he is Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. That means either that he knows what he is talking about because he has seen the intelligence, or, if he has not seen it, that he should have done.
I am certainly not making this speech or writing anything on behalf of the Intelligence and Security Committee; I can tell my hon. Friend that for a kick-off.
There are significant differences between the aims of the Afghan Taliban and their brother organisation in Pakistan, and al-Qaeda. The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are fighting to take control of their respective countries, while al-Qaeda’s objectives remain much more global. Al-Qaeda wants to destroy America and its western allies, as well as the Governments of the middle eastern states that it considers to be too pro-western. It has little love for Shi’a Islam or any other variation of its Wahhabi and Deobandi Sunni orthodoxies.
The differences between the aims of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, however, do not mean that they can easily be prised apart. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) looks as if he has had enough of this, but I want him to listen. I believe that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are simply different faces of a common ideology—what one observer has defined as an
“obdurate and uncompromising version of political Islam.”
That has manifested itself in the form of murder and mutilation, from New York, through Madrid and London, to Mumbai and Bali. Osama bin Laden is but the best known of these obdurate non-compromisers; he and his disciples have a record of moving on, and they will continue to do so. As I said, al-Qaeda’s response to the superb professionalism of the British armed forces and those of our allies has been to seek to re-establish for itself sanctuaries in fragile, troubled territories such as northern Yemen and war-torn south-central Somalia, as well as Pakistan. I do not believe that we or any other NATO member intend to deploy large numbers of our soldiers to fight in Yemen and Somalia, despite the possibility that al-Qaeda will use those places, as it used Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, to train its bombers and assassins.
If we accept that al-Qaeda continues to pose a deadly threat to the United Kingdom and if we know that it is capable of changing the locations of its bases and modifying its attack plans, we must also accept that we have a duty to question the wisdom of prioritising, in Government spending on counter-terrorism, the deployment of our forces to Afghanistan. I am arguing once again that it is time to ask whether the fight against those intent on murdering British citizens might be served better by diverting into the work of the UK Border Agency and our police and intelligence services much of the additional finance and resources swallowed up by the costs of maintaining British forces in Afghanistan.
General Dutton, the deputy commander of ISAF, says that it would be impossible to deny al-Qaeda the advantage of having training camps in a future Taliban-controlled Afghanistan without there being substantial US, NATO and Afghan Government troops on the ground for many years to come. I was interested to hear what the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea said about this issue; I very much agree with him. General Dutton argues that it will be impossible to destroy training camps—the potential springboards for terrorist attacks—simply by patrolling from the skies. In other words, the use of airborne firepower will have to be supplemented by very large numbers of ground troops.
If previous conflicts are anything to go by, General Dutton is probably right. However, I am not convinced that life for al-Qaeda camp dwellers could not be made extremely dangerous and uncomfortable as a consequence of the attentions of unmanned Predator aircraft, attack helicopters, guided missiles and so on. The current wisdom is that NATO and ISAF should continue to build up troops, including British troops. General Dutton said recently that the ideal number of troops required to turn the tide in a country such as Afghanistan, with its 28 million people, is around half a million. Currently, many fewer than half that number of foreign and Afghan troops are available to him. General McChrystal has complained about that and wants more troops. Recent attacks in Kabul and other centres suggest that the current balance of territorial control is at best likely to remain, or more likely to shift, in favour of the Taliban.
I hope that a Government will emerge in Kabul who are capable of convincing the Afghan people that they have a society worth protecting from the misogynistic, mediaeval cruelty and backwardness of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but I sense that the vast majority of the British public share my pessimism and believe that it will be a very long time before that happens.
I also sense that the British public, for better or worse but increasingly, will become less tolerant of Governments placing at risk the lives of our armed forces by deploying them to such conflicts in support of outcomes that are complex and confusing. In other words, I believe that we have no choice but to seek different ways of ensuring this country’s security, ways not only that the public find more acceptable but that will be more successful.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), who we on the Foreign Affairs Committee remember as a Minister with a refreshing propensity to deviate from the official brief. The right hon. Gentleman, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and the Front Benchers rightly focused on Afghanistan, and I wish to pay my own tribute to the extraordinary courage and skill of our service personnel there.
I wish to devote my time to the situation in the western Balkans, which I visited last month with other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. In the three most difficult countries, we face a time-critical issue. In Serbia, the bicycle analogy is now something of a cliché, but I think that it is applicable in this case. The reality is that we will probably not maintain the forward-looking Government of President Tadic unless there is continuing momentum towards EU accession. Although the EU has managed to sign up to, but not ratify, the stabilisation and association agreement for Serbia, there is now an impasse created by the Dutch position. We all understand that the Dutch are still transfixed by the passive role played by Dutch UN forces around the time of the Srebrenica massacre. It is still an explosive issue in the Netherlands, and it has already brought down one Dutch Government. However, having recognised the political realities in the Netherlands, I have to say that it is not reasonable to impose on Serbia conditions for making progress with its EU accession that are simply not realisable.
My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary mentioned the phrase “full co-operation with the ICTY”, but the new chief prosecutor for the ICTY, Serge Brammertz, has said that he will not use that phrase, as he believes that it has become politicised. It is not therefore a realistic hurdle to put in front of Serbia. We all want to see Mladic and Hadzic alongside Karadzic in The Hague, but the issue is whether Mladic is still in Serbia. The Serbian Government can deliver only those people within their territories.
The key issue will come next week, when we get the next report by Mr. Brammertz. That will be followed by an EU Foreign Ministers meeting the following week. My information is that the Brammertz report is likely to be as favourable as is reasonably possible as far as Serbia is concerned, and in the discussions that we had with Ministers in Belgrade, they were all determined to co-operate fully with the ICTY and to do their best to find Mladic and Hadzic if they were in Serbia. I therefore very much hope that if the ICTY report comes out as I believe it will, the Government and the Foreign Secretary will take the two crucial steps at the forthcoming EU Foreign Ministers meeting that will be necessary to keep Serbia’s EU accession going forward. Those steps will be making progress towards unblocking the implementation of the interim agreement under Serbia’s SAA, and beginning the EU ratification process for Serbia’s SAA.
Let me move from discussing Serbia to dealing with the position in Kosovo, where we also have grounds for a reasonable degree of cautious optimism. Among the Serbian municipalities, the municipality elections in Kosovo two years ago were effectively a write-off. There was virtually no turnout at all. In contrast, the elections two years later, which have just been completed—I refer to those south of the Ibar river—have been a remarkable success. The turnout has averaged between 20 and 25 per cent., which is a dramatic improvement and a dramatic increase in the willingness of Kosovo Serbs now to participate in elections organised from Pristina.
The critical issue now is what will happen in the elections for the two remaining Serbian municipalities, in particular north Mitrovica. President Sejdiu has wisely deferred those elections for six months, until 15 May next year, to enable the maximum possible time to ensure that they are held on a free and fair basis. That will be a serious challenge in north Mitrovica. The area is dominated by Serb hardliners. Their control is exercised by threat, intimidation, telephone calls threatening actions if people participate and knocks on the door at night. In the past, those intimidatory tactics have had considerable success.
A huge responsibility now lies with EULEX, the EU rule of law mission in Kosovo. EULEX is the largest civilian deployment under the European security and defence policy, and something of the ESDP’s civilian credibility hangs on its success. EULEX has six months flat to try to create conditions in Kosovo under which the elections can be held on what we hope will be a reasonably free and fair basis in north Mitrovica. If that can be achieved, we shall have moved a long way to maintaining the integration of Kosovo and creating conditions in which its progress towards EU accession can take place.
I come finally to Bosnia and Herzegovina. My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary was entirely correct in his opening remarks when he referred to the fact that the position in Bosnia and Herzegovina is going backwards. As we are all aware, the constitutional arrangements that are now in place were a brilliant triumph at the point at which they were concluded—in other words, the Dayton peace agreement of 1995, which had the hugely beneficial effect of stopping the terrible bloodshed taking place in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was the most serious violence and bloodshed to have taken place in Europe since the end of world war two.
That peace agreement was achieved at a price. The price was a constitution that contains a series of ethnic blocks—blocks at the state level; blocks at the entity level; block after block after block. Although the agreement brought peace, it has not brought a constitution that is viable in terms of a governmental decision process for EU accession. The EU recognises that, the US recognises it, the Bosniaks recognise it and the Bosnian Croatians recognise it. The one group that does not, of course, is the Bosnian Serbs. At the moment, unless they can be persuaded to amend the Dayton constitution and to create a viable governmental structure at the top to deal with EU accession, the impasse will continue.
This issue is also time critical. The present EU-US negotiating team will not be in play for ever; it is time limited. Indeed, I would say that it is crucial that progress be made in the next two or three months. I hope that the British Government, along with our EU and US partners, will use all possible influence to prevail on Mr. Dodik, and to make him understand the reality that he is taking the Republika Srpska into a complete cul de sac. There is no future for the people of the Republika Srpska if it is an isolated, supposedly independent, mini-state with no prospect of going anywhere. I do not believe that it will receive material support from Serbia for much longer, if at all, and I do not think that it can hope for very much from the Russians either. It is in a cul de sac, and Mr. Dodik needs to be persuaded that that is the case, so that Bosnia and Herzegovina can make progress.
Over the past 15 years, we in the EU, the US and Britain as an individual country have all invested enormous amounts of time, effort, money and resources into the western Balkans. I earnestly believe that, having made that investment, we cannot allow any of those countries to fail.
We have heard much this afternoon, particularly from the Liberal Democrats, of the virtues of taking tea with people who change their point of view to one’s own point of view. The Foreign Secretary is having tea with Mr. Shalom this afternoon, and I wish him luck. The last time I, as chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Union middle east committee, had tea with Mr. Shalom was in Tel Aviv. He had been perfectly pleasant until I mentioned Palestinian prisoners, but then, unfortunately, he almost leapt over the dining room table to get me by the throat. So I sincerely hope the Foreign Secretary is luckier than I am, but I suspect that he will not be.
My right hon. Friend and neighbour, the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) and I disagree about very little, except perhaps the leadership of the Welsh Assembly, on which we profoundly disagree. I should like to follow up on some of the points that he made, but I want to spend the time available today talking about Iraq. For the first time in many years, the Queen’s Speech did not mention Iraq. The complex issues relating to that country have dominated so many debates, questions and speeches in the House in recent years, and I feel that it is important to use this moment to highlight the important progress that has been made, and to remind the House of some of the issues that still need further attention.
I spoke to President Talabani of Iraq when he was here in London recently to attend the very moving memorial service for UK troops who had been involved in operations there. I was struck by the fact that, despite all the difficulties that Iraq has faced since the overthrow of Saddam, the President retains an unwavering belief that it was the right thing to do. It is clear from talking to him, and almost any other Iraqi, that ultimately only they can solve Iraq’s problems. The role of the UK and coalition forces was to get them to the point at which they had a realistic prospect of success. I have full confidence in the determination of the Government and the people of Iraq to ensure that the country continues on its path to stability.
Iraq’s internal dynamics have changed significantly over the past 18 months, and I believe that it is now a nation that has changed for the better. There have been significant improvements on security, the economy and politics. Millions of Iraqis now have control over their own destiny. The Iraqi people have embraced democracy with great enthusiasm. The parliamentary elections in December 2005 saw a turnout of around 80 per cent., and provincial elections were held successfully in January this year, again with a very high turnout. National elections are due to take place in January 2010 and will provide another opportunity for Iraqis to embrace democracy. The Iraqi Parliament and the Council of Representatives are both steadily maturing as a voice for the people.
There are difficulties and delays in passing a new electoral law to regulate the next elections and the composition of the new Iraqi Parliament. Again, however, 25 per cent. of the places are going to be set aside for women, which is a point worth making here. It is another welcome sign that difficulties are being battled out in the political arena rather than on the streets.
The attempts by some to throw progress off course, as seen in the terrible bomb attacks on key ministries in Baghdad in August and October, have not had their desired impact. The response from Iraqis has been to deal with matters in a mature and considered manner. I sincerely hope that all the main political leaders in Iraq will continue to work together in a spirit of compromise and for the interests of all Iraq. Not doing so risks damaging the recent gains in security and political progress.
It is clear that many challenges remain in ensuring peace and stability in Iraq. Starting from such a low base, it is inevitable that work remains to bring about an effective human rights culture in Iraq. In my continuing role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy on human rights in Iraq, I continue to engage with a wide range of Iraqis—both here and in Iraq—to help this process along. I urge those I meet to continue to focus their efforts on ensuring that the rule of law is respected.
The number of detainees held without trial has dropped considerably over the past 18 months, but sustained effort to ensure that those remaining are either released or made to face trial is needed. All those subject to the Iraqi legal system should be dealt with in a timely and humane manner.
Freedom of expression was an area that suffered greatly under Saddam. Since 2003, a vibrant media reflecting a wide spectrum of views has sprung up. There are signs of some efforts to curb the effectiveness of the media, with new regulations and legislation under consideration. This is a subject that I intend to raise when I visit Iraq shortly and meet key activists working to protect the rights of journalists. I discussed the challenges faced by the media in Iraq at one of the programmes of ongoing human rights forums or round tables held by the Foreign Office this year, which I chaired.
Industry in Iraq continues to recover and international trade links are being re-established. British companies assisted by UK Trade & Investment are showing more interest in doing business in Iraq. To support their efforts, the UKTI staff in our diplomatic missions in Iraq have been bolstered. BP and the Iraqi Government signed a new deal earlier this month to help revitalise the Rumaila oil field in southern Iraq, which should dramatically increase oil production and revenue for the Iraqi Government.
There is much work still to be done to protect the rights of Iraqi workers. The British TUC, which I thank very much, continues to assist in many ways. There remain in place many Saddam-era regulations restricting the rights of trade unions and preventing public sector workers from joining the union of their choosing. I am pleased to hear that a campaign launched by the Iraqi permanent co-ordination committee of trade unions and professional associations is gathering momentum. I note with some satisfaction that on 13 November President Talabani himself signed up to their campaign calling for more equitable labour laws.
I have raised from the start concerns about the treatment of women in Iraqi society. Women continue to face many problems in their day-to-day lives. Article 41 of the constitution could seriously affect the rights of women and I hope it will be revisited in the ongoing constitutional discussions. So-called “honour-based” violence has been reported as on the increase in many parts of Iraq. This is not a religious or an Islamic practice, but something rooted in the traditions of the clans and tribes. I have encouraged the leadership in Iraq, particularly the Kurds in the north, to speak out against it and to treat any “honour” crime just like any other crime. The considerable abilities of the new Kurdish Prime Minister, Barham Salih—he has visited this House several times—will, I think, be used to good effect in Iraqi Kurdistan, and I am sure that we would all want to send our good wishes to him. He has been an excellent Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq and I am sure that the Kurds will benefit from having him as Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan.
I plan to visit Iraq again before the end of the year and am sure that, as in each of my previous visits since 2003, I will see further evidence of improvements. I know I will meet Iraqis who are committed to the future of their country and to seeing peace and prosperity. I know I will meet such people because they form the overwhelming majority of the population. I am sure that they will be pleased to hear that Iraq is no longer such a regular source of bad news and that they will not be at all offended that this year they did not even get a mention from Her Majesty the Queen in her Gracious Speech.
I finish with a short announcement. On 1 December, our present ambassador in Iraq will be coming here to answer questions. The Foreign Minister will also be present, as will the chargé d’affaires from the Iraqi embassy. I hope that those interested in Iraq will come along on 1 December to ask any questions that I have not been able to answer today.
It is a privilege, as always, to follow the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), but I am going to focus in today’s debate solely on some very simple points about the campaign in Afghanistan. Let me say from the outset that I agree with a great deal of what has been said by a number of earlier speakers. I agreed with about half of the speech of my old friend, the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells)—I shall deal with that more fully in a few moments—and I agreed even with the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). He jeopardised the career of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), so I am going to do the same back to him—again, I shall come back to this shortly. I agreed most of all with the analysis provided by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), a former Foreign Secretary, who showed that his intimate grasp of foreign policy issues is as firm as always.
My right hon. and learned Friend talked about whether the Afghan war is a war of choice or of necessity. There is no doubt that, back in 2001-02, it was a war of necessity. Whether our deployment into Helmand in 2004-05—in the so-called Operation Herrick 4—was a matter of necessity, I am much less sure. At that point in time, I was extremely doubtful about the value of that deployment.
Indeed, in a policy discussion at the time, when many experts were talking in a meeting about how to achieve victory, I am afraid my response was, “Well, I do not know how you will achieve victory, but how will you recognise it? What does victory consist of? Is it the defeat of al-Qaeda and driving them out of Afghanistan? Is it the defeat of the Taliban? Is it the destruction of the drug trade? Is it simply the protection of Pakistan? Is it simply the creation of a stable Government or is it the creation of a Jeffersonian democracy complete with proper treatment of women and all the things we like to see in a civilised state?” The truth of the matter is that I got no answer, which is unsurprising because at that point in time, the Government did not appear to have an answer either. Indeed, their justification for the deployment varied from week to week.
If it is not clear what a victory looks like, it is certainly clear what a disaster looks like. A disaster would be a precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan now. Whether it looks like the American scramble out of Vietnam, with helicopters on the roof of the embassy, or whether it looks like the Russian deployment when the last general—I think it was General Gromov—walked out in a dignified manner over Friendship bridge back into mother Russia: either way, it is a disaster on several counts.
First, such a withdrawal would be a disaster for all the decent Afghans trying to make a decent living under the regime as it stands, and particularly for the Afghan middle class, many of whom are leaving in droves as we speak. Secondly, it would be a disaster for Pakistan, which has enough internal problems without having a further cause of them on its borders. Thirdly, it would be a disaster for the western alliance—I use that phrase deliberately, rather than the phrase, “international alliance” used by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea, as that is how it would be portrayed on the streets by Islamic fundamentalists around the world. The effect of that on our battle, or conflict—whatever one wishes to call it—against terrorism is my most serious concern, because that is a gift we do not want to give them. My argument starts from the point that if there is any material chance of victory—I do not care whether it is one in five, one in 10, one in two, or two in three—we must take it, to avoid that disaster.
The Foreign Secretary made the obvious point—I do not mean that disparagingly—that any victory comes out of a military, civil and political dimension. That is self-evident. We must not lose sight of the fact, however, that the civil and political are not replacements for the military component. The civil component can only work if the military component works. There is no point in building schools and hospitals if next week they are burned down. There is no point in training teachers and nurses if they are hanged or decapitated. There is no point in trying to run a country if one cannot deliver justice on the ground, which, I am afraid, is the circumstance in Helmand today. Even in Lashkar Gah, ordinary Afghan citizens will walk eight miles to a Taliban village to get justice in a Taliban court, because they do not trust the justice system they currently have.
Security comes first and it is important that our leaders, whether the Prime Minister or the President of the United States, grip that nettle tightly. Our problem is that both our leaders are undoubtedly civilised people who do not like, and are not comfortable with, sending young men and women to their possible death or maiming in a foreign country. That is entirely understandable and a civilised reflex. Unfortunately, however, doing half the job, or sending half or a quarter of the number of troops that would be enough, is a way of increasing the number who are hurt and who die in our cause.
When General McChrystal calls for 40,000 troops, that is what we should give. McChrystal is not well known in this country but he is very well known in Washington. He is the man to whom the Americans largely attribute the success of the surge. He was effectively the cutting edge of the surge, and has as much claim to that success as Petraeus. His judgment and report was incredibly well thought through and carefully designed. If we intend to win the war, or campaign, we must take the whole bite, not half of it. I say that with an American political dimension in mind: next November, the mid-term congressional elections will take place. If, by then, we do not see material progress, the collapse in public support for the war, which we already see in both countries, will accelerate and will probably be reflected in the political classes too. In those circumstances, it will be very difficult for America to stay in. Therefore, we must grip the nettle tightly.
On the civil dimension, sometimes when I listen to colleagues talking about schools, hospitals and the like, I feel that they are talking to their own constituents. However, there is no constituency in the country, no matter how poor, that does not look wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice to an ordinary Afghan. The people on the ground in Afghanistan are poor beyond our imagination, and for them poverty is a life-threatening condition, especially for their children and families. Their concerns are having enough food to eat, enough firewood to get them through the winter, a roof over their head and some sort of job. Massive unemployment of a degree we cannot imagine among young men in Afghanistan, particularly in southern Afghanistan, is as much a contributor to the recruiting drive for the Taliban as anything else I can think of.
When we talk of the civil effort, the first, most important and predominant approach should be to the economy of Helmand province and the Pashtun areas. The north of Afghanistan is not doing badly, but the southern part is doing very poorly. If we do not get a grip on that, people will die from starvation as much as from any other cause. As the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) is listening, let me say that I was pleased to hear Brigadier Cowan, the current commander in Helmand, talking about roads and seedcorn projects, because such projects, markets and provision of jobs and incomes are more critical than one can imagine.
My last point is a simple one and is made as constructively as possible. We have talked in the House time and again about Afghanisation, which has become fashionable in the past 12 months. There is no doubt that that is the only route to a stable Afghanistan. I absolutely agreed with the point made by the right hon. Member for Pontypridd about the contrast between Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq is a much easier country to run than Afghanistan. Iraq has 600,000 security troops; our plans only go up to some 200,000. The American counter-insurgency manual says 600,000, and the deputy commander of the international security assistance force said 600,000 when I spoke to him. That is the minimum number that would create a stable state.
I started by saying that I did not know what a victory looked like. The conditions for withdrawal with honour and with some form of positive conclusion to the campaign are those that leave in place a stable state that will not be perfect, but which can manage its own affairs, which we can deal with and Pakistan can deal with, and which delivers a reasonable prospect of life to Afghan citizens. If we achieve that, the pill will be less bitter than the one our citizens have had to swallow so far.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) about the state in which we must leave Afghanistan. Before I go on, let me pay tribute to our superb armed forces and put on the record my appreciation for what they are doing in Afghanistan, where I went many times when I was a Minister.
I am committed to our presence in Afghanistan, and we must see it through and achieve the sort of outcome described by the right hon. Gentleman. However, given the political debate that has taken place recently, not least in the press, and the increasing casualties and deaths in Afghanistan in the past 12 months that have made the matter more politically difficult, I am concerned that we are not looking at it as we should. We cannot be in Afghanistan in a half-hearted way. There must be 100 per cent. political will from this Government, from all the parties and from our NATO allies to see the matter through to its conclusion. I am concerned about some of the language used in recent months, to which I shall come in a minute.
The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) was also right—I agreed with most of his speech—that a myth has developed that, because of Afghanistan’s history, no one can ever succeed there. Actually, people have succeeded at different times, and there has been stability at different times, but it has always been a difficult place. Why is Afghanistan important, and why has there been so much foreign intervention there over the years? Afghanistan is important because of where it sits in the world. Often, easy points are made by people who do not know all the facts, but who try to manipulate them to fit their own conclusions.
As has been said, NATO cannot afford to lose in Afghanistan—its credibility is on the line. Some people peddle the idea that because al-Qaeda was driven out of Afghanistan into the border areas of Pakistan and the mountains, there is no point in our being in Afghanistan now. Do we think for one moment that al-Qaeda would not come back into Afghanistan if NATO withdrew? The whole border area is difficult in any case, and we cannot have one solution without the other: we must have a solution in Pakistan and a solution in Afghanistan.
The defeat of the insurgents in Pakistan is crucial, because the fundamentalists must not be allowed to win there. That involves great difficulties, because Pakistan has nuclear weapons. I do not know how close the insurgents have come, or could come, to toppling the Pakistan Government, but if they did, it would cause a major problem. What would India’s reaction be in such circumstances? There are many other scenarios to be discussed in the context of the importance of Afghanistan, not all of which relate to Pakistan.
I have read a great many books in the past 12 months, some of them better than others. It seems from a book by Colonel Stuart Tootal—a fine officer and soldier—that after we had sent in 3,000 troops, they were sent all over Helmand following demands from the Afghan Government and the governor. What followed was what can only be described as the debacle of Musa Qala. At one point, we very nearly withdrew. I believe that that was due to a number of factors. I am sure that the advice given to Ministers by the chiefs of staff, the Foreign Office and others was that it was necessary at the time, but they probably did not envisage that the troops would be dragged all over Helmand province trying to deal with various outbreaks of insurgency, or anticipate the problems to which those outbreaks led.
The argument that there were not enough troops in the first place is, in my view, unassailable. I have always argued that there ought to be more troops, and we have put more troops in. I want to make what I consider to be an important point about NATO’s contribution, and I shall do so shortly, but first I want to deal with stories in the press suggesting that we might withdraw from part of Helmand into the most populated areas. That would be a major mistake. We need boots on the ground. Our troops should be working among the people, providing protection and security and allowing development to take place. The idea that we should do that only in certain areas of Helmand is farcical. I do not see how it could logically be achieved, and I do not know whether it is being seriously considered.
I was in Musa Qala last week. The bazaar is flourishing and development is taking place, but I was told by both troops and commanders on the ground that the dangerous talk and irresponsible press reporting in this country had been broadcast on Taliban radio within two days. I agree with my hon. Friend that people should guard against making irresponsible comments that can be used on the ground against our troops.
I thank my hon. Friend for that information.
I hope that President Obama will indeed decide to put thousands more American troops on the ground, although I think he has been right to take his time in making his decision. However, I should be interested to know whether the Opposition can confirm their position regarding NATO. I have been consistent in criticising some members of NATO for not providing more troops, equipment and other resources in Afghanistan, as has the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). I have heard him do so time and again from the Opposition Front Bench.
According to newspaper reports at the weekend, the Conservatives are saying that we must recognise the constitutional difficulties of some of our NATO allies. The United Kingdom and, perhaps, France could provide an expeditionary force, but the others would be there merely to support us. I do not know whether those reports are true, but if that is Conservative party policy, it is very worrying. We must continue to apply pressure; we cannot be half-hearted. As I said earlier, there must be 100 per cent. commitment from NATO and our allies to ensure that we see this through to the end. We cannot allow people to do little bits here and there. The Taliban will see that as a weakness in any event.
I do not consider it helpful to set a time scale at this stage; we have not travelled far enough down the road to do so. Talk of withdrawal from some areas of Helmand, and of when we will leave Helmand, can only give succour to the Taliban. It will give them the impression that we have real problems and are facing defeat. I cannot see a political reason for such talk. We must be very strong in that regard. We are asking our service personnel to fight and sometimes to die out there, and clearly there will be many casualties. Given what we are asking them to do, they must be 100 per cent. sure that there is 100 per cent. political will to see this through to the end. The comments I have read and heard recently, in the press and elsewhere, are not helpful in that respect.
I hope to make a speech on this issue if I catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair. Meanwhile, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he is really saying that it does not matter if victory is not secured in the next few years—in another eight, 10 or 15 years?
I am not saying that. As my hon. Friend will have heard, some have argued that it will take 30 years, but the fact remains that it will take some time. We know, for instance, that the training of the Afghan army is proceeding better than that of the Afghan police. Many people are having to be trained to take over responsibility for security. How can anyone say at this stage whether that will take a year, two years or three years? We shall have to make the judgment at the appropriate time. If we say that we will be out of there in two, three, four or five years, what does that tell the Taliban? What does it say about our commitment there? The issue is our commitment and the message we are sending to our enemies; we must get that right at the beginning. I am not going to specify a time limit, although I do not want us to be there for 30 years. We must ensure that we complete the project of training the security forces and securing stability in Afghanistan in the correct way.
I should like to hear from Ministers how the training of the Afghan police and armed forces to take over responsibility for security will be paid for in the coming years. The cost, and our contribution, will have to be substantial. We are not talking about just two, three, four or five years. As we have heard, Afghanistan is a very poor country. How could it sustain those arrangements on its own?
We must continue to maintain 100 per cent. political commitment to Afghanistan, to ensuring that our NATO allies contribute more, and to dealing with corruption, which is particularly important. I hope that President Karzai will be true to his word, but I suspect that the task will be much more difficult than we expect. We must deal with it on both the national and the local level. We need a proper system of justice so that people need not seek justice from the Taliban.
There should be no illusions that there will be a western-style democracy. I cannot believe that anyone seriously imagines that that is possible, and we should not give the impression that it is. What is needed is a system that takes account of tribal and ethnic issues, and as I have said, security is key to that. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), mentioned events in Musa Qala. We need security so that the Afghan people can see that we are making a difference to their lives—for instance, in schools and hospitals.
I recall visiting a hospital in Lashkar Gah—if it could be called a hospital; it was just an old building containing one or two bits of equipment. There was a long queue of people who were trying to be seen, and doctors and nurses were desperate for equipment and support. We must do more, whether it is building more bridges, building better housing or providing more commerce and business. That must be part and parcel of what we are doing in military terms as well.
We must also try to understand the tribal system better and bring more of the elders on board. We should work with tribes and elders in the villages and elsewhere. I am not in favour of the argument that we should pay ex-Taliban fighters to do our work for us or with us. We may be able to bring some over to our side, but I am not sure that there can be a wholesale policy at this stage. However, I have not been in Afghanistan for more than a year, so I could be mistaken.
If we are to talk of reconciliation, we should do so only from a position of strength. The same applies to the Afghans. I referred earlier to the danger that the insurgents would see our weakness if we spoke the language that I have sometimes heard spoken about reconciliation. Of course reconciliation will be necessary—there is a history of reconciliation in the case of all insurgencies—but it must take place from a position of strength, and must involve the Afghans themselves.
I recently spoke to a mother who was very proud of her son and what he was doing out in Afghanistan. He believes he is making a real difference there, and she does as well. She believes it is a cause worth fighting for. However, she also mentioned the political and press debates about the undermining of the morale of our service personnel in Afghanistan, and the support that they need. They believe they are doing a job out there, and we must give them wholesale political commitment.
The job will be difficult, and it will be absolutely tragic for those who lose their lives, for their families and for the casualties who are wounded, many of them seriously. However, I come back to my earlier point: we must look at all these issues, but we must make decisions based on what is in the interests of our national security and of western security, and, of course, on what is in the interests of the people of Afghanistan. They must also be based on the Pakistan security issue and the consequences of that going wrong. We must make the point time after time that this is about stopping terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda getting back into Afghanistan or getting a base. It is about maintaining security there, and preventing Pakistan from going to the insurgents and their being given a chance to get into power there.
There is a further point, too, which seems to have been lost. We said at the outset, back in 2006, that we were in Afghanistan in part because of the poppy and heroin. That is a major problem, and we should not shy away from the fact that we said that. It is part of the process as well; after all, 90 per cent. of the heroin that ends up here comes from Afghanistan.
Our aims must be to build a stable, more secure Afghanistan, to provide security, to allow the country to develop and to make sure we train up its armed forces and police; that is key to our future there. However, in order to ensure success in Afghanistan, we must have 100 per cent. political will to see this through, and we must make sure that our armed forces, who are sacrificing their lives, see that political will. We must also make sure there are enough troops and service personnel out there. We must have boots on the ground in order to make sure that development and security come about.
We have heard some interesting speeches on Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) and the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) looked at the same facts and came to rather different conclusions. The problem I have with the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis is that we cannot act unilaterally. We went in there with the United States, and we have to come out with them; we cannot conduct a unilateral withdrawal. The problem I have with the analysis of the hon. Member for Halton is that it does not acknowledge that it is our very presence that has focused, if not caused, the insurgency. That is a big factor. We have succeeded in uniting against us most of the Afghan insurgency, as we did in Iraq. I do not want to discuss Afghanistan, however, although I have a few words to say about it. Instead, I want to talk about the conduct of foreign policy over the last 12 years and how it will change if my party wins the next general election, because some serious and fundamental errors have been made.
When Robin Cook became Foreign Secretary, he made a speech about setting out what he called an ethical foreign policy, as though, somehow, previous foreign policy had not been ethical. There was also talk about being a force for good in the world. I think this has led us into making some serious errors—unintentionally, and in many ways with the best intentions, it has led us into error.
In many respects, this is a rerun of the old argument about whether one should promote one’s interests or one’s values in foreign policy. I think the answer is both, but values certainly seem to have taken the upper hand over the last 12 years. They have led to a series of errors. I want to comment on two of them, one of which is merely irritating, but the other one of which is dangerous.
The irritating error is the predilection of the current Foreign Secretary and his predecessors for gratuitous moralising about what goes on in other countries where we have no influence and no interest. We get this the whole time; certain other countries get almost daily lectures from the Foreign Secretary about how they ought to conduct their affairs. He does it in an arrogant and patronising way, too. He has said,
“we want to see…Russia on a different course”,
and that he has have been talking to President Assad
“for over 18 months…about his responsibilities in the region”.
How does the Foreign Secretary think that sounds to those countries, and in what way does it possibly promote our interests? This reached its ridiculous conclusion in his comments on Sri Lanka. He criticised its Government—who were finally coming to grips with the Tamil terrorists and the insurgency—and then, when the Tamils expected some support, he gave them none and we ended up with a huge demonstration in Parliament square. We had no dog in that fight; we had no interest and absolutely no influence. What was the point of that gratuitous comment?
That approach comes from people assuming they have somehow taken the moral high ground because they have asserted it, and they are therefore entitled to tell other people how they think they ought to conduct their affairs. I think foreign policy is about something different, however: if we have an interest we pursue it, and if we have the power to affect an outcome, we use it, but we do not make gratuitous comments, particularly from a moral point of view, about what other people do if we do not have either that interest or that power.
How would we react if President Assad started making comments on our fiscal irresponsibility over the last few years, or the Chinese President criticised us over our rather weak financial regulation? We would be pretty unhappy about it, and I think the press and Members in all parts of this House would unite in opposition to such criticism. Such comment sounds arrogant, and if a first-world country directs it at a third-world country, it does not just sound arrogant, it sounds neo-imperialist as well. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) becomes Foreign Secretary—which I very much hope he will in a few months’ time—I hope he will resist the temptation to comment, particularly from a moral point of view, on issues over which we have no influence and little, or no, interest.
That is merely the irritating aspect of this so-called ethical foreign policy, however; the dangerous bit is the predilection for intervention. That has been a growing tendency, and it seems to me that no lessons have been learned from one such episode to the next. That is, of course, where ethical foreign policy, or a moral crusade, leads—military intervention. We had a little bit of success in Sierra Leone, and I think that whetted the appetite. That episode involved a gang of essentially armed robbers trying to take over a west African country, and that might be about the extent of what we can take care of by ourselves. We watched the United States’ success in Bosnia, but there was a very specific objective—to get the Serbs to the negotiating table in Dayton—and force was used to achieve that. Our first adventure was therefore Kosovo. That war was probably illegal; there was certainly no United Nations Security Council cover for it—we did not even try to get it, because we knew we could not. I think we were very lucky in Kosovo. We were on the verge of having to invade—of having to send our Army in—and I do not know what the result would have been. One day, I would love to know what Martti Ahtisaari and Viktor Chernomyrdin said to Milosevic that made him back down over Kosovo, but I think we ought to thank God that they did what they did, because otherwise we would have ended up in the kind of mess that we have ended up in in other places where we have intervened. It is so easy to start these things, and so difficult to see where they will go.
We then went into Iraq, which exposed the dubious legality of our actions—by implication there was the need to revive a previous UN Security Council resolution. We also then found that the grounds for the war—the weapons of mass destruction—not only did not exist, but the method by which the Government had come to their conclusions was cruelly exposed to the light of day by the Foreign Affairs Committee, on which I served at the time, and subsequently by other inquiries. We were, at best, misled, and intelligence was manipulated to political ends that seemed to me to justify decisions that had already been taken. Both we and the Americans had initial military success in Iraq. We were welcomed as liberators, but it was not long before we were being targeted as invaders by nationalist groups of one sort or another. I believe that the entire mission conducted by us and the Americans in Iraq acted as both a recruiting sergeant and a training ground for al-Qaeda and its terrorists. They were not in Iraq before, and it certainly gave them a lot of practice. It also gave them something by which to recruit people to its cause—the idea that a western army was on Islamic soil. We should have learned the lessons from that before we went into Afghanistan again in 2006. Whatever success we had in Iraq—the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) set that out—has to be set against the fact that we have left the region less stable than it was, and that the big winner is Iran, which now does not have a stable, strong country on its western border to act as its counterweight. We are now dealing, at least in part, with the consequences of that, in a much more assertive and much stronger Iran, because it knows that there is nobody in the region who can take it on and stop it.
After Iraq, we went to phase two in Afghanistan. We had cleared the Taliban out in 2001-02, but in 2006 we went back in. Almost as an afterthought, we went into Helmand, and the then Defence Secretary said it was to protect the provincial reconstruction teams. We sent in 3,000 troops and he rather optimistically hoped they would come out without a shot being fired; that is obviously what he thought would happen, too, although he now says that is not so. The reason given for that action was to protect the provincial reconstruction teams, but the Prime Minister said that a large part of our mission was to stop the heroin trade—the hon. Member for Halton also referred to that. In answer to a question from me, the deputy leader of the Labour party, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), said recently that girls’ education was a crucial ingredient in our mission. The Prime Minister has talked about building a democratic state. This is not mission creep; it is mission gallop. We went in there to protect an aid effort; we have ended up trying to build a democratic state.
I now see that our objectives have reduced to training up the Afghan security forces so they can support the Government. The decision to reduce our objectives is, I suppose, one way of getting our capabilities and objectives into line. However, we never had a clear objective, and our presence there has fuelled the insurgency; I have just made that point. It is our very presence as foreigners that has united the various forces in the Afghan opposition against us. They do not like foreigners on their soil, and I dare say we would not like them very much on ours. We should have cleared the Taliban out and then pursued a different strategy. We are there now and it is not that easy just to leave, but we should recognise that our presence produces and fuels the insurgency.
The biggest and most misleading of all the reasons given for our being in Afghanistan is that it makes the streets of Britain safe—it palpably does not. There were serious bombings here in 2005, most of which originated either here or in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. The idea that al-Qaeda has no place to go aside from Afghanistan is nonsense, because there are masses of failed or semi-failed states around, some of which have been mentioned. Those that have not are in the Islamic part of north Africa—in Mali, in Mauritania and in the southern bits of some of the other countries there, which are not really under the control of their Governments. Al-Qaeda is already operating in those places and it has plenty of places to go to if we deny it Afghanistan. If we want to stop al-Qaeda bombing people on the streets of Britain, we have to do so with our own security and intelligence forces, not by fighting foreign wars, which are as likely to stir al-Qaeda up as deter it.
In no way do I intend to detract from the fantastic performance that our Army and military have put in. One could not read “A Million Bullets”, as I have done, without being incredibly impressed at what these people have been doing. However, one had to ask at the end: what has been achieved by all that incredible bravery and loss of life? It was difficult to see that much had been sustained. What has been lacking is a clear political objective. If we had had one, we might have been able to put behind it the clear political support for which the hon. Member for Halton was calling. In times of economic hardship, it is also worth reflecting on how much this has cost. It has cost £12 billion and it is costing £3.5 billion a year, but the cost is not just the treasure—it is also the blood. Every Wednesday, we are reminded of the cost of this action in human life.
I am glad that President Obama is giving serious thought to what our mission should be and what resources we need to accomplish it, but I hope that those two things are matched up. I say that because one of the things that flows out of all these interventions is that they increase instability; we become the target by being in these places and we fuel terror and al-Qaeda, acting as a recruiting sergeant while these places act as a training ground for it. This is a bad precedent to set. We may think that it is good for us, but when Chinese marines invade the Philippines or—dare I say this—the Gulf, in pursuit of what they see as a humanitarian mission, we will regret inventing it
I hope that we will see an end to gratuitous moralising in the conduct of foreign policy in the next few years—I hope that will start at some point this spring. I hope that we will see intervention only when it can be quick and successful or where it is clearly and essentially in our national interest. I hope that we will stop seeing foreign policy, as we have so often seen it with Labour Foreign Secretaries, as some sort of reality TV show in which the Foreign Secretary of the day has to give his view on everything, irrespective of whether it is our business, and struts his stuff on the world stage, looking good and lecturing others. Foreign policy is about the long-term protection and enhancement of the United Kingdom’s interests. Sometimes that will involve the promotion of democracy, but more often it will, and should be, about achieving stability.
It is on the latter remarks about Afghanistan where I agree with the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), because I have considerable doubts about our military presence there and how long British troops should be involved. However, as he said, none of that should in any way question the bravery of the troops, and again I pay tribute, as I did during a recent Prime Minister’s Question Time, to the memory of those who have died in action and to those who have been seriously injured.
The decision, taken with other NATO powers, to engage in Afghanistan in 2001 was justified and I supported it. I cannot recall whether a vote took place on it, but I would certainly have voted in favour on any such vote. The Taliban refused to expel al-Qaeda following 9/11; they were given time to do so, but they refused and that was why military action started. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman took the view that I did at the time. There can also be no doubt as to the sheer brutality of Taliban rule, although that was not the reason for the invasion. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) was right to say that we did not go into Afghanistan because of the brutality of Taliban rule or drugs and so on; we went in for the reasons that I have just stated. In so far as the NATO presence has changed certain things for the better, for example, with the reopening of schools where women can be educated and the ending of barbaric practices carried out by the Taliban, that is obviously all to be welcomed. Nevertheless, the reason for the military intervention should not be forgotten because it is the basis for the justification for our being there; it arose from 9/11 and what was seen as the acute danger to our country, as well as to other NATO states.
That was eight years ago and it is perfectly understandable, given the casualties that occur week in, week out, that Afghanistan should so dominate today’s debate. Eight years is a long time—the first world war lasted four years and the second world war lasted six years—which is why I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), a former Defence Minister, about his comment about there being no time limit. Some of the contributions that we have heard today would give the impression that this began only recently—one, two or three years ago—whereas it began eight years ago. The question then arises, as it should do: how much longer will this go on? It is all very well to say that there should be no time limit, but are we to work on the basis that another eight years should elapse and so many more should die? Why pick eight years? Why not operate on the basis of even longer, given that there appears to be no time limit of any kind? General Richards, who is now the Chief of the General Staff, said in August that
“the whole process”—
“might take as long as 30 to 40 years”.
He did not say that the troop involvement should be of that duration, mentioning 2014 as a possible date for the ending of the British military intervention. Two years ago, the then commander of the UK forces in Helmand province was talking about British forces remaining there for more than 30 years.
There is undoubtedly much public concern and anxiety at the number of casualties and young lives being lost, but this is not simply about that. In 1979, 18 soldiers were killed by IRA vehicle bombs at Warrenpoint and although the reaction in this country was obviously one of deep anger, nobody suggested that because of the 18 that were murdered then or the others who had been murdered on other occasions we should leave Northern Ireland. It was clearly understood what the position was: there could be no question of Britain being forced out of Northern Ireland by terrorism. However, as the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon and others have said, questions are inevitably being asked about whether it is possible to achieve victory in Afghanistan and what sort of victory could be achieved. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said that when we talk of victory—this is more or less a summary of what he said—we are not talking about what happened at the end of the second world war. So what is “victory” in Afghanistan? How long will it be before such a victory takes place, if one is at all possible?
The constant position of the Government and of the Opposition parties is, as has been set out today, that if we are not fighting in Afghanistan, we will be fighting on the streets of Britain—either we fight terrorism there or here. Although there is a question as to what we mean by “victory”, let us suppose—this is very much a supposition—that the Taliban were so decisively defeated that they would be unable to make a comeback in years. Would we in Britain really then feel that much safer from terrorism? Would we let our guard down? Would we feel that the various measures taken to protect us from international terrorism would no longer be necessary because the Taliban had been defeated in Afghanistan? I simply do not accept the argument that this is a question of fighting either in Afghanistan or on the streets of Britain. There is so much concern among the public, as I have said, not only because of the casualties but because of the refusal of many people to understand why we should continue to stay in Afghanistan for such a long time.
As far as al-Qaeda is concerned, as others have said, if Afghanistan is closed to that organisation—the international terrorist network—will it close down? Are there not many other places around the globe, as we now know, where it can and does operate? It is very important to make a distinction between the Taliban, however deplorable their position and their rule, and the international terrorist network. They are not one and the same, and we should not confuse the two.
Neither should we forget that the Taliban have numerous enemies inside Afghanistan. It is not simply a matter of the Taliban and NATO forces. When the Taliban were in power, they had many internal enemies, including rival warlords of various kinds. May I also say that those warlords do not seem to have a particularly distinguished record when it comes to human rights?
There is the danger that the Taliban will be seen in Afghanistan—a very poor country where many millions of people are desperate to secure a living—as having the legitimacy of fighting off the foreign intervention. They might be seen as the force fighting the infidels. It is interesting to note that the former high commissioner to Pakistan, Sir Nicholas Barrington, wrote to The Times that opinion formers in Pakistan, who are obviously very much opposed to the Taliban—even more so considering what the Taliban are doing in that country—are very critical of NATO action in Afghanistan. They believe that it is giving ammunition and legitimacy, however wrongly, to the Taliban as the patriotic force fighting the foreign intervention and invasion. We should not forget for one moment that the loss of civilian lives in Afghanistan gives ammunition to the Taliban, which they use. These people have been killed by the NATO action, which gives much political capital to the Taliban.
I am not in favour of immediate withdrawal. To those who challenge us today, saying, “Do you want to leave immediately?” I want to say that that is not my position. I do not believe that it would be the right approach. We recognise that we are one of the forces and one of the partners in NATO. Simply pulling out immediately or in the next few months would not, in my view, be wise. However, it is necessary to be clear in our minds that our intervention and presence in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended. That is why I believe that it is right to debate the issue. I am against extra troops going in—when the Prime Minister made that announcement, I made it clear that I am opposed to that and that if there were a vote on the issue of whether more troops should be sent, I would vote against such a move.
Let me conclude on this note. It is right, of course, for us to debate the issue. No doubt there will be many more debates. However, it is also important that in the near future—perhaps before this Parliament comes to a close—there should be a vote. I do not know at this stage what sort of motion or amendment that vote should be on, but I believe that it is necessary that we should not simply carry on on the basis of what we agreed to eight years ago. We should take a vote on how long we should be in Afghanistan and the House of Commons should make a decision once again, one way or the other. We should not simply continue as we are at the moment, with mounting casualties and public anxiety. Not only the public but many of us in the House of Commons are beginning to question whether what we are doing in Afghanistan serves any useful purpose in fighting international terrorism.
Like the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), I want to concentrate on the war in Afghanistan—not only is it casting a long shadow over this debate, but it has cast a long shadow over this decade.
We have heard a range of views expressed this afternoon. Some, from my perspective, were a good deal less compelling than those of the hon. Member for Walsall, North. I was incredibly surprised to hear the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) suggest that even if there were a 10 or 20 per cent. chance of success—even if we were convinced that there was an 80 or 90 per cent. chance of failure—we should still stay the course and send British servicemen and women into danger’s way. That is the kind of military logic that we have not heard since the charge of the Light Brigade. It is irresponsible for us to put other people’s lives at stake if we believe that this might all end in failure.
There are a range of views. My party would prefer to end the war, rather than extend it. However, it is vital that, whatever our views, we should have proper parliamentary accountability on the issue. The hon. Member for Walsall, North made the point that in this war, which has lasted eight years—one of the longest that we have ever had—we have never once had a vote on a substantive motion. We speak tonight on the eve of the Chilcot inquiry. One of the many scars that have been left by the Iraq war is the scar on public trust and confidence in the political process. There was an accountability gap, as public opinion was so clearly opposed to the war but unfortunately that was not reflected in the decisions made in this House. At least we had a vote on the Iraq war, however.
Up to 70 per cent. of the people of this country oppose the continuation of military involvement in Afghanistan, yet we cannot even have a commitment from the Government—unless the Minister is prepared to give it tonight in his winding-up speech—that we will have an opportunity before the general election for the Government to present their strategy, for the Opposition parties to set out their stalls and for the range of alternatives that we have heard in speeches this afternoon to be put to a vote in the House. Surely the people of this country deserve that, and the servicemen and women who are fighting in Afghanistan deserve to know that there has been proper accountability on this issue, which for them is a matter of life or death.
We have seen a range of different objectives—mission creep was mentioned earlier. We have ended up in a position where it would appear that the Government—I say “appear” because we have not had a succinct presentation of their strategy—have narrowed their objective to the idea of a stable, terrorist-free Afghanistan that does not threaten its neighbours.
The problem with the means which the Government suggest we use to arrive at that objective is that it could create its own problems and is not sustainable, as other Members have said. The emphasis is on building up the Afghan national army and bolstering the Afghan state. We are committed to building up the army to 134,000 and the police force to 80,000. The Afghan Defence Minister and some in the United States have suggested that the Afghan security forces have to be increased to 450,000. That would make Afghanistan the most militarised country in the world, with one in every 32 men in the armed forces. It would cost $2 billion to $3 billion a year to maintain, which is about five times the annual revenue of the Government of Afghanistan. Are we really saying that we shall support that level of Afghan militarisation for the best part of half a century? If that is the Government’s only strategy, it is unfortunately doomed to fail.
Never mind spreading liberal democracy around the world—we are spreading illiberal democracy around the world. Even if the strategy of training up the Afghan national army is a success—though there are real questions about that—we are creating the most centralised and militarised country in the world. The Afghan constitution is completely inappropriate for a country of that kind; it is a most centralised constitution, which places almost all power in the hands of one man—the President. We now know that he is deeply corrupt, yet we ask why a patronage state has developed around him.
Afghanistan is divided among 20 major ethnic groups. Within each ethnic group, there are tribes. In each tribe there are different clans, and within each clan there are different sections, yet we have concentrated power in the hands of one man but still ask why he has distributed it among his friends and family. We needed a totally different political strategy.
We can already see the effects. Afghanistan is an authoritarian military state. The independent Afghan human rights commission said—I hope the Minister is listening:
“Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is common in the majority of law-enforcement institutions”,
which we are propping up, and
“98.5% of interviewed victims have been tortured. Institutions where torture has occurred include the police, the prosecutor’s office, the security services, detention centres, prison and the army.”
Clearly the political strategy is not working. The Government have to address serious issues relating to the strategy of arming the Afghan national army to the level that is projected, and concentrating power in the hands of one man. Is that really the objective we want to achieve?
There is a strong argument that at some point—whether it is in 18 months, or whatever the time scale—we need to bring the military mission to a close. That does not mean that we withdraw in every sense from our responsibilities to the people of Afghanistan. We need an alternative strategy.
Incidentally, I do not buy the argument about safe havens—that terrorist groups are to be found in failed states. That is sometimes the case, but sometimes it is not. Terrorist groups can be found in robust, well established states, such as Pakistan where al-Qaeda is now. Nor do I accept the argument that withdrawal from Afghanistan would necessarily destabilise Pakistan. I would turn that on its head: the presence of western forces in Afghanistan provides a propaganda tool for the Pakistan Taliban. That is what is destabilising Pakistan. During the Taliban regime, between 1996 and 2001, there was no destabilising effect on Pakistan. In fact, the ISI—the Inter-Services Intelligence—and the Pakistani Taliban worked in conjunction, as some people suggest they still do. That argument does not hold water.
We need a different strategy. Other possibilities are being canvassed. We need discussions with the Taliban leadership, and not just locally: we need to speak to the shura based in Quetta, as has been suggested. The Afghan Government are about to commence negotiations with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is part of the insurgency. If it is responsible to talk to Hekmatyar, why can we not talk to the Taliban leadership as well?
A new Loya Jirga should be convened to draw up a new decentralised constitution for Afghanistan, which would properly distribute power equally among the different ethnic and regional groups, away from the hands of a corrupt President, so that people across Afghanistan could feel they had a real political stake in the future of their country, as the Foreign Secretary said. As has been suggested, that settlement could be underwritten by regional superpowers and Afghanistan’s neighbours. Lastly, foreign aid could be rechannelled, away from the military mission, in return for continued local co-operation on counter-terrorism and reconstruction efforts.
Members may disagree with the strategy I have presented—it is called democracy—but we desperately need the Government to present their strategy so that its success can be measured and tested over time. Other Members should present their strategy, and we should have a parliamentary vote so that those fighting in our name in Afghanistan at least know that a proper democratic process has been followed in this country.
I very much want to continue the debate where the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) left off, rather than focusing on Afghanistan as many Members are doing. Without ignoring Afghanistan completely, I want to look at our foreign policy both over the last 12 months and in the coming years. Whoever forms the next Government, they will have to take a serious look at the role of Britain in the world, and the way we see ourselves as a global power will define what we do.
That involves, first of all, how we see our role in the United Nations. A few weeks ago, when the Foreign Affairs Committee went to New York and then to the Pentagon, it was noticeable that when we talked about Iran a language started to develop. On the one hand, we talked about the P3, meaning Russia, China and the United States, and then we talked about the EU3—France, Britain and Germany. It was a reflection of the fact that France and Britain have not exercised their veto in the P5—I think for the past 20 years. It also raised the issue of what to do about Germany, which is a significant power but does not have a seat on the Security Council. Reforms of the Security Council seem to be far off. We are a nuclear power and we need to decide where we see ourselves both in the UN and in relation to the European Union.
I will not pretend that I think what happened in the EU last week was a particularly edifying spectacle. The Herman and Cathy show may turn out to be the equivalent of Cousin Itt and Uncle Fester, or Gomez and Morticia—it certainly looks as though the Addams family are running Europe at the moment. Perhaps they will prove us all wrong. I certainly know that anybody who thinks that Cathy Ashton is an easy person to overrule will learn otherwise. However, given that it was supposed to be a significant step in the EU’s establishing itself in the global world, I very much doubt whether those appointments were a good way of going about it. More will be said about the EU a week on Thursday, when we are to have an Adjournment debate on European affairs.
I want to talk about our NATO partners and our foreign policy, but not just in relation to Afghanistan. We have just been celebrating 20 years of German reunification. I have certainly not been reluctant to criticise Germany about its military engagement. However, it may be worth reminding ourselves occasionally of what the world looks like from the standpoint of the German Government.
For the last 20 years, for the first time in the entire history of Germany, the country’s boundaries were concurrent with the notion of its ethnicity. To be German, and to be perceived as German, was concurrent with the boundaries of Germany, which had never happened before. Germany has 10 neighbours and all of them are peaceful—again, for the first time in its entire history. The economy is going relatively well, too, so why pick a fight? Germany thus often looks at how both Britain and France deploy their troops in a quite aggressive way. Not only does Germany wish to be peaceful, but the current generation of politicians have become genuinely pacifist in their approach to the world. They will try to use soft power, rather than what they call hard power. If they were to use hard power, they would want to do so wearing not German uniforms but European Union uniforms. That is not Britain’s approach, but we need to understand where they are coming from, and developments in the EU have not changed their ways. If we want to be a serious player in the EU, we need to accept that.
I now want to move on to something that has not been mentioned today. During the debate on the Queen’s Speech, we will not have a special debate on international development, but when we talk about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and defence, we cannot ignore the role of the Department for International Development. Frankly, when we arrive in some places in the world and see a plaque saying that a certain bit of the embassy was opened by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and then go to an even bigger office that was opened by the Secretary of State for International Development, we realise that the FCO has a smaller budget than DFID. There is a slight suspicion that we have two foreign policies and doubt about who is running the show. That is not entirely true wherever we go, though. If we go to Helmand, we now find that what is called the senior representative—Hugh Powell—is bringing together what the MOD, the FCO and DFID do, but that does not necessarily happen in the entire world.
I want briefly to deal with international development, which is not usually in my remit as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Christian Aid staff in the west midlands came to see me to bring to my attention a campaign and its report called “Death and taxes: the true toll of tax dodging”. Essentially, it argues that taxation policy and the profits and tax policy of international companies in the developing world are deeply damaging developing countries. If we worked together and brought much greater accountability to the way that multinational companies deliver their taxation, we would help not only ourselves but many developing countries to move out of dependency to a degree of independence.
Christian Aid estimates, for example, that developing countries lose about $160 billion because corporate taxes are dodged by what it calls transfer mispricing or false invoicing. It wants international accountancy standards that require multinational companies to report on their activities on a country-by-country basis, as that would clearly identify where profits are made and where tax should be paid. If the tax was not paid, revenue authorities could therefore target their resources on companies that might be avoiding or evading their tax obligations. At the moment, because we do not do that, companies can shift their profits from developing countries to tax havens and jurisdictions where tax rates are lower.
We ought to work together much more to develop the International Accounting Standards Board, because it contains the people who make the recommendations for legal practice in more than 100 countries, but what can we do here in the UK? The Government can do something; but, much more importantly, we can work with the big four accountancy firms—KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte, and Ernst and Young—because they have an extraordinary influence on that kind of governance, without the accountability that we as politicians would sometimes expect. In this context, we need to work with the European Commission. That matters for reasons of corporate social responsibility, corporate responsibility and trade.
About 60 per cent. of the world’s trade is done on a country-to-country basis, but it is accounted for by international companies, so we cannot trace 60 per cent. of the world’s trade on a country-to-country basis because the multinationals control it. Whether in Afghanistan or any other country, once we get proper accountability and proper taxation, we can eradicate corruption, achieve transparency and help countries to become less dependent and get the benefits of their own wealth.
The UK Government supported such an initiative at the G20 in Berlin last June, and I very much hope that we will continue to fight that battle. Of course, we in the UK could do something fairly quickly about international tax evasion. I suggest to Ministers that, first, we should require all British nationals to file a UK tax return. Any British national paying a lower rate of tax abroad should be required to pay the Exchequer the difference between that rate and the UK tax rate. The argument for that is very simply that anyone born in this country who continues to carry a British passport and has benefited from either a British education or the health system should pay a contribution to the UK.
I wonder whether Lord Ashcroft would support my suggestion, as I understand that he still refuses to tell us whether he pays UK taxes. That also makes me rather surprised about why the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), in a rather uncharacteristic and ungenerous comment, criticised the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee for devoting a significant part of his speech to the Turks and Caicos Islands. The Foreign Affairs Committee has managed to bring about extraordinary changes in the governance of the Turks and Caicos Islands as a result of its report, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman thought it inappropriate for its Chairman to spend so much time on that. I am sure that the fact The Independent reported on 19 November “Exclusive: Ashcroft’s bank lent millions to disgraced premier” of the Turks and Caicos Islands had absolutely nothing to do with that whatsoever.
If we want to build democracies and if Opposition Members, who now look rather sneering, want to form the next Government and if they want to criticise this Government’s ethical foreign policy, their conduct will be just as important as the conduct we expect from the countries we work with. I look forward to the Opposition’s response as much as I look forward to the response from the Government.
It is normally a pleasure to follow in the footsteps of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who is my Foreign Affairs Committee colleague. Her remarks at the end slightly tarnished a rather good speech.
Many hon. Members who have spoken tonight have quite rightly used Afghanistan as the subject of their main comments, and the number of contributions underlines the fact that a full debate on Afghanistan in the House is long overdue. For my part, I should like to restrict my comments to the current situation in the middle east.
Recent developments have shown the fragility of the middle east peace process, and negotiations have indeed stalled in recent months, although achieving a lasting peace in the middle east has become no less urgent. It is paramount that the peace process gets back on track. It seems to be derailing on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, and both are now threatening to take unilateral action to achieve their individual ends.
Only last week, it was revealed that some in the Palestinian leadership were allegedly planning to resurrect an idea, dating back to 1988, of an independent Palestinian state based on 1967 boundaries through a resolution in the UN Security Council. That immediately led to retaliation on the part of some Israeli Ministers who said that the annexation of parts of the west bank would follow any such action by the Palestinians.
I am sure that hon. Members would agree that the spiralling animosity and belligerence on that issue cannot be allowed to deteriorate still further. A lasting peace can be achieved only through dialogue, co-operation and mutual concessions. While the blame game is no doubt very fashionable, we should not allow the responsibility for the current impasse to be laid at any particular door.
Given the Israeli response in Gaza and the election of a right-wing Government in that country, there seems to be a growing tendency to blame the stalling on Israeli intransigence, but repeated statements even now from its Government and Prime Minister Netanyahu are indeed to work towards a final settlement. In the context of that position, I would like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the progress that has been made, which we, as members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, saw on the west bank.
As the Committee noted in our report on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories earlier this year, the Palestinian Authority Government, under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad—who, I have to say, greatly impressed the Committee on the occasion that we met him—has shown improved capacity to deliver increased security and manage the Authority’s economy and public finances. Those of us on the Committee who toured the west bank did indeed see a very significant improvement in the security presence on the streets of cities such as Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah. We saw in those places a very enlarged Palestinian security force.
At the same time, we must not overlook Israel’s commitment to securing a viable Palestinian neighbour. In lieu of political talks, Israel’s bottom-up approach to peace has been reasonably successful and resulted in some significant economic and security improvements in the west bank. For example, the number of manned roadblocks in the west bank has been reduced from 35 to 10 in the last few months, improving the freedom of movement and reducing travel time for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. They can now travel throughout most of the northern west bank without encountering security checks. Such positive measures have earned recognition by the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The Quartet also recently took note of Israel’s positive actions.
Israel has also facilitated the transfer of a substantial quantity of arms to the Palestinian Authority, including 900 rifles, 1 million bullets and logistical equipment, including surveillance and communication gear.
As for economic improvements, the strengthened security in the west bank and the virtual disappearance of suicide bombings has resulted in a boom in the Palestinian tourism industry. For instance, the city of Bethlehem welcomed 1 million tourists last year, an increase of nearly 100 per cent. on the previous year. That boom in tourism has generated an estimated 6,000 new jobs in Bethlehem alone. Among noted improvements cited by the International Monetary Fund and other financial observers over the last 12 months are an 18 per cent. increase in the local stock exchange and an 82 per cent. rise in trade with Israel. Improved security and greater access has therefore led to a doubling of the foreign investment in west bank infrastructure, creating jobs and improving living conditions.
It is important that we recognise the very positive steps taken by Israel. The security and economic improvements in the west bank are testament to the commitment by Israel, albeit at the moment on a rather modest scale, to creating a viable and prosperous Palestinian state.
However, a recent and potentially very serious development was the announcement by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, on 5 November that, after five years in power, he does not intend to seek re-election in January’s poll. Whether Abbas will really stand down is uncertain. He has threatened to do so several times before. Most likely, this is just a protest against the recent apparent U-turn by the US over Israeli settlements. Even after President Obama’s stated intention on taking office to give priority to negotiating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, followed up by his long-awaited speech in Cairo seven months ago, peace today looks further away than ever.
The impression is that Prime Minister Netanyahu outsmarted the President on his recent visit to Washington and managed to water down Obama’s previous pre-condition for talks of a freeze in settlement expansion. Now, although Secretary of State Clinton speaks of the Israeli offer of restrictions in new settlement building as “unprecedented”, the Israelis are still going ahead with the construction of 900 new homes at Gilo in East Jerusalem. It would be interesting to know where the Government stand on that recent development. Are they still adamant about a freeze on settlement construction, or do they also consider the offer as “unprecedented” and the basis to reopen talks?
President Abbas is already facing unpopularity and criticism at home for what sceptics call his acquiescence to the US without getting anything in return. The Palestinians are looking increasingly divided and leaderless, something that will only be exacerbated should Abbas make good on his threat to stand down. Hamas is, of course, expected to benefit from the fallout. What assessment have the Government made of the possible effect of a change of Palestinian leadership on the west bank? Are the Government concerned that the west bank may turn into another Gaza strip, where the Hamas takeover has turned the area into one controlled by terror and oppression?
Recent polls highlight the increasing unpopularity of President Abbas. In a poll released recently, Abbas would run neck and neck with the Hamas leader, Ismail Haniya, if presidential elections were held now. According to the poll, Abbas would receive 16.8 per cent. of the vote, compared with 16 per cent. for Haniya. The drop in Abbas’s popularity did not, however, carry over into his Fatah party, which would still receive 40 per cent of the vote in elections, compared with 18.7 per cent. for Hamas. Some 23.5 per cent. of the respondents said that they do not intend to vote in the election in any event. Although people would not necessarily switch to Hamas, the poll shows that many are frustrated with the stalling peace negotiations.
Regardless of whether Abbas will stand down, Hamas has already declared that it will not take part in the elections scheduled for 25 January, and because Hamas is in control of Gaza, Fatah would be able to campaign only in the west bank. We now have Palestinian election officials advising that because they are not welcome in Gaza, they cannot hold the election in January at all. In the past few days that view has been accepted by President Abbas. Perversely, it might enable him to remain in power despite what he said about standing down as he would retain power in the guise of the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.
What assessment have the Government made of the proposed postponement of a January poll? Holding a free and fair election could be the key to making progress in the peace process, if a united Palestinian Authority were the outcome. On the other hand, a strong Hamas mandate on the west bank could set the peace talks back a considerable time. It is apparent that the lack of a clear and consistent policy from the west has played a part in the recent fallout and Abbas’s announcement that he will stand down. It is therefore crucial that the US President now presents a clear policy for how to move towards a lasting peace settlement.
I am coming to the end of my remarks and have only a few minutes left.
The appointment by President Obama of George Mitchell was seen as a very positive step because of his considerable success in the Northern Ireland peace process, but even he now seems to be making very little headway.
What is needed is a viable two-state solution, with the borders close to the 1967 line. Jerusalem must be shared, with the eastern part of the city forming the Palestinian capital. Indeed, that is very close to what Ehud Olmert, the then Israeli Prime Minister, offered Mr. Abbas a year ago—a deal that included nearly all of the west bank, land swaps for limited settlement blocks and shared sovereignty over Jerusalem. Mr. Abbas and many Palestinians must be kicking themselves now that the offer was not taken up, given the deterioration in relations between the two parties since.
I welcome the opportunity to have this debate on foreign policy, and to some extent I was relieved when the Queen’s Speech included the reference to a somewhat softer policy concerning
“stability and prosperity in Afghanistan and Pakistan and for peace in the Middle East”
because it seemed to me that at least there was an opportunity for some questioning of the whole policy on Afghanistan. I was very impressed with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price), who talked about the reality of the troop surge, the costs that would result and the effect of it.
The House has to face up to the reality. British troops have been in Afghanistan for eight years. We were told that they were going there because of the attack on the World Trade Centre, and that it was impossible to do anything other than invade Afghanistan as a result of that attack. A very large number of Afghan people have died, and 240 or so British troops have lost their lives. I have talked to soldiers who have returned from Afghanistan and their families. Those families find it very hard to understand exactly what the policy is, what the objective is, and why their sons and daughters should put themselves at risk for an indefinite period to win a war, the aims of which are not very clear. They get increasingly angry and frustrated about that.
Every one of us in the House knows that the majority of our constituents are, at the very least, deeply concerned about the policy on Afghanistan, and as far as I understand it, the vast majority want British troops to come out of Afghanistan because they do not feel that those troops are doing any good there. People do not feel that the troops are doing anything other than laying down their lives for a corrupt Government who are involved with warlords, and possibly with the drugs trade. They feel that the very presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, far from bringing about peace in the country, acts as an effective recruiting sergeant for the Taliban and all their elements.
There have to be talks, negotiation and discussions. We would do well to recall that the Taliban are more or less a sort of franchise operation that operates in different ways in different parts of the country. The Taliban are not uniform across the whole country. Long-term peace and stability will not be achieved by our continued presence there, or through the McChrystal formula of sending in another 40,000 troops to mount a counter-insurgency. If that does not work, McChrystal will presumably go back to President Obama and ask for more.
The logic of the policy is that if the instability moved from Pakistan to a neighbouring country in central Asia, British and American troops would follow it, and we would continue the war in some other form in some other place. We need to stop and think about what we are doing in Afghanistan, what the cost is, and what the long-term implications are. I hope that the discussions that are to take place will recognise that the policy is not working, and that it is time to withdraw from it.
I also want to speak about the middle east and follow up, although not necessarily with agreement, on the points made by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). There is an argument that our policy in Afghanistan brings about support and safer streets in our society, but that is simply not the case. The fact that a number of young Muslims in our country are continually stopped and searched because they are perceived to be terror suspects leads not to greater cohesion, but to greater division and suspicion, in our society.
The issues that unite large numbers of people in our society, particularly young Muslims, are opposition to the Afghan and Iraq wars, and great support for the cause of the Palestinian people and an end to the occupation. We have to recognise that peace in the middle east will be brought about through negotiation; that is obvious. If it is to be brought about, we have to stop playing ducks and drakes with Hamas and Fatah, and should instead recognise the call for unity of the Palestinian people. That call was made very effectively last night on al-Jazeera by an independent member of the Palestinian Authority, Mustafa Barghouti.
We should recognise the anger felt throughout Palestine, and by many people across the world, at the Israeli invasion and occupation of Gaza less than a year ago; at the fact that illegal weapons were used; and at the fact that when the matter came to a vote in the UN Human Rights Council, the British delegate apparently either abstained, was missing or did not vote. I am not sure what the difference is between abstaining and not voting; perhaps Ministers could reply on that point.
At the risk of incurring your wrath, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I want to quote from the Goldstone mission report, but not at great length:
“Based on the facts ascertained, the Mission therefore finds there to have been violations of customary international law in respect of a deliberate attack on civilians. It considers the attack was not only an attack intended to kill but also to spread terror among the civilian population, given the nature of the weapon used.”
It goes on to describe the use of white phosphorous and other weapons by the Israeli forces in Gaza earlier this year.
That report will now come before the Security Council. I hope that the British representative, along with other representatives, will recognise the importance of considering it, of a full investigation of it, and of the possibility of taking the issue to the International Criminal Court in the foreseeable future. If we do not do that, the situation will become worse, and the US will continue to pour vast amounts of aid into Israel. The illegal occupation will continue, the situation will become worse and worse, and the anger will become much greater. Israel illegally occupies land and builds an illegal wall, yet it receives $3 billion a year in aid. We continue normal trading arrangements with Israel, despite its numerous illegal activities.
Last Friday, I had the pleasure of hosting a visit to the House by a group of firefighters from Nablus who were brought here by the Fire Brigades Union. They had been on a training course for firefighters. I showed them round the Chamber, explained what went on here and talked about it. I asked them what they would have liked to say to the House of Commons if they had been at this debate. Their comments were interesting. The first comment was that it was easier to get to the United Kingdom from Nablus than to get from Nablus to Jerusalem, because there were fewer checkpoints and the people at those checkpoints were less aggressive and unpleasant. The journey from Nablus to Jerusalem is 69 km; the journey from Nablus, via Jordan, to this country is several thousand kilometres.
The firefighters went on to describe their work. They described how they were shot at by Israel defence forces when trying to attend emergencies as part of their job, and said that their tools had not been updated since 1996, despite offers of aid and support from the Fire Brigades Union and others; that equipment is still held up in the docks somewhere in Haifa, because Israeli officials will not let it through. People such as those firefighters are trying to bring about peace and stability in Palestine; the very least that we can do is make sure that the voluntary British aid that is sent to them gets through. I hope that Ministers will be prepared to meet a delegation from the Fire Brigades Union and me to discuss how that particular aid can get through.
Last month, I went on a brief visit to Syria with the Palestinian Return Centre. I went to visit the refugee camps on the border between Iraq and Syria, and the people there are Palestinians who were living in Iraq. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, various forces within Iraq decided that those people were, somehow or other, on the wrong side of the fence, and they were effectively expelled from Iraq. Syria has taken in probably at least 500,000 Palestinians over the years, and given them the necessary support and comfort.
There are now several hundred families stuck in the no man’s land just beyond the border between Syria and Iraq, and there are others at various other camps. I pay tribute to the fact that Syria has accommodated a very large number of refugees and ensured that they are able to live in that country in safety. I hope that the British Government will recognise that, and will do all that they can to give the appropriate and necessary funding to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, so that we can ensure that those people can get to Syria and resume normal life.
Those families were living in tents in a desert in the middle of winter. It is very dangerous there, very cold at night and, in the summer, impossibly hot during the day. When I talked to them, it was the sheer family distress that struck me. I spoke to one particular family; the grandparents, who were kicked out of Haifa in 1948, went to Iraq. Others had gone to the United Arab Emirates and other countries. The grandparents ended up being driven from pillar to post. I asked, “What’s your aim—your wish, your ambition in life?” They said, “To go home, and to be able to return to Palestine.” Of course, they cannot do that. There are 6 million Palestinians across the world who cannot return home, and until we recognise the plight of the Palestinian people, and their desire and thirst for peace, those ambitions cannot be achieved.
There are brave people in Israel who also recognise that peace comes by recognition and through treating their neighbours in a decent, fair and proper manner. I hope that in this debate we can recognise that if we help and support the Palestinian people, give recognition to Palestine as an entity, and start being a bit tougher with Israel on its illegal activities, its occupation, its settlements, its wall and all the other activities that it is undertaking, that will help to bring about a long-term peace settlement.
I conclude with this point: Israel is the only country in the middle east that possesses nuclear weapons. It has more than 200 warheads. It is not a signatory to a nuclear non-proliferation treaty or any other nuclear treaties, except that it did sign the Mediterranean convention two years ago, which at least appeared to be recognition on its part that it had weapons of mass destruction. Surely, in advance of the non-proliferation treaty review next year, we could encourage Israel to be part of a nuclear weapons convention and help to bring about a nuclear-free middle east, which would reduce the pressure by some reactionary forces in Iran for Iran to develop its own nuclear weapons.
If we want to see peace in the middle east, we need to recognise the rights of the Palestinian people, put pressure on Israel and, above all, encourage Israel in the direction of nuclear disarmament and playing a proper role in the region, not being the force that it is at present.
I must begin with an apology. I was unable to be present for a large part of the debate owing to Select Committee business, which makes me all the more grateful to be recognised.
I shall deal with two topics—first, Europe, and secondly, Afghanistan. In respect of the second, I understand that a large part of the debate has concentrated on that subject. I shall therefore offer such opinions as I do with a certain amount of diffidence. On Europe, the ratification of the Lisbon treaty caused pro-Europeans to breathe a sigh of relief, but if one listened carefully, one could hear quite a few of those who regard themselves as Eurosceptics breathing a similar sigh of relief. The fact that the treaty has been ratified means that treaty reform will be off the European agenda for the foreseeable future.
The conduct of the Lisbon treaty, by which I mean the circumstances in which it was drawn up, Giscard d’Estaing’s presiding over the Convention, the length of time that ratification has taken—all that has substantially removed any enthusiasm on the part of any of the members of the European Union for a return to such a process, which had an enormously debilitating effect on Europe and was one to which no one would seek to return very quickly.
What is necessary now is to ensure that the Lisbon treaty is made to work. In that regard, it seems to me that Europe has largely shown a collective lack of confidence in the past week in its choice of the President and the foreign affairs supremo. In saying that, I cast no aspersions on Baroness Ashton, but it seems to me that these two prime, principal posts ought to be occupied by people who bring to them a substantial contribution.
I do not doubt for a moment the conscientiousness of the new President or of Baroness Ashton, but in the nominations to those posts we in the United Kingdom did ourselves no service by adopting a partisan approach. When it comes to foreign affairs, it respectfully seems to me that Lord Patten or Lord Ashdown would have made extremely effective contributors to the role envisaged for the foreign policy supremo.
Such is the nature of these new positions that it is the impact of the first incumbent that will determine the nature of the positions. All the more reason, therefore, for ensuring that those who occupy them bring to the task a wealth of experience and a degree of credibility in an area that is notoriously complicated.
I suppose that one advantage of the ratification of the treaty, Mr. Deputy Speaker—an advantage which you, I think, will share—is that we will no longer have to put up with those arid and unproductive debates on the Lisbon treaty, about which the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) confessed publicly that he made the same speech on three occasions. All he did was shift paragraphs around. Notwithstanding that, those debates were a feature of foreign policy discussion in the House for a very long time.
Europe should concentrate on trade issues, both internal and external. It is the strength of the European Union which allows us not to be browbeaten by the United States, or increasingly to be liable to be browbeaten by China or India, the emerging economies. There is one area where, sadly, Europe has so far lacked a capability of creating the integrated policy that would be important—on the issue of energy supply, and in particular how we deal with Russia.
Europe should be integrated on the issue of immigration. Europe should be much closer together on issues such as cross-border crime, including trafficking and narcotics. On the vexed issue of climate change to be discussed next month at Copenhagen, there is clearly an opportunity for a far greater degree of contribution by Europe not only to the debate, but to the measures necessary to bring about a reduction in CO2 emissions.
Europe can be effective only if there is a proper emphasis on the two principles of proportionality and subsidiarity. These principles are enshrined in European treaties, but they have not had the attention or been given the impetus they deserve, and which is all the more necessary the larger the European Union becomes. A European Union of 27 should have proportionality and subsidiarity at its masthead. I hope the Government will take initiatives on this issue in the time still available to them.
Another priority is European defence co-operation. The principles are well known—force specialisation, interoperability and common procurement. Until now there has been a lack of political will, but we are soon to face financial compulsion. In the decisions made by the Government who take office next year, it is perfectly clear that there can be no so-called sacred cows. It is clear that defence may well be an area from which a Government, whatever their colour, will want to make savings. All parties are now committed to a defence review, but that review may have considerable long-term implications for the financing of defence.
All that argues strongly for a much greater European contribution that would, in turn, feed through to a much stronger NATO contribution to defence and deal with some of the issues directly related to Afghanistan and the fact that the burden-sharing in Afghanistan has been a long way short of equitable.
That brings me to Afghanistan. We are in a vacuum because of the length of time the President of the United States is taking to reach a decision. It is important to remember that we talk about our strategy, but the truth is that it is the United States’. In this matter the United Kingdom is subordinate. I do not think that this is a President who, having successfully reduced the commitment of the United States in Iraq, is likely to want to face mid-term elections or his own re-election campaign against a background of an apparently senseless commitment in Afghanistan. Too many people have already described this as Obama’s war, and given the mid-term elections and the presidential re-election campaign, I should be extremely surprised if the strategy that emerges from this long period—a little like 40 days in the wilderness—is anything other than one which may not state a date for withdrawal, but which is based upon creating the conditions for withdrawal.
It is very easy to say, “Pull out now,” but let me identify some consequences of precipitate withdrawal. First, there would be regional instability: the relationship with Pakistan is well known. Secondly, there would be damage to NATO, perhaps irreparably. There are those who would quite like NATO to be irreparably damaged. Russia has never lost its ambition to bring an end to NATO’s existence and to create an alternative security architecture. Thirdly, precipitate withdrawal would bring about a serious strain on our relationship with the United States, at a time when we have a President who is more attuned to Europe and European ideas than many of his predecessors. Fourthly, it would return the people of Afghanistan, very likely, to the Taliban, and the return of the Taliban to control in Afghanistan would almost certainly provide much more sympathetic opportunities for al-Qaeda.
Is President Karzai about to win the John Stuart Mill prize for liberalism? I doubt it very much. The President’s defects are well known, but he is all we have got, and even if there had been a second election, he would be all we have got. That means that, to achieve the conditions for withdrawal to which I referred, we may, if necessary, have to work around him. That is why I understand the emphasis that the Prime Minister recently made on a more local and provincial approach to be a recognition of the fact that if Karzai stands in the way of progress, there is an alternative strategy. Local autonomy would be a very effective way of creating the conditions in which we could withdraw, particularly in a country that has never enjoyed a strong central Government. Indeed, local autonomy is a part of the very political fabric of Afghanistan.
Like everyone else, I mourn the death of any British serviceman or woman; like everyone else, I am concerned about the grievous injuries that so many of those young people sustain; and, like others, I have been to Headley Court and to Selly Oak hospital to see the work that is done there. We invite young people to make a very considerable sacrifice on our behalf, and, if I did not think it still necessary for our deployment to continue, I would not be willing to tolerate that sacrifice. However, it is easy to talk in terms of in or out. There are no easy solutions on Afghanistan; there are only solutions that are less damaging than others. For the moment, we must wait until the Obama strategy is published, and, upon that, I believe we will find the conditions that will enable us in due course to bring about the orderly withdrawal of our troops for which we would all wish.
It is a privilege, as always, to follow the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), and a privilege to be given the opportunity to spend 12 minutes reflecting, if I may, on the greatest British failure of foreign policy for 40 years. There are, unhappily, many worthy candidates for that particular plinth in our political pantheon: Iraq, certainly; Afghanistan, perhaps. But the greatest failure by a long political street is our policy in the past 40 years towards Palestine and the state of Israel.
That policy has not received, of course, the attention that has been given to Afghanistan and to Iraq, and British soldiers do not daily die on the sand in Palestine. That is to be understood, but that being said, there is no greater cause in the world than exists in Palestine for terrorism—for asymmetric conflict; and, there is no greater alibi or apology for terrorism than exists in Palestine. It does not exist in Afghanistan. The motivation for terrorism is nowhere better exemplified than in Palestine and in the state of Israel, and the so-called legitimacy that those who are part of the asymmetric conflict claim is within Palestine. There is no hope for us in confronting the fundamentalism that lies at the root of terror until we apply ourselves to the defeat of the grotesque injustice that takes place in the middle east.
I say straight away that I, myself, have been slow to anger on this issue. There are two reasons why. First, most of my political preoccupation over the past 13 years has been with trying to do something about the erosion of civil liberties in my own country, let alone within the middle east. That erosion has been steady and, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a preoccupation with which I have wearied the House on a number of occasions.
Secondly, my generation has always had a natural sympathy and empathy with the state of Israel—always. Whatever its geographical legitimacy, it is a state that was born within my lifetime and born out of indescribable suffering. There has always been a belief in my generation that the state of Israel should be supported, if nothing else, for that reason, but it needs to be said now that, for me and for many of my generation, that empathy is now at an end. That partiality which was natural within international corridors is now finished. Israel must now be judged without partiality as any other nation state within the community of nations, and, if the acts that it commits make it an international pariah, that is precisely how it must be judged.
The anger that has come to me and many other people is not irrational; it is founded in report after report from the most reliable and illustrious of sources, some of them within Israel itself. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, brave people in Israel are responsible for that research and those reports. It has come from the United Nations Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and it has come, finally, in 575 pages of indictment from Goldstone—indictment of criminal carnage and devastation that I shall come to in a moment.
Does my hon. and learned Friend not find it absolutely extraordinary that although somebody with the prestige of Judge Goldstone wrote such a comprehensive, detailed and well-evaluated report, the British Government abstained or did not participate in the vote at the UN Human Rights Council, and that, apparently, there is a move to try to veto the whole process at the UN Security Council?
Yes, I do, and I found the excuse for that situation—that the wording of the resolution was partial—to be deeply unsatisfactory and unmoving. The truth is that the debate was about Goldstone and everyone knew that—Goldstone being one of the most respected and distinguished South African judges, with an extremely long pedigree of dealing with matters of civil liberties within his own country and outside it.
The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) is no longer in his seat, and I was sorry that he would not take my intervention because I wanted to tell him how much I was going to disagree with him. However, with due deference to him, I must say that to speak for 12 minutes without once mentioning the Goldstone report—the 575 pages of the Goldstone report, which is now the central issue in respect of that region—showed in one’s view of the middle east a selectivity that I find difficult to comprehend.
I turn now to factual matters. There is a plethora—a litany—of them, but I simply choose 10, all firmly grounded in the sources to which I have referred, and all plain and unassailable facts. On the west bank, there are now 285,000 illegal settlers. There are 200,000 in East Jerusalem, and that does not account for the 200,000 illegal settlers who are not in formal settlements. There are 75,000 housing units planned on the west bank—illegally—as we speak. That is not a resettlement of people, or a diaspora of Britons in the Dordogne; it is the illegal colonisation of another’s land. That is the first matter I wanted to mention.
Secondly, some 60 per cent. of the west bank is controlled by Israel, much of which is in the so-called area C, which is completely controlled—it is a military zone—along the Jordan river. Some 9.3 per cent. of the land in the west bank is now settled, and there are now 120 unofficial outposts, in which 200,000 people live. Some 400 km of the projected 723 km barrier between these two so-called countries has been completed, and 12 per cent. of the west bank is encompassed illegally within it. Very nearly 500,000 Palestinians are in the barrier’s path and are encompassed or separated from their land as a result. There are 60—not 30, but 60—permanent checkpoints on the west bank. There has been some alleviation, in that they are not always manned now. However, as a riposte to that, there are now 65 flying checkpoints that can be put into effect anywhere. Palestinians are subjected to the added indignity of not knowing where they are going to be stopped at any given time.
Thirdly, in East Jerusalem, 420 Palestinian houses have been demolished since 2004.
Then we come to the statistics of deprivation. Infant mortality in Israel is 4.2 per 1,000, while on the west bank it is 15.9 per 1,000; in Gaza, it is 18.35 per 1,000. The per capita GDP of Israel is $28,000, while in neighbouring Palestine, it is $2,900. Unemployment in Israel is 6.1 per cent., while on the west bank it is 16 per cent. In Gaza it is 41 per cent.; that accounts for the fact that 70 per cent. of people in Gaza live below the US poverty level and 79 per cent. are in deep poverty.
Some 150,000 Palestinians have no running water and 80 per cent. of the water they have is below World Health Organisation standards. That is because the treatment plants were destroyed, almost certainly deliberately, during the invasion of Gaza. As a result of the destruction of the sewage plants, 7 million litres of untreated sewage is poured every day into the sea off Gaza. Furthermore, the width of that sea is now constricted to 3 km, rather than the 20 km agreed at Oslo.
I have not even got to Goldstone. The Goldstone report is an enormous indictment of individual acts of cruelty and acts that are undoubtedly crimes against humanity and war crimes. There was deliberate killing of civilians; there were 1,440 deaths in Gaza during the invasion in December last year. Some 431 of those who died were children and 114 were women. White phosphorous is an unassailable fact recorded by the United Nations, which knows that it was used against its own installations; 57 were hit during the invasion of Gaza. The only flour mill operating in Gaza was destroyed on 9 January in an absolutely deliberate and premeditated attack. Chicken farms, on which the people of Gaza overwhelmingly rely for their protein, were destroyed. Some 100,000 birds were destroyed; 60 per cent. of the agricultural land was rendered useless. Some 17 per cent. of the orchards were destroyed.
That is the cost of the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Goldstone is unequivocal in his conclusion that there were serious and repeated breaches of the fourth Geneva convention of 1949 and its first protocol. This is not just another piece of foreign policy, but the crucible of injustice. Without a remedy for that injustice, we will never create international peace or a suitable antidote to international terrorism.
There is no doubt that in giving vent to this anger, people such as me will be accused of partiality—but Israel is a state, and a prosperous one. It is supported by the most prosperous state and some of the most prosperous institutions in the world. If Israel craves the priceless advantage of international statehood among democratic nations, it must be treated as a state and behave like a state. The Palestinians have no such state; they are denied one. If we deny people a state, our complaint is hollow that their actions do not live up to the status they have been denied.
As a Member of Parliament and a lawyer, I simply say this: the offences committed, particularly in Gaza, are international offences against the fourth Geneva convention and its protocol. In this country we are signatories to the convention and under the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 and the Geneva Conventions (Amendment) Act 1995 we have not only a right but a duty to track down, investigate and prosecute those in breach of the convention. We have a duty to do that here. I say now, in so far as one has any voice at all, that those responsible for those acts in Israel and Palestine can no longer travel safely, because internationally, in all the countries that have signed the convention, they are liable to the prosecution that they deserve.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews); as usual, he has made his points with great clarity and what he has said has been of great interest.
I am afraid that I am going to return to the issue of Afghanistan. That will come as no surprise to the Secretary of State for Defence or anyone on these Benches. The focus of my concern is a speech that I heard on Remembrance day in my constituency. It was made by a member of the Royal British Legion, an elderly gentleman who had fought in the second world war. He was wearing the Africa Star and the Italy Star. He spoke with great pride about the amount of money that the Royal British Legion had raised in the previous few weeks, but went on to say how bitterly opposed he was to the war in Afghanistan. He did not understand the cause behind it or the reason for our troops dying there. I spoke to him afterwards. I said that he had fought tyranny—he had the medals to prove it—and that he had been content to stand against a dictator and risk his life. He said, “Yes, but that was a just war. It was a proper, real war. This is a waste of life.” I challenged him and asked him to explain. He said that he had heard no proper reasons why our men and women were dying in Afghanistan.
That is the point that I make to the Secretary of State for Defence. A refreshing amount of understanding has been displayed tonight and Pakistan has been mentioned by almost everyone who has spoken, with one or two notable exceptions. However, the Government have made a particularly poor job of explaining why our men and women are fighting in Afghanistan. There are some cracking arguments that, if made articulately, properly and frequently, might make my friend from the Royal British Legion change his views.
First and foremost, my friend, like many in the Chamber, advocates withdrawal. But we are where we are, whether we agree with the intervention in 2001 or the expedition to Helmand. Those things are not the point; we are where we are. If we were to withdraw now, what would be the consequences? First and foremost, the United States would simply carry on with the heavy lifting and continue the fight. We paid a price for our behaviour when the Spanish withdrew from Najaf, Iraq, in 2005. We agreed, although not very obviously or publicly, to plug the so-called “Spanish gap” of 3,000 men, but we never did. We did not honour the agreement. The United States forces had to do it and they finally had to pull the fat out of the fire in Basra.
We cannot carry on letting down our allies; that would be quite wrong for a number of reasons. First, there is our moral duty. Secondly, it would fracture an alliance. Thirdly, after what I consider to be the Prime Minister’s ill thought-through statement that we would adopt a timetable for our withdrawal from Afghanistan—not a series of goals or achievements, or a graduated response, but a timetable—within half an hour al-Qaeda was on the wires with its statement claiming that this was the beginning of the end. It said that the second major partner in the alliance, Britain, had signalled the fact that it would no longer support the US and that, to all intents and purposes, it was defeated. We cannot do that.
The Government’s arguments for the most part—although not tonight, because we have heard some excellent speeches from Labour Members—have been made very badly. For instance, several different reasons have been manifested for why we are in Afghanistan. The most recent is that conventional military operations there are designed to keep the streets of Great Britain clear of terrorism and terrorists. The Secretary of State knows that I am the Chairman of the Counter-Terrorism Sub-Committee, so I know that that is an argument, but I do not believe that it is the prime linchpin of the Government’s reasons for our conventional operations in Afghanistan. Of course we must prevent that country and others from falling back into a state of disrepair and becoming a failed state where terrorism can prosper, but the attacks on 7/7 and the failed attacks on 21/7 were not led by Afghans or by men trained in Afghanistan. The former were led by Yorkshire men, trained in the Lake district and Pakistan, and the latter by a man of north African origin living in north London who had also been trained in Pakistan and this country. The several dozen arrests carried out after the aircraft plot of August 2006 were all of British nationals, with two exceptions. They had not trained in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan. That surely is the point.
I fail to understand why the BBC so often presents two different pieces of news, the first about Afghanistan, usually bad news, then—several items down the news—something on Pakistan. But it is the same issue, the same war being fought against the same, albeit slightly different enemies and albeit on two different fronts. Would my constituent who fought in the second world war distinguish Anzio and Normandy? Of course he would not—it was the same war against a common enemy on different fronts. The Government must start to make the argument much more coherently that the reason that our troops are in Afghanistan is not just to support the Government of that country or just to bring it back to some form of rationality, but to carry on, on a second front, the war that threatens to engulf the whole region, from the borders of Russia to the borders of Iran. We know that Russia is nuclear-tipped and we believe Iran to be also. Pakistan also has a nuclear arsenal that, should it fall into the hands of our enemies, however likely or unlikely that is, would—as even the meanest intelligence must comprehend—threaten to increase the sad, but relatively modest number of injured and dead from terrorism in this country. Plunging that region into nuclear-tipped chaos would create a problem with which we could not live.
Pakistan is a sovereign country. British and allied forces are already involved on the borders of Pakistan. If Pakistan were to require our help, that is something that I would consider, but let us be in no doubt that the core of this problem lies in Pakistan. Watch the news and see what is happening there every day. The rebels are not just challenging troops in the field: they are attacking at the heart of that country, taking on Government and defence establishments and inflicting enormous casualties. If we continue to divide these two parts of the war, we miss the essence of what the Taliban, backed by al-Qaeda, are trying to do.
I ask the Government to read the history books. When we went into Helmand in 2006 I made a speech, as did colleagues, asking the Government not to look only at the British history, but at what happened to the Soviets in that area and others on the border. We are inviting the sort of war in which the Soviets became involved—and the sort of casualties that they suffered. They were prescient words. Those who write off British policy in Afghanistan in the 19th and 20th centuries as a universal failure are wrong. Yes, the first expedition in 1842 was a failure, 1919 was probably a