Owing to the huge number of Members who wish to contribute, speaking time will be restricted to eight minutes. I should also inform the House that I have selected amendment (a), in the name of the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis).
I beg to move,
That this House supports the continued deployment of UK armed forces in Afghanistan.
It is a great honour to move the motion, which was tabled by the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and me. It was selected by the Backbench Business Committee for its first full-day debate.
The Committee chose Afghanistan as the subject of this historic debate for two reasons. First, when the country is at war, there can be no issue of greater importance. The putting at risk of the lives of our brave service men and women in a foreign land needs to be the concern of Parliament, and that alone would have been reason enough to select the subject of Afghanistan. As I have said, however, there is a second reason. Parliament has not previously had a chance to debate the war in Afghanistan on a substantive motion, and the Committee felt that there should be a debate in which the views of Parliament could be heard and the House could, if it wished, divide. It is encouraging that so many Members wish to speak, and that three amendments have been tabled by Back-Bench Members of four political parties.
My hon. Friend is right to describe this as an important issue, and of course it is right that the House should debate it, but does it not concern him that only once before in the long history of this Parliament has there been a substantive vote on the question of going to war—in 2003, on the question of going to war in Iraq? Is there not a real danger that a vote against the war, or even a vote with a more or less equal result, could have a devastating effect on the morale of our troops on the ground?
I am not here today to express my personal view on the war. With respect to my hon. Friend, I think that his was very much a debating point, and I therefore will not respond to it.
At Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday, no one in the House could have failed to have been moved as the Deputy Prime Minister read out the names of 12 servicemen who had recently lost their lives because of the war in Afghanistan. I know that the whole House is united in its support for the young men and women of our armed forces. They are talented, professional and courageous; they are, quite simply, a credit to our country.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) for introducing a motion that is so important to our nation. I assure the House that the armed forces will be watching our debate extremely carefully. Some of what is said will be very important, and, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), some of it may have an effect on morale.
Last week I had the sad duty and honour of attending the funeral of Lieutenant John Sanderson, a young officer in the battalion that I had the privilege to command. Twelve members of my old battalion have died on the tour that it is currently undertaking, and there is approximately a month to go. Seventy more have been injured.
Roughly 300 people in a battalion go out and seek to engage the enemy. Members can imagine the percentage of casualties that is expected in my old battalion—the 1st Battalion, The Mercian Regiment, once known as The Cheshire Regiment—and how awful that is for their families. There have been 334 deaths in Afghanistan, and probably six times as many people have been injured.
After John’s funeral I spoke to many officers, not only officers from my regiment but, for example, six Royal Marines. When I asked them what they really felt about the war, the first thing that they said to me was, “Make our sacrifice worth it. Do not let us suffer as we have, and then walk away and leave it”—rather, in a way, as we left Basra.
I, like every other Member of the House, pay tribute both to the British soldiers who have died in Afghanistan and those who have been seriously injured, to whom we wish the very best. However, turning to a point the hon. Gentleman made a few moments ago, will he recognise that in debates in the House it is the duty and obligation of every Member to speak their mind, and that therefore in this debate it should not be felt that if we are critical, which some of us may well be—I certainly will be, if I am called to speak—that is in any way a betrayal of our British troops? We must speak frankly in this House.
Forgive me, I did not mean to imply the contrary. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says; it is quite right.
The officers and soldiers to whom I talked were firm that they do not want us not to support them; I shall return to that point. They also do not like the idea of a timeline; they are not very happy about that. Also, of course, they want to be given the resources to be able to do the job we have set them.
Interestingly, the troops also questioned some of the strategic and tactical decisions that their superiors had passed on to them. I wondered what they meant, and I looked back into that. When we went in in 2002, we went in “light”, as we call it: we went in with air power and special forces. We then thought we had done the job and left it to President Karzai. In 2003, we realised that things had gone wrong and we started going back in, and by 2006 John Reid was making hopeful statements in the House. He was acting on military advice in saying that he hoped that the 4,000-odd people being put into Helmand would not have to fire a shot in anger.
Following on from the previous intervention, does my hon. Friend agree that although our troops do not want Members of Parliament to doubt ultimate victory or how to control the Taliban, we should question whether the tactics are always right, because there might be other ways of doing things? President Reagan bombed Libya, for instance, which shows that we do not necessarily have to have troops on the ground. Do the troops accept that point?
Most certainly they do, and I accept that it is our job to question everything. The problem is that we have made some fundamental mistakes. I am not blaming anyone, but we made mistakes in 2006 when we dissipated our forces so they were in platoon houses and were not within the envelope. That meant that they could not have protection from artillery, and we had to use air power instead. The air power protecting them knocked out houses around them and killed local people, turning the people against our forces. In 2007 and 2008 we had gone back to counter-insurgency tactics—taking, holding, building—and our gallant troops went in to take, but they could not hold. They had to withdraw. Perhaps Members remember those pictures of helicopters flying with men strapped aboard to try to bring troops back. We could not hold the ground. Also, of course, our enemy came in and put devices on the ground that caused real problems, and they continue to do so to this day.
We now have a situation in which there is an increase in the number of soldiers on the ground, principally from the United States, and the principles of counter-insurgency are, in fact, beginning to work. They are protecting the people, and the key is whether the Afghan people feel protected and safe and can live a decent life.
I am going to keep going, because I do not have much time left.
We all know that we have a real problem in Afghanistan. We have a military aim, which is probably relatively simple: to make sure that Afghanistan never threatens us again. We also have a political aim, which is, fundamentally, that we want Afghanistan to have a decent lifestyle and to take its part in the international community, and also that we do not want to allow groups such as the Taliban to return to the country, and thereby threaten us. The job our troops are doing is very difficult; I am clear about that.
I want to conclude by talking briefly about what we can do. The fact of the matter is our soldiers require our support. I accept the point that they have a problem with understanding the nuances of people saying, “We support our troops, but we don’t support the war.” When we talk to them, they say, “Come off it, we’re out here doing a mission; support us! Don’t just say, ‘We support you.’ We don’t quite get that.” One of them said to me, “Are you smoking dope?” [Interruption.] I was not, actually; I never have smoked dope, and if I had, I would have been chucked out of the Army. Another one said to me about the strategic situation and the tactical decisions made, “Isn’t it strange, Bob, that in this country we penalise our soldiers for losing a rifle more than we penalise our generals for losing a war?” We have not made some decisions very well thus far.
There is now great optimism that we will be able to reach the endgame, and get to a situation where our troops can come home and feel that John Sanderson and 333 other young men—and one woman, I think—have given their lives for something worth while. That is terribly important. I pay great tribute to what our armed forces are doing, of course, and I want them all to come home soon—as soon as possible, and before 2014 if that is achievable—but the only way they can come home quickly is if we get it right, give them what they require and understand that we are fighting a war. Let us imagine what would have happened if there had been reductions in the defence budget when we were at war in 1940. I know that our country has a big economic problem, but we have to make sure that those people who are running huge risks on our behalf are given everything they require and our support. I therefore ask the House to support the motion.
Can we make something clear? The last speaker seemed to equate al-Qaeda with the Taliban. The Taliban have never threatened us, but al-Qaeda certainly has. If we want to understand Taliban thinking, we should note what was expressed recently by a commander. He said that war is dreadful and horrid:
“It creates nothing but widows and disruption. But jihad is different. It is our moral obligation to resist you foreigners. One year, a hundred years, a million years, ten million years—it is not important. We will never stop fighting. At Judgement Day, Allah will not ask, ‘What did you do for your country?’ He will ask, ‘Did you fight for your religion?’”
That shows the precise nature of the conflict, and it is not a conflict that can be won.
The hon. Gentleman should reflect on the Taliban’s relationship with the events of 9/11. While they did not directly threaten us, they provided the wherewithal and the facilities for al-Qaeda to threaten us, and they did not do anything to try to rectify the situation when they had the opportunity to do so.
The situation now is that the Taliban are not in power because of al-Qaeda, as the Taliban well know. The Taliban already control at least half the country, and al-Qaeda has not been allowed in. There is no problem here; this is a false argument. We have created this myth that, somehow, if we pull out, al-Qaeda will have an area in which to operate. It already has Pakistan in which to operate, and Somalia and Yemen.
I take the point about how our soldiers will perceive what is said in the House, however. I, like most Members, have had the torment of trying to say to constituents who have lost loved ones that they died in a cause that was just and honourable. It is no reflection on the quality and bravery of our troops to say that this war has been, certainly since 2006, a grave error. There were people in this House and in the military—one military person resigned over this—who said in 2006 that our going into Helmand then was stirring up a hornet’s nest. At that point only two British soldiers had died in combat, but now the figure is 334 and the rate is accelerating; the 200th soldier to die, who came from Gwent, died last August. The bloodiest year so far for British troops in Afghanistan was 2009, but if things continue as they are, 2010 will be far worse. The rate at which British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan is now four times that of our United States counterparts.
The whole operation is continuing and there is no possible outcome that will be just and honourable. Both Governments have been in denial. We have heard optimism, and nothing but, year after year and in debate after debate, when they have told us that we have turned the corner. The Deputy Prime Minister used the same expression the other day, saying that things are going well now and we just have to hang on. We have turned so many corners that we have been around the block half a dozen times in Afghanistan, but we are still in hell and the situation is still getting worse. We believe in the possibility that the Afghan national army can take over, but it is mainly drug addicted and it routinely oppresses its own people. In one incident, 300 members of the Afghan army were guarding a convoy when they were attacked by seven members of the Taliban and they fled, with their commander saying, “Why should they sacrifice their lives and kill fellow Afghans in order to defend a corrupt leader from a different clan and to promote the policies of a foreign country?” Indeed, one is entitled to ask that.
The Afghan police service routinely extorts money from its own citizens. When the police went into the village of Penkala, the local elders came forward and said, “Last time they came here, they practised bacha bazi on our young boys.” That refers to the routine ritual sexual exploitation of young boys. They also said, “The Taliban were here before. They were wicked people, but they were people of principle.” The Afghan police are a criminal police service. Many of them are not paid, so they are expected to get their money in this way.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in addition to all those problems, massive challenges are affecting the Afghan Government and Afghan authorities at a national level? Those organisations are the ones that we are supposed to be supporting. A financial scandal is currently engulfing Afghanistan, and it involves the elites around President Karzai. Is the hon. Gentleman content that our brave young servicemen and women are dying in support of those elites?
No, I am certainly not, and the hon. Gentleman is right in what he says. Minister after Minister has said, “We are going to tackle corruption; the corruption is impossible and we must do something about it.” When we ask them what we must do, nobody has the slightest idea. What we are doing, and what we are trying to do, is fight corruption with our sort of ethical corruption; we have taken corruption and bribery and put it on an industrial scale. The Americans are moving in with pallets piled high with bubble-wrapped stacks of $100 bills; our way of working in Afghanistan is based on our own variety of corruption.
Afghanistan is a country where there is not going to be a happy ending. We are never going to get the tribal groups to work together and we are not going to get the warlords to behave reasonably. These warlords have committed atrocities and they now have their members sitting in the Afghan Parliament. We went in with this idea that there was a simple solution, possibly a military one, but we know that that is not possible.
On the question raised by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), may I say that although we praise the bravery of the troops and weep for their sacrifices, especially in respect of those who receive little attention—those who have been maimed in battle and will suffer the wounds for the rest of their lives—that is no excuse for saying that as so many have been killed, more should be killed to justify those deaths? Those deaths were avoidable and the fact that this House did not oppose the expedition into Helmand province in 2006 is responsible for them; this is not down to anybody else. We should have said at that time that it was not plausible to suggest that we can go into Helmand—that is so for the very reasons that the Afghans say. They are fighting us because we are the ferengi: we are foreigners. Every generation of Afghans has fought against foreigners.
In 2001, a member of the Russian Duma slapped me on the back and said, “Oh, you Brits have succeeded in capturing Afghanistan, very clever. We did it in six days and we were there for 10 years. We spent billions and billions of roubles, we killed 1 million Afghans and we lost 16,000 of our soldiers. When we ran out, there were 300,000 mujaheddin in the hills ready to take over, just waiting their turn. It will happen to you.” It has happened throughout history; no army has gone into Afghanistan, conquered it and occupied it. The task is impossible.
No, I cannot, because I have given way twice.
If we want evidence that the Government are in denial, we should recall the attempt to stop the reading of the names at Prime Minister’s Question Time, when the House is well attended and the media attention is on us. This was shifted and the names were read twice, once on a Monday and once on a Thursday. When the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary visited Afghanistan to demonstrate our strength, they proved our weakness. When they came back to the Dispatch Box and gave their reports to the House, they did not mention the only important thing that happened on their mission, which was that they were unable to fulfil their engagements. They were supposed to visit three sites, but they were unable to visit the principal one because of the strength of the Taliban. However, to admit that, and thus to tell the truth at the Dispatch Box about the fact that their trip exposed our vulnerability and our inability to guarantee the safety of our Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, would have been to admit that the situation is getting worse by the day. This has been going on for a long time, and to pretend otherwise is nonsense.
There is a welcome sense within this House—I am not making any point about a date on which to withdraw—that we know that we are going to withdraw. An exit strategy is in place and that changes the mindset. Nobody will talk any longer about continuing for 30 years, or about conquering the Taliban or the people of Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan know that we are getting out. The Parliaments in Holland and Canada debated this issue—they had the opportunity to do so and to vote on it before we did—and they decided to bring their troops out. The opinion of our nation is the same: 70% of the country wants to see the troops home by Christmas. That cannot happen, but we need to get them home in a way that is going to guarantee as much peace as possible for the Afghans in the future. We have to choose whether we have a Dien Bien Phu exit or a Saigon exit—that was an exit prompted by the disgust of the population at the body bags coming home. Such an exit would be carried out in panic and would leave the Afghans at the greatest possible peril. We may be able to reach some agreement with these various groups. They are not saints and it will be very difficult to get any stable set-up, but that must happen and we know that we are going to do it in the near future—
I start by declaring my interest as a member of the reserve forces. I commend the Government for their attempts to clarify the mission in Afghanistan. It is very important to articulate the geopolitical significance of this conflict if it is to command the support of the general public. I genuinely regret that the previous Administration signally failed to do that. Had they done so, the acceptance of what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan now would be far more general. I support the motion, and I believe that the men and women of our armed forces will expect us to do so in this House today.
It is worth bearing in mind that the price of our involvement in Helmand and Kandahar is paid by the men and women of our armed forces. I am pleased to note that their welfare is mentioned in the three amendments tabled to the motion today. I want to talk a little about the duty that we owe them—a duty summed up at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom as the military covenant. The military covenant is a somewhat elegant turn of phrase written into British Army doctrine by a now retired senior officer who was no doubt sweating away in the Ministry of Defence in 2001—that is, the old Ministry of Defence, before the previous Administration turned it into a princely palace for mandarins at great public expense.
We must go back a bit to understand the provenance of the covenant. The first expression of the duty that the state owed to those who fought on its behalf is the Act for the Necessary Relief of Soldiers and Mariners. It was drawn up in 1601, following what were described as
“Her Majesty’s just and honourable defensive wars”,
just as today’s interest in the covenant has been encouraged by Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 1601 reference to “defensive wars” is important. Most of the conflicts in which this country has been engaged have been defensive, involving society at large and not just an expeditionary military. Although we can debate the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan—I supported the latter, incidentally, but opposed the former—the conflicts of the 21st century have been discretionary as opposed to the total war of the sort marked this week in the 70th anniversary of the blitz and the battle of Britain, which involved defensive warfare writ large.
What implication does participation in discretionary warfare have for our duty under the military covenant? The public are quite clear. Citizens have shown themselves perfectly capable of separating their strong support for the men and women of our armed forces, as has already been mentioned, from their ambivalence, at best, about the mission in Afghanistan. That support must be reflected formally by Government, in my opinion. I would argue that the Government owe a special duty to those who have served in discretionary warfare, because such conflicts cut to the quick of what it is to serve in the military. It is a commitment without limitation and, in the absence of an existential threat of the sort marked this week in the capital and by the RAF, it may be emulated but not matched by any other group in society.
I argued two years ago, at the time that we set up the military covenant commission under Frederick Forsyth, that there are three identifiable parties to the military covenant: the men and women of our armed forces, the Government and the people. However, there might be a fourth: the chain of command. Its attitudes are informed by, but distinct from, the political leadership. The command has been crucial in tackling ingrained attitudes towards, for example, mental health. It has driven TRiM—trauma risk management—pioneered in Iraq and Afghanistan by the Royal Marines, but at other times in our history, the contribution of the top brass, like that of the Government and the people, to the well-being of the rank and file has been less obvious.
It is also necessary to consider within any fourth pillar the attitudes of officials. One wonders about the mindset of a senior civil servant who is prepared to commit to paper his observation that injured soldiers with “a significant media profile” would “require careful handling” in the context of a perfectly proper attempt by the MOD to ensure that our armed forces are fit for purpose.
My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary is quite right to insist that our need to optimise the fighting fitness of our units does not compromise our duty to those who have sacrificed much in the service of their country.
I very much agree that we need to appreciate the contribution of our armed forces. In view of what the hon. Gentleman has said, does he now regret some of the comments that were made in the early years of the decade commencing in 2000 about the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine in Birmingham? Members who are now sitting on the Government Benches made political capital out of the exceptionally good medical services provided to our armed forces. Will he pay tribute to the Birmingham hospital now?
I will certainly pay tribute to the men and women of our Defence Medical Services, that is for sure. One thing I would say about the previous Government is that they promised a great deal to the Defence Medical Services, but in Selly Oak they failed to deliver what was necessary in a timely fashion. I am pleased that now, belatedly, we have seen the opening of the new hospital in Birmingham—precisely what the DMS was led to expect to believe that it was getting from the outset.
On a perhaps more light-hearted note, I am bound to observe that our greatest naval hero managed to command the fleet decisively on 21 October 1805 without the benefit of an arm and a leg—I am doing the man a disservice, I mean an arm and an eye; I am supposed to be speaking at a Trafalgar night dinner next month, and I had better get that right. The man was chronically sick for most of his career. I point that out simply as a cautionary note and to say in all candour that it is perfectly possible to be disabled and yet to participate in active service.
Equally, well-meaning commanding officers who offer reassurances at the bedsides of casualties with appalling injuries that will always be with them need to be very careful about promising them that they will always have a place in the battalion—to use the usual turn of phrase—when it is clearly not necessarily in the interests of that person, who might otherwise be retrained, I hope with a quality package, for life in civilian street, which might ultimately be more fulfilling and rewarding. Our language is very important.
We owe it to the injured to ensure that through the evolving Army recovery capability and personnel recovery centres and through a revamped medical boarding procedure that we balance our paramount need for fighting forces that are fit with the obligation to do what is right by those who have paid a heavy price for their service.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and he is making a truly excellent speech. As a footnote to it, may I ask him to agree that it is very unfortunate that as a result of changes 10 years ago, which were made with good intent but were, in my view, wholly mistaken, this is the first time ever in our country’s history that the costs of dealing with the aftermath of war are borne by the defence budget?
That is a point that my hon. Friend has made before and he makes his views known in a very powerful way. I am sure that there is much truth in what he has to say and of course the blame must lie with the previous Administration and how they managed the defence budget in this country.
The charity Combat Stress received 1,257 new referrals in 2009, an increase in two thirds since 2004. It is important to put that in the context of the generally positive mental and physical legacy left by service in the armed forces. I would strongly avoid the hysterical language used by some elements of the media, and I suggest that saying that we face a “mental health time-bomb” is unfair and not supported by the evidence. However, we have a significant problem and since it has been caused directly by military service we have an obligation under any interpretation of the military covenant to go the extra mile in sorting it out.
The Prime Minister, when he was Leader of the Opposition, and my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary hosted a mental health summit in the Commons in June last year and have ordered a review that I lead into how we can do more to promote the health of the service community. It is clear that we must do far more to be proactive in discovering in servicemen and women the mental health problems that they might be suffering—not just post traumatic stress disorder, I hasten to add. We must offer the means for casualties to accept help in a way that is amenable to them.
Four hundred years after Elizabeth I signed off the first expression of the state’s duty to its fighting men after her defensive wars, this Government, mindful of the sacrifices made in a very different theatre, intend to give it statutory definition. I support them in that aim and believe that it should command the approbation of all quarters of the House.
I welcome this debate, which is both timely and necessary. I agree with other hon. Members who believe that it is time in this century for Parliament to have a more explicit and direct vote on important military matters. Apart from anything else, in terms of public support, it is important that we have a clear expression of the will of the House of Commons on these matters so that there can be no ambiguity once today’s motion is, I hope, carried.
I absolutely agree. It is terribly important that this House should send a strong message of support for our troops. However, does the hon. Gentleman not see a real danger that if we were to have such a vote on every occasion there is at least the possibility that the vote would be evenly split or that even a no vote would be the result, which would have terrible consequences for the war?
I do not argue that we should have a vote every week or month, but from time to time it is important that Parliament makes it clear that the Executive, when they deploy our force, have the continuing support of the nation. It is our job to speak for the nation and it is very important in a democracy that Parliament is the voice of the nation and that we do not just leave things to the Executive.
Last year, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs published a major report on Afghanistan and Pakistan. It concluded that there could be no question of the international community abandoning Afghanistan and that there was a need to convey publicly that the international community intends to outlast the insurgency and to remain in Afghanistan until the Afghan authorities are able to take control of their own security. That must be a primary objective. Yesterday, the current Committee decided to mount a new inquiry into Afghanistan and Pakistan over the coming months.
I am concerned that, since the previous Committee’s recommendations of last year, there has been a significant change in the positions of both the United States Administration under President Obama and the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government who were elected in May. We now have an arbitrary deadline, set by the Obama Administration, to begin withdrawal of military forces from July 2011, and an even more firm statement about a complete withdrawal of British forces from 2014-15, which was confirmed by the Foreign Secretary when he answered questions at yesterday’s Select Committee sitting.
I think it is extremely unwise to have arbitrary target deadlines. Many commentators have pointed out that the process should be conditions-based and should not involve just setting artificial deadlines. One reason why that approach is so difficult and dangerous is in the signals it sends to the Afghan people. In a recent opinion poll, only 6% of Afghans said that they would support the return of the Taliban, whereas 90% said that they would prefer the present, dysfunctional, corrupt and in many ways useless Government to the thought of the Taliban returning. The ability of Afghans publicly to associate themselves with the international forces or even the Karzai Government at this time is greatly undermined by the thought that within a year, 18 months or perhaps four years, that international community support will go and they will be faced with the potential return of the Taliban. We face a real crisis here. There is a conflict between the military objectives of nation building and counter-insurgency, which require many years—perhaps a generation—to be successful, and a political agenda driven by the body bags and casualties and the simplistic solutions that are touted by various people.
What we are dealing with in Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It is also about Pakistan—a country of 170 million people which has nuclear weapons, unresolved border disputes and potential conflict with India. Pashtun people who live on both sides of the Durand line can move backwards and forwards, and the border is impossible to police. If there is a collapse of any form of central Government and we return to an overt civil war, as opposed to the incipient civil war that still goes on in Afghanistan, without international support for the Afghan Government we could be faced with a situation not simply of the Taliban’s return but of a complete failed state—not just Afghanistan but Pakistan.
When the Foreign Affairs Committee visited Pakistan last year, we were in Islamabad when the Pakistani Taliban got to within 80 miles of Islamabad. At that point, the Pakistani Government got out of denial and started a very difficult process of taking on the insurgents from the FATA, or federally administered tribal areas, and other areas. They pushed up the Pakistani Taliban towards the Afghan border. There is an area on that border, on both sides, where the insurgents can regroup, hide and get training. If the Pakistani state is faced with a failure by us or the Afghan forces to press on the other side, there will be an easy way for the insurgents to work on both sides of that border without having sustained pressure from both sides. That is a fundamental dilemma for the Pakistani Government and I do not think that we appreciate quite how many Pakistanis have died in recent years and the great sacrifice that Pakistani people have made because of terrorism, because of outrages within their society such as those in Islamabad, Karachi and other parts of Pakistan, and because of the potential threat to the state imposed by Islamist radicalism and extremism.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?
No, I cannot take any more interventions; I have to conclude my remarks.
I am conscious that we are dealing with a very difficult issue. There is a global struggle within Islam between a whole spectrum of points of view. There is conflict between Sunnis and Shias and there is conflict within Sunni Islam. That conflict is being fought out within Pakistan and Afghanistan at the moment. It is sometimes attractive for people to think that we can somehow step back, be neutral and avoid being involved in all this because it is nothing to do with us. Some people have a tendency to think that, but more than 1 million British citizens have family connections with that region—with Pakistan. Islam is part of our European culture and our modern world. Given the globalisation of economics and politics, we cannot be neutral in this struggle. We all have to try to assist the moderates and internationalists in this process, and to combat jihadism wherever it is. That does not mean that we must always fight it militarily: we must also fight it intelligently and politically.
It might well be that because of the deadlines set by our Government and the US Administration, because of the lack of wider international support and because of the growing public fear that we have been in this for so long that we have to get out quickly, we will have to accept a very difficult and messy compromise in Afghanistan that will involve some kind of return of Taliban influence or Taliban groups in at least part of the country. However, let us not forget that the wider struggle will still require us to be involved in supporting the democrats, the internationalists and the anti-jihadists in Pakistani society as well as those in Afghanistan. For that reason, I support the motion.
It has been fashionable in some quarters to say that the House of Commons is increasingly irrelevant in our national life, and that the Executive have become too powerful. Indeed, in recent times the Executive have become too powerful, reaching a zenith in parts of the Blair Administration when the House of Commons was reduced to Downing street in Parliament.
Today marks a very welcome departure. I congratulate all those involved in this wise enterprise. It is high time that Members of the House of Commons, not just the Government and not just the Opposition, have the ability to determine what we discuss in the Chamber.
No subject could be more important than Afghanistan. The hardest thing that a Defence Secretary, or indeed a Prime Minister, has to do is to write to the bereaved families of those killed in action, yet sad though that task is, none of us can fully understand the pain of loss endured by the families themselves. I therefore add my condolences to those of Members on both sides of the House who have paid tribute to the heroic members of our armed forces who have sacrificed themselves for our national security. I pay tribute to Dr Karen Woo, whose courage and dedication mirror that of many civilians who are doing what they can to help in one of the most dangerous parts of the world. We should remember at all times the contribution that they make to trying to create a better world.
What is said in this House matters, particularly in relation to Afghanistan. When we debate that subject here we need to be aware of who is listening: first, the British public; secondly, our armed forces; thirdly, our allies and partners; and fourthly, our opponents and enemies, the disparate insurgency in Afghanistan—the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Each of those audiences is important in different ways. That means not that we are restricted in any way as to what we can say in the House of Commons, but that we should carefully weigh up how we may be interpreted.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to, I shall come to withdrawal and the long-term implications in due course.
Our military resilience is, in part, dependent on the support of our people—it always has been. The British public need to know that there are clear reasons for being in Afghanistan and that we have clear aims and the right strategy. They need to know why we cannot bring our troops home immediately, as many people want, what we are achieving, and what success will look like. Let me tackle those points first.
Saturday marks the ninth anniversary of the al-Qaeda atrocities that killed almost 3,000 innocent people, including 66 British citizens, in Manhattan. The horror of watching those scenes replayed on television does not diminish with time. The carnage did not discriminate nationality, colour or creed. It changed the lives of thousands of families and it changed the way political leaders saw the world. If we want our people, civilian and military, to be willing to pay the price of success, they need to understand the cost of failure—9/11 is what failure looks like. It is what trans-national terrorism looks like, and what it will look like again if we fail to confront it.
Our clear aim in Afghanistan is to prevent Afghan territory from again being used by al-Qaeda as a base from which to plan attacks on the United Kingdom and our allies. Our engagement in Afghanistan is first and foremost about national security. It is not the only place where we are confronting violent extremists, but it is crucial in that battle. The presence of ISAF—the international security assistance force—prevents al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime from returning while we train Afghan security forces to take over the task for themselves.
We do not seek a perfect Afghanistan, but one able to maintain its own security and prevent the return of al-Qaeda. That aim also requires working with Pakistan to enhance the Pakistanis’ ability to tackle the threat from their side of the border. In Afghanistan, success means, first, continuing to reverse the momentum of the Taliban-led insurgency. Our second aim is to contain and reduce the threat from the insurgency to a level that allows the Afghan Government to manage it themselves. Our third aim is creating a system of national security and governance that is stable and capable enough for the Afghan Government to provide internal security on an enduring basis. That is why we are supporting more effective Afghan governance at every level, and building up the capability of the Afghan national security forces as rapidly as is feasible.
This debate is taking place as troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade, Colchester garrison, prepare for their fourth deployment to Afghanistan. Does the Secretary of State agree that this is not just a military operation? Although we clearly support the military operation, there are two other sides of the triangle—politics and economics.
Members on both sides of the House will support the Secretary of State in what he has just said. Does he accept that his Government must be more focused in communicating the mission? [Interruption.] That is not to say that the previous Administration got it right either—I am not suggesting that for a moment—but the ability of the Government and all Members of the House to communicate what the mission is about is paramount in our responsibility to our armed forces in Afghanistan.
I completely agree. In fact, that issue is discussed even more widely—not just in the United Kingdom but throughout the coalition. One of the issues we discussed at the recent defence ministerial summit was how to improve strategic communication and how to maintain the resilience of our operation by maintaining the support of our publics, recognising that one of the problems is that the Taliban do not have to maintain the democratic support of anybody at all. Communication is a strength but also a potential weakness and it is correct that the right strategic narrative is essential in maintaining support and resilience.
We need to be clear about where successes are occurring, and part of that communication is telling people about successes. Less than six months ago, Afghan national army strength stood at about 107,000 trained soldiers, with a target of reaching 134,000 by October 2010. The Afghan Government met that target two months early. The Afghan national police force has grown to more than 115,000. I am the first to admit that challenges remain with its capability, but notable successes have been achieved, even over the past few weeks, such as the interdiction of bombers in Logar province just last week. Good things are happening, and we must not allow ourselves to believe that there is a non-stop tale of failure, as some would like to portray the situation.
In Helmand, the Afghan national army and police, working side by side, with minimal ISAF support, led on the planning and conduct of Operation Omid Do, which has extended security into former insurgent safe havens in northern Nahr-e Saraj. Increasingly, ISAF patrols operate jointly with the ANA as partnering is rolled out. Of course, there are risks associated with partnering and we are trying to reduce them to a minimum, but partnering is the quickest, most effective, and so the safest, way to build a capable Afghan national security force—the key to bringing our forces home.
Failure would not only risk the return of civil war in Afghanistan, which would create a security vacuum; we would also risk the destabilisation of Pakistan with significant regional consequences, as the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) correctly pointed out. The second reason why we must not fail is that it would be a shot in the arm to jihadists everywhere, re-energising violent, radical and extreme Islamism. It would send the signal that we did not have the moral resolve and political fortitude to see through what we ourselves have described as a national security imperative. Premature withdrawal of the international coalition would also damage the credibility of NATO—the cornerstone of the defence of the west for more than half a century. Our resolve would be called into question, our cohesion weakened, and the alliance undermined. Our influence over the region and our contribution to wider stability would be severely diminished.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the central policy for the intervention in Afghanistan is still based on support for Afghan institutions and their ability to govern in Afghanistan? If so, why has he not mentioned what is happening at present, which is the wholesale collapse of that country’s financial system around a coterie associated with the President of Afghanistan we are supposed to be supporting? Why has he not mentioned that so far?
I shall come to a number of issues about the wider political element, but as the hon. Gentleman has raised it, I will say that the prime reason for being in Afghanistan is our national security: to ensure that the territory is not used again as a base for training and attacks by terrorists, the likes of which we saw on 9/11. It is to ensure that we degrade the threat, so that the Afghan security forces are able to deal with it themselves, without having to refer to the international community.
The second audience listening today is our armed forces and the wider defence community. They need to know that they have our support, not just for who they are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said, but for what they are doing and for the sacrifices that they are making. They need to know also that the ISAF coalition is providing all that they need to succeed in their mission. Our armed forces know that there is no such thing as a risk-free war, a casualty-free war or a fatality-free war. They accept that. They are professional people and volunteers every one. That is what makes them truly special. They want our support, not our sympathy. They want to be victors not victims.
In July, the Government agreed to a request from ISAF to deploy temporarily about 300 additional troops from the theatre reserve battalion in order to supplement the UK force of more than 9,500 troops and ensure that the progress being made in Operation Moshtarak was consolidated and exploited. The TRB will enable the redeployment of US forces in Sangin and of UK forces to central Helmand.
On 2 August, two additional RAF Tornado GR4s arrived in Kandahar, again in response to a request from the commander of ISAF for an increase in air support. Those aircraft joined the eight Tornados that have already been provided in order to support the multinational pool, not just our forces, and they have boosted the available flying hours by 25%, or an extra 130 flying hours per month. We announced extra funding for base protection and close-combat equipment and more counter-IED funding. All that will enable UK forces to consolidate the hold in central Helmand as the force there thickens, and to partner the Afghan security forces more effectively. It demonstrates our commitment to the coalition and to the ISAF strategy for Afghanistan.
The third audience who will be listening today are our allies and partners. They should be assured of Britain’s commitment to the shared strategy, and of our determination to play our part in protecting not only our national security but that of our international partners. There are now more international forces in Afghanistan than ever, and that is allowing real progress on governance and development. However, just as a more secure Afghanistan will not come about without military means, it will not come about by military means alone, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) said.
At the Kabul conference in July, the international community supported the Afghan Government’s vision of progress on security, governance, economic growth, the rule of law, human rights, countering corruption and reconciliation. There is a very long way to go on many of those fronts, and the Afghan Government themselves must understand that they need to make progress on many of them in order to take advantage of the improved security situation that the international coalition is bringing.
That political track, which runs alongside training the Afghan army and the military surge, is vital. In order to progress it, an Afghan high peace council will oversee a process towards a political settlement for all the Afghan people, underpinned by the $150 million peace and reintegration trust fund.
On 18 September, just a couple of weeks away, Afghanistan will hold its first parliamentary elections since the 1960s to be run entirely by Afghans themselves. The elections will not be perfect, and none of us should expect them to be, but they represent progress. Progress is being made on security and governance. It is hard and it is slow and it is very variable, but it is real, and as Afghan sovereignty grows, so the nature of ISAF’s operations and the role of our forces will evolve.
What is clear to me, what was clear to the previous Government and what must be clear to our allies in ISAF is that, as responsibility for security is transferred to the Afghans, any draw-down in force levels must be done coherently by the alliance. It must be done by an international coalition, not by individual nations. The issue is about phasing out, not walking out.
We also need to strengthen the training mission even further. Some countries might have political or constitutional problems with sending combat troops. We are not happy about that, and we never have been, but we understand it. However, there is absolutely no reason why any NATO country cannot do more to help train the Afghan national security force; it is a measure of our commitment and resolve as an alliance.
The fourth audience listening to our debate today will be our opponents and enemies: insurgent groups, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the violent extremists who support them. Some have claimed that, by talking of our determination to succeed within the time scale set out in the counter-insurgency strategy, we give succour to our opponents. That is not the case, and let me explain why.
Over the past few years the strategic position of the insurgency has begun to crumble. Pakistan is taking the threat seriously, and the safe haven that used to exist in that country is gradually being squeezed by the Pakistani security forces. Pakistan, too, is making substantial and significant sacrifices, among its civilian population and its military, as they hunt down al-Qaeda and violent extremists in their own country. We would do well to recognise that sacrifice.
The right hon. Gentleman touched on Pakistan and the sacrifices that Pakistanis have made, but in these debates about Afghanistan nobody ever mentions the role that India plays and nobody deals with the issue of border controls. The Secretary of State will know that Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir are linked. People in Pakistan—even in parts of Rajasthan such as Quetta, which has substantial links with Afghanistan—believe that the Indian forces play a considerable part in causing problems. I was in Pakistan at the weekend—in Quetta on Saturday, the day after the explosion there. I asked one of the drivers, “What do you think is happening here?” He said that the Indian intelligence agencies are involved, so I ask that, in the debate about Afghanistan, Pakistan and all the troubles that have been occurring, the role of India and its intelligence services also be considered.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. I do not agree with her detailed analysis, but it is important to recognise that Afghanistan must be regarded in a regional context. All the nations involved in Afghanistan must bring to bear as positive an influence as possible on the regional questions that will help to determine a better dynamic than perhaps has been brought in the past. That will involve a large number of regional players, but in this case it is quite wrong to point the finger at India, as the hon. Lady has.
I apologise for not giving way to the shadow Secretary of State.
The Secretary of State knows that I agree with many things that he is saying, but I have one concern—well, more than one, but this is a particular concern—about one issue that he raises. He just said that he does not accept that, by talking about our determination to achieve certain conditions, we give succour to our enemies. But that is not what has been said. What has been said, in terms, by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister is that, irrespective of conditions, combat will end in 2015.
General Petraeus has tried to say that all those decisions must be conditions-based, and I went to a meeting the other day with the Secretary of State’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, at which he tried to say that we should think of those things in the way that General Petraeus has portrayed them. But that is not what the Defence Secretary’s own Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have said. They have been absolutely clear—and that is what concerns our armed forces, as the Secretary of State’s hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) said. Will the Secretary of State clarify the position? Is it as black and white as the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister have said it is?
The Prime Minister made it very clear that, although we might have an extended role in Afghanistan, in training and further involvement in improving the quality of the Afghan national forces, the United Kingdom does not see that it should have a combat role beyond 2015. That is not entirely new. General McChrystal, before General Petraeus, made it very clear that it was part of the counter-insurgency strategy to ensure that the Afghan national security forces were able to maintain their own security by 2014; that was always part of our wider aim. Of course there will be continuing capability elements inside the Afghan national security forces which need to be dealt with, and we will have to be there in a mentoring and a training role for some considerable time. On top of that, the wider elements of reconstruction and governance in Afghanistan will require the non-governmental organisations and the wider international community to be there for a long time.
We are talking about one of the most difficult countries in the world in which to operate and in which to bring these things forward. However, it is quite clear that we cannot have an indefinite combat role, and that is what the Prime Minister has made clear.
Front-Bench speakers have been notified of how many people wish to take part in this debate, and it is clearly up to them if they want to take interventions. The Secretary of State has pointed out that he has taken a number, some of which were rather lengthy.
It is very rare, Mr Deputy Speaker, to be criticised by Back Benchers for taking up more time on the Front Bench.
The Taliban have lost significant ground in their southern heartland. They failed to prevent the presidential elections which took place last year, and they will fail to prevent the coming parliamentary elections too. They are incapable of stopping the expansion of the Afghan national security forces. We have been targeting their bomb-making networks, and their leadership and command structure. Their senior leadership is isolated, their training is deficient and supplies are limited. Their individual instances of tactical success have not reversed this deteriorating strategic position. It is clear that the insurgency cannot defeat ISAF; nor can the Taliban achieve their goal of once again wresting control of the country—neither we nor the Afghans will let them.
I think that there are many in the House who want to hear the Secretary of State and welcome the opportunity to do so. Indeed, I think we should be grateful to him for his generosity in giving way.
I want to take the Secretary of State back to the terms of withdrawal. The shadow Defence Secretary rightly referred to what General Petraeus has been saying recently, but there is another dimension—the decision of President Barack Obama, who is on record as saying that he intends to start withdrawing troops by June or July of next year. That decision, of course, is not unrelated to President Obama’s prospects for re-election: it is directly related to the electoral cycle. If President Obama fulfils his pledge, how does the Secretary of State think that that will be consistent with the outline of the British Government’s position which he has just given the House?
The American Administration have made it very clear that they are talking about the beginning of draw-down from its very highest level some time next year. That will coincide with the period when the Afghan national army is greater in number than the ISAF forces, so there is an element of logic to that position. However, President Obama has also made it clear that it was important to send a signal to the Afghan Government that they needed to have an idea of a time scale within which they would begin to develop the skills that they will need to be able to take over control and governance of their own country. Indeed, many believe that since the President embarked on that approach there has been a renewed sense of urgency in Kabul about exactly how the security forces were to be trained and the rate at which that occurred.
I believe that the Taliban’s only realistic hope is that international resolve to continue the war will collapse before the Afghan Government themselves are effective enough to stand on their own. The message that we need to send from the House today is that that hope of the Taliban is an empty one. The steady development of the Afghan national security forces underpins the strategic collapse of the insurgent position. It is said by some that the Taliban have time on their side—that they just have to wait us out. To an extent, the opposite is true. Their window of opportunity to defeat ISAF before the establishment of increasingly credible and effective Afghan security forces has shrunk, is shrinking further, and will shrink further.
Our message to the Afghan people is a clear one, and it needs to be communicated by our deeds as well as our words. We are neither colonisers nor occupiers. We are there under a UN mandate. We are there as a coalition of 47 countries from across the globe. We are not in Afghanistan to create a carbon copy of a western democracy, and we are not there to convert the people to western ways. We seek the government of Afghanistan by the Afghans, for the Afghans. We insist only that it does not pose a threat to our security, our interests or our allies.
When it comes to the defence and security of our country, we are at our strongest when we speak with one voice—when we are clear about what we are seeking to achieve and have the support of this House, and the public, for that endeavour. I hope that today’s enterprise takes us one step closer to that.
I want to begin by joining the Defence Secretary in paying tribute to those soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan since the House last met. Every day our troops in Afghanistan put their lives on the line to protect our national security, and we must never forget that. I also join him in the comments that he made about Dr Karen Woo.
As we have heard in the debate so far, many Members have different views on our presence in Afghanistan, but I hope that one thing we all agree on is the excellence of our armed forces and our duty to support them and to recognise their courage. We are in Afghanistan as part of a NATO mission under a UN mandate to protect our security because that country, under Taliban rule, became the safe haven for al-Qaeda terrorism. The Government can count on our continued support for a comprehensive strategy in Afghanistan that brings together military, political and development efforts. That is the only way to achieve success and enable the Afghans to take control of their own security.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) said, before he left the Chamber, “Why don’t we just do what we did in Libya?” Well, as I understand it, they sent a bomber in to try to kill the leader in Libya, Colonel Gaddafi. What tent or cave do we bomb in Afghanistan? It is ridiculous to suggest that that kind of strategy would bring success in Afghanistan. The only way forward, in my view, in the view of the coalition, in the view of the commander and in the view of all the troops to whom I have spoken, is a patient counter-insurgency operation to protect the people and deny the ability of the insurgency to take control of the country.
I congratulate our forces on having reorganised the Helmand operations, assisted with the inflow of the US marine corps, and reconfigured the operational areas in Helmand to get the maximum benefit from the new force densities now available. As part of that force rebalancing we have given over areas such as Musa Qala, and as the Defence Secretary has just clarified further, we now plan to do the same in Sangin, where we have tragically suffered many losses. We will soon have a concentrated area of responsibility in central Helmand valley, where we will be well placed to progress. The Defence Secretary was absolutely right to resist those who wanted to move to Kandahar and sacrifice the knowledge that we have gained at such a high price in Helmand.
There are now about 30,000 ISAF forces in Helmand province alone. It is, and always was, a coalition effort. However, with respect to our many allies, since 2006 Britain has provided forces that no one other than the United States was capable of fielding in that most difficult province. We have done so after taking military advice, and retired soldiers who wish to claim that we, the previous Labour Government, did not fully resource the mission, should reflect on that. They should also remember that we doubled the number of helicopters available, delivered hundreds of new vehicles and took tough decisions about cutting other military capabilities to provide more counter-improvised explosive device equipment. That meant that as the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, has said, our troops were fighting with equipment that was
“frankly the best that they’ve ever had”
The right hon. Gentleman has outlined what the Labour Government did, but will he also congratulate the current Government, who have decided to double the operational allowance and maximise rest and recuperation periods for those deployed? Does he believe that servicemen and their families will welcome that?
Yes, and I congratulate the Government on that. However, I would say to the hon. Gentleman that the changes were introduced at the same time as a freeze in service pay.
I have a couple more questions to ask the Secretary of State about things that I hope the Government will do in a timely manner. I do not know whether he is going to respond to the debate, because I know he has to leave the Chamber.
Force densities are not the only thing that we will need to succeed. We need the right equipment, and I wish to ask two specific questions about that. Last December I made some changes to the defence budget, partly to address some of the pressures ahead of the strategic defence and security review and partly to prioritise equipment for Afghanistan. That included an order for 22 Chinook helicopters. Why have the new Government not gone ahead with that order? The Secretary of State, the very man who continually criticised our record on helicopters, seems now to be allowing delay in that order, and I should like to ask him why. Equally, in the summer of 2009 I made it my business to intervene to put maximum speed and effort behind the development of a light protected patrol vehicle. Why have the Government not yet placed that order?
As we have discussed, the Deputy Prime Minister has said definitively:
“By 2015 there will not be any British combat troops in Afghanistan”.
Yet in a debate that I attended earlier this week the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), the Defence Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, said that we should think of that announcement in the same terms as General Petraeus’s clarification of the US position. He said that there were a lot of conditions, and that there would still be special forces there. I absolutely agree with the Defence Secretary that we must be as clear as we can with all the sets of people involved in such an important matter as our intervention in Afghanistan, but the situation is currently not clear.
There appear to have been definitive statements from both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister that irrespective of what happens, the combat mission will end in 2015. The Secretary of State knows that that is causing angst both within and outwith our armed forces. He did his best today to finesse that argument, but too many intelligent people who follow the record carefully know that there is a problem. Unless there are conditions-based timelines rather than an arbitrary finish date, the success of the mission is not helped. He need only read this morning’s edition of The Daily Telegraph to see the confusion that can occur, with people believing that Sherard Cowper-Coles’s departure indicates that the Government no longer have comprehensive determination to pursue the mission in Afghanistan.
Does the shadow Secretary of State accept that the reason why both President Obama and our Prime Minister seem intent on setting deadlines is the high level of casualties being incurred? Does he accept that if they did not set a deadline and continued with the current strategy, we could end up having that high level of casualties for perhaps another 20 or 30 years? Will he consider the fact that given a choice between taking too many casualties for a very long period or, perhaps, very few casualties through precipitate withdrawal, we ought to go for an intermediate strategy that has no deadline but does not incur the same number of casualties? That is the basis of the amendment that I shall move later, which I hope the right hon. Gentleman might consider encouraging his party to support.
I know the hon. Gentleman’s views and that he has tabled an amendment to the motion. He has spoken on this issue previously, and he has given a lot of thought to it, but the reason he gave is not one of the reasons given publicly for the strategies that are being pursued. Perhaps we need a debate in this country on whether we are sufficiently steely or enduring to pursue prolonged counter-insurgency conflicts, but that is not the reason for the Government’s strategy. If it is, let the Government encourage such a debate and let us have it in the House. However, what he says is not what the Government are saying. He has added yet more complexity to the reasons for what the Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister are saying.
Perhaps there is some clever strategy to say to Karzai, “You’ve got to get your act together. We’re getting out in five years so get it sorted,” but I would find that quite bizarre given the nature of Afghanistan politics and Karzai. However, there is another question. If we are 100% committed because Afghanistan is so important to our national security, why are we imposing a five-year deadline? I cannot find an historical precedent for that.
I have heard lots of reasons given for that, and we just heard another from the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). There is a genuine need to put pressure on the Afghan Government to make the necessary improvements in governance and security force capability—that is perfectly legitimate, as the Defence Secretary says—but we will not do that by giving succour to the enemy, as General Sir Mike Jackson said we may well be doing. The Government need to get to grips with that.
That most certainly has the potential to encourage speculation. People will speculate that the helicopters have not been ordered—they will not arrive until 2012—because they will not be needed. That adds to the Government’s difficulties with their message on Afghanistan. Conservative Members condemned our policy and said there was a lack of foresight before they election, but they are now delaying decisions to order helicopters. They said one thing in opposition and say another thing in government, but they must expect to be held to account.
Is not the outcome of the defence review another element that will influence people’s perception of the Government’s intentions? I know no more than anyone else, but if, for example, there were to be a reduction in the number of infantry battalions, irrespective of our intentions, people will perceive that our capability for a longer period in Afghanistan is materially affected.
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, we will have the opportunity to discuss the defence review and the future of our armed forces next Thursday, but there are some real concerns. Those who in opposition complained about the number of helicopters are delaying a decision on helicopter numbers now that they are in government. Those same people also said in opposition that we should have three extra battalions in the Army, but they now appear to be saying that we can take 5,000 or 10,000 heads out of the Army. That is a debate that we will have next week. I want our troops to come home as soon as possible, and I want pressure for progress to be put on the Afghan Government, but that must not be done at the price of giving comfort to the Taliban.
This week reports emerged—and they have been alluded to already today—that injured war heroes from Afghanistan and Iraq may be forced out of the Army. The Defence Secretary tried to suggest that this was a Labour policy, but it was not. Nobody injured would have faced compulsory discharge. That was made clear by General Richards and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones),the then Veterans Minister, when they announced the Army recovery capability policy earlier this year. I hope that the Minister will tell us today whether the Government intend to force injured soldiers out of the Army. Those who have made these heavy sacrifices for us deserve our gratitude: they do not deserve to be treated in this way.
We have always said that the Government have our full support as they proceed to take difficult decisions in the best interests of our mission in Afghanistan and our troops who are doing a fantastic job. But the Government cannot expect to get away with false criticism, mixed messages and empty promises any longer. We have a duty to hold them to account.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth). Unfashionably, perhaps, and on a personal rather than a party political level, I always greatly enjoyed our exchanges when I was chairman of the all-party group on the armed forces and he was Secretary of State. He was a member of a useless Government, but he was a first-class Secretary of State, as his speech today testifies.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave us a tour de force explanation of why we are in Afghanistan and why it is so important that we should remain there. It was an important speech that will be listened to and read carefully by the four audiences that he correctly delineated. We are being watched in our debate today in a similar way to which that famous debate in the Oxford Union in 1933 on the motion
“That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country”
was watched by Nazi Germany. It is therefore important that we should be careful about what we say and do in this Chamber.
I hope to remain in order if I touch not so much on why we are in Afghanistan and whether we should remain there, but on the way in which we consider whether we should do so. I strongly support the new Backbench Business Committee, and it is superb that it is addressing the imbalance between Parliament and the Executive. I also broadly support the conclusions of the Public Administration Committee before the election that going to war—or, as in this case, remaining in a theatre of war—should be a matter for substantive debate in this Chamber. But there are real dangers inherent in that approach. It is interesting to note that in the long history of this Parliament there has been only one vote thus far on the substantive question of whether to go to war. For the second world war, the Falklands war, the first Gulf war and so on, the decision was made on a motion for the Adjournment. The only substantive vote that we have ever had on going to war was in 2003 and the war against Iraq. Many of us who were opposed to that war and believed it to be probably illegal do not necessarily believe that a vote in this House to support the war somehow justified it.
We also have to think about the consequences of a yes vote in the Lobby this evening and what that would mean for morale on the ground in Afghanistan. Or let us imagine a narrow result, with the House divided more or less 50:50. What message would that send to the four audiences mentioned by my right hon. Friend? It is unlikely to happen, but let us imagine that some other Parliament voted no in such circumstances. It might happen that a good war that should be waged would be voted down for political reasons. Such votes can have very serious consequences.
I do not wish to caricature what people have said about the war in Afghanistan, but I suggest that two broad arguments have been advanced in the debate this afternoon. The first is—and it is also my view—that if we were not in Afghanistan we would give succour to al-Qaeda, with consequences for security here at home and throughout the region. It is important that we are there doing what we do for that reason. The other broad argument, which has already been passionately advanced and no doubt will be repeated later, is that it is a waste of time being there. After all, the argument goes, we lost three Afghan wars, the Russians could not win there, there is no known enemy and we do not even know who the Taliban are. The entire thing is therefore a waste of time and every one of the 333 soldiers we have lost gave their lives needlessly. I think that that argument is wrong, but people have advanced it.
However, neither argument is entirely correct—in fact, we do not actually know; these are enormously complicated and difficult matters. Although I accept that there are people in the Chamber who know about these things in great detail, I hope I speak as a relatively average Back-Bench Member who has followed these matters closely for a number of years when I say that I do not know in detail whether what we are doing in Afghanistan is right, wrong or indifferent. I should not set myself up as some kind of guru who knows those things. There are occasions when the House should say that there are people who know about these things, and that we do not. That has been the principle behind the royal prerogative that the Executive has always used to go to war.
There are consequences if we do not accept that argument. The first and most important is that we politicise warfare, which would send out very serious messages to our men and women on the front line. The second argument is more complex but more worrying: were a Secretary of State to come to the House to persuade us of a particularly controversial or difficult war—possibly in a narrowly divided House—he would have to explain to us the full intelligence lying behind his reasons for being in a theatre of war or going into one. He would have to lay out details of intelligence, and I am not certain that it is right that we should know about that. On Iraq, for example, the then Prime Minister had Privy Council terms discussions with the Leader of the Opposition and other Ministers. That was correct, but I am not certain, as a Back-Bench Member, that I should be told every minute detail of the military intelligence available to us.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Of course, the House is answerable to the public for what it does, and of course at a general election it is right that the Prime Minister should go to the public and say, “Here’s what I’ve done during the last Parliament.” That applies to a wide variety of decisions that are not subject to a vote in this place. The second world war, the Falklands war and the first Gulf war were all conducted without a vote in this place, but the Prime Minister and the Government were none the less answerable to the public. Simply to say that having a vote here is the only way we can be answerable to the public is simplistic and not correct.
There is also a concern about what the consequences would be for the Backbench Business Committee of different outcomes of tonight’s debate. Suppose for a moment there were to be a no vote—it is very unlikely—and the House voted not to leave our troops in Afghanistan. What would then happen? Would the Government say, “Very well, the House of Commons has voted against staying in Afghanistan, so tomorrow we will order an immediate withdrawal.” I doubt that would be the case—indeed, I hope that would not be the case—and if it is not the case, what is the purpose of voting no? Does that not in itself undermine the force of the Backbench Business Committee? However, if the answer tonight is yes, does that mean we are staying in Afghanistan indefinitely? Does it mean that we support what the Government have said about withdrawing in 2015? What is the force, the importance, the wisdom of the vote we will take this evening?
As the person who tabled an amendment—and I would have liked to move it—calling for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, I should say that had the House voted for it tonight, it would have sent out an incredibly strong signal that we recognise that our presence in Afghanistan is not making us safer. Even our own security forces raise questions about whether our presence in Afghanistan is making this country safer. A vote tonight would be a wake-up call to look at a different strategy in Afghanistan.
Of course, the hon. Lady is right. It would send out a strong signal, a wake-up call and all the other things she said. I just wonder whether formal Divisions and motions of this kind in the House are designed to send out signals and messages in the way she described. If the House votes that we do not wish to be in Afghanistan, surely it is right that the Prime Minister should be instructed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. How could it be that the majority of Members, who are answerable to the electorate, could say, “We have decided to withdraw from Afghanistan,” but the Defence Secretary and Prime Minister then say, “Well, despite what you said, we do not intend to withdraw”?
There is an extra complication, which is this. Let us imagine that the House were to vote for withdrawal and that there were to be an election in a year or two. What would bind the following Government, who might be of a different party from the current one? The strength of Backbench Business Committee motions, which I strongly support, is undermined by having a vote on something that is impossible for the Government then to carry out. That is something that the Committee perhaps ought to consider.
I very much hope that we will vote overwhelmingly in support of what our troops in Afghanistan are doing, which I strongly support personally. Every single bereaved family whose eyes I look into down the High street in Wootten Bassett, once or twice a week, would not understand it unless we sent out an enormously strong message that we firmly support what those lost soldiers have done in Afghanistan. If we do not do that, we will also be sending a message to the Taliban—the enemy—that we in this place do not support our troops on the ground. I would therefore prefer there to be no Division. I would like to return to the old tradition in this place, which is that the message to our troops on the ground is that this House unanimously supports them. I will be supporting the motion this evening—I will be in the Aye Lobby, as I hope 95% of Members will be. Even better would be to have no Division, but to send a unanimous message to our troops on the ground.
Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I have taken great offence over the past week at comments by Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Manning of US Marine battalion command in Afghanistan. He claimed the British did not pursue the Taliban and said, “We’ll go after them,” implying that our troops had stayed safely hidden in their bases. Not content with traducing the bravery and commitment of our British soldiers, Colonel Manning went on to criticise British reconstruction efforts by the Department for International Development. That is dangerous talk at a time when the British public are wearied by the mounting death toll, mounting financial costs and the perceived lack of progress in the war. I therefore welcome today’s debate, because it is time to put the record straight. It is time to take stock of why we are still in Afghanistan nine years later, and to look at what has gone wrong, how we move forward and what we need to get right before we can leave.
We need to remember that in the beginning it was US finances that helped Pakistan to create the Taliban, along with other Islamic fundamentalist groups, which were developed as a tool to fight against India in Kashmir and the Russians in Afghanistan. It was the Taliban who welcomed and supported al-Qaeda. When war was declared in Afghanistan, the US continued to fund the Pakistan military, which in turn continued to fund the Taliban, providing a safe haven for both them and al-Qaeda. America has been fighting a war against al-Qaeda. Destroying al-Qaeda has been its priority, not freeing and reconstructing Afghanistan. Pakistan’s military has been fighting an ongoing war against India, using its fundamentalist forces to maintain instability in Kashmir and using the Taliban to ensure a pliable neighbour, not a democratically independent Afghanistan.
The Bush regime made the Defence Department, not the State Department, responsible for the major decisions made in Afghanistan, including in reconstruction. The failure, right from the start, to put in the great amounts of money, effort and commitment needed to reconstruct a strong central state in Afghanistan was a major factor in allowing the Taliban to regroup. Too many decisions were based on hunting for al-Qaeda, rather than on reconstructing and improving ordinary people’s lives, and rebuilding the state. That, followed by the change of military and financial focus to Iraq, allowed the Taliban to regroup, occupy the south and build the heroin trade, ready for the new offensive.
When British troops moved into southern Afghanistan, they encountered problems because there had been virtually no US intelligence or satellite monitoring in the south. The Taliban had been allowed to grow, to develop their drugs trade, and to use that trade to fund their insurgency. We are still there because Afghanistan has been a proxy setting for other wars. Money poured into the hands of war lords and their militias, not into building a viable state, into focusing on reconstruction, or into building a police and justice system and an independent army. British troops have also been fighting against the loss of moral authority of western forces following the US promotion of torture, rendition, disappearance and secret jails, all of which have aided the growth of Islamic extremism.
We sent troops into Afghanistan to fight terrorism and a vicious fundamentalist regime, and we have ended up fighting terrorism funded by drugs. This brings me to a grave concern about the future direction of the war. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, has said that we must apply our learning in Colombia to places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. That is not the path to take. I spent a week in Colombia taking evidence from people whose family members had been assassinated by the state. I saw how the military in Colombia had been used to “disappear” people in an attempt to create an impression that the drugs lords were being tackled. We do not want to go down that route in Afghanistan. We do not want to find mass graves that have been created by the Afghan army in the fight against drugs. To avoid going down that route, we must not hand power over to paramilitaries or to local defence forces in our desire to leave Afghanistan. It is the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police force that must take on those roles.
Reconstruction and redevelopment must be better organised and targeted. Aid must be controlled by the Department for International Development, by civilian groups and by non-governmental organisations. The military must be there to provide the security, but it is the civil society that must build the civil structure of the future Afghanistan.
No, I do not have enough time.
Cornel West has said that
“peace is the presence of justice”.
The absence of justice has become one of the primary recruiting tools for the Taliban. That is why I believe that building an effective police and justice system is essential for the future Afghanistan. An article in September’s Prospect magazine states:
“The repression of women and the assault on certain freedoms was a small price to pay”
if the rise of the Taliban stopped the wholesale rape and slaughter in Afghanistan. I do not see a world in which women have their noses cut off for running away from violent and abusive husbands, in which they are denied education and the right to medical help, and in which they are stoned to death for alleged infidelity as a “small price to pay”.
We need to be in Afghanistan to build and create a better society, and we must be aware that to fail would be to risk instability throughout the region. Our troops will be fighting wars for many years to come if we do not stay and fight until the end.
When we went to war in the autumn of 2001, unlike with Iraq, there was no serious disagreement over why UK troops were being sent to Afghanistan in the first place, but nine years later, after nearly a decade of allied military operations, there have been changes of President, changes of Prime Minister and changes of Governments. The emotional commitment of the international community to what we are doing in Afghanistan has undoubtedly diminished. Our stated purpose in being there has evolved not once or twice, but several times. We are now less interested in al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan than its presence in Pakistan.
For all those changes, we seem to have returned to the use of the word “war”—I have used it myself—but I am beginning to wonder whether it might be a mistake. It amounts, I think, to an over-simplification of why we are in Afghanistan. Although it allows us to ratchet up in people’s minds why we have sent our troops into harm’s way and quite how serious it all is, it over-simplifies by implying that there is something to be won or lost and by suggesting that there is something clear-cut going on, with a high degree of finality to it. We have thus created a series of expectations, which history suggests are completely impossible to meet.
I believe that our presence in Afghanistan should be seen as part of a wider global security mission in the middle east region as a whole, and that we should begin to explain it in those terms. The stability mission already exists in different places and in different forms—whether it be in the middle east peace plan, the sanctions against Iraq or the international aid given to Pakistan after recent disasters—and the public broadly understand these priorities. They also accept why we should give our priority to them. They accept that the stability of each of the individual nation states, of their people and of their rights and needs, is absolutely crucial to the world. People understand why, if these people and nations are stable, secure, free and prosperous, it makes it less likely that we will face another 9/11.
I believe that it is now our task as a Parliament to link together the different jigsaw pieces, to explain why they all connect to each other and to include Afghanistan. Only by linking those pieces together will the public see that we have a choice as to whether the picture being formed is either broadly encouraging or deeply worrying.
Defence and security are policy areas that people consume, just as much as they consume transport, education and health spending. However, this policy area becomes important only when things begin to go wrong, so things have to be explained to the public much more carefully than other issues that the public consume. For politicians to provide the explanation or give the narrative on the conflict will not be persuasive in a context where the public perceive—although I do not—Prime Minister Tony Blair as having lied over the war in Iraq. Politicians are not persuasive against that background. In the light of the allegations and counter-allegations over Iraq, and of the disastrous lack of post-war planning in Iraq, which we now all recognise, the people have lost their faith in the need for conflict and in our ability as politicians to demand it. I believe, however, that the conflict in Afghanistan is much more important and much more difficult than the conflict in Iraq ever was.
I do not think that there is a fatigue among the public for war as such. I could be wrong, but in my view, if the public believe that we have a strategy likely to succeed, they will support it. At the moment, I do not believe that that has been demonstrated, which is why they are losing their appetite for this war. There is also a deep mistrust of the politicians who preach it to them.
My right hon. Friend may know that in Wycombe, Afghanistan is an issue of exquisite sensitivity. Many of my constituents hail from Pakistan and Kashmir. I really admire his nuanced and wise speech, but does he agree that it is vital to address various sections of the public to explain that this conflict is actually in the interests of Pakistan and of the Afghan people, and not just in our own interests?
I entirely agree. We must take not just our own public with us but the public of those countries where we are based and where we desperately need to help them. My hon. Friend’s constituency work will do a great deal to help in that regard.
I agreed with the shadow Secretary of State for Defence that the answer to the mistrust of politicians is not to set an end date to our commitment in Afghanistan. When the Prime Minister made his comment, I said that if our priority is to leave, it makes it harder to succeed, whereas if our priority is to succeed, it makes it easier to leave. Of course, we do not want to be in Afghanistan for a moment longer than necessary, and of course the Afghans want us to leave as soon as the job is done and success is achieved. However, they do not want us to leave before that point is reached. The problem is that we do not know now when that will be.
Commitments made now to leave merely fuel the loss of appetite and the mistrust of which I talked earlier. The media are acutely aware of that loss of appetite and that mistrust, and that feeds into the hearts and minds of our military personnel, who do their job brilliantly. However, if their mums and dads find that the man on the street cannot explain to them in simple terms why they are doing their job, they are bound to feel unease, especially when they suffer casualties. We must give them a developed justification, and we must not be afraid of complexity, of nuance—I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) for his comments—or of truths that might appear difficult. Sometimes conflict is popular, and sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is both popular and unpopular, especially when seen in hindsight. However, the man in the street must be able to reduce the argument for a conflict to perhaps a single sentence.
If the middle east peace plan fails, if Iran obtains a nuclear bomb, if Pakistan’s infrastructure is not rebuilt after the recent floods, its education system not invested in and its nuclear weapons not protected, and if Afghanistan is some sort of grand linking corridor between the three countries, becoming a vacuum that is a trigger for nuclear war, the potential consequences are catastrophic. We do not face any of those fears being realised individually yet; we face them being realised simultaneously. The result could be shattering. We must act now, in simultaneous regions, to prevent that end point ever being reached. We cannot afford to pick and choose which interests should be prioritised; we must see them all as a wider narrative of global security, and we must see them through. The public are well able to take that narrative and to understand that case, and we should not be afraid of making it.
In view of what I am about to say, let me repeat what I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart): I pay tribute to the British soldiers who have served, to those who have died and, unfortunately, to the many who will die in the course of the next 12 months and longer. It is to be hoped that the spending cuts will involve no reduction whatever when it comes to looking after and giving every possible medical help to those who are seriously injured, when they return to Britain.
For some time, I have taken the view, which I have expressed on the Floor of the House, that our military role in Afghanistan should be coming to a close. Let us look at the period of time involved. British troops went into Afghanistan before the main NATO force, in November 2001. Our military intervention there has lasted nearly nine years, one third longer than the second world war and twice as long as the first.
Of course, no Member on either side of the House disputes the sheer brutality of the Taliban rule. No one disputes the Taliban’s contempt for those who do not share their views, their contempt for women, and their denial of education to people simply because they are female. All that is horrifying. We also know, only too well, about the public executions—the hangings that took place. We should, however, bear in mind what has been said by the Secretary of State for Defence, to some extent today but in particular when he took over the job last May. He said then that Britain was
“not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy”
in what he described as
“a broken 13th-century country”.
It was, he said, “our global interests” that must not be “threatened”.
It should be made clear to those who say that to leave Afghanistan would be to leave it to the mercy of the Taliban that we are not there to provide an alternative Government, to the extent of pursuing different policies. I concede with no hesitation that the presence of British forces and, of course, our allies in Afghanistan has made a difference that has been welcome in many ways. More women go to school, and other clearly desirable policies are being pursued. We must understand, however, that—as the Defence Secretary has made abundantly clear—we are not in the country for that reason.
Obviously no one in the House wants a bloodbath. As for whether Afghanistan would be left to the Taliban if we went, we just do not know, but it should be borne in mind that at no stage did the Taliban have unanimous support as such. Before our military intervention, there was already constant military engagement against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Not for the moment. I want to make some progress.
Members on both sides of the House have said that there is no question of an outright military victory. Those, such as the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who have more or less suggested that we should stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, must ask themselves, “How long?”
It has already been admitted that a military victory is not going to happen. General David Richards, chief of the British Army and, as we all know, soon to be Chief of the Defence Staff, said only three months ago that it was his personal belief that talking to the Taliban should happen pretty soon. That has happened in other counter-insurgency campaigns, he said. There is no doubt about it: the chief of the British Army has conceded that military victory, in the sense of the victories in the first and second world wars, is not going to happen. It is not on the agenda. At some stage, talks will take place; the question for the House is when.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is very eager to intervene, but I am limited by time.
Those who take a different point of view from those of us who are very critical should accept that General Richards knows what he is talking about. No Minister, and indeed none of my Front-Bench colleagues, has challenged what General Richards said. No Front Bencher on either side has said that he was talking nonsense.
It should be recognised that our troops are not there to impose education and new human rights standards on Afghanistan. Afghanistan has a constitution, which it put in place, guaranteeing women access to education and personal rights. Our troops are there to support the Afghanistan constitution and the legitimate Government of Afghanistan.
My hon. Friend does not answer the point I was making, however: how long will we be there for, bearing in mind that we have already been there for almost nine years?
In order for us to wage such a war, it is necessary to have strong public support in the United Kingdom. Everyone rightly pays tribute to the troops—as I have done—but every expression of public opinion clearly shows that support in Britain for the military engagement in Afghanistan is slipping, and slipping fast. I want to make it clear, as I have on previous occasions, that my views are not influenced by opinion polls. If I felt strongly that we should continue in Afghanistan for a long period but that was a minority opinion, I would not change my view. No Member of Parliament should debate or vote on issues on the basis of opinion polls, but we should recognise that among the British public at large there is decreasing support for our engagement in Afghanistan, and I believe it will decrease still more. That is because the question arises—constituents have asked me this on numerous occasions—of how much longer we are going to be there for, for what purpose and how many more people will die there in what many people, including me, believe is an unwinnable war.
I do not accept the argument that has often been put that we either fight in Afghanistan or we fight on the streets of Britain. That argument was put by my party colleagues when we were in government and they no doubt still hold to it, and it is certainly the Conservative Front-Bench view as well, supported by many Back-Bench Tory colleagues. If we were to win in Afghanistan—if the Taliban were to be defeated—does anyone really believe that our security in our country would be so improved that we would not find it necessary to continue to take the measures we currently take to protect our country and people? The international terrorist network does not necessarily need Afghanistan. It was welcomed in the country in the past, and that was very much to its advantage, but I do not accept for one moment that if it did not have Afghanistan, the terrorist threat to Britain would be that much less.
I also want to refer to a report published this week by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. It is not a controversial body, and as far as I know it is not a particularly left-wing body. It argues, however, that the basis of NATO military policy in Afghanistan is simply wrong. Apart from other factors, it believes that our involvement—NATO’s involvement—fuels the insurgency rather than undermines it.
I do not accept that we can have victory in Afghanistan. When have foreign forces ever succeeded in that country? I take the view that. however desirable some of the policies carried out in Afghanistan arising from military intervention have been seen in that country bearing in mind what the Taliban did, NATO forces are looked upon by many people in Afghanistan who are far removed from the Taliban as foreign forces—as infidel forces, and certainly not Islamic in any way whatever. I find it difficult to believe that they look upon NATO forces as firm allies, rather than as intruders in their country.
I conclude simply by expressing the hope that, regardless of whether there is a vote today, we come to the view that we have been in Afghanistan long enough. The time has surely come for us to agree that our military engagement in that country should soon come to an end.
I beg to move amendment (a), at end add—
‘provided that a more realistic military strategy is adopted designed to fulfil the United Kingdom’s long-term interests in the region at lesser cost in life, limb and financial resources.’.
It is a privilege to have the opportunity to move the first Back-Bench amendment to a motion selected for debate in this House by Back Benchers themselves. I have a friend who is engaged to a corporal in the Army. He is a medic who has been on two tours of Afghanistan, the second of which he volunteered for before he had to go. As a medic, he is one of a small number of people who go out on every patrol because something horrible may happen to one of their comrades. He understands the importance of that vital role and so decided to stay on for two weeks longer than necessary at the end of his second tour, to avoid there being no proper handover to the medics who would succeed him.
In the second of those two extra weeks that he voluntarily undertook, on the second tour for which he also volunteered, he was blown up. He was in a new Husky armoured vehicle, so he and his entire crew survived. It is typical of his spirit that the picture of him grinning in front of the absolutely devastated vehicle now adorns the laptop of his fiancée, my friend. Had he been blown up a week earlier, he would have been in a Vector armoured vehicle and he and all his comrades would be dead. So, in this case, it is one up for the former Government and for the armed forces, but it is not one up for the strategy that we have been pursuing.
Over past months, I have made various inquiries about where casualties are primarily incurred, because the question of deadlines is related to casualties more than to anything else. The previous and present Governments have made no secret of the fact that the overwhelming majority of casualties are incurred on predictable patrols by uniformed military targets, which is what our armed forces have become under the current strategy.
For the sake of clarity—it is important that people following this debate should understand this, given what we are told about the audiences who will listen to, see and read what we say today—may I spell out the difference between my amendment and the original motion? The motion is very simple and it states:
“That this House supports the continued deployment of UK armed forces in Afghanistan.”
Those who think that the mission should be open-ended should therefore vote for the motion. If they think that the troops should come home straight away and that the whole thing is a lost cause, misguided and counter-productive, as some have argued today, they should vote against the motion. However, if Members think, as I do, that the mission is justified and important, but that it is not being pursued in the right way, they should consider voting for my amendment.
The reason for that was made clear when my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, so typically put his finger on the heart of the matter. As he said, it is true that if the public believe we have a strategy that will succeed, they will support the mission. Why is public support for the mission draining away? It is because the public are not satisfied with the strategy. That is why I propose adding the words of the amendment to the end of the motion.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the coalition’s move to much more of a political engagement to try to move things forward is the right way to proceed in order to bring the troops home in the long run? Does he think that we need to find a political solution on the ground, and that it is not so much the military strategy that has had to be refocused but the political context of that strategy?
The answer to that is yes and no: yes in the sense that all counter-insurgencies end, eventually, with a negotiated political outcome, which is what the hon. Gentleman is saying; and no in the sense that now is not the time to negotiate. There has been a lack of strategic consistency in the advice given to Governments. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) referred approvingly to General Richards’ recent statement that we ought to negotiate with the Taliban. What he did not state was the Taliban’s response to that, as relayed through the BBC, which has some quite good contacts with the Taliban in a purely professional way. It was that they saw no reason to negotiate because they were winning anyway and deadlines had been set for withdrawal.
The strange thing is that this is the same general—he is a talented and charming man and I have had a number of conversations with him over the years—who said a few months ago when appointed head of the Army that we would need to be in Afghanistan for 30 to 40 years and that there was no question of our withdrawing. Now, because we are getting political messages from the White House and from Downing street that the Governments—or at least the leaders of the Governments—of the United States and the United Kingdom are not prepared to go on indefinitely, we are being told, “Oh yes, well perhaps we could get out in four years after all,” and, “Oh yes, let’s talk to the Taliban.”
If the general has changed his view in such a substantial way, I welcome it. In my view, he has seen the light. If he was wrong on the subject of talking, as the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, why was he not contradicted by Defence Ministers at the time or by those who are now Ministers?
That is, of course, the reason for my amendment. I am saying that all the Governments are signed up to an unrealistic strategy which ought to be changed. The reality is that General Richards was not really wrong in what he said previously and he is not really wrong when he says that we ought to be talking to the enemy. It is a question of timing. The truth of the matter is that General Petraeus is absolutely right to pursue such a counter-insurgency strategy, provided that we have all the time in the world and that we are prepared to take the casualties that are being inflicted on us by irregular forces. If we are not prepared to take those casualties, we will have to adopt a more realistic strategy, because otherwise we will withdraw arbitrarily and, on our withdrawal, the likelihood of the Afghan Government’s being able to sustain themselves is open to doubt.
What should we be thinking about in terms of our policy? There are those who believe that it should be possible to fight using special forces alone, and they have a particular point, which is as follows. I have been concerned at the artificial distinction drawn between counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, as if insurgents and terrorists were two different things. Terrorism is not an ideology but a tactic. Sometimes insurgents use it and sometimes they use other methods.
In Afghanistan at first, the insurgents were using much more open methods—mass attacks and ones that enabled us effectively to take their armed forces on and to defeat them in fairly open conflict. Gradually, they learned the lesson from Iraq and adopted a different strategy. They started to use terrorism tactics that enabled them to pick off our servicemen and women one by one in an attritional method of campaigning which uniformed armed forces are unable to counter effectively. That is why the answer to such fighting is the deployment of special forces who can meet it appropriately; but that in itself is not enough. If we put pressure on one side by saying, “We are going to withdraw in a few years’ time, President Karzai, so you had better get your act together”, but we want to negotiate with the other side and to get a settlement, we have to put pressure on them too.
That is why I say that we ought to be doing something that I have mentioned in the House before: we ought to be using the time that has been bought by the surge to build up a strategic or sovereign base and bridgehead area, so that when the time comes at which we say, “We are going to withdraw from being thinly spread over the entire country”, rather than quitting completely we withdraw into an impregnable base.
Time does not permit me to take this issue further, but I say simply to hon. Members on both sides of the House that there is nothing dishonourable in fighting for a better strategy for our troops—it is not sending a signal that we are not supporting the troops. To support the troops when they are being led by a faulty strategy is not to support the troops at all. I will be pressing my amendment and I urge Members to vote for it to show that we support the cause and the campaign but we know that the strategy needs to be modified.
I am delighted that we are at last having a debate on the situation in Afghanistan and the deployment of British troops there. It does not reflect well on Parliament, our parliamentary structures or our democracy that the vote at 6 o’clock will be the first substantive vote by Members of Parliament on whether British troops ought to be deployed in Afghanistan. It does not do much for the role of Parliament that there has been insufficient scrutiny of this endeavour other than the quite correct memorials that have been read out to those soldiers who have tragically lost their lives in this conflict.
In preparation for this debate, I had a look at Hansard from 2001. During the relevant 2001 debate, the then Secretary of State for Defence, Geoffrey Hoon, said that he would set out the aims of the mission. He said:
“We aim to do everything possible to eliminate the threat posed by international terrorism, to deter states from supporting, harbouring, or acting complicitly with international terrorist groups, to reintegrate Afghanistan as a responsible member of the international community and to end its self-imposed isolation.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2001; Vol. 373, c. 1014.]
He went on to say that other aims included capturing Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Well, the campaign has not been particularly successful on either the latter two aims or the earlier part.
At the end of that debate, the then Member for Linlithgow, Tam Dalyell, asked for a vote on a procedural motion and 13 Members voted against the proposal. There were four tellers, all of whom were against—one of them was my hon. and good Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who was, bizarrely, a teller for the other side—to ensure that a vote was recorded in the House on that occasion. It does not look good if a country and a democracy is so determined to go to war but those who are prosecuting the war do not want a vote in the House on the matter. I hope that those who support the war tonight will put up tellers to ensure that those of us who do not support either the amendment moved by the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) or the substantive question are able to record our votes against it on behalf, we believe, of large numbers of people in our constituencies and in the wider country.
The war came about after 9/11, which was obviously appalling, awful and wrong. Whichever way one looks at 9/11, there was nothing right about it—it was dreadful—but was it right, sensible or intelligent of the then President Bush to respond by leading us into a war in Afghanistan that has now lasted for almost twice as long as the second world war or the first world war? We are moving into the 10th year of the conflict in Afghanistan, and although President Obama talks about coming out within two or three years, I have a feeling that if the military is allowed to have its way we will still be there in five years’ time or perhaps for even longer than that. The strategy does not seem to involve anything other than continuing the occupation of that country.
We have been told many times that one reason why we are in Afghanistan is to make us feel safer here and to protect us in our communities. Do we mix with different people from Opposition and Government Front Benchers? Does my hon. Friend get many people in his constituency coming up to him and saying, “Thank goodness we are in Afghanistan because we feel so much safer from terrorism now”? I do not.
I live in and represent an inner-city area, and I have to say in all honesty that not one person in my community—not once, on any occasion—has come up to me and said that. Indeed, there is a sense of grievance among the Muslim community in Britain, partly because of this war but partly because of the substantial amounts of anti-terror legislation that have been a product of the war. They feel much less secure than they did in the past and much more isolated from the rest of the community. We should bear it in mind that foreign policy is not conducted in isolation and its effects are not felt in isolation.
Everybody wants protection from terrorism. Everybody wants protection from insecurity. My point is that our presence—the presence of British troops—in Afghanistan, and formerly in Iraq, has not made the streets of this country safer. The anti-terror legislation is often seen as intrusive. We should use the criminal law against people who commit criminal acts, rather than promoting large amounts of special legislation.
The effects of the war have been serious in many ways. We have seen the detention of—in some cases, completely innocent—civilians at Bagram air base; extraordinary rendition flights; Guantanamo bay, and the resulting legal minefield; and, as I have already said, the anti-terror laws in our country.
The growth of the Taliban and of particular organisations in Afghanistan is a product of the cold war. We have only to look at the record of what went on after the Soviet Union went in to support the then Afghan Government. The US supported the Mujahedeen, which morphed into the Taliban. They were trained by the US and the CIA. We are still paying the price for the cold war. Indeed, the bin Laden family enjoyed quite a close relationship with the Bush family for some time. The battles are not hermetically sealed.
I shall not give way, as I have only two minutes left for my speech.
Afghanistan is a country of desperate poverty. Drug production has gone up. Corruption has got worse. Deals have been done by the British forces and others with warlords and corrupt elements. We have spent billions and billions of pounds in Afghanistan, but poverty levels are worse than ever. I have met asylum seekers from Afghanistan who have travelled to the UK overland by a series of trucks. They have entered illegally to try to find a place of safety. They are not particularly pro-Taliban or particularly pro-anybody; they simply want to survive and they see the US and Britain as an occupying force in their country.
Recent opinion polls show that only 7% of the British public think we are winning the war in Afghanistan and that 72% want the troops to come out. The public are fed up with the losses and fed up with the costs. They feel that we should do something different. Many people believe that some of the reasons for going into Afghanistan were strategic, and they may have been. I am interested in those ideas. The US has developed bases all over former Soviet central Asia. The war has clearly already spread into Pakistan and is in danger of spreading to other countries too. There are undeveloped and largely unexplored mineral resources in Afghanistan, and one wonders what the long-term intentions are for them.
We are spending money on forces, security services and agencies to try to maintain our presence in Afghanistan. It is time we rethought our whole foreign policy strategy and started to look to a world where we work within international law rather than by occupation. We should recognise the failure of the whole mission in Afghanistan. It has done us harm. It has harmed our country and our lives, and brought death to a lot of wholly innocent people in Afghanistan. Is it not time to rethink, to come out and start a different, more peaceful strategy in the world?
I find this a very powerful, very troubling and very worrying motion. It states:
“That this House supports the continued deployment of UK armed forces in Afghanistan.”
If one were to remove the word “continued”, there is nobody in this House who would oppose the motion. Every Member, day by day, feels more admiration for what our soldiers achieve, more respect for the sacrifices that they have made and more pride in what they represent for our country. But the danger of the motion is that it is black and white: it sets up an opposition between the terms “increase” and “withdraw”, and between “engagement” and “isolation”. It creates a world in which people are tempted to say, either, “Afghanistan is the most important country in the world, the central, existential threat,” or, “It doesn’t matter at all.”
There are two central questions. How much does Afghanistan matter? And what can we do about it? We have heard Members from both sides of the House make eloquent arguments about the significance and importance of Afghanistan, and it matters in five main ways. They should not be trivialised, because Afghanistan does, in a sense, matter.
First, Afghanistan matters in terms of counter-terrorism and 9/11. It was the place from which the 9/11 attacks were planned. Secondly, Afghanistan matters enormously in terms of narcotics. It produces the majority of the world’s heroin. Thirdly, Afghanistan matters for us and our credibility. For nine years we have pinned our reputation and that of our allies to this adventure. Fourthly, as people have said, Afghanistan matters to Pakistan. There is an extent to which Afghanistan will have an influence on that state, which, as we have heard, is nuclear-armed, unstable and has jihadist elements. Finally, Afghanistan matters to its own people. Nobody in the Chamber wants the Taliban to take over, and nobody is in any doubt that they represent a brutal, horrendous and cruel form of government—utterly discredited from 1996 to 2001.
With the help of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), I have just checked the record for 2001, when I intervened on the then Minister and said that there was no chance of reducing the flow of heroin from Afghanistan, which then stood at 90% of the world’s production. The current figure is still 90%. What improvement has there been?
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his intervention, because it leads beautifully on to the second part of my speech. What can we do about the problem? Neither he, I, nor anyone in the Chamber doubts that there is a problem, but what can we do?
The answer has been gone over again and again, and General McChrystal has an answer in his report. What have we done? Broadly speaking, over the past nine years we have had successes in health, education, counter-terrorism, rural development and urban regeneration. We have had a series of other things, which we like to describe as challenges—in counter-narcotics, as the hon. Gentleman said, in counter-insurgency when fighting the Taliban, in the rule of law, in governance, in anti-corruption and in state building. And we have come to the conclusion that we have a talisman, a way of dealing with Afghanistan and a new solution, which is in that report and is called counter-insurgency warfare strategy.
We must wish the surge all our best. We have embarked on it and are committed to it, and that is where we are going. So let us hope that it works—however, there is a very real reason to believe that it may not, within the time frame that General McChrystal anticipated or predicted. In other words, when at the end of this year General Petraeus reviews the strategy, and when in the middle of next year President Obama begins the draw-down of troops, it is unlikely that we will have achieved McChrystal’s two main conditions: sufficient pain inflicted on the Taliban for them to wish to go to the negotiating table; and, on the other hand, the creation of a stable, effective and legitimate state.
It is not the place of this House to talk about why those things are not possible, and we do not have time to talk about why we did not succeed. The central element is nothing to do with the British or American troops; it is to do with the Afghan Government. General McChrystal has said from the beginning that the only way we will win in Afghanistan is with a stable, effective, legitimate Afghan state. Without that, we are not going to win, and such a state is not emerging. Does that mean we can do nothing in that country? No—we can do an enormous amount, but we cannot crush the Taliban and create a stable, effective, legitimate Afghan state.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course, Afghans must be allowed to do their own politics, and whether they have a decentralised or a centralised state or recognise ethnic boundaries is up to them. Our role is to accept the limits of our power and accept that there are things we cannot do. There are things we can do, but they have nothing to do with troop surges or counter-insurgency. We must find a moment—this is why the 2015 deadline is absolutely correct—at which we say about the current strategy, “Enough, no more. We’ve done enough.”
What then will we do after 2015? I suggest that with the end of UK combat operations in Afghanistan, we concentrate on three things: continuing limited counter-terrorism operations; continuing to support development projects, probably in the centre and the north of the country; and continuing to try to ensure a political solution, or, to put it another way, to decrease the likelihood of a civil war and increase the likelihood of a political solution by gaining leverage over the Taliban.
Is this as scary as we believe? Is this really the nightmare we have conjured? No. The Taliban are unlikely to be able to take over Afghanistan, because this is not the mid-1990s. This is not groundhog day—we are not repeating 1996. In 1996, when the Taliban came swarming into Kabul, mujaheddin were shelling each other in the centre of the city, the Afghan people were appalled by years of corrupt, abusive government, and the Taliban were untested—and there were no foreign troops on the ground.
Today we are in a completely different situation. The Taliban are discredited from the time when they were in government. There is much more coherence between the central and northern groups. There is very little likelihood of the Taliban being able to present a conventional threat. If they try to roll artillery or tanks up the main streets, as they did then, we can deal with that. That does not mean that they are not going to increase their presence in the south and east of the country—they almost certainly will. But even if they do, it is extremely unlikely that they will invite back al-Qaeda in the way that they did in 2001. From their point of view, that was their No. 1 mistake. If they had not invited in al-Qaeda, they would still be in power. Even if they do invite back al-Qaeda, it is something that we can manage. We have the willpower, the technology and the public support to deal with it in a way that we did not in the 1990s.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting—I have heard this in a number of spheres—that we abandon the south-west and south-east of the country and that the Taliban will move back, but they will not be as bad as they were last time. I do not know what evidence he or those who are pursuing this strategy have for that. He will recall that the Taliban started off in a very localised way in Kandahar and then moved up the country, and never once has there been peace throughout the country. I do not see how we can have trust in that situation starting again.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I am not suggesting that the Taliban are nice people. These threats, and the fears and worries that we have, are very real. The Taliban are horrendous people. Terrorist threats from Afghanistan are genuine, as are the threats to Pakistan, to our credibility and to the Afghan people. However, the point is that “ought” implies “can”. We do not have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do. After nine years, we have failed to demonstrate that the Afghan Government can take over control. Our troops can fight all they want, and they do it very well, but when we withdraw, the Afghan Government will not be robust enough to take over. We therefore need to accept that rather than what I, and the hon. Gentleman, would like, which is being able to guarantee the Taliban’s disappearance, we need to contain and manage the situation.
What does this mean for UK foreign policy? It means beginning a new approach where we recognise—this is the central point that we would all agree on—that we have other priorities in the world. Afghanistan is not the be-all and end-all. We cannot bet all our money and all our troops on this one place. Pakistan matters more in terms of terrorism, Egypt matters more in terms of regional stability, and sub-Saharan Africa matters more in terms of poverty, and that is before we get on to Iran, North Korea or China. The lesson that we should take, and the reason why the 2015 deadline is correct, is that we should recognise the limits of our knowledge, power and legitimacy. And understand that although we cannot do as much as we pretend, we can do much more than we fear. The only wisdom is the wisdom of humility.
I am very pleased to be able to follow the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who speaks with considerable authority and knowledge on these matters. I believe that he has served out in Afghanistan and lived there for quite a while. Nevertheless, I am still not entirely sure that I follow the logic of what he said. Perhaps I shall return to that a little later.
Like many other Members, I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on selecting this debate. It is the first such all-day debate that we have had, and it is most important. When I say that unfortunately I cannot support the motion, I mean no disrespect to the Committee. I am not sure how the motion came to be drafted, but I cannot see how Members can support so open-ended and black-and-white a motion stating that the House
“supports the continued deployment of UK armed forces in Afghanistan.”
There is no mention of a limited period, even though the Prime Minister himself has said—quite rightly, in my opinion—that it is inconceivable that we shall still be in a combat role by 2015. The Foreign Secretary agreed with that at the last Foreign Office questions, having made it absolutely clear that counter-insurgencies invariably end in a political settlement, which means talks. I shall come back to that in a moment. The Defence Secretary also agreed today, although he gave a mixed message. On the one hand he said that he wanted the troops to return as victors—a singularly ill-chosen word, since that is clearly not what will happen—and, on the other, he said that he knew there had to be a political solution.
If Members do not find themselves able to support the motion, as I cannot, that leaves us with the amendments. I congratulate the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on tabling his amendment and having it selected, but when he explained the nature of his alternative strategy I had doubts about whether an impregnable, sovereign strategic base with an enormous number of troops could be established and function in the role that he envisages. He has not had time to develop his argument today, nor have I had the occasion to talk to him further about it. However, his amendment is somewhat difficult to vote for, even though I would like to be able to do so given that it states what I believe is essential, which is that the current strategy is not working. While it is now said that we have learned to deal better with IEDs, the insurgents have switched their tactics and are now killing more and more successfully with sniper bullets.
On a purely procedural matter, there is nothing in the wording of my amendment that commits hon. Members to backing any particular solution. I have given my own interpretation, but as long as the hon. Gentleman agrees with the wording of the amendment, there is no reason why he, and I hope other hon. Members, should not vote for it.
The hon. Gentleman is now at his most persuasive and irresistible best, and I will give the matter further thought during and after my speech.
As for the other amendments, while I agree with much in amendment (c), tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), it is inadequate in that it implies a cut-and-rush approach of getting out willy-nilly as soon as we can. I do not think that is on, or that the country would want to see us scuttle away. I believe that the only approach is the one that I outlined in an early-day motion that I circulated to most Members, which I hope will find support throughout the House. It arose from the message that came from the Taliban in August, which was the subject of a front-page article in The Guardian. It stated that the Taliban were open to negotiations and discussions about civilian deaths. That is a major problem for the allied forces and is central to the counter-insurgency strategy that was mentioned earlier, but it would not necessarily lead immediately to talks about how we could reach a political settlement involving the Taliban. I do not think that any other exit strategy makes sense. Unpleasant though it is to many, and although we may not get everything we need from talks with the Taliban, the sooner we begin them, the sooner we have a chance of achieving what the hon. Member for New Forest East and I want, which is a reduction in the unnecessary and awful killings that are taking place, including of civilians in front of their own troops. They are bound to continue if we pursue the current strategy under the terms under which our forces are operating.
We cannot simply cut and run, so I do not support the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, but I will do my very best to meet the request of the hon. Member for New Forest East. I certainly cannot vote for the motion, which is defective and unacceptable because it does not give a time scale. Much though we may dislike time scales, Ministers are always asked, “How long will it last?” and they cannot dodge that and leave things open-ended. Time goes very quickly. If we are not up against a deadline, in no time at all we could find that there is mission creep and that the conflict expands. Before we know what has happened, we have built the conflict up to being about the defence of the whole western way of life.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his logic is the same as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart)? Effectively, that logic is to abstain on the basis that the proposed amendments do not accurately reflect what we hope for, which is the timed withdrawal that the coalition Government propose?
The coalition Government are realistic on the matter—I have privately congratulated the Defence Secretary on his realism—but he was today conscious that, if they were listening, people will take comfort if they think they have the prospect of winning the war against ISAF in Afghanistan. He therefore painted a more rosy picture than the situation on the ground would properly allow him, and sent a more hard-line message to the Taliban than necessary.
I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). It is now accepted throughout the House that there is no military victory to be won for either side in Afghanistan. The only prospect we have is of a few years—or many years, if we are not careful—of futile conflict that will get us nowhere. I am not saying that we should stop, which is where I disagree fundamentally with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion in whose name amendment (c) stands. I cannot see the negotiations or discussions with the Taliban getting anywhere unless we remain in Afghanistan at our current strength and sustain our attack on them.
Indeed, from the early-day motion that I tabled, it was clear that the information, such as we have, is that we have a firm offer from the Taliban. The offer is not endorsed by the quetta shura—the central council in Pakistan—but comes from local commanders. Let us also bear in mind that 80% of the casualties occur within 10 miles. In other words, the fighting and deaths are very localised. We do not face an al-Qaeda insurgency campaign directed from outside; it is a local campaign.
The offer of talks, which appears to be serious, has emanated not from the top council leadership, which should encourage us to respond to it, yet as far as I can see, we are ignoring it. I entirely accept that the Government will say, “We can’t tell you what’s going on,” but the Americans say that they see no prospect of talks going anywhere. Panetta says that the time to talk is when the Americans have increased the pressure so that the Taliban believe that they are losing, but I take issue with the hon. Member for New Forest East on that, because that approach would mean that there will never be a right time for talks. Either we are winning, and therefore we do not need talks, or doing badly, when talks would mean weakness. If we were doing better, we might think that if we did a bit more, we might win. There is never a right time. What we have learned from previous insurgencies of this kind, and much larger ones, is that the earlier we get talks going and see what we can get, the better people understand why we are fighting, and the better the chance of a solution.
I agree, but it is difficult to send troops to fight in a stalemate. Even Mr Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, has said that he hates signing troop deployment orders when he is sending troops to fight in a stalemate. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but who knows what a stalemate is anyway.
The message that we have to send tonight is that although we would love to see an ISAF victory, we do not believe that that is possible, and that the only way forward is discussions with the Taliban, realistic, hard and unpleasant though those would be. The sooner we get into such discussions, the sooner the level of casualties will fall, and the sooner we would be able to bring the troops home. We clearly cannot bring them home before then.
I cautioned against our initial deployment in Afghanistan and I have been critical of policy since, so I speak in this debate as a sceptic about our mission generally. There can be no doubt in the Chamber that the preparations for our mission in Afghanistan defied all the lessons of history. We fundamentally underestimated the task at hand and we under-resourced it accordingly. We have been playing catch-up ever since. Having served as a platoon commander in South Armagh during the 1980s, I have no doubt that our troops in Afghanistan suffered from equipment shortages, including helicopters, and from low troop density levels. History will prove that to be the case.
Part of the problem with our involvement in Afghanistan is that we have had a series of over-optimistic assessments, and people have rightly become cynical about what Ministers say at the Dispatch Box. All those assessments have proved to be false dawns. It is incumbent on leadership to assess the situation realistically, and we have failed to do that in the past—but that is the past, so what of the future? I congratulate the coalition Government in that we now at least have a more realistic assessment of the situation, but I still think that it is too optimistic.
The Prime Minister said on 21 June that we had to succeed militarily, economically and politically, but that is not the case. Militarily, we are as far from winning against the Taliban as we ever were. Recent reports suggest that the Taliban has expanded into even more territory. Our involvement ignores the lessons of history on counter-insurgency campaigns. For example, in Malaya and other successful counter-insurgency campaigns, we had control of the borders, a credible Government, the support of the majority of the people and a large number of troops relative to the local population. None of those conditions exists in Afghanistan, but we continue to believe that somehow we will win.
A further example of the optimism expressed by Government was in the Defence Secretary’s contribution, when he mentioned how well things were going with our allies. However, he could not bring himself to acknowledge that Canada and Holland, which both made great contributions in blood and treasure to this war, have decided to pull out.
I agree, and it reveals a wider problem of differences over strategy.
The second aspect mentioned by the Prime Minister was the economy, but there is scant evidence that progress has been made in that area. The economy is not in a good state. The trouble surrounding the Kabul bank is one illustration of that, and another is the fact that the some 9 million unemployed people in Afghanistan can earn in two months working for the Taliban what it would take them a whole year to earn if they earned the average national wage.
Politically, the situation is even worse. The Kabul Government of President Karzai is completely discredited. The elections were marked by fraud and violence. He is now trying to extend his term of office and local people are increasingly fed up with the high civilian casualty rate, partly caused by aerial bombardments. All that plays into the hands of the Taliban. The US Department of Defence, in its latest report to Congress, made the point that the most powerful weapon that the Taliban have is their propaganda machine. They ruthlessly exploit rising discontent. Kabul is depicted as a puppet Government and the west as an occupying force trying to impose its will. We in the west must better understand this point. High civilian casualty rates exponentially increase hostility. That might not force Afghans actively to support the Taliban, but it will certainly stop them opposing anyone who wants to kill those who have killed their loved ones.
It is interesting to note, looking around the globe and back in history, that communism has survived the longest in those countries that have engaged militarily with the west. One thinks of Cuba, North Korea, China and Vietnam. We are not winning the hearts and minds of local people because we cannot—we are an occupying force killing their brethren.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of our involvement in Afghanistan is that our mission has suffered from a lack of clarity of purpose. We have had mixed messages. As recently as last year, the then Prime Minister said that we were in Afghanistan to keep the streets of London safe from terrorism, but almost in the next breath he threatened President Karzai with withdrawal should he not clean up his act. Those statements do not stand well next to each other. Even today, there is not that much more clarity.
If we are in Afghanistan to protect the streets of London and of our allies from terrorism, why are we setting a deadline and timetable? It simply does not make sense. Surely, if the mission is as important as is stated, our withdrawal should be dictated by the achievement of the objective, not arbitrary time lines. The Foreign Secretary has confirmed to me in this place and in Committee that we will be withdrawing in 2015 regardless of whether we have achieved our objectives. That simply does not stand up.
At some point, the solution will have to involve an understanding with the Taliban and the tribal warlords. It will have to reflect the reality on the ground and involve a loosely federated state in which power is devolved to the provinces. That does not prevent a small but mobile force of special forces from being on hand to disrupt al-Qaeda activities should it return, but the war, as currently constituted, cannot succeed.
The inconsistency of our strategy perhaps reveals that our presence in Afghanistan is as much about Pakistan as about Afghanistan. However, given the stated objectives and the diminished presence of al-Qaeda, we need to reassess the situation, enter into talks that make for an orderly withdrawal and move on.
I am afraid that, as an ex-soldier, I do not buy the line that by withdrawing, in an orderly fashion, we are somehow letting down our troops and wasting their sacrifice. Our troops have done everything we have asked of them, and we can all be proud of their achievements, but by and large they are a stoic bunch and believe that it is incumbent on the leadership to assess a situation realistically, because by doing so we stand more chance of achieving our objective and perhaps saving lives. Needless effort and sacrifice will be saved over the longer term. We cannot win this war as it is currently constituted, and a leadership that acknowledges that will save lives.
Perhaps this debate will encourage us to rethink fundamentally our foreign policy more generally. For the sake of mankind, I hope that the days are coming to an end when military intervention is seen often as a first option. Military action should always be the last recourse. It is ironic that we went to war in Iraq and even the ex-M15 chief now agrees that it increased the terrorist threat in this county, and yet we are now involved in another war to try to counter that terrorist threat. I will therefore be voting against the motion.
I commend the Backbench Business Committee on choosing the motion. If the Committee had existed in 2001, perhaps there would have been an opportunity for a proper vote in the House before troops were deployed. I only hope that we are never again faced with having to consider whether to enter another armed conflict. However, I would also hope that if the Government were not willing to provide us with the opportunity to vote in such a situation, the Backbench Business Committee would have the courage to create the space for a debate and a vote on such issues.
There was a vote in 2001 on a technicality, and as has been said, 13 Labour MPs voted to make a protest, with a number of Tellers involved too. I was not an MP at that time, but I was involved outside this place in campaigns to try to stop the war, and I marched against it. They were small campaigns; there were not many hundreds of thousands of people on the streets at that time. It is probably fair to say that most of the British public were supportive of the intervention in 2001. That stands in stark contrast to the position in 2003, when, along with a far greater number of Members voting against the war in Iraq—139 Labour MPs broke the Whip and voted against the intervention—there were also massive protests and demonstrations. In terms of public support, therefore, the situation that we are debating today is very different from the situation in relation to Iraq.
However, it is also fair to say that most people in 2001 would not have believed that we would still be in Afghanistan nine years later. Most of the British public accepted the version of events that was put to them. At the time, the war was said to be about capturing the terrorists—al-Qaeda and, in particular, bin Laden. The tabloid press focused very much on that, but within a few weeks bin Laden’s name was no longer being bandied around as what the war was all about. One reason why I was extremely concerned at the time about the proposed intervention was the lack of clarity about war aims. That lack of clarity has only intensified over the years, and a number of Members talked about the different war aims that have been claimed at different times over the past nine years.
In 2001, the human rights of women were given in Labour party circles as a reason why women in the party should support the intervention. That was done to pull at the heartstrings of people who were perhaps not sure whether we should pursue the intervention. There are many of us who very much feel for the women and girls in Afghanistan. We had severe concerns about human rights prior to 2001, and we have had them since then, not just for women and girls, but for all in the community. We thought that that was something maybe worth fighting for, if it were possible to achieve something meaningful in Afghanistan for the long term.
Although I am in no way trying to underplay any achievements that have been made or the fact that girls have had access to education as a result of the west’s intervention, these are not achievements that it will be possible to sustain; indeed, they are not being universally applied throughout the country. We need only read the press in this country to learn about some of the human rights abuses and the terrible situations that women in Afghanistan face—my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) touched on those—or about how women who are accused of infidelity or who refuse to co-operate with the men in their families are treated. Many of those abuses are happening legally in Afghanistan because, for cultural reasons, values that we would regard as acceptable are not necessarily those which that society signs up to.
My concern is that those values are not going to change, irrespective of what happens to the motion today and of whether western forces stay in Afghanistan for many years, or withdraw immediately or over a short period. It is not in our power to change the value system in that country, and a forced, military intervention is perhaps the least best way of winning hearts and minds.
I did not support the intervention in Afghanistan at the time, not only because the war claims were unclear but because of the history of the region. Even my poor knowledge of the history of Afghanistan told me that occupying country after occupying country had had difficulty in achieving their war aims there over the decades and even the centuries. The cynic in me therefore found it difficult to believe that we could achieve a different outcome. My major reason for not supporting the intervention, however, was that I suspected that it would simply become a recruiting sergeant for the fundamentalists and the terrorists, and I fear that that is what has happened. British Muslims who have become involved in terrorist activity or hold fundamentalist beliefs say that those involved in terrorist activity in Iraq and other parts of the world cite what the west is doing in Afghanistan as a reason for adhering to those values and beliefs.
The position now is very different from the one in 2001, in that the British public are now war weary, as many hon. Members have pointed out. Opinion polls suggest that most of the British public want us to leave Afghanistan sooner rather than later. The most recent poll shows that 30% want immediate withdrawal, and that 42% want withdrawal soon. I suspect that everyone wants withdrawal as soon as possible. After nine years, I do not believe that any military strategy that might be pursued over the coming months and years is going to help us to achieve our aim of addressing problems such as the drugs trade and terrorism and the issue of human rights.
I want to put on record that it is a shame that the amendment in the name of—
I am most grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I must begin by declaring my interest as a member of the reserve forces that served on Operation Herrick 9 in Afghanistan.
I have long held the view that our forces’ role in Afghanistan is crucial not only to the development and security of the area of conflict but to our own security at home and in the wider world. I acknowledge that some have started to question just how big a threat we face within our own communities, and whether our troops and their families are paying the ultimate price to keep us safe from a diminishing threat, but there is no doubt in my mind that without the brave, hard work of our servicemen and women, the level of the threat we face would be much worse. Tony Blair, speaking in Afghanistan in 2006, said:
“Here in this extraordinary piece of desert is where the future of the world’s security in the early 21st century is going to be played out”.
He was absolutely right.
Once again, let us remind ourselves why we are there. As the Secretary of State said earlier, we are two days away from the anniversary of 9/11, which was an attack on our freedoms and our way of life. The ISAF mission in Afghanistan is a matter of national and world security. We must always remember that we went into this conflict following the attacks of 11 September 2001, and cemented that commitment following the terrorist attacks in London. We are there because we cannot allow Afghanistan once again to become the safe haven for terrorism that it once was. We are there to protect the citizens of the United Kingdom and the people of Afghanistan from the insurgents who would do them harm. Should the Afghan mission fail, it could well result in an emboldened al-Qaeda taking control of Pakistan, which, as we know, is a nuclear state.
We are creating a way forward for Afghanistan as a united country to choose its own path away from the tyranny and struggles of the past. This ultimate objective must be realised, which can be done only with the continuing role of the UK armed forces and our allies. The only way we can exit the conflict, knowing that we have completed our mission, is by stabilising the Afghan Government and by extending their authority and influence so that they are able to continue reconstruction, govern effectively and take responsibility for the country’s own security. When and only when we reach that stage should we fully withdraw all UK personnel, in the knowledge that we have served our duty to the citizens of Britain.
UK troops have played a crucial role since first deployment. Our armed forces are integral to the success and completion of this mission. To remove them from theatre now or in the very near future would jeopardise the future security of all NATO member states. Of course, none of us wishes to see a single UK serviceman or woman in Afghanistan a day longer than needed, but it is right that we continue to mentor the Afghan army and Afghan national police to train them to a level at which they can secure the country for a long-lasting peace. I recognise that the ultimate solution will be political, but it is the work carried out, day by day, by British and US personnel with our allies that will pave the way to security in the region.
Although we wait for the publication of the strategic defence and security review in due course, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate and thank the coalition Government for what they have done thus far to improve the working conditions and safety of UK forces in Afghanistan. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has promised to do everything he can to ensure that, whatever our troops are asked to do, they are properly equipped to maximise success and minimise the risk to themselves. The Government are honouring that commitment, which I believe will allow us to fulfil our ultimate role in Afghanistan.
The Government are to be congratulated on providing £189 million from the Treasury reserve to ensure that our troops are properly equipped, on the changes they announced to the rest and recuperation policy, and on their work to restore the military covenant, which the last Administration sadly failed to uphold. They should also be congratulated, of course, on doubling the operational allowance in theatre.
I am intrigued to hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Will he explain how it squares with the decision we took to produce more helicopters and light protected vehicles and the fact that the Labour Government did not freeze armed forces pay? How will that freezing and the outrageous attack being perpetrated against armed forces pensions help to sustain morale in Afghanistan?
All I will say is that when I was in Afghanistan, we never had enough men on the ground or enough helicopters available; people were dying because the Government did not provide what was necessary in respect of helicopters and personnel.
As I said in my maiden speech, Britain relies heavily on the contribution made by the reserves to our armed forces. They continue to provide a strategic reserve for UK defence and, particularly in recent years, have played a vital part in the UK’s ability to mount and sustain operations. The reservists make up around 9% of the British forces in Afghanistan and are fully integrated into the regular units, working at high levels of responsibility and often in the most demanding situations. In fact, it is impossible in theatre to tell the volunteer reservists from the regulars. I believe that the reservists will continue to play a fundamental part in the future role of UK forces in Afghanistan and I urge the Government to continue to support them in whatever way necessary.
I must highlight the fact that most, if not all, the reserve forces in Afghanistan have volunteered to be deployed. This means a break from normal civilian life and family life and an interruption to their professional life—in most cases, for up to a year. It has to be said—I speak from personal experience here—that it is much harder for the reservists to readjust after deployment than the regular forces, because we have the added factor of trying to get ourselves back into civilian life without the kind of support that the full-time regular soldier would get. It can make us feel very isolated.
It is my sincerest belief that the only way to end this conflict, and to prevent future conflicts in the region for generations to come, is to commit our forces to the completion of our objective—to create a stable, prosperous and free Afghanistan. Only with the continuing commitment of UK forces on the ground will we create the kind of stability in Afghanistan that we need for the safety of our families and our communities back home.
First, I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on its choice of this subject, which I am sure is widely welcomed and has led to a constructive and thoughtful debate.
On the subject of Afghanistan, we need to be honest: the situation is grim. Everyone recognises that the military prowess and determination of British forces, in conditions as difficult and arduous as will be found anywhere, have been of a high order, of which the nation can be proud. However, that cannot be allowed to blind us to the realities on the ground. The British casualty rate—334 soldiers killed to date—is now twice as high, proportionately, as the US rate, and as high, proportionately, as that endured by the Soviet forces in the 1980s. All the arguments for staying put are falling away. Some have been mentioned again today, including by the Defence Secretary, who told us that we are fighting in Afghanistan to protect the streets of London. That idea, I submit, is believed by almost nobody. Virtually all terrorist acts in the UK are home-grown and have mostly occurred precisely because of the occupation of countries by foreign troops. We are told—after nine years—that we need more time to get Afghan forces to the point at which they can adequately secure the country. Nobody on the ground believes that that will happen in less than several decades, if then.
We are told that President Karzai must be given time scales to root out corruption. Is there any evidence that he either can do so or has the slightest intention of doing so? We are told that the Petraeus doctrine in Iraq of winning over—perhaps one should say bribing—so-called moderate insurgents must be given time to work, but Afghanistan is completely different from Iraq: the exceedingly belligerent and conservative Pashtun Taliban will never play along with any such collaboration. Those are the unquestionable facts.
On the question of rationale, which was also mentioned, including by the Chair of the Defence Committee, it is significant that the ostensible rationale for NATO’s presence keeps on changing. First, the rationale was going after al-Qaeda post 9/11; then it was the endless war on terror; then it was nation building and female emancipation. The harsh and unpleasant fact is that the situation can only now be resolved by a deal between the Taliban, the Pakistanis and the corrupt clan around Karzai—as inauspicious a brew, I admit, as one could possibly find, but that is what politics and war are often about, and the arguments for such engagement are compelling.
Some people might deride talking to the Taliban, or even regard it as traitorous, but if the aim is not just an acceptable solution for NATO but to help Afghans to end 30 years of civil war, which surely should be our objective, there must be a process of intra-Afghan dialogue, backed by regional agreements on non-interference and co-operation with Afghanistan’s neighbours, as well as Security Council guarantees. Of course, it will be said that the Taliban have said that they will engage in no negotiations until all foreign forces leave—that is quite normal and no surprise; it always happens when secret contacts begin. Indeed, contacts have already begun between Karzai’s intermediaries and Mullah Omar’s people. In addition, it is reported that representatives of the Hekmatyar group, who are powerful Taliban allies, have already visited Kabul, and that Pakistan is also pressing Karzai to talk to the important Haqqani faction.
What is the US approach, on which everything hinges? At the moment, the US line is to support engagement, but to insist that it must be Afghan-led. That sounds very democratic, but it is a cop-out. The Afghanistan Army and Administration are nowhere near being in a position to take the lead, and it is a fantasy to pretend otherwise. The reality remains that the United States is overwhelmingly the major player. So how do we proceed? The United Nations was the convening power for the talks that led to the 1988 agreement for Soviet withdrawal, and I think that today it probably provides the best forum for Afghanistan’s regional neighbours. Its special representative in Kabul recently started convening ambassadors on a regular basis, which I consider very hopeful.
The slowly gathering mood music about negotiations is, however, complicated by concerns about underlying United States objectives in Afghanistan. The US has deployed 19 military bases in Afghanistan and central Asian countries since the war began in October 2001. Those bases operate autonomously from the territories around them. They are networked by airlifts, and obtain supplies from outside Afghanistan by air. I think it reasonable to assume that the US will not give up that arrangement in the foreseeable future. Indeed, General James Jones, Obama’s top national security adviser, said exactly that a few months ago.
So where does that leave us? The Prime Minister talks of leaving Afghanistan in 2015, but I suggest that in view of the harsh realities—the loss of British life, and the loss of support from British public opinion—he should bring that date forward by at least three years. He should come out publicly in favour of the US opening contacts with the Taliban. That is not a desirable course, but it is a necessary component in the Afghanistan equation. The Prime Minister need not, of course, give what would no doubt be seen as an ultimatum by saying, either publicly or privately, that if the US rejects a policy of negotiation the UK will leave unilaterally, but if within a year the US strategy has not shifted towards talks with the Taliban, he should make our position clear. He should make it clear that the UK has consistently argued that the best way to leave Afghanistan with dignity, as we want, is to broker a power-sharing Government that includes the Taliban.
If the US will not accept that position, we cannot continue indefinitely with an unwinnable war or a refusal to consider peace talks. I believe that, at that point, we shall be left with no alternative but to withdraw our troops.
We have had a very interesting debate. Members of all parties have spoken with a great deal of conviction and insight based on their own experiences, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart).
I cannot speak from personal experience of having visited Afghanistan or served with our troops, but many of my constituents are serving there. Before I make some general remarks about the conflict itself, let me pay tribute to the Royal Gurkha Rifles, who are based at Shorncliffe barracks in my constituency and are currently on a tour of duty in Afghanistan from which they are due to return in November. They have made a number of tours, and the current one may not be their last. Like most regiments, they have sustained casualties, not least in the attack within the British base at Nahri Sarraj in July which led to the deaths of three servicemen and injuries to four further Gurkhas.
Shortly after that attack I visited Cheriton primary school in my constituency, where a number of Gurkha families send their children. Many of their fathers were on duty in Afghanistan at the time of my visit. In the school library is a memorial wall explaining the conflict, on which the children are invited to post their own comments. There is even a school mascot, and the children regularly receive photographs of it from Gurkhas serving in Helmand.
Anyone who has direct access to the families of servicemen, or even lives alongside them, will be aware of the strain that is placed on them, especially when they are in an active zone and casualties are being sustained there. I make that comment for a simple reason: after nine years of conflict we have a series of obligations in addition to the strategic imperative behind the conflict in Afghanistan. We have an obligation to those who have served, and particularly to those who have lost family members in Afghanistan.
I also believe that, after nine years, we have obligations to the Afghan people. What those obligations are has been discussed in the debate. We obviously have an obligation to ourselves and to protect our security, but I believe that after nine years we also have an obligation to those who have benefited from the slightly more liberal regime they live under now than the earlier Taliban regime, in particular women who are in education and work and men who have enlisted in the Afghan police or army. What recriminations and reprisals might they experience as, effectively, “collaborators” with the new regime should that country collapse back into chaos? I am not saying that we can stay in Afghanistan indefinitely—we cannot, of course—but I believe that we have obligations to the people of Afghanistan and that that should be part of our thinking too.
Sun Tzu said that wars are lost in the temples of the rulers before they are ever fought. That is an interesting observation in respect of the war in Afghanistan and our debate today. There has been criticism that the west has almost accepted defeat—that we are in the process of merely managing retreat to some end point when we are ultimately defeated and we leave. The Taliban take comfort from that criticism. I do not believe that that criticism is true at all, but I believe others seek to draw that conclusion from the debates and exchanges we have.
There is a political war to be won, just as there is a military campaign to be executed. The heart of that political war must be that we have the resolution and desire to give our armed forces the support they need to complete the strategy we have set out for them and that we are determined to see that through—that even though there are very difficult periods in the conflict we are not weakened in our desire to pursue that strategy.
In respect of the operations in Afghanistan, there is a temptation to believe that, because we have been there for nine years, we are continuing to pursue the same strategy in the same way, and that not much has changed and we are now hoping that something different will come along simply because we have been there for a long time, but in fact the nature of the conflict has changed dramatically. The troop surge has changed it too, and I urge Members to show some patience so that we give General Petraeus and leaders in Afghanistan the chance to see the current stage of the strategy through.
The situation has changed since 2008, when there were, perhaps, 30,000 American servicemen in Afghanistan and a much smaller number of international troops. We now have more than 130,000 or 140,000 men there, and an ever-growing Afghan police and armed forces presence as well. We must take that into consideration.
There is often too little talk in the British media—and perhaps in some of our exchanges in Parliament too—of what the counter-insurgency operations are doing and the successes they are achieving. There was an article in The Times a couple of weeks ago, written by an officer who had served in Sangin, looking at what the British have achieved there. That town was a Taliban hot spot, but the officer writes that now 150 small businesses are thriving, and there is a regular weekly market and a sense of normality and life returning. We should be proud of the work our troops have done in Sangin to make that possible. The article also talked about the importance of our men undertaking foot patrols so that they are on a level with the Afghan people and are seen to take risks with them, instead of hiding behind barracks.
On the question raised earlier in the debate about a potential change in strategy, I do not claim to be a military expert but I do have a theory. If we retreated to barracks or safe points in camps, would that give us much of an ability to engage with the Afghan people and to be an effective counter-insurgent or peaceful operative in the country?
I am interested to read and hear news about what successes there have been since the launch of Operation Moshtarak, particularly in respect of the Americans going into Marjah. We are not operating alone; we are part of an international force and strategy. The success of that strategy is part of our success too, therefore. There have been reports in the American media that the US Marines can now go into Marjah, a town that was once a centre of Taliban control and so dangerous that ISAF troops were told not even to fly over it. They may not have total control of that town or the surrounding area, but they are exerting considerable influence. Again, we are looking here at the time scale. It is believed that it might take up to 18 months or so for Marjah to be secured. There is some evidence to suggest that the difficult, complex and uncertain work of counter-insurgency is, with the greater resources being put behind that strategy, starting to bear some fruit. We must exercise a degree of patience in allowing that to happen.
We cannot cut and run from Afghanistan. I do not believe that any Member of any party has truly advocated that today. We have obligations to the Afghan people and to the situation in Afghanistan to see through our strategic objectives—not to create Hampshire in Helmand, as some people have written and said, as we will never achieve that, but to create a country where the Afghans can, in time, take over security operations and the governance of their own country. There may well be a need for considerable reform in how the Afghan Government work, and for them to build up their own trust with their own people. We can play a role in that: we cannot do all of that for Afghanistan, but we have set our course and I believe that we should stick by our strategy, and that now is not the time to be considering a withdrawal.
I start by echoing others in saying how much of a privilege it is to speak in this historic debate. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, it is an important tradition of this House that the names of the brave troops who have been killed in Afghanistan are read out at the beginning of each week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time. Yesterday, that roll call seemed to go on for a very long time, and after it the Deputy Prime Minister said:
“Each of those men was an heroic, selfless individual who has given his life for the safety of us and the British people.”—[Official Report, 8 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 313.]
Each of those men was heroic and selfless, and our troops are doing an extraordinary job with great courage, but we need to nail the myth that their presence in Afghanistan is making the British people safer. We are constantly being told that our troops are fighting in Afghanistan to keep us safer in this country—the Minister said so earlier in this debate—yet even our security services suggest that the war on terrorism is making this country less safe, not more safe. We also know that the terror plots against Britain were hatched not in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan and in Britain itself.
The Afghan war was put to the British people on a simple premise: that it was an act of self-defence in response to 9/11. The objective was supposed to be to capture and kill Osama bin Laden and prevent al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base from which to launch further attacks. That rationale now seems a distant memory; al-Qaeda has been dispersed effectively around the world—over the border into Pakistan and further afield into Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere. So if our motive is really tracking down al-Qaeda, we are looking in the wrong place.
An alternative explanation given is that we are in Afghanistan to bring human rights to that country. Although some improvements were made between 2001 and 2005, the situation is, again, drastically deteriorating and for many Afghans, especially those outside Kabul, the improvements were only ever slight, or they were non-existent. Vicious warlords in rural areas can be just as bent on enforcing sharia law as the Taliban. According to Malalai Joya, the outspoken woman MP who was expelled from the Afghan Parliament, the Government of Hamid Karzai are
“full of warlords and extremists who are brothers in creed of the Taliban.”
That is notably true of the judiciary, which she said is “dominated by fundamentalists.” This is the President whose authority our troops are dying to defend but who passes the so-called “marital rape” law, which gives a husband the right to withdraw basic maintenance for his wife if she refuses to obey his sexual demands.
On Afghanistan it seems that we are struck by a peculiar kind of amnesia; there is so much that we have forgotten. As Dan Plesch of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy has said, there is no sense that we sought to crush and dominate that country throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. We appear to have no memory of that, but the Afghans do. There is no sense either that the sentiment expressed time and time again by advocates of war—that to pull out now would be a betrayal of those who have given their lives so far—is exactly the same as was said about Vietnam. Yet it is clear that the real betrayal is to be sending more people to die in a war that cannot be won.
We might remember the last time a mighty superpower tried to subdue Afghanistan. The Soviet Union invaded in 1979, and within a few years its soldiers were losing their limbs or lives to landmines—the improvised explosive devices of their day—and the same kinds of angry complaints were made about a shortage of helicopters. As the journalist Jonathan Freedland has said, whatever other reactions we should have to the fate of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan—horror, grief or despair— surprise should certainly not be one of them.
It is not unpatriotic to seek to recognise that there is no military solution to the crisis in Afghanistan and to bring our troops home safely. Almost everyone agrees that sooner or later a negotiation will have to take place. My amendment says that what we should be doing is negotiating now—let us make it sooner. It will not be clean; it will be messy, as others have said. But let us make it sooner and stop the bloodshed sooner.
We should do so because the collective amnesia from which we seem to suffer at the moment has an enormous human cost. The evidence of escalating violence and increasing insecurity in Afghanistan was reinforced by the WikiLeaks circulation back in July of huge amounts of official communications and reports about the US war on the ground. Those leaked war logs reveal that coalition forces have tried to cover up the fact that they have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents. As they increasingly use deadly reaper drones to hunt and kill Taliban targets by remote control from a base in Nevada, civilian deaths rise still further.
As of last month, more than 330 British personnel or MOD civilians have died while serving in Afghanistan and several thousand more have been injured. More than 1,000 US troops have died. What of the Afghan casualties? As we know, no official count is kept, but the estimate is that there are many, many thousands. As the military forces increasingly use those deadly reaper drones, those civilian deaths rise still further. ISAF’s own confidential report of August 2009 concedes that its military strategy is causing what it calls “unnecessary collateral damage”. Leaders publicly say that their attacks are proportionate, yet US Lieutenant-Colonel David Kilcullen has said that the US aerial attacks on the Afghan-Pakistan border have killed 14 al-Qaeda leaders at the expense of 700 civilian lives.
Alongside the US and British military in Afghanistan is a “shadow army” of private military and security companies, operating largely outside legal or democratic control. A recent article in Le Monde diplomatique asked, in characteristic diplomatic language:
“How can efforts to put down an insurgency be effective or credible when the countries contributing to the intervention force…use mercenaries whose motivation is not necessarily the restoration of peace?”
That is put very diplomatically, but one British contractor is quoted as saying, rather more bluntly, that for his firm, the more the security situation deteriorates, the better it is for business.
All that might not be so horrific if the lives of ordinary Afghans were significantly improving and the country was developing, but although on some indicators there has been some improvement—such as access to education, for example—overall the situation is bleak. Indeed, by some indicators, Afghans are getting poorer—child malnutrition, for example, has risen in many places, which is an effect of the chronic hunger that now affects more than 7 million people. Despite that, the US has spent 20 times as much on military operations as on development in Afghanistan while Britain has spent 10 times as much. The UN Security Council notes that 25 times as many Afghans die every year from under-nutrition and poverty as from violence.
Finally, there is not just a human cost but a financial cost, too. This is an unwinnable war that is costing us more than £7 million a day. If the Chancellor is looking for places to make cuts, he should start right here and bring the troops home. The financial cost to Afghanistan is huge, too. The Afghan Government spend a massive 30% of their budget on the security sector. That money would be much better spent on development in Afghanistan.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the chance to speak in this very important debate. I pay tribute to the Backbench Business Committee for setting it up in the first place.
The opportunity is given to me to pay tribute to 3 Commando Brigade, which is based in my constituency; to 29 Commando, which is based at the royal citadel—where the guns point in towards the city rather than out towards the sea for a series of reasons—to the Royal Marines, which are based at Stonehouse; and to the Royal Navy at Devonport. They have either served, are about to serve or are serving in Afghanistan.
I shall not try to pretend that I am an expert on military complexities or on what the strategy should be—or, for that matter, that I have a fantastically brilliant knowledge of Afghanistan; that is for others and we have heard a number of hon. Members who have been able to demonstrate that this afternoon. However, I am reminded that every week, without exception, I see in my local newspaper, hear on my local radio station or see on our local television that the sons and daughters of Plymouth are out there campaigning and trying to ensure that Britain—and the world—is a much safer place.
Last year I attended 29 Commando’s welcome home parade in Plymouth city centre and it included my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), who had served for a year on deployment with 29 Commando. The whole city turned out to support those young men and women who have seen action. There is a real belief that the city and people’s families, who are waiting with enormous anticipation to find out what will happen in the strategic defence and security review, strongly feel that they are in the front line of the conflict. I am aware that many people in Britain are very critical of the current campaign and believe that it is unacceptable for our troops to remain in Afghanistan for an infinite amount of time. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence have made it quite clear that our troops should come home within the next five years, but if that is to happen it is utterly vital not only that we come out in an orderly manner but that we leave a positive legacy in that very troubled country.
There is a general perception that, as with Iraq, when we went into the war—I was a supporter of doing so and I still am; I believe that our activities there are right—we did not have an exit strategy. That is something that we need to look at. I believe that we must make sure that, when we leave that country, it has been economically and politically improved in a big way. We must continue to help to rebuild the Afghan economy. Despite the immense amount of money put forward in international aid, and the country’s wonderful natural resources of natural gas, petrol, coal, marble and gold, Afghanistan remains very much a rural economy that is dependent on growing poppies. Most villagers have few economic options. Moneylenders will provide loans on relatively good terms for opium production. The estimated annual profit from poppy cultivation for a single farmer is between 1,000 and 2,000 lakhs, compared with the 20 lakhs that they can get from producing wheat. Farmers are willing to risk dealing with organised crime and criminals for a chance at prosperity. That is why many farmers refuse to switch back to growing wheat, which is an enormous shame.
The heroin is exported to British towns and cities such as Plymouth and continues to fuel crime on our streets. When Labour first came to power in 1997, the then Prime Minister was quite right to say that he would be tough on crime and on the causes of crime, but why did Labour Governments not put the eradication of the poppy crop at the centre of their strategy? I suspect that there were a number of relevant issues, but it would be helpful to know why. I therefore encourage my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Defence and for International Development to put that campaign against drugs firmly at the top of the agenda.
In short, we must learn a great deal from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we embark on a military expedition, we must make sure that we have an exit strategy that will leave that country economically and politically much more viable. Use of military force just buys us time to put together diplomatic and political solutions and it should never be seen as the means to the end. If we take on board those lessons and the sacrifices and injuries of our gallant servicemen and women, we will not have wasted our time, and troops from places such as Plymouth who have put in so much effort will not have given their lives in vain.
I pay tribute to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have this debate, and to the Members who have contributed to it. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who is not in his place, and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) set the tone from both sides of the argument in a way that has enabled a thorough debate. Without patronising anyone, let me say that a large number of the new Members who came to the House after the last election have added a great deal to the debate, particularly the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) with his expertise.
At the start of the debate, there was an emphasis on recognising the audiences who will be listening and the importance of not having an impact on the morale of troops. I take that caution carefully, although those arguments have been used in every debate about every recent war, even during the first world war when people were arguing about the tragedies of the trenches. I interpret my duty in the House as to ensure that we never put our troops in harm’s way unnecessarily or irresponsibly, so I encourage their withdrawal from Afghanistan as rapidly as possible so that they no longer face the risks that they have faced there. Like other Members, I find it heart-rending to hear the names read out at Prime Minister’s Question Time, because I think that, tragically, our troops are dying unnecessarily. The best way that we can serve them is to secure their withdrawal.
I was in the Chamber when the decision was made to send in the troops. There was no sense of jingoism; there was serious concern, but the then Secretary of State for Defence expressed the hope that not a shot would be fired. That hope has not been realised, and with 330 dead it is a tragedy that we have allowed the conflict to go on for so long.
In our last debate on Afghanistan, I was one of the few Members who urged that negotiation with the Taliban should be commenced. Subsequently, I was roundly abused in the media and, as often happens to Members, received correspondence and e-mails calling me a traitor and saying that I lacked courage or conviction—all the usual things. However, it is interesting that debate has moved on. There have been some expressions of victory during today’s debate, but they have not been the same as in the past. There is much more serious and sophisticated discussion about how we can withdraw. The debate today demonstrates that part of the withdrawal process needs to start quickly and with a negotiated settlement.
Some years ago, we debated a proposal for a Ministry for peace, following which we set up the all-party group on conflict issues. I am one of its joint chairs; the others are from other parties. The group brought us into contact with a wide range of international organisations and experts in promoting and securing peace. I refer Members to an excellent report produced recently by the Afghanistan Study Group in America. It is entitled “A New Way Forward: Rethinking US Strategy in Afghanistan”. The study group includes a range of specialists—ex-military, intelligence experts, regional specialists and people involved in conflict resolution in the past across the world. The report reflects many of the statements that have been made by Members today, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher).
The report includes sober analysis of the need for us to enter direct dialogue with participants in the conflict. As many Members have done today, it analyses the war in Afghanistan, describing it not as a struggle between the Karzai Government and an insurgent Taliban movement allied with international terrorists seeking to overthrow the Government, but as a civil war about power-sharing. The lines of contention are partly ethnic, chiefly but not exclusively between Pashtuns, who dominate the south, and other ethnic groups such as the Tajiks and Uzbeks who are more prevalent in the north. The conflict is partly rural versus urban, and of course partly sectarian. As many Members have said, it is also influenced by surrounding nations with a desire to promote their own interests—Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others. As others have emphasised, the conflict is interpreted by many in Afghanistan as having elements of resistance to what is seen as a military occupation.
The key issue that has arisen from the debate is how we can further discussions about resolving the distribution of power in Afghanistan among the various factions and between central Government and the provinces. That is a critical crossroads. The proposals in the report emphasise, first, power-sharing, political inclusion and the start of a dialogue among all parties to enable such inclusion, including a fast-track peace process. Secondly, they suggest downsizing and, eventually, ending military operations in southern Afghanistan and reducing the military footprint immediately.
The issue is about focusing security efforts, as some have said today, on al-Qaeda and domestic security, encouraging economic development and engaging regional and global stakeholders. We and the Government have a critical role to play in that process, and the study group’s blueprint is a good one for our debate about how we go forward. However, there is a sense of urgency, because I do not believe that there is any potential for military victory. Indeed, I believe that, if we go further, the cost in human lives could even escalate.
That is why I take up the point made my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton. Who do we go to now? In what forum can we find an arbitration model and arbitration partners? We have to go back to the United Nations for an open discussion about the process and where we are now, because where we are now is certainly not in a successful position, and it can only deteriorate from hereon in. Given that there is an unstable Government, allegations of corruption and conflicts between central Government and the regions, we are obliged to involve the UN, but, if a peacekeeping force is offered, those who were involved in the invasion certainly cannot participate in it.
We are now entering a critical period, and I urge Members to study the report by the US study group. It provides a way forward to secure peace and protect the interests of this country in the long term, in combating terrorism, combating drugs and securing the region itself for the long-term future.
Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you very much, indeed. The last time that you allowed me to speak was my maiden speech, so I am very grateful to be called again. It is a huge privilege to talk about this war, which in my view has not been debated in the House since it started in 2001.
I begin by uttering my unequivocal support for our armed forces. Still recognised throughout the globe as the finest fighting men and women in existence, they are the gold standard for many other countries. Our forces’ training, organisation and skills are widely admired and emulated, and their service to date in Afghanistan and in other conflicts has been nothing less than exemplary. All of us can take lessons from their courage, dedication and selflessness.
We have heard again and again this afternoon that the war started in 2001, and we have borne a heavy cost: 334 dead and more than 1,500 wounded in action, many with horrific injuries. In Dorset, where I come from, I have been associated with our largest county regiment, The Rifles, for some years. They alone have sustained losses of 54 men, with more than 200 seriously injured. A commanding officer whom I met before the election, and who had served in Afghanistan, told me that he thought the war was justified. He told me that the hardest job that I would have, were I to be elected, would be to convince the public of that same point. How right he was. More and more constituents tell me that they have doubts about the war.
Committing our armed forces to battle is, let us face it, our gravest duty in this House. It is we who send them to war, and it is we, ultimately, who bring them home, so this debate is a great chance to challenge our responsibilities, which means that we have to ask the crucial questions that we have asked this afternoon. Should we be there, can we win, and can we afford it?
First, should we be there? Yes, I have no doubt about that, and the Secretary of State eloquently explained to us all why we should be. In addition, there is no doubt in my mind that our international responsibilities are important. It is no good whingeing on the sidelines in years to come if we abdicate our responsibilities now. We cannot expect others to guard our interests or police world trouble spots on our behalf. The Afghan war is an international conflict in the sense that terrorism knows no boundaries. The grim anniversary of 9/11 this coming Saturday underlines that point, which I would like to underline. Terrorism, in my view, is here to stay for the foreseeable future in one shape or another. We cannot beat it, but we can tackle and, one hopes, contain it. That is why we will need a lot of courage in this House to defend our realm. Contrary to the many press reports, serving soldiers I have spoken to—and I have spoken to many—say they are making huge progress. In the end, how far that progress can be sustained probably comes down to money. If that is the case, as I suspect it is, then we as a Government must continue to underwrite our hard-won freedoms—they do not come cheap.
Can we win? History says that we cannot, in the strict military sense. The fate of earlier attempts—from Alexander the Great, as we have heard, to Russia—provides stark warnings to those who would take on this rugged, proud and tribal nation. Traditions, both religious and cultural, are deeply rooted and resist outside interference. But the cold fact is that we are there now. So what do we do? If we pull out, Afghanistan could go back to the dark ages under the Taliban. If we stay, we incur huge costs in blood and treasure. I agree with the Secretary of State that we should maintain a presence for the longer term in mentoring and training roles to allow a political solution to take root and grow. It would be a bleak day if we pulled out altogether and this huge sacrifice were for nothing.
Lastly, can we afford it? Clearly, we cannot. We have inherited from the Labour Government a £38 billion liability in defence spending, with more to come. To me, this is the heart of the matter. Can we afford, and do we want, a fully equipped manned expeditionary force capable of conducting significant military operations in places such as Afghanistan, or do we retreat into our shell and have something like a gendarmerie? That is the big question we have to face as a nation. My view, emphatically, is that we need the former. We should never, ever put a price on our freedom. The armed forces are already cut to the bone, and I would push for the defence review to exclude the defence budget, at the very least.
Our armed services have been built up over hundreds of years. It takes but a minute—the slash of a red pen—and they have gone, taking years to reassemble. Are we, as a Conservative-led Government during a war, going to place our young men and women on the front line one minute and give them a redundancy note the next? These are tough questions, but ones that are relevant to this debate, not least in relation to our troops’ morale. That is why I believe that the defence budget should be protected.
I recently met the mother of a dead soldier. She asked me, “Do you think the deaths of my son and his comrades are worth while?” When a mother looks you in the eye and asks you a question like that, by heavens does it concentrate the mind, and it really brings home the huge responsibility that we have in this House. Should this House ever decide to send our troops to war again, and I am fortunate enough to be an MP in it, I will bear that question in mind.
I support the motion for continued deployment of UK troops in Afghanistan, with the proviso that a long-term strategy is announced and is clear. I caution the Government against setting time lines for withdrawing the majority of our troops for fear of providing succour to our enemy and promising something that maybe we cannot deliver.
I am grateful for this debate in Back-Bench time, and I shall be brief. To follow on from the comments of the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), there is only one thing worse than setting a firm date for withdrawal, which is to set one and then pretend not to have done so, ending up with the worst of both worlds. That is where we are at the moment.
My first observation is personal and constituency-based. When I go back to my constituency, I see helicopters coming in from Birmingham International airport to land at Queen Elizabeth hospital, bringing back severely injured soldiers, so I take no lessons from anyone on what the public’s perception is. It is that we are engaged in a good fight, but that the Government could have done a better job of explaining why we are there. The troops certainly do not want to be seen as victims. They say, “We are a professional force and we want to have our job recognised.”
I wish to mention three matters that have been forgotten in today’s debate. The first is our role in the world. The United Kingdom is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and a nuclear force, and we have a record of intervention. Intervention has had a bit of a bad name recently, but I have not heard anybody saying that we should not have gone into Kosovo, which we did without a UN mandate and succeeded, and nobody has challenged what happened in Sierra Leone. We do intervene, and that is why we have an Army—we have a role to play in the world. We can debate what that role should be, but we should not lose sight of the fact that we have an international responsibility, with which come certain commitments.
Secondly, people keep talking as though this were our war with Afghanistan. I remind everybody that we are there at the invitation of the Afghan Government. We are there not to conquer Afghanistan but as part of an international effort represented by ISAF. It is an out-of-territory NATO operation. If we cannot collectively make it work, it will affect not just Britain and Afghanistan but the future of NATO and how we see our collective responsibility. That seems to have been completely forgotten.
Thirdly, we must consider what is success. I have heard a number of definitions, and I wish to draw attention to a report recently published by the Henry Jackson Society, “Succeeding in Afghanistan”. I declare an interest: I am a trustee of the society. The report reminds us that there is good news out there, but also asks how good things can get in Afghanistan.
People have drawn analogies between Afghanistan and Germany in 1945, but that is completely off the wall. When we were dealing with the enemy in Germany in 1945, it was a functioning nation state that had completely lost its way for a brief period in its history, so it was a question of restoring structures. In Afghanistan, the structures were never there in the first place, so the governance structures and election process will not be as we would have them here in the west. If we can start to deal with corruption and intimidation and set up functioning civil structures, that will be success.
But how exactly can we deal with corruption and civil structures? We have been trying for eight and a half years and made no progress. We all agree that it is important, but we have proved that we lack the capacity to do it. There is no point in saying that it would be a good thing to do unless we have a plan.
It is an extremely valid observation to say that we had some plans that did not work. However, when the aid organisations went in and we started reconstruction in Helmand, when Hugh Powell was our special representative, we started to pull together security, structures and military rebuilding. It will not be perfect, and in the end Afghans themselves will have to deal with the situation, but having gone to Afghanistan, and being a member of the permanent five, we have a responsibility to ourselves and a collective responsibility to NATO and ISAF.
We need to start talking about the successes and start learning from them, and stop talking the situation down. In the debate this evening, we have heard a lot about all that has gone wrong, but nobody has focused on what has gone right. I can see hon. Members raising their eyebrows at that, but on balance, we have heard more about the former than the latter. I keep coming back to the fact that the operation is not a UK operation but a collective, NATO, ISAF operation, and a lot of other countries could step up to the plate a little more than they do before we beat ourselves up. Collectively, we must get to a position in which we have structures that can be held accountable in Afghanistan. If anyone thinks that having a date by which we withdraw is the way forward, they are deeply misguided. There is an aspiration to withdraw honourably, leaving a good structure in Afghanistan, but the minute we set the date, we might as well leave immediately.
There are considerable military interests in my constituency, so I feel compelled to offer my perspective in this crucial debate. However, I have no military experience—many hon. Members who have spoken have such experience—so it is with some humility that I offer my opinions on the decisions that impact on so many brave men and women who are deployed in Afghanistan. I pay tribute to my constituent, Major Josh Bowman, who was shot in his bed in Afghanistan just before the recess, and to the other 133 soldiers who have given their lives in the service of their country in Afghanistan. We owe them so much.
I do not want to offer a critique of the history of Government decision making over the past nine years—the current Government must deal with the inherited legacy of the British deployment in Afghanistan—but during that time, the situation on the ground in provinces such as Helmand has evolved, with fighting of such intensity that we have been forced, as a nation, to take stock on several occasions.
The debate is another opportunity for the House to reflect on what, as a nation, we seek to achieve in Afghanistan. By what measure will we gauge our success? What will success look like? Does it mean free and democratic elections and the removal of corruption? How do we measure the extent to which we have succeeded? Perhaps success means a well-trained and effective army and police force, new roads, more schools and improved women’s rights. Where does the list end, and what is realistic?
For me, the critical issue is how realistic our list of objectives for the next five years is. I am concerned that the objectives are, at the moment, too vague, sometimes too ambitious, and difficult to stick to given the moving political context and uncertainties on the ground. Furthermore, the timetable for the removal of combat troops by 2015 might be the Government’s fixed policy position, but the critical question is what we can achieve by then. I am greatly concerned that indicating that date so clearly and unambiguously—admittedly, the date is a response to the increasing sense that installing full democracy in Afghanistan in a generation is unrealistic—may be taken by the Taliban as a lack of our commitment, intent or political will.
When John Reid, the former Defence Secretary, said that he hoped that no shot would be fired, few understood the full implications of committing ourselves to engagement in Afghanistan. Others in the House have described Afghanistan as a “broken 13th-century country”. I will not comment on the accuracy of that description, but it is clear that its culture, values and political maturity are different to any other theatre to which our troops could be deployed.
The solution that we offer must be comprehensive. We must take not only a strategic, joined-up approach, but one that views the challenges as international. Our approach will require unity of effort across the coalition, and across borders and myriad Government Departments and agencies, and we must consider everything from financial investment from the International Monetary Fund at one end of the scale, to providing teacher training at the other. To be most effective, the solution requires diplomats and generals, economists and policemen, engineers and teachers, as well as trainers. Defeating the Taliban in the conventional sense—on the battlefield—may satisfy our desire for a measure of success, but it does not secure the defeat of terror per se, especially not in the long term, unless accompanied by a more complex engagement with and investment in Afghan society. We would be wise to remember that for many in Afghanistan NATO forces were not invited, and therefore the kind of war that we think we are fighting is not the same as that seen by the Taliban or many people on the ground in Afghanistan. While we fight against those who harbour terrorists, they consider themselves to be engaged in a war against uninvited foreigners. We fight to defeat al-Qaeda: they fight for local tribal pre-eminence. NATO fights to eradicate the Taliban: they fight for independence. While that may be inconvenient to our world view, unless we acknowledge the different perceptions that exist and engage with them—and change the emphasis of our objectives—we will not achieve what we set out to achieve.
Our mission has to be one that focuses as much on smart, soft power as it does on military effect. What that means in reality is that our focus has to be on coaching, mentoring, training and building up capacity, not only in the military but in all aspects of government in Afghanistan. In recognising that our armed forces are operating within a country whose culture, values and faith system are so different to our own, we need to state explicitly what our objectives are, how we propose to achieve them and on what basis we will grade our progress. We have a job—even a moral duty—to leave the country in a better position than we found it. That will not be easy, and we need to be clear and honest about the success that we can realistically achieve.
While I agree that some form of timetable is useful, our strategic plans for Afghanistan must not be driven by an artificial political timetable. They must be driven by a rational and honest view of what we wish to achieve, recognising that our deployment will be more focused on state building than success in combat. Just because we are now realising the immense implications of playing the role of a catalyst for the rapid maturing of the democratic infrastructure, we cannot throw our hands up in the air and say that all troops must come home now. What would that say to the Afghan people? It would say, “We did our best by military force to deal with the forces of terror, but because of the time it would take to help you develop a stable country, we will leave you with a vacuum and you will have to deal with the consequences of stirred-up ethnic and tribal tensions and the prevailing insecurity that that brings.” That is not credible, honourable or right. Consequently, there is a requirement for our armed forces to remain in Afghanistan to deliver a realistic prospect of a reasonably secure Afghan state, but we need a pragmatic path to that end point.
Given the time, and the fact that the winding-up speeches need to begin, I will be brief—[Interruption.] If there are no winding-up speeches in this debate, I do not need to be quite so brief.
I add my tribute to those that have been paid by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to our splendid servicemen and women for all that they do, and to their families, who support them so much. I also pay tribute to our reservists who have the difficult job of serving alongside the regular armed forces and then also have to fit back into life as civilians. I am very proud to have such a large Territorial Army base in Truro in my constituency, and of the contribution that it makes.
I am very concerned that the welfare of our men and women who are currently serving and who are leaving the armed forces should be taken into consideration in this debate. Over the summer, a study by King’s college London found that 4% of British armed forces personnel suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, while 20% have symptoms of common mental disorders. Research involving 10,000 soldiers showed that 13% were misusing alcohol, but that those who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan were 22% more likely to abuse alcohol than those who had not. The Secretary of State for Defence has indicated his concerns about the scale of mental illnesses among service personnel and his belief that developments in medical science mean that more could be done to prevent the most vulnerable from falling through the net. I strongly agree with him.
About 180,000 troops are thought to have been deployed in the two conflicts since 2001, and the long-term impact of experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan on those who return to civilian life is not known. Over the summer recess, I had the opportunity of observing the work of the charity Talking2Minds, which was established by Bob Paxman, a former Special Air Service officer. All those working for the charity are people who have suffered from combat stress and are focused on working for people suffering from it. It provides a four-day residential programme and has developed a unique talking therapy, and because its consultants have personal experience, they have an improved understanding of what guests are going through and can create a strong rapport with them.
One of my constituents, Martin Webster, a corporal in the Light Infantry for 12 years, organised a programme in Cornwall that helped 13 former servicemen suffering from combat stress. One of those people was Jamie Watson, a constituent of mine who joined the programme with his girlfriend. At the start of the programme, I listened to the experiences of those involved and to how they had been let down by the current arrangements for the care of servicemen and women who develop mental health problems while serving. At the end of the programme, I saw for myself the effectiveness of the therapy. It is vital that the effectiveness of innovative programmes such as this are evaluated, so that they can be considered alongside the current range of therapies made available to service personnel to support those suffering from combat stress.
It is essential that all the armed forces take a more proactive approach to the prevention and management of the mental health of serving personnel, and I look forward to reading the forthcoming report by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and his recommendations for improving these services. It is vital that over time the stigma of discussing problems in coming to terms with experiences in conflict is overcome. However well motivated and trained our armed servicemen and women are, what we ask them to do is immensely demanding.
There needs to be more effective mental health awareness training throughout the armed services and opportunities for service personnel to have access to a range of effective services that are delivered by former service people who understand the unique environment of the armed services. Jamie Watson, 26, who honourably served his country for 10 years in the Army, described his experience to me:
“As a front line soldier, I was highly trained in...war fighting, counter terrorism and situations of armed conflict, but the objectives in the conflicts since 2003 have been so varied that the serving soldiers role has been constantly changing according to the missions’ objectives and…in…Afghanistan the roles changed from war fighting to peace keeping to counter terrorism to riot control and back to peace keeping. I believe this has had a massive impact on not only the rise of combat PTSD but the complexity of this condition also.”
During my discussions with Jamie and other veterans of recent and past conflicts, another key issue—a recurrent theme—in tackling combat stress emerged, and that was the need for the better management of the transition period when serving personnel re-enter society as civilians. As Jamie says:
“I think that by taking a soldier out of their serving unit at the right time during their final year, while they are still well motivated soldiers and putting them with a training regiment where a course can be constructed and developed to start a process of reintegration, education and re-training would reduce many problems including mental health problems such as PTSD.”
Like Jamie and the other soldiers whom I have met, I believe that with the support of the new Government we can finally start the process of putting in place a system that works and give our servicemen and women, and veterans, the support that they really need and deserve.
I support the continued deployment of our armed forces in Afghanistan, but I meet people who do not. That is because no one took the time to explain the reasons at the time of deployment—or, indeed, for years afterwards.
We went into Afghanistan because there were people there who wanted to kill us. They wanted to kill our families—indeed, they wanted to kill our way of life—and the Government of that country were not interested in stopping them doing it. We went in because, although we are an island race, we do not live in a bunker and we are vulnerable to terror. We went in because the poisonous propaganda emanating from the training camps of Afghanistan was absolutely toxic. Indeed, it is so pervasive that it has seeped into the minds of young people as far away from Afghanistan as here in the UK, including in my constituency, resulting in a young man bringing a suicide bomb to London.
For many, the deployment of UK armed forces in Afghanistan was also the end of a regime of brutality and terror that blighted the lives of ordinary, decent Afghan people, and we should be proud of that. Those young Afghans who travel to join the Afghan national army and go into combat alongside British soldiers do so because they remember the terror that defined the regime introduced by the Taliban in those areas of Afghanistan that they occupied—the same areas where the al-Qaeda training camps thrived.
Because it has not been explained properly, people make comparisons between our deployment and that of the Russians, but we are not there to conquer the Afghan people. We are not there to impose a regime. Afghan nationals did not form up and fight alongside the Russians, as they come to train and fight with NATO and British forces.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we cannot make the mistake that was made in 1989, when the international community left Afghanistan, creating a vacuum for al-Qaeda and the Taliban? We have to stay in Afghanistan to finish the end-job, which means creating institutions and stability by working with the Afghan army and police force.
I do agree with that, but I shall come to that point in a moment, if I may.
It is the Taliban who seek to occupy Afghanistan, not the British Army. Another myth that causes some to doubt the role of our forces is based on the suggestion that the Taliban will simply play the long game—“You have the watches, we have the time.” However, that is to ignore completely the Afghan national army. I am privileged in that I have been able to spend a considerable amount of time with the private soldiers, NCOs, warrant officers and junior officers who have been on the front line in Afghanistan. Indeed, some whom I was privileged to spend time with are there today. What they described, in a matter-of-fact, “job done” way, is brave to the point of being almost beyond contemplation.
Significantly, those troops speak well of the Afghan national army, whose courage is not an issue. In fact, the task of our training teams and our soldiers is to instil a sense of discipline to temper their courage and to instil an understanding that there is no shame in something other than a full-frontal assault. Often, ANA recruits learn quite literally on the job. They arrive with a rifle and no training. That means that they are wholly inexperienced on day one, but as all their training is gained in combat conditions, they fast become battle hardened. They will increasingly step forward as NATO forces withdraw. They are determined to protect their country and ensure that it does not fall back into a world of imposed brutality.
In addition, we remain in Afghanistan because in the summer of last year, the Taliban were less than 80 miles from Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Pakistan has attracted criticism for its role in relation to the NATO operation in Afghanistan, but in fact more than 3,000 members of the Pakistani armed forces have been killed fighting the Taliban. Those in the Swat valley who are currently the victims of floods were terrified to leave their homes last year as the invading Taliban sought to impose a culture of terror. We did not enter Afghanistan to help Pakistan, but the reality is that Pakistan cannot be allowed to fail.
In my experience, people accept these reasons for our presence in Afghanistan, especially now that individual soldiers have the kit that they need. It is an appalling state of affairs that that was ever an issue. Whatever the state of our finances, it must never be an issue again. All the discussions about defence spending are designed to ensure that the troops on the front line have boots and bullets, and no one should lose sight of that. The kit is now there, and the young men I speak to are convinced that they are doing a worthwhile job.
The motion supports the continued deployment of our armed forces in Afghanistan, and we should also not fall shy of remembering that our presence represents a statement of commitment to those who have turned away from Taliban and al-Qaeda extremism and reached out, albeit tentatively, to the west. We have a coherent and sensible strategy, and we are training the Afghan national army to do what every country requires of its armed forces—namely, to protect the perimeter and ensure the safety of those who live within its borders. In doing that, it will ensure that there will be no room for those who would export death to us and ours. Until the ANA can take on that task, however, our troops should remain there.
I do not think that I am to be the night watchman in this debate, but I shall be as brief as I can. I shall not recapitulate the messages that have already been given. That might be a relief to hon. Members, but it might not inspire them to do the same.
I am not an expert in these matters. I have never worn a uniform. I am acutely conscious that there are experts in the House, and that Members on both sides of the House have worn a uniform. I am also conscious, however, that whether or not we have worn a uniform, all of us here are responsible for either ordering or consenting to send young men and women into harm’s way, and that is why I want to speak in the debate. I was struck by what the Secretary of State said about there being four audiences for our debate today. I believe that there is also a fifth audience: the British public. My hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) and for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) also touched on that point.
There have been many casualties in the war—Afghan civilians and British soldiers have been killed and maimed—but a casualty that we cannot afford is the loss of the consent of the British public for this war. We need to ensure that they are on our side, and on the side of the troops as they go about their business. I do not feel that we have been as successful as we might have been in reassuring the British public, and I would like to give the House some examples of what we can do to get them on to our side.
First, we need to ensure that our troops have the right kit and the right support. I visited some friends in Gloucestershire during the recess. They are a military family, and their son is currently serving in Afghanistan. His father was in the Army for 20 years, during all of which time his wife followed him all round the world. They are not peace campaigners, they are not sitting out there in the peace village, but they are concerned about what is happening in Afghanistan and about our troops. Why? Because their son has big feet, and for that reason, the Army was unable to equip him with the right sized desert boots before he deployed. If we cannot put the boots on the feet of the men who are going out to fight, it is understandable that the public, the servicemen and their families will be concerned about our commitment to their welfare and our determination to see the struggle through. I am therefore pleased that the Secretary of State has announced £189 million of further spend on equipment and some £67 million to be spent on countering improvised explosive devices. I hope that that will help to turn around the perception among some servicemen and their families that they have not had the right kit.
It is also important to show the public that the war is being won and success is being had. In a speech of a day or two ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood)—he is not in his place now, but has spoken very eloquently on this subject—said that when he was in Lashkar Gar over the recess, he visited an ice factory. Now that might be a very mundane thing to do—we all visit factories in our constituencies and probably visited many of them during the recess—but it is quite striking to have an ice factory in Helmand, where just a few years ago there was combat, and now infrastructure is being built, jobs created and services provided. We have to show—we have to get the journalists not just at the front line, but at what is happening behind it—that we are improving the situation on the ground and moving towards a tipping point where the Afghan national army, the police force and the Afghan Government will be able to look after themselves so that we can begin to withdraw. We have to tell the story of that success to the British public, so that they know what our strategy is for withdrawal.
The third important element to get across is the need to tell the story of the price of failure, which has been touched on already by other hon. Members. If we fail to see this struggle through in Afghanistan and the country unravels, that will seriously undermine the situation in nuclear-armed Pakistan. We do not want to see jihadists going around saying, “We’ve beaten the west in Afghanistan; we can beat them everywhere”. We need to ensure that the public understand that if Afghanistan unravels, it will not be the end of the matter, as there will be other Afghanistans. The futile price that our servicemen and women will have paid in Afghanistan will be paid again and again in other places.
We have been there for nine years. It has been a long time. Mistakes have been made, but that is the past, so let us leave that where it is and look now to the future. We have a new Government in Britain and a new commander, General Petraeus, in Afghanistan, who has a new strategy. I therefore think that there is an opportunity to re-engage with the British public and show them that there is a way forward. We can then bring them fully back on side. I trust that that is what our Government will now seek to do.
I had not originally intended to take part in the debate, but Members will recognise that I have been here at different stages of it. Given that a few minutes are left, I would like to make a couple of points. I should say that I am not one who speaks regularly on military or defence matters and that I recognise the incredible range of expertise, passion and informed comment from many hon. Members today. I have certainly learned a lot from it.
I rise mainly to put my own position on the record and to reflect the difficulty—it has already been mentioned, and many Members will face it—of the choice before us when it comes to the vote. I am certainly not someone who wants to see our troops leave overnight or tomorrow; nor do I want to detract from the incredible courage and commitment of our forces in Afghanistan, many of whom I have met over the years in various contexts. Equally, however, I am unhappy at the position whereby opposing the motion could be interpreted as being unsupportive of our forces, while supporting this wholly unqualified motion could be used in the years to come to justify the claim that full unqualified support was given to our Afghanistan strategy.
As someone who intends to oppose the motion, I do not view doing so as meaning that I am not supportive of the troops. Rather, it is not supportive of the continued deployment of the troops. I am very supportive of the troops and have no doubt about their ability to win any military conflicts, but I believe that the strategy that they have been given is likely to fail on a political and economic basis. I shall vote against the motion, but I do not see it as demonstrating a lack of support for the troops.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I shall explain my position, which I am sure is also the position of many others who may oppose the motion.
We have been in Afghanistan for nine years, and given the development of the war and conflict there, it is worth bearing in mind that back in 2001 only a small number of Members had any idea of an intention to commit ourselves to action in Afghanistan 10, 15 or 20 years hence. The wish of the British people is also to see an early end to our involvement in Afghanistan. Therefore, I want to put on record my full support and recognition of the heroism of our troops and forces over the years, and my wish not to see a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan that does not allow some transition. However, I cannot support a motion that is unqualified in its support for continued deployment, and for that reason I will vote against it.
It is a great pleasure to wind up the debate, which is the third tabled by the Backbench Business Committee on behalf of Back Benchers. Excellent contributions have been made on both sides of the House, and division in the debate has been not on party lines but across the House. A range of experience has been reflected and some impassioned contributions made.
It was important that the Backbench Business Committee chose as its third debate the topic of Afghanistan. We heard repeatedly today that the House, rather than the Government or the Opposition, has not had an opportunity to put on record its view on Afghanistan and our continued presence there. The number of Members who not only contributed but sat here listening, on a Thursday afternoon, throughout a general debate on a quite general topic, has been phenomenal. Over halfway through the debate, 50 to 70 Members were still in the Chamber, which is unusual for a debate of any nature, and is testament to the importance attributed to the subject of Afghanistan by the Backbench Business Committee and Back Benchers.
Several Members mentioned the issue of the motion itself. It was important to the Committee to choose a motion that was votable and general. The wording—the inclusion of the word “continued” came up again and again—was deliberately wide and open, to encourage as many Members to take part in the debate, and to mention as many issues, as possible. In future, I hope that Members will table amendments to such motions that pick up some of the nuances and represent individual Members’ views.
Perhaps such suggestions should be put to the Backbench Business Committee so that, in deciding what motion should be tabled, it can be advised by Members of the House on what the best phraseology might be. The Committee, of which I am a member, considered the issue prior to the recess, when perhaps the motion appeared to be a reflection of Government policy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and he is right. Next Wednesday, the Committee will take its first public representation session to hear the subjects that Back Benchers want debated.
The Backbench Business Committee, on behalf of Back Benchers, has provided the opportunity for Back Benchers to debate the topic of Afghanistan, and now it is down to the House to decide.
Question put, That the amendment be made:
Main Question put.
That this House supports the continued deployment of UK armed forces in Afghanistan.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wonder if you have been asked by the Chancellor of the Exchequer or any other Treasury Minister if they could give a statement to the House. I saw the Chancellor talking to you a few minutes ago and I was hoping that he was seeking your permission to give a statement. Within the last 10 minutes the BBC has run a story from the Chancellor of the Exchequer that there would be additional public spending cuts of £4 billion. If that announcement could be made to the BBC, do you agree, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it should have been made to the House first? Frankly, I do not recall that figure appearing anywhere in the coalition agreement.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the business of the House is not a matter for the Chair. I have not been notified of any additional business. The Speaker has made it clear that any additional announcements by the Government should be made to the House first. I am sure that Members on the Treasury Bench have heard the hon. Gentleman’s point, and if there is anything in that point of order I am sure they will bring forward the necessary proposals.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I seek through you to put it on the record that although I was present during both Divisions I did not go through the formal process of voting in both Lobbies, but would like it on the record that I abstained on both the main motion and the amendment?