[Relevant Documents: Fourth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2010-12, on the UK’s foreign policy approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan, HC 514, and the Government response, Cm 8064.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2012, for expenditure by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £1,279,625,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 921,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £19,718,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £1,188,315,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Mr Vara.)
The British involvement in Afghanistan has been long and costly, and whether it has achieved its stated objectives is a moot point, but that does not imply that it was the wrong decision or that we should not be there.
In the aftermath of 9/11, it was essential to deny al-Qaeda a base to operate; the intervention was essential; and there was a United Nations-mandated coalition of the willing led by the United States, but as usual we were in close support. Following the general election, the coalition Government very much followed the Afghanistan policy of their predecessor, but two important changes did take place: first, the establishment of the National Security Council to co-ordinate Whitehall’s Afghan war effort; and, crucially, the publicly announced decision to set 2015 as the deadline for withdrawing British combat troops.
Both initiatives were welcome, although famously the National Security Council did not make the withdrawal decision. Nonetheless, the key policy objective in Afghanistan mirrors that of the Government’s predecessor: Afghanistan should not again become a place from where al-Qaeda and other extremists can attack the UK and British interests.
Achieving that objective is said to rely on four main goals: a more stable and secure Afghanistan; the conditions for withdrawal of UK combat troops by 2015; an Afghan-led political settlement that represents all Afghan people; and regional political and security co-operation that supports a stable Afghanistan. They were the right objectives then, and they are the right objectives today.
Some progress is being made on all those fronts. Increasingly, the Afghan army and security forces are taking over control of the districts, troops are beginning to withdraw and there is talk of a political-led settlement, all of which is of course welcome.
I just wonder whether we need to reassess the policy objectives. The Foreign Affairs Committee received evidence to suggest that the core foreign policy justification for the UK’s continued presence in Afghanistan—that it is in the interests of UK national security—may have been resolved some time ago. There is a big difference between the Taliban, who are locals who want their country back, and al-Qaeda, which is made up of hard-nosed international terrorists. Given the apparently limited strength of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, its desire to continue to use Afghanistan as a base is questionable. The tracking down and shooting of Osama bin Laden adds weight to that argument.
When the Prime Minister appeared before the Liaison Committee, I asked if he was still receiving intelligence that al-Qaeda in Afghanistan remained a threat to UK national security. He confirmed that it did, and he said the same when I put a similar point to him this afternoon. I said that that poses a dilemma for Parliament. It seems that the justification for Britain’s most important policy initiative is based on an intelligence assessment that has not been subject to parliamentary scrutiny. The ghost of the Iraq war hangs over us. Under the circumstances, I suggest that the intelligence is shown to a committee of Privy Councillors or the Intelligence and Security Committee, which can report to the House on whether it agrees with the assessment.
In the meantime, the military campaign continues. The Taliban are being pushed back, and so they should be with the firepower ranged against them. However, I question whether they can be defeated militarily. The Foreign Affairs Committee has considerable doubts over whether the international security assistance force’s counter-insurgency campaign is succeeding. We question the fundamental assumption that success in Afghanistan can be achieved through a strategy of clear, hold and build. The Taliban are, at heart, Afghans who resent the presence of occupying forces. It is questionable whether the USA’s full military onslaught on the Taliban is necessary to deny al-Qaeda a place from which to operate. The key thrust of the Committee’s report is that we should encourage ISAF, and the United States in particular, to engage in a political reconciliation process. There is little support outside the United States for continuing the surge started by George Bush and continued by President Obama. The continued military pummelling of the Taliban is, in all certainty, counter-productive in achieving a political settlement.
The recent announcement by President Karzai that the United States is involved in reconciliation negotiations is a good start. However, talking to the Taliban is not easy. There is no address or phone number, and the hard-liners and the top brass of the Taliban have turned their backs on any reconciliation attempts. None the less, in my judgment there is a split in the Taliban between the hard-liners and the moderates. Those who are most opposed to a political settlement tend to be more on the fringes of the movement—the uneducated and the unemployed. Those who are more focused on the future prosperity of their country are prepared to talk. We should exploit the divisions in the Taliban and engage in the process of reconciliation as soon as possible. The US draw-down of troops will help in that, as will the additional numbers announced by the Prime Minister during his visit this week. We have to set the tone and show that there is light at the end of the tunnel for Afghans who want to bring up their children and enjoy the prosperity that we are used to in the western world.
Combined with that, we must continue to support the Afghan army, police and security services. Huge strides have been made to bring those forces up to a level of competence that will allow them to maintain law and order in their country. There will be a large army and a large police force. The Prime Minister said this afternoon that for every one troop that is withdrawn, two will go in from the Afghan police and security services. Those services have a long way to go to achieve the operational standards that we see elsewhere. The exit of NATO combat troops will not be smooth, and the handover will be fraught with problems, but the sheer size of the Afghan forces should be sufficient to hold the line against the inevitable counter-attack once the occupying forces have left.
The US draw-down is bigger than expected, and 33,000 troops will have been withdrawn by this time next year. The President of the United States says that the US has crippled al-Qaeda’s capabilities and been successful in its mission in Afghanistan, claiming that Kabul is much safer than it was before despite continued attacks such as the one on the Intercontinental hotel last week.
Interestingly, the President has been criticised on both sides in Congress, with his opponent in the last presidential election, John McCain, arguing that the current troop levels should be maintained for at least another year to accomplish their objectives. On the other hand, the Democrats have argued that the President has been too timid. The cynic in me says that that probably suggests he has got it about right.
However, the military do not agree with the President either. We may raise eyebrows here when senior military officers enter the political arena, and we may wish that they would do the fighting while we do the talking, but they have nothing on what has been going on in the United States. Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, quite openly said that he advocated a less aggressive draw-down schedule. General Petraeus, the former head of the armed forces in Afghanistan, who is about to become the director of the CIA, said that he, too, had recommended a more gradual withdrawal. Marine General James Mattis, commander of US central command, who was General Petraeus’s boss and immediate superior, agreed. With friends like that, who needs enemies? I respect the President for his courage in rejecting the arguments of his military and continuing with the draw-down.
The House should be in no doubt that this is going to be messy. Security incidents in Afghanistan continue, such as the tragic loss of Scott McLaren from the Royal Regiment of Scotland. However, the provinces and urban districts continue to be transferred to Afghan forces, which shows progress towards transition.
No one likes to engage in talks with an enemy that has been killing one’s own armed forces, and I share the view of Hillary Clinton, who has said that she finds the need to have contact with the Taliban “distasteful, but worthwhile”. It is not a pleasant business, but it is a necessary one. I have no doubt that any negotiations leading to a political settlement must be Afghan-led, despite the Taliban saying that they want to speak directly with the United States. So far, top US officials have sidestepped that, and I hope the Government will now encourage them to get more fully involved and get a forum up and running with the full involvement of Afghanistan, the United States and Pakistan.
Relations with Pakistan are difficult, but if we think we have problems, nothing compares with the US-Pakistan relationship, which is at rock bottom. I have to confess that I am quite shaken by the level of mistrust between Pakistan and the United States. The situation has been exacerbated by the shooting of Osama bin Laden. I personally have no doubt whatever that that was a necessary step for the United States to take, and I quite understand why such sensitive information could not be shared with anybody. As a result, I am quite puzzled by Pakistan’s aggressive reaction and apparent failure to understand why the US did not share the information with it.
Pakistan has difficult decisions to make. It has deployed troops in Waziristan and the north-west frontier, but my instinct is that its heart is still not in it. Another illustration is the US use of drones, which are fearsome weapons that are turning out to be remarkably effective—so much so that everybody wants them. So why is Pakistan ordering the United States to take its drone bases out of the country?
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Pakistan has suffered huge losses, and at a high level, from the activities of the Taliban and other terrorists? That partly demonstrates its level of commitment.
Yes, which makes it more the mystery why it does not take stronger action against the Taliban. It is not how to get into the hole that counts but how to get out of it, and I believe that Pakistan is still worrying about how it got into the hole. I would encourage it to engage fully and totally in denying the Taliban a base in its own country.
On the other side of the equation, the US should recognise that Pakistan is a proud and sensitive country. We all admire the US for its can-do attitude and for getting things done, but there comes a moment every now and again when it must think about how others will feel about that, and work with the grain, despite its dominant position on the world stage.
The UK does have a role in all that. There are now 3 million Pakistanis living in the UK. Our embassy in Islamabad is making every effort, but diplomatic opportunities exist to win Pakistan’s confidence in our genuine desire to help them. Can we help with textile exports or commercially in another way? Can we help it to break down the barriers with India? Above all, we should encourage the US to adopt a policy on Pakistan that takes account of Pakistan’s security concerns, and we should help the US to play a constructive role in the reconciliation process.
I am under no illusion about the difficulties involved in respect of any of those countries. None the less, the Foreign Affairs Committee commends the UK Government for its advocacy of the regional approach to political reconciliation. Currently, the conditions for political settlement are virtually non-existent, but if ever there was a time to make the effort, it is now.
Order. There is no formal time limit on Back-Bench speeches, but I have something like nine people on my list, and I am looking to call the Opposition to wind-up at approximately 6.30 pm, so Members can do the arithmetic for themselves. A certain self-restraint would be appreciated.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway). I thank him for, and congratulate him on, the quality of his Committee’s reports, particularly the last report on this subject.
It was a disappointment to hear the Prime Minister present a statement that was very much the traditional one of unreasonable optimism, of exaggerating the threat of terrorism from the Taliban, which is almost non-existent—there is a threat from al-Qaeda, but not from the Taliban—and of ignoring altogether the most optimistic sign: namely, the possibility of talks with the Taliban.
We have heard so much accentuating the positives and ignoring the negatives. The Prime Minister spoke of the progress with the Afghan army and police, but said not a word about the fact that NATO delivered the final blow by bringing the helicopter in following the recent attack on the Intercontinental hotel, and made no mention of the group of UN workers who were lynched by a mob, even though they were being protected by the Afghan police and army. Nor did he mention the most depressing incident, when 500 prisoners, many of them Taliban who were captured at grievous cost in blood and treasure, escaped, almost certainly with the collusion of local Afghans. Those 500 are now free to attack our soldiers again.
I am concerned greatly by our attitude. We are trying to deny the truth and to protect ourselves, but there are no good reasons for that. It is extremely wounding to the families of the bereaved to suggest that the cause in which their loved ones died bravely was a noble but vain one, but we must get that across. The Prime Minister has a difficult task to convince the country that we must not only talk to but negotiate with the enemy. That will be difficult for the relatives or loved ones of the fallen.
It is disappointing that the Prime Minister did not give a clear answer on the hurt that will be caused if the plan to take the remains of the fallen to Brize Norton continues. They would then be taken via a circuitous route that avoids the most populated areas. Local people, supported by many of the families of the bereaved, say that they want and appreciate the opportunity to give public expression to their grief, as happened in Wootton Bassett. The public would like to pay their respects as they have done before. No impression should be left that there is any attempt by the Government or local people to deny the country the chance to pay its tributes and accept the true effects of war.
That has been done twice before. Last year on a Monday and a Tuesday, the names of the fallen were announced, but that was at a time when the House did not have the maximum attendance, or the attention focused on it, that it has at Prime Minister’s Question Time when those names are announced. It is impossible now, because of the rules of the House, to do what I have done in the past, which is to read out the names of the fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is now forbidden. I would not look forward to doing that again, though, because to read the names of the fallen in Afghanistan and the thousands with serious injuries would take about an hour and a half, if I was to include their ranks and give a suitable pause to each one. None the less, that is the most effective way of getting across to the House the consequences of decisions that we took.
I was grateful to see the report on Helmand on BBC 2. It is worth remembering that, as has been repeated, politically we went into Helmand because senior politicians believed we would be there for three years and hoped that not a shot would be fired. We are grateful for the evidence given to the Foreign Affairs Committee and to the Public Administration Committee in which we saw the incredibly trivial reasons we went into Helmand. At that point, we had lost two soldiers in combat—five in other regions—but now it is 375. A written report to the FAC attributed it to the hubris of the Foreign Office, which felt that it might suddenly become a footnote. The conflict in Iraq was coming to an end and it wanted to be in the limelight. The military use the expression, “We must use them or lose them”, knowing that if their battle groups are suddenly stood down, there is the threat of major cuts in a future defence review.
Although I disagree with my hon. Friend, I have huge respect for his principled stance. However, when the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff came before the Defence Committee only three weeks ago, that was not the reason they gave for the Army going into Helmand. They gave completely different reasons: there was a job that had to be done, and if it was not done by the British, it would fall to one of our partners in the international security assistance force.
The evidence is in the reports from both Committees—in evidence from a distinguished former ambassador in Kabul and from two senior people in the civil service to the PAC. The evidence is clear. One witness said that no attention was paid to the national interest. It is difficult to see where on earth the national interest lay in stirring up a hornets’ nest in Helmand, but we know the result. This was a peaceful province. We went in to ensure reconstruction, but the result, tragically, was the loss of an unknown number of lives—possibly 9,000—and there was no reconstruction. Instead there was destruction on a massive scale from collateral damage alone. We set up posts that we defended at huge cost in lives to our own people and to the others.
This is a calamity on a scale nearly unprecedented in our military history—and that is saying something. When we went in, we did not take a decision in the House, but we had a debate. In that debate, someone said that this would be worse than the charge of the Light Brigade. This time Blair to the left of them, Bush to the right of them, holler’d and thunder’d:
“Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death”,
into the mouth of Helmand, drove the 5,000. Before, there were two dead; now it is 375. That is three times the number killed in the charge of the Light Brigade and twice the number killed in the Iraq war, and I challenge anyone to come up with any improvements that resulted from the incursion into Helmand. What is better now? It was peaceful when we went in. There was no threat.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the chance to intervene on him again. The Chief of the General Staff, Peter Wall, and the Chief of the Defence Staff made it absolutely clear to the Defence Committee that if we had not gone into Helmand, the Taliban would have moved north towards Kabul. It is completely untrue to say that Helmand was a peaceful province; or rather, it was peaceful only because the Taliban had complete control over the area.
I was not present on the Committee, but I saw the sitting on the Parliament channel and was profoundly unimpressed by the evidence given. However, I do not want to dwell on this issue; I want to give other people a chance to speak—I have the advantage of speaking early. I believe that at some point an investigation has to be conducted into why we went into Helmand. Of course it cannot be done now, while we are still there, but I believe that the story revealed will be one of military incompetence and political weakness. We are in the position now—the hopeful time—of talking to the Taliban. I do not know why the Prime Minister does not emphasise this more, but for the first time we are in the position of taking practical steps to build peace that would result in bringing our troops home.
The alternative is that we are currently in a period like that the Americans found themselves in in 1970 and 1971, when they knew that the war was coming to an end in Vietnam. We know that there is no happy ending in Afghanistan, and we should not build up the prospect of an Afghanistan that will somehow be like a Scandinavian democracy or anything of the sort. The ending will be messy.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I apologise for missing the first part of his speech. Does he not think that after 10 years in Afghanistan, the fact that the Prime Minister now says that there has to be negotiations, including with the Taliban—something that has been patently obvious for a long time—is an indication of just what a military and political disaster this whole thing has been?
I am sure that that will be the judgment of history. I am afraid that we in this House will be seen as not having taken the decisions that we should either. We have not challenged our continuing presence in Afghanistan or the continual sacrifice of the lives of our brave soldiers. This has been a bad episode in our history. Tragically, just as we saw one rotten Government in Afghanistan brought down in 2001—they were not as rotten as the one before, who included the Mujahedeen—the current Government might well be replaced in five years by another rotten Government, and we will ask ourselves, “What was the sacrifice for?” We are now in the position that General Kerry, now Senator Kerry, described in ’71 when he asked himself the agonising question, “Who will be the last soldier I will order to die for a politician’s mistake?”
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), as we have similar views on this issue.
As those Committee colleagues who are here will know, I voted against this report. It will come as no surprise to the majority of Members present that I come to this afternoon’s debate as a sceptic about our mission generally. Having cautioned against our deployment in Afghanistan and voted against the Government’s continued policy—in the one opportunity that we had to debate and vote on the issue, last year—I remain deeply worried about our progress generally. To reflect briefly on the past, our intervention defied all the lessons of history. We fundamentally underestimated the task and we under-resourced it accordingly. We have been playing catch-up every since. Having served as a platoon commander in South Armagh during the 1980s, I have no doubt that the mission suffered in particular from low troop density levels. We have suffered as a result.
My criticism is not levelled at the troops. We all know that they have done everything that could have been asked of them. They and we can be proud of what they have achieved. Rather, my criticism is levelled at the US and UK Governments, who have failed because they have not recognised two fundamental distinctions, which even at this late stage could salvage something positive from this otherwise sorry affair. First, we have failed to distinguish between the key objective of keeping al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan and the four main goals on which that objective is said to depend. Those goals include the achievement of a stable and secure Afghanistan. In fact, the key objective and the attainment of those goals have become confused to the extent that the goals have become ends in themselves. This has given rise to mission creep and loss of focus. The talk of nation building, women’s rights and human rights are but three examples. In effect, we have become missionaries instead of focusing on the mission.
In my view, this confusion permeates the report. For example, the report assesses progress against each of the so-called goals instead of focusing on the key objective. We go into great detail in the report about what we are doing on women’s rights and human rights, for example. The goals are a means to an end, however, not the end in itself. Our main mission in Afghanistan is not to build a better country but to defeat al-Qaeda, and our losing sight of that fact has cost us dearly. That is why I voted against the report, having tried unsuccessfully to make a series of amendments. We are not in Afghanistan to build a better country; we are there to defeat al-Qaeda.
This confusion of purpose has gone to the top of Government. When the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) was Prime Minister, he claimed that our troops were in Afghanistan to protect the citizens of London from terrorism, yet in almost the same sentence he threatened President Karzai with troop withdrawal if he did not end the corruption in his Government. That clearly illustrated the confusion, and I pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman in Prime Minister’s questions back in 2008 that those two statements did not fit well together.
Last year, the coalition Government gave a deadline of 2015 for troop withdrawal. Again, that is inconsistent. If our commitment is conditions-based—in other words, if it is to defeat al-Qaeda—one cannot logically place a deadline on it. Yet the Government have made it clear that all combat troops will be withdrawn by the due date, regardless of the situation on the ground. It is therefore little wonder that Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers have admitted that their communications strategy needs to be reviewed, as it appears that Joe Public has still not got the message. Someone should perhaps ask why, after 10 years, the message is somewhat confused. Could it be that the mission itself is incoherent? If that is the case, there is little point in shooting the messenger.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of any evidence whatever that the streets of London have been made safer by our presence in Afghanistan? Or does he believe that our involvement has caused radicalisation and perhaps made London a more dangerous place, and that we need to look to our foreign policy if we want to make ourselves secure?
The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point. I certainly think that our recent aggressive interventions have radicalised parts of the Muslim world against us—a fact that I think was confirmed by a former head of MI5 in giving evidence. I certainly do not think that our involvement has helped our situation, and I see no concrete evidence that the situation has improved in regard to the threat on the streets of London. If I am wrong about that, I am sure that the Minister will correct me.
The bottom line is that there is confusion of purpose, and the first distinction that we are failing to make is that between achieving the objective and the four main goals.
The second distinction that the Government are failing to explore rigorously is that between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The relationship is complex and not well understood. There is no shortage of evidence—some was submitted to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee—to suggest that the Taliban would not necessarily allow al-Qaeda back into the country if the Taliban were to regain control of certain regions. They know that, ultimately, al-Qaeda led to their downfall. Indeed, US intelligence sources suggest that fewer than 100 al-Qaeda fighters and certainly no al-Qaeda bases are left in the country. To all intents and purposes, we have achieved our mission some time ago—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), the Chairman of the Select Committee, made well. We all know that the Taliban are not a homogeneous group, but there are fundamental differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda—yet the threats from al-Qaeda and the Taliban have become conflated and almost synonymous.
Given the distinctions that the hon. Gentleman is making, why does he think the Taliban allowed al-Qaeda to establish themselves and a base in Afghanistan?
The bottom line is that there are various factions of the Taliban, but the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda is very complex and not well understood. I could return the question and ask: how is it that, given that the fundamental differences between the two are clear, we are failing to explore them? At the end of the day, peace is not made with friends but with enemies. We have got to initiate talks.
These two distinctions—the distinction between the key objective and the four main goals, and the distinction between the Taliban and al-Qaeda—are very important. If we are trying to build a more stable and secure Afghanistan and make it a better country, we will in all probability have to beat the Taliban. If, on the other hand, we are just trying to make sure that Afghanistan is free of al-Qaeda, we might not have to defeat the Taliban. That shows the importance of the two distinctions. What they lead one on to believe is the need for the Americans and the British to open meaningful and non-conditional talks with the Taliban in order to explore common ground.
It is certainly the understanding of the Defence Committee that our role is to place the Afghan national security forces on a footing where they can deal with security. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is not about beating the Taliban, as the mission goal is to get the ANSF to a point where they can take control of their country.
In an ideal world I would agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the report makes it clear that there are severe doubts about the ability of the Afghan national security forces to take over once we leave, despite all the money and the training that have gone in. The fact that the ANSF could not protect UN personnel in areas that had been handed over and were deemed to be safe illustrates the problem that we face. There is not a uniform view on this matter, as it is worthy of note that there are severe reservations about whether the Afghan security forces will be in a position to take on that role, come the deadline.
Suggestions have been made that preliminary talks have taken place. This is welcome news. The delisting from UN sanctions of 18 former senior members of the Taliban is perhaps part of that process. However, I have concerns about the substantive nature of these talks. Until very recently, the American view has been that America will talk to the Taliban only if they lay down their arms and accept the constitution. Frankly, that is living in a dream world. The Taliban will not be beaten and they will not lay down their arms.
History suggests—we could look at counter-insurgency campaigns in Malaya, for example—that not one of the preconditions for a successful counter-insurgency campaign exists in Afghanistan. There is no control of the borders; the troop density levels are insufficient; we do not have the support of the majority of the population; and we certainly do not have a credible Government in place. Not one of the preconditions exists. The Taliban are not going to lay down their arms and simply walk away, particularly now that we have declared our hand with the deadlines.
I believe that the time has come for the British Government to press the Americans to have non-conditional talks with the Taliban. That is crucial. Just holding preliminary talks will get us nowhere. They have to be non-conditional. We need to remind the Americans that it is possible to talk and fight at the same time, as we proved in Northern Ireland. However, it was the very nature of those talks—the fact that they were unconditional—which played such a key role in bringing the IRA into the peace process. The American wish to see the Taliban and al-Qaeda sever all contact must be part of a settlement, rather than a precondition. I believe that the decapitation strikes on the Taliban leadership should end, because there must be a degree of trust in the negotiations. If the last 10 years have shown us anything, they have shown us the Taliban’s ability to replace one generation of leaders with another.
Given the cost to the United States in blood and treasure, this will not be easy for US politicians. There will be those in the Democratic party who will think about human rights, women’s rights and so forth, and there will be those in the Republican party who will not want to talk to terrorists. At the end of the day, however, holding unconditional talks is the only way forward. Our brave soldiers can only buy time; now it is time for the US politicians to step up to the plate.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron). I wish that we had heard from him in earlier years, because his calm and rational approach was very impressive. I look forward to hearing the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis): his idea of establishing sovereign bases that we should seek to control, but without going out on patrol to have our men killed, is entirely sound. I also look forward to hearing the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who has direct experience of the region.
The plain fact is that this is not a winnable war. I found the Prime Minister’s metaphor about al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, and Sinn Fein rather bizarre and ill-judged; but judgment is not, perhaps, the Prime Minister’s strongest suit at the moment. We are talking about a huge mess: an intervention undertaken for sincere and decent reasons that is now terminating as so many other interventions throughout recent and older history often have. I do not think that we withdrew cleanly from India and Pakistan, from Aden or Cyprus, or from any number of situations. The same could even be said of Northern Ireland. Some might observe that the almost apartheid segregation between Catholic and Protestant communities is hardly a tribute to community and society building in parts of Belfast and Derry.
The real problem is the eternal question posed by, I think, Lord Salisbury, who said, “If we listen to the generals, we will never be safe.” Clemenceau, 20 years later, said, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” We have allowed our Afghanistan policy to be over-driven and over-controlled by the military: of that there can be no doubt. My hon. Friend from Scotland who is on the Defence Committee quoted the generals who had spoken to the Committee—
Well, it is nice to have a true Scot here, rather than a nationalist.
I do not know of any recorded moment when any British general giving evidence to any parliamentary or public inquiry has admitted he got things wrong. It is in their contract that generals are always right. If they are let down, it is the fault of the politicians. Before the election we were told continually by Labour Members that it was the Prime Minister’s fault for not providing enough Chinook helicopters and reinforcements, and that Ministers were responsible for the fact that we were not succeeding in Afghanistan. It is a tribute to my colleagues on the Front Bench that they have not adopted those rather shoddy tactics—as some might have been tempted to do—in respect of the handling of the conflict since May last year.
As a member of the Defence Committee and the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, I can tell my right hon. Friend that when the Chief of the Defence Staff and Chief of the General Staff appeared before the Defence Committee, they did put their hands up and say mistakes had been made when going into Helmand. Perhaps that was the first time that that happened, but the Army has admitted it made mistakes.
I am glad to hear it, but frankly—I do not want to quote Bismarck and the Balkans and Pomeranian grenadiers—I weep every Wednesday when the poor Prime Minister has to come to the Dispatch Box and yet again read out the name, or perhaps names, of a dead British soldier, and for what? I cannot find an answer to that question.
To give the Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), and his colleagues their due, they admit that, because one of their report’s key conclusions, on page 83, is that
“at a strategic level, we seriously question whether the efforts expended…have a direct connection to the UK’s core objective, namely the national security of the UK”.
That is absolutely right; the Select Committee Chairman has summed it up there—it is written down. It is a Foreign Affairs Committee conclusion, and it should be at the forefront of all of our discussions on Afghanistan. There is no longer any connection between UK national security and our men going out on patrol and being shot dead by the Taliban.
The Select Committee’s excellent and thorough report contains an account of a fine passage of questioning, which resulted in a most extraordinary confession by the Foreign Secretary. Committee members were trying to find out who is actually taking decisions on Afghanistan, and specifically in this instance the announcement to withdraw—or retreat—by 2015. Please can we avoid the absurd new euphemism of “draw-down”? It is a retreat and a withdrawal; that is what it is, so let us revert to plain English. The Foreign Secretary said that that decision was taken collectively in the National Security Council. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) asked whether the Defence Secretary had been consulted, and the Foreign Secretary replied:
“I am sure the Defence Secretary was consulted, but I cannot tell you when everybody was consulted. You would have to ask the Prime Minister.”
The Committee Chairman asked whether the Foreign Secretary could confirm
“that the decision wasn’t actually made in the Council.”
The Foreign Secretary said:
“It wasn’t a formal item in the National Security Council.”
This gives a fascinating insight into the mechanism of government. Where was the decision taken—by whom and how? We know it was no longer taken on a sofa, but we are none the wiser—[Interruption.] I have not been invited to No. 10 so I cannot check whether the sofa has gone. We do not know who took the decision and on what terms.
I would argue that we should be getting out a lot faster. Canada is out, the Netherlands is out, and Belgium is pulling out half of its men. The presence of international security assistance force-NATO allies in Afghanistan is now getting thinner and thinner, and, yes, it will be a withdrawal. No general wants to be the one who folds up the flag, climbs the ladder to the top of the embassy building and climbs in a helicopter and leaves, but stopping a war is, perhaps, as great a military art as starting one.
It would be fascinating to look at the official record of the Russian Duma for the 1980s, when the Russians were convinced that they were bringing a civilising mission to Afghanistan, to see whether debates such as this one were taking place. Then, of course, they faced the external foe of the Mujaheddin paid for by President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. There has been little reference to the fact that the Mujaheddin of the 1980s was a product of western foreign policy. We have heard in the past couple of days that Mr Reagan won the cold war, and part of that winning presumably included the driving of the Soviet Union and its troops out of Afghanistan. If that was the case, every Russian would wish that Mr Reagan had won it a lot earlier; they perhaps believe that the red army should never have gone into Afghanistan. However, the money sent by the west to create the Mujaheddin sowed dragons’ teeth that turned into dragons on 9/11 and 7/7, and it would be good if the people examining the history of that era had the honesty to say so.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that after Soviet forces went into Afghanistan there was a considerable number of unreported demonstrations by the families of soldiers who had died there, and that there is a huge memorial movement within Russia today on behalf of those who are still not recognised for the sacrifices they made?
Yes, indeed. That conflict contributed to the undermining of the Soviet Union, but in the very worst sense, in that it required the senseless sacrifice of a lot of young Russian men finally to persuade Mr Gorbachev and his new Soviet leaders that the action in Afghanistan had to come to an end. In some ways, I wish that we had been able to defeat communism in Vietnam, because the period after the retreat of the United States was a horribly cruel one in Vietnam—we saw what happened with the boat people, the re-education camps and the killings and tortures. But there was no question of our remaining longer in the vain hope that we could have created a more stable, orderly or democratic regime.
The Select Committee’s report stated:
“We welcome the Government’s attempt to engage more pro-actively”—
I never know what that adverb means—
“with parliamentarians on Afghanistan.”
That might interest the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I understand that a new poem is doing the rounds there. It goes as follows, “From Kandahar to Kabul, the whispers grow and grow, stand by Pashtuns and Tajiks, here comes Mr Speaker Bercow.” We will see whether our Speaker is going to be the magic solution and whether he will be sent down there to spread lightness and parliamentary tolerance among the peoples of Afghanistan. I do not think that anybody can move an immediate amendment and call a Division on that subject—[Interruption.] Perhaps one of his deputies would be more appropriate.
When I talk about “the west” I mean the broad family of democracies—north America, Europe, and our friends in Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea. As long as the west is mired in Afghanistan, we will not be able to promote our core interest now, which is to recover economic strength and to recover confidence in the need to have an adequate security profile against the rise of authoritarian powers, which are arming fast, which might, at some stage, threaten our interests and which, because we are lost in the wildernesses of west Asia, we are unable to see coming over the horizon.
In the few years after America withdrew from Vietnam things were unclear, but for the 20 years after 1980 America led the world in many ways. It did so economically, in inventing new forms of technology and in expanding many human freedoms to do with personal liberty and respect for multicultural and multi-ethnic cohabitation. Right now, America is bogged down in this wretched war. The UK is a minor ally of America and the sooner we are out of this war, the better. I sincerely say to those on the Treasury Bench that if they look at history, they will find that it has very often been the Conservative party that has had a greater sense of geopolitical reality than some of the opposing parties and has known when enough was enough. I would like us out before 2015.
Finally, the title of the report we are debating is “The UK’s foreign policy approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan”. It is very detailed on Afghanistan, and I congratulate the Committee on that, but it does not in any way address foreign policy towards Pakistan. Pakistan hardly gets a mention and is seen only in relation to Afghanistan. That might be the way in which the title of the report was chosen—I am not criticising the members of the Committee—but we need a policy on Pakistan and part of that must involve telling the truth to our great friends in India. As long as they have 500,000 people in an oppressive occupation of part of the region—I am choosing my words carefully—called Kashmir, there will be no possibility that the people or the Government and military of Pakistan, however constituted, will not see that as a direct threat to their identity and national interest. If 500,000 armed soldiers are camped on a country’s western border, that is where that country will have to put its troops.
Until we ask India to take a new approach to Kashmir and to take it off one of the world’s fault lines, we will not be in any position to ask Pakistan to take a new and more helpful approach on Afghanistan or on other issues. The western world, if I might use that term—the Euro-Atlantic world, let us say—has spent too long in majority Muslim countries creating giant armies. Whatever the motives for sending those armies originally, they are making matters worse. It is time to get out. I want to spare the Prime Minister, with his many problems, from ever again having to stand at that Dispatch Box to lament the loss of a British soldier’s life in a conflict of which we should no longer be part.
Order. We are running out of time and I have eight Members wishing to speak. I want to get everybody in, so will Members be courteous to each other and try to limit the length of their speeches?
It would be foolish for anyone to suggest that NATO had not made foolish mistakes with regard to Afghanistan in recent years, or that the matter will come to a conclusion in the way that would have been hoped. It is equally unwise, however, for the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) to suggest that the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will simply constitute a retreat, or for the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) to say that the whole presence in Afghanistan has been an unqualified failure.
Let me go back to the point that the House was reminded of by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron): we went into Afghanistan to ensure that the country could not be used again as a base by the Taliban. One only has to ask whether it was ever possible or realistic in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 for us not to have seen international action, given the Taliban’s refusal to deny sanctuary to al-Qaeda as a continuing base for terrorist operations at that time. The decision made at that time, with the unqualified approval of the United Nations Security Council, was the right one, and we should never lose sight of that fact. Mistakes have been made since then, as my hon. Friend has rightly pointed out, but the question today is not whether it was all a mistake but how we can maintain what has already been achieved.
I agree with those on both sides of the House who have said that al-Qaeda is now effectively out of Afghanistan. It is no longer able to use that country as a base, so there is no long-term rationale for the presence of combat troops there. That does not mean, however, that the matter is now entirely resolved. The question now is: how do we leave in a way that will not enable al-Qaeda to return? At the moment, we do not know whether by the time we leave there will be a coalition Government including the Taliban, or peace in Afghanistan—in which case we can be relatively relaxed that there will be no future for al-Qaeda there. It is equally possible either that the Taliban will not agree to a coalition Government and that we will leave without their being part of a joint agreement, or that they will be part of a coalition but will have their own agenda, which will be one that will not give us comfort.
Although I welcomed what the Prime Minister said today and have no difficulties with it so far as it went, it seemed to me that it left open certain serious gaps. He said that as far as the Government are concerned, our future relationship with Afghanistan after the withdrawal of our ground forces will be based on our diplomatic, developmental and trade relationships. He said that the only military dimension would be the support we would give to the development of a military academy. All of that is very sensible and desirable, but we have to ask about something that is not just a British problem, but primarily a problem for the United States. How can we help to ensure that an Afghan Government who may not have full control of all the territory of Afghanistan when we have withdrawn will be able to prevent the use of parts of the country that they might be unable to control, even with their fullest efforts, as a base for terrorist operations?
I believe that the international community, including Russia and China, should be arguing for two things. First, we should be asking for the basis of the withdrawal of combat forces to lead also to an agreement with the Afghan Government, because this can happen only with their support and agreement, and preferably to a treaty sanctified by the United Nations, for the continuing facility of air support for the Afghan Government if that should prove necessary. If there are areas of Afghanistan that the Government do not control, and if there is evidence that those areas have been infiltrated by al-Qaeda, we should have the legal authority—in co-operation with the Afghan Government and through the use of special forces and other means—to eliminate that threat if and when it arises.
We must remember that when the Taliban Government were eliminated, that was done not by NATO ground forces but by air power combined with Afghan Northern Alliance ground forces. In exactly the same way, at the end of current operations when all of our combat troops are withdrawn, having Afghan ground forces, which will be very strong, with the back-up of potential air support and the potential deployment of special forces purely to deal with terrorist threats, will be the way to provide the long-term security that the right hon. Member for Rotherham seemed to doubt would be available.
In the light of your comments, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall keep my comments very brief, but there is a second proposal that should also be part of the international response. We know that Russia and China are just as concerned about a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan as NATO or the west might be—for obvious reasons, given their own domestic and internal problems. What is needed for Afghanistan, as part of that country’s future, is an internationally recognised declaration of neutrality. Afghanistan should become a neutral state, rather in the way that Austria became a neutral state in 1955 as a way of ensuring the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from that country and the ability of that country to develop in peace. Austria is now in a situation very different from that of Afghanistan. Only by having regional support for an independent Afghanistan that cannot give sanctuary to terrorist forces will we have the level of confidence that we need to produce the desired result.
I am conscious that others want to speak, but may I gently put it to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, for whom I have immense respect when it comes to foreign affairs, that China and the Kremlin might not be totally unhappy to see America and the west bogged down as badly as we are in Afghanistan?
For other reasons, the right hon. Gentleman might be right, but we are not going to get bogged down because there will be a withdrawal of NATO forces. The Russians have said publicly, through the Foreign Minister, that a premature NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a disaster, so they are obviously concerned about the power vacuum that could result.
I believe that the real concern—this goes back to the struggles that there have been over Afghanistan for 150 to 200 years—is about Afghanistan’s future status. Of course the Russians and the Chinese will not wish to see Afghanistan as some American client state—why should they?—but there is no need for that to happen. It should not happen, and it must not be allowed to happen. Equally, Afghanistan will not be strong enough to defend itself without maximum international regional support from its neighbours—not just Russia and China, but India, Pakistan and Iran, all of which have an interest in the situation, and all of which could live with a truly neutral Afghanistan that was not the client state of any of the big powers.
We must not see the withdrawal of combat forces as the end of international military involvement. I hope that it will be, but there has to be a fall-back position if a terrorist threat re-emerges. The real solution is a combination of a treaty arrangement with the Afghan Government combined with an international status for Afghanistan, which the Afghan Government would welcome; they have already said that they would be interested in and attracted by such a proposal. That would give the kind of political and military security that ought to give confidence.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the best way of achieving progress in talks with the Taliban is to make those talks unconditional?
I do not have any privileged information, but I am pretty certain that they already are. Whatever the formal public position, there is no doubt that talks are going on and that Americans have been involved in discussions with the Taliban. I bet that they were not simply discussing what the agenda would be or what preconditions would apply. It is a slow steady process, and I am sure that it has begun. It should have begun some time ago, and I hope that it leads to progress, but we cannot assume that it will do so. Even with the best will on our part, there is no certainty that the Taliban will wish to co-operate. They may think that they can win without such an agreement, so we have to have a structure in place, both internationally and among western countries, that takes into account all the possibilities, including the Taliban not being willing to co-operate.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution. I had not planned to speak, but having listened to speeches from Government and Opposition Members, I felt compelled to bring some sanity to our discussions.
I am a member of the Select Committee on Defence, and I have decided not to read the report by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs because, as the House will know, we are producing our own report on Afghanistan and I thought that it might prejudice our inquiry—although I accept that there is probably a debate to be had about why two august Select Committees are doing reports on the same subject almost at the same time.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), who has left the Chamber, discussed, in a speech that did not just span 40 years but which seemed to go on for 40 years, the art of stopping the war. Perhaps I am being naive, but the way to do that is by winning the war, not by pulling out because we do not particularly like how it is going in the short term. I am slightly confused because I found myself agreeing more than would normally be the case with the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who offered a great deal of common sense on the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Defence Committee had the opportunity to visit the United States a couple of months ago, and we spent a week or so at various locations, including US Central Command, the Pentagon and Norfolk. We were privileged to visit the Walter Reed hospital, where we met a number of what the Americans call wounded warriors—their very brave men and women who have suffered life-changing injuries. The Committee was overwhelmed not just by the courage and sacrifice of those very young men and women but by the fact that many of them were determined, despite the horrific injuries that they had suffered, to go back to Afghanistan, both to be with their comrades in arms and because they genuinely believed, despite what they had been through, that it was a fight worth having. If they did not see it through, the sacrifices that they and their friends had made would have been for naught. I was humbled by our meeting with those brave men and women.
On our visit we also met General Mattis and General Allen, with whom the Foreign Affairs Committee and others in the House will be familiar. It is fair to say that we were pleased when President Obama announced that General Allen would succeed General Petraeus as commander in Afghanistan. If there is a lesson from the past 10 years, it is that continuity of command is crucial. There is no point in changing senior personnel and strategy every two or three years, whether in the military or in political leadership, and I hope that the Prime Minister will think carefully before he makes any moves in the next three years while the job moves towards completion.
I am uncomfortable with the Prime Minister’s statement this afternoon about withdrawal. There is an inconsistency in his logic. On the one hand he talked about conditions and progress, but he gave an arbitrary unilateral date of 31 December 2014, which sets a calendar against which the Taliban can measure progress. We should withdraw because the conditions allow us to do so, and because we have completed the missions on which we set out.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s general concern about an arbitrary time line, but if the US has set an arbitrary time line, given how dependent we are on the Americans’ scale of operation there, surely we have little choice but to match their arbitrary time line.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I shall respond briefly to it. It is not often that I say this, but the US has been more nuanced than we have. It is not something that the Americans do particularly well, and I am not sure that many of them can spell the word, but they have said that although that is their goal and they are beginning to pull out their surge troops, they are not absolutely committed to their end date.
There is a simple hypothetical question that the House may wish to consider: what if, as we get to the end of 2014, President Karzai says to President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron, who I expect will still be Prime Minister at that point, “We’re almost there but we need another six weeks, or another two months”? My understanding is that President Obama has made it clear that there would be an element of flexibility. Our Government have said that there is absolutely no flexibility. I think we need a plan B, and we need to have an element of flexibility built in, so that if it is a matter of extra weeks, or even a couple of months, a small number of combat troops may stay.
I share some concerns about the current strategy. Given that the support for the Taliban is, to some extent, a reaction to the presence of occupying forces, what would the hon. Gentleman define as completion?
As I said earlier, completion of the mission is training up the Afghan national security forces to the level of troops and police that can take forward their own security. It is not about defeating the Taliban. It is about leaving Afghanistan in a stable condition.
There have been some fascinating contributions to the debate, not least the eloquent and expert contribution by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind).
I start by doing what many others have done in the Chamber many times, but is still worth doing—paying tribute to our armed forces and, in particular, to those who have lost their lives. I would like to make special mention of Colour Serjeant Kevin Fortuna, who went to school in my constituency and who lost his life not that long ago in Afghanistan. I do not think that he died in vain. The presence of Colour Serjeant Fortuna and many others helps to achieve the central aim of our presence in Afghanistan, which is to protect the security of this country, but has also increased the chances of Afghanistan being a more stable and peaceful country at some stage in the future. If it is not a perfect democracy, that was never one of the core aims of our intervention.
That is why I am slightly puzzled by some elements of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report. It makes a couple of highly controversial claims. It states that the core justification of the UK presence, which was the threat posed to national security by al-Qaeda in particular, was removed some time ago, but somewhat contradictorily, it suggests that the security situation is still precarious. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington made exactly the right answer to that, which was that even if that was true, and even if al-Qaeda has been massively damaged in its capacity to regain control of Afghanistan, we still have to find a way of extricating ourselves from the position we are in now in a way that maximises the Afghan Government and society’s chances of stability and peace. We cannot simply walk out.
The report also suggests that there were wider secondary aims that have now proved unachievable, one of which was the defeat of the Taliban. Again, I am not sure that that was ever one of the core aims. The idea was to increase the capacity of the Afghan national security forces to contain and manage the security situation themselves. That is still an important aim as we proceed through withdrawal.
Rather paradoxically, the report goes on to query the 2015 deadline for withdrawal, but accepts that it has concentrated minds. That is an important function of deadlines, but in some ways the debate has moved on, especially after the Prime Minister’s announcement earlier today of further troop reductions. Quite a few hon. Members have pointed out the hard-headed realism that is needed, and the fact that we are not in a leadership position in Afghanistan—a role that effectively falls to the Americans, as we have only one 10th the number of forces that they have there. That leadership will inevitably pass at some stage to the Afghan Government and the people themselves. Therefore, the troop reductions that the Prime Minister announced today are not only right but inevitable.
Political reconciliation ought to be part of the process that we encourage as the withdrawal takes place, which is something that liberals and democrats might find difficult to accept. Would we have wanted political reconciliation with our enemies in previous wars? Has political reconciliation worked everywhere else it has been tried—in Zimbabwe, for example? If we support democracy, should we not defend it at all costs and recognise that there are non-Pashtun political leaders in Afghanistan who really do not want reconciliation with the Taliban at this stage?
I think that there is a role for political reconciliation if some of the points made in the report and elsewhere are acknowledged, including the importance of recognising the regional context and finding a solution that takes into account not only Pakistan and Iran, but India and Russia, and approaches the region on a wider scale. It should also encourage a political solution that recognises the complexity and diversity of Afghan society, its highly tribal structure and perhaps the need for less control from Kabul and a more decentralised approach. In that situation, such an approach to political reconciliation might be, as the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) described it, distasteful but worthwhile. It might not be successful, but in a regional context and with an attention to complexity and diversity, it might become more likely.
The UK’s role must be to support development, and preferably not just in militarily volatile areas, to support the institutions of government and society—such support ought to be, if anything, increasing—and to do whatever we can to embed universal human rights in Afghan politics and society, especially the rights of women, while accepting that ultimately that will not be our job, and that those responsibilities will have to pass to the Afghans themselves.
We have to encourage the same thing in the border areas of Pakistan. I commend to the Minister an extraordinary report that recently landed on my desk, produced by an organisation called the Community Appraisal and Motivation Programme, which I am happy to say is funded by the British high commission. That extremely revealing report explores in great detail opinions in the federally administered frontier tribal areas of Pakistan. It shows that there is, unfortunately, a high degree of hostility to British and American policy, but far from universal support for extremist or Salafist militancy. Of the respondents, 42% identified terrorist attacks as the main threat to life, 57% said suicide bombing was never justified, and there was support for military operations by the Pakistani army. The BBC World Service was rated highly as a source of information, and the same kind of attention was given to issues such as education and schools as we would expect to find among people all over the world.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I cannot, because of the time and because I am drawing my remarks to a close.
We must have a realistic approach, but in some senses a more optimistic one, that accepts that the whole debate on Afghanistan is moving into a different phase, but in which we are still determined to support the stability and peace of Afghan society.
We are leaving, and that is a very difficult and painful fact. We are not leaving entirely, but we are leaving combat operations, as the Prime Minister has made clear. It is the correct decision, but it has troubling implications, because the underlying logic is that we will cease combat operations by the end of 2014 even if human rights are not established, even if al-Qaeda is not defeated and even if the Taliban are not defeated. Why is this difficult? It is difficult because the military, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom, fundamentally do not agree.
I have calculated that I have been in and out of Afghanistan 57 times since 2001, and consistently every general has said, “It’s been a tough situation but we have a new strategic plan requiring new resources, and this year will be the decisive year.” It was said in 2003 by General McNeill; General Barno said in 2004 said that that would be the decisive year; General Abizaid also said 2004 would be the decisive year; 2005 was described by General Richards, now Chief of the Defence Staff, as the crunch year for the Taliban; 2006 was described by General McNeill, returning, as the decisive year; 2007 was described by General McKiernan as the decisive year; at the end of 2008, General Stanley McChrystal said that they were knee-deep into the decisive year, and this was echoed by General Petraeus in 2009; our former Foreign Secretary described 2010 as the decisive year; and 2011 was described by Guido Westerwelle, the German Foreign Minister, as the decisive year.
Why is it difficult to challenge the military orthodoxy? It is difficult for real and moving reasons. It is difficult because we have lost a lot of people—we have lost a lot of lives and spent a lot of money; it is difficult because we have made promises to the Afghan people; and it is difficult because we have developed great fears about Afghanistan, fears about our own national security, fears about Pakistan and fears about our credibility and reputation in the world.
Therefore, when a politician meets a general with a row of medals on his chest, coming in and saying, “Just give me another two years”—exactly what General Petraeus is saying at the moment—“don’t drop the troop levels, and we can guarantee that we will reach a situation where the Taliban will never be able to come back,” it is very difficult to disagree.
Withdrawing is the most difficult thing. In Vietnam, and in Afghanistan for the Soviet Union, more troops were lost after the decision to withdraw than in the entire period leading up to the decision. By 1968, the United States had come out of an election determined to withdraw from Vietnam, and Henry Kissinger was obsessed, as we are now, with a political settlement with the enemy. He begged the North Vietnamese to give him the political terms that would allow him to withdraw with honour.
After Gorbachev made the decision to leave Afghanistan in 1986, more Soviet troops were committed to a surge and more Soviet troops were killed, because of the real problems of fear, credibility and loss. So the Prime Minister is absolutely right to set a firm date for withdrawal.
Let us hope that by the end of 2014 we have achieved the things that we are looking for. Let us hope—I, too, join in this hope—that the Taliban have been defeated, that al-Qaeda can never again come back, that human rights have been established, that the Afghan Government are credible, effective and legitimate, that the Afghan national army and police are able to look after themselves, and that there is no risk from Pakistan.
Let us hope. I fear that those things may not be achievable, but we need to have the courage to go ahead regardless at the end of 2014. We need to have the courage to say that we must leave at the end of 2014 regardless because—this is the very difficult thing to say—we no longer believe that we are likely to achieve those objectives. If we have not achieved those objectives by the end of 2014 and the general comes back, as the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) suggests, and says, “Just give me another two weeks,” or, “Just give me another two months, it’s all going to be fine,” in the end we have to say no.
Why do we not say no? We do not say no because it is horrible—because if I were to stand up in this House, for example, and say, “Afghanistan matters, but there are other countries that matter more,” that, “If we are worried about terrorism, Pakistan is more important,” and that, “If we are worried about regional stability, Egypt is more important,” there would immediately be a headline, perhaps in The Sun, declaring “MP says Afghanistan doesn’t matter.” A flag-draped coffin would be produced, and the mother of a veteran would step forward and say, “The suggestion is that they died in vain.”
I met the same situation last week, talking to Afghanistan veterans. A man sitting in the front row was missing both his legs, and somebody in the audience said, “Are you suggesting that we have made no progress? Have you not acknowledged what we have done in Helmand? Have you not seen that the bazaar is now open? Are you suggesting that people died in vain?” We have to learn to say that no single soldier dies in vain, regardless. The courage, commitment and honour of our soldiers is connected to their unit and their regiment, not to the fantasies of politicians. We must pay them every form of honour and respect, but we do not honour dead soldiers by piling more corpses on top of them.
To conclude, it is difficult for Britain to lead a withdrawal from Afghanistan. We need to make it something that acknowledges that Britain’s pride and reputation has never been connected with extreme ideological projects. We are not a nation of crusades or great ideological wars, but a nation characterised by scepticism, pragmatism and deep country knowledge. If we get the withdrawal right, it will not go down in history as a symbol of ignorance or cowardice, but will represent our wisdom and our courage in sticking to the decision. There should be a realisation that our motto should be and must remain, “Passionate moderation”.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) has been to Afghanistan on 57 occasions, as he told us. That is 56 occasions more than me. Nevertheless, I have a few ideas about campaigning there. When faced with a deadly insurgency, one has three options: to counter it, contain it or quit. We have been trying to counter it and now we are going to quit. It seemed to be the nub of my hon. Friend’s eloquent contribution that those are the only two alternatives.
I believe that NATO’s Afghan strategy has a fatal flaw: the knowledge that however effective our efforts may be, we plan to quit. That signals to the Taliban that they will ultimately win and removes their incentive to negotiate the political deal that we all agree is what must end an insurgency. President Obama and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have set a time limit for the current surge. British troops, as we have heard many times today, will no longer fight after 2014. By then, the Afghans should be self-sufficient. That is the theory, but as we all know, the key question is, “What if they are not?”
Is there a third way to be found between full-scale counter-insurgency campaigning, which is what the generals have been doing all along, and total withdrawal when the deadlines are reached? In other words, instead of countering or quitting, should we be containing? Some say, and I have heard it said this afternoon, that the long-term use of special forces will be enough by itself to underpin a post-surge Afghan Government. That seems to me inherently improbable. As I have argued before, and as I continue to argue—completely unavailingly in the United Kingdom, but perhaps with a degree more resonance on the other side of the Atlantic—what is required when the surge concludes is a strategic base and bridgehead area, or SBBA, to secure our strategic needs permanently.
There are only two sound reasons for NATO’s military presence in Afghanistan: to prevent the country from being used again as a base, training ground or launch-pad for terrorist attacks, which has been mentioned many times today, and to assist next-door Pakistan in preventing any possibility of its nuclear weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaeda or its imitators, which I do not believe has been mentioned today. The following three objectives, though desirable, are not adequate reasons for our presence in Afghanistan: the creation of a tolerant and democratic society, the prevention of drug production, and the advancement of the human rights of women. Full-scale counter-insurgency campaigning, often referred to as war down among the people, involves micro-management of the threatened society. As such, it enables the pursuit of worthy goals such as those. By contrast, a strategic base and bridgehead area cannot secure such goals, but it can achieve both of our genuine strategic interests. During the period of grace provided by the surge deployment, an existing base area should be selected, or a new one constructed, in a remote area out of sight and largely out of mind of the Afghan population.
It is often said—in fact, I have lost count of the number of times it has been said—that there can be no purely military solution in Afghanistan, and that eventually a political deal must be done. Yet there is no basis for such a deal under our existing strategy. The deadlines for scaling down and ending our military presence will certainly put pressure on the Afghan Government to compromise with reconcilable elements of the Taliban, but they will have the opposite effect on the insurgents. The creation of an impregnable, long-term SBBA would enable pressure to be applied equally on both sides, and would confer many benefits, which I will summarise very briefly.
First, any return of international terrorists could be punished without having to re-invade the country. Secondly, any assistance needed by the Pakistan Government to secure its nuclear arsenal could be provided via the long-term strategic base. Thirdly, NATO would be almost completely disengaged from Afghan society, thus removing the constant irritant of a uniformed infidel presence in the towns and countryside.
Fourthly, the ending of micro-management would do away with the need to send service personnel out on vulnerable patrols, along predictable routes, which can easily be targeted. Fifthly, the balance of political and military forces in Afghanistan would be allowed to find its own level. If the worst happened and the Taliban took over, we would still have the strategic base and bridgehead area as a safeguard. Sixthly, the prospect of an SBBA would make it more likely that the Taliban would reach a deal with the Government. If the eventual outcome were nevertheless a more radical regime than NATO would like, that would be a matter for the Afghans alone as long as they offered no support to international terrorists. Finally, an SBBA could be garrisoned by as many or as few service personnel as the political and military situation dictated. Too remote to attack, it would be a deterrent to extremism and a bridgehead for easy entry and operations if, regrettably, they become necessary under a policy of containment.
It suits al-Qaeda to embroil us in Muslim states, as it did most calculatedly in Afghanistan in September 2001. That was why, 48 hours before the attacks in America, General Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda. It wanted us to, and knew perfectly well that we would, respond by invading Afghanistan. That was why it removed him.
Costly counter-insurgency cannot be our answer every time our enemies establish a presence in a different country; but there is an alternative to the extremes of micro-management, which is what we have been doing, and total withdrawal, which is what we say we are going to do next. That alternative is containment, and the means of doing it is a strategic base and bridgehead area.
It is a great honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). I agree completely with my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) in recognising that we need a definite date for withdrawal.
I wish to pay tribute to Rifleman Martin Lamb, who recently died. He was a constituent of mine who was serving his country bravely and correctly, and we remember him appropriately.
The next person whom I wish to mention is my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), because I agree that it is very important for us to consider the international approach. It is what we do next that matters, and we need to prepare the ground now. I want to talk briefly about the Helsinki accords, the process that they led to and the process of getting to them, and see where the parallels might be with the situation in the region that we are discussing today.
Very bravely, Gerald Ford signed those accords as President of the United States when neither he nor the idea of détente were at their most popular in the US. Nevertheless, off he went to complete the process, which involved 35 states. Many had views that were not consistent with one another, and many had a huge number of reasons to disagree with their neighbours.
Three baskets of themes were captured in those accords, the first of which was security. The idea was to give other member states the confidence that their military position and security issues would be treated fairly and justly. That would be achieved largely by states notifying one another what would happen.
The second basket was politics and the production of good governance—we should remember the governance of some of those states at that time, and certainly, for example, Romania. Good governance was an important part of the Helsinki accords, but it is also an element that we need to deliver in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The third basket was culture and human rights. Oddly enough, the third basket turned out to be the most influential. Many commentators will now say that the Helsinki accords suggested to repressed people in those 35 states—obviously, I am talking in the main about eastern Europe—that we would give them the comfort and space to develop their interest in having human rights.
If we extend those three baskets, and in particular the third one, to Afghanistan, Pakistan and—critically—their other neighbours, we could engage them in a way that gives shape to their security and traction to better governance, and that starts to equip their people with the idea that they have space to develop their human rights. That model—it cannot be exactly the same as that of 30 or 40 years ago—could be a framework for international co-operation and for involving the various states that we need to involve. That is the kind of thing that would be of interest as we move towards a new phase of politics.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I would prefer not to, but if the hon. Gentleman is quick, I will.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and it may apply in unexpected areas. One of the points made by the Community Appraisal and Motivation Programme report, which I cited earlier, is that the frontier areas of Pakistan have never been fully integrated into Pakistani democratic politics. In effect, they still have the post-British colonial style of military administration. That has isolated people in those areas from mainstream politics, and indeed from the enjoyment of full human rights of the kind that he is describing.
That is exactly right. Another interesting thing about the Helsinki accords is that, oddly enough, they recognised frontiers that had not been properly recognised before. The accords also enabled those frontiers to be changed through peaceful means. Funnily enough, that mechanism was used by the two German states that were unified in 1990. That is a parallel of what the hon. Gentleman says, although the situation is not precisely the same.
We should go down that route and look at the processes that were involved in the accords. We should ask who would participate and how far the region would extend. My belief is that it should be pretty big, and that we should think in terms of 20 or more states in the area. The UK, the US, and Russia and China ought to be involved in the process too.
That is a big project and it will not happen overnight—it will not happen very quickly at all. Most people would recognise that the Helsinki accords took an awful long time to produce anything, but produce something they did. The process worked. It enabled nation states to start understanding one another, to build better governance, and above all, to respect and promote human rights. That is the basis on which we should start, and it would be interesting to see how such a process unfolds if we develop that policy.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) because, in putting human rights at the heart of the long-term stability of Afghanistan, he touched on an issue that I raised with the Prime Minister earlier today about the preconditions that we might put not on talks—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) that talks should be open and without conditions—but on power sharing.
The Afghanistan operation was legitimatised by the United Nations and was in this country’s national interest. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), I pay tribute to the 375 members of our armed forces who have lost their lives in that part of the world. This country has spent billions of pounds on the operation and committed itself to the mission in that region for more than a decade. That gives value to the nation’s overall commitment to delivering both our security and a better future.
The Foreign Affairs Committee report makes it clear that UK operations and those of the international community have led to some tactical successes on the ground, but the situation overall remains precarious. The military surge has no doubt played a key part in that, but it is not sufficient. The Prime Minister was right when he said today that we now need a political surge. That political surge should be Afghan-led, however. It is right that initial conversations are being had with the Taliban. However, when we look to a future of power sharing, rather than just negotiation, it is right that we ask ourselves: what are our red lines on women’s rights? What are our red lines on minority rights within Afghanistan? Are we going to ensure that any Afghan Government that includes the Taliban maintains freedom of worship and continues to develop democracy within its borders?
The repudiation of violence is, of course, the first step to legitimising the Taliban, but it is not the only step that they need to take and it should not be the only line that the UK Government should push in discussions. We owe it to those 375 members of our armed forces to ensure that we deliver in Afghanistan the kind of environment that we ourselves would want to live in.
The hon. Gentleman has described in these red lines an Afghanistan that never existed in the past 2,000 years. Is there not a great danger that our beliefs and our aim of securing these rights are so unobtainable that they will delay the peace process?
The Afghan constitution enshrines those rights. I am not seeking anything more or less than what is already in that constitution. I simply want to ensure that we do not move backwards by involving in the government of Afghanistan parties that might seek to go back rather than forwards.
My hon. Friend is making many important points. In response to the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), is it not the case that if the Arab spring, the Arab awakening, has taught us anything, it is that these universal human rights and aspirations are present in every population? It is slightly patronising to regard them as inappropriate for some countries, even in places where we know that a perfect liberal democracy is not going to emerge in the short term.
As always, my hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. I have spoken in the House several times about the hope that the Arab spring is delivering to generations of people who have been excluded from the rights that we take for granted.
As the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) disappeared into Vietnam, you might forgive me for mentioning Iraq briefly, Madam Deputy Speaker. We failed in Iraq; we made fundamental mistakes: de-Ba’athification, disarmament of the local militia and army, and demobilisation of a civic society. They were the wrong choices to take, and it took Iraqi society years to recover from them. To get Afghanistan right we need to learn those lessons. We need to ensure that we do not undermine Afghanistan’s society as it stands.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman might like to reflect on whether US expenditure of $125 billion a year and the presence of nearly 150,000 foreign troops are not likely to undermine local capacity and Afghan society in exactly the ways that he is warning against.
My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point, which is why I was encouraged by what our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said earlier today. For every member of our forces leaving, there will be two local people taking those responsibilities forward. If I may touch briefly on recommendation 35 in the report—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not.
This is a very important point.
No, I am afraid I will not.
I am sorry, but—
Order. The hon. Gentleman has said several times that he will not give way.
I note that the hon. Gentleman has not been in the Chamber for the debate—
The hon. Gentleman was very disagreeable—
Order. It is up to the Member who is speaking whether he wishes to give way to another Member, and the hon. Gentleman has said that he is not going to give way because of the time pressures.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. In the final minutes I want to look at some of the lessons that the report suggests we can learn for our actions and activities in Libya. The report says that we need a co-ordinated approach to post-conflict stabilisation, which is something that we have perhaps not succeeded in adopting in all the instances where our forces have been deployed in the past, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. If we are truly to deliver a legacy in Libya that is worth the risks that our brave men and women are taking in that country, recommendation 35, which deals with the need for co-ordinated action, is crucial. We cannot have Departments squabbling over who is leading on post-conflict Libya or from which budgets post-conflict Libya will be helped. Departments need to work together and with their international colleagues. That is one of the key lessons that we can take from this debate.
Overall, the report—along with our international commitment—makes it clear that we as a nation cannot choose the history we live in to meet our budgets; rather, our budgets must be capable of meeting the history in which we find ourselves. We are a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and I am concerned that our contribution to that organisation will fall over the course of this Parliament to below the international minimum standard of 1.9%. Never again must the forces that we deploy be short of the tools that they need to do their jobs.
I just want to explain why I was trying to intervene. The hon. Gentleman made the sweeping statement that we failed in Iraq. I was in the House at the time and voted for the Iraq war, and I do not believe that what we did to remove Saddam Hussein was a failure. The hon. Gentleman said that Iraq was a failure; I do not believe it was right for him to say that this afternoon.
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has managed to get his point on the record. As he knows, I was not in the House at the time. My position is that the Iraq conflict lacked international legitimacy and post-conflict reconstruction, and was a distraction from our important work in Afghanistan, which was in the national interest and did have legitimacy from the United Nations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be generous to me in future, as I allowed him to put his point on the record.
We as a country have an international obligation to spend 2% of GDP on our defence. Over this Parliament we will fall short of that. Never again must we allow our forces to cry out that they lack helicopters, body armour, boots or protective vests. Our role in this place is to be clear about the policy objectives, clear about the need to resource them properly and confident in our military’s capability to deliver those outcomes.
We fully recognise how the extraordinary events of the past few days have impacted on the length of this debate and possibly on the attention that it will receive outside the House. It is probably true that
“The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here”
today, but this debate is important, not least for those who have served, who have been injured and who have died in the conflict in Afghanistan.
In the time available to me, I want to deal with three main issues. The first is the prospects for Afghanistan and, as I stressed in our debate on this subject in May, the role of the regional powers. The second significant issue is the impact of all these developments on the stability of Pakistan. Finally, I want to talk about the report—and more significantly, the Government’s response to it—and the provision of equipment for our troops. As I have said, we debated this subject less than a couple of months ago. We have to address the tragedy of Afghanistan under Taliban rule and insurgency, and ask what our best approach is to enabling Afghanistan and its people to come out of this nightmare.
Interestingly, a number of Members of both Houses recently visited the exhibition at the British Museum on early Afghanistan, which presented a very different picture from the TV coverage showing a dusty wilderness and a population living in the middle ages. The exhibition showed early Afghanistan as an ancient centre of civilisation with a significant position at the crossroads of the ancient world and a rich cultural tradition. For an example, one has only to think of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, which were constructed in the sixth century and, sadly, destroyed by the vandals of the Taliban. In the Prime Minister’s statement today, he also drew attention to many of Afghanistan’s strengths, including abundant mineral wealth, fertile agricultural land and a position at the crossroads of Asia’s great trading highways.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, up until about 1970, a Marks & Spencer was open and functioning in Kabul? Should it be an objective of British foreign policy to get M&S back there?
Similarly, the symbol of the end of the cold war was the appearance of McDonald’s in many capitals in eastern Europe.
We should also remember how much of Afghanistan’s ancient civilisation was destroyed by nihilist tribes, in a pattern not dissimilar to what is happening today. We need to focus on the process of political dialogue and reconciliation in Afghanistan, as well as on a political settlement in which enough Afghan citizens from all parts of the country have a stake. The central Government there also need enough power and legitimacy to protect the country from threats, from within and without. That first proposition depends on there being a new external settlement that commits Afghanistan’s neighbours to respecting its sovereign integrity, as well as a process by which the ex-combatants there can acquire civilian status and have an opportunity to gain sustainable employment and income.
Afghanistan will then require reconciliation. This will include ensuring that tribal, ethnic and other groups are represented and recognised. Parliament and parliamentarians should also be recognised and encouraged. In that context, we were all interested in, if not intrigued by, the proposal for an exchange of Speakers. We were wondering whether the Speaker might seek to delegate that responsibility, a prospect that caused some alarm to your predecessor in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I shall turn first to Pakistan, however. I say to the Chairman and other members of the Select Committee that, if I have a concern about the report it is that the content does not fully reflect its title, “The UK’s foreign policy approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan”. The section on Pakistan takes up only about six of the 97 pages, and looks largely at the effect on the campaign in Afghanistan of action in and by Pakistan. Frankly, the more important strategic issue is the impact of Afghanistan on Pakistan.
Pakistan is a country of 160 million people. It is the second-largest Muslim country in the world, and it has a significant military and nuclear capability. It is also, as the Foreign Secretary has rightly acknowledged on behalf of Britain, a country that has suffered considerable losses from fundamentalist terrorism, and it continues to do so. We need to think seriously about Pakistan’s concerns and prospects, and to take into account a factor that is sometimes overlooked—namely, its need to recover from the horrific flooding that it has experienced.
That is why the announcement of continuing aid to Pakistan by the Department for International Development is encouraging, and welcomed by the Opposition, especially the scaling up of investment in effective, non-fundamentalist education to £446 million a year by 2015. Pakistan faces, in the words of a DFID publication, “an educational emergency”, with 17 million children not in school, half the adult population and two thirds of the women unable to read or write—and the population is escalating. We have to be clear in this context that there is a considerable onus on the Pakistan authorities to ensure that the money reaches its intended recipients. As DFID says, aid is
“dependent on securing value for money and results and will be linked to the Government of Pakistan’s own progress on reform, at both the federal and provincial levels, including taking tangible steps to build a more dynamic economy, strengthen the tax base and tackle corruption.”
That places a clear obligation on Pakistan to improve its administration, especially in tax collection, to foster a more open and pluralistic society and, last but by no means least, to engage in dialogue to reduce tension with India, which occupies so much attention and resources in both countries. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) mentioned the Indian obligations, and there is an obligation on both sides of the divide if dialogue is to be used to reduce that tension.
What of India and the other regional powers? They were mentioned by a number of hon. Members—the hon. Members for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) and for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and particularly the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). It is true that all the regional powers could seek to pursue their own separate interests, looking on Afghanistan as a zero-sum game. We should make no mistake; it certainly could be like that. Indeed, if the situation in Afghanistan unravels, it could end up being a negative-sum game for those countries. The creation of a black hole of political intrigue, anarchy and violence in Afghanistan could impact in very different but very significant ways on all its neighbours.
China, as we know, has considerable Islamic problems in its western province, but also has considerable investment in Afghan resources. Russia faces the potential of instability on its southern flank and also has a significant drugs problem. Iran has a minority group in Afghanistan and also feels the impact of the drugs trade. Turkey has growing regional influence. India has a long and historic, but also a current and dynamic, interest in Afghanistan. Part of our strategy for disengagement will thus depend very heavily on the extent to which the regional powers can co-exist and work together for a progressive solution for Afghanistan.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the role of Tehran in destabilising both Afghanistan and the wider region? Does he share my assessment that we cannot allow Tehran to continue down this destructive path indefinitely?
That is certainly to be encouraged, but Tehran will have a degree of involvement. It has a Persian minority within Afghanistan, it is a significant power within the region and it suffers considerably from the impact of the drugs trade on its own population. It will thus have to be engaged in its own interest.
My right hon. Friend will recall that when we went into Afghanistan, one of the reasons for doing so that we heard from the Dispatch Box was that Afghanistan provided 90% of the heroin coming into Britain. Will he remind us what percentage of heroin comes to this country from Afghanistan after the sacrifice of 375 British lives?
Still far too much, but I think my hon. Friend would also recognise the role of the Taliban in that trade and the money they obtain from it to fund their activities. As I point out again in this context, it is in the interest of the wider world and in the particular interests of the regional powers to act along the lines I mention and the regional powers obviously need to be engaged in the process.
Let me deal now with the Select Committee report. There has understandably been a debate about the decision to announce a deadline for British combat withdrawal by 2014 and about the manner in which it was taken. This features quite strongly in the report and was obviously the subject of the Prime Minister’s statement today, which was welcomed by the Leader of the Opposition.
I have to say, however, that the Government’s response was, frankly, inadequate—almost embarrassing—and if I were a member of the Select Committee, I would have been rather insulted by such an inadequate response to the very significant questions that it posed. The Select Committee might well want to pursue these at a future date. It reads very much as a “seat of the pants”, “top of the head”, “don’t bore me with the details” response.
Let us examine the Government’s response to paragraphs 156 and 157, which makes it clear that the 2014 decision was not made by the Cabinet or even the National Security Council. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham quoted from it earlier. The decision
“was made by the Prime Minister following discussions with a number of senior Ministers”.
It is not even clear whether those discussions took place collectively or individually. Obviously, in this context, sofa government is alive and well.
Nowhere in their response do the Government answer the Select Committee’s questions about what advice they had received from the military before the decision, and we consider that a significant omission. Equally unclear—especially in the context of the many references today to our engagement with the United States—is the answer to the question asked in the Select Committee about what consultation the United Kingdom had had with the United States. I do not know whether there has been any subsequent communication from the Government to the Committee on the subject, but the reply given on May 2011 did not match the significant questions that the Committee had posed. That is no way to run a war, and it is certainly no way to treat a Select Committee.
Further questions arise from today’s statement by the Prime Minister. First, it is clear that a dozen helicopters were ordered by the previous Secretary of State. The current Secretary of State, when he was the Opposition spokesman, raised the issue regularly—according to an estimate by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), about 161 times—before the general election. Now he has put the order on hold. Given that the Prime Minister has committed British forces to two more fighting seasons, will the Government activate this order immediately? I gave the Minister notice of that question. I hope that he has a reply, not only for me but for the House, and, more important, for the troops.
Secondly, the Prime Minister announced a continuing military relationship with Afghanistan, and stressed that it would not involve a combat role for our troops. We have to ask—and the military too will seek an answer to this question—how force protection will be provided, and by whom it will be provided. We must also think again about the dangers of mission creep.
Because I want to give the Minister time to respond, I will end my speech now. The role of the Opposition in these matters is to support the national interest and, in particular, to take a long-term view of the issues and support our armed forces. However, on behalf of the country and our troops, we must also hold the Minister and the Government to account for their performance, and we look forward to the Minister’s reply to the questions that he has been asked.
I thank the House for its attention. I agree with the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) that it is a pity that the debate fell where it did in the timetable, but, although there was huge interest in the Prime Minister’s statement earlier, I do not think that that detracts in any way from the importance of what we have been discussing or the manner in which it has been discussed.
Before I deal with the substance of the debate, I want to respond to the speeches made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), the Chairman of the Select Committee, and the right hon. Member for Warley, the Opposition spokesman. My hon. Friend led the debate extremely well, referring to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s important report and guiding us through a number of the issues. I shall deal later with some of the points that he raised about transition, political reconciliation and the drawdown issues, but first I want to deal with his point about intelligence. I know that he raised it with the Prime Minister earlier today.
My hon. Friend observed that, understandably, we rely on intelligence reports to guide actions and give ourselves a sense of whether, for example, al-Qaeda might still be in the area. He asked how this intelligence could be scrutinised, particularly given the intelligence queries in respect of Iraq, and he wondered whether there was further scope for parliamentary activity. I have to say that I doubt that. We undertake rigorous analysis through the Joint Intelligence Committee to assess the terrorist threat to the UK, drawing on analysis from across the agencies, the MOD and the joint terrorism analysis centre. Ministers receive that advice to inform their decision making. We have all learned the lessons from the experiences over Iraq, and we continue to carry out the most rigorous scrutiny of these issues. The assessment is that while the threat has diminished, it has not disappeared.
Although I wish I could, I cannot see how the intelligence on which Ministers operate daily could be made available for the immediate analysis my hon. Friend has in mind. I understand his point, however. The onus is on the Government to handle the intelligence correctly because information is made available subsequently, and the process for confirming the information on which Ministers act at the time is rigorous. At present, however, I cannot see any means whereby Members might be more involved. I will address the substance of my hon. Friend’s remarks in the course of my speech.
I will also deal with the points the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Warley, made about Pakistan and regional powers, but first let me deal with the specific issue about the Chinooks, which he was good enough to raise with me in advance, so that I can give him clarification and make clear what the Prime Minister said today. Nothing has changed since the announcement we made in the strategic defence and security review. We plan to buy 12 additional Chinook helicopters, as the Prime Minister confirmed today, and a further two to replace those lost on operations in Afghanistan in 2009. The MOD is working towards the main investment decision on the helicopters. In the meantime, Boeing is under contract to continue all critical path work to ensure that the delivery time scale for the aircraft is met. So that is a definite commitment, but no order has been placed, and we are exactly where we were before the Prime Minister spoke today.
Can the Minister therefore give us any idea, even within broad parameters, of when it is likely that that order will be confirmed, and helicopters will start to arrive for our troops?
In all fairness, I cannot. This is a matter for the Secretary of State for Defence. The investment decision is in the process of being made. Our troops, of course, have helicopters. The aircraft we are currently discussing will be deployed in Afghanistan in the very long term, if they are deployed at all bearing in mind the time scales of our commitment to Afghanistan. There is no issue about the availability of helicopters now, however. As the Prime Minister said, the situation is much improved from that in previous years. We believe that the kit that is available to troops is entirely appropriate; adding to it through the future Chinooks will be important, but the availability of kit now is absolutely right.
I do not want to say too much about the question the right hon. Gentleman raised about decision making in respect of 2015. That would open up a debate on decision making by Government, in which I do not believe his predecessors would come out terribly well. We are therefore content to rely on the perfectly proper answer in the response to the report.
As always, debates on Afghanistan and Pakistan attract contributions with no little passion, and occasionally a lot of soul searching, from Members with a wealth of experience and insight to offer on the UK’s most important foreign policy commitment. I am therefore indebted to all colleagues who have spoken in our brief, but important, debate. We have looked at origins, intentions and policy. We have queried success and failure. We have looked ahead with varying degrees of optimism or pessimism to where we might be going and why, and the contributions from all have been good, even though I have disagreed with some of the judgments made.
In responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South and his Committee, I wish to reaffirm our strategy and relate developments on it to some of the issues highlighted by colleagues in the debate and in the report itself. I then wish to pursue one or two specific points that colleagues have made today. I apologise in advance for not being able to cover every question, but I will write to colleagues who asked specific questions that I am not able to deal with now.
Our strategy for Afghanistan, as repeated clearly by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister this week in Afghanistan and again this afternoon, is clear and straightforward: we are in Afghanistan, with others, to ensure our own national security by helping the Afghans to take control of theirs, so that Afghanistan cannot be used in the future as the base for al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, which have taken too many lives in the United Kingdom and around the world. That aim is pursued through three inter-linked strands, which incidentally but not coincidentally do make for the better Afghanistan that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) understandably seeks. Those strands are: political progress; development aid to help create and ensure the progress of a viable state; and, of course, security. This Government are totally focused, on behalf of all their citizens and especially those who are sacrificing so much in delivering on that aim.
Having looked at the Committee’s report and having listened to today’s debate, I wish to offer responses on progress under the following headings, which I think cover most of the things that colleagues have raised: transition and security, including issues relating to draw-down; political settlement and reconciliation; development progress towards a viable state; and Pakistan, which is a fundamental element.
On transition, the shared aim of the United Kingdom, the Afghan Government and our international colleagues is to ensure that the Afghan national security forces are in the security lead in all provinces by the end of 2014. We are making good progress towards that aim. The first tranche of areas to begin the transition process was announced by President Karzai in March, and implementation is due to begin on 20 July. It is testament to the excellent work that British forces are doing in Helmand that Lashkar Gah will be among that first tranche. Like all colleagues who have spoken today, I wish to pay tribute to all British military personnel who have served in Afghanistan. Their courage and dedication has allowed for the progress that has been made so far. The training and development of the Afghan national security forces is at the heart of the transition process. Since December 2009, those forces have grown by more than 100,000 personnel and will grow by an additional 70,000 in the next year. Quality is also rising, as is the Afghans’ pride in their armed forces.
I wish to make some progress. A lot of colleagues were able to give up two and a half hours to this debate and I would rather concentrate on the issues they raised, rather than on the hon. Gentleman, who came in very late—I hope he will forgive me.
Good progress is also being made on the expansion and improvement of the Afghan national police, and that is also a key part of ensuring security for the future and transition. The UK has funded the construction of 12 new police stations in Helmand province, and since its establishment in December 2009 more than 1,000 patrolmen have graduated from the Helmand police training centre. I have had the good fortune to see for myself the work being done in Lashkar Gah at the police centres and to spend time with Bill Caldwell talking about the training of the national security forces. Progress is being made and there is a growing confidence about this process, but, as with all things relating to Afghanistan, progress is never linear. This is not something that will go smoothly all in one direction; and there will be setbacks and we will take steps backwards before we move forward. However, genuine progress is being made, and the House is entitled to take note of it and feel some pride in it because of the work that has gone into creating that situation.
On security and draw-down, the Government welcome President Obama’s recent announcement on the draw-down of US troops from Afghanistan. We agree that substantial progress has been made towards the international community’s shared objective of preventing international terrorists, including al-Qaeda, from again using Afghanistan as an operating base. This is not simply about whether al-Qaeda is operating there now. The issue is: can the area be made sufficiently secure to ensure that al-Qaeda does not come back in future? That progress has been hard won and the announcement is a sign of success.
As was mentioned by a number of Members, including in interventions that I appreciated from the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) and my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), that draw-down has coincided with the notification of draw-down made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He made a further comment today about reducing our force level by a further 500 to 9,000 by the end of 2012. The decision has been agreed by the National Security Council on the advice of our military commanders, which reflects the progress that has been made in building up the ANSF. For the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, let me simply say that the Prime Minister said this afternoon:
“This marks the start of a process that will ensure that by the end of 2014 there will be nothing like the number of British troops who are there now, and they will not be serving in a combat role. This is the commitment I have made, and this is the commitment we will stick to.”
This afternoon, there has been discussion about what the draw-down means and about whose incentive is greater. Our assessment is that the incentive for the Taliban to get involved in reconciliation is very clear, as the greatest imminent threat is faced by those who stay outside the process and continue to conduct operations against ISAF forces. The incentive is there for the Afghan security forces to continue the preparation work they are doing. That is the reason for draw-down dates and our sense is that steady progress is being made that vindicates the dates that have been given.
I understand the incentive while drones are still killing Taliban in the run-up to the end of 2014, but what incentive will the Taliban have to stick to any deal that is reached or to go through with a deal after 2014? Are we going to be firing drones from outside the country?
My hon. Friend is taking far too little notice of the improvement and strength of the Afghan national security forces in their own right. It is they who will carry on the fight on behalf of their people against those who threaten their state. To assume that this is a practice that only we are engaged in and that only we can be engaged in is unfair to the growing success and strength of the ANSF. That is the incentive for the future.
It is vital to recognise that the absence of combat troops does not mean a lack of interest from those who have created the conditions for what we hope will be a secure—
Will the Minister give way?
No, I have only three minutes left.
Let me turn to the political settlement. Despite the military gains that have been made, it is common cause in the House that we need not just a military answer but a political settlement and reconciliation. We strongly support the Afghan-led efforts that are being made to encourage the process of integration and reconciliation. We support the work that has been carried out this year through various international conferences and by the High Peace Council as well as the direct engagement with the Taliban from the Afghan community on the basis of the conditions set by President Karzai: renouncing violence, cutting links with terrorist groups and accepting the constitution.
In answer to those who queried the issues to do with preconditions, let me say that our understanding is that the Afghan-led process is about those who are prepared to accept the conditions stated, not about meeting those conditions in the first place. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his statement this afternoon, we are looking towards a situation in which the conditions are met but early negotiations might take place in a situation that is not clear. It is important that the conditions laid down by President Karzai are ultimately accepted. We welcome the engagement of the United States and the recent comments made by the Secretary of State about US involvement.
The third leg is the viable state. We should all pay tribute to the work done by DFID in particular, and I am pleased to welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development to this debate. From 2001 to 2011, DFID has spent £960 million in Afghanistan and over the next four years it will spend £712 million. We have seen improvements in education, health and the economy. May I also pay tribute to those outside Government, such as Karen Woo and Linda Norgrove, who gave their lives for the development work in which they were engaged, showing its importance?
I do not have time, I am afraid, to deal with Pakistan. I accept the comments made by the right hon. Member for Warley and perhaps I may write to him about the importance of Pakistan in the future. Engagement with Pakistan is crucial and we have productive intelligence work. It is essential that those in Pakistan are engaged both with Afghanistan and with dealing with the issues in their own country, which has suffered so much.
In conclusion, Afghanistan debates illustrate the depth of engagement of Members of the House in the issue. Our commitment is clear: notwithstanding the complexities for the country, its relationship with others in a region desperate for stability and the variable factors that will determine its future, our aim of a secure Afghanistan in the hands of its people, secure from its enemies and from those of the rest of us, can be realised.
Debate interrupted (Standing Order No. 54(5)).
The Deputy Speaker put the Question on the Estimates appointed for consideration on that day (Standing Order No. 54(5)).
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2012, for expenditure by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £1,279,625,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 921,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £19,718,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £1,188,315,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.
The Deputy Speaker then put the Questions on the outstanding Estimates (Standing Order No.55).