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Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order.

8.32 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): It is a pleasure to follow two very thoughtful speeches—those of the hon. Members for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) and for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar). I have not always agreed with them on every issue, but none the less, their speeches were thoughtful and contained a great deal.

I start with the assumptions that every hon. Member unreservedly condemns the attacks and the atrocity visited on the United States on 11 September, that we all believe that Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network are murderous and that the world would be a much better place if they can be got rid of. The vast majority of us—perhaps we are not unanimous—have, I hope, reluctantly concluded that military action is necessary in the circumstances, but I want to explore what kind of military action should take place and under what auspices. I want to make the case for a specific United Nations imprimatur on the military action that takes place.

Earlier, the Prime Minister and then the Secretary of State for Defence were asked about article 51 of the United Nations charter. This is not an academic or spurious point—article 51 represents the recognition of the right of self-defence. Under it, the UN requires that states that take action under that right of self-defence—as the American and, presumably, the United Kingdom Governments have done—must make a specific report to

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the Security Council on why they have done so. As I told the Secretary of State for Defence, the US has done so, and I have a copy of the report that it gave to the UN.

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Salmond: I shall ask a Minister to deal with the point in a second.

In the report, the US ambassador says:

The Secretary of State for Defence said that the United Kingdom was covered by that explanation to the Security Council. This would be a very good time for a Minister to intervene to say whether that is the case and whether the statement that I have just read out represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

Clare Short: The issue of whether the United Kingdom has written under our article 51 obligations has been raised before, and I can confirm that the acting United Kingdom representative to the UN did so last night. A request has been made that that letter should be made available to the House. I cannot give that assurance now, but I think it highly likely that it will be, and I shall do my best to try to ensure that that is done.

Mr. Salmond: A copy of the letter certainly should be available in the Library, and the right hon. Lady should return, perhaps in summing up, to the fact that the US explanation refers to

She will understand the importance of knowing the objectives of military action and those that are supported by the United Kingdom Government.

The immediate risk that we face is not military. On a military calculation, there is no contest in the immediate future. Cruise missiles are obviously far more effective than small arms and sophisticated aeroplanes are more effective than rudimentary air defence systems. The real risk in the immediate future is not a battle on the plains of Afghanistan; it is the battle for public opinion on the streets of Pakistan, Egypt and Gaza. The risk is that that battle could be lost during the next few days unless the alliance proceeds extremely carefully.

During last Thursday's debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) said that there is no case in recorded history of

Those are wise words, and I hope that the Government are taking full account of them. There is, of course, a military risk to our armed forces. It is not immediate, but it will exist if ground intervention follows. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken of their admiration for our armed forces and given them their grateful thanks for the risks that they take on our behalf, and I happily endorse those comments.

Of course, as the BBC programme that the Secretary of State for Defence watched told us last night, the history of military interventions in Afghanistan stretches back to Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, and involved the British empire three times and, most recently, the Soviet

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Union. That history suggests that Afghanistan is a place where countries get in easy and get out bloody. The Soviet Union's forces reached Kabul in 48 hours, and it then took 10 years and 15,000 men to get out again. It does not necessarily follow that that would be the result of ground action in the present circumstances. We are told that the Taliban are deeply unpopular, and I certainly hope that that is the case, given that movement's atrocious track record, but if we are to avoid the impact of what has happened in the past in Afghanistan, we must surely avoid being seen as the target. History also tells us that armies can be greeted with open arms, as the British Army was by the oppressed Catholic population of Londonderry in 1969, but circumstances can change in a few months.

For the first time, I heard the Prime Minister say something in his statement that I thought represented a recognition that mistakes had been made in the past. He said, "I repeat: we will not walk away from them once the conflict ends, as has happened in the past." His statement contained a recognition, which was requested by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East, of the mistakes that had been made in the past, such as the fact that the mujaheddin was financed in the 1980s, then deserted in the early 1990s. We face the current situation because of that inaction in the early 1990s, when Afghanistan was forgotten by the west because it had served its purpose of bleeding the Soviet Union white.

What is to happen to Afghanistan in future is not an academic question. The Prime Minister made a commitment in his statement today, but the Secretary of State for Defence refuses to answer the legitimate question of whether a UN protectorate, or an interim administration authorised by the UN, is what we have in mind. That should be what we have in mind, and we should explicitly say so because the UN is not designed just to provide humanitarian aid; it is the world authority and its responsibilities go far beyond the supply of humanitarian aid, important though that is.

I am very much in favour of the Prime Minister's wish to build a new world order—I am up for that. A new world order will, of necessity, be rather better than the world order that we have at present, but I am sure of two things. First, that order must be based on an international authority. It cannot be a pax Americana and it certainly cannot be a pax Britannica or a western authority; it must be a genuine international authority, and that is surely why the UN exists. It has also to be based on moral principles.

In his speech to the Labour party conference, the Prime Minister mentioned the Democratic Republic of Congo and pointed out that 3 million people have died in the Congo because of the civil war that has been conducted in that unhappy country. On 11 September—the very same day that the twin towers were attacked in the United States—there took place in this city under the auspices of Her Majesty's Government an arms fair that sold arms to both sides in the Congo civil war. My point is that if we are to move forward positively from where we have been, we must base our arguments on the foundation of democracy, not hypocrisy, and we must base them on a legitimate world authority that surely is the United Nations.

8.40 pm

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil): My memory goes back 10 years to when we were debating the Gulf war and the possibility of action and we had some of the arcane and

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complex, though not necessarily irrelevant, arguments about the role of the United Nations and whether it should be brought in at every turn. Circumstances have changed considerably since then, but we still support the United States and are seeking to gain the approval of a grand coalition for what we hope to achieve. However, in this instance, we are not dealing with state-sponsored terrorism or aggression of the type that we were dealing with in relation to Iraq and Kuwait.

The attack on the US targets resulted in citizens from many nations, including our own, being killed and economic havoc has been wreaked. We face all kinds of problems and the denting of confidence will not be felt only in the United States; it is being felt daily in our own constituencies. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is not present, but I hope that time will be found early next week for a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer so that we can hear his assessment of the economic damage that has been done to this country, the area for which he has competence. We may then begin to get an idea of the Government's assessment of the economic problems that might follow these dastardly deeds

The NATO charter says that an attack on one is an attack on all, and we have signed up to that. We have also taken a proper position with regard to the UN. We could have said that we would do nothing more and try to appoint an international detective force to root out and catch bin Laden. We could have waited on the Taliban after asking them repeatedly to hand him over. If some people had had their way, we might even have waited for the Taliban to be satisfied that there was proof beyond doubt that bin Laden was guilty. However, I do not think that there is now any doubt about his guilt, given the nature of the video that was shown last night. His complicity in the actions is clear and his approval and support for them puts him beyond the pale.

I applaud the Government's decisiveness in expressing our support for the United States—the speed and unqualified nature of the backing that we gave at the outset. Let us not forget that less than two months ago, Time magazine posted a "Colin Powell missing" notice on its front page. The US Secretary of State seemed to be missing from the central policy-making functions of the Bush Administration. The senior foreign policy member of that Administration had been isolated by the hawks led by the Vice-President and the Secretary of Defence. Indeed, it was suggested that the President, at that stage, had been reduced to the role of a mere mouthpiece for the US military-industrial complex.

The speed with which our Government moved in support of our American allies showed that the Americans were not alone and could be brought back from the isolationist position into which they had got themselves in the late summer of this year. That meant that, for the first time in a long time, there was a moderating influence on the US Administration.

I am not sure whether the coalition will achieve all its objectives in a very short time. We will certainly not eradicate terrorism immediately, but we have to start somewhere. The elimination of the command and control systems—such as they are in Afghanistan—and of air defence systems is important, but it is dangerous to talk about being sucked into a bigger confrontation.

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The example of the Russians is all too clear, but the tolerance of the American people for any major US commitment will be difficult to establish even if that were desirable. The generation who would take such decisions—those in Congress—either served or sought not to serve in Vietnam. That was a defining experience in the body politic of the United States and people do not want to repeat it. Therefore, it is essential that we achieve our objectives with all speed. We must do so to ensure that we achieve the military outcome of eradicating the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan and cutting it down to size so that it is controllable elsewhere.

People have expressed great pride in the quality of the forces that we have placed at the disposal of the coalition, but we must remember that the people who advise the Government are far closer to the young men involved than any of us can imagine. Those young men may not be the sons of the senior officers, but those officers take responsibility for them. No one is less willing to sacrifice armed strength than the military itself. Commanders view the young men whom they have trained as part of the family.

Our experience in the Gulf and that of the US in Vietnam show that military might and incisiveness are important. We speak about aid and military power going together, but we must ensure that they are not confused. We must ensure that the people who have responsibility for distributing aid through the various channels remain untainted by what will be a nasty and dirty war. War is not a clean business and the people who are sent there on our behalf will do deeds that we would not like them to, but they will think that they are necessary to achieve the objectives that we consider to be legitimate and desirable at this time. If we can do that and we can establish a settlement in Afghanistan of the kind that we have spoken about, the efforts of those people will not be in vain. They will be a source of national pride and of satisfaction for all those who are able to take part.

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