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8.48 pm

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): The House has been recalled not just to show our support for the Government—that is inevitable, because our troops are in action and it would be wrong to do anything other than support what the Government are doing—but to discover the nuances behind why we support the Government. To that extent, I welcome the speech of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar). It provided another dimension. This is a complex issue in which there are bound to be different perspectives even if we support what has happened tonight and last night and what will inevitably take place on many other nights when our forces are committed to action.

There is also no doubt that those on both sides of the House have given credit to the Prime Minister for what, from time to time, has been the brilliant way in which he has galvanised an international coalition and influenced the United States. He is performing a high-wire act, and it is in the national interest that he does not fall off. It is a high wire act because so many things are at stake.

At least at the beginning, the American Administration have shown a degree of caution about which some of their friends—I count myself as one—are rather surprised. Like the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), I have had meetings with Colin Powell. I had three meetings with

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him over several years—they left a greater impression on me than I fear I left on him. Nevertheless, he is a man of considerable judgment and his voice has been heard. It is quite possible that his voice has been heard more clearly because of the support that our Prime Minister gave to those in Washington who realised that this had to be an occasion on which America tried to build a global coalition rather than just taking action. Interestingly, that coalition has also involved the United Nations, which, although it is in New York, is not an organisation for which the American Administration have had much fondness. This time, it appears that we are all working in a particular way.

I also give credit to the Prime Minister for working closely within the European Union. This was a test for the European Union and, so far, it has succeeded: there is a common policy. Of course, not every member of the EU reacts in the same way. That would be surprising, as some countries are neutral and others are NATO members. The important point is that each supports what the others are doing. We heard today that several other members, including Italy, France and Germany, are likely to be involved in military action, or will at least enable our troops to move into the current theatre of war by taking our place in Macedonia, as the Germans will do.

That is vital for us because it shows once again that we are a bridge to Washington because we are America's gateway to Europe. We are stronger in our influence in Washington when we are seen to be taking a leading role within the EU. The importance of the transatlantic alliance is that it provides a diversity, enabling us to build outwards and to embrace countries where other EU member states have more influence than we might have.

The involvement of the Russians is crucial. During the Kosovo conflict, we often raised the question of the Russian reaction. On this occasion, not least because of the events in Chechnya, Moscow is very much on-side in attempting to find a solution to what has been going on in Afghanistan. That brings me to my second key area of interest: what is going on in Afghanistan and to what extent are we, at this stage, capable of defining our objectives?

It would be dangerous, although tempting, to try to say that this is a crusade against terrorism. It would be tempting but wrong, because terrorism is defined in many different ways. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter; one alliance formed against a particular sort of terrorism can disintegrate rapidly once the focus is shifted. Bin Laden himself understood that only too well when he tried last night to create dissension by pointing to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Shortly after the Gulf war I was on the west bank and I talked to both Israelis and Palestinians. We must redouble our efforts to help resolve that continuing crisis, but it must not shift our focus from what we are attempting to do now, which is to snuff out a vicious terrorist group based in Afghanistan and supported by the Taliban.

Therefore, as we stand in the House this evening our objectives are to undermine the Taliban and remove their ability to operate successfully and to provide succour to bin Laden and his groups. Real tensions will be created within the alliance that we have created once we move from the initial air strikes to on-the-ground operations. I hope that all the efforts that we have made can be

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redoubled to ensure that Pakistan and others are given as much support as possible, because those tensions will arise.

There is another reason why we must not turn this into a great crusade to spread freedom around the world. When one has a clear enemy, as we have in the current battle against bin Laden and his groups, we must sometimes choose allies who themselves do not have perfect records. I do not wish to name names this evening—that would not be constructive to the overall effort—but we must understand that we have a clear task to protect ourselves from terrorists who want completely to undermine our society. We must not confuse it with battles that will definitely continue for a long time, which affect India, Pakistan, the middle east and the internal politics of Saudi Arabia. We may have to deal with those issues in a wider context, but we must not distract ourselves by dealing with them tonight, or we shall lose the full force of our activity and our ability to take people with us, both militarily and psychologically.

I am delighted that the Secretary of State for International Development will respond to the debate because the final issue on which we must focus tonight is the humanitarian effort, which will involve the help of many more countries than will be involved in the military battle. However, it is crucial. The humanitarian effort involves not just dropping food parcels but helping those countries to rebuild themselves so that the tensions that exist within them are mitigated and they can see that the hand of friendship is being held out, even after the original crisis has moved on. As the Prime Minister said, we cannot turn our backs on a country like Afghanistan. That is not to say that we must get involved in nation building, which has failed in the past. We must show the hand of friendship as between the west and the Muslim countries because, in the long term, that is most likely to result in future stability.

8.56 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West): I am grateful to be able to contribute to this debate. It is a month since those horrendous events took place in New York and other parts of the United States and I join hon. Members on both sides of the House in saying that it seems to have been a month in which the Prime Minister has played a constructive and effective role in the policy formulation that has brought us to the present position.

During that period, the United States and others, including this country, have been able to identify beyond any reasonable doubt those responsible. If anybody in this House or outside had any doubts about that, bin Laden's performance on television yesterday must surely have eliminated them. He is only too pleased to take responsibility for the bombing, and to vaunt it. We have had time to put together a coalition that includes, as the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) said, not just the European Union but our Commonwealth friends, Australia and Canada, and, most importantly, the Soviet Union. We have also had time to define the targets—military and other defence installations—and to ensure that nothing else will be attacked. That is as important an outcome as any other.

The words that the Prime Minister spoke—I believe that he leads the debate on this, as on many other issues—about the religion of Islam, when he described its peaceful

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and teaching nature, were enormously important in reassuring many Muslims in this country. I say that on behalf of my many Muslim constituents and friends in Coventry. In emphasising the equal importance of the humanitarian aspects of the operation, my right hon. Friend has brought us to a situation where, throughout this country, America, the whole of Europe and much of the Commonwealth, everybody can see that as much as possible has been done. An ultimatum was offered; time was given for its consideration; and it was refused. I believe that there is now widespread acceptance of the inevitable military action and all the awful consequences that we know will flow from that.

The whole House will agree that, if the policy formulations of the past four weeks have been difficult, now that the military action has begun, and in the dangerous weeks ahead, they will be even more difficult and complex. I should therefore like to put several points to the Government for their consideration both tonight and, perhaps more important, as they make difficult decisions and establish priorities in the weeks ahead.

The first was addressed most effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) a few moments ago when he referred to a much greater role for the United Nations. The House will be reassured by the fact that the hesitant affirmation that was given initially by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has now been reinforced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development in the letter which she has agreed to place in the Library stating that we have complied with article 51. However, it seems to me that we have not been as proactive on the United Nations front as we should have been, or, indeed, as we have been so successfully on other fronts. Now is the time to do that. It is no good waiting any longer. We must envisage the endgame in Afghanistan.

Another key objective that was mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall- Andrews) when the Prime Minister was replying to questions is the establishment of an international court of justice under the auspices of the United Nations, as that will be a key element in the event of the military campaign having a successful outcome.

I also believe that there will be a continuing role for the United Nations in the event of the successful outcome to which the House is committed and which I am sure will be achieved.

I now turn to the length and extent of the bombing campaign. Any comparison with what happened in Serbia—or previously in Afghanistan—or with the length of that campaign and the reservations that many of us had should not be taken too far. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar) said that Afghanistan was bombed back to the stone age by the Russians and the impression that one gets from the television does not contradict that. Nevertheless, if the initial phases of bombing do not yield the minimum requirements of the campaign—the destruction of bin Laden and the elimination of the al-Qaeda network—the earliest possible commitment of specialist ground troops will become necessary. I am sure that operations are in hand in readiness for that.

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I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is replying to the debate as I should like to say a few words about our humanitarian commitment. The Prime Minister said—and the whole House welcomed it—that it is as important as the military effort and must go hand in hand with it. However, particularly if the bombing is more prolonged than we wish, there will be conflicting priorities. My message to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, knowing her powerful influence in Cabinet on these issues, is that if a choice has to be made between the bombing and the supply routes for humanitarian aid getting through, it will be in the interests of the campaign—and of the west—to consider giving priority to the supply routes for humanitarian aid.

Looking to the future, the Prime Minister said that we will not walk away, and we all welcome that, but we must also realise that there is no indefinite role that British forces or even the Americans can play alone in Afghanistan. That is why I return to my point about the United Nations and say that even now it must be possible to formulate the policy that will follow what I believe will be a successful military campaign. If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State can keep us informed on the thinking on that, the whole House will be reassured that we face a most successful outcome to this difficult project.

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