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7.31 pm

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): I come to the debate with little experience of foreign affairs, but I have had five weeks experience of explaining recent events to two children aged five and seven. Along with millions of fathers, in this land and many others, I have faced the challenge of explaining and rationalising to my youngsters what has happened to humanity in the wake of the events in New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Afghanistan. There is nothing more critical than the eyes of a child.

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I have therefore attempted to rationalise in my own mind recent events, and especially the role of the coalition in the past few days and weeks. I consider the coalition's role to have three aspects, each of which has a critical part to play in winning the conflict. It is important that the coalition remains focused on the target that has been set. That target is Afghanistan, and more specifically the Taliban regime. We must not be diverted into seeking a wider remit throughout the middle east until the time is right. The coalition's first target is to find and bring to justice Osama bin Laden. Many hon. Members from all parties have stated already that that is a challenge in itself, but the coalition accepts that it has to play a complicated role.

I commend the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) for bringing to our attention the lack of objective statements to the House in the past few days. That omission does not reflect well on the Government, especially when it comes to maintaining the coalition that exists in this Chamber on this very complicated matter. Moreover, the project will last a long time. As the Foreign Secretary noted earlier, it will not be over in days or weeks. We must manage expectations and prepare the British people for that. They are entitled to a rational explanation of the duration of the expedition that is under way, and to a realistic assessment of the demands that will be placed on this country, and on others.

The second objective of the coalition is to return stable government to Afghanistan. It cannot be acceptable that in many conflicts over the past few decades, we have left the theatre of conflict in a poorer state than when we found it. That cannot be allowed to happen in Afghanistan. We have a critical role to play in introducing an inclusive and fair administration to Afghanistan. It is tempting to foresee an easy solution to the question of the post-Taliban regime, but I respectfully suggest that the easiest solution in that context might not be the fairest or the most inclusive.

The coalition's third—and equally important—objective has to do with the humanitarian effort in that part of the world. Many hon. Members today have noted that the aid now reaching people there amounts to 500 tonnes per day. That is nowhere near an acceptable amount. We have little time left in which to accelerate provision, and time is against us. I consider the response to be pitifully inadequate, as I understand that it amounts to only one seventh of the amount needed to maintain a population threatened by the onset of winter. I look to the Government for some reassurance that they accept the fact that the war will be won as much by the aid convoys as in the air. Some people have estimated that as few as four weeks remain to make a significant impact in that regard.

In addition, it is important that we manage people's expectations, both in our constituencies and in the wider world, about how long the campaign will last. It is likely to last months or years, not weeks. The challenge is to maintain the high level of support that exists in the country. I do not agree with the view expressed today that there is a great groundswell of doubt about the legitimacy of the action being taken. My experience is that support for the action being taken by our airmen and troops is resolute and strong, rather than doubting and dubious.

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However, we must manage expectations, especially when it comes to explaining that the action is a means to an end, and that that end is the end of the Taliban regime.

I believe that this war is the second media war. We must accept that much of that manipulation of the expectations of people in the UK will be done outwith this Chamber—by CNN, the BBC, and so on. Two images prevalent over the past days and weeks have presented a false picture of the unfolding conflict. First, as happened in connection with Kosovo, we are presented with images of smart bombs and laser precision. Although we have those capabilities in our armoury, the dangerous impression is given to people that the conflict is clinical and clean. If we try to convince our constituents that that is the case, we will be misleading them. The conflict is complicated, and is not a matter of laser precision. Lasers may play a part in it, but the conflict will remain dirty. It will no doubt get worse as time goes on.

Secondly, we are presented with images of destruction and so-called collateral damage that contrast starkly with notions of laser-guided bombs. We must accept that images of destruction are influencing people. There are early signs that members of the al-Qaeda network are now masters of public relations, and that they realise that they have the power to manipulate the media. This week's media tour of a bomb site is part of a worrying trend that will continue to develop in the weeks to come.

We must balance the critical reception of television images of collateral damage with courage in the knowledge that civilian casualties are inevitable. That does not mean that they are in any way acceptable, but I am afraid that in this conflict they are inevitable.

It is important to keep the anthrax threat in proportion. Anthrax is a remarkably difficult part of the armoury with which to deliver any threat to this part of the world. However, it is effective in creating terror, and that is what the terrorists are after, rather than a huge impact. The danger is that images in the newspapers of people with blue suits and helmets give rise to terror in the United Kingdom, and that is a win for the terrorists. We all have a part to play in a dignified and rational response to the anthrax threat, but let us not get it out of proportion, for that would be a win for the terrorists.

Much has been made this evening of the link to the middle east peace process. I listened with interest yesterday to the Prime Minister's comments on a viable Palestinian state. I concur entirely with the views of many in this House that solving the middle east conflict is crucial to this problem. However, we have to be careful about the messages we are sending. Now that Yasser Arafat has come for meetings in London in the aftermath of the atrocities in New York and Washington, we must be careful about how we present the way in which negotiations develop hereafter. This is not about the Palestinian problem, as was shown in the information we were given a couple of weeks ago. This plot was hatched when the middle east peace process was in a promising state. Even at such an encouraging time for the peace process, the al-Qaeda network was plotting this atrocity against the western world. Of course, resolving the peace process in the middle east is important, but there is a danger that risk and reward will become connected in the minds of the terrorists.

I remain committed to support for the Government's position. We believe that their response is proportionate and just. Earlier this week, my five-year-old asked me

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whether wars were okay. It was one of the most difficult questions I have been asked during the past six weeks. I responded with a wee bit of politicians' faff—a bit of flannel. Ultimately, after rationalising things in my mind, it came down to the fact that although not all wars are just, this is a just war.

7.44 pm

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin): I apologise for the sound quality of this contribution, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but, although unwell, I wanted to contribute to a very fine debate, and I am grateful to you for allowing me to do so.

The right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), who is not in his place, made a fine and thoughtful speech. The Conservative party must be well off indeed if such a man can be on their Back Benches. However, in praising his speech I take issue with a fundamental error that he made.

The right hon. Gentleman was right to describe his visit to Ground Zero in the awesome way that he did. He was right to talk about the sight, the taste and the smell of what he found there. He was wrong, however, to say that the crime committed on 11 September was of a dimension that has never been seen before. I submit that that error of analysis leads us to the current juncture and is intrinsic to the weakness of our position internationally. No one could have said that if they had walked with me through the ruins of Beirut in 1982 where, for week after week, General Sharon reduced an Arab capital city to ashes. He presided over a massacre in two Palestinian refugee camps the like of which had not been seen since the second world war. The stench of dead men, women and children pervaded the whole of the western part of the city of Beirut. The terror instilled by the fragmentation and phosphorus bombs, the fuel-air explosives, the napalm and the butchery in the camps remains a potent factor in the lives of the Lebanese and Palestinian people to this day, almost 20 years later.

I accept that the right hon. Member for Horsham believed what he said to be true. That is the point. It is because what happened in America is being invested with so much more value and horror than equally horrific things that have happened in Arab and Muslim countries that our position is so weak and difficult internationally.

I was not going to mention this, but as the Foreign Secretary scolded us so in his rather schoolmasterly way in his opening comments, may I say that there are no supporters of the Taliban or bin Laden on our side of the argument? In fact, the only supporters of the Taliban are in the Government's coalition. It contains the only countries which, until a few days ago—and, in one case, until now—maintain diplomatic relations with the Taliban and with the Arab Afghans, to whom I shall return, who are the core problem in this conflict.

The American and British Governments invented the Taliban. I do not say that to score points, although that is irresistible for those of who stood in the Chamber and bored the House stiff with warnings of the dark night that would ensue under those holy warriors—those freedom fighters—whom the American and British Governments were arming, financing and training. After all, bin Laden's guards were trained in what can only be described as a terrorist training camp near Fort William by the Special Air Service of the British Army. So there are no

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supporters of the Taliban or bin Laden among my right hon. and hon. Friends. To sketch out a simplistic argument saying that there is no alternative, as was done from the Dispatch Box today, is a grave error. In politics, there is seldom only one alternative. There is seldom no other way to skin a cat than the way advanced by the Government.

I rise to speak against the iron consensus of the three Front Benches. It is clear that they have their forces here this evening behind their position. I hope that they are not fooling themselves that their voters and supporters do not feel great unease about and considerable opposition to the course on which they have embarked.

After all, even if the opinion polls are correct, my friends and I speak for about 10 million people in this country. They are Labour and Liberal Democrat voters and, judging by my postbag, they are also Conservative voters. Let us not imagine that that iron consensus really speaks for the whole country, as anyone who has read a correspondence column in a serious newspaper, has listened to a phone-in programme on a serious radio show or seen the growing demonstrations—not only in this country, but 250,000 people in Italy on Sunday and 500,000 people in India on the same day—will know.

Neither should the Government believe—this is an even more serious error—that the support of juntas, potentates and western-dependent leaders for their course of action represents opinion in the countries that are under the heel of those juntas, potentates and dictatorships. I have heard hon. Members on both sides of the House this evening praise someone called President Musharraf. He appointed himself as President. He is a military dictator who seized power and imprisoned for life the elected Prime Minister of Pakistan.

As was stated admirably clearly by one hon. Member on the Opposition Benches, 83 per cent. of the people of Pakistan entirely oppose the policy of the self-appointed President of Pakistan and yet he has been praised here for his courage. Courage in what? In usurping power from the elected Government and ramming through a policy that is opposed by 83 per cent. of the people he governs? Apart from the questionable morality of that policy, it is hardly a stable basis for a coalition.

If this conflict stretches, as it seems it must, through a difficult winter, with large numbers of casualties through hunger and for other reasons, there is a real danger that Pakistan will be tipped into what I would call a Talibanisation of its politics. I do not need to remind the House that that Talibanised Pakistan would be a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

That is the truth. We have assembled in a coalition for "enduring freedom" some of the least free countries in the world. It is their lack of freedom that contributes to the swamp of grievance and injustice that is felt by many in the Islamic world—a swamp from which the monstrous mutations who created the havoc and destruction on 11 September came.

Listening to the Foreign Secretary as he swung across the present world position, one would not have gained any smattering of an understanding that this war is going extremely badly. Frankly, in the no doubt unintentional misreading of the findings of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Doha, the Foreign Secretary did not tell the House that the Governments of the Islamic community beseeched the Americans and British to avoid civilian casualties. Nor did he mention the finding of the

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Foreign Ministers of the Arab League, who declared, in an echo of NATO Ministers, that any subsequent attack on any Arab country would be regarded as an attack on all Arab countries. I mention that because it is clear from a cursory reading of the newspapers on Sunday that Afghanistan is not the only target in this coalition against international terrorism.

I accept that the British Government have been making noises that would tend to restrict the conflict to Afghanistan—I do not know if it is because some hard cop, nice cop/good cop, bad cop routine is being played out or whether it is genuine, and frankly it does not matter. However, the decision over

to quote Richard Perle, the United States military goes after will be made not in London, in Downing street, but in the United States. If the US decides to launch an attack on an Arab country or Arab countries, it will pitch us from what is shaping up to be a disaster into an international catastrophe.

Why do I say that the war is going so badly? In every war we are told that the bombardment is aimed only at military targets. We are told that the targets are being scientifically and forensically calibrated and that the weaponry is of a new generation that will minimise collateral damage. In every conflict in which that charade is played out it proves to be absurd, as subsequent examination of the accuracy rates of the ordnance that was fired and dropped and the most cursory examination of casualty wards in the countries attacked makes clear. In this conflict, it is more absurd than in any other recent conflict.

Do you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that one of the main weapons being deployed against the cities of Afghanistan—the poorest country in the world—is the B52 bomber? Indeed, in some cases it is the very same aeroplanes that carpet-bombed Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. That is what a B52 bomber does. It does not even pretend to be forensic, laser-guided or targeted. It is a large aeroplane that opens its bomb doors out of which fall huge piles of high explosives. The poorest country in the world, Afghanistan, is being bombarded 24 hours a day, with a brief pause in a mockery of religious acknowledgement during the daylight hours of Friday. There has been a 10-day round-the-clock, massive bombardment of a country which before the conflict started was best described as being on the verge of the stone age.

I was in a debate in Trinity college, Dublin, on Thursday with a very brave woman—Marie Colvin, who is a supporter of the war and a journalist on that most doveish newspaper The Sunday Times, whose eye was gouged out in Sri Lanka recently. A heroic war correspondent, she ridiculed the idea that we are bombing military targets in Afghanistan and was in a good position to do so as someone who has spent many weeks there. She ridiculed the idea that we would be attacking command and control centres at Kabul airport, as the Defence Secretary said in his press conference the other day. She laughed at that, saying, "I've been in Kabul airport and the airport building is practically a mud hut that can only receive incoming phone calls." That area is being bombed, we are told, again and again. She ridiculed

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the idea that Afghanistan could have enough military targets for even one day's bombing, never mind 10, 20, 30 or 40, or that one could bomb Afghanistan round the clock and not be killing large numbers of innocent Afghan civilians.

This will be my final point, as many hon. Members wish to speak. This war is being waged on the wrong target. The attack on 11 September has nothing to do with the Afghan people. None of the terrorists who attacked America were Afghans. As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said, the attack was planned from European and north American bases. The Afghan people have been hijacked by the Afghan Arab formations of extremists, paid for by Saudi Arabia during the war against the Najibullah Government, armed with American weapons and, as I said, even trained in our own country. It is the Afghan Arab terrorists who flew out of that swamp of grievance that I talked about. It is not that the Taliban are shielding bin Laden: it is the other way around. Bin Laden's forces are the only organised force in the whole country with money and with the logistical ability to run themselves as a quasi state, so to pound mercilessly the civilian population of Afghanistan is morally grotesque. To expect to keep international opinion on one's side with the equivalent of Mike Tyson in a ring with a five-year-old child, beating it mercilessly round after round, is ridiculous beyond words. If we leave morals aside and talk only about efficacy, we see the real danger in what we are doing.

In my speech of 14 September, I warned that if we embarked on an unwise course we would create 10,000 bin Ladens. Does anyone watching the flames, from Kuala Lumpur to Karachi, from Quetta to Jordan to Oman where our own forces are—where the biggest demonstration in the country's history took place last week—to the streets of all the Arab capitals, think that I was exaggerating and that from that great mass of anger there will not come 10,000 bin Ladens? I submit that the course of action on which we are embarked and in which I predict we will still be involved next year—perhaps next year at this time—with casualties beyond imagination risks becoming the very third world war that the bin Laden fanatics set out to achieve with their attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September.

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