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Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): By drawing attention to the supposed inadequacies of the forces he describes, is the hon. Gentleman not giving them as much "support" as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott)?

Patrick Mercer: Absolutely not. We need to give our forces some breathing space. They need time to be ready. Let me add that any coalition war will encounter difficulties when one nation is leading and another is trying to follow. These men have our full support, but we need to understand what is going on.

Whatever gesture we are making, 200 men—a rifle company group—are not enough to be a

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We can generate at least a brigade. I believe that we must generate a brigade, and I would like to see preparations for the training of the rest of our armed forces for the long haul that the Government tell us lies ahead. I see no indications of that now.

I spent some time talking to a warrant officer in the Royal Marines, who told me, "I have been in the Royal Marines for 18 years, and I have two years left to serve. During those 18 years I have spent most of my time fighting terrorism. I have seen comrades killed in Northern Ireland, and I have protected Kurds in Iraq. I believe in this cause, and I know that my men will do whatever you ask us to. I ask just one thing: do not require us to go with one arm tied behind our backs. Let us go with our gloves off, ready to do the job, and we will do it for you."

We have the finest troops in the world, and I believe that a vote tonight must be a vote in support of that warrant officer and those men who are ready to put their lives on the line for this country and for freedom.

5.43 pm

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): I want to deal with some of the criticisms of the coalition's actions in Afghanistan. In doing so, I do not suggest that people do not have genuine and heartfelt concerns about what is going on—they have, and they deserve to be answered. I shall begin the task of answering them in the short time available to me.

The first criticism of the coalition's actions relates to the very basis of the action in Afghanistan. Shortly after the events of 11 September, the chairman of Charter 88 wrote:

I do not know whether, seven weeks on, Mr. Alexander still holds that view, but it is profoundly wrong. The fact is that al-Qaeda poses a clear and present danger to us. What it did on 11 September—there now seems to be no dispute about its involvement—is, by its own account, part of an on-going terrorist campaign, and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan have given succour to al-Qaeda. The Taliban were given an ultimatum to deliver bin Laden, but they refused, hence the military action. To think that we can deal with such groups through

is to misunderstand what we are up against. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on Tuesday:

Far from undermining the rule of law, as Mr. Alexander suggested, our action is in accordance with it. Article 51 of the United Nations charter gives nations an inherent right to individual or collective self-defence in the event of an armed attack; that right runs alongside the right of self-defence in customary international law.

There can be no question, in this instance, but that there was an armed attack. The response of the UN Security Council in 1998 to the east African embassy bombings,

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and on 12 September this year in Security Council resolution 1368, recognised that states have duties to suppress acts of international terrorism and that that is essential to the maintenance of international peace and security. Most significantly, UN Security Council resolution 1373 was passed on 28 September; in it, the council, acting under chapter VII of the charter, imposes on states duties to refrain from supporting terrorists, to deny them safe havens, to prevent them from using their territories and to bring them to justice. Afghanistan is therefore clearly in breach of international law. Far from taking the law into its own hands—an accusation made by Mr. Alexander—the international coalition is acting to uphold it.

Another fallacy propounded by the critics concerns the means. Even if, the argument runs in its simplest form, we must act against terrorism, we should not bomb Afghanistan. I have already said that the action against Afghanistan is both necessary and legal. Some critics of the bombing seem to be suggesting that the coalition is somehow trying to colonise Afghanistan; others that the bombing is targeting Afghan civilians; and others that it is creating a humanitarian crisis. None of those strands of criticism is valid. Given the history of the Afghan wars in the 19th century and the Russian invasion in the last century, to carry out the first charge would be extremely foolish. The aim is to remove the Taliban regime with a view to allowing all Afghans to retake control of their country.

The bombing is certainly not targeting civilians. As in the Kosovo campaign, the attacks have aimed, first, to destroy air cover and air defence; secondly, to interdict, as far as possible, the operation of command and control facilities; and, thirdly, to attack military camps, installations and forces. All that is perfectly proper; it is necessary and proportionate under the UN charter's right to act in self-defence. It is necessary to prevent a repetition of armed attack and is proportionate as a means of achieving that end. It is also in conformity with the humanitarian laws of war, most authoritatively set out in the Geneva conventions and protocols.

The 1977 first protocol puts the matter starkly:

The Geneva protocols are located in the real world and recognise that there may be incidental loss of civilian life. The 1977 first protocol therefore prohibits attacks, which may be expected to cause civilian loss, when that would be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. There have been, and will be, civilian casualties in this type of conflict, which can only be a matter of very profound regret. No one who is a parent can fail to be moved by photographs of children injured and killed in such conflicts.

I wish to make two points. First, the number of strikes that have gone completely astray—as opposed to falling just outside the target—is small. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in opening the debate this afternoon, we cannot accept Taliban claims of numerous civilian casualties. I commend to the House the article in The Times this morning by the BBC correspondent, Simon Ingram. He visited a bombed building in Kandahar and wrote:

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It had been claimed that 15 people had been killed and 20 injured. In his account he points out that one building bombed was occupied by the Taliban religious police and that another bombed building was a short distance from four parked Taliban tanks.

The Geneva protocol makes it clear that states such as Afghanistan must not put civilians in that sort of position. Civilians must not be used as shields. Moreover, article 58 provides that parties must remove civilians from the vicinity of military objectives and avoid locating military objects, such as the tanks that Mr. Ingram saw, in populated areas.

Mr. Galloway: Will my hon. and learned Friend give way?

Ross Cranston: No, I will not. The hon. Gentleman has had his platform.

As for the bombing impeding humanitarian aid, the more immediate threat is the Taliban themselves. The United Nations has complained that humanitarian aid and property is being looted at gunpoint. I am sure that the Secretary of State for International Development will address that point when she replies.

If I had more time, I would address other fallacies advanced by the critics—for example, that this is somehow a war with Islam or that the changes in domestic law proposed by the Secretary of State for the Home Department are unacceptable infringements of civil liberties. The bottom line is that what the coalition is doing is lawful, necessary and right.

5.52 pm

Sue Doughty (Guildford): I have supported the Government's action, to a certain extent with reluctance. That is true of many of us who do not want to see bombing and the loss of life. On 11 September we knew that a response would be necessary. The statement made on 10 October by al-Qaeda spokesman Sulayman Abu Gaith, suggesting his group had no intention of respecting the principle of distinction between civilians and the military, showed a total disregard for international humanitarian law. The tragedy was perpetrated by terrorists, who should be brought to judgment.

The Prime Minister has now given more clarity to our aims: to close down al-Qaeda and bring bin Laden to justice. He has made it clear that our attacks on the Taliban are intended not simply to downgrade their capacity to stand between bin Laden and us but to remove the Taliban from Afghanistan. We have been given a clearer idea of what has been achieved in the first three weeks of bombing. The Prime Minister said:

What targets are left, and what is their strategic significance? I am not trying to second-guess the armed forces, but in the coming weeks and months I want them constantly to make judgments about what will be necessary to achieve the original objectives and to carry out the minimum necessary, not the maximum.

It has been suggested that the United States military have been instructed to prepare plans for the possibility of a full ground invasion after the winter. If a full ground

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invasion is intended but not possible during the winter months, we cannot use bombing sorties simply to pass the time. Although the threat is specific, as the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) said, the location of the people we are trying to flush out is not. The need for precision is so important.

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