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12 Dec 2001 : Column 846

International Terrorism

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

3.58 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): First, let me apologise for not being able to be present for the winding-up speeches. As you know, Mr. Speaker, I shall be attending and reading a lesson at the parliamentary carol service in St Margaret's Westminster at that time.

Yesterday United States Secretary of State Colin Powell, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I led a simple ceremony in Downing street in memory of those who lost their lives on 11 September. At 1.46 pm Greenwich mean time, 8.46 am eastern standard time, we stood in silence to mark the moment three months earlier when the first plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Centre in New York. Then a brass band from the American school in London played both our national anthems.

Immediately afterwards I remarked to William Farish, the United States ambassador to the United Kingdom, that the ceremony had been a striking combination of sorrow and hope—sad, yet uplifting at the same time. There were sadness and grief at the terrible loss of life on 11 September, and hope because of what has been achieved since then and what can now realistically be achieved in the future—hope that springs from recognition that the military action has worked and, above all, recognition that in turn it has liberated the spirit and the future of the Afghan people, oppressed for so long by the totalitarian intolerance of the Taliban regime.

The loss of nearly 4,000 lives on 11 September resulted from the decision of the al-Qaeda networks to launch those attacks. The loss of life in Afghanistan in the weeks that followed resulted from decisions of the Taliban regime to go on protecting the terrorists in defiance of the will of the international community. At each stage, faced with real choices, the al-Qaeda networks and the Taliban protecting them chose the path of evil and destruction.

The United States, the United Kingdom and other members of the international coalition have faced their own choices. Following 11 September we could have chosen to do nothing and by our inaction invited further attacks. Instead we took the tough decision to embark on a military campaign. I respect the view of those who disagreed with that choice but I hope that they may in turn respect the fact that the choice of military action as part of an overall diplomatic and humanitarian strategy was right, and that the campaign on all its fronts—military, diplomatic and humanitarian—has been vindicated by events.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: I will in a second.

The military coalition is well on the way to achieving the objectives of the campaign. The Taliban protectors of the terrorist networks have been driven out of Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat and now even Kandahar. The al-Qaeda training camps have been destroyed. The Taliban regime became a major obstacle to getting humanitarian

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relief through. Now that their grip on most of the country has gone, many more aid convoys are reaching the people who need them.

Jeremy Corbyn: Is the Foreign Secretary able to give an estimate of the number of casualties in the military campaign in Afghanistan? What measures does he propose be undertaken to investigate the many human rights abuses on all sides in Afghanistan, in particular the execution of a large number of prisoners when the Northern Alliance took one of the Taliban divisions hostage?

Mr. Straw: I thought that my hon. Friend was going to say, in the spirit of mutual respect, that he recognised that some of his predictions, which he made with such certainty in the autumn, had not turned out to be correct. I look forward to that. We all have to learn lessons from what has happened.

I am happy to put this on the record. I believe that the military action was right but I did not believe that it would be over as quickly as it has been and with such relatively small loss of life. In time, casualty figures will emerge and we will put them on the record, but my hon. Friend has to face the fact that, had the military action not taken place, the Taliban would have maintained their stranglehold on Afghanistan, with the most outrageous and appalling abuse of civil and human rights we have ever seen.

So far we have seen no evidence—again, my hon. Friend speaks with a certainty that I do not find is possible in these circumstances—of executions of the type that he has described. When I was asked about that on the radio on 30 November, I said that if different evidence emerged we would consider it. We always abide by our obligations in international law.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Of course human rights should always be respected and one hopes that they will be, but does my right hon. Friend recall one or two people here and elsewhere saying that if military action were taken, the whole Islamic world would rise against us? That does not seem to have happened. Have we not seen evidence with our own eyes on television that a large majority of people in Afghanistan welcome the liberation from clerical fascism and totalitarianism? This has been one of the most justified military actions since 1945.

Mr. Straw: I share my hon. Friend's view entirely. The record speaks for itself. I am not going to be disobliging. As I say, I respect those who took a different view, but I hope that out of respect for the House they will look at the record of what they said and think about whether the certainty that they showed—for example, they said that the whole of the Islamic world would be up in arms—was correct.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): In view of what the Foreign Secretary is saying, does he support the American policy of fighting terrorism around the world wherever it exists?

Mr. Straw: That is a simplification of the American policy. I certainly support the policy of the United Nations of pursuing terrorism by all appropriate means, wherever it is, and I shall come to that matter in due course.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Straw: This is a short debate and I apologise if I do not take all the interventions that I normally would.

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People also raised the issue of whether people would starve in Afghanistan if the military action went ahead. Well, since 11 September, the World Food Programme has brought 70,000 tonnes of food into the country. Never at any point did the humanitarian effort falter. At present, the aid agencies and the international community are getting four times as much food into Afghanistan each day as they were at the beginning of October.

On the diplomatic front, we saw last week perhaps the most astonishing success of all. Exceeding all expectations, the representatives of the non-Taliban Afghan factions, some of whom have fought each other at different times in the last 20 years, sat down together in Bonn and thrashed out an agreement which puts Afghanistan back on the path to peace. In recording that, I wish to express my gratitude to the UN Secretary- General, Kofi Annan, and to his Special Representative, Lakhdar Brahimi. Mr. Brahimi's patience, insight and skill were a critical factor in bringing the negotiations to that remarkable conclusion. I also pay tribute to the Afghan participants. I am also glad that we in the UK were able to play an active part in the process, through diplomats Robert Cooper, Paul Bergne, Stephen Evans, Andrew Tesoriere and many others, and through the involvement of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and myself.

Many of us expected that the next step after Bonn would be for the talks to reconvene in Kabul. Instead, it is an interim Afghan authority that will convene in Kabul on 22 December. The new Administration will include three women: a clear sign that the new Afghanistan is different from life under the Taliban. Like everything else in the agreement, that is the beginning of a process of returning Afghanistan to normality. Those who take the view that we should not have embarked on the military strategy, in the context of the overall strategy, need to reflect on the fact that had it not taken place women, in particular, would have continued to be oppressed in what was a benighted country.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin): Is not my right hon. Friend's triumphalism a little premature, if not provocative? After all, the vindication he speaks of will be seen only if we are less likely in the future to be attacked by violent terrorists than before the action began. At the very least, it is too soon to say that that is true, given that—according to General Powell—al-Qaeda are in 50 countries around the world, not all in Tora Bora being bombed. On the subject of the Muslim world, will my right hon. Friend accept that more people hate us more intensely today than they did before we embarked on that military action?

Mr. Straw: On the second point, I emphatically disagree with my hon. Friend. That is not the message that I receive from my Muslim friends, of whom I have many in this country and abroad. On his first point, I suggest to my hon. Friend that it would not be a bad idea if he examined the beam in his own eye before he started trying to pick out the mote in mine. If he wants an example of a speech that was not correct, he should perhaps examine what he told the House a few weeks ago. He said:

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He explained why and then continued:

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