Previous Section Index Home Page


22 Jun 2006 : Column 1512

I hope that we will hear the answers to several unanswered questions at the end of the debate. How prevalent are the militias on the streets of Basra? Given the extent of the overstretch, how do the Government intend to deal with any upsurge of violence in Basra, alongside the increased involvement of Afghan forces that has been announced today? How are the Government dealing with the shortfall in the availability of Lynx helicopters? What are we doing to ensure that the basic rights of Iraqis are protected in the areas that we control and for which we are responsible? In particular, what guarantees can we give that Sunnis will not be systematically intimidated and that women will not be oppressed by fundamentalist groups, reports of which are increasingly appearing in our press on an almost daily basis?

Bob Russell: When the Conservatives supported the Iraq invasion, did the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues also put forward the challenging questions about the post-war reconstruction that he is now asking?

Dr. Fox: If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, or if he took an interest in what is recorded in Hansard, he would know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes laid out our reservations on several occasions during that time. Unlike my right hon. and learned Friend, I was chairman of the party at the time, not the shadow Foreign Secretary—these things matter when one is in the official Opposition. It is clearly on record that we laid out our reservations and what we thought that the consequences of several mistakes that we outlined would be. I wish that my right hon. and learned Friend had been wrong, but he was right about many of the things of which he warned. When we took the decision to back the Government, we set out plenty of caveats, which are there for the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) to read whenever he wants.

One aspect of our deployment to Iraq is not mentioned very often. What we are doing there is not simply a matter of grand geopolitical and military strategy. There is a human cost, not merely to Iraqi citizens, but among our serving British soldiers. According to parliamentary written answers obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), 732 service personnel have been aero-evacuated from Iraq. Almost one in 10 of those were diagnosed with some sort of mental health problem. That is a fairly shocking figure, but after returning from deployment a further 727 soldiers have sought treatment from the MOD’s community mental health departments, which raises the question of how many soldiers there are out there who do not know where to turn for help.

It is a matter of the utmost importance that those who risk life and limb in our name be given the health facilities that they require. I hope the Minister will give a commitment to find out whether sufficient information is available, so that those returning know where to go for help, the help they get is appropriate to their service background, and they are not simply treated in a civilian mental health institution, which may not understand the effects of trauma in a military setting.

I turn to the other great deployment—that in Afghanistan, which also remains essential in the wider regional strategic context. As I have said before, while we could not have failed to act, we must not act and
22 Jun 2006 : Column 1513
fail. The consequences of failure would be calamitous. A failed state would re-emerge, our enemies would be emboldened, and the hills and valleys of Afghanistan would once more become incubators of global terror.

As a knock-on effect, Pakistan, already a nuclear state, could become destabilised. NATO’s reputation would be sullied by one of its first out-of-area operations, with the consequent dangers that the wider NATO membership could restrict operations to the Euro-Atlantic zone in the future. A loss of nerve within NATO, the emboldening of our enemies and the denial to the people of Afghanistan of a better way of life is not a legacy that Britain could or should contemplate.

It is a source of great worry to many within and outside the military that our deployment may be under strength for the many and varied tasks assigned to it. Despite there being some 10,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan under ISAF command, we still do not have enough support or troops to cover the entirety of the areas of responsibility in the three regions that NATO is supposed to be covering. There is excessive duplication of logistics provision in particular, especially with regard to troop movement. NATO needs to co-ordinate this aspect far more than it is currently doing. With 71 separate caveats among more than 30 contributing nations, the effectiveness of ISAF is bound to be compromised.

We are asking our troops to patrol one of the most dangerous provinces in one of the most dangerous countries in the world, yet we often lack the manpower and lift capacity to guarantee success. In particular, ISAF still lacks a reserve quick response force to deal with sudden incidents, such as when the Norwegians came under attack last February.

We must acknowledge success when it occurs. Although there has been good progress in the training of the Afghan army, training for the Afghan police, the prime responsibility of the Germans, is at least two years behind schedule, yet the police are crucial stakeholders in the efforts of the peace and reconstruction teams and those helping to rebuild Afghan civil society.

It is worth pointing out that there are still major incompatibility issues regarding the equipment of the major participating countries, particularly radios and frequencies. Most disturbing is the failure to agree to universal use of Blue Force Tracker, a system to allow HQs to follow all NATO forces via SatNav, down to an individual vehicle. The system is being used in Helmand, but the French and other countries refuse to use it, preferring to wait for a rival system built by Thales, which has yet to come off the shelf. That is not an acceptable position for the NATO operation to be in.

The role of the police has also become enmeshed in the wider strategic mismatch and confusion of roles, of which many have spoken. The Afghan police are not so much a national force, in the way that we would understand it, as a large number of independent semi-militias. The border goes unpatrolled, drug trafficking continues, and it is an open question to what extent the police militias overlap with the forces of the warlords and/or Taliban. The UN and other NGOs have withdrawn from Helmand, claiming it is too dangerous. I raise these points, and they all matter, because we are in danger of losing the hearts and minds war among the local population, which is so crucial to the success of the overall mission.


22 Jun 2006 : Column 1514

At the same time as we face these logistical problems, the poppy eradication projects have brought warlords and Taliban into coalescence on many occasions. To varying degrees we are seeing what NATO calls Talibanisation, where the Taliban pay local people for one-off strikes against NATO forces. Given the amount of money involved, funded by the drug trade, these incidents are, sadly, on the increase, as President Karzai noted today.

I raise all these matters because there is still time to do something about them. Our troops are committed, they are brave and intuitive, and they will do almost whatever we ask of them, with whatever we give them. But we need to ensure that they are given all that they need to carry out the task demanded of them—no shortcuts, no shortages. The Government have a twin duty—to maximise the success of the mission, and at the same time to minimise the risk to our troops. We strongly support British participation in the war on terror in Afghanistan, as it is strategically in our national interest and our membership of NATO commits us to it. However, it is questionable whether our security footprint is large enough to achieve the goals identified, in anything like the time scale envisaged. Having acted, we absolutely cannot afford to fail.

Let me deal with the issue that has dominated the newspapers and media coverage today—our nuclear deterrent. While North Korea threatens missile tests and there is the continuing stand-off with Iran, and when we cannot predict what new threats we may face by 2025, we cannot afford to leave ourselves exposed and vulnerable. Given such uncertainty, it is a strategic imperative that we replace our nuclear deterrent when the time comes. I remain to be convinced that any alternative to a submarine-based system is a credible option, but it is still an issue that we will consider in our policy review.

All history tells us that the outbreak of conflicts is seldom accurately anticipated. The onus must therefore be on the nuclear abolitionist, not on the believer in deterrence, to explain why one can be confident that no nuclear or major chemical or biological threat will be posed to the United Kingdom during the long period so far ahead. I doubt if any such explanation will carry much conviction.

The identification of a potential enemy once shaped the nature of our armed forces—the two power standard for the Navy, for example. With our nuclear deterrent, we enjoy a much greater degree of versatility. Intercontinental ballistic missiles such as Trident are sufficiently flexible, given their range and invulnerability, to deter any state that may seek to use, or threaten the United Kingdom with, weapons of mass destruction at any time in the future. In short, it would not matter which potential enemy posed a real threat. Each would face unacceptable retaliation from a modern strategic missile system such as Trident.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): When we have deliberations in the House about the replacement for Trident, does my hon. Friend agree that Members of Parliament should be allowed to debate
22 Jun 2006 : Column 1515
the various options—whether it should be an American purchased replacement or one predominantly made in the United Kingdom?

Dr. Fox: If my hon. Friend will have a little patience, I will shortly come to the process by which that should occur. Let me say one final thing about the policy of deterrence. The versatility of a policy of minimum strategic nuclear deterrence makes up for our inability to anticipate future enemies or predict future threats. Conversely, any decision to deprive ourselves of the deterrent would leave the country open to future aggressors whom we would be able to identify only when it was too late to try and rebuild our nuclear forces that had been so recklessly discarded.

Needless to say, any attempt to reacquire a nuclear deterrent once a threat began to emerge would immediately generate a storm of political protest, on the basis that it would constitute a new arms race and make a tense situation even more febrile. We must act now on principle, because those are powerful and substantive arguments, but the way in which they have been handled in the past few days by the Government is nothing short of disgraceful. Instead of an announcement to Parliament about the Government’s intention, there was a one-line mention in an after-dinner speech, not by the Prime Minister or the Defence Secretary but by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The commitment itself is not clear—is it a commitment in principle or in practice? Will it retain or replace the existing deterrent?

The Minister said that a decision to replace Trident has not been made “in principle”, yet the newspapers are full of stories saying that the Chancellor’s people have briefed that a decision has been made and that the Treasury will spend the money. The Chancellor, as the Prime Minister in waiting, will oversee a new generation of nuclear deterrence for the United Kingdom. If those newspaper reports are wrong, if all those Treasury briefings did not take place, and if a decision has not been made about the principle of replacing Trident, when will the Chancellor publicly disown everything that has been said in his name in the past 24 hours? This is a vital issue, so it is utterly unacceptable that power politics should be at play in the Cabinet, as the national interest must be put first.

The place to debate major issues is the House of Commons, and we must debate the principle and practicalities of action on our nuclear deterrent. However, we must do more than debate, as the House deserves a vote on those important issues. If the Government do not allow the House the opportunity to vote, the Conservative party will certainly ensure that all hon. Members are given a vote on an issue of enormous importance to the country.

We will back the Government when they act in the national interest, but the professionalism of our servicemen and women stands in sharp contrast to the Government’s increasingly shambolic amateurism. What sort of Government, for example, arrange a defence debate, in their own time, knowing that the
22 Jun 2006 : Column 1516
Secretary of State cannot attend? Those who serve our country deserve so much better; before long, they will get it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Before I call the next speaker to address the House, may I remind hon. Members that there is a 15-minute limit on speeches by Back Benchers?

2.22 pm

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): I want to speak about Afghanistan and Somalia, but principally about Iraq.

In Afghanistan, not enough aid was provided to lift and stabilise that war-torn country after the initial takeover from the Taliban. We took our eye off the ball when we invaded Iraq, so vital time and good will were lost. Other forces are at work. Drugs are a driving force for lawlessness and the resurgence of the Taliban, which is backed by shadowy forces, probably from Pakistan or Iran and perhaps the countries of the former Soviet Union that have an interest in destabilising the foreign occupation of Afghanistan. That demonstrates the limit of defence operations. We cannot occupy north-west Pakistan, or go to war with Iran in support of our activity in Afghanistan, so we must find other routes to achieve our goals, for example, by working constructively with the United Nations and neighbouring countries. Our aim should be to stabilise democratic governance, with an ensuing reduction in drug production, which cannot be achieved peaceably without tackling the security situation. Killing every member of the Taliban is not possible, and trying to do so causes civilian casualties and acts as a recruiting sergeant. I do not want the Taliban to return, but we must be more politically proactive to incorporate moderate Taliban sympathisers in the political process. If we are to do our job in Afghanistan, the American troops should go, as their roaming, killing role is not helpful and creates a climate of danger for our troops. The exit of the American troops would be a sign that the fighting should be brought to an end. There should be another push to boost aid and the institutions of civil society, as Hamid Karzai suggested today.

In Somalia, the Americans backed the wrong group when it chose to support unpopular warlords. The popular Islamic Court Union is in the process of coming to power and can unify the Somali people for the time being, while the warlords cannot. America has encouraged the UN and the UK to back the wrong horse and the position has been made worse by President Bush’s crude strategy of “for or against us”, which means that Muslim groups that attain power are automatically assumed to be supporters of al-Qaeda. We have worked constructively with Muslim Governments all over the world—for example, in Saudi Arabia and Turkey—so we can do so in Somalia, too.

We must acknowledge that we backed the wrong horse and start to engage properly and effectively with Somalia to achieve stability. We should not back Ethiopia’s efforts to spread the conflict throughout the region, as that would be detrimental for the people of both countries, leading to more poverty and death, and an increase in the number of asylum seekers. We should not become embroiled in such a conflict, because the
22 Jun 2006 : Column 1517
hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) was right that failed states and ongoing conflict offer the best opportunities for al-Qaeda to operate and recruit. We should therefore encourage stability in countries such as Somalia.

Turning to Iraq, on which I wish to concentrate, the weekly magazine, Tribune, published a “world cup” of the worst human rights abusers. It was a very good article and the final was a high-scoring draw between Iran and the United States, which keeps thousands of individuals in custody without charge in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. It conducts rendition to undisclosed locations and is guilty of torture at Abu Ghraib, as well as atrocities and abuses, including the mass killing of civilians. The US is our coalition partner and our Government offer apologia and gentle rebukes for such activity—for example, they refer to atrocities as “unfortunate incidents” or say that such matters are “their responsibility, not ours.” I strongly believe that joint and several liability applies, because we are part of a multinational force. The Government claimed credit for Saddam Hussein’s fall, even though it was mainly achieved by US troops, so we should share the blame for US wrongdoing. A UK general is second-in-command of the coalition forces in Baghdad, and we share overall responsibility, whether or not we make representations, which are often ignored. In my opinion, the UK should have been in the semi-final of Tribune’s world cup human rights abusers, given its role in Iraq.

Bob Russell: I intervened on the hon. Gentleman in an earlier defence debate to ask him to pay tribute to the British soldiers who have served, and continue to serve, in Iraq. May I ask him to do so today?

Harry Cohen: I did so in that debate and I am happy to echo what I said. I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman should choose to intervene on me, as he should intervene on Members who supported the war and put the lives of our troops at jeopardy, not to mention risk of mental illness and so on. I am happy, however, to give that assurance and acknowledge that our troops do a splendid job given the terms under which they operate. It is the political decision making that sent them to Iraq of which I am fiercely critical.

We have also been hostile to Iran and Syria, which are neighbours of Afghanistan. In a private sitting of the Defence Committee, the Minister of State discussed Iran’s alleged role in Iraq and the death of British soldiers, although I suspect that he had very little evidence. Extending the war to Iran should not be an option, so we need to obtain better relations for mutual security. Threats, hostility and covert tit-for-tat killings are not the way forward.

I want to use this debate to raise some difficult human rights issues. Mr. Abdul Razzaq Ali al-Jedda is a joint British and Iraqi citizen on whose behalf Amnesty International has been making representations. Amnesty is concerned that, even after months of internment, the multinational force is continuing to hold internees without providing them or their legal counsel with substantive evidence to justify their detention. Mr. al-Jedda has been detained since his arrest on 10 October 2004 in Baghdad. He filed a case against the UK Secretary of State for Defence challenging his internment in Iraq, which was dismissed by the High Court of England and Wales on 12 August 2005. However, the court noted:


22 Jun 2006 : Column 1518

Mr. al-Jedda continues to be held without charge or trial by UK forces. When I tabled a written question on the matter, the reply stated:

He might be a dangerous man—I do not know—but there should be a proper process of law, including charges and evidence. That man is a British citizen who is being held by British forces under a secretive process, which is not satisfactory. The Government should deal with the case properly.

Then there is the shooting of innocent Iraqi civilian motorists by employees of the UK company Aegis Defence Services. Evidence of that happening was posted on a website and broadcast on TV for all to see. The company has immunity from Iraqi law under the decree of the then chief US occupier, Paul Bremer, which was enacted with the support of the UK, and it is seemingly above UK law. It has had the nerve to use British law to shut up the whistleblower, an ex-Army man, Mr. Rod Stoner. The situation is unsatisfactory and the Government should address it.

I want to discuss inquiries set up by UK forces and the MOD when innocent Iraqis are killed. For example, a helicopter went down in Basra recently and the subsequent disorder led to the deaths of several Iraqis, including two children. During the Secretary of State’s statement in this House, I asked whether the mothers of the children who were killed would be able attend or put any evidence to the inquiry, but no answer was provided. That raises a query in my mind about how such inquiries are carried out. The excluded Iraqis who have lost loved ones will see them as cover ups, which I suspect they are. We should hear a statement about how such inquiries are carried out and whether Iraqis who have lost loved ones can be involved.

We have been in control of Basra for three years, so why has it ended up in a state of emergency? The Stop the War organisation has e-mailed me to say that public order in Basra has virtually collapsed and that one person is being assassinated every hour. I have received an e-mail entitled, “Ethnic cleansing under the watchful eyes of the British Army”, from Mr. F. Sabri of the Iraqi Islamic party, which is based in London. It states:


Next Section Index Home Page