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Earlier, I raised the question of the integration of the international forces operating in Afghanistan. I appreciate and understand the difficulties. Even within NATO, there are countries with different views on whether they would wish to take part in the kind of work being carried out by Operation Enduring Freedom. However, it is manifestly absurd to have a situation in which many thousands of British, American and other NATO forces
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are all operating within the country, but with two separate command structures for all practical purposes, two different rules of engagement and with an attempt now being made to draw them closer together. That is a wasteful use of resources and a wasteful way of approaching these matters.

The Minister knows that perfectly well—although he is not in a position to say it in quite the blunt terms that I am using—and the United States knows it perfectly well. Most countries know it well—even if the only way in which we can get a single unified command in Afghanistan, in order to maximise operations against the Taliban and other elements in that country, is to say to the one or two countries in NATO that do not want to go in that direction that they should no longer take part in the operation. Most of NATO is willing to work in a unified way. The United States, which is NATO’s leading member state, can hardly be expected not to be part of a single, unified process.

There is a word of warning for the United States. It has seen the British and NATO involvement in Helmand province as the beginning of a process that will enable it to reduce its own troop complement in Afghanistan. Indeed, Donald Rumsfeld, in his usual sensitive fashion, has said as much, and has anticipated that the Americans will now be able to reduce their commitment. That would be an incredibly foolish mistake—comparable to the mistake that the United States, and indeed the rest of us, have been making since the beginning of the Afghan operation.

When the Taliban were overthrown—when Karzai’s Government came into effect—the best estimate at that time was that Afghanistan would need an international force of about 30,000 to provide real stabilisation. In fact, we ended up with about a third of that number. Against that background, it is not surprising that warlords in individual provinces have been able to continue in control, and it is not a matter for any particular astonishment that the central Government in Kabul have not been able to extend their authority, even in many of the areas where the Taliban are not remotely present, or not present in any significant numbers. The problem is not just the south and the east. It is the failure in Afghanistan—in this sense it is comparable to Iraq—to realise that once the war is over, we still need a major international military presence. I am afraid that Mr. Rumsfeld is the guilty party, as he is in Iraq, for having decreed that somehow the numbers needed were far more modest than has turned out to be the case.

The Government are entitled to the support of this House. The United States continues to have a considerable degree of international support for what it is seeking to do in Afghanistan. All the warnings that have been given by the Minister and others about what would happen if the west simply withdrew from Afghanistan are entirely correct and justified, but that should not be used as an excuse to maintain an inefficient military command structure that cannot deliver the best results and, most of all, it cannot be used to justify a reducing American military commitment over the next few years.

One of the lessons that we should all have learned from history, over 100 years, is that if one wants to make a profound change in countries of lower economic and social development, which have major internal problems of stability and cultural differences, one needs to be there for a long time. If one is not prepared to do
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that, one should not go there in the first place. That is particularly true in Afghanistan at the moment. If the Government are able to pursue such an approach—not only in their own policy, but in the recommendations that they make to other Governments, including the United States—they will deserve the support of the House.

3.29 pm

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab): I begin by paying tribute to the brave men and women of our armed forces, who risk their lives every day to keep us safe and secure. My constituency is the home of the Royal Navy and Portsmouth ships have defended our country in many famous sea battles. Portsmouth itself suffered badly from bombing during the second world war and we who live there are aware that our city still remains a military target. My constituents and I owe a great debt to the men and women who have defended and continue to defend the city and our country.

Up until fairly recently, our defence policy was centred on keeping our borders and those of our allies safe from attack by potential enemy states by preparing our stand-by forces for traditional combat operations. However, things have shifted dramatically since 9/11, and our country now faces threats not so much from states, or even organisations with which we can negotiate, but shadowy individuals who are not allied to any one state. Such individuals can cross international borders and operate within our borders. They have unprecedented access to technology and weaponry that can cause destruction on a massive scale. They also operate without a thought for preserving their own lives. The accepted conventions under which defence policy was formulated for many years have thus changed.

We can no longer adopt a mentality of sitting on top of a hill and fending off the attackers, and sheer force of numbers does not help much against a chemical or biological attack. We must have a smarter and more agile position in which we use the best equipment that technological advances can give us. Such equipment must be able to move in quickly and perform a multi-functional role, and the men and women who operate that equipment need to be professionals who can exercise judgment. They must be treated with the respect that they deserve, given the danger in which we ask them to put themselves.

The Ministry of Defence must prepare for all eventualities when it makes policy. We owe it to the men and women of our armed forces to ensure that they are trained for all types of conflict. We do not want them to have to be put in a situation that has not been foreseen and for which they have not been properly prepared. Of course, we cannot foresee every eventuality, but we need to think outside the box and prepare for as many scenarios as we can possibly envisage, no matter how unlikely they might seem at the time.

We need to consider not just conflict. Often the work of the armed forces is not armed combat, but peacekeeping, peace enforcing and disaster relief. The role of peacekeeping and peace enforcing becomes intertwined with the international objective of sustainable economic development in unstable countries. The role of the troop deployment
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in Afghanistan is as much to curb the narcotics trade as it is to bring security and stability to the area. That is a delicate role for our troops to undertake. The more successful we are at curbing the traffic in narcotics, the more danger our troops are likely to be in. How do we win the hearts and minds of local people if we are viewed as removing their livelihood? That must be balanced against the fact that Afghanistan will not have security and stability in the long term while the narcotics trade flourishes. We need to ensure that our troops are fully trained for such a role and that we have troops who can exercise their judgment and act professionally in such delicate situations.

I spoke earlier about treating our troops with the respect they deserve. They need to be treated with respect by not just the MOD and their commanding officers, but politicians, the public and the media. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit Iraq. I spoke to the men and women who are doing a superb job helping the Iraqis to rebuild their lives and helping to train the Iraqi security forces so that they can take control of their own safety and security. They face danger every day, but they keep their cool and behave professionally against extreme provocation. However, one would not know that from the media coverage. The only stories that are widely reported in the British press are the negative ones, which are then relayed across the rest of the world. That gives the armed insurgents the ammunition with which to arm their followers, which thus puts our troops in even more danger.

I spoke to many serving soldiers who told me about circumstances in which they have faced insurgents who have known only too well the rules of engagement under which our troops operate and goaded them to a point at which they hoped that our troops would break. However, such is the professionalism of our troops that they invariably do not do that. Nevertheless, accusations are still made, and they are duly investigated by our service police, contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) said.

I heard of instances of the security services being hampered in their investigations by the unwillingness of alleged victims to give evidence because they had been approached by agents of predatory lawyers who told them not to co-operate with an inquiry, but to sue through the courts for compensation. The Army investigators then stand accused of failing to investigate properly, or covering up, when they are in fact doing their best to investigate properly, but being prevented from doing so. None of that gets properly reported by the British media. It obviously has not reached the ears of my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead. Is it any wonder that some people ask why we are still in Iraq, when all they hear are the negative and unsubstantiated rumours?

The men and women on the ground whom I met felt that they were still part of the solution in Iraq, not part of the problem, but we all recognise that there is a fine line that needs to be kept continually under review. We have a job to do at the request of the elected Iraqi Government and we need to stay until the job is done or the Iraqi Government wish us to leave. There is an important task to do in training and helping the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own security. From my own observations, I believe that they have the training, experience and expertise to perform that task well.

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It is not just the Army, the Marines or the RAF. The Navy, too, is doing its bit. Representing, as I do, the constituency that is the home of the Royal Navy, no one will be surprised that I am speaking up for it, as it was a bone of contention among sailors whom I met on HMS Bulwark in the Arabian Gulf that there was never any recognition in the media back home of the important work that the Navy was doing in Iraq, working with the Iraqi navy to protect the oil terminals that are the lifeblood of Iraq and the economic key to its reconstruction.

I saw the professionalism and diplomacy of our modus operandi when boarding unknown craft that had strayed into the exclusion zone. I was shown the basket of gifts that the captain of the patrol vessel carries with him, which are handed out to the crew while the marines search the craft. That is how we win hearts and minds and how we gain the valuable intelligence that we need in the fight against international terrorism, not by going in with all guns blazing, although of course there may be times when that is the appropriate response.

When we look at defence policy, we must make sure that we consider how our troops are viewed here at home and in other countries, because that has an impact not only on our ability to defend ourselves, but on our ability to recruit and retain high-quality professionals. We want to make the armed services attractive to young people, to ensure that we recruit people of the highest calibre. We also need to ensure that our armed services are representative of our population. That means encouraging recruitment of men and women from all ethnic backgrounds and reaching out to the gay and lesbian community and encouraging gays and lesbians to join up, rather than the shameful way in which they were treated by the MOD for many years.

I was encouraged by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State when he told the House last year that we had recruited our first Muslim, Hindu and Sikh chaplains, and I hope we can continue to work with the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality to ensure greater diversity.

For too long, our armed services have been a closed world, hidden behind a cloak of secrecy, because of the fear that operational effectiveness could be compromised. But all too often we have seen that secrecy encouraging a culture of bullying. It goes without saying that junior ranks must obey orders from senior officers without question, because their own lives and those of their colleagues depend on it. However, one thing above all else that came out of my visits to Iraq, Cyprus and Oman is the tremendous team spirit among regiments, air crew and ships companies. They all had a joint commitment to a common goal and they were all fiercely protective of their fellow soldiers, sailors and airmen. Time and again, these young men and women told me that what they appreciated from their armed service was the training that enabled them to operate as a team.

Team work is much more likely to be generated by trust, transparency and openness than by operation as a secret closed group. We do not need to bully people into obeying orders and we do not need to break people’s spirit. We no longer operate trench warfare
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and we do not ask our troops to blindly go over the top in the knowledge that not all of them will survive, but in the hope that some of them will.

Mr. Ellwood: I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady, who is making a powerful speech. Of course the whole House would condemn bullying, but having served in the armed forces, as have many other hon. and gallant Members, I know that it is a different environment from the normal nine-to-five job. It is tough and we cannot expect our soldiers, sailors and airmen and women to go into combat unless they have gone through thorough, vigorous training. We cannot be nice to everyone on this side and expect them to stand up to the bullets on the other side.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I have no argument with the hon. Gentleman about the need for robust training and the need to make sure that our troops are aware of what they will face when they go into operation. But when one hears stories, as I heard from someone, of a young recruit having a machete held to his head, that is not robust training. That is bullying and that, to me, is not acceptable. In a recent debate on Armed Forces Bill, there was a great deal discussion of the possibility of establishing an independent commissioner as part of a grievance redress procedure. Indeed, the Blake review of the tragic deaths at Deepcut recommended the introduction of such a post. Not all senior officers in the services accept the need for an independent commissioner, as they believe that the internal grievance redress procedures are adequate, but junior ranks to whom I spoke—incidentally, they told me that there is still a culture of bullying in some parts of the services, although it has improved—did not have confidence that internal procedures would be fair. We will not have the professional, committed, agile armed forces we need to discharge either our responsibilities and duties in defence of our citizens or our international obligations if we do not tackle the issue. The Government agreed to defer consideration of an independent commissioner pending the Blake report. Now that they have had time to look at the recommendations, I hope there will be movement on the issue as the Armed Forces Bill continues its passage through the other place.

Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend is making a thoughtful and wide-ranging speech. I have responded to the Blake report and I clearly stated that the complaints commissioner—that is the title of the post—will be independent. In addition, there will be civilian representation on complaints panels. As she said, the Armed Forces Bill which has progressed to the House of Lords, would allow us to achieve that, and the mechanisms can be defined and debated in the other place. We have taken on board the main issues that she raised, and we have made progress. I believe that Nicholas Blake QC, the author of the report, is happy with the action we have taken.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I am grateful to the Minister. It is important that independent civilians on such a panel have experience of military matters because, as the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) said, the military context is different.

Our professional, committed, agile fighting forces do not consist just of regular forces. To provide the flexibility required by modern warfare we increasingly
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rely on reservists—either former regular servicemen or volunteer reserves. In Umm Qasr, I met volunteer marine reservists who were helping to co-ordinate the Gulf protection strategy. They greatly welcomed the opportunity to play a responsible role in operations, as their everyday lives were vastly different. One reservist was a lifeguard, one a credit controller and another a quality inspector in a biscuit factory—a world away from the job they were doing in Iraq. A recent report by the National Audit Office shows that the desire to serve on operations is an increasingly important reason for joining the volunteer reserves. Surveys show people who take part in an operational deployment are more likely to want to be deployed again.

The marine reservists whom I met would certainly welcome another deployment. They were looking forward to serving in Afghanistan, but when I asked how their families felt, it was a different story. In theory, all reservists are subject to a compulsory call-up but, in practice, the MOD asks individuals if they wish to serve, and that informs call-up procedures. The NAO report, however, notes that reservists do not all admit to their families or employers that they have volunteered for an operation, which can cause problems.

We must be much more open about such problems and involve families at a much earlier stage in a volunteer reservist’s career, so that when the call-up comes they understand what is involved and what support is available. We should ensure that the support available to the families of regular forces is available to reserve forces. We must work with employers so that they recognise the valuable work that reservists do. That is not just an altruistic point of view—the training and experience that reservists acquire on an operation is invaluable to their employers when they return. Many members of 103 Battalion of the Territorial Army, which is based in my constituency, served in Operation Telic. The battalion is a Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers unit whose job is to repair vehicles and return them to action as quickly as possible. Like all TA units, it has experienced problems with recruitment, but it was allocated additional funding last year, which enabled it to adopt new methods to reach out into the community and sign up new recruits. However, on a recent visit to 103 Battalion, I learned of a particular problem to which I should like to draw the Minister’s attention—the matter of qualifications. Young men in 103 Battalion get excellent training in vehicle maintenance, but it is not recognised by an NVQ, so when they try to get a job using those skills, they are not considered to be qualified. Surely it is possible to make that training NVQ accredited to allow those young people to get the recognition that they deserve. Such practical steps can help to build links between the local community and the armed services and to encourage more people to volunteer for the Territorial Army. I want to see greater integration between regular forces and reserve forces, because we need both in today’s modern armed services.

As I have said, I want all our servicemen and women to be treated with respect, and I want the armed services to be a career of choice, not a career of last resort. I believe that our armed forces are the best in the world and our biggest asset, and an integral part of our defence policy must always be to treat them as such.

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3.45 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow another Hampshire Member, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), because defence is hugely important to the county. It was a pleasure to hear her speak in support of the armed forces.

I love these debates. Somehow, they always take place on Thursday afternoons, when the defence geeks turn out. We often say the same sort of things, but it gives us the opportunity to complain. I am no different, and I shall make my complaints.

We must remember the context in which we make our complaints. The background is that the men and women of our armed services do the most extraordinary things on behalf of this country. I met some of them in Iraq a couple of weeks ago, and they were some of the finest men and women one could possibly hope to meet, risking everything on our behalves and on behalf of the ideals in which this country believes. We are lucky to be served by people such as those who are working in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In order not to take up too much of the House’s time, I shall concentrate on three issues—the strategic nuclear deterrent, Afghanistan, and Iraq. I do not feel in the least annoyed that the Chancellor has discussed a matter on which the Defence Committee will issue a report next week. The report considers the strategic context and timetable for taking decisions about the strategic nuclear deterrent, and it is the first of a number of reports that the Committee intends to produce in this Parliament. Its purpose is to inform and encourage public debate on that important issue, so I have no doubt that members of the Committee were delighted when the Chancellor joined the debate last night.

Daniel Kawczynski: My right hon. Friend has been in the House far longer than me, but I cannot recall a Chancellor of the Exchequer of any political party making such fundamental pronouncements on defence. I am surprised by how far the Chancellor has gone, because surely it is for the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for Defence to lead on such issues, rather than the Chancellor?

Mr. Arbuthnot: My hon. Friend has not read what the Chancellor said, because the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) have rightly pointed out that the Chancellor repeated the Labour manifesto. However, it is mildly irritating that the Chancellor’s people say one thing in private, while he says something else in public, and the problem is that we have grown used to such behaviour from the Labour Government.

I welcome the fact that in last night’s remarks the Chancellor appeared to be a genuine convert to the interests of defence. He discussed

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