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As the Secretary of State pointed out in his opening speech, this debate is about how we support our armed forces. I do not wish to make any personal criticism of
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Ministers, but I think that as we see one operation after another unfold before us, we must conclude we cannot continue to support our armed forces in the present fashion.

I joined the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) at the memorial service for the two soldiers from the 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment who were killed in Iraq earlier this year. Talking to the men, one is aware that there is a long tradition of healthy contempt among the junior ranks for the senior ranks, particularly those wearing red tabs who seem to make decisions that are remote from the reality of the front line. That tension is inevitable, but, talking to soldiers on that occasion, I sensed that the gulf between the reality of the front line and those who make the decisions in high places in the Ministry of Defence was widening. As I will explain, I do not think that the chiefs of staff are entirely to blame. We are facing new circumstances which it is up to us politicians to address.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) spoke of the mismatch between commitments and resources. I wish to widen the debate and speak of the inability of the modern Ministry of Defence to task military operations in a way that minimises the risks and increases effectiveness. That goes to the heart of the relationship between our military services and the politicians. The Secretary of State spoke with passion, eloquence and a command of his brief, but I must tell him that in the opening exchanges, he also demonstrated irritation. That is in part forgivable, but I think it demonstrates the tension that is building up between the reality of the front line and the general understanding among those who are ultimately responsible for decisions—those who sit in the House of Commons and the other place—of what our armed forces are having to confront.

It is not possible for us to be effective armchair generals, and the Secretary of State was right to admonish us about the consequences of trying to be, but I submit to him that that is not what we are about. No one in the Chamber is doing that today. In my opinion, there is a problem with the grand strategy of the country’s military policy, which is ultimately selling the personnel of our armed forces very short indeed. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex said that sooner or later something would go wrong, and I suggest to him that something is already going wrong.

We know about overstretch. We know about cancelled exercises, cancelled training, shortened tour intervals and urgent operational requirements eating the value out of the following year’s defence budget when equipment is purchased and the asset is kept on the MOD’s books. The Secretary of State shakes his head. If he does not know that yet, he is in for a shock. If he orders equipment as an urgent operational requirement that becomes part of the general inventory of the armed forces, the Treasury will take the money out of the following year’s budget. Therefore, following Operation Telic, when a large number of urgent operational requirements were put through, there was a serious row between the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury about the following year’s budget. The Treasury’s automatic assumption is that money will be pulled forward from the future year’s budget. There may be similar sorts of problems on that score with respect to the present operations in Afghanistan.

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The overstretch problem is a symptom of a much wider problem. I ask the House to reflect on the military tasks given to our armed forces in recent years. The first Gulf war was clearly a turning point. Then we had Bosnia in 1992, followed by Sierra Leone and Kosovo, where the optimism of the bombing did not really pay off until we showed ourselves prepared to pursue the possibility of a land war. Then, after 9/11 in 2001, we had Afghanistan and the fantastic success of the British-led international security assistance force, under General Sir John McColl, in Kabul. Then we had the Iraq war in 2003 and now Afghanistan again.

I put it to the House that we are seeing a steady deterioration in the way that those operations are approached and resourced. For example, Bosnia, with a population of about 4.2 million people, secured the resources of 60,000 NATO troops to rebuild the country. If we apply the same ratio to Iraq, with a population of approximately 19 million people, NATO would have committed some 300,000 or 350,000 troops. No wonder the occupation of Iraq has been such a failed challenge.

What we have seen is a constant evolution to higher and higher-risk operations, larger and larger tasks, larger and larger demands on more and more limited military capability and ever-increasing complexity. With 36 nations currently operating in Afghanistan, with 72 sets of rules of engagement and some extremely complex, almost byzantine command structures, no one can possibly pretend that military operations are not becoming more complex.

We have also seen an evolution from peacekeeping to war fighting, nation building and long-term counter-insurgency—the most difficult and complex operation of all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex mentioned when he quoted from Professor Holmes’s book. Counter-insurgency is the most long term and most manpower-intensive of operations, depending crucially on the number of boots that can be put on the ground at any one time.

I take the House back to planning for the Iraq war. I supported the Iraq war and I would vote for it again. I continue to support our operations in Iraq. I view the war as essential to remove Saddam Hussein. Anyone reading the Iraq survey report that came out after the invasion can see what Saddam Hussein was up to. Much of the press chose not to and no one ever talks about the cost of failing to take action against him. However, we planned for the invasion and not the occupation, and the failure of planning for the occupation has certainly cost the lives of many British and allied service personnel.

Why and how did that happen? I visited Umm Qasr and Basra just a few weeks after the cessation of invasion hostilities. There was calm and peace on the streets of Basra. There was no insurgency and there was an expectation that things would start to happen that never had happened. I had an exchange with the General Officer Commanding the British forces in Iraq at that time, and his response was, “Where the hell is DFID? Why isn’t anything happening?” It was into that vacuum that the insurgency built up and we left ourselves with a far greater problem than we ever should have had to face.

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Why did that occur? Was it poor intelligence? Both the British and the Americans were certainly reliant on far too few Iraqi sources in terms of what to expect after the invasion. There was a lack of understanding of what invading a country actually means. We had had it—dare I say it?—easy in Bosnia, and very easy in Kuwait. This was a very different challenge. I remember the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) joking on the Floor of the House about the liberation of regime assets as the invasion took place. Neither he nor—I confess—I truly understood what the looting presaged about the meaning of the complete breakdown of order and stability for the long-term future of the occupation of Iraq.

The planning also broke down because there was a collapse of collective responsibility in Her Majesty’s Government before the invasion. The Department that might have been responsible for planning more effectively and for advising the Prime Minister more effectively on the future of Iraq failed to do so because the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) was pursuing her own private agenda. I often ask myself what the Prime Minister and President Bush said to each other at that time about the post-invasion future of Iraq. I reflect that Baroness Thatcher might have taken President Bush rather more to task, insisting that there would not be an invasion of Iraq until such—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this debate is about armed forces personnel; he has ranged rather wide of that.

Mr. Jenkin: I am suitably corrected by you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The point that I am trying to make is that the failure of planning, and the lack of appreciation of the scale of the challenge of what is sometimes mis-called the global war on terrorism, is having a devastating and intolerable impact on the long-term effectiveness of our armed forces personnel, and on their lives and families.

I will fast-forward to Afghanistan, where we are involved in another extremely complex operation. The planning for that operation has not fully provided for what our armed forces personnel are having to face. I agree with my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence that the price of failure would be intolerable and that it would have global security implications, but I am not at all sure that enough people back here understand what our armed forces personnel are having to face. They are fighting a counter-insurgency war. Afghanistan is not like Northern Ireland, which has 175 miles of open borders; it has 1,500 miles of open borders with Pakistan, and it is impossible to see how the unlimited supply of insurgents will cease pouring across the Pakistani border.

We talk about bringing democracy to Afghanistan, and I am lost in admiration for the ability of our armed forces—the people on the ground—to understand the complexities involved in dealing with a village in the dusty heat, to build relationships, to extend the hand of friendship between nations and to build confidence in the security situation, at the same time as dealing with the threats posed by the Taliban. But this is a country in which the armed forces have had a sporadic presence for more than 100 years, and its culture is not to rely on
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outside forces. A 30-year commitment could be required to stabilise Afghanistan. Is there an appreciation in the Ministry of Defence, at the heart of Government or in this House of the fact that stabilising and building up security and using—dare I say it?—the blood of our armed forces to build that country is a very much greater commitment than was suggested when the then Secretary of State came to this House to announce this substantial deployment. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring that we need to match commitments and resources. We need to have our commitments matched by other countries, as he pointed out, which is clearly not happening. We need to support our armed forces personnel in the field, and that applies as much to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force as to the Army, about which I have been talking.

We need to develop a more comprehensive doctrine for combating international terrorism, weapons proliferation and rogue states. I suspect that that means, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex intimated, substantially increased defence spending. The present state of doctrine and policy sells our armed forces short and ill serves the personnel on whom we rely so much and whom we expect to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.

What of the relationship between the military and the politicians? Ministers rely on advice from the service chiefs and it is the worst defence of Ministers to say, when something goes wrong, that they relied on the advice of the service chiefs. Do the politicians really want to hear the truth at all times from our most senior armed forces personnel? I recall that Admiral—now Lord—Boyce warned about putting our hand into the mangle of Afghanistan and embarrassed the Secretary of State by saying that our armed forces were overstretched. His term was cut short. I submit that the way we treat our service chiefs is just as important as the way we treat our armed forces personnel lower down the chain of command. We have to recognise that they are servants of the Crown and rightly loyal to the Ministers they serve. In the spirit of the armed forces, they are most unlikely to stand up publicly and say that this cannot be done and we will not do it—indeed, I question whether they should. That is not their job. But we are putting them in an impossible situation, loading the armed forces with new commitments. It is their spirit to say that they will do their best with what they have got, on any job the politicians give them to do.

I am reminded of what Admiral Sir John Woodward, the commander of the Falkland Islands task force, said when explaining what preparing for a military commitment actually means. He said that the first question one asks is, “What have we got?” That is because what one has now is all one has. I submit that the House needs to understand that to serve our armed forces personnel effectively, in the present global climate and the present commitment load, we have not got enough. It is the armed forces who will suffer the consequences of that the most, because we have hardly begun to understand the consequences of 9/11 or to appreciate the real nature of what must be done to defeat international terrorism in the modern world.

3.33 pm

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): The debate about armed forces personnel is about real people. As with most other hon. Members, the real people that I knew in the armed forces were my relations, although I
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did not know my grandfather, who sadly died at the age of only 32 as a direct result of being poisoned with mustard gas on the Somme. I had two uncles, one of whom was a prisoner of war in Burma and made to work on the Burma railroad and another who, ironically, left the coal mines in 1928 because he hated working in them. He joined the Army and was taken prisoner at Dunkirk, fighting the rearguard action there. He ended up working in a Polish coal mine for four years. My father joined the RAF, but he was sent home after three days because, he was told, “You’ll do more important work back home digging coal, Geordie, than flying aeroplanes.”

I do not have any personal or professional experience in the forces, but in a debate about armed forces personnel, I have relevant recent experience of the impact that our forces are having on the lives of ordinary people facing massive, extraordinary problems in Iraq. We have not just sent our forces to Iraq to fight a battle for us and then leave. Would that we had done that—it might have been a different story.

Our armed forces personnel in Iraq have a very difficult job, as the local people recognise. In March, I was fortunate enough to lead a delegation of Labour movement people to Iraq. Most of us had been against the war, and I still believe that the debate on weapons of mass destruction was not a fair one. However, the people whom we met said that they did not want to talk about WMD, because they were worried about GRT—getting rid of a tyrant.

The Iraqis saw our Government and armed forces as forces for good, and we must listen to them. It is easy for us to be critical and to point the finger, but our armed forces went into Iraq to get rid of a tyrant who had spent the best part of 20 years trying to wipe out an entire race of people—the Kurds. In Sulaimaniya, we saw examples of the torture that had been inflicted. In a matter-of-fact building about the size of a supermarket, on the main street in the middle of town, people had been hung in chains and subjected to electric shocks. They had suffered almost every horror that one could imagine.

Thanks to the action taken by the British Government and their coalition partners in 1991 to establish the no-fly zone, and thanks also to the work that still goes on, the people in the Kurdistan area of Iraq have been able to build a fledgling democracy. They have a Parliament with 111 Members, and the fact that 29 of them are women puts our institution to shame. Without our intervention, that would not have happened: instead, 200,000 more people would have been killed, many thousands more would have been buried alive, tortured and persecuted, and many more villages would have been wiped off the face of the earth. That is what was happening, yet many in the world community were turning a blind eye.

I still have concerns about how we went to war, but people in the area believe that we did the right thing on their behalf. We must listen to what they say, and we should continue to do the right thing, which means that we should remain there.

The people of Kurdistan are very keen to develop links with the UK. They see us as their liberators and—

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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have allowed a degree of latitude in the debate, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will now relate his remarks to armed forces personnel.

Mr. Anderson: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. My point is that, without the continued involvement of our armed forces in Iraq, the situation there would not be starting to improve. The real-life experience is that our troops are having a huge impact on people’s lives.

The people of Kurdistan want the UK to invest in their country. That is not happening yet, but we could use our military presence in a positive way. Our armed forces could protect UK businesses and investors, and provide security for people willing to put money into Kurdistan and work with the Government there. In that way, we could help spread democracy across the rest of Iraq. Our troops could play a very positive role in that respect. They could also help in our work with Kurds in this country, and thus provide more support for people in Iraq.

I have criticised Iraq’s Government in the past, and I remain critical of the fact that trade union rights are still denied to Kurds and Iraqis. However, if our troops had not gone into Iraq, the debate about trade union rights would not be taking place at all. There was no such thing as a trade union movement in that country before our troops gave people there the scope to develop democratic institutions and have legitimate democratic arguments. The continuing presence of our troops in Iraq is allowing that process to go on.

There has been much discussion about whether our armed forces should stay in Iraq. Last night, the general secretary of the Kurdistan workers syndicate spoke at a meeting in this House. He was asked whether the time had come to withdraw British troops from Iraq, but his unequivocal answer was that that would be a catastrophe. Although he wants our troops to leave Iraq at the earliest possible moment, he made it clear that that moment has not arrived. The time to leave will come when the job is done. We should recognise that and continue to support the work of our troops.

We should help all the peoples of Iraq to rebuild their country, so that they can play their part in bringing peace and stability to the wider middle east. We must continue to protect them and their families from those who would destroy them or halt their progress along the road to democracy and the creation of genuine democratic structures. I did not see one British soldier when I was in Kurdistan, but their work and effort and their impact on the country was clear for all to see. It could be seen in people’s confidence in the way forward.

My words are in no way an apology for the Government nor for the bad behaviour of individual members of the armed forces. We—the House—asked the armed forces to do a job on our behalf and on behalf of other people in the world. We should be proud of the job they are doing and support them in doing it.

3.40 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): It is axiomatic that the Member of Parliament for Wiltshire—indeed, all Wiltshire Members of Parliament—should take seriously their responsibilities to the armed forces of this country, as well as the wives and families of those brave people and the civilian populations who support them.

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