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That is wrong for a number of reasons, the first being that the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate. Whether one agrees with the Iraq body count estimate of 47,000 Iraqi civilians killed or The Lancet estimate of 650,000 civilian dead since 2003, it cannot be disputed that the situation is getting worse. October was the worst month on record. Meanwhile, each week
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thousands of people are being displaced in Iraq by sectarian violence, and they are then gravitating towards their own ethnic groups. Whatever policy we are pursuing in Iraq, it is clearly failing—yet the Prime Minister still refuses to come to the House and account for Government policy.

The policy must be wrong when we consider the extraordinary intervention of General Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British Army. We should not underestimate that. From their earliest training, soldiers are taught not to disagree with or contradict the elected Government of the day, yet Britain’s top general did just that. He made it clear that the presence of British troops in some parts of Iraq is exacerbating the situation. He also said that the Army was stretched to its limit and meeting challenges on the hoof. The Government must tackle that. Why are troop deployments allowed to continue when they exacerbate matters? Why did the general feel that he had to air his concerns to the media? Is there a lack of communication between the Army and the Government? That has implications for servicemen’s lives and Parliament has a right to ask the Government to tackle those matters. Again, the Prime Minister refuses to come to the House and be answerable for Government policy.

The policy has got to be wrong because there is no clear strategy for moving forward. At a press conference last month, General George Casey and the US ambassador in Iraq pushed for a national compact. Almost simultaneously, our Foreign Secretary conceded in an interview at least the possibility that Iraq could be broken up into three parts. Then, President Bush stated that Iraqi forces could take over in a year. Meanwhile, the Iraq study group is apparently seriously considering suggesting that Syria and Iran become part of the solution. Having listened carefully to the Foreign Secretary today, I remain unsure of the British Government’s position on each option.

Let me be clear: like others who spoke before me, I am not in the camp that supports an immediate withdrawal or believes that we should cut and run. That would simply compound the original error of invading. However, we need a clear strategy, which is currently lacking. Simply saying that we will stay until the job is done or that we will not cut and run is not a strategy. What exactly is the job? Clearly, the original US vision of a liberal western-style democracy has failed. The Chief of the General Staff has clearly stated that we should lower our ambitions in what we hope to achieve.

What is the objective? What is the job? By not answering the questions and not leading a full debate in Parliament on the matter, the impression is given that the Prime Minister is simply ducking the issue and that we shall stay until President Bush gives us the all-clear to leave. That is not a sound policy for this country. We must also remember that a strategy is not the same thing as a timetable.

Parliament needs to press the Government and the Prime Minister on their thinking on those matters. The decision to go to war belongs to the past. Given that the Prime Minister’s justification for war—Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction—has been proven false
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and that matters are deteriorating, there is no hypocrisy or opportunism in wanting to hold him to account on the current position.

More important are the present and the future. Parliament is failing in its duty if it does not question the Government about a policy that is costing many lives and clearly not going according to plan. Indeed, unless we have a full and proper debate led by the Prime Minister, Parliament runs the risk of repeating its original mistake in not examining or scrutinising the evidence closely enough when it followed the Executive’s will to go to war.

The issue has been given added urgency by the growing evidence to suggest that our invasion and bungled occupation of Iraq exacerbates the terrorist threat in the UK and overseas. We have seen various reports in this country and the US, as reported in The New York Times, which have not been contradicted or denied by the respective Governments, suggesting that the link between continued occupation and terrorism is very real.

US and British policy in this region as a whole has been marked, I would suggest, by double standards, poor assessment of intelligence and bloodshed over the years. The Prime Minister tries to justify our involvement in Iraq by saying that Saddam Hussein has been removed, but we cannot go goose-stepping around the world and invading countries because we think that they may present a threat and then, on discovering that they do not, justifying our actions by claiming that the world is now a safer place. That is the law of the jungle: it is illegal and contravenes the United Nations convention.

One day we will have a foreign policy of which we can be proud—one that will take a principled stand on what is good for the peoples of the region and good for peace around the world. It will be one that will not slavishly follow the whims of a particular faction in the White House, which cannot even muster international support. I speak as someone who respects the United States and its past accomplishments.

For all those reasons, I believe that we need a full debate so that Parliament can properly assess the current situation in Iraq and future policy options. If the Prime Minister can discuss the position with the Iraq study group, he should be prepared to come to the House of Commons and discuss it here. As I say, it is an absolute disgrace that he refuses to do so. I just hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we do not have to wait too long before that happens.

5.32 pm

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): In July, the Defence Committee, of which I am a member, paid a visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan to investigate the deployment of British troops over the last five years, particularly in Helmand. Reading the newspapers, it would be easy to believe that it is a simple problem of eradicating the stubborn elements of the Taliban regime, but who exactly are the Taliban and how are they to be identified? If anyone thinks Taliban thoughts, are they automatically the Taliban? If a villager shoots at British troops, does it mean that he is definitely the Taliban?


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Simple tags do not work in Afghanistan or any other part of the world. That is why I was particularly taken by President Pervez Musharraf’s comments when the Select Committee met him in Islamabad. He has a troubled and fractious country and his tactics have not always been condoned by the west. However, his strategy in the tribal areas of Pakistan has echoes of the approach adopted in Northern Ireland. He has accepted that a military solution alone is destined to failure. Instead, he is supporting a programme of social development and is striking partnerships with the tribal leaders, who in recent years have been challenged by the extreme religious leaders in that part of the country.

The Pashtuns do not recognise the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They travel freely between the two countries. Our mission in Afghanistan was initially about supporting reconstruction. We have since been battling to bring about the stable security conditions that would allow that reconstruction to take place, but who delivers that reconstruction is as important as the reconstruction itself. I appreciate that one agreement has been struck in Helmand with a local leader and others have been discussed. However, if we are to advance the cause of peace and security in Afghanistan we must re-examine our approach and learn any lessons that need to be learned from across the border in Pakistan.

When the Select Committee met a group of a dozen Afghan parliamentarians, the final question was posed by an MP from Helmand. He said, and I paraphrase, “You have been here for five years, but nothing has improved and there is no peace. Why are you still here?”

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the fundamental problems that we face in Helmand is that the military cannot deliver reconstruction? The military can deliver only stabilisation. It is down to non-governmental organisations, international organisations and local people to deliver reconstruction, yet we are currently not managing to co-ordinate their efforts to enable them to do that.

Willie Rennie: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I was disappointed to hear that the representative from DFID had only recently returned to Helmand after several months in Kabul, because of the security situation in the south.

Sitting in the room with the Afghani parliamentarians was a British soldier who was mourning the loss of a friend and colleague who had lost his life in Helmand that very day. He was angry with the questioner. To me, that was a poignant moment. It reinforced our important duty as parliamentarians not only to make considered judgments, but to follow through on the commitments that we make in the House.

The US-led mission Operation Enduring Freedom was less interested in long-lasting security and reconstruction, and more concerned with tracking down Osama bin Laden—who, in case we have all forgotten, I remind the House is still a free man—and with eradicating al-Qaeda. However, the NATO mission has a better ethos and better objectives, even
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though its success will be a test for NATO and its member nations, many of which still need to step up to the plate with significant troop numbers.

The fundamental problem is that we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan when we kicked down the door in Iraq. We desperately need an inquiry into the strategy in Iraq and what we do next. As many hon. Members have said, it is insulting for the Prime Minister to assert that holding an inquiry here would undermine the troops, when that is exactly what the Americans are doing. What makes matters worse is that he then gives evidence to the US inquiry. Apparently Britain is allowed to have its inquiry, but he is the only Member of the House who is allowed to give evidence to it.

By over-committing in Iraq and Afghanistan, the armed forces are overstretched. The Minister will know that in 1997 the Government announced in the strategic defence review that Britain would be able either to mount one major operation, on the scale of the 1991 Gulf war, or to undertake a sustained lesser deployment, like the Bosnia operation in the mid-’90s, while being prepared to mount a second, relatively small operation—say, a brigade-sized operation—elsewhere. That was updated in 2002, to reflect the experience of having to do more small operations than had been planned.

The problem, as both the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and the National Audit Office have said this year, is that the assumptions are always broken. For at least the past seven years, the forces have been operating at levels higher than those contained in planning assumptions, even when the assumptions were revised. That causes overstretch and also means that some equipment wears out more quickly than planned. Resources are allocated against planning assumptions. Although occasional fluctuations above the plan are to be expected, continuous over-tasking causes cumulative problems.

With our current commitments in a range of locations throughout the world, there is little doubt that our forces are suffering from overuse. They have had to call on reservists to plug gaps on too many occasions, which must limit our ability to respond to unforeseen crises. I and others are concerned about the likely consequence of that overstretch. Individuals may suffer from burnout, resulting in reduced lengths of service and a reduction in the average experience levels. Such overstretch may also make the armed forces less attractive to new recruits at a time when recruitment is so important.

Last Saturday, in Inverkeithing in my constituency, two former members of the armed forces came to my surgery. They were frustrated and angry about the treatment that they had received after they had left the Army a few years back. They had both suffered for years from what they now know is post-traumatic stress disorder, which had been caused by their years of service in Northern Ireland. After years of seeking support from the NHS to treat their symptoms, but without success, they eventually discovered the charity Combat Stress, which immediately identified the problem and secured the necessary care for them. They asked me why the NHS was not set up to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder among ex-members of the armed forces. Why did they not know about the
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charity Combat Stress? Why is it a charity rather than a fully funded part of the NHS? I hope that the Secretary of State will consider those points from my constituents in his response.

I want to turn to the procurement of weapons and platforms for modern warfare. In the coming months, Rosyth is expecting a decision from the Government to proceed with the construction of two future aircraft carriers. Provisionally named HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, they will each weigh 65,000 tonnes, be 265 m in length, be capable of speeds of up to 25 knots and have a hangar capacity for around 20 aircraft. The final stages of the build will be completed at Rosyth, which reflects the high regard for the yard and its work force in the industry. It has a reputation for effectiveness, efficiency and delivering on time and within budget, with which I am sure the Secretary of State will agree.

Will the Secretary of State give us an update on negotiations with the future carrier alliance? When does he expect a decision? Will the Navy base review consider basing the carriers at Faslane? What role does he expect Rosyth to have in the refit? The two future aircraft carriers will be essential for modern warfare, in which we are increasingly involved in conflicts in far-flung parts of the world where we have few allies with the necessary airbase capacity. Those carriers will give us the flexibility and capacity to respond to modern threats. They will also allow us to respond in a targeted and responsible way. That cannot be said of cluster bombs.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Before the hon. Gentleman moves off the subject of carriers, does he recollect that one of his party’s spokespersons in the other place said that it would be preferable for the carriers to be built in the United States? What does he think of that?

Willie Rennie: I thank the Minister for that—[Hon. Members: “Helpful.”] It was very helpful. As the Member representing Rosyth, I would obviously advocate the effective and efficient dockyard in Rosyth for the building of those carriers. As a Scottish Member, I am sure that the Minister would also advocate that.

To return to cluster bombs, the Prime Minister today evaded my question, refusing to even mention the words “cluster bombs” in his response. They are indiscriminate weapons, which have been used in Lebanon and caused many deaths after the conflict ended. Amnesty International deputy secretary-general Kate Gilmore said:

I urge the Government to act now to support an international ban on the use of cluster bombs.

5.43 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) who spoke with authority, particularly as a result of his visit to Afghanistan. He also handled the helpful intervention by the Minister
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with great aplomb—he carried it off well, as Liberals must always do when such internal discrepancies are pointed out.

I am only sorry that the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) is no longer in his place, having looked in briefly to contribute to the debate this afternoon. In a debate that has lasted some five or six hours now, he was unique in giving some support, albeit half-hearted, to the Government’s position with regard to Iraq. He and the Foreign Secretary are the only two Members who have so far spoken in favour of what the Government are doing in Afghanistan. We look forward to the Secretary of State for Defence winding up the debate. Let us hear how well he defends the Government’s position.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) made the interesting comment that there was a great deal in the Queen’s Speech about foreign policy and security, but nothing at all about defence. How on earth are we to deliver the Government’s great ambitions, however, without some satisfactory reference to our defence capabilities? The truth is that foreign policy should not drive capabilities; capabilities should be available for whatever foreign policy the Government lay down. We seem to be getting that the wrong way round at the moment in saying that, were certain foreign policy developments to occur, we would not be able to do anything about them. It is interesting that both the Chief of the General Staff and the two brigadiers who have been in charge in Afghanistan have made it plain that they can barely do what they are asked at the moment and that, were some new catastrophe to occur in the world, it is extremely unlikely that the British Army would be able to respond to it.

It was humiliating at the time of the crisis in Lebanon when no consideration at all was given to whether we should form part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission. I hasten to add that I think it would have been quite wrong for us to do so; none the less, the reason given for our not doing so was that we did not have the necessary capabilities. Even had we wished to, we could not have gone to Lebanon because we did not have the soldiers and other capabilities that would have been required.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point, but he is surely not suggesting that the only contribution the British can make to any deployment of force where it is necessary is to put boots on the ground. That would be impossible, given the way in which troops from the international community are deployed across it. No country could be represented by boots on the ground in all interventions.

Mr. Gray: The Secretary of State makes my point for me. My point is that what we should be doing in this great nation of ours is deciding what we wish to do about foreign policy, and that we should be reasonably content that there are capabilities with which to carry it out. It should never be the case that the Foreign Secretary stands at the Dispatch Box and says “I should like, Mr Speaker, to have done X, Y or Z around the world, but sadly I have not the capabilities
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to do it”—but I suspect that that is precisely the position in which we are at this moment.

Before I leave the difficult subjects of Afghanistan and Iraq, which have been mentioned so much this afternoon, let me say that I bitterly regret one event in my parliamentary career so far. I resigned, or moved on, as one of the shadow Defence Ministers at the time of the invasion of Iraq because I felt so strongly that it was the wrong thing to do. The bit I regret is that the Whips persuaded me not to vote against the war, but to abstain. In retrospect, I strongly wish that I had had the power of my own convictions, voted against the war and returned to the Back Benches then rather than subsequently. The war was wrong, it has been handled entirely wrongly, and now I find that virtually the whole House supports my position on it.

The important question that we must consider this afternoon, however, is not just whether what has been done in Iraq and Afghanistan is right, wrong or indifferent—the House has heard a great many thoughts on that—but whether we are able to carry out the tasks that we have been asked to carry out, there and elsewhere. The truth is that we are suffering from three very significant problems in our armed services, and the Government are showing no inclination whatever to put them right.

The first problem involves numbers. With 102,000 soldiers, the British Army is now the smallest army we have had since Waterloo. We are not able to perform many of the tasks that we would like to perform. Reserves—the Territorial Army—are being used for tasks that we would never have contemplated when I served in the TA for seven years. If I had been told “You will almost certainly spend six or 12 months in Iraq or Afghanistan, often fighting with bayonets fixed”, I would not have been too happy about the prospect, although it is now the norm.

The worrying thing is that in the last two or three years, a quarter of the reserves—some 13,400 soldiers—have left. The fact is that our reserves are becoming smaller and smaller as the dependence of the regular Army on them becomes bigger and bigger. We have problems with both recruitment and retention. I think it right for us to spend some time this afternoon asking ourselves why that should be.

The first and most obvious reason for disaffection in the armed services is, of course, equipment. There were all kinds of causes cél├Ębres during the Iraq crisis when proper equipment was not issued to our services: they did not have the right body armour, or the right kind of desertification for the tanks. That is quite wrong. We cannot ask our boys—or our girls—to go off to dangerous parts of the world and do things without giving them the equipment that they need, including large equipment.

It was interesting to hear Brigadier Lorimer—whom the Secretary of State called General Lorimer earlier—saying that he wants tanks. He wants Warriors. He wants another battalion of soldiers, as he said very publicly and straightforwardly, but he ain’t getting them.


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