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22 Nov 2006 : Column 648

But we need to understand the mission. This is a UN-sanctioned mission, carried out by NATO because it is our common security that is being defended, and it is simply not good enough for some of our NATO allies to fail to pull their weight in this mission. They need to raise their defence expenditure and their political commitment to the whole process. It is simply not good enough to have German, Italian or Spanish troops already deployed, but which cannot be used properly when they are needed by the force commanders.

There seems to be a difference in Afghanistan, where British troops understand that they are a single force under NATO command while too many of our European allies seem to believe that they are national forces under a NATO umbrella. There is a crucial difference between the two, and the Government need to invest a great deal of diplomatic effort in convincing them of the need to make some changes.

There are two matters that the Government need continually to undertake in Afghanistan. The first is a realistic assessment of where we are and the likely rate of progress that we can make, and the second is to ensure that our troops have all that is necessary to maximise the chance of success of the mission and minimise the risk to our troops themselves.

The realistic assessment goes right back to the beginning of the rhetoric that the Government used at the beginning of the deployment in Afghanistan. We were told that our mission was not war fighting but reconstruction, then we sent 16th Air Assault Brigade to do the business—hardly a force for reconstruction and peacekeeping. Only 10 per cent. of the promised reconstruction spending has ever materialised, and if we cannot produce the basic infrastructure benefits for the ordinary Iraqi citizens that they believed we arrived there to produce, we run the risk of finding ourselves much less welcome in the time ahead.

There is a problem here with the Department for International Development, because it is not possible to undertake that reconstruction, which is in itself vital to the maintenance of the military mission, in a zero-risk environment, and there seem to be too many in DFID who do not want anything to do with conflict, and therefore do not want to be involved in any risk. That culture is not acceptable, for the long-term potential success of the mission.

Finally on that point, there was an interesting intervention by the Secretary of State for Defence on my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary on the issue of what Brigadier Lorimer might have asked or may ask for. From the discussion on the Floor of the House I have concluded that the Prime Minister has promised that what our commanders on the ground want, they will get. The Secretary of State for Defence has said that he has not yet been asked for some of the specifics that were mentioned at the weekend. If requests are made for more troops, artillery, armoured vehicles and tanks, I assume that the correct understanding of what we have heard today is that those things will be supplied.

If there is no purely military solution in Afghanistan, that is even more true in Iraq. Yes, we can help to train the army and the police and to support the fledgling democratic Iraqi state, but the bottom line is that peace and stability will come only when the
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various ethnic groups in Iraq realise that they can have either co-existence or co-destruction.

There are no easy solutions, although a number have been bandied around the Chamber today. Withdrawal is not an easy solution. As several of my hon. Friends have said, it is likely to lead to an increase in insurgency and loss of life. Setting a timetable is not sensible, because it would invite insurgents to try to disrupt it. Partition is not an easy solution, because Turkey will not take kindly to a separate Kurdish state on its southern border. If we were to adopt that solution, we would run the risk of transferring the conflict from one part of the region to another.

It would help if we were to admit some of the mistakes that were made at the outset. Disbanding the Iraqi army, the one institution which commanded public respect, was a mistake; the under-deployment for the reconstruction period was, in retrospect, a mistake; and the length of time taken to give out the contracts for reconstruction was a mistake. That is not to say that the basic decision was wrong, but we need to understand that our mistakes have probably made our involvement in Iraq longer and more difficult than it would otherwise have been.

One strong point coming out of today’s debate has been the demand from the House for accountability. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) has said, we have the right to debate policy with the Prime Minister, whose policy this primarily is, in a proper debate rather than in the context of a statement, where the dynamic is very different, in front of this House and in front of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) made that point very powerfully.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe made another very important point when he said that the Prime Minister no longer has an influence on events. We need to consider whether we have a Prime Minister who no longer has the political weight at home or the longevity to see through some of the things that he is promising and whether, far from being an asset for the country, he is now a strategic liability.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said that the regional dominance that Iran is likely to enjoy is the unintended consequence of policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he discussed the need for a better carrot and a more credible stick. There is no doubt that bringing Iran to the negotiating table in support of a settlement in Iraq would be a desirable end in the right circumstance, which is Iran understanding that it is in its national interest for there not to be a civil war in Iraq that destabilises the region. However, it is not in our national interest to give anything to Iran, especially in relation to its nuclear programme, to try to bring it to the negotiating table. The proliferation of nuclear weapons, and in particular Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons, cannot be in our national interest, regional interest or global interest, and we must do everything that we can to prevent what happened in North Korea from happening in Iran. I am afraid that that means that we cannot rule out at any point the use of force, if it is ultimately required in some way.

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That brings me to the extremely important question of the nuclear deterrent. In a world where proliferation seems less controlled, it would be madness for this country to abandon its independent nuclear deterrent. We cannot predict what sort of threats we will face 20 or 30 years down the line, so the onus to make the case is not on those who want to keep the deterrent, but on those who want to scrap it. This party has always known where it stands on the nuclear deterrent question, and we have never changed our minds about protecting the United Kingdom. It is the Prime Minister, the one-time CND campaigner who was a one-sided disarmer during the threat from the Soviets, who has changed his mind. That particular journey reflects in miniature the journey that he seems to have made with the whole new Labour project.

We live in an increasingly dangerous world, with state threats, asymmetric threats and threats to energy security. We have just celebrated Remembrance Sunday, when we commemorated the sacrifices made by previous generations to provide us with freedom and security. It would be the ultimate betrayal to fail to show the same moral resolve in our generation, to maintain those prizes. We need the structures, resources and political commitment to continue that battle. Failure would be unthinkable and inexcusable. Whatever our differences in the House, in that I believe we are united.

6.45 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I am pleased to respond to our debate on behalf of the Government. I share the view of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) that it has been a thoughtful debate, and it has certainly highlighted the complex challenges that we face. The solutions are clearly not easy, but I believe that we have the right foreign, development and defence policies to deal with the challenges in an increasingly uncertain world, including international terrorism, proliferation, regional instability, and fragile and failing states. Every day, I am struck by the scale and enduring nature of those challenges, particularly by the sacrifices that they ask of our armed forces, who have to deal with them on the ground in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and whose courage and professionalism make it a privilege to serve in this job.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) was unfairly critical of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. He suggested that debate had been inadequate, and that she had not addressed those issues that he listed in his peroration. The fact is that she made a wide-ranging speech, in which she was extremely generous in accepting interventions. Indeed, she may have accepted an intervention from him, although I do not remember whether or not she did so. I was struck by the immediate response to her speech by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who in large measure suggested that there was a confluence of views across the House and agreement on a significant number of issues. In any event, however, a speech of that nature is time-limited—I have a comparatively short period in which to respond—so it is an exercise in priorities. In the closing minutes of our debate, the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) made an
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interesting speech that would justify a debate of six hours or more. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and others will look carefully at the issues that he raised. Although I will not make a specific response to his contribution, its significance is not lost on me.

Time is short, so let me turn first to Iraq. I accept what is clearly the view of the House, that we face a very challenging situation in Iraq. Every time I have addressed the issue at the Dispatch Box I have recognised the nature and scale of that challenge, and I have neither sought to play down the nature of the violence in Iraq nor to be complacent about it in any way. We must understand who is perpetrating that violence, why they seek to prevent the democratically elected Government from sustaining themselves, and why they have made it their life’s work to do so. That is the most significant reason for our standing by the people of Iraq and their Government in these most difficult of times.

Several times at the Dispatch Box, I have spoken of my appreciation of the Opposition’s long-term support for our actions in Iraq, and I would like to repeat that appreciation. I know how important it is to our people, particularly in the military, to have broad support and understanding back home for the difficult and dangerous work that they do. At this juncture, I wish to break off to make a point about morale. A number of speakers were wrong about the morale of our troops, particularly troops deployed in theatre. I have visited the theatres in Iraq and Afghanistan on a number of occasions, and I have spent a significant amount of time talking not only to troops deployed in theatre but to those who have returned to the UK. I can tell the House without fear of contradiction that morale among our troops in both theatres is of the highest order. I do not accept from those who clearly have not had the opportunity to speak to our troops on the ground, or to our diplomats and others who support them, suggestions that they are disillusioned—that disparages the work that they do. They are not disillusioned; if anything, they are concerned about the failure of others back here in the United Kingdom to appreciate what they do.

Given what I have said about the support that we regularly receive from the official Opposition on such matters, I was surprised by the position that they adopted during the Opposition day debate three weeks ago. Of course, there will come a time when it is right to learn the lessons of the past three years—in fact, at an operational level, as many people know, we do that continuously—but to have an inquiry that focuses on the past when what matters most is the future of Iraq and when our soldiers are there on the ground working for the future seems at best unwise, and it is certainly opportunistic. The Conservatives even admitted during the debate that they did not agree with it. I hope that, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks suggested, we can put that behind us and resume the mature and responsible approach that has previously categorised our debates on the subject and that I have always welcomed.

There are limits to how far we should go in debating military strategy given the need to protect our forces who are carrying it out, but I am always happy to debate the broad outline and I am happy to do so again
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today. The broad outline of our strategy in Iraq is clear and it has not changed. We are there to support the Iraqi Government formed just over six months ago, when 12 million Iraqis braved intimidation and violence to exercise their first free vote in decades. We are there to build up Iraq’s own army and police to the point where they can deal with the security threat and to give the Iraqi Government the space to forge a new political settlement, because in the end only a political settlement can reconcile the rivalries and resentments that underlie the violence.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Des Browne: I shall, but my time is limited.

Mr. Jenkin: I shall be as brief as I possibly can. If it is all right for the President of the United States to establish the Baker-Hamilton commission to decide what the US is going to do in Iraq, why is it not all right for us to have a similar commission over here?

Des Browne: The investigation that was called for in the debate in which the official Opposition were so equivocal was distinctly dissimilar to the exercise that is being carried out by Baker-Hamilton. It is not for me, as a Minister in this Government, to express a view about whether or not it is right or otherwise for a sovereign Government to carry out investigations as they choose. From my point of view and that of the Government, the nature of the inquiry that was being called for in that debate would have significantly undermined the work that our troops were doing on the ground at the time. That is why it was inappropriate to support the inquiry.

As we build up the Iraqi Government and hand over security to the Iraqi army and police we will begin a phased withdrawal of our own forces. That process is already under way. Two of the four provinces in the south, al-Muthanna and Dhi Qar, were handed over during the summer. In a third, Maysan, we have moved away from front-line security and from our fixed base and towards a supporting role. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said earlier, we hope formally to hand over security early next year. The fourth province, Basra, remains the most difficult, but again, as my right hon. Friend told the House last month during the Opposition day debate and reiterated today, we hope that the Iraqis will be in a position to take over in the spring, but our approach will continue to be driven not by an arbitrary timetable but by reality on the ground.

This is a stage in a process which in time will produce a draw-down of our forces. There are important tasks left to do—to support the Iraqi army by training and standing by to re-intervene if necessary, to protect the border with Iran, and to reinforce our efforts in Basra. Together with the Iraqi army, we are working through Basra city area by area, preparing for handover with a new push on security, backed by renewed investment in basic services such as clean drinking water, proper sewerage and cleaning up the streets.

In Basra and all 18 provinces across Iraq we need to accept that progress depends on many factors, not all of them directly under our control. The terrorists and foreign fighters will continue to have a say and to grab the headlines with their attacks on markets and
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mosques. However, progress depends more on factors beneath the surface, such as Prime Minister Maliki’s efforts on reconciliation—although none of us, and certainly not those of us in this House with experience in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, will be under any illusion about how difficult and precarious such reconciliation processes are.

The challenges are complex and there are few, if any, quick fixes but we are making progress. The people of Iraq need our support and continued commitment. Their security and prosperity—and that of the whole region—depend on it.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks reminded us earlier of one the most important truths in foreign and defence policy—one that I have emphasised since I took up my current responsibilities. Diplomacy, military force and development cannot, by themselves, solve the challenges that we face. We need to bring together the different strands to work closely across Government and international institutions to produce a lasting effect. That is nowhere more true and important than in the other theatre where our forces are serving in large numbers: Afghanistan.

I have said previously that I believe that Afghanistan is a noble cause and that I welcome the broad support for the mission from Opposition parties, which mirrors the broad support throughout the developed world, with forces from 37 countries serving alongside ours. However, as the debate shows, the broad consensus on the mission disguises differences on many aspects, including disagreement about tactics, criticism over whether we are giving our forces the right support, and pessimism about the likely outcome. I shall deal briefly with those differences, since they were raised in the debate.

On tactics, I shall say little except that it is easy to second-guess from this distance. The few who loudly criticised the decisions of our commanders earlier this year are conspicuously silent now. In general, there is more discussion about tactics than we should feel comfortable about, given the clear evidence that debates in Britain are played straight back to communities in which our forces have to work.

The second criticism is about whether we are giving our forces the right support. I believe that much of that is unjustified. I am far from complacent. Together with the chiefs of staff and the Department, I am working relentlessly to ensure that we recognise and respond to the needs of our forces on operations in weeks or months rather than years. I hope that I have demonstrated that commitment by coming to the House to announce measures ranging from the introduction of a new tax-free bonus for forces on operations to the new package for protected vehicles, which the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) raised earlier. Each of those measures was funded by more than £50 million of new money provided by the Treasury.

Underneath those measures, we have a programme, costing hundreds of millions of pounds, less visible but equally important, of continuous upgrades to our equipment to deal with the evolving threats and challenges in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

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We also have a continuing process for reviewing force numbers in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but, as I made clear earlier—indeed on numerous occasions in the House—it is neither appropriate nor helpful to discuss its workings before they are complete. However, I remind the House that each time it has been necessary to strengthen our forces—in Afghanistan in July and on a smaller scale in Iraq in September—the chiefs of staff and I have made sure that our commanders on the ground have what they need.

Of course, the Government acknowledge the burden placed on our armed forces by the current operational commitment. Although I know that it suits the agenda of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) to say that morale is low among our forces on operations, that is flatly untrue, as I have seen repeatedly on my visits to theatre.

Recruitment, training and retention are fundamental. Those points were made eloquently by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire. I am sure that both would acknowledge that the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence take that seriously. We go to great lengths to monitor and respond to trends in recruitment and retention.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn urged members to read the National Audit Office report. I second that. If they do, they will see the efforts that we have made and the encouraging signs in Army recruitment, which is up by 10 per cent., with Army manning levels that are now in balance.

We have always acknowledged the burden of operations and what we have to do to respond to that. The Conservative party acknowledges it, too, but is fond of saying that the Government must choose between reducing commitments or increasing resources. Today’s debate shows why we believe that the two major commitments—in Iraq and Afghanistan—are not optional.

As for resources, let me correct the misleading impression left by the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire, who referred to “the long-term decline of the defence budget”. That is simply untrue. In the past five years, the annual defence budget has risen on average by £1 billion a year—well in excess of inflation and comparing favourably with the period when he was a Defence Minister during the last five years of the Conservative Government. The defence budget then fell by more than £500 million a year.

Let me remind the House that, despite frequent claims made by the hon. Members for Woodspring and for North Devon (Nick Harvey) and repeated today by other Members, the Army has not shrunk by 9,000 or 10,000—or any other figure—since 1997. Some weeks ago, I wrote to the hon. Member for Woodspring to offer to explain the contradictory figure that he has been—

It being Seven o’clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

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