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within that organisation

24 Jan 2007 : Column 1466

I include in that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn)—

The letter is signed Leonard H. Jacob, physician from Sheffield.

3.7 pm

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): By absenting himself from this debate, the Prime Minister, one of the architects of the Iraq catastrophe, has indicated yet again his lack of respect for the House of Commons and his own Back Benchers. The consequences of the invasion of Iraq were predictable and predicted, but I am not one of those people who believe that, having got into this appalling situation, we can just cut and run, as the phrase goes. Indeed, one of the reasons why I warned against the invasion before 18 March 2003, why I voted against the war, and why I have frequently intervened to criticise the conduct of the war, is that I have always recognised that it is much easier to invade a country than to get out of it subsequently. All history indicates that.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): My hon. Friend used the phrase “cut and run”, which has been used on a number of occasions. At what stage does he believe that leaving Iraq before stability is created stops being cutting and running? Is he suggesting that if, in five, 10 or 15 years’ time, there is still not stability in Iraq, we will still have to be there because to leave would be cutting and running?

Sir Peter Tapsell: One will just have to make a judgment— [ Laughter. ] That is what politics is all about. It has been the Government’s appalling judgment that
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has got us into this position, but now we are in it we have to use our judgment as to when we can get out. It would be unwise, for reasons that have been stated earlier by my colleagues, to give a specific date, because we cannot know how the situation is going to develop in Iraq or in surrounding countries. I have often intervened about Iraq, and I do not want to bore the House by repeating things that I have repeatedly said, so on this occasion I will talk about another country that is closely involved in the so-called war on terror, before we get too deeply enmeshed elsewhere.

It was famously said that the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier. Likewise, Afghanistan today is not worth the bones of a single Lincolnshire marine. It is an unwinnable war, fought in an area that is no longer of great strategic or economic importance, as Afghanistan is a backward country that does not pose any military threat to Britain. For at least 3,000 years, Afghanistan was one of the military, religious and commercial crossroads of the world, but that is no longer the case. International trade is no longer conducted by camel caravans and mule trains. The Khyber pass is no longer Russia’s gateway to British India, but a winding, ambush-prone road to Islamic Pakistan which, in the adjoining north-western tribal areas, is inhabited by Pathans, who are virtually indistinguishable from the Afghanis on the other side of an easily-crossed artificial frontier, with whom they share a similar religion, culture, traditions, tribal loyalty, lifestyle, and a dislike of foreigners and the Pashto language.

Russia finally learned its lesson in Afghanistan in the 1980s, retreating after 10 years of incredibly savage warfare that left 30,000 Russians dead. We are apparently intent on re-learning that lesson for a fourth time. My father fought in the third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919. He acquired a great respect for the Afghanis’ bravery in battle and had a firm belief that British troops should never again be required to fight there. My own visits to the country have convinced me that he was right.

Four arguments are, or were, advanced to justify this fourth war: that Afghanistan will provide a unique training ground for al-Qaeda’s international terrorists unless the Taliban are crushed; that Afghanistan is the main source of the heroin entering Britain, so its poppy fields must be destroyed; that the Taliban impose an extreme interpretation of the Sharia code of Koranic justice and deny women education, and thus cannot be tolerated by us; and that President Karzai is the democratically elected leader of the Afghan people, so we in the west have a duty to support him. All those four arguments for fighting in Afghanistan are unsustainable.

I supported the original strike against al-Qaeda training areas in the Tora Bora mountains following assurances from Ministers that it was to be a lightning SAS-style intervention of temporary duration, not a prolonged occupation of the whole country. Al-Qaeda no longer needs to train in Afghanistan as it is training, we are warned by our intelligence services, in many parts of the world, including Britain. Indeed, it is reported that British-born and trained terrorists are now being exported to other countries. Iraq is a much
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better training ground for al-Qaeda than Afghanistan, but before our invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein ruthlessly kept it out. The Afghanis are not Arabs, and few of them speak Arabic. There has always been tension between the Taliban and the relatively sophisticated Arab leaders of al-Qaeda, most of whom are from Saudi Arabia.

As far as we know, Afghanis were not involved in the planning or execution of the attack on the twin towers in New York, nor did they have any foreknowledge of it. The Taliban—a word with far too precise a meaning in western parlance, as it simply translates from Pashto as “Islamic student”—are not a movement with any known international or extra-territorial ambitions. They are a home-grown, home-supported, Afghan phenomenon, and no other Islamic state has any ambition to emulate their religious and political model. Almost all sensible Muslims elsewhere are embarrassed by their excesses.

The second argument advanced to justify the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was that it would curtail poppy production, but that aim has been explicitly abandoned for the foreseeable future. It should have been obvious from the outset that any attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people was incompatible with any attempt to deprive them of their main and often only livelihood. Moreover, the geography of the area—there are a hundred passes over a frontier spanning a thousand miles in mostly rugged country—makes a physical blockade designed to stop heroin smuggling out of Afghanistan well-nigh impossible. Much of that heroin goes through Iran.

We must try to stop heroin being brought into Britain, but that will not be achieved inside Afghanistan, and it will not be accomplished, either, by an “unfit for purpose” Home Office. Most of the money from heroin does not reach the peasant growers, but goes into the pockets of Afghan warlords and many of President Karzai’s own Ministers. That speaks volumes about the reality of the so-called democracy in Afghanistan. President Karzai is obviously a brave man—he needs to be—but he is widely regarded as a western puppet.

All four of the arguments for the invasion of Afghanistan are misjudged. Even if they were not, there is a practical consideration that makes them otiose—the war cannot be won. Last week, General Richards, who is the retiring NATO commander in Afghanistan, said that it will take one more year to defeat the Taliban if more troops are provided. When I was in Vietnam, I remember General Westmorland, who had 500,000 American troops under his command, saying exactly the same thing to me about the Vietcong. A further “surge” of troops will not bring permanent victory. The Prime Minister and his demoralised Defence Ministers are struggling to field one more battalion of about 600 men. It would be comic if it were not tragic. Every Afghan is a soldier, and we should not send any more of our young men to die fighting them. Before Pakistan is further destabilised, before the containment of Iran is made even more difficult, and before NATO is discredited, we should get our armed forces out of Afghanistan.

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3.17 pm

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) has made an interesting contribution about the situation in Afghanistan, and I urge the House to ponder his words. I intend to confine my remarks to Iraq. Like him, I opposed the invasion, and I voted against it.

We cannot address the problems faced by Iraq today by saying that we should not have started as we did. All of us, including those of us who opposed the invasion of Iraq, have a responsibility to address the current situation and consider how best to improve matters. At last there is consensus that the situation in Iraq is horrendous. Throughout last year we were told that the coalition was winning—it was just that we were winning more slowly than expected. Earlier this month, President Bush finally made a public acknowledgement that the situation in Iraq was unacceptable, and that existing policies had failed.

More than 2,600 coalition troops have been killed in hostilities since the end of the war, and 130 British personnel have lost their lives. In addition, many soldiers have been injured, some very seriously. A colossal number of civilians have been killed; there was a discussion of that during the speech by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Estimates of the number of civilians killed in the violence that has taken place since the war range from 19,500 to 70,000. The Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) both accept last week’s estimate by the UN that more than 34,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the past year alone.

Basic utilities in Iraq are still unavailable or unreliable, and prospects for sustained improvement are poor while the security situation remains dire. Fear has led hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes, and they have gone to other parts of the country or left it altogether. Aid workers warn of a crisis for refugees who have left Iraq as conditions deteriorate.

Two weeks ago today, having finally acknowledged that current policies are not working, President Bush announced the new Iraq strategy in his address to the nation. Extra US troops are being sent to work with the Iraqi army and police brigades, and are to be deployed in Baghdad. President Bush advised that they were to clear, secure and hold neighbourhoods. Extra troops will be sent to Anbar province, too. In parallel, he announced that the US would hold the Iraqi Government to meeting certain benchmarks on security, sharing oil revenues, reconstruction, constitutional change procedures, provincial elections and the reform of de-Ba’athification laws. That requirement was echoed in even starker terms by Condoleezza Rice. If events do not take a positive course, his words may prove significant in determining the US’s next steps.

The new policy of the US Administration aims to achieve a reduction in violence, and to bring stability and security and an improvement in the Iraqi people’s quality of life. We all support those objectives and would like them to be achieved. The Prime Minister signalled his support for the new US policy, but what
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happens if the new policy is not a success and the current violence continues? The situation in Iraq deteriorated for three and a half years before there was official recognition that the previous policies were not working. We cannot allow such a drift in policy to happen again. Do the Government have any benchmarks against which to judge the success of the new strategy, and if so, what time scale will be used?

Of course, we cannot isolate ourselves from the effects of US policy. It has been suggested that the new policy will result in a more difficult situation for UK forces in the southern provinces. What is the Government’s assessment of the impact that the new US policy will have on the situation in those provinces? The new policy put forward by President Bush was not the only option available. Members will be aware of the conclusions of the Iraq Study Group; indeed, a considerable number of right hon. and hon. Members have referred to it. The group called for a change in the primary mission of US forces in Iraq, and for new and enhanced diplomatic and political efforts, most notably with Iran and Syria.

President Bush flatly rejected the recommendation to engage with Iran and Syria. We have to ask whether that was wise, or whether it would have been beneficial for the leaderships of all countries in the region to work towards common objectives. We must consider, too, whether there could be a role for the UK Government, as we have not placed ourselves in quite as tight a corner as the US Administration have. It is certainly not helpful that some militias in Iraq view themselves as implicitly supported by the Iranian regime. The UK must be prepared to play a distinctive role in resolving the problem, and in preparing for a situation in which there are no US or UK forces in Iraq. The Baker report stated boldly that the US would not be able to achieve its goals in the middle east unless the US dealt directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

I turn to the conditions faced by our armed forces personnel serving in Iraq and elsewhere—an issue that I have raised on a number of occasions in the House in recent years. My concerns about the way in which we treat our forces stem from conversations that I have had in the Edinburgh area with serving soldiers and their families. I have on previous occasions raised in the Chamber cases of soldiers having to go to Edinburgh’s shops to get decent footwear to take to Iraq. I am also deeply concerned by the fact that, on occasion, soldiers will return from Iraq only to be sent back within an unacceptably short time. In my view, it is regrettable that a soldier who has served in Iraq should have to go back at all. The lack of time between tours of duty is disturbing. Three years ago, I drew attention to the fact that some members of the Royal Scots Regiment had been away from home for four Christmases in a row. Soldiers require a lengthy period in which to recover, spend time with their families and retrain.

Sir Robert Smith: The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech, but is he also aware that some people now being sent to the front line are surprised to find themselves in that role? One of my constituents has a relative who was training to do logistical work for the RAF. They were training to load, and prepare loads for, aircraft, but they now find that they are being trained to take a front-line role,
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serving in the infantry in Basra. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the overstretch is such that people are being given roles that they did not expect to be given?

Dr. Strang: The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. We have to use the word “overstretch”, although the Government have resisted using it. The fact is that there is overstretch, and we are putting demands on our service personnel serving in such places that are not acceptable to people in the wider country.

In his speech on the twelfth of this month, the Prime Minister acknowledged the need for better conditions for our servicemen and women. That is welcome, and should be an urgent priority. In the field we must ensure that our troops have the conditions, equipment and support that they need to minimise losses. At home, we must ensure that the accommodation and services available to personnel are satisfactory. Following the Prime Minister’s statement, I hope that Ministers will furnish the House with further details of the new commitments that the Prime Minister stated would be necessary.

I welcome the fact that this debate was initiated by the Government. As long as our troops are fighting in Iraq, we should have such debates regularly. Whatever view one takes of the series of events that led to the present situation, there can be no disagreement about the scale of the tragedy that engulfs the good people of Iraq. We have a responsibility to do all we can to try to improve the lot of the people of that country.

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