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It cannot be acceptable that British taxpayers are funding a greater proportion of the cost of those operations, or that the British military should have to shoulder more of the burden in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan. Where are our NATO allies? They spend substantially less on defence than this country.
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We spend 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product on defence: we can argue about whether that is too much or too little, but it is substantially more than many of our NATO allies. For example, Germany spends only 1.4 per cent. of GDP, while Spain spends 1.2 per cent., and the Netherlands around 1.4 per cent.

That is simply not acceptable in the long term. I know that the Secretary of State is forced by convention to be diplomatic about such matters, but I certainly am not. It is absolutely outrageous that, when we have the concept of shared security, we do not have properly shared risk. It is not acceptable for countries to reduce their defence expenditure and still expect us to give them the umbrella of NATO protection. It is not acceptable for them to operate according to caveats that mean that they serve in the safest parts of Afghanistan only or according to rules of engagement that are so restrictive that they can barely cross a road without phoning their national capitals. It cannot be in the long-term interests of NATO for that pattern to be repeated. If we want shared security, we have shared risk and shared burden-carrying.

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I am not unsympathetic to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he not recognise the contribution made by some of our allies in the same region? I am thinking in particular of the Canadians who have taken larger losses proportionately than we have.

Dr. Fox: I promise the House that this is not a contrived double act; that is the very point I am coming to.

Some of our allies are making exemplary contributions, for example the United States and the Canadians who are the unsung heroes in Kandahar, who have done so much with so little recognition. The Canadian Government have done a remarkable job in keeping Canadian public opinion on side and they deserve widespread international recognition for that. Another example that I would cite is Poland, which is increasing its expenditure to match the risk that it sees in both its immediate environment and more widely. If more countries followed that example, recognising that they have to match their rhetoric with expenditure, NATO would be in better shape.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I agree entirely with my hon. Friend’s remarks on finance, although I suspect that the imprint of the Treasury applies in France and Germany as it does in this country. I believe that our defence budget of 2.5 per cent. of public expenditure is too low. How would my hon. Friend ensure—we have to negotiate to ensure it, particularly given the historical perspective and the fact that the current arrangement has applied for some 50 years—that France and Germany in particular pay their way in NATO?

Dr. Fox: I will come on to what should happen in NATO in due course. We need to consider not just expenditure, but how we make decisions in NATO and the role of NATO. All those matters need to be properly discussed and I will come to that later.

Mr. Lancaster: May I make a constructive suggestion from the sharp end? One of the biggest problems with NATO is that the procurement cycle works so slowly that in their haste individual nations
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end up spending money themselves rather than waiting for NATO to catch up. At Kandahar airport, for example, we have no fewer that four different points of departure to get on aeroplanes from individual nations because we have been waiting so long to get a NATO asset in place.

Dr. Fox: I am always ready to bow to the voice of experience. To augment what my hon. Friend said, in my time in this job I have been amazed at the ability of defence departments worldwide to duplicate what is happening elsewhere and to spend vast sums reinventing the wheel. Better co-ordination in deployment and procurement would not go amiss. That needs to be considered under the wider NATO question.

Mr. Arbuthnot: My hon. Friend’s point about our eagerness to take from the cold war dividend is not a political point because the dividend was taken by a Conservative Treasury, strongly egged on by a Labour Opposition. When he was in Washington, did he discover that the Americans have as low a view of our defence spending as of the NATO allies whom my hon. Friend has been, rightly, castigating?

Dr. Fox: No, I did not, nor did I give any time in conversations for such a criticism to come up. I heard a non-stop welcoming of the UK commitment to the relationship with the US and of their deep debt of gratitude to us for standing alongside them even when the political going got tough. Although it is true that the US would like to see expenditure rise across all their NATO allies, the UK comes in for the least criticism and rightly so.

The Secretary of State talked about the roulement and the 600 extra troops in the south of Afghanistan. That begs some questions which I hope the Minister of State can answer. If more British troops are to be deployed in the south—the most dangerous area where we are most likely to see casualties—what extra equipment will we get for them? Will we get more helicopters and armoured vehicles to give them support and protection? If the Government are saying that there will be more troops but the same level of equipment, many people will think that we are carrying not a fair share of the defence burden, but too much and asking too much of our troops with too little given in return.

When the Minister of State replies can he tell us about the medical facilities envisaged for the increased number of troops in the south? Along with many colleagues and Labour Members, I have been in the field hospital at Al Shaibah in Basra where the level of medical care is exceptionally good. That is partly because they have a CT scanner available at all times. Are there plans to have such equipment put in place in southern Afghanistan? Without it there is a big gap in the ability to diagnose and treat. Is it true that we still have no neurological services based in Afghanistan, notwithstanding the risk that our troops are facing there? It cannot be acceptable that the nearest place to treat neuro-trauma would be hospitals in Pakistan. If we are going to put our troops at increased risk and send increased numbers of troops into battle zones, the
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least we can do is ensure that we provide the level of medical care that they may require, should they be injured.

The Secretary of State dealt extensively with Iraq. Again, I discussed this subject widely in Washington. All hon. Members would like to believe that the troop surge that President Bush is trying to achieve will be successful and bring greater stability to the area in and around Baghdad. Many of us will be sceptical about whether or not it will be successful, but we hope that it will. It is essential to recognise one of the basic weaknesses of our position in Iraq. This takes me back to an example that I may have cited in the House before: a commander in Basra who said to me, “Forget the briefing you have had up to now. If you want to understand the situation in which we find ourselves, just imagine 1920s Chicago in the desert. We have gangsters, racketeering and militias. The big problem is not the level of democracy in Baghdad, but the lack of non-corrupt policing and a functioning judicial system.” We still fail to grasp that institution building is essential for any chance of democracy taking hold in the longer term.

On frequent occasions the point has been made in the House that Britain is a liberal democracy, but we were liberal long before we were democratic. There were 150 years between Adam Smith and universal suffrage; and 100 years between abolishing slavery and women getting the vote. It was our liberal institutions that allowed our democracy to be stable. They underpinned and gave structure to our democracy. If democracy were simply the exercise of electoral mechanics, Gaza would be the beacon state in the middle east. I hasten to suggest that it is not.

We need to understand the need for realistic time scales for the noble aspirations that we have in trying to bring some of these countries up to the level of expectations in terms of the market economy, human rights and judicial freedoms that we take for granted. We need to be frank with the British people about the potential future of Iraq. By providing troops and training and by trying to build institutions we can buy the Government of Iraq some time. We can buy them time to provide stability for the growth and strengthening of their governmental structures, but we cannot guarantee them success. Ultimately, they have to find a political solution whereby both the Sunni and Shi’a populations recognise that they must have mutual co-existence or face mutual destruction.

There is a limit to what we can achieve, even with the best will in the world and whatever commitments we are willing to make in terms of manpower, military resources or financial assistance. A reasonable recognition of our limitations in the real world alongside realistic expectations about the time scale would go a long way towards reassuring the public that we are not trying to bite off more than we can chew.

Mr. Mark Field: Will my hon. Friend elaborate on his point about realistic time scales? All too often, there is a risk that the time scales for our military involvement, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, are driven by political expediency. What education should we be giving the public at large about precisely what we have to do in the years ahead?

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Dr. Fox: I was thinking more in the generality. We should be saying that we will not be able to fix a broken country such as Afghanistan in five years. It could take 10, 15 or even 20 years to achieve what we want. People believed that things in Iraq would get better much more quickly than it was realistic to expect. The consequence has been disappointment domestically and resentment abroad. We need to be more realistic about long-term time scales.

I entirely agree with the Government that to put a timetable on the reduction of our forces is asking for trouble, and would give insurgents the green light to try to disrupt it. We need to try to make judgments on the ground, in light of the prevailing circumstances, but that is a matter for our commanders. The House of Commons cannot set an artificial timetable, because that would fail to take account of what is happening in the real world. I would very much oppose any attempt by politicians to set an artificial timetable that did not take into account the reality encountered by those at the sharp end.

I want to say something about Iran, and were it not for the time constraints of the debate, I am sure that the Secretary of State intended to do the same. The House and the country need to understand and confront a number of issues that relate to Iran. The bottom line is that it is not acceptable to the UK, in either the specific or the generic case, for Iran to become a nuclear weapons state.

In the specific case, it is not acceptable because of the nature of the Iranian regime, especially its president. Furthermore, some of the rhetoric of the current Iranian president and his association with a particularly aggressive fundamentalist type of religious interpretation of Islam makes it extremely unacceptable in the region that Iran should become a nuclear power. Iranian rhetoric and the country’s involvement in Iraq—to which the Secretary of State alluded—and potentially further afield means that there is a danger of middle east conflict shifting from the historically rooted Palestinian-Israeli conflict to a wider one between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims throughout the region. That would be a dangerous escalation of tension in the region.

The more generic case against Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state is that such acquisition of nuclear weapons would be the end of non-proliferation as we understand it. If Iran has nuclear weapons, other states in the region will want them, too. If we fail to control Iran’s aspirations in that direction we are likely to live in a far more dangerous world than we do now—although when looking at that region, that is sometimes hard to believe. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary said yesterday, it is incumbent on all western powers to put up a united front to the Iranian regime and to demonstrate that it cannot hope to have a divide-and-rule policy, and to tighten our financial sanctions to make it clear that we are serious about stopping its aspirations.

However, even during the most difficult times of the cold war, we in the west kept a substantial diplomatic presence in Moscow. Even when the Soviets were pointing new and larger numbers of nuclear warheads at us, we continued our process of diplomatic engagement. It is not sensible to say that just because we do not like a regime we will not talk to it at all.
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Taking the perspective of international opinion, it does not help the west’s case if we are seen as intransigent in dealing with Iran. Of course, we may not get anywhere with the current regime—I would be extraordinarily na├»ve to suggest that we might—but when we dealt with the Soviets we were always trying to find the next Solzhenitsyn, and the reasonable voices from the next generation.

We must make it clear that our current problems are with the regime in Iran not with the nation of Iran. Our conflict and quarrels are not with the people of Iran, so diplomatic engagement—the carrot and the stick—is the sensible way to proceed and would have widespread support in the region. It will not be easy and there will be obstacles to overcome, but if we are to be involved in a complex regional situation, and more generally, we must fully understand the concept of soft power—as the Secretary of State said—as well as hard power.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the nature of the Iranian regime, in particular about its oppression of human rights and its rejection of what we would regard as normal democratic politics. However, I think his position is that the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons is indispensable for its security, so what is his answer for Iran, which is surrounded to the north, west and east by nuclear powers—by America in the Arabian sea and the eastern Mediterranean and by Israel, China, India, Pakistan and now North Korea? On what basis can he say that, in terms of Iranian security, the country is not entitled to have nuclear weapons?

Dr. Fox: The situation may not be as simple as the right hon. Gentleman portrays it when we consider what President Ahmadinejad has said—his open declaration that he wants to

That attitude is not prevalent in any other nuclear weapons state. The right hon. Gentleman may correct me, but I know of no such state that has openly said it wants to use its nuclear arsenal in an aggressive way. The Iranian regime wants to do that. In the UK we are discussing the next generation of our nuclear deterrent, but with fewer warheads than we have at present. We are within the letter and the spirit of the non-proliferation treaty.

Iran, too, has obligations under the treaty. We cannot accept one country breaking out of the treaty—especially when it has a regime such as the current one in Iran—and do nothing about it. Iran is threatening not only to possess nuclear weapons, but, for the first time, designating the target for them. That is an extraordinarily disturbing development.

Mr. Jim Cunningham: Earlier, the hon. Gentleman mentioned that he had just returned from Washington. What does he make of the build-up of American naval forces surrounding Iran? What is its purpose?

Dr. Fox: We need to look at the other half of the equation: the build-up of Iranian naval forces. In the view of many western intelligence analysts, that is taking place to internationalise any dispute that may arise after the tightening of sanctions as a result of
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Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and to disrupt maritime transport through the Strait of Hormuz. It would be strange if we did not make it clear by positioning forces that we would respond to such a threat. When dealing with the current Iranian regime, it is essential that we make it clear that nothing will be ruled out in our responses to any actions that Iran may take.

I hope that the regime will see sense. I hope that political opinion in Iran will persuade the regime that the Iranian people do not want a conflict with the international community, and that its actions are to the detriment of the ordinary people of that country. I hope that a political way through can be found, but we should give the Iranian regime no comfort by ruling out any specific responses to any military action that they may take, or threaten to take.

The Secretary of State mentioned the role of Iranians in Iraq. It is sufficient to say that increased Iranian involvement in the Iraqi conflict will be to the detriment of all parties concerned, and would severely damage the chances of a peaceful resolution in Iraq. It would be likely to inflame tensions, way beyond the borders of either Iran or Iraq, and the Iranians are already raising considerable fears in the wider region.

It may or may not turn out to be correct, but increasingly, noises are coming from Iran suggesting that Iran may want to change its position not only on the conflict in Iraq but on the conflict in Afghanistan. Until now, the Government in Tehran have never thought it to Iran’s advantage to become too involved in what is happening in Afghanistan. For historical and religious reasons they are no friend of the Taliban, and they have not wanted a sustained NATO presence on their border. However, there are those in Iran who now say, “Well, the greatest threat to us is a potential military strike as a result of our nuclear programme, so it would be all the better for us to tie up the NATO forces, and the Americans in particular, in a prolonged and more difficult conflict in Afghanistan.”

That may or may not be what the regime is thinking, but it is worth stating that view, because if Iran were brought into conflict with the entire international community—and it would be the entire international community, because we are talking about a United Nations-sanctioned mission, carried out by NATO—there would be a tremendous escalation of tension in the region. If people in Tehran, and Iran’s representatives in this country, are listening to today’s debate, I hope that they understand the strength of feeling in this country about any meddling by Iran in Afghanistan, especially as we heard only today that there are to be more British troops in part of Afghanistan.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman knows that there is, and has been for a long time, a strong trend in American Government circles to support a military strike against Iran. Rather than parroting the allegations emanating from Washington, will he tell me which of its neighbours Iran has attacked?

Dr. Fox: One need not look far beyond the borders of Iraq to see substantial Iranian influence, and to see Iran using as a proxy those who seek to do damage to
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the coalition troops. If the hon. Gentleman considers Iran’s influence on Hezbollah, he will see just how much Iran was influencing events in Lebanon. Anyone who is naive enough to believe that Iran is a peace-loving country, and that the regime does not pose a threat to the region, is not looking at the same information as the rest of us. Disruption in Lebanon, and in Palestine via Hamas, control of Hezbollah, and insurrection in Iraq are all testaments to a regime that is certainly not to be trusted.

I turn to an issue not often debated in the House: the substantial rearmament programme taking place in Russia. There has been such a focus on the middle east in recent times that very little has been said in the House or in our media about the growing and accelerating rearmament in Russia. The Russian national armament programme for 2007-15 will cost about $183 billion. Let me give the House a flavour of what the Russians intend to do with much of the money—and, it has to be said, with the many petrol dollars that we contribute to them. At the tactical level, they want 1,400 tanks, 4,100 infantry fighting vehicles, 3,000 armoured personnel carriers, 1,000 combat aircraft and helicopters, and 60 theatre quasi-ballistic missile systems. At the strategic level, they want 69 Topol-M missiles with between 70 and 200 nuclear warheads, five nuclear ballistic missile submarines and 60 Bulava intercontinental ballistic missiles, with an increased number of warheads—that is, between 400 and 600.

I mention that because the subject of what we are doing in terms of our nuclear deterrent has been raised in the House. We are set to introduce our next generation deterrent, which will have fewer warheads than at present, but the Russians are already investing heavily in more warheads. Not only that, but they have been careful to ensure that funds remain available, so that they can keep that expenditure going. As their oil and gas exports have increased, and because of the rise in the price of oil—every $1 rise in the price of a barrel of oil provides another $1 billion for the Russian exchequer—they have, through their stabilisation fund, built up large reserves that enable them to keep spending on defence, right through until 2015. As of 1 September 2006, they had in their central bank’s gold reserves almost $65 billion, and in their currency reserves they had $259 billion. While we are discussing our overstretch and what we can afford to spend on defence, Russia has been extraordinarily clever in ensuring that it will continue to improve and expand its capability, all at a time when the eyes of the west have been elsewhere.

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