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12 Nov 2007 : Column 448

Mr. Crausby: The operation in Basra was certainly very different. History has demonstrated that there has been a different result there.

On whether there should be an inquiry, I want to make some points about our commitment in relation to our resources. We must decide to cut our commitments or increase our resources; doing nothing is not an option. In my view, the wise choice would be to cut our commitments and increase our resources at the same time. Although in recent years we have certainly increased defence spending in real terms, we have done so at a time when the opportunities for new and improved defence technology have grown enormously. It is absolutely right to spend on new and exciting resources—new aircraft carriers, submarines, Snatch vehicles and fighter planes. We must stay at the forefront of defence technology. However, those new and effective assets must not come at the expense of our people on the ground. There is much to do if we are to house and reward our people at a level that will recruit and retain them.

Like any others, defence resources are scarce and expensive, so they must be used to our best advantage. In consequence, regardless of the history, we have a responsibility to review our strategic position continuously. We should constantly ask this question: are we helping the situation or contributing to the problem? Although it makes no sense to name a firm date for withdrawal, it is sensible for us progressively to reduce our forces with the firm intention of leaving things to the Iraqis. If we do not make it clear to the Iraqi Government that they must soon deal with their own security, they will never be ready to run their own affairs.

Afghanistan is a completely different kettle of fish. The fear is that the two operations are frequently seen as the same in the public eye. After 11 September, the Americans were justified in demanding from the Taliban the cessation of support for al-Qaeda, and they were right to invade Afghanistan. Appropriately, we supported them and we should continue to do so because the democratic world would be foolish in the extreme to allow the Taliban back to control a nation state and run the affairs of the people of Afghanistan.

The NATO Council was justified when for the first time in its history it invoked article 5 of the treaty in defence of the USA. Let me remind the House of how article 5 begins:

Those are fine words, but NATO membership and the responsibilities that go with it will require the delivery of more than fine words in Afghanistan. There can be no place for a two-tier NATO, with some nations prepared to do the trouble-free bits while others, such as the British and the north Americans, are expected to bring home dead soldiers.

In the light of the current support of some of our European neighbours, we have to wonder what would have happened if, during the cold war years of the Soviet Union, the Russians had invaded mainland Europe. Would some of our so-called NATO allies have hesitated until the tanks ranged at their own borders before they were prepared to put their forces in harm’s way? Who knows? We will never answer that question. However, another question arises: if NATO
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cannot deliver significant military force from countries such as France and Germany on the back of an article 5 declaration, what is the purpose of NATO at all? After all, Afghanistan is a relatively small task when compared with the threat formerly from the Soviet Union.

If nothing else, NATO’s performance in Afghanistan is already convincing me that we cannot rely on a European defence force for anything but peacekeeping and parades. We must remain masters of our own destiny in military matters. I am afraid that the defence of our liberty will never come cheap; however, the failure to be ready, willing and able could be very expensive indeed.

6.35 pm

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk) (Con): We have touched on the fact that a lot of time has been spent talking about the European treaty, and I want to make this basic observation. The whole issue of a constitution or a non-constitution arose from the Laeken declaration, put together by the European Council in December 2001. It is worth reminding ourselves of the remit inherent in that declaration. It called for the clarifying, adjusting and simplifying of the division of competencies between the EU and member states and the addressing of the democratic deficit to make the EU more democratic, transparent and efficient. It also called for the EU to be brought closer to its citizens. On the four treaties, the declaration states:

What a long road we have travelled since that remit. The declaration asked exactly the right questions for the long-term viability of the European Union, but one can see that the EU is very far removed from them. The idea that the treaty is bringing the peoples of Europe closer to the structures now being proposed is preposterous.

Mr. Hands: Before my hon. Friend moves on from the Laeken declaration, I remind him and the House that only in June this year the European Council, continuing what was said at Laeken, called for the

So that urge to have democracy came not only at Laeken, but in the ensuing years. Unfortunately, it will not be fulfilled.

Mr. Spring: My hon. Friend makes his point well, and I absolutely agree with him.

In the next fortnight, Mohamed el-Baradei will report on the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear developments. The vote on a possible third UN Security Council resolution for sanctions will be called if the IAEA and Javier Solana conclude that Iran has failed to make progress on the work programme agreement of last summer. When I was in Iran recently, I was told that it would be fully compliant. However, since then—and we are at a critical juncture—President Ahmadinejad has hinted that Iran is now capable of producing 3,000 centrifuges,
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which would be an important step in the process of enriching uranium and would lead to the possibility of a nuclear bomb. Iran has indicated that it will expand that capability considerably.

If we go down the route that I have mentioned, there will be huge problems for us and the region. Let us consider, for example, the reactions of two of Iran’s neighbours, which are concerned for different reasons. Saudi Arabia has unveiled a Gulf states initiative for all users of enriched uranium to ensure security of supply for civilian nuclear power programmes and to prevent the diversion of uranium into nuclear weapons programmes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) mentioned, Russia has proposed to be a guarantor of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme, with the possibility of some exchange resulting from America’s proposal on ballistic missile defences. However, even before the imminent IAEA report, the United States has announced a series of sanctions against the Iranian revolutionary corps as a proliferator of nuclear weapons, and against the al-Quds force division as a terrorist organisation. We therefore have in prospect a freezing of assets, as well as the ban on US citizens doing business with three Iranian banks. However disagreeable it may be to us, the problem is that that sort of action bolsters the reputation of President Ahmadinejad, whose supporters did badly in the local elections nearly a year ago, and who got into office in the first place promising higher employment and prosperity, which has unfortunately completely failed to materialise. There is petrol rationing, amid other signs of a truly sclerotic economy. However, the country is insulated by oil at $100 a barrel, as it has one of the highest reserves in the world. It has become fashionable in Iran to blame Britain, in particular, for its difficulties; that is because of our rather chequered historical relationship with the country.

If Iran does take the alarming route to a nuclear capability, not only its neighbours have reason to be concerned. President Ahmadinejad’s recent comments on Israel and his repulsive observations about the holocaust make Israel understandably anxious. The United States has indicated that Iranian weaponry is being used against soldiers in Iraq. We do not know what the exact provenance of that weaponry might be, but it is undoubtedly being used, and the United States may use that as an opportunity for some sort of attack on Iran in due course. Before that ever happened, we would do well to consider the consequences. Iran has sophisticated weaponry and is most unlikely to fail to react. What could it do? It could close the Strait of Hormuz, which is only 34 miles wide and through which 20 per cent. of the world’s oil travels each day, or even attack some of the Gulf oilfields. A substantial reduction in oil supplies to the world would have dire economic consequences. We must also ask ourselves whether surgical strikes could be effective. Would the Iranians manage to retaliate further afield? If there was no UN mandate because of objections from Russia and China, how would parts of the Islamic world react in such an eventuality? If there was a UN resolution, how would enforcement be viewed when non-compliance is accepted elsewhere in the region? There are huge dangers, but they have to be balanced against the consequences of Iran acquiring a nuclear device.

If there is to be a successful dialogue, the United States will be the key player, as always in this region.
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Iran has been branded part of the “axis of evil” and has had conditions imposed on it by the United States that make it difficult for any such dialogue to proceed—namely, the cessation of any kind of nuclear enrichment and ceasing to sponsor state terrorism. The simple reality is that no Iranian politician, however moderate, would accept such conditions, so any dialogue that is to work must be based on a different sort of premise. The grim reality is that we have very little insight into the different elements of the country’s ruling group. We have no real intelligence on the ground and can make judgments based on assumptions but not hard evidence. Nevertheless, we must try to identify those in Iran who are more moderate and can persuade the more aggressive to get into some sort of dialogue with us. If we fail, the consequences for Iran, the region and the rest of the world will be very serious. The next few weeks will be crucial. No option should be dismissed in these alarming circumstances, but whatever course we pursue to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear device, we must do so in a tough but calculated and measured way, because we need to assess very clearly what the consequences would be.

The importance of the security and stability of Israel, as a homeland for the Jewish people, is universally accepted in this House, and so it should be. However, we are entitled to ask whether Israel is more secure today than it was, say, 10 years ago; I fear that the answer is no. I welcome the fact that Mr. Olmert and President Abbas appear to be moving towards an understanding. There are many contentious issues to be addressed, and the question is whether either of them can really deliver. I fear that there will be no viable two-state solution and no ultimate security for Israel unless—this is a very disagreeable proposition—Hamas is ultimately part of any deal agreed between Mr. Olmert and President Abbas, because any such agreement will have to be acceptable to the majority of Palestinians; indeed, President Abbas has talked about having a referendum to resolve the situation. As a long-term objective, the inclusion of Hamas in any talks will have to be entertained.

Mention has been made of the Annapolis conference. We must applaud that initiative. There are dangers in terms of whether it will be successful and expectations that may be too high, but it is good to know that Turkey is constructively involved. Yesterday, President Shimon Peres arrived in Ankara—President Abbas arrives today—for what the Turkish press describe as a mini-Annapolis. I hope and believe that Annapolis must succeed, but it should do so by being the first stage in a process of negotiation encompassing not only the Israelis and Palestinians but the broader region. If Annapolis fails, the pessimists will feel vindicated. The Palestinians naturally want a freeze on settlement construction, prisoner release and fewer roadblocks, while Israel understandably wants guaranteed security. All those aspects are hugely difficult. It may be wise to suggest that Annapolis is not some kind of finality but part of a process on the long road towards a resolution of the problem.

Looking beyond the direct Israel-Palestine relationship, there is a wider picture to consider. Israel has good working relationships with its neighbours, Jordan and
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Egypt, but there is a lively debate in Israel about its relationship with Syria. The Golan Heights, which are legally Syrian, are occupied by Israel. They have no strategic value any more, but for Syria this is a crucial matter. Seven years ago, a deal was nearly struck between the then Syrian President and the Israelis. Syria has offered normalisation and an exchange of ambassadors, and the Israelis should road-test that. I understand the difficulties, given the relationship between Syria and Hezbollah, but the prize would be a normalisation that would enhance the possibility of Israel’s security. Syria is a secular country where religious minorities are protected; indeed, it currently has many refugees from Iraq.

As my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary said, the middle east is of pivotal importance, not only for the region itself but for the world at large. Unfortunately, our reputation has been considerably degraded in the past decade. Our longstanding and firm friendship with the United States has not been successfully deployed. Annapolis beckons, and we all hope that it will work. It is vital that we should assist in this process in any way that we can. The peoples of the middle east—the crucible of our civilisation—whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, do not deserve to continue in an atmosphere of such fear and insecurity.

6.48 pm

Frank Cook (Stockton, North) (Lab): I welcome the Gracious Speech, although I was unable to hear it first hand because I was representing this House in Berlin at talks focused on the possible future transformation of NATO. I have been associated with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly for 20 years, and having been vice-president in the past, I now hold the position of general rapporteur of the defence and security committee. For the past two years in that post, I have had to write reports on Afghanistan and visit that country. With regard to defence, I would like to concentrate my remarks purely on that subject this evening, because my opinions might be somewhat pertinent. The reports, which can be seen on the internet, concentrate purely on the facts, and have won warm approval from David Richards, who was general officer commanding on my first visit, and favourable comment from Dan McNeil, who is currently GOC.

I would like to start with the point that NATO is doing a brilliant job. Our forces are performing valiantly and with enormous courage, despite the fact that resources are sometimes inadequate or ineffective. The problem is that, in my view, we are doing the wrong job. I shall explain. The role that NATO has had thrust upon it is one of promoting and protecting a system of governance, and ensuring that it is well established. When one considers that system, one finds oneself asking a number of questions. We must remember that Afghanistan is very much a tribal society. If one flies over it, one can see—especially over the Hindu Kush—that its communities are rather like cells in a beehive, which are isolated from each other. In the past, they have not been able to communicate with each other very well. That is not the case any more. People now have mobile phones and laptops, and there are radio masts on the ridges so that they can communicate very easily.

In the past, the Afghan has been the sort of person who would say to himself and his neighbours, “If the leader says it is all right, then it must be all right. I trust
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my leader.” Of course, they are learning that things are not quite what they ought to be, because so much corruption is clearly evident. The system that they voted for some time ago—I doubt very much whether they would vote for it again—is one in which the normal Afghan is dependent on the patronage and protection of his provincial governor. In return, the provincial governor is dependent on the protection and patronage of Hamid Karzai, the President. Hamid Karzai is dependent on the protection and patronage of the White House. The whole system comes down along rather than going up the ways, as representative democracies should—expressing what the electorate and ordinary communities need and aspire to.

With mobiles and laptops, people are now learning more about the way the world goes round, and they are learning about how corrupt and ineffectual the system is. They are able to phone the next valley and say, “How come you are getting so much of that, and we are getting so little of this?” As they discover that weakness in their system, what will their reaction be? We have to consider the prospect that they will eventually turn their anger on the system that is promoting and protecting such governance—namely, NATO. In other words, the situation will become an even bigger bloodbath unless we do something about it.

What do we need to do? We have to ensure that the Afghan national army is bigger and more effective. It is only about 70,000 strong at the present time, but it is quite fearless in its work, and ferocious when it is asked to do a job. However, there are not enough people in that army. Sadly, the Afghan national police force is nowhere near as effective. It is largely staffed by drug addicts, and they are largely there because they cannot get employment anywhere else. The Afghan border patrols are so thin on the ground, they do not even have supplies of water in their feeble shelters, which are spaced miles apart along the frontier. The Afghan security forces have to be stabilised, increased in size and made more effective so that they can take over the task of securing the nation. Only when we get to that stage, and NATO pulls out, can we have confidence enough to say, “Mission accomplished.” I seem to remember that term being used some time ago, but now we choose to forget it.

As well as establishing good security forces, other measures need to be taken. At this point, I am not taking a leaf out of the book of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), but he had his finger on the right page. We have to start talking—a dialogue. I am reminded of the quatrain by Edwin Markham, entitled “Outwitted”:

“He drew a circle that shut me out—

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But Love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in!”

I do not want anyone to laugh at this, but we have to do that with the Taliban and Iran. I am minded of the fact that since the second world war—I have a memory that goes back that far—all the terrorist organisations we have experienced have wound up becoming respectable, and we have had to enter into dialogue with them. We started talking to terrorists, but we ended up talking to representatives of state. It might not be the same with the Taliban, but we should at least start talking to them.

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Iran is shunned and demonised by America, along with other aspects of Islam, but we have to bear it in mind that it has the most acute drug problem in the world—far worse than in any other nation—and that it is desperately keen to reach a solution. Currently, in the absence of any sort of dialogue or exchange, it is trying to dig a trench two metres wide—that is fairly wide—by two metres deep, the full length of its frontier with Afghanistan, in an attempt to funnel trafficking into points where it can be controlled. If we could start a sensible, constructive and positive dialogue with Iran, it would create common ground on which we could take forward positive and constructive dialogue on other issues. We must bear it in mind that we have to handle Pakistan as well; the situation in Tajikistan is not quite so bad.

I have about three minutes left. There are all sorts of aspects of the Queen’s Speech that I would love to talk about.

Mr. Ellwood: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Frank Cook: I would rather get to my other point, if I may, which relates to the EU reform treaty and the issue of the proposed referendum.

I had the unique experience of chairing over a period approaching two years every meeting between the House of Commons and the House of Lords when our representatives came back from Europe to report to both Houses, and I have to say that precious little attention was given to the reports by Members of the House of Commons. I was there every time, and as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when you occupy the Chair, you have to stay awake and listen to what is being said. It is a difficult job sometimes. I would vote for the reform treaty, but I believe that we ought to pay attention to the calls for a referendum, and let me tell the House why.

I received representations from an area called Norton in my constituency, which wanted a parish council. I said, “If you want a parish council, have a plebiscite.” They did. The people turned it down; they did not want a parish council. People in Billingham said that they wanted a parish council. I told them to have a plebiscite. They did, and it was approved. They now have a parish council. I seem to remember that a gentleman who used to be Deputy Prime Minister had one on the north-east regional assembly, which went down. If we can have referendums on parish councils and regional assemblies, why on earth cannot we have a referendum on this point and trust the electorate, if we get the message over? At the moment, the ground is conceded to right-wing Tory rags. If we had a referendum, I would vote for the treaty and campaign for it, and would be proud to do so. For heaven’s sake, let us have some common sense and trust the people of this country. They pay our wages, and some of us have been representing them for 25 years.

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