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Earlier this year, we heard about military bandsmen being put on standby to replace infantry battalions guarding Cyprus. The first band scheduled to go to Cyprus will be about 50 musicians from the Welsh Guards, followed by the Grenadier Guards and the Rifles. The first deployment is expected in January next year. When I visited Faslane earlier this year, I met storemen who had been asked to volunteer for front-line duties in Iraq. I heard at the weekend that my colleague, Mike Rumbles, MSP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, has been invited to volunteer. My
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friend has many talents, but I had not realised things had got so bad that he would be required for front-line duties in the service of his country.

The National Audit Office says that the armed forces are about 5,000 below strength, which is about 2.8 per cent. That has been the case for the past five years, yet the armed forces have had to operate above predicted deployment levels. Over that time, some 14.5 per cent. of soldiers have been sent on missions more frequently than recommended by the harmony guidelines. Medical services have been hit worse, with reservists filling 66 per cent. of vacant accident and emergency department and intensive therapy nursing posts.

What are the consequences of that overstretch? According to an MOD survey, a rising number of soldiers are no longer given the full recommended rest period between operations, and only 30 per cent. of ordinary soldiers who responded to the survey were satisfied with the notice given for extra duties. Their families are frustrated as well. Increasing numbers are telling their husbands and wives that they no longer desire a career in the military. One of the reasons for the overstretch is the breaching of the defence planning assumption through our commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I welcome the announcement to reduce force levels to 2,500 in Basra airbase, the withdrawal from Basra palace and the move to provincial Iraqi control in December. Those are long overdue, but do not go far enough. If the situation has become calmer since we withdrew from the palace, is it not logical for us to withdraw altogether? We are clearly part of the problem and should extricate ourselves.

I am also concerned about the minimum force protection required. When the Defence Committee visited Basra in July, we were told that the minimum force protection required would be around 5,000. What has changed? Why is it now 2,500? Are we not putting the lives of our armed forces at risk?

7.34 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): We have heard speeches today that were wise, rational and intelligent; but we have heard others that were maniacally optimistic and foolish. The problem is that the wise speeches came from the Back Benches and the foolish speeches from the Front Benches. It is extraordinary to encounter such a denial of what has gone wrong. I shall confine myself to Afghanistan, but I would like to associate myself with the splendid speech of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), who spoke a great deal of sense on Iran and how we appear to be sleepwalking into war, while denying a fair hearing to what people and leaders in Iran are saying. It is so reminiscent of the build-up to the foolish invasion of Iraq, which has caused so many tragedies and achieved so little.

An earlier intervention suggested that I was in favour of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, so let me make it clear that I supported the war in Afghanistan in 2001. I thought that it was reasonable because of the presence of al-Qaeda and its protection by the Government of the country. What I criticised at the time, and continue to criticise, is the idea that we can eliminate poppy growing or the supply of heroin from Afghanistan. That was always going to be impossible, yet we have invested £250 million of British taxpayers’ money and achieved nothing.

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In fact, things have gone backwards. We know that production is now at its highest level ever—60 per cent. up on last year. The other side of the policy’s attraction was that we were going to cut off the supply of heroin to the streets of Britain. In fact, it is now worse. Because of the over-supply of heroin, the price has reached its lowest ever point. It is now even more widely available, yet Front-Bench spokesmen continue to be in denial of that blindingly obvious fact. Again and again, they claimed that we were making progress on drugs and had turned the corner. We have turned so many corners in Afghanistan that we have been round the block half a dozen times, yet we have still ended up in the terrible position that we now face.

Governments have never been able to cut off the supply of drugs on the basis of action on the supply side while the demand remains. The real drug problem is demand on the streets of Chicago, London and Newport, which is sucking in the drugs. If through some miracle we were able to eliminate all the production of poppy in Afghanistan in two or three years’ time, it would still make no difference. The supply of drugs in Myanmar, Turkistan, north Pakistan and Kazakhstan would simply increase to fill the gap. It would be exactly the same as what happened in Columbia. For decades, billions of dollars were spent trying to reduce supply. We even had “Plan Columbia”, the result of which was a 20 per cent. increase in the drugs produced there over the last 12 months. It is the squeeze balloon principle: we squeeze the balloon in one area and it grows bigger in another area.

It is always an impossible task, but it is even worse in Afghanistan because of the mythology whereby people like to believe that the Government were democratically elected in something of a triumph and somehow work in the same way as a Scandinavian democracy does—but they do not. Lord Malloch-Brown—we should pay some tribute to him; he has had a bad day—said at the weekend that he recognises the failure. He is the one Minister who recognises that things are going terribly wrong there. His diagnosis is right, but his solution is not. He said that we all know who the big drug barons are. Yes, we all know who they are and the Afghanistan Government know who they are. One of them is a close relative of President Karzai and two others are provincial governors. Many others are also in the Government. We know that the country and the Government of Afghanistan are endemically corrupt. It is not possible to change that, however hard we try, however many bribes we give out, and however many lives we lose. We will not change that.

There is another possibility. According to yesterday’s The Guardian, a former civil servant who used to be in charge of the Foreign Office was in despair about the drugs situation in Afghanistan and now favours the turning over of the drug market to a legal supply of poppies for medicine. The case has been well argued. It happened successfully in Turkey. There is a shortage of morphine in the developing world because of its price. Someone who is dying of a terminal disease in a developing country has a 6 per cent. chance of getting morphine. We could greatly increase the supply and turn the trade into a legal one.

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On the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, having supported the war in Afghanistan, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who represents the Conservatives on the Front Bench, will recall a debate in Westminster Hall in March 2006, before we went into Helmand province. At that time, the Government’s view—again, it cannot be unsaid because it was said—was that there was a hope, although not a promise, that the Helmand mission would be concluded in three years without firing a single shot. We have spent £1 billion in Helmand. We have discharged 2.5 million shots. In the first four and a half years of our presence in Afghanistan, we lost the lives of seven of our valiant soldiers, mostly because of accidents. Since then, we have lost a further 76 lives, and it is, tragically, an accelerating process. Does it not get through to the Government that perhaps something is going desperately wrong?

I take my information from serving soldiers and hear a worrying message about their disillusionment, their feeling that they are fighting an impossible war and their anxiety to get out of the service, never to serve again. Probably the most worrying message of all is that the mood of that country has changed. It welcomed us in 2001. It was glad to see the back of the Taliban. It was fed up with their rules. Now, the people are so fed up with living in a country that has war without end that many of them would willingly welcome the Taliban back as a group that would create law and order again.

There is no sign of improvement. Who can look at the situation and say that we can carry on as we are? Again, Back Benchers said the sensible thing in that debate. One of them likened it to the charge of the Light Brigade and brought the verse on that up to date. At a time when there was much support for going into Helmand province, that Back Bencher said: “Bush to the right of them, Blair to the left of them, Holler’d and thunder’d, Someone had blunder’d, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die, Into the valley of Death, Into the mouth of Helmand, Drove the five thousand.”

Sadly, that prophecy has come bitterly true. We must urge the Government to reconsider what is going on. I am not talking about pulling out of Afghanistan altogether, because progress has been made, in particular on girls’ schools. We recognise the progress, but we do not recognise the fact that it is in full retreat and, sadly, schools are closing. It is possible to consolidate the gains made around Kabul, but it is not possible to run the whole country and eliminate the main source of income for the farmers who grow poppies. That cannot be done. There is not a military solution. There is a solution by negotiation and by doing deals.

I remember vividly another prophetic comment in 2001 by a Member of the Russian Duma, who told me: “You Brits have conquered Afghanistan. Very clever. We did that in six days and we were there for 10 years. We lost 15,000 of our soldiers. We killed 1 million Afghans, and when we ran out, there were 300,000 mujaheddin surrounding Kabul. It will happen to you.”

We need to get some realism into the situation and decide on practical ways of dealing with the hearts and minds argument, because we are not going to win the hearts and minds when the Americans bomb and kill
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civilians. We saw on that splendid “Panorama” programme the other night a vivid picture of what is happening in Afghanistan. We know that we have hugely superior air power, and perhaps the most telling part of it was the pathetic sight of an elderly man and three children in a bombed building, terrified by what had happened.

An uncounted number of civilians have been killed. For every death, the opposition to us from the Afghan people increases. That is a further threat to the safety and lives of our British soldiers. I believe that the Member of the Duma was right when he said that we may well turn Afghanistan into a British Vietnam. We can go in there with more troops and fool ourselves with the rhetoric that we heard this afternoon, but ultimately we are heading for a terrible disaster. If we do not make a deal now that is based on the true practicalities of what is taking place, we face a great calamity.

7.45 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). He knows that we have an awful lot in common when it comes to Afghanistan. I have just returned from a visit to that country, and I shall hold on to my comments in response to his remarks until later in my speech.

I am delighted to participate in the Gracious Speech. It is an opportunity for the Government to roll out their ideas—to present their vision—for the forthcoming year and, in this case, to snatch back the initiative after the election that never was. However, such is the absence of any vision that I felt slightly sorry for Her Majesty for taking the trouble to visit Parliament last week. The Government are looking a bit tired and are battling to provide solutions to the problems that they have created, not least in Europe and international affairs, the very subject that we are debating.

The armed forces were not even mentioned in the Gracious Speech, despite their being involved in two major international operations. It is clear that the Government are not making them the priority that they deserve to be. On defence, they would have us believe that we are spending more, building more and recruiting more to support our military personnel than ever before. In reality, however, that could not be further from the truth. As a share of total Government spending on defence, expenditure fell from 7.8 per cent. in 1998 to 6.1 per cent. in 2006. Manning across all three services has been cut at the very time when commitments have increased, forcing military personnel to be rotated through the front-line operations that we have heard so much about. I am afraid that millions of pounds have been wasted on very poor procurement practices.

It could be argued that the real enemy is not on the banks of the Tigris or in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, but in the bowels of the Ministry of Defence procurement department, such is the length of time that it takes for the equipment to arrive.

Mr. Hendrick: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that in the last five years of the Conservative Government, the defence budget was cut by £500 million each year. It
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has increased by £1 billion each year in the 10 years this Government have been in office. The largest ever reduction in the Army took place between 1990 and 1997 and involved a cut of 50,000 troops by the previous Tory Government . [Hon. Members: “The cold war finished.”] The number of troops in the Army is now roughly at the same level as it was in 1997.

Mr. Ellwood: As you heard, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the shouts from the Opposition Benches indicate that circumstances have changed. We are not comparing apples with pears. What I will concede to the Defence Secretary—I am pleased that he is in the Chamber—is that the procurement process was not necessarily any better 10 or 15 years ago. All Governments need to improve on that.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a great difference between ending a cold war and embarking on two new wars?

Mr. Ellwood: The shadow Minister exemplifies why he is on the Front Bench. It is clear that this Government have not got their priorities right.

We do not need to listen to voices in the Chamber. Let us listen instead to some of those servicemen—senior officers, both retired and serving—who are frustrated with the Government’s lack of commitment and with cuts in the Army’s regiments, cuts in RAF squadrons, and cuts in our naval ships.

While senior ranks jump on the airwaves to make their voices heard, the junior ranks vote with their feet—hence the shortfall in recruitment. The Government’s answer, however, is not to try to return the numbers to the level where they should be, but to cut target sizes, which worsens the situation still further at a time when we expect so much more from our soldiers, sailors and air personnel.

If cuts in the budgets were not damning enough, there has been—as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)—the bizarre decision to scrap DESO, the Defence Export Services Organisation. We have yet to hear whether Lord Drayson decided to jump in his car and drive away from government because he was not consulted on the scrapping of a system that, although its promotion of exports cost about £16 million a year, brought in about £500 million a year. That decision was made by the Prime Minister. I am curious about whether the Secretary of State for Defence was even consulted. I shall be delighted to give way if he wishes to clarify the position. He remains seated.

As I said in an earlier intervention, the headlines on Iraq have changed. Our troops have pulled back to the relative safety of Basra airport, and I pay tribute to the 1st Mechanised Brigade and to 4th Battalion The Rifles—my regiment—which has done such an excellent job there. Attacks on British forces have fallen by about 90 per cent., but let us not kid ourselves: Basra is not any safer just because it is not in the British headlines. Little has changed in almost four years, and conditions remain grim. There is no respect for the police authorities, unemployment is rife and power is intermittent. The quality of life has not changed. Militias have filled the power vacuum. Since
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withdrawing, the British have not set foot in the city, and have even had to ask permission if they want to skirt the edges because of the breakdown in relationships.

Mr. Hands: Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the complete lack of new Government thinking in either Afghanistan or Iraq? Earlier this year, the length of the conflict in Afghanistan overtook the entire length of the second world war and that of the conflict in Iraq overtook the length of the Great War, yet we seem to be stuck with the strategy that we had two or three years ago.

Mr. Ellwood: That lies at the crux of what I am saying. I know that the Secretary of State is in a very difficult position. He is responsible for our military personnel, but much of the debate on Iraq and Afghanistan is directed less at what our military have been doing than at what has happened under the umbrella of security that they create. That is where my venom lies—in attacking the failure to carry out the reconstruction and redevelopment that should have taken place in the three or four months after the initial invasion, and in the years that followed. That does not happen, and it represents a failure of foreign policy. It is absolutely right for us to pay tribute to our military, but I am afraid we cannot pay tribute to the Department for International Development. DFID was not involved in the debates, the planning and the process in the run-up to 2003 because the then Secretary of State refused to acknowledge her responsibility, and we have suffered ever since.

I disapproved of the initial invasion, but I disapprove even more of the post-invasion planning, which has been deplorable. We depart from southern Iraq leaving a country that is no safer, no stronger and no more prosperous than it was when we first arrived, and I have to ask myself “Was it all actually worth it?”

Let me say something about Afghanistan, in which I have taken a personal interest. After five years of involvement, we are at a tipping point. Having just returned from the country, I believe that optimism is being replaced with frustration and dissatisfaction with the lack of progress on all fronts. I thank the ambassador, Sherard Cowper-Coles, and his staff for looking after me during my visit, but I return from my fourth visit in two years with a very pessimistic report. The international security assistance force is unable to contain or reduce the Taliban threat in the south, the Government are increasingly seen as inept and corrupt, and the poor co-ordination and absence of agreed strategies among international organisations are hampering the progress of long-term reconstruction and development. As I said in an intervention, we are seeing an Afghanistan that is no more prosperous, no more optimistic in outlook and no less dangerous than it was five years ago.

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