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29 Oct 2008 : Column 265WH—continued

and that the least one could say about the Taliban was that they were reasonably efficient and honest. Does the Minister recognise the problem of corruption, and does he have any thoughts on how it might be dealt with?

What is to happen about the lead nation approach, under which countries were given a role at the beginning of the process? I shall give an example of a problem. The Germans were given the role of training the police, but the Americans have spent 50 times more than the Germans and have trained many more police. So, some police were trained in a German way of policing and some in an American way, and I understand that there was no co-ordination with the Italians, who were introducing the new laws. They ended up with a police force with either a German flavour or an American flavour, but none of the officers knew the new laws that they were to enforce. If there is a problem with having lead nations, how is it to be resolved? Is it not a question of having much better co-ordination between the countries involved?

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): In those last two comments, my hon. Friend has identified an inherent difficulty in the Afghan situation, has he not? Either we help the Afghan Government to get greater capacity, which means having fewer lead nations but a risk of greater corruption, or, if we are concerned about corruption, we impose more control on the Afghan Government, which gives the impression that we are occupying forces
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and thus alienates the towns. We cannot have it both ways; we have to decide. We cannot simultaneously enhance capacity and seek to run Afghanistan; it has to be one or the other.

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. However, one of the reasons why the generals are talking about trying to reach a negotiated settlement is that if more of the Pashtun leaders were involved with the process and supported the Government rather than the Taliban, many of those problems would be less important because there would be the sort of security that allows civil administration to build and to have the sort of principles that we wish for.

I do not want to speak for too long, because many colleagues want to speak, so I shall conclude by asking the Minister some questions. What are the Government doing about the review that the Americans are conducting? Are we having a review, too? Is the force size adequate and do we have the equipment that we need? How does he reconcile the comments of one set of generals with what Lieutenant-General Sir Peter Wall said yesterday? What hope is there for our NATO partners? Are they going to do more, and really put their shoulders to the wheel? Are there any signs of improved commitment? What hope is there for reconstruction almost immediately after tactical victories, so that we gradually win hearts and minds by showing that a victory means something good for the Afghan people? Will our armed forces have a substantial budget to enable that to happen? That is important, given that voluntary and non-governmental organisations might be too frightened to come in and do the reconstruction work speedily.

What is to happen about bureaucracy and corruption? Do our Government have any leverage with President Karzai and his team? How are we to get effective peace talks, and will we and the Americans be involved as negotiators, as has been mentioned in the news today? On poppies, does the Minister have any idea how we should tackle narco-terrorism? Finally, will he give a commitment that we will have the regular statements from the Prime Minister on this very important area—after all, it is a war we are conducting—to which we are entitled?

Several hon. Members rose

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. Eight Members are seeking to catch my eye, and I intend to call the Front-Bench speakers in 45 minutes, so five or six minutes each will be about the right length of time.

2.45 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on securing the debate, which is timely because we are at a tipping point in Afghanistan. The last tipping point was in March 2006, and we had a debate in Westminster Hall about what the position would be. Then there was almost unanimity in support of the Government’s actions, which were to move into Helmand province. The then Secretary of State for Defence said that he hoped that that operation would last for three years at the most, without a shot being fired.

In that debate, a comparison was made between the movement in Helmand province and the charge of the Light Brigade. It is significant that we remember what
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was said then. To paraphrase the words of the poet, there was, “Bush to the right of them, Blair to the left of them, who Holler’d and thunder’d. Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die. Someone had blunder’d. Into the mouth of Helmand, Rode the five thousand. “

At that time, things were peaceful in Helmand and throughout Afghanistan, and only seven of our soldiers had died—five in accidents and two as the result of military action. I pay tribute, as everyone does, to their valour and professionalism. They do a magnificent job there. Now, the number of soldiers who have died is 121—three more than the number killed in the charge of the Light Brigade, but the operation has, in common with that charge, the futility and stupidity of those who gave the orders at the time. Clear warnings were given that going into Helmand would stir up a hornets’ nest, and we are now seeing the truth of that. We are in a far more dangerous position than any that we have experienced in the seven years that we have been in Afghanistan.

Is it sensible to send in more troops? Our ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, has made it clear that what we are doing—sending in more troops—will

That is precisely the role that they will have. He went on:

The Government are rotting from the head down. The only reason why Karzai remains in power is because of the presence of NATO troops.

It is foolish to believe that the number of NATO troops from our fellow European countries will increase. I have spoken to Hungarian Ministers and a member of the Western European Union’s defence committee, and I have been in many debates with French, German and other members. They clearly see no future in sending their young men to die in Afghanistan. I asked the chairman of the committee on defence in the Hungarian Parliament—the Hungarians were talking at one time of replacing the Dutch in Afghanistan—whether his people were prepared to accept the casualties on the scale that we have suffered here, in the Netherlands and in Canada. He said emphatically that his people were not prepared to accept that.

Can we look and find any hope? I do not believe that there is any chance that we can do what has been suggested and is still being suggested, which is putting in troops and having a surge that would be successful. That idea demonstrates misunderstanding of the success of the surge in Iraq, which was mainly due to the skills of General Petraeus and the fact that there were talks between the two groups. The talks, not military might were, responsible for bringing peace. Military might will not solve the problem in Afghanistan; it never has.

On a visit to the Pentagon in July, we received briefings from different people there. Some of them were the crazies who really believed the Bush line that victory was possible and that all we needed to do was send more troops to sort out the opposition; they saw the situation in Afghanistan in very crude terms. However, other people at the Pentagon were intellectuals or military strategists. They gave us histories of insurgencies and
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said that, in almost every case, the insurgents win; if troops go into a country as an alien army, whatever happens the ultimate outcome is a victory for the insurgents if they have the support of the rest of the population.

We are in a very dangerous situation now. When we went into Afghanistan in 2001, much of the Afghan population were really hostile towards the Taliban; they were fed up with the restrictions that the Taliban had imposed. The position now is that the Afghan people have a new fear; they are afraid of the words that are coming from Washington—words that we have heard here. A think-tank in Washington said that we would be in Afghanistan for generations. We have also heard talk in this House about having a war in Afghanistan that will last for 38 years. The Afghans are saying, “What on earth are we doing? We have got these people in our country and we are suffering war eternal.” They would prefer to have the Taliban back in control than continue with warfare in their country.

I do not want to deny that there have been improvements and gains made in Afghanistan, in schooling and around Kabul. I believe that it is possible for us to consolidate those gains and reach some kind of deal, but it has to be a political deal and not a military one. We must resist the presumption that Iraq and Afghanistan are the same and that we can repeat in Afghanistan what happened in Iraq. Iraq and Afghanistan are not similar; they are very different.

The Government in Afghanistan are deeply corrupt. That is nothing unusual in Afghanistan; corruption has been the lubricant for running Afghanistan for centuries.

Another figure is terrifying, but accurate. If we compare the number of our troops who have died—121—with the number of new millionaires in Kabul, the likelihood is that the number of new millionaires is very similar, if not greater. We know that for every British soldier who lays down their life, a new millionaire is created in Afghanistan, because of the money that we ourselves are pouring in. We were putting in small amounts of money between 2002 and 2006, but the figure is now up to the scale of a billion a year, and more money is being poured in by the Americans. Huge fortunes are being made by the corrupt oligarchy in Afghanistan, many of whom are in government and some of whom are related to the President.

Sadly, although we look to our soldiers and say that we want to honour their lives and honour their sacrifices and we believe that there is nobility in the cause that they are fighting for, I am afraid that the truth is very different. We will see more inquests; there is already a backlog of inquests, the findings of which are now coming out. I believe that each one of those inquests will show to the country that the blame for the deficiencies that led to lives being lost, often in very difficult circumstances, will be spread everywhere.

As we see the cost in terms of the lives lost and we dwell on those fatalities, the clamour from the public for a change of policy will be intense, and I believe that a change of policy is the right thing to do. We cannot go on making decisions like before; decisions have been made not in Washington but in this place, which have sent young men to die, I believe, in vain in a war that is impossible to win.

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2.54 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on securing this very important debate, for reasons that I will come to in a moment.

First, I want to say that the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) will find it disturbing that I agreed with quite a lot of what he had to say, until the very last part of his speech when he unfortunately linked the deaths of our servicemen in Afghanistan with the increase in the number of millionaires in Kabul. The two things are quite clearly not related and, frankly, I think that it was rather distasteful to have made that link. However, I agreed with much of the rest of his speech, for a reason that I will explain.

I do not speak here as any kind of expert on Afghanistan or on defence, and I am looking forward to hearing contributions from a number of my colleagues who have been to Afghanistan more recently than I have and who know far more about the country than I do. I think this debate is so important because it makes me think back to the time of the Iraq invasion, when I resigned my post as shadow Defence Minister because I was very much opposed to the invasion; I regret the fact that I did not vote against it and instead abstained, when I should have voted against it. At the time, I was deeply unhappy about the invasion. Since then, in my constituency and elsewhere, I have gone to great lengths to seek to justify what we are doing in Afghanistan; no one will find a more robust supporter of our strategy in Afghanistan than me.

Increasingly, however, as I have listened to some of the people who have already been quoted in the debate today, I am finding myself beginning to ask the questions, “Why are we in Afghanistan? What on earth are we trying to do there? And is there any chance that we can achieve the great aims that people are laying down for us?” I must say that I find the quotes that are emerging about Afghanistan deeply worrying. I know that our ambassador has denied the quotes that are reported to have been contained in a secret memo to President Sarkozy, quotes that said that it was not possible that we could win in Afghanistan and that showed that he was extremely negative about the situation there and that expressed the hope that there might be dictatorship there within four or five years. He denies that he said all that, but none the less it is worrying that it has been reported that he said it to President Sarkozy.

It has also been reported that Brigadier Carleton-Smith has said that he has been misquoted as saying that we cannot win in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, if one looks at both his interview on Sky Television and in The Times, the words that he used are very precise and very specific and he is not a person who would use language that could be misquoted. So a lot of people are saying that things are not going quite the way that they should be in Afghanistan. Having followed these matters for a number of years, I do not know why we are there.

It seems to me that the purpose of today’s debate ought to be to come up with some kind of grand strategy for what we are doing in Afghanistan, if we can do that. There seem to me to be six possible reasons for our being there. The first reason, of course, is counter-insurgency. However, counter-insurgency means putting down insurgents, and who are the insurgents against?
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They are, of course, insurgents against us. The memo from Sherard Cowper-Coles, our ambassador, says very specifically that he thinks that we are now becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution. If we were not in Afghanistan and if Afghanistan was as it was before we went there, would there be an insurgency? No, of course there would not, because there would be nobody to “insurge” against. There has to be an invasion force to have an insurgency against, so I doubt very much whether counter-insurgency works as a justification. What about counter-terrorism? Of course, that was the 9/11 justification.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Gray: I do not have much time, but of course I will give way.

Hugh Bayley: Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that the insurgents spend at least as much time attacking the Government of Afghanistan and their institutions as they do attacking the troops of the international security assistance force?

Mr. Gray: “The Government of Afghanistan” is, of course, rather an odd expression. President Karzai’s writ does not run much further than Kabul. The notion that there is some kind of Government rather akin to our own running across the whole of Afghanistan, which these awful people in the Taliban oppose, is an odd one. Incidentally, the Taliban were our allies in Gulf 1. The Taliban fought with us against Saddam, so they are not necessarily all bad people at all; many of them are quite good people. However, as I was saying, the notion that somehow or other we have a Government of Afghanistan who are being “insurged” against by the awful Taliban is, frankly, nonsense. Afghanistan does not work that way. I do not necessarily believe that there is really a counter-insurgency role for us in Afghanistan.

Counter-terrorism is a possible justification, but it is well accepted by everybody that most of the al-Qaeda forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan and are now in the tribal areas in north-west Pakistan. Perhaps we should have a presence in Afghanistan to prevent those forces from coming back, but if so, how the heck are we going to do that? The border is porous; there are vast numbers of al-Qaeda forces, and the more that we are in Afghanistan, the more they come across, so I am not certain that a counter-terrorism role necessarily works very well either.

Are we seeking to establish some kind of western-style democracy in Afghanistan—a sort of Guildford lookalike in Kabul? No, we are not. That is totally impossible and it would be absurd to seek to do it. We often hear from those on the Labour Benches about the notion of gender balance in the Afghan Parliament, and all of that—it is nonsense. Afghanistan is not like that. The notion that, if we were there for years and years, we might establish something that looks a bit like this great Parliament seems to me, frankly, nonsensical.

Are we in Afghanistan to reconstruct the nation through aid? Yes, I hope that we are and the fantastic operation that was the guarding of the Kajaki dam is a good example of precisely what we could do in the future. The more that we can conduct operations such as the Kajaki dam and provide electricity for the people of Helmand province, the better the situation there will be and the more likely it will be that they will say, “We
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like peace, we like democracy and we like the west.” Frankly, at the moment, there is not much reconstruction going on; we are mostly warfighting, and I am not certain that that works.

Finally, are we there as some kind of springboard into Pakistan? Certainly, the United States of America seems to believe that aggressive operations across the border into Pakistan are justifiable. Just as I did not believe that our invasion of Iraq was justifiable under international law, I do not believe that any intrusion into Pakistan’s airspace or land is justifiable under international law, so I do not accept the argument for our presence in Afghanistan as some kind of springboard for intervention in Pakistan.

These are difficult questions to which I do not have the answers. There are people in this room who know far more about the situation than I do, but, speaking on behalf of the people of North Wiltshire, I must say that these are the questions that people are asking. People are saying, “Why are we in Afghanistan?” I hope that my colleagues will shortly be able to enlighten me.

3 pm

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): I returned from Afghanistan on Monday evening. I was there for four or five days and had the opportunity to meet President Karzai and General Wardak, the Defence Minister. One of the success stories of Afghanistan has been the creation of a disciplined and effective Afghan national army, but I agree with hon. Members that the army needs to be increased in size, so I am glad that there is now approval, including funding approval from donors, to double its strength to about 135,000. There are political risks in having a long-term foreign military presence in the country, and also huge cost implications. It costs $50 billion a year for the NATO and allied military presence in Afghanistan, but when the Afghan national army reaches its full strength, although funded largely by donors, it will cost about $3.5 billion.

I met General McKiernan, several other senior military commanders, the international security assistance force senior civilian representative, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Governor Atta in Balkh province and others, and I fundamentally disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), who said that the Afghan public would rather have the Taliban back than have conflict. Absolutely nobody to whom I spoke—none of the women and none of the women MPs—wants to see the Taliban back. There is a danger that they will get back into power if the Afghan Government, who—let us get the facts straight—have a presence way beyond Kabul, do not provide the security that people desperately need, or deal with corruption, especially within the police, who prey on, rather than protect, the people of Afghanistan.

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