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2.24 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): May I begin by associating the Opposition with the tributes paid by the Secretary of State to all the men and women in the armed forces, their families and all the civilian bodies who make sacrifices at all times for our security? As this is the first time that we have faced each other at the Dispatch Box, I also welcome him to his new position. I worked with him—or against him, depending on one’s interpretation—when he was at the Department of Health, and he always brings great intellectual effort to his portfolio. He arrives at the Ministry of Defence at a difficult time, but he will find that defence policy is much more bipartisan than health policy. The objections that the Opposition raise to policies are about implementation and detail, rather than broad strategic interests.

I also wish to pay tribute to the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne). He was open with information and always willing to share it with the Opposition. He gave us great access to all parts of the MOD and other bodies, and I regard him as a personal friend as well as a colleague. He is a man of great integrity and I hope that, should he so wish, he will return to the Front Bench.

The Secretary of State spoke about the budget and the need to match resources and commitments. He takes over the Ministry at a time of severe pressures on the core budget, and we are all aware of reports and studies by the Defence Committee and others about unfunded liabilities. We still have the problem that we are using the defence planning assumptions of 1998, planning for a tempo that does not take fully into account what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some will argue that the urgent operational requirements have been over-used. They were useful for getting what we wanted when we wanted it, but at the cost of stability and predictability in long-term procurement.

The right hon. Gentleman also inherits problems such as the deal between the Treasury and the MOD that all UOR costs above £900 million a year would be refunded 50 per cent. by the MOD, which has resulted in a £400 million cut in its core budget capabilities this year, and the cut of £1.4 billion in the future rotorcraft capability budget in 2004, which has led to a chronic under-availability of helicopters. As the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said, there is also a shortage of equipment for training before deployment,
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which is one of the biggest complaints we now get from soldiers in theatre. To be fair, I have to say that when I ask soldiers on the front line whether they have problems with personal kit, the answer has changed substantially—as the Secretary of State said—even in the past couple of years. We welcome that, but the chronic under-availability of airlift capacity needs to be urgently addressed.

The Secretary of State mentioned the role of NATO. We need to examine in some detail that role, the contribution of NATO members, which he mentioned, and the relative roles of the EU and NATO. The role of NATO was easily defined, politically and militarily, in the cold war. Its purpose was to stop the spread of communism in Europe and, if necessary, to stop the Soviet Union physically. It has become less clear in recent years exactly what the political and military roles of NATO are. There are those who talk about a greater need for out-of-area operational capability and those who still talk about the primary role of defence of the European continent. We must make it very clear that it is not a choice between those roles. We need both those capabilities, especially in a globalised economy where our interests can be threatened in many more places and by many more actors than they would have been in the past. Politicians cannot simply have the upside of globalisation without dealing with the downside, which is the unavoidable importation of strategic risk.

We in the House need a clear, bipartisan view that speaks for this country in the international field about the need for NATO to be able to respond to all the types of threats that this country can face. We have a problem, however, with the level of commitment of some NATO members. Only six out of 26 make the 2 per cent. of GDP contribution to the defence budget that they are supposed to make. That is woefully inadequate and deprives NATO, as a whole, of a huge amount of resources. There are too many caveats, too many restrictions and too little political will even to use the resources that are available. Not only is that a weakness for NATO, but it adds a disproportionate burden on those countries—such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and the Netherlands—that are willing to do the fighting.

The Secretary of State pointed out that we were doing too much of the funding; we are also doing too much of the dying compared to other countries that should be carrying a bigger share of the collective responsibility they are supposed to have as members of the alliance. The message must be clear: “Do not join NATO if you simply want to be a peacekeeper or if you want to get defence on the cheap.” Membership implies financial responsibility—it is not possible to get an insurance policy without paying the premiums—and military responsibility, as well as a willingness to respond to the article 5 responsibilities and commitments if required.

It would be nice if it was possible to make the choice to be simply a peacekeeper, but a peacekeeper can work only if there is a peace to be kept. Sometimes, peace has to be fought for and, sometimes, it has to be died for. That is a message that we should send at all times to our allies.

Mr. Jenkins: Would the hon. Gentleman please distinguish between the military leaders and the political leaders across those 26 states? We have found that it is not that their militaries lack resolve, but that their politicians lack the will.

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Dr. Fox: Indeed, I just said that there was a lack of political will even to use the assets when they are available. Those serving in the armed forces of other countries joined their armed forces to be a part of a defensive fighting force, if necessary, and I think that they find it just as frustrating as we do to be tied with red tape, caveats and restrictions by their respective Governments. I hope that the debate in those countries will be a vigorous one.

What should the roles of NATO and the EU be, in that case? If the EU is to have a constructive role, it needs to do what NATO cannot or does not do. The Opposition have always been happy with the EU acting as a delivery mechanism of NATO policy, especially in areas such as security sector reform, the rule of law missions and so on—areas where NATO has never been very well configured. There is certainly room for greater bilateral co-operation.

I echo what the Secretary of State said about what is happening in France. I know that many people are sceptical about the motives of President Sarkozy, but we need to recognise that we must seize the moment. We have been encouraging France for a long time to return to the integrated command structure, to have a rapprochement with the US and to become much more involved in future planning. If we now say, “Well, it’s not real,” we are in danger of failing to recognise that this is a potentially important time. We need to welcome the move, because if the moment is lost it might be some time before it comes back. Proof of that fact, if proof were required, can be found in the French defence White Paper, which saw a fundamental reshaping of French forces along lines much closer to the sort of expeditionary capability that we have long encouraged them to try to have.

There are positive developments along those lines. But—there has to be a “but”—a greater role for the EU in soft power cannot be used as an excuse to avoid basic NATO military obligations. Frankly, the duplication of NATO structures—double-hatting—does not improve increased capability. Action needs assets and we cannot have competition for scarce resources. In the US in particular, we hear politicians saying that Europe must do more for its own defence and for the defence of the alliance. I think that most of us would echo that. It cannot just be a short-term pragmatic approach; the structural relationship between NATO and the EU needs to be properly thought out.

Let me give a single example. Piracy is a major scourge of our sea lanes. Combined Task Force 150, which is part of Operation Enduring Freedom, is off the horn of Africa with 14 or 15 ships. It is working under the US fifth fleet. NATO is there with Standing NATO Maritime Group 2; that is another seven ships or so. Now we are to have an EU mission. Why? Other than flying the EU flag, what can that achieve that we could not achieve by augmenting one of the two existing missions? What will the command relationship be? Who is in charge of the area of operations? When we asked those questions, we were told that there would be close co-operation, but that is not really a sufficient answer. We need to know why the EU felt it necessary to become involved in something that was already being done by United States and NATO missions. We are not getting particularly good answers.

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John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I remind him of what he said about political will. Does it matter where the political will of our European allies comes from, as long as they deliver the capability? The operation may offer them a way to do that.

Dr. Fox: It does none of us any good to duplicate command structures and effort. If such missions already exist, we would do better to augment them than to set up a separate mission. One has to ask what the primary motivation is. Is it providing capability for the mission, or is it having a separate political identity?

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend is making a very important point. There are two military missions in Darfur: an EU military mission and, just down the road from it, a NATO mission. Both have about a dozen British soldiers. It can be very confusing for those in uniform to understand exactly who they are supposed to be working for, and who is involved in the operations with them. That was emphasised in Bosnia. When I was serving there, we were delighted to get rid of our UN uniform and go back to NATO: we firmly understood where we were and who the orders came from.

Dr. Fox: It is entirely possible for EU missions to complement what we are doing in NATO, if those missions do things that NATO does not. The trouble arises if the missions become competitive; that is my point about the missions in the horn of Africa. At a time of scarce resources, we in the west should not waste resources by duplicating effort.

The Secretary of State sensationally appeared on the front pages at the weekend, when there were reports of his support for an EU army. Of course, that was enthusiastically welcomed in the Brussels press. It is important for us to say what we think the appropriate relationship is. We believe that our defence relationship with our partners in the European Union should be intergovernmental, not supranational. Permanent, structured co-operation can easily become the precursor to a standing EU force. The European Defence Agency could easily become the precursor to a single procurement body. Under the Lisbon treaty, the European Commission will have a role in the EDA. The high representative for the common foreign and security policy will be vice-president of the Commission and head of the EDA, and that brings in an element of supranationalism that was not there before. The high representative will have a role of initiative in military operations, and we simply do not find that an acceptable way forward for the United Kingdom’s defence relationships. It is not pathetic to oppose that; we believe that it is our duty to do so.

Mr. Hutton: I was not going to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he made me do so. As I am sure he will know, the headline in The Daily Telegraph was not exactly the headline that I aimed to create. Let me make it absolutely clear that I am not in favour of anything being done, anywhere and at any time, that undermines or compromises our commitments to NATO and our special relationship with the United States. It is not my view that that was accurately reported. I know that the hon. Gentleman has firm views about everything European, and we have had a taste of that today, but he can afford to be less paranoid about some of these issues.

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May I pick up on one of the hon. Gentleman’s points about Somalia? He referred to Combined Task Force 150, which is, as he knows, an Operation Enduring Freedom deployment. He will know that many NATO allies will not, given the context, have their forces serving alongside it. The European security and defence policy anti-piracy mission to Somalia is exactly the sort of example he was looking for. It is a complementary deployment that will boost the effectiveness of the anti-piracy operation in the horn of Africa, not undermine it. I hope that he will have another look at that.

Dr. Fox: The point I was making was that we already have a NATO mission there anyway, so what does the EU bring to that area that NATO cannot? I understand that the headline was not what the Secretary of State intended, but he knows that any term used in relation to the European Union and defence is heavily loaded with all sorts of hidden meanings, and no doubt he will be well into that debate as we move forward.

The Secretary of State concentrated on Afghanistan for the bulk of his speech and, clearly, that is the top priority for NATO at present. He correctly reiterated the main reasons for our being there, the first of which is our national security. It is often forgotten in the debate about Afghanistan that we are there primarily for our own safety. [Interruption.] I am well aware that that is what the Secretary of State said, as the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), says. I can hear and I can understand the Secretary of State’s comments. As I was saying, the fact that we are there primarily for reasons of our national security is important and we must reiterate it at every point, because sometimes the debate about Afghanistan is lost in the language of reconstruction.

Reconstruction is very important in our ability to create a stable state, which is part of our long-term plan, but we also need to remember that success in Afghanistan is important for both the cohesion and credibility of NATO in the longer term. If we fail in Afghanistan, what credibility do we have elsewhere? It is perhaps an existential mission for Afghanistan but, notwithstanding our military capabilities, there is a danger of the broader operation in Afghanistan becoming a shambles, with everyone and no one in charge.

I was recently asked about the strategy in Afghanistan, and I was moved to ask, “Which strategy?” Was it the UN strategy, the NATO strategy, the American strategy, the Afghan Government strategy or the reconstruction strategy? All too many strategies seem to be going on at the same time, and all too few are properly integrated. As has been said recently, it is certainly true that we cannot have a purely military victory in Afghanistan, but we can have a purely military defeat, if we are not careful and we do not have the appropriate commitments. We need to be clear about how we will ultimately make the transition from a largely military operation to what will ultimately be a civilian mission over a longer time scale.

Harry Cohen: I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to an article in The Sunday Times on 12 October by Christina Lamb, an embedded reporter in Afghanistan, in which she refers to having dinner with Brigadier Carleton-Smith who told her

He went on to refer to

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that approach?

Dr. Fox: Not as it is put there, although there are some elements of truth that both the Secretary of State in what he said and I in what I am about to say would take from that.

There has been much discussion about the parallels between what recently happened in Iraq and what is happening in Afghanistan. However, the differences are that, first, in Iraq we were talking about reconstruction, while in Afghanistan we are talking about construction. There is very little to reconstruct in Afghanistan, and that makes a big difference. There is a substantial middle class in Iraq, which does not exist in Afghanistan, and, again, that will take a long time to develop. Clearly there are political elements that need to come into play before we can talk about a mission being completed or a victory, but we must accept that were we not to have a military presence there, we could go back to handing over a space to those who are fundamentally opposed to our national interest. That would be quite unacceptable, not least given the sacrifices that our service personnel, our allied service personnel and our taxpayers have made so far in Afghanistan.

Many people have talked about the surge in Iraq and whether that could be applied to Afghanistan. We must be careful about this, because in Iraq there was a genuine political purpose behind the surge. General Petraeus saw putting extra troops on the ground as a way of supporting a political impetus, which was to separate out the reconcilable and the irreconcilable—the point that was being made about those who could be brought into the process; a point that the Secretary of State made. What would be the purpose of such a move in Afghanistan at present? We are not at the same juncture; simply putting more troops on the ground would risk inflaming the insurgency without our having anything specific to support. As Frederick Kagan, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise institute and the architect of the Iraqi surge, said, Afghanistan is not Iraq and we cannot just template Iraq’s solutions on to Afghanistan’s problems. We need to understand that.

For example, Afghanistan has 10 major ethnic groups; there are only two in Iraq. A major part of the Iraqi surge was the creation of the conditions for the Sunni awakening, and the structure and beliefs of Iraq’s tribal system allowed that to occur. However, it is very unlikely that pashtunwali, the Pashtun tribal code of honour, would allow that to happen easily in Afghanistan. In the House and outside, we have to be wary about simplistic solutions that apply what happened in one place to another; there is no guarantee that they would necessarily succeed.

If we are to be successful in Afghanistan, we need a clearly defined end state, which we have not had until now. We need realistic benchmarks so that we do not fool ourselves into believing that we are making progress when we are not. The recent National Audit Office report into the Department for International Development was a shot of reality in respect of what has happened
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there. Above all else, we need realistic expectations. Pretending that we can achieve things quickly does no good to the political case of those of us who believe in our engagement in Afghanistan, and it does no good to the morale of our forces or to public support in this country or those of our allies. Afghanistan is not Iraq; it is about construction, not reconstruction, and that will take time. Noble purposes are all very well, but they have to be allied to realistic time scales. If they are not, things become unsatisfactory and unhelpful.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend not feel that, in respect of what was said previously, we need to educate people about a counter-insurgency war such as that in Afghanistan? Such battles are not won as they were in the Falklands, as people who read the media often think. We win one victory when we get a turbine into the Kajaki dam and another when that is connected to 2 million homes. We need to inform people about what we are trying to achieve and to be able to measure that.

Dr. Fox: Indeed; my hon. Friend is exactly correct. Having clearly definable benchmarks is essential to show what progress we are making. There are too many simplifications. People mention “talking to the Taliban”, but who do they think the Taliban are—a club with a membership? They are a changing number of people who will move around the border and change allegiances and sides at different times. We have to be realistic about what we are dealing with. If any country should understand from its own history that we have to work with what we get, not what we want, if our mission is to succeed, it should be the United Kingdom. We need to consider that.

We have seen success elsewhere. Like the Secretary of State, I have recently returned from Iraq. I wandered around the centre of Basra without body armour or a helmet. We were held up as we approached the city because so many people were going shopping with their families that there was a traffic jam. Such a scene would have been unthinkable a relatively short time ago. It is possible to bring change. All those who were against the intervention in Iraq might want to go to Basra and see what difference that intervention has made. People there now not only have a say in determining the future of their own country and taking control of their own destiny, but live in an infinitely improved security environment. They do not even talk about security as one of the issues; they talk about employment, electricity and water because the terms of debate have fundamentally changed as a consequence of military action. We should remember that whatever people say about more recent events in Basra, the commitment of our armed forces to the coalition of the willing in Iraq has made a change for people in that country. Once in a while, I would like those who were against the war in Iraq to recognise that some good things have now come out of it for the ordinary people there, rather than only wanting to see the downside.

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