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I think that that was an exaggeration, but the fact that he felt able to say that is alarming in itself. The looming danger of Iran’s nuclear programme means that we need the EU as a whole to adopt the sanctions that we have called for. It should impose a formal ban on export credit guarantees, mirror US financial sanctions and place unequivocal restrictions on investment in Iranian oil and gas.

That brings me to the final and most important point that I wish to make. The Foreign Secretary talked briefly about one of the great challenges facing the world—climate change. We very much agree with him about that. Climate change is increasingly taking up the Foreign Office’s allocation of personnel and resources. It is one of the great challenges facing the world, and I hope that at some stage we can have a debate—or get more information from the Government—about how the resources of the Foreign Office, which are now deployed quite heavily on the issue of climate change, are being used. We also need to know how the deployment of personnel working on climate change—for instance in Brazil—actively serves to influence other nations’ climate change policies. This House must be able to make an assessment of that.

However, alongside that vital priority, the Iranian situation reminds us that nuclear proliferation is the other great issue facing the entire world. It seems entirely possible that within the next decade the great danger posed to our national security by international terrorism will be overtaken in magnitude by the dangers of nuclear proliferation. As the Foreign Secretary rightly noted towards the close of his speech, the non-proliferation treaty, which is subject to an international review conference in 2010, is under assault from within, with its member states locked in recrimination and stalemate. It is also being assailed from without, by the actions of countries such as Iran and North Korea and by the sheer march forward of science, which is making it easier by the day to acquire and to peddle nuclear technology.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the non-proliferation treaty’s limitations is that it automatically excludes Israel, India and Pakistan? Might not a better way forward be to promote a nuclear weapons convention, a proposal currently being led by Australia? That might create a better forum for nuclear disarmament.
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Mr. Hague: It is certainly a weakness of the non-proliferation treaty that the nations to which the hon. Gentleman refers are not signatories to it. That is undoubtedly true, but I am rather sceptical about whether it is possible to invent a completely different vehicle that is more effective than an updated, improved and strengthened non-proliferation treaty. Even with the absence of those three countries, many features of the treaty are essential to preventing proliferation elsewhere. We should not turn a blind eye to the sort of initiatives that he mentions, but we have to work with the framework that we have.

I hope that the British Government will launch and help to lead a massive diplomatic effort to persuade other nations to accord counter-proliferation the very highest priority in international affairs. We welcome the steps that the Government have already taken to put Britain at the forefront of the debate on nuclear weapons reductions and to propose a means of bringing the fuel cycle under international control, including hosting a conference on the matter next year. However, in my view such action now needs to be raised to a higher level of political priority and governmental commitment, from the Prime Minister down.

The Opposition have put forward a package of eight proposals for the strengthening of the non-proliferation treaty. Among the initiatives to tackle nuclear proliferation we propose concrete steps to improve our ability to disrupt the financing of nuclear proliferation, to enhance our ability to track and block the trade in nuclear weapons technology, to strengthen the IAEA and the international system of safeguards and inspections, and to close loopholes in the non-proliferation treaty.

We hope that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary will make a major push—and major speeches for international consumption—on that vital matter, and that they seek a common approach with America that could combine the influence of one of the world’s most powerful nuclear weapons states—the US—with the moral authority of the UK as a nuclear weapons state with a very good record in reducing its own nuclear arsenal.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hague: I am on my last paragraph, and I said that I had given way for the last time, but given that it is my right hon. and learned Friend who asks, I will give way.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and I applaud what he just said. Does he agree that it would make an enormous contribution towards the likelihood of the non-proliferation treaty being continued, and would put far greater pressure on Iran, if the United States and Russia, which both still have approximately 5,000 strategic nuclear warheads—infinitely more than they need for their mutual defence—could be persuaded to initiate negotiations? President Obama has implied that he would be willing to support such negotiations for a massive further reduction in the number of nuclear warheads of the two powers, which, together, have 95 per cent. of the world’s nuclear weapons.

Mr. Hague: Certainly, we should hope for that, and the Governments that my right hon. and learned Friend mentions should take the lead. Perhaps the new US Administration will follow up on what happened under
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previous US Administrations, and perhaps there will be further massive reductions in those still colossal arsenals. Of course, people do not always recognise the many things that have been achieved in that area. Thousands of Russian nuclear warheads have been powering part of the American electricity grid for some years. That is one of the successes for non-proliferation and for co-operation between Russia and the United States. As for whether that process could go much further, and whether it would enhance the moral authority that we need if we are to persuade other countries not to develop nuclear weapons, the answer is yes, absolutely; I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend.

Harry Cohen: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: I had better conclude my remarks.

Harry Cohen rose—

Mr. Hague: The hon. Gentleman is so nice that I will give way to him.

Harry Cohen: The right hon. Gentleman has said some fine words on a couple of issues, certainly on Iraq and on nuclear non-proliferation. I agree with him that the latter needs a much higher priority. However, the situation was made worse by the United States’ deployment of missiles in other European countries; the Russians responded to that badly. Did he and his party support that deployment of US missile defence? Did he speak up against it, as part of his approach to non-proliferation?

Mr. Hague: I am a little worried to hear that the hon. Gentleman is in such agreement with me; that is a little disturbing. More seriously, we are at least able to differ on the issue that he raises. When one looks at the dangers of proliferation and of the Iranian nuclear programme, one finds that the basis for, and rationale behind, the plans that the United States put forward for missile defence can clearly be understood. The issue has to be seen in that context. That is why he has not heard words of condemnation on the matter from the Opposition. Before he and I fall out about anything else—we have agreed on so much—I will conclude with a point on non-proliferation.

If we stand back from our daily preoccupations, from varying crises and from any party political issues, we see that non-proliferation is perhaps the most important subject of all in our international work, and it is an issue on which Britain can make a decisive difference. If the Government launch an initiative like the one that I mentioned, they will find solid and enthusiastic support across the House.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I remind the House that a 15-minute limit will apply to Back Benchers’ speeches as of now.

3.3 pm

Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) for
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giving the House a real sense of the great sweep of problems that have to be confronted across the world. I will deal with a very small part of those problems, but an important part for our country, namely Afghanistan.

We are entering a more difficult phase in our efforts to convince the British public that the cause of Afghanistan is worth the sacrifice of young lives. The public’s perception of the Afghan war is changing. The huge media coverage earlier this year of the death of the 100th British serviceman in Afghanistan, and the death of the first servicewoman, pushed the war firmly into the limelight. The death of 128 of our brave young people in a war that has already lasted longer than the second world war raises increasingly difficult questions, most of which have been eclipsed until now by the ongoing controversies generated by the Iraq campaign.

We should assume nothing about the impact of the Afghan war on the British public. One does not have to possess special powers to predict that, as the Afghan war grinds on, the people of our country will express concerns that we have heard little about to date. They will be generated by a whole range of worries, from President Karzai’s habit of publicly maligning Britain’s armed forces and aid agencies whenever he considers it necessary to grandstand before an Islamist audience, to the apparent ability of the Taliban and their allies to terrorise areas of Afghanistan that were considered Taliban-free not so long ago.

One of the most corrosive elements in the conflict is Afghan corruption at institutional, provincial and personal level; it is that which threatens most seriously the future of the whole international effort. It is worth recalling that the aim of the effort, stated briefly, is to help that country to become an entity that resembles a normal state, capable of delivering the basic security and services required by most people in most states in the 21st century. If the true dimensions of the corruption are not recognised, Governments such as ours will continue to pour precious resources into Afghanistan and continue to cause the lives of soldiers and other brave, talented people to be sacrificed, with little to show for it when it comes to helping to create that desired normal state.

The United Kingdom’s strategy in Afghanistan is to effect a transition from international dependence to sustainable local ownership, but the character of those who are most likely to become the local owners of that sustainable independence is among the most pressing of Afghan problems. Institutionally, Afghanistan is corrupt from top to bottom, and there are few signs that the chaotic hegemony of warlords, gangsters, presidential placemen, incompetent and under-resourced provincial governors and self-serving Government Ministers has been challenged in any effective way by President Karzai. On the contrary, those individuals appear to be thriving, not least because Hamid Karzai has convinced himself that he cannot afford to sack or challenge the strongmen who, through corruption, brutality, power of arms or tribal status, are capable of controlling their territories and fiefdoms.

President Karzai has been treated with kid gloves by most of the international community, perhaps because there does not appear to be a great queue of credible candidates to replace him. That is the wrong kind of love to lavish on President Karzai. He needs tough love, and that is precisely what he is not getting both in
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relation to the need to hit corruption and, as I shall argue, in relation to the need to extend dramatically the efforts to promote reconciliation—clearly, there has to be reconciliation if the war is not to drag on for a great many years to come.

We will be asked, quite properly, why the lives of our service personnel should be risked if the Afghan Government are unwilling to tackle seriously the corruption, administrative indolence and incompetence of those charged with extending the remit of good governance in that country. We will be asked why we are fighting to preserve what looks remarkably like a regime that is being undermined by corrupt, self-serving cliques that have access to the very highest levels of Afghan politics.

If those concerns promote a powerful lobby in this country for the abandonment of Britain’s role in the current UN-led campaign to help the Afghans to create sustainable peace and democracy, there will be extremely serious consequences for the ordinary people of Afghanistan, because there have been achievements, and they are worth listing. They include democratic elections, significantly more females in education, more availability of health care, more paved roads, improvements to agricultural projects and—perhaps most importantly in the context of Britain’s security—the denial to al-Qaeda, or AQ, of safe bases in Afghanistan for terrorist training and planning. Achieving the latter was, of course, the prime reason for our going there in the first place in the months following the terrorist carnage on 11 September 2001 in New York.

The problem is that it is difficult to see how, militarily, al-Qaeda’s protectors, the Taliban, can be excluded entirely from Afghanistan and prevented from terrorising and killing people, given the mountainous topography and the porous nature of the frontier with Pakistan. Even in 2008, there remain just over the border in Pakistan large refugee camps where the influence of the Taliban and other extremist Islamic groupings is powerful. These camps are full of young men without jobs or prospects, and they will remain for many years to come fertile recruiting grounds for Taliban fighting units and suicide squads.

The training camps in Pakistan run by the likes of Lashkar-e-Taiba and their front organisation, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, have equipped and conveyed criminals to murder innocent people from Mumbai to London and from Kenya to Argentina. There is little chance that the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and other Pakistani-based extremist groups will see their safe havens close to the Afghan-Pakistan border subjected in the near future to Pakistan Government control. The murder of 180 people in Mumbai is just one of the most recent of scores of obscenities. Quite properly in my opinion, fingers have been pointed at Lashkar-e-Taiba and their protectors in Pakistan. What is certain is that they have learned the lessons of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

In 2007 our ambassador to Kabul informed the world that it would take western forces 30 years to make Afghanistan a normal country. This prediction is at the more precise end of a spectrum of guesses—in America, for example, there are all manner of theories about how long it will take to put Afghanistan right, as Americans say. I am certain that our ambassador to Kabul knows as well as any of us that it is not tenable to assume that we can convince the British public of the case for a 30 years war in Afghanistan. I sense that he was talking
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about 30 years being the sort of perspective that the world needs to have when it comes to helping the Afghans to create sustainable peace in their country.

We will not find it possible to convince the British public that we should continue fighting across even vaguer time scales, such as “for as long as it takes” or “for the long haul”. We may use these overly convenient phrases, but they will not stand up to close questioning by anyone familiar with the reality of contemporary Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan and Iran.

I have been reminded many times by military commanders in Afghanistan and by historians in this country that the Soviets had more than 150,000 well equipped service personnel in Afghanistan in the 1980s, engaged in killing Afghans without having to worry about infringing international standards of human rights, but that did not prevent their defeat by a relatively lightly armed Afghan resistance movement that used to its advantage not just the hostility of most of the population to the Soviet occupiers, whom they considered ruthless and godless, but the nature of the Afghan terrain and its close proximity to the safe havens afforded by Pakistan.

The UN, ISAF, NATO and the US are not the Soviets. Almost certainly they are not loathed by most Afghans to the degree that they loathed the Soviets. Equally certainly, we must remember that the Afghans do not especially love us either. Understandably, given their experiences over the past 30 years, they equate outsiders with trouble, especially outsiders carrying guns. We assume that they prefer us to the Taliban and they most probably do, but our experience in other wars against guerrilla armies, especially in Northern Ireland, has taught us that it is almost impossible to erode completely the vital support that ordinary citizens are prepared to offer to those insurgents who reflect even small shreds of popularly held sentiment. It is obvious that there is no shortage of anti-foreign-occupier sentiment in Afghanistan.

If we cannot win an outright military victory, how do we attain our desire to help to transform Afghanistan into something resembling a normal state, and for how long do we pursue that desire? Forget the nonsense about being prepared to fight on the mountains and plains of Afghanistan for the next 30 years. Once the reality of that claim sinks into the minds of the British public, it will be rejected as a dangerous and dismal fantasy. People will not accept the notion that British families should be prepared over the next decades to send their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters to risk their lives fighting religious fanatics, tribal nationalists, corrupt warlords and heroin-traffickers in one of the most godforsaken terrains on the face of the earth. The notion is daft, however much we may try to rationalise it by arguing that it is better to fight al-Qaeda over there than over here.

We know, tragically in my opinion, from the failure of our considerable efforts to persuade our NATO allies to shoulder a greater part of the war fighting burden in Afghanistan that their commitment to the campaign is limited, constrained as it is by the political realities back in their home countries. I was glad to hear my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary report that, these days, the French and the Germans are making more sympathetic
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noises about deploying forces and resources to Afghanistan. I saw no real signs of willingness among far too many of our NATO allies to take upon their shoulders a greater part of the burden of ensuring security in the dangerous south and east of Afghanistan.

Those countries are flunking their duties as NATO members, for the Afghan campaign is a test of NATO’s credibility. The Governments of NATO states cannot acknowledge that the nature of international conflict is changing—that it is generated less by the need to defend the borders of sovereign states and more by the need to combat terrorist groups that pay little heed to borders of any description—and not acknowledge at the same time that to counteract those changes it is vital that all allies co-operate and share equally the dangers in conflicts like that in Afghanistan.

There are ways of reducing the conflict to proportions that are manageable by the Afghans themselves, but they will involve greater emphasis than has been witnessed so far on promoting reconciliation among the factions, tribes and governments of that country. I have no doubt that the war-fighting will continue for some time to come. We can chase down and capture or kill the bad guys for the next 30 years, but that will not win for Afghanistan a sustainable peace and the chance of relative economic prosperity.

There must be dialogue between the hostile factions. Images must be created of what life could be like for those fighters and their families who may be persuaded to lay down their arms and take up offers, perhaps, of accommodation, land to farm, seed to plant and stock to rear. They must be convinced that they will be safe and valued, the equal of all other Afghan citizens, not exploited by the corrupt, violent placemen of Kabul and the gangsters who control so much of the country.

That means that President Karzai and the Afghan Parliament have to do two things. First, they must create a much stronger and more influential body to promote reconciliation than the largely ineffective national and independent peace and reconciliation committee that exists at the moment. They can do that. Secondly, they must convince the people that they will seek with much greater energy to do away with the scourge of institutional corruption, lawlessness and injustice. They must convince the millions of ordinary Afghans that peace will bring justice, fairness and prosperity and not more of the iniquity that they witness around them now.

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