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3.18 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) made a very thoughtful speech on Afghanistan, which was even more compelling given his recent service in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I shall make similar remarks when I turn to the Afghan situation later in my speech. He spoke about servicemen and women, the sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of our constituents. When we debate foreign policy, the implication is that we are asking them to put their lives on the line, knowing the impact that that has on them and their families. It is appropriate that we remember that during our deliberations, especially on the Queen’s Speech.

It is right to remember, as the Foreign Secretary did, the victims of the Mumbai terrorist outrage. Hon. Members in all parts of the House send our huge
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support to the Indian Government as they tackle the terrorist threat. I was pleased to see the British Government offering material and practical support to efforts to apprehend the terrorists, to work with India to deal with all the problems related to that, and hopefully also to help to diffuse the tensions with Pakistan that have arisen as a result of that terrorist outrage.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said, rightly, that many aspects of foreign policy are conducted on a bipartisan basis. When we can find agreement across the House, this country’s voice is much stronger. I agree with an awful lot of what he and the Foreign Secretary said. If it seems that my remarks focus on issues about which we do not agree, that is simply because the nature of this debate is to make sure that we persuade each other of the right way forward.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks ended his speech by referring to nuclear non-proliferation, and I strongly agree with him about that issue. He may be surprised to discover that I read his recent speech in which he made eight recommendations on how to take that work forward; indeed, I have also read a recent speech by the Foreign Secretary in which he laid out the Government’s proposals. All parties in the House are thinking the same thoughts about the importance of nuclear non-proliferation and how we must take it forward, particularly as we work with President Obama.

However, there is one aspect of that policy area on which the Liberal Democrats disagree with both the Conservatives and the Labour Government: their support for the renewal of our Trident nuclear deterrent. That was a premature decision taken ahead of the 2010 non-proliferation treaty review conference. Given the objectives and urgency of the matter that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks rightly discussed, that decision sent the wrong signal to the international community at a key point, when we want to change completely the nature of the debate. The British Government have led on a number of aspects of non-proliferation—particularly research and development into new verification technologies, in which we are partnering Norway and a non-governmental organisation, the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre, or VERTIC. That is all very well, but we have sent the wrong signal in respect of our own nuclear weapons, which means that we cannot influence the debate as we ought to.

The major foreign policy development in the next year will be the impact of the new Administration in America. Although we have yet to see the absolute detail of President Obama’s and Secretary of State Clinton’s approach, we all know the direction of travel. The Liberal Democrats will certainly welcome the significant change in the position of the White House on many issues. There will be welcome changes on climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, the economy, poverty and the threat from international terrorism, as well as on disease and pandemics, about which the new Administration are genuinely concerned. Britain and the European Union should seize those changes as a way of promoting real progress in the world. If we look at foreign policy by country, we see that the new Administration will have a much more enlightened and effective approach to Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan—as well as, hopefully, the middle east, although we have yet to see the colour of the new Administration’s money on that.

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I think that those sentiments will be shared across the House. However, having said that, I regret that as a country we are in a less strong position to influence the new Administration than we might otherwise have been. We failed to oppose the Iraq war and all too readily backed President Bush without public question about matters such as Iraq or Guantanamo Bay, when as candid friends of America we should have explained that he was going down the wrong path. The Democrat President-elect will have noted the British position on that and that Britain does not have the influence that it should within the European Union, whether that is due to the British Government’s position or to some of the stances taken by the Conservative party.

It is clear that the new Administration wish to engage with Europe. They are looking to Europe to do more on defence more generally, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and I believe that they would have liked Britain to have been in a better place to take our European partners with them; they will regret the fact that we are less influential. That is the problem of what we might call the Blair doctrine of “America, right or wrong”. That approach, taken by the previous Prime Minister, was absurd. It was absurd because America’s is not a homogenous political system; it has huge divides, almost down the middle, and it has had for some time. So when one has sided, almost ideologically, with one part of American public opinion, it is likely that when the leadership changes, the new Administration will not view that so favourably—not least when one has backed what President Obama has described as “a dumb war”. Although the new Administration offer a massive opportunity, this country will have to work particularly hard to redress the damage done to our influence in Washington and Brussels.

Let me be clear: the Liberal Democrats are enthusiastic supporters of the new President, partly because we share so many of his policies. Indeed, a BBC analysis suggested that President Obama’s platform was closest to ours, so we obviously welcome his arrival at the White House. We also support him because we think that he has the vision to reassert American leadership in the world in the best possible way—first, by sticking to American values and laws and dropping the more arrogant, unilateralist tendencies of his predecessor, and secondly, because we think that America can play a major part in building the wider international coalitions and co-operation that are needed to deal with the world’s challenges today.

We believe that Britain can be the best possible friend to the new President if we do three things: first, support him wholeheartedly when we believe that he is right; secondly, explain to him, as candid friends, when we think that he is wrong, if he turns out to be so on any issue; and thirdly, rebuild our influence in Europe so that we are better placed to persuade the other 26 nations of the European Union to back the US when the new President does the right thing for our world.

The Administration offer new hope, but President Obama and this country face the responsibility of clearing up the mess left by the previous Administration, and that point brings us immediately to Iraq. We welcome the unofficial news about the withdrawal. The Foreign Secretary seemed to deny that a leak had been involved, but, like the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, I think that the news seemed incredibly well sourced and
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it was covered in detail not only by the newspapers but by the good old BBC, which seemed as if it had been fully briefed. We welcome the news, but I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there should have been a full statement to the House.

The withdrawal is long overdue. As President Obama said during his campaign, one of the benefits of withdrawing early was that it would have put responsibility on the Iraqi Government to govern. For far too long, that Government have not been prepared fully to take that responsibility. It was almost as if the British and Americans were allowing the inaction of the Iraqi Government to make our troops hostage. That was not acceptable. We were almost allowing the actions of the Iraqi Government to persuade us to keep our troops there. The deployment of our troops over the past year or so has been a completely bungled affair. Keeping them in Basra airport with a few training expeditions meant that we managed to offend the Americans, who did not feel that we were completely engaged, so we lost a lot of influence with them in discussions with the Iraqis and beyond, which is detrimental to the interests of our troops. It also meant that we did not get the benefit of bringing our troops out, because we were having to pay for them to be there, and, because they were still deployed, the biggest problem that they face—namely, overstretch—was made worse. We got the worst of all possible deals for our troops and for our relationship with one of our closest allies.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having been consulted by President Obama when he drafted his policies with regard to Iraq. Is it not the case that the Liberal Democrats would still print on a postcard and send to al-Qaeda the date of British troops’ withdrawal from Iraq?

Mr. Davey: Sometimes one wishes that one had not given way. I will not bother to respond to that.

Although we welcome the announcement of the withdrawal and hope that we will get some more details on the record in this House, that prompts the question, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks said, of when we are going to get the long-discussed and long-hoped-for inquiry. Earlier this year, the Government said that they were in favour of it in principle, and in our exchanges with the Foreign Secretary we moved him some way towards trying to define when it can be held. So far, the line has been that it can be held when the troops have completed their mission. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) sought clarification of what that meant, but he did not get much. It clearly does not mean that every single member of our troops has to be withdrawn, but we still do not know what the level of draw-down needs to be. More information from Ministers, either now or at the end of the debate, would be very welcome. Like the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, we will be pursuing the Government until they announce the inquiry and wanting to know its terms. It must have a full remit to ensure that it covers all the remaining questions. There is no doubt that it should have been held several years ago, because memories and information sources degrade
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with the passage of time. That is very unfortunate, and it undermines the public benefit of the inquiry. Nevertheless, the case for it remains, and we hope that it will be announced as soon as possible.

I want to turn to the key issue of Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Pontypridd rightly talked about corruption and the fact that the rule of law does not exist in Afghanistan. He laid much of the blame for that at the door of President Karzai, and he may well be right. As he will know, my noble and right hon. Friend Lord Ashdown was due to go out there to play a role rather like that which he played in Bosnia, but his appointment was ultimately vetoed by President Karzai. We have both long suspected that that was because President Karzai did not want someone who was going to stand up for the rule of law and stand up to corrupt practices. I share much of the hon. Gentleman’s analysis.

One of the issues following President Obama’s inauguration on 20 January will be the demand for Britain and other NATO countries to send more troops. Like the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, Liberal Democrat Members support the case for a modest additional deployment of UK troops, but we want to be absolutely sure, like the military commentators, that there is not a one-for-one shift from our troops in Iraq to our troops in Afghanistan. Our forces are overstretched, and many of our troops are tired. They need more rest and recuperation; otherwise, long-term damage will be done to our abilities. We will support a modest increase in our deployment there, but the truth is that other countries need to take up their share of the burden. The Prime Minister rightly said, following the Queen’s Speech on 3 December, that the review in which Britain is participating focuses very much on that burden-sharing issue. It would be good if we could hear more about that when the Minister replies to the debate.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the problems is that there is no clear war aim in terms of the purpose of the troops in Afghanistan? There seems to be precious little political progress on negotiation with any elements of the Taliban, and the danger is that we are stuck in this war for decades to come with no obvious end in sight and proliferation of it into Pakistan.

Mr. Davey: I was about to come to the points that the hon. Gentleman raises. Although there is the review being undertaken by General Petraeus, in which the Prime Minister says that Britain is now involved, the first priority of the Government and President Obama seems to be to increase our troops. We are not against that, and there is clearly a need for it, but it would be totally wrong if that were where the policy ended. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) has argued that we need to go beyond that and talk to parts of the Taliban that can be engaged with. We need to consider setting up a regional contact group to bring in countries around Afghanistan so that they can play a more constructive role. It is to those points that I now wish to turn.

The truth is that a military solution will not work by itself; we all know that. The hon. Member for Pontypridd laid out all the reasons for that, and I would add a few more. The idea that NATO forces could stay there for 30 years is nonsense, not only because there would be
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no public support for it, but because the Afghans would not want it. Unfortunately, the popularity of the NATO forces is reducing as months go by, and the history of Afghanistan shows that if there are foreign troops on its soil, there will be a nationalistic urge to reject them. We should understand that, not least because of the three Anglo-Afghan wars in the 19th century.

The only other way for the international community to support law and order and to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is to support the Afghan army and the Afghan police, something on which the Foreign Secretary focused. That is being done, and we welcome the Government’s moves in that area, but how will the long-term costs of that process be managed? The cost of the Afghan army and police at full strength, as anticipated by the Americans, would be more than $2.5 billion a year. That would take up all the Afghan Government’s budget at the moment—indeed, more than that. Even given optimistic assumptions about Afghan growth and how much would flow into the exchequer in Kabul, many estimate that the Afghan Government would not be able to afford the cost of their own army and police force, even in 10 years’ time. The army and the police would eat up all the resources available to the Afghan Government.

We are left with the international community shouldering the burden—but how sustainable is that in the long term? Can we really expect the Afghan people to have real faith in the credibility and legitimacy of the Afghan army and police if they are funded by the international community for ever? That is not sustainable, so we have to look at other ways of reducing and ending this conflict, which means talking to different people on the other side, and considering a diplomatic solution in that region. I shall explain why that is critical to the future of our deployment in Afghanistan.

Many people in the Pakistan establishment, particularly the intelligence services, feel that the deployment in Afghanistan is a threat to Pakistan. They may be wrong about that—I think that they are wrong—but that is what they believe. The history of the thinking of Pakistan’s intelligence services shows that they have long been paranoid about India. Pakistan’s forces are deployed and structured to fight a war against an Indian invasion, and it sees many of the developments with US and NATO forces in Afghanistan as some sort of coalition with India. Although no one will necessarily publicly state that, there is quite a lot of evidence and academic work suggesting that it is the case. Unless we engage with those in the Pakistan leadership and say, “We’re on your side. You’re part of the regional contact group that will take some of the decisions on the way forward, and we will bring you in along with China, Russia and Iran”, and deal with their fears and suspicions to ensure that Pakistan is part of the decision-making process, which it clearly is not at the moment, we will not get a stable framework that will enable us to build peace over time without massive deployment of our troops or massive subsidy of Afghan troops. That is the only way forward in Afghanistan.

Both the Foreign Secretary and the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks talked about Iran at length—rightly, because it must be at the top of the list of other foreign policy challenges, and I agree with much of what was said. The new President of the United States is committed to much greater engagement and wants to talk to the
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authorities in Tehran, and that should be welcomed. It raises the question of how we tweak our existing sanctions policy if we are to embark on thorough engagement. We have long supported the sanctions regime, which has cross-party support, and we are concerned about other EU countries that do not back it. Italy, Greece and France seem to export an awful lot to Iran and I am concerned by trade figures, which show that Austria, Belgium and Germany are fast increasing their exports to Iran. Like the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, we condemn those EU countries for not playing their part in the sanctions.

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting speech. Is he as worried as I am about the export from a country such as Austria of specialist steels, which are manufactured in few other counties in the world but are useful to the nuclear enrichment programme in Iran?

Mr. Davey: I agree. I was in Israel recently and asked for a special briefing from the relevant people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about their concerns, and the issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned was one. They named a specific company about which they were concerned.

However, if we have a United States President who wants to engage with Tehran, what do we do about sanctions? First, are they working? Even if we had full EU support, much trade from China and Russia goes to Iran, and much of Iran’s support comes from those two countries. Secondly, I understand that the financial sanctions that we have discussed are widely dismissed in Tehran, partly because Iran sees the banking collapse in America and Europe and is pleased not to be part of that banking community and to have avoided suffering because of it. Iran feels that the sanctions slightly insulated it. We must consider whether we can make the sanctions better but also whether they are effective. If President Obama and his team intend genuinely to engage with the mullahs, how do we play the carrot-and-stick negotiations? How will he persuade them if he wants to increase sanctions? I put that as a debating point. If there is to be a change of approach in Washington, we may need to think about our position, too.

Concluding peace negotiations in the middle east will have massive ramifications, whether in Afghanistan, Iran or Pakistan. We all know the global implications—the global prize—of successfully concluding those negotiations. When I visited Israel recently, I also talked to Dr. Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority and his deputy Foreign Minister, Dr. Soboh, and heard their views of the peace negotiations. I was pleasantly surprised.

Both the Israelis and the Palestinians were incredibly optimistic about the current state of the negotiations. They said the same thing at different meetings, which I found reassuring. They have several messages to convey. First, they do not want outside interference in the bilateral negotiations, which are going well and are substantial. They ask for the space and time to conclude them. Secondly, they need the Arab countries to be more supportive of the Palestinian Authority and their attempts to conclude the peace negotiations—the Foreign Secretary said some good things about that recently. Sometimes, the Arab countries sit on the fence, some of them tacitly supporting Hamas and the extremist
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Palestinians. Frankly, that is not good enough. We now have an historic opportunity, but as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks said, if we do not seize it, it might pass into history. We join the Foreign Secretary in calling on Arab countries to put their shoulders to the wheel and publicly play their part, by backing the negotiations and backing what the Palestinian Authority are trying to do.

People need to understand more widely why there have not been more reports about the progress of the peace talks. The reason is that one of the key parameters that was agreed by both sides early on is that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That parameter means that progress reports cannot be issued, because no interim conclusions will be reached until the final conclusion is reached.

I would like also to mention the remarks that the Foreign Secretary made in response to my comments about settlements, which are critical to moving the process forward. I pay tribute to the Israeli Government and in particular the Israel defence forces on removing the settlers from the so-called house of peace in Hebron last week. When I visited Hebron, I stood just 20 or 30 yd from that so-called house of peace and saw the intimidation to which the Jewish settlers there were subjecting the Palestinian community. I saw a little Palestinian boy who claimed to have had his arm broken in a scuffle with the settlers. I saw the desecration of Muslim graves, which had been perpetrated by the Jewish settlers there. It was therefore good to see the IDF standing up to that intimidation and violence, and upholding the rule of law in Israel. That was an important development, because if we are to reach a final settlement, quite a number of settlers will have to be removed from their settlements in the currently occupied Palestinian territories.

Mr. Ancram: If I understood the hon. Gentleman correctly, he said that the “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” doctrine was a hindrance. May I remind him that we applied that doctrine in Northern Ireland? From my personal experience, I can tell him that had we not applied it, we would not have made the progress that we did.

Mr. Davey: I am glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has given me the opportunity to clarify that I do not believe that the doctrine is a hindrance to the negotiations. Rather, it is a hindrance to public support for the process and for the Palestinian Authority in particular. The problem now is that the Palestinian Authority are not being seen by the Palestinian people to be delivering very much. Indeed, the agreement at Annapolis on settlements has not been fulfilled by the Israelis. There was supposed to be a freeze on settlements, but they have in fact increased massively.

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