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In the past few years, however, that whole process has stalled dramatically. There is no evidence of any further impetus with regard to the United States and Russia, who between them have 95 per cent. of all the nuclear weapons in the world. That is becoming an increasingly serious matter because the continuation of the non-proliferation treaty, which comes up for debate in 2010, can no longer be taken for granted. Not only have we seen serious new proliferation in recent years, such as in Israel, India and Pakistan, but now there is the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons as well; the North
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Korea situation is not yet resolved, and we know that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, it would only be a matter of time before the Arab states did so as well.

There is, therefore, a serious new urgency, and the arguments that were valid during the cold war are no longer valid in the same way. The countries that had nuclear weapons during the cold war were overwhelmingly the great powers involved in that cold war, and they needed nuclear weapons because of the perceived conventional superiority of the Soviet Union and the need to prevent any war—conventional or nuclear—from breaking out.

Because they have 95 per cent. of all nuclear weapons, the key to progress lies with the United States and Russia. If they were both able to make massive further reductions in their nuclear arsenals, they would know they could do so without any change in the relative power of the two states and their ability to deter any possible attack on themselves. Even if we believe in deterrence, we do not need 5,000 nuclear weapons to prevent an attack by our enemy; 500 would clearly destroy the world several times over. There is, therefore, no logical argument of defence why the Russians and the Americans cannot now approach a further stage in these negotiations by at the very least reducing their nuclear arsenals to 500 or 400, or even 200 or 300, without any change in fundamental defence strategy.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not think it would be helpful if the US were to stop the whole national missile defence programme as something that is seen as antagonistic towards Russia—and as something that promotes the industrial and military interests in Russia?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I think both that the United States has been premature in giving such emphasis to a ballistic missile programme long before there is any real threat of the kind suggested and that the Russians have grossly overreacted to some unarmed missile defence systems that might be placed in the Czech Republic and Poland. Therefore, I think both countries have to look at this afresh and try to move forward in a more sensible way.

To return to my theme, if the Americans and Russians were able to make such major progress, that would itself send a massive signal to the NPT negotiations and help to ensure a continuation of that treaty. In addition, it would very greatly strengthen future President Obama in dealing with the Iranian threat. If he is able to demonstrate to the world not only that the United States is making massive reductions in its nuclear arsenal, but that he is prepared to negotiate—as he has said he is—with the Iranians on a resolution to the problems they face, either the Iranians will respond positively or if they fail to do so President Obama would be able to expect, and would receive, much greater international support for any tough measures that might then be needed against the Iranians. Therefore, no loss would be involved in the American position; instead it could be enormously enhanced.

The second half of this debate is about not only a reduction in nuclear arsenals, which would ultimately have to include the United Kingdom, China, France and other nuclear powers, but whether it is possible actually to contemplate their elimination. That is, of
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course, a very difficult issue, because there is a crucial difference between a country reducing the number of nuclear weapons it has to 150, 100 or even 50 and removing them completely. If a country has even five or 10 nuclear weapons and its opponent has the same, the relative position between the two countries remains the same. Compared with a country that does not have nuclear weapons, a country with five or 10 weapons is enormously powerful in a way that the other is not; in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Bringing the amount of weapons down to a very small number will not be easy, but going to zero will be infinitely more challenging. That does not mean that it cannot be done, because we have been enormously successful in, effectively, abolishing chemical weapons, and that is a very encouraging precedent. To be able to contemplate achieving a reduction to zero, there must be a huge improvement in the verification and transparency regimes, not only for the weapon states themselves, but for civil nuclear programmes. That is because the fissile material in such programmes is also relevant to the potential production of enriched uranium or plutonium for nuclear weapons. We would also need to be confident that the verification and control systems would prevent the fissile material from getting to terrorist organisations, because those would be the people who could wreak enormous damage on the wider world.

That is the basis on which we would have to address this issue, but there is a second aspect to it. One of the arguments that many, including myself, have used over the years, and which needs to be addressed if we are ever to contemplate the elimination of nuclear weapons, is that our eliminating them—assuming that we can do that—might, in practice, make conventional war more likely. Might it not be argued that nuclear weapons have helped to prevent conventional wars from breaking out? That was a powerful argument during the cold war; indeed, in one of his last speeches as Prime Minister, Winston Churchill said that

Those are very powerful words.

Even in recent years, there is at least an argument to be made that India and Pakistan are now much less likely to renew the conventional wars that they have had several times in the past 30 or 40 years, because both are now nuclear powers and they know that a conventional conflict might lead to a nuclear exchange. So this is not a foolish argument and we cannot simply dismiss it lightly. However, although the argument is valid, it is becoming progressively less so; indeed, it is becoming outweighed by other factors.

The crucial argument that was relevant during the cold war was that if a conventional war ever broke out between the Soviet Union and the NATO powers, it would, in effect, be a third world war. It would not just be a local conflict; it would be a global conflict of dimensions comparable with both the first and second world war. There is no prospect of a global conflict of that kind in the foreseeable future. The great powers have not the remotest intention of going to war with each other, and there is no fundamental issue that might
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even lead towards that in the foreseeable future. The wars that we are trying to avoid are essentially local conflicts in various parts of the world. That is still a serious matter, but one cannot use the argument that we must therefore have nuclear weapons in those countries, because the logic would then apply to 180 countries around the world, and that would result in an unsustainable situation.

In any event, even if the India and Pakistan situation in respect of the outbreak of conventional conflict has, in some way, been assisted by the fact that they are now both nuclear weapon states, that must be set against the downside that flows from what has been happening in recent years. The proliferation of nuclear weapons states has increased alarmingly, is increasing and, if we are not careful, will continue increasing so that it will encompass many more states around the world. We are talking not only about nuclear weapons states, but about the fissile material that is available, because when that fissile material is available and people such as A. Q. Khan in Pakistan are prepared to sell information to rogue states, the risks of that information getting into the hands of terrorist organisations become far more serious.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): The right hon. and learned Gentleman is obviously well versed in these issues. He mentioned the ambitious challenge for President-elect Obama in trying to reduce weapons in the US. Does he share the concerns that that challenge may not be achievable, given that there are elements in the US that do not want it to happen? One recalls what happened when President Kennedy tried something similar.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: President-elect Obama will start with far greater authority than any other recent American President. If he is determined, a massive reduction in American and Russian arsenals can be achieved, at the very least because there is a mutual interest for both countries in achieving that. Going beyond that will require a degree of leadership, and we will have to see.

I have reached the following conclusions on the issues that I have mentioned. First, whatever people’s views on nuclear weapons, there can be no credible, logical or rational reason why we cannot massively reduce the number of nuclear weapons from the 27,000 around the world—mostly in the US and Russia—to a tiny number, even if the deterrent argument still holds sway. Personally, I believe a deterrent is necessary unless we can achieve multilateral disarmament.

Secondly, only by making major progress in that direction can we be sure of the continuation of the non-proliferation treaty. If we are having such problems with proliferation when the treaty exists, one can imagine how disastrous it would be it if fell and was not renewed. Thirdly, the progress that has to be made cannot be unilateral. It is no use asking for gestures from individual countries. At the very least that will do no good, and it may do a lot of harm. Multilateral disarmament is the best hope for progress.

Fourthly, major enhancement of the verification and transparency regimes is needed, even though they are already quite sophisticated. With the advances in modern technology, the verification that will be available over the next few years will be of a much higher order. My
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final point is that we are not talking about these things happening in a year, or two years or five years. If we are to make the kind of progress required, it will be 10 to 20 years before we get down to low levels. It is only at that stage that we will be able to reach the final decision about whether it is acceptable to go from very small numbers of nuclear weapons to the actual elimination of this class of weapons, as we did with chemical weapons. It may be possible, or it may prove to be too difficult. It is not a decision that we have to reach now, and the mere attempt to move in that direction will undoubtedly be beneficial. In any scenario, having far fewer nuclear weapons than currently exist is infinitely preferable to the status quo, not least because it reduces the prospect of accidental conflict as well as removing large amounts of fissile material from the world.

These are fundamental issues that do not depend on whether we are right wing or left wing, Labour or Conservative. They affect every human being for the most obvious of reasons. Victor Hugo once remarked:

The Global Zero concept is an idea whose time has come, and if it can help to stop the march of mighty armies, that is an objective worth achieving.

4.23 pm

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): I wish to make most of my remarks on Afghanistan, but I must first say that I have been privileged to work with our outstanding armed forces, their families and the veterans in my two years as a Defence Minister. They are the best armed forces in the world and their courage is tremendous. That was typified in the regular visits that I made to Selly Oak and Headley Court to see our wounded service personnel, who displayed great stoicism in the face of severe battlefield wounds and injuries. Their families also give them great support. I wish to place on record my appreciation and admiration of their amazing courage. One of the great successes recently has been Defence Medical Services, which has saved lives and limbs that might not have been saved in the past. Its work extends from the battlefield medics in Iraq and Afghanistan to the amazing hospital at Selly Oak, the rehabilitation centre at Headley Court and facilities elsewhere.

I genuinely believe that in the past few years we have seen improvements in our armed forces’ equipment and in the welfare support that they, their families and veterans have been given, too. I know that because that is what they tell me. Of course, there is always more to do, but if we listened to the press, we would think that nothing had been done for years when in fact significant improvements have been made.

Before I talk about Afghanistan, I want briefly to refer to Iraq. I know from talking to our service personnel there that they often feel that they are somewhat ignored because of what has gone on in Afghanistan as well as because of the intended draw-down from Iraq. I was last in Iraq in August and went to visit the MITTs—the military transition teams—that provide mentoring and training and are embedded in the middle of Basra. I saw a number of their teams. Our service personnel were working there in over 50° heat and were doing quite an amazing job in training and mentoring the Iraqi forces.

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The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) said that the troops were all stuck in Basra air station. That might have been the case in March, before Operation Charge of the Knights, but when I went in August there was a great sense of achievement and that something practical had been done to bring about improvements. There was a massive improvement between Operation Charge of the Knights in March and my last visit in August. Everyone can see the turnaround and improvements that have taken place, particularly with the Iraqi army. There is still more work to be done with the Iraqi police, but even now great work is being done. Commerce and trade are returning and so on.

We will not know, of course, for a number of years how successful we have been in Iraq, but I believe that Iraq will prove to be a success. Lots of people want to rush to rash judgments now, but history will bear out our achievements, not least those of our armed forces.

I want specifically to major on the subject of Afghanistan because I am increasingly concerned about the amount of commentary that seems to be questioning our role there and whether we should be in the country. Some commentators are calling for us to leave, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) pointed out earlier, I believe that would be a disaster. Support among British people in the opinion polls seems quite low, too, and we have a responsibility to argue the case for why we are there and about the national and international importance of our presence.

It is always worth repeating the importance of our presence to support the democratically elected Government in Afghanistan and the construction that needs to take place not only to support that democracy but to bring about improvements for ordinary Afghan people. Not only do we need to prevent it from being a safe haven for al-Qaeda and for terrorism in general, but we need to deal with the issue of drugs.

On drugs, I do not think that eradication, in itself, is the solution. I believe that we can provide people in Afghanistan with alternative livings, but the problem then is whether they can get their goods to market. The corruption in the country means that they have bits taken from them at every stage along the line on the way to market. When I went to Afghanistan, the Afghans told me that they could grow alternative crops instead of poppies, but that getting those crops to market to sell them is a big issue for them. That is where security comes into play, which I shall talk about a little more later.

There is no doubt, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd made clear, that the country is riddled with corruption. The problem is historic. It did not just arise with the election of a democratic Government—it is part of that society. When democratically elected representatives and the governors participate in that corruption, that is a scandal. It has a corrosive effect that can undermine the whole purpose of why we are in Afghanistan and the work that is being done there.

It is right to concentrate on the fact that we have a democratic Government in Afghanistan, which is a major step forward, for all its warts. We must support that. We must reiterate to the British people why we are in Afghanistan, why we support the democratically elected Government and why it is important to Britain
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for us to be there. We need to keep doing that, and we clearly have not been communicating that as well as we could.

I think everyone accepts—it amazes me when commentators mention it—that there is not a military solution. I have not heard anyone from the Government or from any other Government say that there is such a solution, and it is beyond me why commentators keep repeating that assertion. It is a given that there is no military solution and that the solution has to be that the democratic Government, civilian authorities and organisations and all parts of governance come together to support the construction of Afghanistan.

I also want to refer to our NATO allies. In my two years in the job, I was frustrated by the lack of support from some of those allies and their behaviour in terms of providing fighting troops, helicopters and support, given what we are doing and the fact that we are losing lives on a regular basis. Great frustration has been expressed in the House about our allies on a number of occasions, but the fact is that we must pile on the pressure to ensure that our allies do more. If NATO or the UN are serious about achieving things in countries like Afghanistan, they must make sacrifices and provide their share of support. I believe strongly that that is the only way that we can achieve things for the good of the world generally.

I turn now to the question of governance, which I think is another misnomer. The perception in some quarters is that we will be able to build local government and judicial systems like the ones that we have in the UK. That is not going to happen in Afghanistan—at least not for many years, or in my lifetime. The Afghan people have a traditional way of doing things, and we must tailor the system of governance that we develop to that.

For instance, the governance system that we develop might be based around each provincial governor, and the judicial system that we construct might reflect the demands of people in the different areas, but what is certain is that we will not end up with the same system that we in Great Britain or the western world have. However, the types of judicial and governance systems that we deliver must enjoy the confidence of the Afghan people. Our job is to work with them to achieve that, but I do not believe that we can build a western-style system. Quite frankly, that is not achievable.

There have been many achievements in Afghanistan that often get overlooked, and No. 1 among them is the provincial reconstruction teams. I first went out to Afghanistan in February 2007: I thought then that the collaboration between the Government and senior staff was not very good, and I made my concerns known in the right quarters. However, there had been a major improvement when I last visited in August.

I visited 16th Air Assault Brigade, and met Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, and found that the way that they had embedded in the PRT team was a major step forward. At last, I got a real sense of things progressing and of people working together. I am not claiming that things are now perfect, that there are no problems and that further improvements are not needed, but it was clear that there had been a major change in the time since my first visit.

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