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10 Dec 2008 : Column 608

Also, people in Afghanistan now have much greater access to health care. I visited a hospital in Lashkagar that was just awful, but there have been improvements in people’s access to health care, especially in the district centres. More children—including girls—are going to school, but that is still a battle in many cases. We all know what the Taliban do when they find out about such things.

In addition, I went to see some very important reconstruction projects in Lashkagar—another example of what is happening in Afghanistan now. Nothing is going to change things overnight but gradual progress is being made, despite the many challenges that we face in the country.

The key issue, of course, is security. The Afghans to whom I spoke said that security was their No. 1 priority. We have to do a lot of hard work to achieve it, and we cannot do that by ourselves. Our goal is to get the people in the Afghan army and police trained up so that they can work effectively to provide that security themselves. We are moving in the right direction, although quicker progress is being made with the army. I spoke to our service personnel who are working with the Afghan army, and they had much more praise for its capability, effectiveness and numbers than was the case 18 months or two years previously.

Sadly, corruption and a lack of ability remain major problems with the Afghan police. Even getting officers to stay at their posts is difficult, and it is clear that much more work needs to be done, as security will be very important in the future elections. It is essential that elections are held and that we can get people out to vote in them. That is a big task, and security is an important element that we have to get right.

Some people say that we could be in Afghanistan for 30 years, but I do not think that that is sustainable. In fact, if we have to keep up the present level of fighting for 30 years, we will have failed. We have to be realistic: we must look at what is achievable, and that brings us back to getting the Afghan people themselves to provide security and to putting in place all the elements of governance that will deliver it. We must also get all the members of NATO to play their part in that regard.

I do not want to repeat much of what has been said about Pakistan, but the country has always been key to the history of Afghanistan, as is shown by the events of the three Afghan wars. Interestingly, some commentators say that Britain got kicked out after those wars, but that is not entirely true. Russia was also kicked out, but the present situation is different. The Taliban have only minority support in Afghanistan, and the vast majority of people are opposed to them. That is the difference, and the key for us is to win and keep people’s confidence. In that way, we can ensure that they will support us in the job that we are doing, and not turn against us and give their support to the Taliban. That is a key priority for us.

Pakistan, too, is a very important area. Its Government have to do more about the borders and the tribal areas. I know that they are working on that, and a lot of time and effort are being spent on the issue, as we heard from the Foreign Secretary. It is a key area for us, and if things went wrong there, it would be a major problem.

I want to discuss Iran in the context of Afghanistan. We have heard a lot about Iran in the context of Iraq—about Iran supplying weapons and its involvement
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with the insurgents there—but it is also involved in the supply of weapons, or elements of weapons, such as improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan. Of course, we must maintain diplomatic relations and work at the diplomatic channels, but sometimes we are far too soft with Iran and should take a much stronger line. We have to work very hard on that, because Iran would have an influence in Afghanistan. There is work to be done in that respect.

Finally, our previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made an important, landmark speech almost two years ago on HMS Albion. He asked what sort of defence force our country wanted. He asked whether we wanted a defence force that could deliver hard power in the support of soft power globally—we live in a global world and are affected by what happens globally—or a home defence force that never came out unless we felt that our shores were threatened. The use of soft and hard power is key. We still need to debate that, and Tony Blair set out the parameters for such a debate in his very important speech. I strongly support what he said in it.

I finish on an important point: it is essential that we retain the support of the British people for what we are doing in missions such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have to get across why we are there, and the importance of the mission. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), the former Secretary of State for Defence, said that we need to hear Afghan voices saying why it is important for Britain and NATO to be there, and we need to say why it is in our national interests to be there. We have to work much harder on that, and on getting across to the British people why support for Afghanistan is so important to our future security and to the rest of the world.

4.37 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) had to say about Afghanistan, because like the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), he had ministerial experience of the issue. Obviously, it is well worth our learning from that experience.

The number of times that Afghanistan has been mentioned in the debate underlines the need to have a dedicated debate on that country in this Chamber, in which we could dedicate the whole of our remarks to the real problems there. I should like to say how very strongly I supported the speech by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). He has shown us a lead that I hope our party and the Government will follow. As he knows, the only point on which I disagree with him is that I do not think that we can play a leadership role—the role that I would like to see the British Government, and people such as him, play—in moving towards multinational disarmament while committing ourselves to renewing our Trident deterrent, not now but in 20 years’ time. That gives the wrong message. As my right hon. and learned Friend knows—we have debated the matter before in the Chamber—that is why I voted as I did in the debate on the renewal of Trident.

I want to talk about the fundamental shift that has taken place in the world in the past 10 years, and the way in which we need to reflect that in a substantial change in direction in foreign policy. When the cold war
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ended, the days of the big blocs disappeared. They were largely replaced by a unipolar world in which America had effective supremacy and dominance. It was the greatest military power that the world has ever seen, in relative terms. For 10 years, it exercised that power and, largely, we supported it in exercising it.

The world has moved on. In the past 10 years we have seen a network world come to the fore, with the emergence of China, the re-emergence of Russia, the building of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, and the emergence of Brazil in South America. It is a world in which hard power will have far less of a role to play, and soft power will become more and more important. In a network world, one cannot get one’s way by confrontation. The nature of a network world means that one has to get one’s way through persuasion and engagement. In the past five years, one of the failures of American foreign policy—and, I have to say, our foreign policy, as ours was so closely attached to it—was that we thought we could continue to exercise the sort of confrontational, isolationist policy that was so much part of the previous five years. We did not realise the effect that that would have.

If one looks at the region where I spend some time, the middle east, one sees the most extraordinary results of that policy of confrontation and isolation. One sees Syria being pushed closely into the arms of Iran, which the Syrians did not want. I saw the Syrian Foreign Minister two and a half years ago. His first question to me was, “Are you an isolator or an engager?” They wanted to engage with us but we were effectively shutting the door on them. If one shuts the door on someone on one side, they will walk out of the door on the other side. They did, and they got closer and closer to Iran.

I have seen even more unusual relationships created, with Sunni Hamas now effectively in combination with Shi’a Iran, which in the Islamic world is almost unthinkable, yet our isolation of Hamas, particularly after it won the election in 2006 in the Palestinian Authority, has forced it in that direction.

Today I want to look at the opportunity that I believe will arise with the catalyst of the election of President Obama when, without losing face, the west, America and Britain can begin to change the emphasis. The change of emphasis must be, as I say, from confrontation to engagement. I shall examine various aspects of that. We have spoken a great deal today about Iran and I shall not get involved in the arguments about how best we prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. I take the view that we may, in the end, not be able to do that, and we should equally be looking at how, through engagement, we can create a doctrine that will manage an increasing nuclear region.

It is certain that isolating Iran has not stopped it moving towards obtaining a nuclear weapon. It has turned from the door that we closed in the west of Iran and opened the door in the east, so that for all their protestations in the Security Council, China and Russia are still trading with and have close relationships with Iran.

I spend some time in the Gulf. There is another implication of the policy that we were pursuing. We were saying to our friends in the Gulf, “We hope you will join us in trying to create these restraints on Iran.” The Foreign Minister of one Gulf country said to me, “Hold on. It’s all very well for you to say that, but you
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and the Americans are here today. You won’t be here tomorrow or the day after, but Iran will always be there. If you expect us to take an antagonistic view of Iran and isolate it as you are trying to do, you are asking us to operate against our own interests.”

There is every reason why we should support President Obama’s initiative to reopen dialogue with Iran and, to use the words of the Foreign Secretary, use diplomacy to try and achieve the purpose that we want to achieve in Iran, and move away from the stick that has been waved, largely by the Americans and occasionally by us, which has ultimately operated against our interests and has had no effect on Iran at all.

The second area that I shall touch on is Afghanistan. Last year, in the equivalent debate, I described what we were doing in Afghanistan as pushing water uphill. I have tremendous respect for our armed forces. I think they are the best in the world and I have seen the enormous achievements that they have made in Afghanistan, but when one looks at what they are doing, every achievement that they make will be sustained only if they stay there. As we know, they are not going to stay there for ever, and when they leave, those achievements can be undone. One can push water uphill, but the moment one turns one’s back on it, it comes running down again.

I hope that in the review that is taking place in the United States Administration about what needs to be done now in Afghanistan, we will look closely at what we are asking our armed forces to do. I well remember two and a half years ago the then Defence Secretary telling us on behalf of the Government as we were about to deploy to Helmand that he hoped that not a shot would be fired. When we look back at that and at what has happened since then, we can see how badly we misjudged what we were getting into in that area of Afghanistan and how much we have asked of our troops, including the sacrifice of many of them in the process. Even if the Americans deploy more troops in Afghanistan, we must consider very carefully whether we should be doing the same thing.

Secondly, we should consider where we see our priorities within Afghanistan. When we went into the country just after the twin towers were brought down on 9/11, we had one major objective—to capture Kabul, because it was the centre of power within Afghanistan and because if we held Kabul, or a benign Afghan Government did, a reasonable degree of control could be exercised over the whole country; I do not believe that complete control could ever be exercised there. We took and held Kabul, and when I went there as shadow Foreign Secretary and shadow Defence Secretary, the British were very much engaged in providing security in the city.

When I originally went to Kabul, I was able to walk the streets; I went into bookshops and went shopping. The last time I went there I was in an armoured car all the time, wearing body armour. We have taken our eye off the ball. We should look again at securing Kabul and making it safe again, and then, if we have the opportunity, moving out bit by bit, through a hearts and minds exercise. That would provide the best chance of a reasonably and relatively secure Afghanistan in future. I hope that that point will be closely considered in the review—not only by us, but by the Americans. I talked about engagement, so I will say one more thing
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about this issue. I agree with those who say that at some moment we have to talk to the Taliban. The Taliban are not a uniform organisation; there is a whole province right in the centre of Afghanistan which is largely Taliban, and there cannot be an Afghanistan in the future that does not recognise that reality. At some moment, we have to start engaging the Taliban, and I hope that that will also be part of the review.

The last issue that I want to discuss is that of Israel-Palestine. I was pleased that the Queen’s Speech talked about a comprehensive settlement, because I do not believe that a deal on the two-state solution can be done only between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. That is for a good reason: part of that solution involves the creation of a secure Israel—and that depends not only on the Palestinians, but on the Lebanese and on the other Arab countries in the area. The settlement has to be comprehensive and include Syria as a key partner if the security needed by Israel as part of the settlement is to be provided.

It is absolutely right that, within the argument about the Israel-Palestine settlement, we begin to engage the countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia, which some years ago put forward a plan that I hope will now be adopted, and Syria. That should also include the elements within the Palestinian Authority which will have to be part of an ultimate settlement. We cannot have a viable Palestinian state that does not, to some degree, recognise the influence and existence of Hamas. At the last election, Hamas secured more than half the votes of the people in the Palestinian state. The idea that one can do a deal with Fatah and hope that it will last is fanciful.

We should be pushing the concept of a new body representative of all the Palestinians—not just Hamas and Fatah, but the prisoners and the people in the refugee camps. That body could negotiate with Israel, giving Israel the knowledge that if it comes to a settlement, that will include the whole Palestinian people and not just a faction of them. That means talking to people with whom we do not talk at the moment. It means talking to Hamas in the Palestinian Authority and to Hezbollah in Lebanon, because in the end it will be part of the necessary agreement to secure Israel’s northern border. Those parties are willing to talk, and I hope that our Government will begin to look closely at the need to engage them.

I learned in Northern Ireland that moving towards achieving a settlement can happen only if all those who will have to be part of it are included. We went through a very difficult few years in Northern Ireland. We began the dialogue with Sinn Fein-IRA, and it was very uncomfortable. However, we knew that if in the end we could not bring them in some form into the arrangement that we hoped would secure the future of Northern Ireland—and we hope that it has—we would be back where we had been not only for the previous 30 years, but for the previous 300. We can apply that lesson in other areas such as the middle east and Afghanistan. I hope that that is in the minds of the Government when they talk about a comprehensive peace settlement.

4.49 pm

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), with whom I have worked closely on one
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of the issues that I want to raise. During this debate it has been very good to see so much cross-party agreement, with Government and Opposition, and the two Opposition parties, agreeing on many things.

I will dwell for a minute on an issue that has not been raised—the growing power of China and our failure to make enough use of the Beijing Olympics to put pressure on China over Tibet. In view of the statement by the Foreign Secretary on 29 October, one could argue that our Government’s policy on Tibet had not changed, but we did not use that opportunity to clarify our policy. We missed a chance to impress on the Chinese Government some of the commitments for which we should have asked, such as that they undertake seriously to further the talks with envoys from the Dalai Lama, allow an independent delegation to visit Tibet to see what the conditions are in reality, allow full access by the foreign media to Tibet, stop the increased re-education of monks, and re-evaluate education in Tibet to bring in bilingual policies. Collectively, we will share the blame when things go very wrong in Tibet. We have allowed China, because of the nature of that country, to get away with some of the most appalling human rights abuses, yet at the same time to glory in the Olympics.

I want to deal with the situation in Zimbabwe. Over the past few weeks, the outbreak of cholera has brought that country into focus again. Zimbabwe is one of those subjects where there is a lot of publicity and noise, then for a while it goes quiet again. All that time it is as if things are happening, but we know that all that has happened is that the situation has got much worse for its people. Over the past few weeks, Mugabe’s agents have abducted members of the Movement for Democratic Change and representatives of civil society—people are disappearing day in, day out. I was talking to some people in Harare yesterday and in Bulawayo the day before, and I learned that the situation has become even more dire, with the breakdown of sanitation and water facilities. Now that the rains are beginning, raw sewage is getting right into the wells that people use for drinking and washing. We are facing a huge crisis there.

Despite that, some people in the Southern African Development Community countries are still putting faith in dialogue and a power-sharing deal. I believe that the MDC signed up to that deal in good faith. Let us not forget that the opposition in Zimbabwe has not resorted to violence. We are sending out a terribly bad signal to the world—that one cannot bring about the end of a dictator by peaceful means. Although the Opposition in Zimbabwe have used peaceful means, the international community has not come to their aid, and Mugabe is being allowed to stay on as President and carry on with business as usual.

Some strong comments have been made in the past week or two, particularly in the past few days. On Monday, President Sarkozy of France, who is EU President, said:

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