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5 Feb 2009 : Column 1061

I believe that we are mistaking the view of the Afghan people. They were fed up with the Taliban and certainly welcomed us when we went in in 2001. However, the mood now is very different. What we are offering is eternal war—an American in the Pentagon told me that we would be there for generations. If that is the prospect for the Afghan people—either they bring the Taliban back or the Taliban take control, or there is a war in which Afghanistan loses 2,000 civilians a year as a result of bombing—they could move to the view that life might be more tolerable under the Taliban, so we are in a very weak position.

The great worry that we all have is about the extension of the war to Pakistan. Indeed, America is bombing sites in Pakistan now. The battle to win hearts and minds has gone terribly wrong. We should think back to the debate that we had in Westminster Hall in March 2006 and what all the parties to it said. There were interesting contributions from Opposition Members in that debate. As I said in an earlier intervention, at that time only seven British soldiers had died, mostly as a result of accidents.

The Government were warned that going in to Helmand province was like stirring up a hornets’ nest, because we were the Ferengi—the foreigners—against whom there would be jihad again. The view of many Afghans is that their sublime motive in life is to die in jihad, as their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers did. We are sending troops in as targets for people who are looking for their pathway to paradise. When we began our intervention, the hope was—this was said at the time and it cannot be unsaid—that we could go into Helmand province and stay there for three years without a shot being fired. We know now that 4 million shots have been fired, and we will be there possibly for 30-plus years if we continue with this foolishness.

I urge the Government to look again at what is happening. I urge them to take the intelligence of the new US President and General Petraeus, who are clearly subtle thinkers—we are not dealing with George Bush now—so that we can follow in the slipstream of Obama and his policies and look to a solution that is based on negotiation and doing deals. We cannot get rid of corruption. Corruption has been the lubricant of business and politics in Afghanistan for centuries and it will remain so. At the moment the corruption runs all the way up to the family of the President. There are a significant number of new millionaires in Afghanistan as a result of our presence and our spending there.

We have already spent far too much in Afghanistan, in blood and in treasure. We must look to the future. We cannot send our young men and women over there to die in vain in a war with impossible aims that cannot be achieved.

The message that should come from the Chamber today is that there should certainly be no surge. There should be no increase in the number of British troops there; it is madness to believe that that would make any difference. Russia had 100,000 troops there, and there were 150,000 Afghans under arms. The Russians lost 6,500 of their own troops. They were there for 10 years and spent billions of roubles, but they ran away when 300,000 mujaheddin surrounded Kabul. We must ensure that we do not get ourselves into that position.

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Dr. Blackman-Woods: Does my hon. Friend accept that the best way of ensuring that the lives of British and other soldiers will not be lost in Afghanistan is to work with the people who want to build a properly functioning state with a properly functioning police force and army, rather than simply to give up, walk out and leave the people of Afghanistan to deal with their enormous difficulties on their own?

Paul Flynn: The Foreign Secretary mentioned the police force, although I do not know whether it was in his original speech. He talked about a police force that was worth the name. The police force in Afghanistan is corrupt. Its officers are unpaid, and their only source of income is to put up roadblocks and collect tolls from the people going through. The situation is far worse now. I have been to some of the presentations given by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) when groups come over here. Of course, there are certain groups and individuals in Afghanistan who have done very well. They look forward to our staying there for a long time, because it is good for them. They have power that they never had before, and they are far more prosperous than they ever were. It is ironic to think that, for every British life lost in Afghanistan, there is almost certainly one additional millionaire in Kabul. That is not the way forward, and we must recognise the seriousness of the position and the hopelessness of the case. We are constantly in denial if we believe that there is a way forward and a solution waiting round the bend.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) fairly set out four aims, and said that none of them was attainable. He said that we were not going forward on any of them. Sadly, however, at the end of his speech, he bottled out and came up with an optimistic ending. I urge Opposition Members—many of whom have spent time in Afghanistan, including serving in the Army, and are very well informed—to make their voices heard to ensure that we do not go ahead with a disastrous military surge that would be answered with a vast surge by the Taliban. The bloodshed among our soldiers and among the civilians would only multiply.

4.42 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Listening to the thoughtful speech by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) and the splendid speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), I could not help but reflect on my own first ministerial visit to the region in 1982, when I was an Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. At that time, the Soviets were in occupation in Afghanistan. While in Peshawar, I visited an Afghan refugee camp. When the Afghan refugees heard that a British Minister was present, I was required to make a speech. I spoke to 10,000 Afghan refugees, with their rifles and bandoliers, and I said the kind of things that one would expect me to say. I said that we looked forward to their achieving their freedom, and to the day when the Soviet Union would return to its own country.

The speech was translated into Pashto, but what I did not realise was that it was then translated back into English for the English-language Peshawar Times that appeared the following day. When I read it, I saw remarks attributed to me that I did not exactly recall
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having said. It said that the visiting British Foreign Office Minister had called upon the Afghans to continue the jihad against the Soviet infidel. I was not so worried about what the Peshawar Times had said; my concern was that Mrs. Thatcher, back home, might get a report of it. On further reflection, however, I thought that if she did, she might think that the Foreign Office was not quite so wet as she had previously assumed.

Mr. MacShane: Surely that standard of reporting is far higher than politicians in this country get when we are reported in the Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and so on.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will be reported in the Peshawar Times tomorrow morning; I only hope his remarks will be reported more accurately than mine were.

Mr. Sarwar: Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Perhaps I could continue my remarks for the moment.

Of course, the British and western presence in Afghanistan is of a quite different order to the Soviet occupation, and it is important to remind ourselves why we went there. We did not go there to eradicate the poppy trade, to introduce democracy or to give women greater rights—entirely desirable though they be. They were no more the reasons why we went into Afghanistan than why we ever sent our troops into many other countries around the world. We went there because the Taliban Government had given sanctuary to al-Qaeda and had every intention at that time of continuing to do so.

This is crucial. Despite what the Foreign Secretary tried to suggest, the reality is that in the earlier years of the western presence in Afghanistan, as seen in all the speeches made by Ministers, both American and British, we appeared to be giving equal weight to nation building along with the eradication of the Taliban and the political control of the territory of Afghanistan. That was always a very foolish set of assumptions because nation building, although highly desirable, is a matter that will take at the very least a generation to achieve and it will certainly depend on cultural and social factors as it simply cannot be implemented by military means.

The risk that we followed by taking that approach was, until relatively recently, twofold. First, of course, it could not be achieved, so the consequence was failure. Secondly, we risked—as we still do—losing public support in this country and other NATO countries because we did not seem to be delivering the democracy, the freedom from corruption and the end of the poppy trade, which we claimed were our objectives. I noted that Robert Gates, the American Defence Secretary, said three weeks ago that

He acknowledged that America had changed its position, and I just wish that the Foreign Secretary and the than their Government would make a similar acknowledgement rather implying that they had said this all along, when that was not and has not been their position until relatively recently.

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If we are to see the continuing elimination of Afghanistan as a base for terrorist activity, we should first realise that we have already achieved that objective. For the year since NATO arrived in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has not been able to use that territory as a base for its vicious terrorist activities; and our objective should be entirely concentrated on how we ensure that that continues to be the case in the future.

Mr. Sarwar: Since the time when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in power and the mujaheddin were fighting against the Russians, who was it who found, funded and armed Osama bin Laden?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but it is not as good as he thinks it is. The fact remains that while the Soviet Union was in effective occupation of Afghanistan, the international community of course used whatever means were available to eliminate the Soviet presence from the country—and it succeeded. The fact that some of the individuals in the mujaheddin—some, not all—went on to become international terrorists is not a matter for which either the United States or anyone other than the individuals concerned can be blamed. I think that the hon. Gentleman would recognise that fact.

The objective is, as I have indicated, to maintain, not to achieve, a position whereby al-Qaeda is no longer able to operate from within Afghanistan. We know that the single greatest problem at the moment is that both al-Qaeda and the Taliban can take sanctuary in the frontier area—in the hills and caves on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The question is therefore how we can improve that situation and assess why it is proving so difficult. It is not a new problem.

I mentioned being in the country in 1982 and I remember going to the Pakistan part of the Khyber pass at that time. As I entered the area, there was a sign on the road which effectively said that the Pakistani Government would not accept responsibility for anything that happened more than 100 m off either side of the main road. There has been a long period of uncertainty and lack of effective control, but what has made it worse is that deep Pakistani neurosis that both India and Afghanistan are seeking the ultimate dismemberment of their country. That may be a grossly unfair accusation—it probably is a grossly unfair accusation—but Pakistan is, of course, an artificial state. I hope I will not be misunderstood in saying it, but it was a state created for a specific purpose at a specific time.

We know that, as has already been mentioned, Afghanistan has never, since 1948, recognised the Durand line as the legitimate international frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course that gives rise to elements within the Inter-Services Intelligence, within the armed forces in Pakistan and possibly within the Government who say, “Actually, we would rather have the Taliban than anyone else, because however evil the Taliban may be, they are not particularly nationalist in their ideology.” Nationalism is not what interests the Taliban; what interests them is Islam, of a particular mediaeval kind. From the Pakistani point of view, while all Afghan Governments have not been particularly useful to them, the Taliban were more acceptable—in the past, when they were in charge—because they did not seem terribly interested in frontier issues.

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Against that background, we—as NATO, and as the international community—are entitled to say to President Karzai, “Look, if you want us to continue helping you, you must do what is in your power to help the situation.” What is within the power of the Afghan Government is the resolution of the frontier problem between the two countries. If Karzai is not willing to do that, he must recognise that he cannot expect the kind of support that he would be entitled to expect otherwise.

Those are important issues, but let me comment on two other matters. Of course it is the case that, in many respects, President Karzai has proved to be a serious disappointment. He is thought to be corrupt, inadequate and unable to govern in an effective fashion. We constantly hear the question, “Should the international community dump Karzai because of his inadequacies?” We need only question give that a moment’s thought, however, to realise what a grossly improper suggestion it is. One of the arguments employed by the west—the international community—is that Karzai is the first elected President in Afghanistan’s history. How can we possibly be seen to be involved in seeking to remove him? That must remain a matter entirely for the Afghan people. They will decide in their own way—and let us hope that they have the means to express it in a proper way—that they will have either Karzai or some alternative President, if that is their wish.

Finally, I want to say something about the role of the Taliban. I said earlier that our objective in Afghanistan was not primarily to bring about democracy, the end of corruption or human rights, desirable though that is. Again, I do not wish to be misunderstood, but at the end of the day we do not mind who runs Afghanistan, including the Taliban, as long as they do not give support to al-Qaeda—as long as they do not provide a sanctuary for that or any similar terrorist organisation. I detest the Taliban as much as anyone because of what they believe in. I detest many organisations and peoples around the world with unacceptable views, but that is not a matter that need result in a military intervention in the country concerned.

Whether we deal with the Taliban depends on whether the Taliban as a whole, which is unlikely, or substantial elements within the Taliban, which is much more probable, either are prepared or may become prepared to negotiate with the Afghan Government either on a coalition or on something of that kind. Let me respond to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle by saying that the relevance of our military presence is that if we want to ensure, as I am sure my hon. Friend does, that al-Qaeda or other terrorists cannot use Afghanistan, it is highly desirable for us to involve at least a proportion of the Taliban in the political process if they are willing to co-operate in that objective. I do not consider it to be an unrealistic objective.

The reason why I shall be perfectly happy if we have more NATO troops in Afghanistan is that it will help to convince the Taliban that while we may not be able to achieve a complete military victory, nor can they. A political solution will therefore become increasingly attractive to a substantial proportion of the Taliban, and may then enable a political solution to be achieved which will help us to deliver our fundamental requirement: no terrorism ever again emanating from Afghanistan.

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4.54 pm

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), described in Lord Howe’s memoirs as a brilliant speaker without notes. We saw again today just how right that description was. It is also a pleasure to follow my fellow Mertonian, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell). I do not quite know why Merton college produces so many people with an interest in geopolitics, but there it is.

I will start by mentioning a date: on 25 June 2003, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, for the first time came to the Dispatch Box to pay tribute to a soldier who had fallen in the campaign in Afghanistan. Now, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have to go through that ritual every Wednesday. We understand that, but I wonder whether our fellow citizens and we as Members of Parliament will at some point say, “That’s enough.” I hope that the good people of Rotherham will continue to send me here to spend more years in Parliament, and I would like many a Wednesday to go by without such condolences having to be paid.

I make that point as a supporter of the decision of the Euro-Atlantic community and NATO to be present in Afghanistan. I do not get any sense that there is a strategy, however. There are tactical interventions and comments here and there. I heard Secretary Gates refer to the impossibility of making Afghanistan a Valhalla. I hope he was accurate in that because, of course, Valhalla is where dead heroes go to their final eternal rest—I am unsure to what extent some senior American politicians are educated in the classics nowadays.

I propose a non-aggression pact to the Front-Bench teams of all three main parties. Is it possible to have a fabulous discussion of “Hamlet” without mentioning the prince, or of “The Jungle Book” without referring to the elephants or tigers? If India is not mentioned in the context of how to solve this broad regional problem, we will never have a strategy, but merely tactical interventions.

It is easy to send our troops into foreign fields, but it is much more difficult to get them out. I remember hearing a Defence Secretary say, “Oh, the soldiers are only going to Afghanistan. They won’t do any shooting. They’ll only be there for a short time.” Then, not so long ago, I think it was one of the senior generals who said, “They could be there for 30 years.” I want to know this: what is our strategy? Does NATO have a strategy? Does the United States have a strategy? I do not seriously expect a full answer to this question tonight, but it must be posed.

With the arrival of a new President in America, we have an opportunity to set Afghanistan in a wider context. Afghanistan was the base where the planning and organisation was done for the killing of people in America, and it is part of the broader base—linked with Pakistan, I accept—whence the people came who killed the Londoners on 7 July 2005. That planning, recruitment, training and killing continues: even today, five people have been blown up at a hospital in Pakistan. I do not have the details, but I do not think that can be divorced from the fact that we face an ideological onslaught on our values.

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