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In order to achieve that objective, there are two short to medium-term aims and a longer-term objective. The short to medium-term aims are: first, to prevent the Taliban from once again using Afghanistan as their own Government through imposition, by terror and force, on the people of Afghanistan; and, secondly, to prevent that shield from allowing al-Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a space in which it can plan, rehearse and launch terrorist attacks outside Afghanistan's borders. The longer-term strategic objective is, of course, to help
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build an Afghanistan capable of self-government domestically and of securing its borders from internal or external infiltration and threat. There have never been the heightened expectations to which several people in this Chamber have referred; nobody ever thought that we would create another United Kingdom somewhere next to Pakistan. I used to say that we do not believe that we are creating Hampshire-or New Hampshire-near Kabul. Any development on the civil, political and military side will have to bear in mind the culture, history, traditions, beliefs and limitations of Afghanistan's tribal society. So let us put that in perspective. It is right that we should be clear in our aims, but I do not believe that we have ever been that unclear that we thought we were creating a western democracy.

Secondly, there are some myths and misconceptions about resources. The initial configuration-

Mr. Jenkin: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

John Reid: I will do so once, but I am very limited in my time.

Mr. Jenkin: I have been listening carefully and seeking to hear from the right hon. Gentleman what the strategy is. What he has outlined is a series of aspirations, but as Professor Richard Holmes would put it, this campaign seems to be long on aspirations and rather short on coherent strategy-on how we are going to achieve those aims.

John Reid: I think that the hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. What I outlined, in slightly less than a minute and a half, was the strategic objective and the short and longer-term means of achieving it. I did precisely what he asked for; I did not give a list of aspirations; I gave a list of objectives, which is what a strategy is about. Beyond the grand strategy of politics is the military strategy of how to achieve it, and behind the military strategy are the planning assumptions and the resources necessary in order to achieve that.

That is why I turn now to resources. Let me tell the House that the configuration that we sent in to Helmand province in 2006 was not, contrary to some of the statements made in recent days, chosen by politicians. That configuration-that series of resources, in shape, capabilities and numbers-was decided upon by the chiefs of staff. Secondly, its funding was not refused by the Treasury. It was my job, as the then Secretary of State, to get it fully funded, and one of the three conditions that I laid down before we went into Afghanistan was precisely that the Treasury would fund it.

Having said that, since then there has, of course, been a change of tactics by the Taliban, a change of circumstances and a change in the mission itself, in some ways. So people are right to ask whether the current resources meet the current tasks, notwithstanding the fact that they have met the tasks in the past. We are right, therefore, to ask the Government to keep an open mind. No plan survives the first contact with the enemy, and as the enemy changes in response to our actions, and the resources we need are different or greater, it is the obligation of Government to supply the resources that the military thinks that it needs to accomplish the objectives set out. I hope that the Government will do that. I am not in a position to decide on what
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Sir Richard Dannatt or anyone else requested, but when we ask young men and women to risk their lives at the front, we should ensure that they have the resources to minimise those risks.

I wish to tackle another myth-that I at any stage hoped, predicted, expected, promised or pledged that we would leave Afghanistan without firing a shot. It is not true. No matter how often the press repeat that, they cannot make an untruth truthful by constant repetition-although Goebbels recognised that if an untruth were repeated often enough, people might come to believe that it was the truth. In fact, to the contrary, I insisted that were great threats in Afghanistan. Indeed, I refused to deploy the troops for four months beyond the original date because we did not have the configuration necessary-the Dutch were not in Oruzgan province to protect our northern flank.

I could give quotation after quotation, but I shall make a couple suffice. The other day I said:

But the Taliban wanted to destroy that which was being created and we were therefore forced to defend ourselves, which we did with great vigour.

I said three years ago that

Earlier, I had said:

I hope that the House will forgive me for raising these points. All hon. Members, as politicians, are used to being misrepresented, but it does not usually happen on a subject as sensitive as this, when there are families grieving for those who have died and who expect us to set the record straight.

If we do not understand the nature of the conflict, we will not understand whether we can win, what is the nature of "victory" and whether we are making progress. I commend to the House the thoughts of several British generals, but especially those of General Rupert Smith, who describes the nature of the present conflict as the "struggle among the people". That is what we are engaged in, and the nature of the victory therefore lies not in the traditional victory parade on a definite date with a definite piece of land secured, but in preventing the Taliban from enforcing their will on the Afghanistan people, by excluding al-Qaeda and by securing our country's safety. But it is a continuing struggle that will go on for a considerable time. Nevertheless, it is important that we believe that we need not be there indefinitely. Part of our aim in our strategic objectives is to allow the people of Afghanistan, through their own Government, to continue that struggle when we are gone-in the way that the people of Iraq are doing against the internal enemy.

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Military force has no utility on its own. It only has utility in pursuit of a political objective. So when we have a military surge-as we are having now, and I welcome that-we need to bear in mind that at some stage we will also need a political surge. If we are to achieve some form of stability in Afghanistan, that political surge means that we will have to deal with, talk to and perhaps incorporate among those who govern Afghanistan those tribal elements and those elements of the Taliban who are opposed to al-Qaeda. In other words, we must help to build a hybrid state there.

In short, there is no military solution. The military are there only to accomplish the political objectives that we have laid out. Our aim is to enable Afghanistan to continue on its own so that it can build a civil society and develop its own economy and security. Above all, we want a better society for the people of Afghanistan. In working for that, we can make sure that our front line in Afghanistan protects the people in our communities and country.

3.30 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): The right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) is right to say that the conflict in Afghanistan has changed over the past eight years. It is much more serious than was anticipated, and that has given rise to a degree of public concern. However, although we recognise that there are real problems in Afghanistan, it is important that we are careful to ensure that they are not presented in a way that makes public concern greater than it need be.

I think that the British public are pretty robust about Afghanistan. The situation is very different from the one in respect of Iraq. The nation was not divided about the intervention in Afghanistan, and questions of legitimacy have never been a serious issue. There was confusion at first, when the British and American Governments appeared to give equal weight to eliminating the poppy trade, getting rid of corruption and improving human rights as to the fundamental task of removing al-Qaeda's opportunity to operate. That problem was resolved a year or so ago, since when there has been much greater clarity. I very much welcome that, as it is much to be desired.

However, it is also important to recognise the public's attitude to fatalities. There is a debate about whether more helicopters might have reduced the number of deaths in Afghanistan. I very much agree with what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said a few moments ago, and we are foolish if we sometimes give the impression that people die in war because the Government of the day have made a mistake, or because the armed forces have done something wrong.

Wars today are not much changed from those in bygone years. Large numbers of people die, and we can never know whether an extra helicopter would have prevented an individual fatality. It is foolish even to try to identify the answer to such a question. We have had terrible fatalities in Afghanistan, and every life lost is appalling. Some 47 of our people have lost their lives in the current year, but it is worth remembering that the US forces-even with their massive resources, large numbers of helicopters and all the other facilities available to them-have lost 109 people.

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Since the campaign began, the UK has tragically lost 184 soldiers, but the US has lost 739. The Canadians, whose commitment is far smaller than ours, have lost no fewer than 124 troops. Our public are well aware of that, but we must remind them that people lose their lives when wars break out. People are rightly paying tribute to the awful loss of life that has happened, but they are much more robust than we sometimes give them credit for. They realise, as they did during the Falklands war, that death is inseparable from any serious war with proper ends and a proper approach.

Lord Owen said recently that he believed that the conduct of the war was inappropriate and that there was a need for what he called an "overlord". He suggested that Lord Robertson should be brought back to be the overlord for the various Departments involved in the conflict. I have great respect for Lord Owen. I usually agree with his remarks, but not on this occasion. Overlords have been tried before-Sir Thomas Inskip in the 1930s is one example-but they do not work. They do not have a Department to run, and they have no budget or powers, so all they can do is to try and co-ordinate what is going on. That never works. However, if we need an overlord we have one already. He is called the Prime Minister. If the job of co-ordination-of banging heads together-is needed, that is his responsibility and no one else's. It ought to be seen as such.

I turn now to the main ways in which the campaign has changed, and the issues that we are now addressing. The debate is about Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it is right that it has been given that double title because the whole purpose of the campaign has changed very dramatically. In the earlier years, we assumed that Pakistan was important because its north-west frontier could not be a safe haven for Taliban or al-Qaeda forces fleeing from Afghanistan. In some ways, it is now the other way around. If we were to fail in Afghanistan, and if the Taliban, or people like them, were to regain control, or if people sympathetic to al-Qaeda were to be in charge, not only would it have the most grave consequences within Afghanistan and for the wider community, but it would make the job of the Pakistani Government, who are now much more robust then they have been for many years, infinitely more difficult. How could they hope to eliminate the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda in their own country, if those very people could themselves seek haven in Afghanistan? That could be their retreat in depth from any conflict in which they were involved. So the stakes are very high and we should not forget that.

There is this question of manpower. I shall not get into a dispute about whether the British Army in Afghanistan needs 900 or 2,000 people more. In reality, the problem arises from a quite separate point: over the past 12 years, the Government have been involved in more wars-including in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan-than any Government for 50 years, and yet during that same period Army manpower has been consistently reduced. That is a disgrace and needs to be rectified. Increasing Army manpower costs much less than many other aspects of the defence budget, as I know from my background in that Department.

In his opening remarks, the Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood) made an attack on retired generals. Any of us who have been privileged to serve as Ministers in the Ministry of Defence know that retired
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generals are an albatross around our necks, whatever the circumstances and at any time. However, I cannot recall a time when these same retired generals have been so vocal, unequivocal, acerbic and unconstrained in their criticisms. All Governments, whether this Government or previous ones, must remember that retired generals continue to have the closest of contact with serving generals and officers. What they say does not just reflect their own personal views, but is based on what they know is happening in the armed forces, and therefore has to be given weight. That is a matter of great concern.

The final area on which I want to comment relates to what I have just said, but is actually even more serious. To a far greater extent than I can recall being the case in the past 60 years, there is a very visible erosion in the confidence and trust between serving officers and the Government of the day. We are told that senior Labour figures are attacking the Chief of the General Staff and telling him not to meddle in politics and such matters. This is a matter of the gravest and most serious nature. I have not the time to say who is to blame, but the Government must realise, because they ultimately have the responsibility, that if serving and retired officers are speaking so publicly, and with such criticism of Government action, they have an enormous duty to try to address those concerns. These are not light-hearted matters, and the public will keep confidence in the whole operation only if they believe that the armed forces and Her Majesty's Government are working with the closest confidence and mutual trust. The impression is that that is no longer the case. The quicker that that is addressed, the better.

3.38 pm

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): I want briefly to offer a slightly different perspective on this war, although I agree with a great deal of what has been said. Everyone recognises the courage and enormous skill demonstrated by our armed forces in fighting what is clearly a difficult and dangerous war in Afghanistan. I endorse that, as-I am sure-does every Member of this House, but I do not think that that should be allowed to conceal unease about the nature of the conflict or its objectives and exit strategy. I want to concentrate on that.

The conflict has been represented in the west almost exclusively as a war against terrorism, but I submit that that is a highly misleading portrayal. For the Taliban, who are not al-Qaeda, it is basically a civil war: the Pashtuns, who are the traditional rulers of Afghanistan, against the Tajiks and Uzbeks, who make up the Northern Alliance and who, with US help in 2001, won the civil war and now largely dominate the Government. That, of course, is exactly the problem. The US and NATO invasion has unintentionally and perversely reinstated a series of brutal and corrupt landlords-warlords, I should say; they are also in control of a great deal of land, but I meant warlords-under the phoney pretence that they are democratic. The US and NATO set up a western-backed Karzai Government, but that Government's writ runs for only a few miles outside Kabul.

As others have said, the invasion has driven the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership over the border into Pakistan, where, of course, it is now infinitely more dangerous. The invasion also restored the Pashtun
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nationalism that is now represented by the Taliban. As mission creep has detached the Afghan war from the original target of al-Qaeda, it has morphed into a much wider kind of war. It is a war of civilisations, in which the western aspirations, which everyone in this House will support, of restoring stability, ensuring a certain measure of democratic government-I think that we all recognise the limits of that-and improving basic services for the people are pitted against the indigenous nationalistic determination on the ground to rid the country of foreign occupation.

Two other factors seem to make western goals much more problematic. One is the increasing reliance, especially by the US military, on air power as a way of minimising troop casualties, with devastating consequences in terms of increased civilian blood-letting.

Paul Flynn: In answer to the question put by the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), about the answer that I had from the Foreign Secretary about the number of civilian casualties in 2008, as far as I recall, according to the British Government the number was 234, but according to the United Nations, the number is 864. However, it was also pointed out that the number of civilian casualties caused by the Taliban was 1,100.

Mr. Meacher: I take the points made by my hon. Friend. I was going to present some of those figures myself, but whatever the exact figures, the real point is about changing the perception of the Afghan population about western involvement in their country. The figures that I have are that civilian deaths at the hand of NATO forces have risen to more than 4,000 since 2006. In the past year alone, they have tripled to 2,000. I am not referring, of course, to those caused by UK troops; I understand that they are overwhelmingly caused by American troops, but the perception that they create affects the landscape for us.

Close air support bomb attacks, called in by ground forces, rose from about 175 in 2005 to nearly 3,000 in 2007. They are now, of course, the US tactic of choice, but they kill four to 10 times the number of Afghan civilians killed by ground attacks. Air strikes now account for around 80 per cent. of those killed by occupation forces, and it is certainly being claimed-I have no basis on which either to prove or to disprove this-that the coalition has killed more children in Afghanistan by its reckless use of tactical air power than have died at the hands of the Taliban. That is certainly being claimed; it may not be correct. Certainly, the numbers are considerable.

The second factor that I think makes western promotion of good governance much more difficult is the deeply unpopular 2005 agreement for indefinite bases in the country, which clearly indicated that the US, at least, saw itself as being in for the long haul. That was reinforced by NATO's Secretary-General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who said, I think last year, that western interests in Afghanistan went well beyond good governance to a strategic interest in having a permanent military presence in a state that borders central Asia, China, Iran and Pakistan. The insurgency in Afghanistan is aiming not for terror attacks in London, but for the removal of foreign troops from the occupation of their country.

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