Previous Section Index Home Page

16 July 2009 : Column 518

Given those factors, what is the exit strategy-if, indeed, the Americans intend there to be one at all? The war is stuck in a bloody stalemate. US and UK troops obviously have the ability to clear the ground, as they are showing with Operation Panther's Claw in northern Helmand, but they are increasingly vulnerable to a high kill and casualty rate from improvised explosive devices-from booby traps, roadside bombs and so on. On the other side, the Taliban, according to constant western military reports, have a stiffened and highly organised determination to resist, but they are vulnerable to air power, particularly helicopter gunships.

Both sides will seek to overcome those difficulties, and to some extent they are, while consolidating their strengths. NATO forces are becoming more adept at locating hidden bombs, and troop numbers are being significantly boosted, with 17,000 in the case of the Americans, which is a 50 per cent. increase. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said, the Taliban will certainly be trying to gain access to effective surface-to-air missiles, which, we should remember, turned the war against the Soviet forces in the 1980s and could do the same against NATO.

There is no obvious way out of the stalemate, other than by pouring in 10 or 20 times the number of NATO-for that, one reads US-troops, and that is surely unimaginable in terms of domestic US politics. Even 500,000 troops in Vietnam could not defeat a determined enemy, dedicated to throwing out its foreign occupiers. This is not now primarily a war against terror, and, even in so far as it is, the terror networks have been transferred into safe havens in Pakistan, the sixth largest state in the world and nuclear-armed, where their potential for destabilisation is certainly much greater.

Where is the situation leading? The strategic importance of Afghanistan does not suggest an early US withdrawal, and the US and its allies can neither pacify Afghanistan long-term, nor seal the border with the Taliban's Pakistani sanctuary. There will have to be a negotiated withdrawal-certainly not immediately and certainly not in a hurry, but as part of a wider political and regional settlement underpinned by other forces in the region.

3.48 pm

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): I fully supported the original intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, and the attack on the Tora Bora mountains, although it was not fully successful. However, since we went back in 2003, I have had great misgivings about the possibility of success. It seemed to me that the objectives that were announced would require a vastly greater commitment of troops, helicopters and back-up than Britain was capable of providing, and that the whole operation would break down because of the inadequate use of force.

Furthermore, it has to be borne in mind that the most important event in the history of Islam was when the Prophet Mohammed drove out the foreigners from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. That is the inspiration for Osama bin Laden and the theological basis of his appeal to Muslims throughout the world. One will not find any well brought up six-year-old Muslim child who does not know that story, and it absolutely chimes with
16 July 2009 : Column 519
the basic feelings of people who live in Afghanistan. They, for centuries, have been invaded by foreigners. They have an absolute detestation of foreign intervention; the more troops we put into Afghanistan, the greater the resistance to us will be. Years ago, when these debates were beginning, I made two points. The first was that 300,000 troops would not be sufficient to do the job and the other was that the more troops we put in, the more it would be like throwing kerosene on to a burning tent. I believe that that remains true today.

I want to deal with only very few points during the short time that I have to speak. The original objectives have virtually been abandoned; they were to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, get rid of the poppy trade, overthrow the Taliban and set up a democratic Government. None of them has been achieved, and I do not believe that any ever will be. In fact, Osama bin Laden is probably more of a danger dead than alive, because of his mystique.

I want to question two particular points. Basically, the new objectives are that we want to fight in Afghanistan to avoid terrorism in Britain and the method of achieving that in the medium and long term is the building up of a large Afghan army. The issue is vital for the future, so I ask Ministers to ask themselves a question: to whom do they think this large Afghan army will owe its allegiance? Afghanistan, which is the size of France, is not really a country at all; until the early 19th century, it was just called the area in which the Afghans lived. There is really no such thing as an Afghan. Afghanistan has 60 different tribes. The northern tribes in the Northern Alliance-the Uzbeks, the Tajiks and so on-are quite different from the Pashtun, who were called the Pathans when I was young.

There is no possibility of such tribes working together for any length of time. If the army is to be predominantly Pashtun, it will be disliked by all the other tribes; if the army is an attempt to merge all the tribes together, it will simply be unworkable. The arms that we give the army will all be sold to the Taliban, as happened with the mujaheddin. Much of the weaponry that the Taliban are using now comes from the $25 billion of arms that the Americans poured into the mujaheddin.

In my view, there is not the slightest possibility that the army will be loyal to President Karzai. The idea that our young men are fighting and dying so that President Karzai can remain President of Afghanistan is absolutely fantastic. Only a few weeks ago, Washington was desperately looking around to find somebody other than Karzai to be put up for the presidency. He is a completely hopeless and discredited man. If he goes back to the presidential palace in Kabul, he will not be able to come out again without immediate danger of assassination.

The other argument is that we have to go on with our campaign because of the danger of terrorism at home. I do not believe that that is true. First, Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, said recently that our military presence in Afghanistan actually increased the danger of terrorist activity in this country. We also know from the security services that 2,000 people living in Britain are under constant surveillance because they are believed to be potential terrorists. We are exporting terrorists all over the world; it is one of our most effective export trades. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have always been totally different from each other. The Taliban have never had international ambitions and have always disliked al-Qaeda.
16 July 2009 : Column 520
All the evidence is that al-Qaeda has now left Afghanistan altogether. There is no reason at all why we cannot negotiate a settlement with the Taliban; indeed, we know that the Americans are trying to do exactly that.

It is completely false to say that we have to pursue the war to protect Pakistan. I have been saying for seven years that this war would have the effect of radicalising Pakistan. The Taliban had no influence in Pakistan until very recently; now, allegedly, even Karachi has a Taliban influence. That sounds rather like sending in the Salvation Army to run Sodom and Gomorrah. The Taliban running Karachi is simply not going to happen; anybody who has been to Karachi knows that the Taliban will not be welcomed there. However, the Taliban are radicalising the peasantry throughout Pakistan, which has a huge population of illiterate, very poor people who have never had a proper Government and are very unhappy. Having foreign troops attacking Waziristan and so on will merely make them increasingly radical and increasingly violently opposed to western interests.

3.56 pm

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): I, too, express my condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan.

As always in these debates, I say that we have the best armed forces in the world who deserve all our support and the best possible equipment to ensure that they can continue to do the job in the way they do. War and conflict are not risk-free. There have clearly been areas where we could have done things better and perhaps learned lessons more quickly, but that has been the case in warfare and conflict throughout history. The key thing is to learn our lessons quickly.

Having spoken to our armed forces when I visited Afghanistan and Iraq, I sincerely believe that they feel they are better equipped than they have ever been. The personal kit, in particular, is seen as the best they have had, and there have been significant improvements in other equipment. One of their complaints was that although the equipment had improved a lot, they did not have a chance to train with it when they were back in the UK because they had to rush out to theatre. That is an important point to understand. Of course there is always more that we can do.

Something that has not been mentioned so far is the massive improvement in medical support. All the personnel I spoke to in theatre said that they had great confidence in the medical support that was out there in terms of how quickly it could get to people. There is now the hard-roofed hospital at Camp Bastion, which I have visited; it is a great facility that is being used by the Americans and others. When people come back to the UK, they go to Selly Oak or Headley Court. Major improvements have taken place under this Government.

I will not go over our objectives again, as my Front-Bench colleagues have made them fairly clear. A crucial aspect is the position of Pakistan-how it is involved, how we work with it, and its relationship with the whole region, not least Afghanistan. NATO, the UN and others will have to support and work with Pakistan to deal with terrorism, the Taliban and those who want to see chaos and war around the region. The fundamental Islamists who cause so many of the problems and difficulties that we face must be stood up to, and we cannot do that just by non-military means.

16 July 2009 : Column 521

The Afghans told me that, for them, security is key-whether it is the security to go to school, to go to work or to get their goods to market-as is personal safety. That is something that we are working on very strongly. Also key is the development of the Afghan army and police, with increases in their numbers. A great deal of improvement has taken place in the Afghan army, but much more needs to be done as regards the police. At the end of the day, there will have to be reconciliation with elements of the Taliban and the tribes that are fighting against the coalition forces. That will have to be done by the Afghans themselves; it cannot be done by us, nor should it be.

Returning to the issue of equipment, it is important to understand that this is a NATO operation: a coalition. We have heard about General Dannatt flying in the American army helicopter; well, Americans fly in our helicopters. I flew in a Dutch helicopter when I was in Afghanistan for the first time. We must ensure that NATO uses its own resources to the best possible extent and efficiency.

I do not believe there is any doubt that we need more helicopters, and I welcome what the Government have said about the increased helicopter numbers and hours and our future plans. One thing that often gets overlooked is that helicopters are not just about deploying troops but about CASEVAC-casualty evacuation. They are about getting wounded service personnel back from the front line and to hospital for treatment as quickly as possible.

All the commanders I spoke to when I went to Afghanistan said that they wanted more helicopters. That was very clear and matter of fact. They regularly raised with me the fact that on every occasion they could go in and defeat the Taliban, but then because there were not enough troops on the ground, or sometimes enough equipment, to be able to dominate the area, the Taliban would come back in. Again, it was for NATO, not just this country, to get to grips with that. One of the biggest mistakes that was made was not dominating the ground that we took, and NATO has a responsibility for that, because we increased our troop numbers considerably.

I cannot say whether lives would have been saved if we had had more helicopters, as some have suggested. One of them could have been brought down and we could have lost a lot of soldiers-more than if an armoured vehicle was blown up, for instance. It is important to understand that it is not an exact science, and we cannot say that more helicopters would definitely have saved lives. Again, the question is whether NATO can provide more helicopters and more support.

We have increased troop numbers, and it is important that our troops dominate the ground to ensure that the development that we all want to see takes place. It annoys me that today commentators are still saying that the solution will not be a military one. No one is saying that it will, and I am amazed that commentators still go on about that. However, it must be a military aim to enable development to take place in terms of schools, hospitals, agriculture and so on for the Afghans.

I do not want the fact that protected vehicles are crucial to be lost in the debate about helicopters. The press are currently into helicopters, but we do not want
16 July 2009 : Column 522
money to be diverted from protected vehicles. There has to be a balance. Surveillance equipment is key for detecting roadside bombs and surveilling areas where the Taliban are known to be active. There must be a balance. The tactics must be right, and we must have a number of options available to us.

Lessons must always be learned quickly, and there is evidence that at times we have not done so. I do not know whether that is because of circumstances in the field or because of the set-up of the Ministry of Defence, but we have to learn lessons quickly. That has always been the case in warfare. In the second world war we were putting Sherman tanks against German tanks, and they were no match for them despite all the years at war. We must always learn lessons and ensure that we get things right and protect our troops in the best possible way.

The decision to go in was taken in 2006, before I was at the MOD. I would be interested to know what advice Ministers were given by the chiefs of staff about what could be achieved with the forces and equipment we had at that time, so that we could deliver our political aims and those of the western alliance.

In the end, we must support our armed forces, who are the best in the world. Politicians fail, as we know, and we have to revert to military action at times. The military are the people who protect our security, whether at home or abroad, and they deserve our full support.

4.3 pm

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): The hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) spoke approvingly of the quality of medical services now available. Those who have the privilege of going to the hospital at Selly Oak or the rehabilitation centre at Headley Court will see ample evidence of that medical skill, but they will also see extraordinary illustrations of courage and a determination to overcome adversity from the patients in either institution.

We have no conscripts. Our armed forces are professional, and we therefore expect of them professionalism, skill and courage. However, we have no right to expect them to display those qualities unless, in return, we give them the best equipment available. We have no right to expose them to unnecessary risk and no right to take advantage of their loyalty. In Afghanistan, they have not failed in their duty, but-I do not say this lightly-I believe that we have failed in ours.

The United Kingdom is not equipped to conduct two hot wars, as it has done in the past six years. It was not supposed to be like that. The 1998 defence review, in which the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) played a leading part as the then Minister for the Armed Forces, was much praised. However, it envisaged one short war-fighting deployment and one non-war-fighting operation happening simultaneously. Instead, we have had two enduring war-fighting deployments. There is therefore no wonder that there is a shortage of equipment, that the Army, in Sir Richard Dannatt's words has been "running hot", and that the rate of attrition of equipment has been so severe.

The loyalty of the armed services extends beyond Queen and country to making do, getting on with the job-cracking on, to use their vernacular-and to, in the Army in particular, loyalty to the regiment and the
16 July 2009 : Column 523
people with whom they serve. Again, I do not say this lightly, but I believe that we have exploited that loyalty.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister spoke dismissively of what he called political point scoring. The Government should understand the difference between support for the armed services and the legitimate questioning of Government policy by Members of Parliament. As the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) gave us something of a historical perspective, I remind the House that as a result of the Norway debate in this Chamber, the course, conduct and direction of the second world war was substantially changed. Of course we will support our forces, but we have a duty as Members of Parliament to question Government policies when we believe that they are not apt or adequate to cover the challenges that our forces are required to meet.

Why have these matters come to a head in the past few days? It has happened almost certainly because of the casualties that have been suffered, but, as has been said, the issue of helicopters and protected vehicles has been around for a long time. As soon as the Taliban gave up face-to-face confrontation with our forces and embarked on the new tactic of improvised explosive devices, that same issue arose. A question for the Government is whether, when that happened, they responded adequately with the matériel and the equipment necessary to allow us to confront those tactics.

There is another question for the Government, which the debate has not properly answered. What is the strategy for co-ordinating the political, military, reconstruction and counter-narcotics policies? We have had a slightly semantic discussion about that, but yesterday at Prime Minister's questions, the Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) simply stated strategic objectives. Strategy is how one achieves those objectives-the means whereby they are co-ordinated. If it is true that the three senior members of the Cabinet with responsibility for those matters meet only once a month, that is nothing like the sort of co-ordination that is necessary. I say that because we are effectively at war, albeit not across Europe, as we were between 1939 and 1945, or, indeed, in Asia. However, we are at war and if the elements are to be properly knitted together to produce a benevolent outcome, much better co-ordination is required.

We have hardly heard a mention in the past two and a half weeks of the policy on narcotics, yet that is key to the hearts and minds operation. If all one has to grow is the poppy seed and the profit of that may be taken away and one lives in a subsistence economy, something else must be provided. The counter-narcotics strategy is also the key to dealing with the corruption that is endemic in the present Government in Afghanistan.

The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle mentioned Mr. Karzai, who will win in August. However, I was at the Munich security conference earlier this year and Richard Holbrooke's disdain for Mr. Karzai and his evident lack of confidence in him was manifest for all to see. So when we talk about political stability and establishing sound government, we ought to take account of the personalities who are available and not just the institutions.

Public opinion in this country is finely balanced, but unless there is clear evidence of some recognition by the Government of the position of the Army in Afghanistan in particular, it could easily fracture, leaving us with
16 July 2009 : Column 524
opposition to our continued presence. The argument will be: "Come out, irrespective of the consequences of doing so." That is why I want to finish with this. Whatever else the Government are doing, they should be knocking on the door of every defence ministry of every NATO country and saying, "We want to beg, borrow or steal protected vehicles. We want to beg, borrow or steal any helicopters that you have. You may not be willing to risk the lives of your young men and women, but at the very least you have an obligation to help those of us who are willing to take that risk with the matériel that will enable us to carry this operation through to a proper conclusion."

Next Section Index Home Page