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23 Nov 2009 : Column 332

The appointment by President Obama of George Mitchell was seen as a very positive step because of his considerable success in the Northern Ireland peace process, but even he now seems to be making very little headway.

What is needed is a viable two-state solution, with the borders close to the 1967 line. Jerusalem must be shared, with the eastern part of the city forming the Palestinian capital. Indeed, that is very close to what Ehud Olmert, the then Israeli Prime Minister, offered Mr. Abbas a year ago-a deal that included nearly all of the west bank, land swaps for limited settlement blocks and shared sovereignty over Jerusalem. Mr. Abbas and many Palestinians must be kicking themselves now that the offer was not taken up, given the deterioration in relations between the two parties since.

7.19 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to have this debate on foreign policy, and to some extent I was relieved when the Queen's Speech included the reference to a somewhat softer policy concerning

because it seemed to me that at least there was an opportunity for some questioning of the whole policy on Afghanistan. I was very impressed with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price), who talked about the reality of the troop surge, the costs that would result and the effect of it.

The House has to face up to the reality. British troops have been in Afghanistan for eight years. We were told that they were going there because of the attack on the World Trade Centre, and that it was impossible to do anything other than invade Afghanistan as a result of that attack. A very large number of Afghan people have died, and 240 or so British troops have lost their lives. I have talked to soldiers who have returned from Afghanistan and their families. Those families find it very hard to understand exactly what the policy is, what the objective is, and why their sons and daughters should put themselves at risk for an indefinite period to win a war, the aims of which are not very clear. They get increasingly angry and frustrated about that.

Every one of us in the House knows that the majority of our constituents are, at the very least, deeply concerned about the policy on Afghanistan, and as far as I understand it, the vast majority want British troops to come out of Afghanistan because they do not feel that those troops are doing any good there. People do not feel that the troops are doing anything other than laying down their lives for a corrupt Government who are involved with warlords, and possibly with the drugs trade. They feel that the very presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, far from bringing about peace in the country, acts as an effective recruiting sergeant for the Taliban and all their elements.

There have to be talks, negotiation and discussions. We would do well to recall that the Taliban are more or less a sort of franchise operation that operates in different ways in different parts of the country. The Taliban are not uniform across the whole country. Long-term peace and stability will not be achieved by our continued presence there, or through the McChrystal formula of
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sending in another 40,000 troops to mount a counter-insurgency. If that does not work, McChrystal will presumably go back to President Obama and ask for more.

The logic of the policy is that if the instability moved from Pakistan to a neighbouring country in central Asia, British and American troops would follow it, and we would continue the war in some other form in some other place. We need to stop and think about what we are doing in Afghanistan, what the cost is, and what the long-term implications are. I hope that the discussions that are to take place will recognise that the policy is not working, and that it is time to withdraw from it.

I also want to speak about the middle east and follow up, although not necessarily with agreement, on the points made by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). There is an argument that our policy in Afghanistan brings about support and safer streets in our society, but that is simply not the case. The fact that a number of young Muslims in our country are continually stopped and searched because they are perceived to be terror suspects leads not to greater cohesion, but to greater division and suspicion, in our society.

The issues that unite large numbers of people in our society, particularly young Muslims, are opposition to the Afghan and Iraq wars, and great support for the cause of the Palestinian people and an end to the occupation. We have to recognise that peace in the middle east will be brought about through negotiation; that is obvious. If it is to be brought about, we have to stop playing ducks and drakes with Hamas and Fatah, and should instead recognise the call for unity of the Palestinian people. That call was made very effectively last night on al-Jazeera by an independent member of the Palestinian Authority, Mustafa Barghouti.

We should recognise the anger felt throughout Palestine, and by many people across the world, at the Israeli invasion and occupation of Gaza less than a year ago; at the fact that illegal weapons were used; and at the fact that when the matter came to a vote in the UN Human Rights Council, the British delegate apparently either abstained, was missing or did not vote. I am not sure what the difference is between abstaining and not voting; perhaps Ministers could reply on that point.

At the risk of incurring your wrath, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I want to quote from the Goldstone mission report, but not at great length:

It goes on to describe the use of white phosphorous and other weapons by the Israeli forces in Gaza earlier this year.

That report will now come before the Security Council. I hope that the British representative, along with other representatives, will recognise the importance of considering it, of a full investigation of it, and of the possibility of taking the issue to the International Criminal Court in the foreseeable future. If we do not do that, the situation will become worse, and the US will continue to pour
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vast amounts of aid into Israel. The illegal occupation will continue, the situation will become worse and worse, and the anger will become much greater. Israel illegally occupies land and builds an illegal wall, yet it receives $3 billion a year in aid. We continue normal trading arrangements with Israel, despite its numerous illegal activities.

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of hosting a visit to the House by a group of firefighters from Nablus who were brought here by the Fire Brigades Union. They had been on a training course for firefighters. I showed them round the Chamber, explained what went on here and talked about it. I asked them what they would have liked to say to the House of Commons if they had been at this debate. Their comments were interesting. The first comment was that it was easier to get to the United Kingdom from Nablus than to get from Nablus to Jerusalem, because there were fewer checkpoints and the people at those checkpoints were less aggressive and unpleasant. The journey from Nablus to Jerusalem is 69 km; the journey from Nablus, via Jordan, to this country is several thousand kilometres.

The firefighters went on to describe their work. They described how they were shot at by Israel defence forces when trying to attend emergencies as part of their job, and said that their tools had not been updated since 1996, despite offers of aid and support from the Fire Brigades Union and others; that equipment is still held up in the docks somewhere in Haifa, because Israeli officials will not let it through. People such as those firefighters are trying to bring about peace and stability in Palestine; the very least that we can do is make sure that the voluntary British aid that is sent to them gets through. I hope that Ministers will be prepared to meet a delegation from the Fire Brigades Union and me to discuss how that particular aid can get through.

Last month, I went on a brief visit to Syria with the Palestinian Return Centre. I went to visit the refugee camps on the border between Iraq and Syria, and the people there are Palestinians who were living in Iraq. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, various forces within Iraq decided that those people were, somehow or other, on the wrong side of the fence, and they were effectively expelled from Iraq. Syria has taken in probably at least 500,000 Palestinians over the years, and given them the necessary support and comfort.

There are now several hundred families stuck in the no man's land just beyond the border between Syria and Iraq, and there are others at various other camps. I pay tribute to the fact that Syria has accommodated a very large number of refugees and ensured that they are able to live in that country in safety. I hope that the British Government will recognise that, and will do all that they can to give the appropriate and necessary funding to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, so that we can ensure that those people can get to Syria and resume normal life.

Those families were living in tents in a desert in the middle of winter. It is very dangerous there, very cold at night and, in the summer, impossibly hot during the day. When I talked to them, it was the sheer family distress that struck me. I spoke to one particular family; the grandparents, who were kicked out of Haifa in 1948, went to Iraq. Others had gone to the United Arab Emirates and other countries. The grandparents ended up being driven from pillar to post. I asked, "What's
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your aim-your wish, your ambition in life?" They said, "To go home, and to be able to return to Palestine." Of course, they cannot do that. There are 6 million Palestinians across the world who cannot return home, and until we recognise the plight of the Palestinian people, and their desire and thirst for peace, those ambitions cannot be achieved.

There are brave people in Israel who also recognise that peace comes by recognition and through treating their neighbours in a decent, fair and proper manner. I hope that in this debate we can recognise that if we help and support the Palestinian people, give recognition to Palestine as an entity, and start being a bit tougher with Israel on its illegal activities, its occupation, its settlements, its wall and all the other activities that it is undertaking, that will help to bring about a long-term peace settlement.

I conclude with this point: Israel is the only country in the middle east that possesses nuclear weapons. It has more than 200 warheads. It is not a signatory to a nuclear non-proliferation treaty or any other nuclear treaties, except that it did sign the Mediterranean convention two years ago, which at least appeared to be recognition on its part that it had weapons of mass destruction. Surely, in advance of the non-proliferation treaty review next year, we could encourage Israel to be part of a nuclear weapons convention and help to bring about a nuclear-free middle east, which would reduce the pressure by some reactionary forces in Iran for Iran to develop its own nuclear weapons.

If we want to see peace in the middle east, we need to recognise the rights of the Palestinian people, put pressure on Israel and, above all, encourage Israel in the direction of nuclear disarmament and playing a proper role in the region, not being the force that it is at present.

7.31 pm

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): I must begin with an apology. I was unable to be present for a large part of the debate owing to Select Committee business, which makes me all the more grateful to be recognised.

I shall deal with two topics-first, Europe, and secondly, Afghanistan. In respect of the second, I understand that a large part of the debate has concentrated on that subject. I shall therefore offer such opinions as I do with a certain amount of diffidence. On Europe, the ratification of the Lisbon treaty caused pro-Europeans to breathe a sigh of relief, but if one listened carefully, one could hear quite a few of those who regard themselves as Eurosceptics breathing a similar sigh of relief. The fact that the treaty has been ratified means that treaty reform will be off the European agenda for the foreseeable future.

The conduct of the Lisbon treaty, by which I mean the circumstances in which it was drawn up, Giscard d'Estaing's presiding over the Convention, the length of time that ratification has taken-all that has substantially removed any enthusiasm on the part of any of the members of the European Union for a return to such a process, which had an enormously debilitating effect on Europe and was one to which no one would seek to return very quickly.

What is necessary now is to ensure that the Lisbon treaty is made to work. In that regard, it seems to me that Europe has largely shown a collective lack of
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confidence in the past week in its choice of the President and the foreign affairs supremo. In saying that, I cast no aspersions on Baroness Ashton, but it seems to me that these two prime, principal posts ought to be occupied by people who bring to them a substantial contribution.

I do not doubt for a moment the conscientiousness of the new President or of Baroness Ashton, but in the nominations to those posts we in the United Kingdom did ourselves no service by adopting a partisan approach. When it comes to foreign affairs, it respectfully seems to me that Lord Patten or Lord Ashdown would have made extremely effective contributors to the role envisaged for the foreign policy supremo.

Such is the nature of these new positions that it is the impact of the first incumbent that will determine the nature of the positions. All the more reason, therefore, for ensuring that those who occupy them bring to the task a wealth of experience and a degree of credibility in an area that is notoriously complicated.

I suppose that one advantage of the ratification of the treaty, Mr. Deputy Speaker-an advantage which you, I think, will share-is that we will no longer have to put up with those arid and unproductive debates on the Lisbon treaty, about which the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) confessed publicly that he made the same speech on three occasions. All he did was shift paragraphs around. Notwithstanding that, those debates were a feature of foreign policy discussion in the House for a very long time.

Europe should concentrate on trade issues, both internal and external. It is the strength of the European Union which allows us not to be browbeaten by the United States, or increasingly to be liable to be browbeaten by China or India, the emerging economies. There is one area where, sadly, Europe has so far lacked a capability of creating the integrated policy that would be important-on the issue of energy supply, and in particular how we deal with Russia.

Europe should be integrated on the issue of immigration. Europe should be much closer together on issues such as cross-border crime, including trafficking and narcotics. On the vexed issue of climate change to be discussed next month at Copenhagen, there is clearly an opportunity for a far greater degree of contribution by Europe not only to the debate, but to the measures necessary to bring about a reduction in CO2 emissions.

Europe can be effective only if there is a proper emphasis on the two principles of proportionality and subsidiarity. These principles are enshrined in European treaties, but they have not had the attention or been given the impetus they deserve, and which is all the more necessary the larger the European Union becomes. A European Union of 27 should have proportionality and subsidiarity at its masthead. I hope the Government will take initiatives on this issue in the time still available to them.

Another priority is European defence co-operation. The principles are well known-force specialisation, interoperability and common procurement. Until now there has been a lack of political will, but we are soon to face financial compulsion. In the decisions made by the Government who take office next year, it is perfectly clear that there can be no so-called sacred cows. It is clear that defence may well be an area from which a Government, whatever their colour, will want to make
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savings. All parties are now committed to a defence review, but that review may have considerable long-term implications for the financing of defence.

All that argues strongly for a much greater European contribution that would, in turn, feed through to a much stronger NATO contribution to defence and deal with some of the issues directly related to Afghanistan and the fact that the burden-sharing in Afghanistan has been a long way short of equitable.

That brings me to Afghanistan. We are in a vacuum because of the length of time the President of the United States is taking to reach a decision. It is important to remember that we talk about our strategy, but the truth is that it is the United States'. In this matter the United Kingdom is subordinate. I do not think that this is a President who, having successfully reduced the commitment of the United States in Iraq, is likely to want to face mid-term elections or his own re-election campaign against a background of an apparently senseless commitment in Afghanistan. Too many people have already described this as Obama's war, and given the mid-term elections and the presidential re-election campaign, I should be extremely surprised if the strategy that emerges from this long period-a little like 40 days in the wilderness-is anything other than one which may not state a date for withdrawal, but which is based upon creating the conditions for withdrawal.

It is very easy to say, "Pull out now," but let me identify some consequences of precipitate withdrawal. First, there would be regional instability: the relationship with Pakistan is well known. Secondly, there would be damage to NATO, perhaps irreparably. There are those who would quite like NATO to be irreparably damaged. Russia has never lost its ambition to bring an end to NATO's existence and to create an alternative security architecture. Thirdly, precipitate withdrawal would bring about a serious strain on our relationship with the United States, at a time when we have a President who is more attuned to Europe and European ideas than many of his predecessors. Fourthly, it would return the people of Afghanistan, very likely, to the Taliban, and the return of the Taliban to control in Afghanistan would almost certainly provide much more sympathetic opportunities for al-Qaeda.

Is President Karzai about to win the John Stuart Mill prize for liberalism? I doubt it very much. The President's defects are well known, but he is all we have got, and even if there had been a second election, he would be all we have got. That means that, to achieve the conditions for withdrawal to which I referred, we may, if necessary, have to work around him. That is why I understand the emphasis that the Prime Minister recently made on a more local and provincial approach to be a recognition of the fact that if Karzai stands in the way of progress, there is an alternative strategy. Local autonomy would be a very effective way of creating the conditions in which we could withdraw, particularly in a country that has never enjoyed a strong central Government. Indeed, local autonomy is a part of the very political fabric of Afghanistan.

Like everyone else, I mourn the death of any British serviceman or woman; like everyone else, I am concerned about the grievous injuries that so many of those young
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people sustain; and, like others, I have been to Headley Court and to Selly Oak hospital to see the work that is done there. We invite young people to make a very considerable sacrifice on our behalf, and, if I did not think it still necessary for our deployment to continue, I would not be willing to tolerate that sacrifice. However, it is easy to talk in terms of in or out. There are no easy solutions on Afghanistan; there are only solutions that are less damaging than others. For the moment, we must wait until the Obama strategy is published, and, upon that, I believe we will find the conditions that will enable us in due course to bring about the orderly withdrawal of our troops for which we would all wish.

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