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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 8 December 2009

[Christopher Fraser in the Chair]

Afghanistan Strategy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. Heppell.)

9.30 am

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): A hundred British dead-why? That is the question this morning. A hundred British dead this year, three Dutch dead, seven Italians, 10 French and seven Germans; why the disparity? The flame at the Arc de Triomphe was rekindled last week to commemorate all Europeans who died this year in warfare. At that point, the total was 181 and the number of British dead was 99.

There was another significant anniversary last week, which was forecast by a Back Bencher in March 2006. The Government, with all their great knowledge and all of the experts on their side, said that we were going into Helmand province in the hope that not a shot would be fired and that we would be out in three years. That strategy was as accurate and reliable as the current strategy. At that time, there had been only seven British deaths, five of which were in accidents and only two of which were military deaths. We have gone from that to the dreadful position we are in now, with 237 deaths. At that time, a Back Bencher said that going into Helmand was the same as the charge of the Light Brigade-an act of incompetence and futility. Last Monday, the total British dead passed twice the number killed in the charge of the Light Brigade. Why have they died? Why are we there? Why are we continuing to send soldiers there?

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman mentioned the tragic 100th death. That was the death of a soldier from the Royal Anglian Regiment-my local regiment-by small arms fire. Will he join me in sending condolences to the family?

Paul Flynn: I will certainly talk at length about condolences and the soldiers. The 200th soldier who died was Kyle Adams, who was engaged to and planning his future life with a constituent of mine. She wrote a touching letter about her hopes of marriage, the children they had hoped for and the place in which they had planned to live. She wrote that she met her "cold dead hero" when he returned to this country.

This morning, we were told a new fiction. We have reached the milestone of 100 deaths and carefully manicured soundbites have been prepared for the occasion. We are told that we must think not too much about casualties, but about other things: the propaganda, the lies and the posturing that we have been subjected to for the last eight years. We must not think about the casualties. Perhaps we should not think about those who are maimed, either. At least 300 have been maimed. People have lost arms, legs, genitals, their sight, their hearing. There is nothing we can do about that. We are told that we should concentrate not on that this morning, but on the manicured fiction that the Government-and the Opposition, I am afraid-are putting out.

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Why are our soldiers dying? Are they dying to protect Karzai, the corrupt thief who says that he will suddenly become non-corrupt? If so, will he arrest his brother Wali, who is the best known, most powerful and richest of the drug dealers in the land? I think that is unlikely. Are they dying to demonstrate our solidarity with a man who rigged his election so efficiently? Of the $25 billion of international aid that he has taken, only $5 billion at the most has got through, and the rest has been spread out among his cronies and party members to buy his continuation in office. There have been no improvements in Afghan life as a result of the bulk of that aid. Afghanistan still has the second worst infant mortality rate in the world and the third worst rate of mothers dying in childbirth.

Are our soldiers dying to protect Karzai's cronies, such as Mohammad Fahim and Abdul Dostum? Fahim, who is now Karzai's chosen vice-president, was responsible for an orgy of murder, rape and looting in a poor section of Kabul, in which he and his army slaughtered 800 members of the minority Hazara community. He has a powerful position in the future of the new Afghanistan. Dostum, the other nominee for vice-president, was released from exile by Karzai to bolster the Uzbek vote. The most famous thing in Dostum's career is that he promised 2,000 Taliban prisoners safe passage if they surrendered their arms, then sealed them in metal cargo containers and suffocated them. Karzai, Dostum and Fahim are our allies. They are running the regime that we are sending our soldiers to protect. They should be in The Hague as war criminals, but instead they are our chosen allies.

Another reason for being there is the repeated fiction of the protection from terrorism. The Germans, French and Italians do not have the brass neck to lie to their people by suggesting that keeping their soldiers fighting in the war in Afghanistan is anything to do with terrorism, but we do. There has never been a terrorist plot or threat from Afghanistan or the Taliban.

If we were to ask the Taliban why they are killing our soldiers, what would they say? I have asked various Ministers and military people whether they have asked the Taliban about that and they have not. Would the Taliban say, "When we have killed all your soldiers, we will come over to London and Newport to blow up your streets."? Or would they say, "We are killing your soldiers because they are the ferengi. They are in our country. It is our sacred, religious duty to expel foreigners like yourselves from our country, just as our fathers did with the Russians and as our grandfathers and great grandfathers did with every foreign invasion into Afghanistan."?

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's comments. Does he agree that there are approximate parallels with the misleading way in which we attempted to deal with terrorists in the north of Ireland for a long time? Originally, we wrote them off as people who were insane and impossible to do business with, but they now seem to be running Northern Ireland rather well. Does he agree that if we are serious about a terrorist threat in Afghanistan, we should seek co-existence and negotiated solutions, rather than deluding ourselves and others that we can solve it through military solutions?

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Paul Flynn: I agree entirely. We all know that there will be a deal eventually, perhaps in two or three years. We have a strategy that is gratifying and right for politicians. It is right for both main parties in this House because it takes us beyond the hurdle of the general election. It is right for the American President because it gives him some room. He has a Janus-faced philosophy. He must appear belligerent. As the first black President, with the middle name Hussein, he cannot possibly be seen to give in to a Muslim enemy because that would destroy him in redneck public opinion. He has no choice but to follow what has been urged on him. He is too intelligent to think that it will work; of course it will fail. There will be a deal and he has given a date for it, which is the perfect date for the next American presidential election. So, are our young people dying because of the presidential timetable in America and our own needs as politicians to survive? We are waiting for the day when we can exit, but we spin the situation as if it is a victory and present it as such. That is exactly the case that was put forward at the end of the first world war, which I will come to in a moment.

Perhaps we are fighting and dying in order for the day to arrive when we will hand over the country to the Afghan police and army. The Afghan police are depraved, brutal, lawless, drug-addicted thieves, who persecute and abuse the people they are supposed to serve. They are corrupt from top to bottom and are organised on the basis of bribes and theft.

In Penkala, a village that we liberated as part of Panther's Claw, the elders said, "We've had the Taliban here, and now we're frightened that the Afghan police are going to move in, because the last time they were here they practised bacha bazi." They corralled the pre-pubescent boys in the town and used them for sexual purposes-for rape. That was the practice of the Afghan police, and the elders have said that if they come back again, they will join the Taliban. The person who was interviewing the elders said, "But the Taliban are cruel people," to which the elders said, "Yes, they are cruel people, but they are men of principle and they do not practice bacha bazi."

Yet, the Afghan police are the people on whom we are depending. The fantasy that we can substantially increase their numbers and have a clean Afghan police is completely unattainable. An example of a corrupt police force being replaced by one that is non-corrupt can be found in Georgia, where they sacked the entire police force and started again. However, we are not doing that; we are building on the rotten foundation of the Afghan police. That is not going to work.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has been consistent with his views in many debates, and he is showing that again here. However, I am trying to understand where he is taking us with his comments, because he is actually making the very argument that has been made by Conservative and Labour Members.

The whole Afghan nation has been corrupt from the time of Dost Mohammad, when we first wandered over there, to King Amanullah's time, to today. If President Karzai were removed and somebody else replaced him, the country would still be as corrupt as it is today. The fact that the police are corrupt and there is corruption
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shows what extra efforts need to be made to help the country. If we do not help the country, it will become the bastion of terrorism and we will end up with the problems that we saw in relation to 9/11 and 7/7. The hon. Gentleman's idea that we can somehow withdraw troops and expect a non-corrupt civilisation to appear is simply wrong.

Paul Flynn: The hon. Gentleman is clearly a believer of fairy tales. He believes that there is going to be a happy ending to this, but no one will live happily ever after in Afghanistan. There was a civil war going on when we went in. The Taliban had control of 80 per cent. of the country, and the northern warlords had control of the rest. Of course, Afghanistan was corrupt. It was corrupt 100 years ago; it was corrupt 200 years ago. Corruption is the lubricant that drives Afghan life. We are not going to change that. We are not omnipotent, but we think that we are.

Let us consider our position. We talk as if we have got rid of elements of al-Qaeda in the country. The latest forecast from the independent body that produces maps on such matters shows that, last year, the Taliban had control of 72 per cent. of the country. However, the calculation this year is that they have control of 80 per cent. We will soon have 10,000 troops there, only 2,000 of whom are fighting troops who are on the front line. What percentage of the country does the hon. Gentleman think we control? We could possibly say 1 per cent., yet we are behaving as if we are masters of the universe and will change the habits of thousands of years. That is impossible. The new policy that has been introduced has been sold to us as something that will work, but it needs at least 12 miracles for the Obama policy to work.

Mr. Ellwood: The hon. Gentleman's argument that the Taliban are somehow in control of 80 per cent. of the country is simply wrong. They may have access to 80 per cent.-or a high percentage-of the countryside, but much of that is desert. For example, 70 per cent. of Helmand province is on the Helmand river, which is where our troops are actually based. If he wants to get rid of the police now, where are the other batch of potential policemen in Afghanistan, who are not corrupt and will take these jobs?

Paul Flynn: Again, the hon. Gentleman makes some reasonable points about the state of Afghanistan, but let us consider the alleged progress and the current position. There was talk of progress this morning and I am sure that there will be more. We made a great fuss last August about the fact that a turbine was conveyed to the Kajaki dam, which had been bombed by the Americans in the previous war. That was regarded as a huge triumph. It took 4,000 soldiers to get that turbine there-I have been told that there were 3,000 NATO and 1,000 Afghan soldiers involved in that one operation. How much electricity has it produced? It has not yet produced enough electricity to light a bicycle lamp. In fact, there is one less turbine there, because another turbine has broken down.

Let us consider the situation of the Americans. They are paying $1,500 per lorry in protection money to the groups that regard themselves as security firms to get all their goods from Kabul to Kandahar. Most of that money goes back into the pocket of the Taliban. That is
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the reality of life in Afghanistan. There is a President who cannot travel 30 miles outside his own capital. That is the reality. The Taliban are very much in control of movements there.

Let me just give one more example that has had very little publicity. Back in August, there was a huge fuss about the number of helicopters in Afghanistan. In 10 days, we-the British Army-destroyed two of our Chinook helicopters, which cost £40 million each. They were not wrecked beyond repair-one of them had had a heavy landing and the other had some bullet holes from hand guns-and both could have been repaired at little cost. We did not repair them or wait 24 or 36 hours to get a heavy lifting helicopter to take them out to a place of safety. We blew them up because the security was so bad we could not guard them for the 24 hours it was necessary to do so. That is the truth, but we do not see blazing headlines about that in our newspapers. The mythology is continuing that there is the possibility of victory. The words "possibility of success" were used this morning. I do not believe that there will be success and I want our soldiers to be brought home.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Speaking from my personal experience as a development officer in Afghanistan, I wish to ask whether the hon. Gentleman will at least accept that he is focusing very much on just one region? I have seen projects going on with my own eyes-for example, irrigation schemes that I worked on in Herat, and a new airport and infrastructure that has allowed farmers to get their goods to market has been put in place in Faisalabad. Across much of the country, genuine development progress is being made, which is helping the lives of local Afghans.

Paul Flynn: Yes, of course I accept that, but that is not the problem. The problem is Helmand province. We are in only one of the country's 34 provinces. The reason we have the problem in Helmand is entirely of our own making because we charged into what was a peaceful province and the result was predictable. When the first soldier was killed in Helmand province in June 2006, an early-day motion was tabled in this place, which said that this excursion will strengthen the Taliban and possibly lead to a British Vietnam. That was the view of Back Benchers at the time. Of course, it is very difficult to spend what the Americans are spending-£1 billion a day-without doing some good. We are very much aware that some development work is going on. However, that is not the problem. The problem is why are we sending our soldiers to die there? That is what we should be addressing now.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): It is not only the Afghan people, but the British people who have been denied a point of view. At the time of a fundamental change in mission-when we went into Helmand-this Parliament should have had a vote. We were allowed a vote on the Iraq situation, but we were not allowed a vote on Afghanistan. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Paul Flynn: I agree entirely. It is absolutely right that we should have a vote on that at some time.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Paul Flynn: I will give way in a moment, but I want to make some progress first.

The other group on which we are building our hopes is the Afghan army. The idea is that the army will be expanded in huge numbers, which is a difficult thing to do. So, who is in the Afghan army? According to David Loyn, the BBC correspondent, 60 per cent. of them are heroin addicts and virtually all of them use cannabis.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): Is not the greatest failure that we did not go in and wipe out the poppy fields?

Paul Flynn: That was mission impossible from the start. Going into Afghanistan with the aim of wiping out the poppy fields would have been as successful as the 20-year campaign against Colombia. Had we wiped out the poppy fields at the start, there would still be no shortage of heroin, because markets move and the poppy growing would have gone to Myanmar, north Pakistan, Kazakhstan and elsewhere, and we would have seen the Colombia-isation of that area. Wiping out the poppy fields would have done no good at all, because the problem is with the demand side. We are sucking in the supplies of poppy, so it would not have worked.

Patrick Mercer: The hon. Gentleman's argument about going into Helmand province is well made, and from one point of view we all agree that the force that was sent was grossly undermanned. However, could not the same argument be made about Normandy, which was jolly nice and quiet before we invaded? Why on earth did we have to go and stir up that hornet's nest on 6 June 1944? It was because if we had not invaded, we would not have taken on Nazism.

Paul Flynn: I listen with some astonishment to the voice of the military on that matter. We went into Normandy because Europe was dominated by an evil empire run by a wicked man who had conquered other countries. There was a war, but the hon. Gentleman's comparison is ludicrous. We went into a peaceful area in Afghanistan, and the Taliban are fighting and killing us because we are in their country. When we went into Normandy we went into the country of an ally and the French wanted us there. The people in Helmand did not want us there.

Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that trying to draw comparisons with world war two completely misses the point? I believe that his point is that there is endemic support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, partly as a direct result of our actions there. That was the same problem we had in certain parts of Northern Ireland, and it has been exacerbated and made much more extreme in Afghanistan.

Paul Flynn: It is certainly true that our presence in both Iraq, where a million Iraqis died, and in Afghanistan, where 100,000 Afghans have died, has increased the threat of terrorism on our own soil. Our terrorist threats have come from Yorkshire and Pakistan, not from the Taliban and not from Afghanistan at all. That threat is an utter myth and a scare story that has been put out. The latest scare story, which is similar to what happened
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when they ran out of excuses for going to war in Iraq, is the nuclear threat, yet the Americans say they are quite comfortable with the situation in Pakistan.

The Afghan army is another one of those platforms on which we build our hopes for success in the future. Virtually all the Ministers who have had responsibility for Helmand have gone to spend more time with their financial interests and are not here to answer on the matter, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), who answered many of the debates here as a Minister, has now gone to the Back Benches, where he speaks the truth intelligently. He said in an intervention in a debate on Afghanistan a few days ago that one group of the Afghan army changed sides three times in one 24-hour battle, depending on who was paying the bribes. That is the Afghan army that we plan to build up and leave so that the country is secure and everyone will live happily ever after.

One of the old Afghan generals from Soviet times, Jabbar Karaman, described a section of the Afghan army several weeks ago, saying that seven Taliban attacked a convoy in Helmand that was being guarded by 300 Afghan soldiers, and the soldiers fled. That is the reality of the Afghan army. Jabbar Karaman said:

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