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8 Dec 2009 : Column 7WH—continued

Why should they? If they do not believe in the project, why on earth should we send our soldiers to die there? The idea that we are sending our people there for success or stability, based on the new strategy, is an utter fiction. It is impossible to have a victory using the Afghan army and police and the corrupt bunch of people now running the country.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I am following my hon. Friend's argument with interest. Is it a myth that al-Qaeda, aided and abetted by the Taliban, was plotting terrorist attacks against this country on an ongoing basis from Afghanistan, and is it a myth that al-Qaeda was responsible for the dreadful attack on the twin towers in America? Are all of those contrived myths? Is al-Qaeda and the threat to British national security a myth or an invention of the British Government? I ask the hon. Gentleman to respond directly to that point.

Paul Flynn: The contrivance is that the Government conflate al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and they must understand-I hope the Minister is listening-that they are not the same thing. Al-Qaeda were guests in Afghanistan, and the Afghans do not want to get them out because they have a pronounced sense of hospitality. They would probably treat us as guests as well if we had not gone there with bombs and bullets.

There is a great difference between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Taliban has no interest in terrorism, yet we are fighting the Taliban. If we want to have a debate on Pakistan, let us have a debate on it, but the Government also contrive to conflate Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have invented a new country which they refer to as the region, as everything is put down to the Afghan-Pakistan border. In fact, they are two separate countries. The
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threat of terrorism comes from Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, but not from the Taliban, who have an entirely different agenda.

James Fergusson, in his book, tells a story about a time he talked to a Taliban leader, which is more than any of our politicians have done. That Taliban leader said that he did not want to learn to love his children, who were aged eight, six and three, and that he had made them live in another village. He said that if they loved him and he loved them it would be worse when he was killed. James Fergusson asked, "You do not want to be killed, do you?" The Taliban leader replied, "Of course I want to be killed. It is my dearest wish, as my father was killed fighting the Russians, as my great- grandfather was killed and as my great-great-grandfather was killed. It is my sacred, religious duty, because these ferengi"- foreigners-"are in my country and I have to expel them."

Can we not get this simple message across: our soldiers are being killed because they are present? The answer is not to send more soldiers to act as more targets for Taliban bombs, but to bring our soldiers out of Afghanistan. That is the only solution we have and we will do it eventually. In the meantime, we are dilly-dallying for reasons of political expediency here and in the United States. That is the heart of the position we are in. Five hundred additional soldiers are going to Afghanistan, and we were told on the radio this morning that we should expect more deaths and put up with that, but we should not put up with it.

The war in Afghanistan is probably an illegal war. International law states that a country may go to war when there is a threat against it from the local population of a country. There is no threat to Britain from Afghans and there was no threat to Britain from Iraqis, but we went to war in both countries. I believe that history will judge both to have been illegal wars. On the terrorism threat, we have seen the terrible event that took place in this country, but I believe that that had no connection whatever with the Taliban.

I was interested this morning to read a poem that has been published by our new poet laureate. At last we have a poet laureate who does not write poems about royal anniversaries, church bells ringing and Christmas bells at Christmas time. She writes about reality-the dirty, evil, horrible reality of life in Britain now. One verse states:

In this House, in 1917, there was a parallel to the position that we are in now. The first world war was still going on, men on both sides were dying like cattle in huge numbers and a point of near stalemate had been reached. Siegfried Sassoon came to the House of Commons
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and gave his view of the situation. His comments then were entirely accurate in respect of our position now. He stated, as a serving soldier:

That is exactly true now. This war could come to an end. We could leave, but we cannot do so because we have to protect the reputations of politicians. Our mouths are bandaged by the fear that the incompetence of the invasion of Helmand and the stupidity of our unattainable policies ever since would be exposed. If we left, the dying of our soldiers and the Afghans would end. There is no easy deal, but there will be a deal eventually.

Mr. Lewis: Following that line of argument, if we were doing the populist thing rather than the right thing, and if we were considering the polls at this stage of the mission, we would leave Afghanistan. However, politicians on both sides of the House who believe in the mission believe that we need to stay there because we are doing the right thing. It would be politically expedient to leave tomorrow, and we might gain some short-term political support, but would that be the right thing to do for our long-term stability and security? That is the question that my hon. Friend has to answer.

Paul Flynn: If the Minister thinks that this debate has anything to do with populism, he is wrong. I have been saying these things since 2006.

Mr. Lewis: That's not what I said.

Paul Flynn: Let us say what the position is. The public feel strongly that we should be out-71 per cent. in the last poll-and it is the same throughout Europe. It is the same in France and Germany. But this is not about populism. Of course we should always do the right thing, but when have we done the right thing in this war? When have the Government been right? When has their assessment been correct? I cannot remember any claim that they have made that has been correct or true.

We cannot get rid of corruption, and it is stupid to pretend that we can do so in the next six months just by wagging a finger at somebody. We cannot turn the Afghan army and police into something like the Swedish army. It will not happen; those are impossible claims. We cannot alter the nature of the whole country of Afghanistan when we are in only one province.

We are in Afghanistan for political reasons. The President of America is in an awful position because of his political need to placate both sides, including the rednecks and the Republicans who suspect a President with his character and name, but he has also given the hope of an exit strategy because he knows that it has to come eventually.

Could what happened in Vietnam, which some hon. Members may not remember as well as many of us do, be repeated? That was a country that had to be saved. It was a war that was impossible to lose because, if it was lost, there would be a domino effect and every other country in south-east Asia would become communist. The Americans should have done a deal and walked out with some dignity.

We can still do that in Afghanistan. We can still do a deal which might well consolidate some of the gains made, and which might mean that our friends are not
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slaughtered when we leave. We could walk out after doing that deal or we could run out in panic as the Americans did from Saigon because of the public's disgust at the coffins that were coming home and their refusal to see a strategy that made any sense.

Our new strategy does not make sense, and that was exactly the case in the last year of the first world war. I speak about this with some interest because my father was shot on 10 April 1918. Happily, his life was saved by a German group who stopped him bleeding to death. He was in that war, and his life was ruined by it.

Siegfried Sassoon, who had an honourable record in that war, stated in this House:

That is exactly the situation now. He went on to state:

Our men are being sacrificed now, and they will be sacrificed in the future. Our aim should be to bring our soldiers home, stop believing in impossible ends, and bring an end to the bloodshed of our soldiers, fellow NATO soldiers and Afghans.

10.7 am

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate, considering the many announcements that have been made not only in the UK but in the US in recent days. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) on securing this debate, although I find myself not entirely agreeing with everything he says. He has been consistent in his views-that is for sure-but I believe that he lives in a different world if he thinks that a sudden and quick withdrawal of British, American and allied troops from Afghanistan would somehow lead to peace there and a decline in the threat here. We are there for a reason: we are there as a consequence of recent actions, and we are there with the approval of the United Nations and, indeed, the elected Afghan Government as well.

Paul Flynn: Elected?

Mr. Ellwood: Yes, absolutely. I correct the hon. Gentleman who suggests from a sedentary position that the Government were not elected. They were elected.

I shall not stand here and say that everything is running correctly, or that I entirely support the Government. Indeed, I have been critical of their strategy, which is changing yet again. It cannot be right that we are in a war half a decade after we ventured into Afghanistan. Unfortunately, there is a similarity with Iraq: whatever the reasons, which we can debate separately, for making the initial incursion, there needs to be a better process of moving from war to peacekeeping.

The UK does not have a strong post-conflict capability, which is a shame, because that is exactly what was needed in the aftermath of March 2003 in Iraq. Nobody
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took responsibility for the umbrella of security that was created by the military, and the same thing happened again in Afghanistan. We cannot expect, particularly with the technological advances in our war-fighting capability-force multipliers, as they are called-to take aeroplanes and a high-tech armed force to defeat a low-level, low-tech armed force, and then expect employment, governance, rule of law and security to be created on their own. We lack that capability. We have a serious problem with the relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development. DFID does a fantastic job tackling poverty, which is its first remit, and it was never expected to take on the fairly new responsibility of stabilisation. So there are questions to be asked about how we can improve that situation, although perhaps those are for another debate.

The hon. Member for Newport, West is certainly right to pose thoughts about what sort of country Afghanistan is, because only by studying it and understanding the people can we work towards a strategy that fits with their desires and ambitions. Afghanistan is a fascinating country-even calling it a country is perhaps a bit advanced-that is a mixture and a wonderful grouping of ethnic alliances and tribes. Over the last 2,000 years, going back to Alexander the Great, it has been the location of, or battlefield for, various incursions from the Persians on one side, the British from the other and the Russians from the north as well, all scrapping over this piece of land that contains groupings that have never really been aligned. After so many years, how can we suddenly expect to impose a western-style centralised Government on a place that has never had one? Not even during the long reign of Mohammed Zahir Shah was there any remote sense of centralised operation. There was certainly a big chief-in the 1830s that would have been Dost Mohammed, who was at that stage in the capital at Kandahar, rather than Kabul-and the other tribes would simply accept that there was a tougher, bigger more powerful leader in another location. But when Dost Mohammed died, having kicked the Brits out after they invaded, there was a squabble that involved the deaths of a number of his cousins before a successor was finally strong enough to be respected by the various tribes-and so life would go on. In the same way, when Henry V suddenly became king, for example, a bellringer would wander into a village in England and the villagers would just accept that over towards London there was now a different king and somebody else was in charge, but life would continue on merrily.

Why are we suddenly trying to impose a centralised Government, with everything being Kabul-centric and focusing heavily on President Karzai who has absolute issues with corruption? Why are we not pushing for a more federal model? It is curious that the Americans had a huge hand in developing the Bonn accord, which was the blueprint for the constitution of Afghanistan. America has an interesting model. Those who are familiar with that country will know that every state has the power to hold its leader-the Governor-to account and to make its own decisions separate from what happens nationally. Considering the wonderful tapestry in Afghanistan of different groupings-Hazaras, Baluchis, Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks-why did we not go down the road of a more federated autonomous basis, similar
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perhaps to the United Arab Emirates, which has seven different fiefdoms that come together when there are national issues to be discussed, but have a sense of responsibility? In the 1950s and '60s, Afghanistan was like that. The area containing Nimroz province, Kunduz, I think, Kandahar and Helmand was all controlled by one individual and there were about seven or eight different groupings of provinces that allowed a sense of rule in Afghanistan. Perhaps we need to use that model. If all the money is poured into Kabul and it is expected to trickle down into, for example, a little village outside Musa Qala, that will not work. That is the first governance issue that needs to be addressed as we approach a change in strategy.

Mr. Drew: But does not that make fighting the war even more difficult? Because there is no homogenous enemy, people just keep changing sides. Whatever wins we have in one part of the country-this has always been the difficulty-are compensated for by people changing side in another part, which shows the complete folly of our being in Afghanistan.

Mr. Ellwood: The hon. Gentleman makes a point that I cannot disagree with. That is why a vision is needed about where the country, or the region or the locality, is going. People who live in Gereshk or Lashkar Gah do not see Kabul as the capital city and do not understand the decisions that are made. In fact, for many Afghanis living in their villages the word "ferengi", which is used for foreigners, also applies to the people living across the other side of the valley. Of course, there is a bond-the Pashtunwali code-that links all the Afghanis together, but the tribal instinct links those communities together, not a sense of belonging to Afghanistan as a state, because it has never been one.

My next point is about economic vision. When I go to Afghanistan, I ask, "What is the grand plan? What is the vision for the country? Where are we going in the long term? What are the plans for railway lines, for example?" Whatever widgets Afghanistan makes, we have to get them out of the country and into the international markets. Hon. Members mentioned that probably the only secure way of moving goods about is by aircraft. There is a workable railway line from Karachi on the Pakistani border, which is where we bring in our logistical gear from, all the way up to Spin Boldak, which is 40 miles away from Kandahar. Would it not be great if we linked that railway line-built by the British, oddly enough, to bring munitions to the fighting in Afghanistan 100 years ago-into Kandahar, so that the agricultural products, other than poppies, that people are growing can reach the international markets?

Mr. Lancaster: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Ellwood: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), who has a lot of experience in Afghanistan.

Mr. Lancaster: This links to an earlier point that my hon. Friend made. If we are critical of some of the Government's strategy, it is of the artificial timetable that has been imposed. Yes, we want to build capacity in regional governance. The Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development is a good ministry, where genuine capacity has been built. However, I remember meeting
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the head of police in Lashkar Gah, where suddenly UK funding was cut off on 1 April and he was told to seek funding from Kabul. There was not capacity in the system to allow that funding to come down. Rather than focus on artificial dates, we should focus on capacity and transfer funding only once mechanisms are in place.

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I hope that the Minister listens to him, because he has experience in these matters: not only has he served in the armed forces but he has spent a lot of time in Afghanistan and seen these things first hand.

There would be a huge danger in packing our bags and turning our backs on Afghanistan. I say this as one who has been personally affected by the Bali bombing as well as 9/11, having been born in the United States. The hon. Member for Newport, West did not really touch on what would happen to Afghanistan as a whole or on the impact of the Taliban. If he thinks that the Taliban groupings, or leadership and followings, would not be a recruitment ground for al-Qaeda, in the absence of an international security force, he is hugely misled. The bigger consequence is that there will be a knock-on impact on neighbouring Pakistan. He says that they are two different countries, but he knows that when Pakistan gained its independence in 1947, the federally administered areas were just parked to one side and were not embraced within the constitution of the new country. It was regarded as being a little bit difficult and people said, "Oh, we're not really going to bother with these tribes up there on the border line. You guys crack on and do your own thing." Those places have now become the haven, probably, for Osama bin Laden and others. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the issues in southern Afghanistan-Taliban-led-would not spill over into that area and then into Pakistan as a whole, which has nuclear weapons, he is sorely misled. That is the danger that we on the official Opposition Benches need to be concerned about.

Paul Flynn: The hon. Gentleman spoke too briefly. He agrees that the Taliban have control of 80 per cent. of the country, but they have not invited al-Qaeda back. They have the greatest vested interest in ensuring that al-Qaeda is not in the country again because it caused the Taliban to lose control of the Government.

Mr. Ellwood: First, al-Qaeda is not there for a tactical reason. It can easily move into an area where ISAF-the international security assistance force-is not, which is the Pakistani border. There must be concern about that, and it must be discussed, which is why we link Afghanistan and Pakistan together.

I correct the hon. Gentleman again, as I did during an intervention. The Taliban do not have control of 80 per cent. of the country, and his statement was misleading, because 80 per cent. of the population of Helmand province live in 20 per cent. of the Helmand valley, and it is in that 20 per cent. that we concentrate our forces. The rest of the area is desert, and to say that the Taliban have control of the desert and are moving around suggests that we have no control over Helmand province. There is no one there, and if the Taliban wander around, they can do so. We do not have control over that.

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