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It is important to have this debate, but where the hon. Gentleman wants to go is extremely dangerous and goes against the grain of international concerns and our international responsibility to keep terrorism at bay.

10.21 am

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) on securing this debate. We need many more such debates, and Members of Parliament should study and scrutinise Government policy in this area ever more diligently. Indeed, a fault of my colleagues and I is that we have not done that for many years, partly because our attention was dragged off to Iraq where so many dangers and disasters happened with the knock-on impact on the Afghanistan mission.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the matter today, and to challenge the consensus. However, I disagree with him, as he knows from listening to our debates on the Floor of the House, because the objectives of the mission are extremely important. Those set out by the Minister and others should be pursued by the international community. Withdrawal now would be disastrous. One has thought long and hard about whether that is an option, but the more one considers it-and not just the impact on the people of Afghanistan, the stability of Pakistan and the fight against terrorism-the more one realises that one must find a way of achieving success in the mission, even if that success is defined rather more modestly by lack of failure.

We need to consider what President Obama said last week at West Point. Some of what he said was welcome, and he was clearly strong on the military side, but I am afraid that I was disappointed by the lack of detail on the political side. There was little reference to the political strategy that I and my colleagues have argued is critical if we are to avoid failure in Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal's plan had a huge focus on the political side, and he argues that the military side alone is completely insufficient and inadequate. A strong political direction is needed, and I welcome what the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have said during the past two or three months because they have begun to spell out in detail that sort of political strategy. The lack of that in what President Obama said worried me.

I hope that the Minister will be able to elucidate for hon. Members why President Obama did not go into detail on the political element. Perhaps in the testimonies that we shall no doubt read from Secretary of State Clinton on the Hill and others in due course we shall see that political dimension described in more detail. Clearly, it was in the white paper published by the White House last March, but it was not in the West Point speech. Perhaps when speaking to a group of cadets at West Point, the details on the political side are not discussed, but Obama needs to focus not just on the domestic and military audience, but on the international audience. We must all be convinced that he has the right strategy after so much deliberation.

I want to press the Minister and his colleagues to reassure us over the next few weeks that the political dimension is at the heart of what the Americans want to do and how they are leading the international coalition.
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In the run-up to the London conference at the end of January there is a space to ensure that that strategy exists.

I have discussed the matter previously, and will try not to reiterate what I have said, but the importance of putting pressure on Karzai-the Prime Minister is particularly committed to that-will require getting rid of some of the governors who have been corrupt, because one cannot build on a rotten base. That needs a Loya Jirga, which President Karzai talked about in his inauguration speech, to have real constitutional reform to build up power and governance at local level. It also needs a plan B to be articulated, because we cannot simply wait for Karzai if he does not deliver quickly. That might mean bypassing central Kabul and going directly to those on the ground and getting the money to those on the ground, as the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) said, and to local district governors who can deliver. Karzai must know that he is not the only show in town.

I have talked a lot about the local political dimension. The need for reconciliation was crucial to McChrystal, but the President mentioned it in only a single, almost offhand remark. General Petraeus brought in the British Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb and puts a lot of store by that, so one hopes that that is still in the strategy. We must debate the process of reconciliation more because it is an incredibly tough strategy, and as tough as fighting. It is not an easy strategy, and it needs a military side to enable us to persuade the Taliban that they should come over, but it needs a multi-layered approach at local, district, provincial and national level.

The Americans are unwilling to talk to the Taliban leadership, but that must be on the agenda, not necessarily because they are likely to agree to a settlement that we could accept-they probably believe that they are winning-but clearly feelers need to be put out to Mullah Omar and others to ensure that the ground is being prepared.

The Taliban that we hear about are an incredibly complicated group of people. I and many others have talked about the $10-a-day Taliban, the local Taliban and the jihadist Taliban. I am trying to get through a detailed book that has recently been written called "Decoding the New Taliban", which is a series of essays by experts on Afghanistan and the Taliban. One chapter refers to the Taliban caravan and quotes an academic, Bernt Glatzer, who talks about different people. Even the Afghans have many different names for the different types of Taliban: Taliban-e jangi, the fighting or insurgent Taliban; the Taliban-e darsi, the madrassa or student Taliban; the Taliban-e asli, the real Taliban or clean Taliban; the Taliban-e Pakistani, who are there just to do Pakistan's business; the Taliban-e duzd, the thief Taliban; the Taliban mahali, the local Taliban; the Taliban-e khana-neshin; and the Taliban sitting at home. Those are all disaggregated by other adjectives, including the concept of majbur Taliban, the forced Taliban, and the naraz Taliban, the dissatisfied Taliban.

If we are to understand how to reach out and integrate people, we must understand the culture and the different types of Taliban far better than we have until now. It has been a huge failing by hon. Members and probably the Government and the international community not
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to understand the complexity of that society. We have been omnipresent, and have given the impression that we can go in and solve everything, but we cannot. We must understand the Afghan and Pakistan people, and the people of the region from where they are, not from where we think they should be. That is the only way we can be successful in reintegrating and reconciling.

We cannot take comfort from the idea that the Taliban are unpopular because they are nasty people. Nasty insurgents can take power, and they did. They can impose their power through coercion. They do not have to be popular to rule or to take ground. It is no good us saying that the Taliban are unpopular so we will be okay. The matter is far more complicated.

We must understand the process of reconciliation. In the past, there have been two big findings from looking at people who have been brought over. Some were brought over, but were then badly treated by the Afghan Government or the Americans-some were taken off to Guantanamo Bay. That is not an incentive for people to come over in the future. Others who have come over and tried to join the Afghan mainstream have been assassinated by the Taliban or their families have been killed. The process of reintegration and reconciliation is difficult and fraught with dangers, but I believe that it is the best way forward. If we manage to do that, we will help Afghanistan and the Afghan people. We must understand how to do that in more detail than there has been until now.

I will conclude by talking about the other political dimension that was missing from President Obama's strategy as laid out at West Point. I am sure that he is an intelligent, sophisticated man-I am sure it is somewhere there, but we need to see more sign of it and of the international dimension. People on all sides have talked about the importance of the regional peace settlement. I, together with other hon. Members, have asked Ministers to ensure that Russia and China, and possibly other countries, are represented at the London conference. It would be ideal to see Iran there. Clearly, there have been lots of talks with India and Pakistan, and the significance of that is well known.

I was interested to read in the Foreign Secretary's blog a call for a Marshall plan for Pakistan. That is exactly right. When one looks at the international dimension, Britain has a particular role in Pakistan-even more than in Afghanistan-and that area is clearly one of our main objectives. We must think more about and debate how we can help the people of Pakistan, not only against the threat of terrorists who are murdering people in the cities almost every other day with outrageous bombs, but with development issues. For example, Pakistan has a massive water problem. If we can deal with its water infrastructure and assist agriculture in villages and small towns, that would be a massive step forward and win us real plaudits from the Pakistani people. We would win hearts and minds, and that is the sort of approach that we need.

My concern about the Pakistan peace is that there is a parallel with Iraq. For Iraq, the then Prime Minister said that it was all about the middle east. He said that there would be a peace process for Israel and Palestine, which was why we should support the invasion of Iraq. He said he had twisted the arm of the American President to get peace in the middle east. What happened to that? Absolutely nothing.

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The current Government say that they will pursue the political strategy laid out so well by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, and that they will persuade the Americans to do more in Afghanistan. However, we must also be the strongest friend possible to the people of Pakistan. We must help that country move forward. If we can do that, we will really have achieved something. This will be well worth while and we will bring peace.

Mr. Ellwood: The hon. Gentleman is about to sit down, so I thought that I would seek clarification. As with so many other things, he seems to be positioning himself firmly on the fence, although he is likely to slip one way with a commitment to Afghanistan. The speeches that others in his party have made seem to be generally supportive of troops in Afghanistan, although they are now rowing back from that. My concern is that as we approach the general election, the Liberal Democrat position will be to call for troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan. I seek clarity on that issue, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman can put it on the record.

Mr. Davey: I do not think that I could have been clearer. Certainly, Ministers have recognised our position during debates. The Secretary of State for Defence went on the record and criticised his own side for trying to make those sorts of comments, and the hon. Gentleman does not help the debate by his suggestion. The Liberal Democrats have been clear from day one about our support for the mission and its objectives. However, we have not allowed ourselves not to criticise the strategy. This is not simply about political matters such as troop equipment and supporting our forces, but about how the overall strategy has developed. We have been deeply critical for a long time about how the strategy has developed, because of the lack of a political dimension that I have mentioned today and in previous speeches.

I am still critical. The Government seem to have the right approach, and I commend them-they are developing the strategy, and I could hardly be more supportive of what they have been advocating, but my concern is that the Americans are not there yet. That does not mean that we should call for a withdrawal of troops. It means that we will retain our critical faculties and keep pushing at the points that need to be raised, so as to ensure that this is a successful mission.

10.35 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser. May I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) on raising this debate? As I listened to him, I wondered, rather like Churchill and his comment on the pudding, whether there was a theme. As far as I could see, the theme had two parts: first, why is the UK in Afghanistan and particularly in Helmand province; and secondly, that the answer to the difficulties being faced in Afghanistan is to bring our soldiers home. The hon. Gentleman raised such questions quite legitimately, although I disagreed with the answer.

I was also struck by him calling Siegfried Sassoon in aid. When I had a real job before becoming a politician, I did a little work and writing on the Royal Welch Fusiliers during the first world war. The hon. Gentleman might have forgotten that although Siegfried Sassoon criticised the war in 1917, he returned to regimental
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duty where he was known as "Mad Jack" because he went into no man's land and was an expert personal killer of German soldiers. He fought honourably to the end of the first world war and his attitude towards war and soldiering was, I think, ambivalent to say the least. It is always doubtful to call him in aid to support arguments about contemporary conflict one way or another.

Paul Flynn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Simpson: As I raised the subject, of course I will give way.

Paul Flynn: I am well acquainted with the military career of Siegfried Sassoon at Mametz Wood, where he fought with Welsh regiments. What happened in those areas is a matter of great interest in Wales. However, does the fact that he saw himself as a loyal, faithful soldier not add more authority to his actions? He risked being jailed for the declaration that he made. It still rings true. Please do not try the ad hominem approach. The words apply precisely to our situation now.

Mr. Simpson: I will beg to disagree. Both my grandfathers served in the first world war, and they had no doubt as to why they had volunteered and served. The peoples of Belgium and northern France were only too well aware of the reasons why they were fighting in the war. Siegfried Sassoon was never going to be tried because the Army would never have been stupid enough to do that, particularly following the intervention of his good friend and regimental comrade, Robert Graves. Perhaps we can debate that at another time.

This debate is about the strategy in Afghanistan. However one likes to define it, in simple terms, a strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. There is no doubt that we can wind the film back, and say that over the past eight years we have seen a series of failures by the United States of America, the United Kingdom and NATO to have a clear policy and strategy from which everything else flowed. There are reasons why we should be in Afghanistan, and I am not going to repeat all of them. Many hon. Members from both sides of the House have been at debates or briefings in the Foreign Office, and we have raised the issues. We cannot wish ourselves back to where we were eight years ago, so we must make the best of what we have.

The hon. Member for Newport, West made a crucial point. Without the support of public opinion, it is difficult to execute and implement the strategy. There is no doubt that public support for British troops in Afghanistan has declined over the past nine months for lots of reasons. First, there is the lack of a clear strategy, and secondly there is the drip, drip, drip of casualties. The hon. Gentleman was right to talk not only about deaths, but about the physical and mental casualties. However, if we looked at casualties alone, however personally horrendous for individuals, it is likely that at different times in our history we would not have pursued strategies of one kind or another.

There is a supreme irony that perhaps some of the casualties that we are sustaining now are due to General McChrystal having restrained the use of air power and ground fire power because he is concerned about its impact on Afghan civilian causalities. Our servicemen and women understand that. They are only too well
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aware of that balancing act, and have perhaps more grit and determination about it than we do.

However, the onus of responsibility must be on the Government to explain their policy. Although I accept that Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup and others are saying that the negative aspect of the debate-the casualties and the comments made by Members of Parliament and the media-undermines the morale of the troops, I do not accept that that is a reason why we should not have such a debate or, indeed, why the hon. Member for Newport, West should not raise these questions. It is the duty of the Government to provide the arguments about why we are in Afghanistan, why we are taking casualties and why, as the military themselves have accepted, we may, at least in the short term, end up taking more casualties.

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case for the importance of exposing a strategy. Does he agree that it would have been helpful not only to the House but to the nation if we had had regular updates-quarterly updates-from the Prime Minister on what is happening in Afghanistan, to ensure that we keep the British nation on side in understanding why we are there and the progress that is being made?

Mr. Simpson: Yes, I do. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who speaks on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, has already made that point, as have a number of Government Members. The Prime Minister has missed an opportunity. If, before Christmas, he had had a major debate on Afghanistan-in which he had, with support from Ministers, set out all the arguments-with both the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Government would have been in a stronger position. I hope that in the new year the Government will think again. That might well be in the aftermath of the London conference. I certainly agree that regular updates beyond the occasional statement would help to advance the arguments.

There are a number of questions to be raised about the strategy. I will not repeat some of the excellent points made by hon. Members on both sides of this Chamber. I shall concentrate on three or four questions. The first relates to the difficulty at present of measuring what success is. Along with many other hon. Members, I am concerned that both President Obama and, at one stage, the Prime Minister seemed to be giving the impression that there was a series of timelines of one kind or another. That might feed into the suspicion, raised by the hon. Member for Newport, West, that that had more to do with mid-term elections and the general election than with real success. To be fair, certainly the Secretary of State for Defence has rowed back from that, but the Government need to explain much more clearly how we demonstrate what success will be. Some of that will be beyond the control of the United Kingdom Government or the Prime Minister. I think that three issues are crucial in the immediate short term as far as the Government are concerned. The first is the London conference.

Paul Flynn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Simpson: Reluctantly, I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will excuse me. I have only a few minutes left and we want to leave time for the Minister.

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