Previous Section Index Home Page

The Defence Secretary has rapidly suffered the fate of all Ministers, including Defence Ministers, who are caught in possession of an intelligent idea. Denials were issued, including by the Foreign Secretary, who I am delighted to see in his place, saying that either that it was not said or that it was not meant. However, this was an entirely rational approach of Government, because we cannot sacrifice the lives of our troops in a war designed to reshape the education policy of a country that is in a state of civilisation that is centuries behind us all.

The policy supported from all sides is based on a series of delusions. The other thing that we primarily lie about is Karzai. If we had not gone into Afghanistan in 2001, we would see Karzai as a rogue leader and take resolutions about removing him, because he has fixed his own election and is publicly corrupt. A member of the World Bank who wrote a book about it afterwards said to him, "I have absolute proof of how $1 million has been stolen from the funds devoted from abroad." He replied, "You westerners don't understand Afghanistan. This is the Afghan way of doing things. You pay us the money and we steal it." This has been the lubricant of Afghan politics and Afghan business for hundreds of years. Corruption is endemic, but we still play this foolish game of believing that we can get rid of corruption and that if we pass a few resolutions here, corruption will go. That will not happen. It has been asked many times, if Karzai is serious about ending corruption, why does he not arrest his brother? It comes very close to his line.

The other delusion that is constantly repeated is that we are there to ensure that there is not terrorism on our streets. It certainly did not work in New York, where there was an act of terrorism despite America's action in Afghanistan. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) made a telling point, although he came to the wrong conclusion, when he said that al-Qaeda was no longer operating in Afghanistan. If we look at the facts, we will see that none of the terrorist threats or actions has come from Afghanistan. They have come from Pakistan and from this country. If we wanted to ensure that terrorist acts were not planned, we would have to invade Pakistan, Somaliland and Yemen. This is a myth. We have not, as few of our Front Benchers have met Taliban leaders, but if we said to a Taliban leader, "What is your aim? Why are you killing our soldiers?", would they say, "Oh, when we've killed your soldiers, we're coming over to London and Newport to blow up your streets."? Or would they say, "We are killing your soldiers because they are farangi. They are in our country and it is our sacred religious duty to kill them, to drive them out of our country in the same way as our fathers did with the Russians, as our grandfathers did with other farangi and as our great-great-grandfathers did, and in the same way as we hope that our children will die in expelling farangi from our country"? Our presence there is the reason why the killing continues.

26 May 2010 : Column 266

Let us consider the two levels of war that we have had from when we went to Afghanistan, when it was not controversial, up to 2006 when there was no decision in this House, but there was a debate. The Government at the time said that they were going into Helmand province in the hope that not a shot would be fired and that they would be out in three years. That was accepted in the debate by all parties. In that debate, I suggested that that action would be as futile and dangerous as the charge of the Light Brigade. I seriously underestimated the carnage that resulted. We have now lost twice as many people in Helmand as died in the charge of the Light Brigade, in a mission that has been equally futile.

We base our hope on a number of pillars. One is the Afghan army and the other the Afghan police. The Afghan army was involved in a mission six months ago in which 300 of its members were guarding a convoy that was attacked by seven members of the Taliban. The Afghan army fled-they were outnumbered and left the Taliban to capture the convoy. It was rightly asked at the time why on earth mercenary soldiers-which is what they are, and they might well desert or be in the Taliban in a week's time, as there are mass desertions-should kill brother Afghans and give up their lives in the service of a corrupt President who is not of their tribe and in the service of foreign countries.

The other group is the police. The only time at which a police force that is free of corruption has been set up anywhere in recent times was in Georgia, where they sacked the entire police force and started again. We are not doing that. We are building on a collapsing, rotten foundation of a police force that is based on corruption. That is the way in which it is run. The chiefs of the police buy their jobs and the reason that they pay huge amounts of money to become important leaders of the police is that they get their money by taking a cut of the money taken from the Afghan people by oppressing and stealing from them.

Even worse, when we so-called liberated one area in Penkala, the chiefs and elders came forward and said, "Whatever you do, don't send in the Afghan police, because the last time they were here, they practised bacha bazi." Those who are familiar with that will know that it is the ritual imprisonment and rape of prepubescent boys. The person whom they appealed to said, "You had the Taliban here before. Were they not wicked people?" They said, "Yes, they are wicked and cruel, but they are men of principle."

6.20 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am most grateful to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). He and I have clashed on these subjects many times in the past, and I think we will continue so to do. It is extremely telling that he continued to mention Afghanistan without linking it intimately to Pakistan. I shall expand on that later.

I congratulate all those who made their maiden speeches today, in particular my old friend, the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). It is many years since the House has contained a full colonel who carries a Distinguished Service Order. I know that we will be extremely grateful to have not only him but all his newly arrived colleagues with us to add their wisdom to the proceedings of the House. Let me also welcome to their new posts the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State
26 May 2010 : Column 267
for Defence and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth)-it gives me particular pleasure to see him in that position.

I want to concentrate briefly on the subjects of defence and foreign affairs, as the two interplay and interlock with each other. I hope and trust that, with the new coalition Government in front of us, we will base our defence policy and military expeditions on the principles of sound, thought-through foreign policy. I hope that we will stop committing our young men and women-our marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen-to expeditions that are based upon dubious intelligence, or perhaps even lies, upon aspirations that have not been thought through and upon aims that are completely devoid of a study of history. It is fascinating to note, for instance, that on 21 July last year, on the Helmand river, the same regiment was in action against the same tribesmen, against a very similar political background-fighting Talibs, for which read Taliban, and Ghazis, for which read al-Qaeda. That is exactly the same position as when almost 1,000 Britons lost their lives on 21 July 1880 in the battle of Maiwand. That is no coincidence. What is deplorable is that a Government could commit us to that sort of action without making a careful study of British history in that area, and, of course Soviet history in that same area.

Therefore, I have no doubt that the new Government will look carefully at the way we approach our defence policy and in particular that we cease to regard what is going on in Afghanistan-Pakistan as an operation. It is not an operation: it is a war. If we are to win this war-I use the words "war" and "win" not in terms of victory medals and parades, of peace treaties and conventional warfare, but in a wholly different and thoughtful way to mean that although the war will never be won, the situation may be contained-we need to understand that, to be successful, our armed forces must be placed on a war footing. Above and beyond everything else, we must have a policy of withdrawing our fighting men and women from harm's way as soon as they possibly, justifiably and honourably can be withdrawn.

The big questions that await the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary are about having an understanding of where conventional operations and counter-insurgency operations start and stop. One of the great crimes of the last Government was to try to pretend that conventional operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan would make sure that there were no terrorist operations on the streets of this country. But I say to the House that the last successful terrorist operation in this country, in July 2005, was not carried out by Afghans, but by Yorkshiremen. It was carried out by Englishmen trained a little in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, but trained also in the Lake district. How on earth are armoured cars and tanks and bombs-to quote the song-going to stop that sort of operation continuing? It does not make sense.

The reason that our men and women are committed to Afghanistan and Pakistan is to contain that situation, and to make sure that the people of this country understand that this is a regional conflict which stretches from the borders of Iran right the way up to the borders of Russia, and which concerns the use of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of unprincipled enemies who will be only too happy to use them in this country.

26 May 2010 : Column 268

The big decisions for the new Government lie in deciding whether we will try and conduct such operations and how we spend our slender resources-broadly speaking and in very crude terms, whether we buy manpower and expertise or whether we continue to invest in high-tech equipment which is less than suitable for this sort of warfare. We must look over the horizon and decide where the next threat is coming from. Will we face a series of minor conflicts verging on insurgencies, or must we be ready for the big questions, the big wars and deterrence, of which we have an understanding and of which history may be able to show us easier lessons?

I do not know the answer to those questions, but I do know that the most important element in helping the Government and the best thing that we can do in the Chamber is to form a vibrant, thoughtful and knowledgeable Defence Committee that is properly led and directed and which can ask the difficult questions of our Front-Bench team and of the Opposition, and ask the Ministry of Defence to make sure that its resources are no longer squandered.

For instance, in these times of extreme financial difficulty, why do we have five headquarters? Why do we have a Ministry of Defence, Permanent Joint Headquarters, Strike Command, Land Command and Fleet Command stuffed with senior officers, senior civil servants, batmen, drivers and computer operators? Why do we have more civil servants than we have members of the Army? Why do we have at any one time only 9,000 men and women who are capable of driving a tank or thrusting with a bayonet? Why do we need five massive, expensive headquarters to deal with that? These are the sort of questions that a well-balanced Defence Committee should ask. Such questions will define our defence policy over the next couple of decades.

But we must not allow ourselves to be narrow-minded. We must not allow ourselves to prepare for the last war, or to go through the sort of thing that I had to go through when I was a serving officer. After my 25 years' experience, mainly operational, my last job in the Army was in charge of part of the Army Training and Recruiting Agency. When I asked why there were no war plans to increase the number of men and women that we would need to fight the next war, I received a clear statement not from the major-general commanding, but from an individual who described himself as the chief executive. He wore the uniform of a major-general, but he described himself in that civilian role. He said, "Young man"-I was flattered-"there is never going to be another war like that again." How wrong he was, and how wrong were so many of the speeches, including the excellent speech that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Newport West.

How many of the speeches misunderstand the nature of the wars that we will have to face, and the nature of the pool of manpower from which we can draw to fight those wars. These are the difficult questions and the reason the Defence Committee must make itself available as a loyal but critical servant of the Government, is to make sure that we do not continue the sort of mistakes that we have seen over the past 13 years.

Lastly, we must all salute those young men and young women, many of whom were on the list which, I agree, should have been read out by the last speaker, who allow us to debate in freedom while they risk their lives.

26 May 2010 : Column 269
6.30 pm

Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): First, I pay tribute to our armed forces, particularly those stationed in many parts of the world as they protect our country and our national interests. They are magnificent people, and it was my great honour to serve them as Secretary of State for Defence and, before that, as Minister for the Armed Forces. I want especially to pay tribute to those in Afghanistan, most particularly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice since the House last met. We must never forget them.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) on his appointment; he now has the privilege but also the duty to do all he can for the defence of our country and the well-being of our armed forces. I hope that he will be able to face the significant challenges of the period ahead. In my view, he faces three overriding tasks. To the extent that he carries those out honourably and in the national interest, he will receive our backing and support.

First, the right hon. Gentleman needs to conduct a strategic defence review, as announced in the Gracious Speech. Secondly, he must take forward and consolidate the progress achieved so far in Afghanistan. Thirdly, he must ensure that he looks after the welfare of our armed forces community. To use the shorthand that has now gone into common usage, he needs to honour the military covenant.

Is the strategic defence review under way, as we have read in the press? The Government are falling into bad habits so soon. Is there going to be an open debate on the issues during the process? Will the Government set up real mechanisms to ensure that those beyond the Government will be able to contribute? The right hon. Gentleman was complimentary about the manner in which I conducted the Green Paper process, and I hope that he will be as inclusive on the strategic defence review itself.

Despite claiming that the SDR will be security-led, the right hon. Gentleman will not be able to exclude the Treasury, as the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), who chaired the Defence Committee, said. I suggest to the Secretary of State for Defence that it is in his interests and those of the nation to include others. After all, he has repeatedly told the British people that the British Government are fighting a war on a peacetime budget. He must expect to be judged on the outcome that he achieves. Having said that the Army is too small, that the number of Navy ships has been reduced to the point of putting the nation in danger, and having criticised the cutbacks at RAF Cottesmore and the gapping of the Nimrod capability, he has set himself quite a task.

Sir Menzies Campbell: There is not only the Green Paper exercise, in which the former Secretary of State was kind enough to invite me to participate, but the example of Labour's defence review following the 1997 election, led by George-now Lord-Robertson, and in which the public were invited to participate effectively.

Mr Ainsworth: I am inviting my successor to be as open and inclusive as possible and to try to capture a broad spectrum of opinion in the country as he does his business on the strategic defence review.

26 May 2010 : Column 270

What on earth went on last week on the issue of Afghanistan? The Defence Secretary was briefing the press that

That has been mentioned by many this afternoon. At the same time, the Secretary of State for International Development was making it clear that development, including education, was absolutely crucial. If the Secretaries of State travel on the same plane, they must be able to speak to one another. It is not as though either was a Liberal Democrat-where was the barrier to a conversation? Did the Foreign Secretary have to knock the Secretaries of States' heads together?

Can the Defence Secretary confirm that, despite what he was trying to spin out in the newspapers, he has no new strategy in Afghanistan and that he is following the coalition strategy, as we were? If not, he should spell out his new strategy to the House so that he can be questioned on it. He should also let ISAF's commander, General McChrystal, know that he has a new plan and share it with him.

Will the Secretary of State tell us-if not now, perhaps he could write-what equipment he is going to provide for our troops over and above what had already been ordered by the Labour Government? He will want to do this, having been so vociferous in telling the nation how we were betraying the troops in Afghanistan, so I invite him to do so. How many additional helicopters and protected vehicles does he plan to buy? How will he square that with his silly attempts to say that we were signing irresponsible contracts in the last months of the Government? I leave it to him to square that argument. However, if he is going to make that allegation, I invite him to say specifically which contracts we should not have signed and which contracts should not go ahead.

On the talked-about move to Kandahar, let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that I was an extreme sceptic. We have learned many things in Helmand, and surely now is the time to consolidate and to finish the job. I hope that unless there are overwhelming, genuine military reasons to do otherwise, he will resist the calls to pull up stumps and move elsewhere.

I turn to the issue of forces welfare. I hope that the Secretary of State can accept that great strides were made in the past few years. I know that he felt the need, as did many of his colleagues, to claim that we had broken the military covenant. He knows, however, that I made great efforts through the service personnel Command Paper, and that the Labour Government improved the lot of our servicemen and women through the introduction of improvements to the compensation scheme and the investment that we made in service accommodation. Can he assure us that there will be no rowing back from the improvements that we introduced, and detail the improvements that he plans to make himself? I congratulate him on increasing the operational allowance, but having said all that he has, he will need to do more than that.

Next Section Index Home Page