Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

To make a difference now, we have to grasp the real problem of talking to those who for years have been

5 Dec 2006 : Column 1080

isolated, by the United States and others, in the search for peace in the region. We have to talk not only to the nation states—long established and part of the region—of Syria and Iran, but also to Hamas, Hezbollah and other groups that have engaged in violence but are willing now to talk to us. I know that this is an enormously difficult and sensitive point, but we have to think very clearly about imposing preconditions on whom we speak to and when. We owe it not only to the Palestinians and the Israelis, and not only to the Iraqis, but also to the Lebanese—that brave country with a courageous Prime Minister who expected better of the international community and who had a right to expect better. Lebanon deserves all our support and all our effort now. I look forward to my noble friend’s response about what the Prime Minister’s next steps will be in giving that support and sustaining that effort.

4.21 pm

Lord Blaker: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford that we should be thinking about changing course. I would have preferred this debate to have taken place after the publication of the forthcoming Baker-Hamilton report. Nevertheless, I hope that we will have an opportunity to discuss that before long, when we have had time to read it.

All my political life I have firmly supported the alliance between ourselves and the United States, but I am going to make some criticisms of United States policy in the areas we have been considering. I am encouraged to do so because the first thing my American friends ask me about is British public opinion on American policies in the Middle East.

When he started the Iraq war, President Bush declared that he felt it would bring democracy to the Middle East. That was a pretty ambitious aim, and I think a lot of people were very sceptical about how far it was achievable. When the allied forces first arrived in Iraq, they had a rather lukewarm reception, and the attitude towards us has got worse. We are seen by many in the Middle East as self-interested and particularly interested in oil. The result has been increased hostility to the western powers.

The Prime Minister said recently that terrorism has not been caused by the Iraq war because 9/11 occurred before the Iraq war began. That is not the point; the point is that terrorism is being enormously increased by what is going on now, not what happened on 9/11. If anybody is in any doubt, they need only ask Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, who talked recently about the effect of what is happening in the Middle East on terrorism. It is obvious that many more men—and women, too—are going in for terrorism. I believe that the terrorist campaign will be with us for many years to come. Historians will regard this war with incredulity.

Another consequence of the war is Iran’s increased influence in the Middle East.

One of the mistakes made by the Americans was not to prepare properly for the period after the war was over. It was pretty obvious that the war would be

5 Dec 2006 : Column 1081

brief, and there should have been clear ideas about how we were going to manage affairs in Iraq after it was over.

My noble friend Lord Jopling, whom I am sorry to see is not in his place today, made a powerful speech on 18 March 2003, just before the war began, in which he recounted the impression he had discovered in Washington, where he had just been: no one had thought seriously in any way about what was going to be done to manage the civilian problems after the war. Subsequent events showed that to be absolutely true. Because, to a large extent, of the lack of preparation for how internal affairs in Iraq were going to be managed, the war has released all the latent rivalries between Sunnis and Shias.

I am puzzled by the lack of contact that there must have been between Her Majesty’s Government and the American Government about what was going to be done after the war. I do not know what the preparation was here, but surely it was possible for Her Majesty’s Government to find out from the Americans what was being done about this problem. I am not aware of any contact on that subject. If my noble friend Lord Jopling was able to make contact, surely the Government could have done so.

Another error of the Americans was the decision by Mr Bremer, who was in charge of political affairs in Iraq soon after the end of the war, to abolish the Iraqi army and police force lock, stock and barrel. So they went away, many of them with their weapons, but without pay—a sure recipe for the sort of thing that has been happening most of the time since. Did Her Majesty’s Government know of Mr Bremer’s intentions? Were they consulted about making that extremely unsatisfactory move? Surely that was something we should have been discussing with the Americans. Mr Bremer’s decision explains to a large extent the recent casualties—the fighting, the assassinations, the bombs going off—partly because of the number of weapons in circulation, and partly because of the rivalry between the Shias and the Sunnis.

Another factor that has made the situation worse is the lack of training on the part of the American forces in winning hearts and minds. The dogma of the Pentagon, as was explained to me by an American professor at Princeton, was that they would not go in for hearts and minds; that was for someone else to deal with, not the military forces. That has caused a lot of hostility to the Americans in Iraq. I am glad to see it reported that the American policy I have just referred to is now being reconsidered.

Another mistake that we made was to commit ourselves to the Iraq war at the expense of our ability to pay enough attention to Afghanistan. We thought the Taliban had been safely put on one side, but here it is, reviving in very great strength. That is partly because our forces in Afghanistan are not as strong or numerous as they should have been.

My criticism of the Government in this context is that the Prime Minister failed to manage relations with the United States in the way that he should have done. President Bush badly needed us. We were his best ally. The Prime Minister did not use the influence

5 Dec 2006 : Column 1082

that he had with President Bush, whether we are talking of the time before the war and the United Nations negotiations, or of later events.

The most interesting insight into the attitude of the Prime Minister toward the American president was the accidental broadcasting, after the St Petersburg conference, of a conversation between them in which the Prime Minister said,

That sheds an interesting light on his attitude.

Regarding Afghanistan, we were right to take on the Taliban but, after that, we failed by not finishing the job. There has been, and still is, a great overstretch of our forces in Afghanistan. The Taliban is now rich and strong; it looks as if it is going to give us a nasty time for quite a while. I found the statement by the Secretary of State for Defence at the time, John Reid, extraordinary. He said that the forces we were sending to southern Afghanistan might not hear a shot fired in anger. I do not know whether he had failed to read his brief, or whether that was his guesswork—or, more probably, whether it was the considered opinion of our best intelligence—but it was a great mis-statement. Our forces in Afghanistan are performing magnificently and I would say the same of the Canadians, who have taken proportionately more casualties. I must mention an interest in that I was at one time a Canadian soldier.

The third area, which has as much potential for disaster as the first two that I have mentioned, is that of Israel and the Palestinians. That is causing as much terrorism in the world as either of the others, and the longer it goes on the more likely it is to worsen. The quartet seems not to have been very active recently, although it may have been doing things behind the scenes. I would like to see the Americans in particular being much more active in that context; in the last resort only they will be able to solve that problem, as somebody needs to put pressure on Israel. At the back of the problem is the Arab world’s belief that the Americans are favouring Israel.

As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester said, conditions in the Palestinian areas in Gaza and the West Bank are absolutely deplorable, as a result of Israeli policies. That is a particular reason for trying to solve that difficult situation as soon as possible. It is doubtful that the policies of Israel will benefit Israel in the long run. I think it is making a big mistake, since the force that it is using to get its will is shocking. It is still building the wall or fence, and thus still breaking international law—as they are elsewhere, by extending the settlements. I hope Israel will realise that, and adopt policies that are to the interest of the whole Middle East, to that of the Palestinians and to that of Israel itself.

4.34 pm

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, when I take part in foreign policy debates in this House, I am very impressed by the excellence of the speeches. Those of the spokespersons of the three main parties were, if possible, even more outstanding than usual. I congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Triesman and

5 Dec 2006 : Column 1083

Lord Howell of Guildford, and my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire on the quality of the reasoning that they bring to these debates. Having said that, no Government have ever had a better wicketkeeper than the noble Lord, Lord Triesman. The test side playing in Australia would be very grateful to have his help. I am not altogether sure that his Government deserve him, but I shall not further qualify the compliment I pay him.

I begin by picking up an important point that the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, made about Iraq. He said that little planning had been done on what was to happen after the victory. That is undoubtedly clear. However, it is rather worse than that. The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, gallantly gave the best possible impression that he could of what is happening in Iraq. But what he understandably did not mention, for reasons of time, was the relative disaster that reconstruction has been in that country. Something like 80 per cent of the inhabitants of Iraq are unemployed. All of us in this House know very well that unemployment feeds young men and women into being only too ready to take up the cause of terrorism or anything else because they have no means of making a decent living. The noble Lord was kind enough not to mention the $18.8 billion which are believed to have been lost from reconstruction funds as a result of poor administration by the United States occupation authorities and western companies’ ludicrously high overheads. Those companies seized most of the work, such as smaller construction projects, that should have gone to the Iraqis.

At present the citizens of Iraq are not only continually jeopardised and stressed by the level of insecurity and violence in that country, but still have only begun to get back the electricity, gas, water supplies and sewerage facilities that they might have expected to have 20 years ago. It is a very sad situation. I strongly recommend that anybody who finds me partisan looks at the website of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, a position included in the Iraqi Appropriations Act by a handful of Congressmen, led by Henry Waxman of California. The website presents a candid, honest and extraordinarily disturbing account of the reconstruction in Iraq and the ways in which so much of the money that all of us, but notably the United States, have contributed, has been abused, misused and allowed to run into the ground.

A further point, which I believe to be very important, concerns the desperate efforts to try to hand over to the Iraqi army and police. That is the way we need to go, but we are still not putting enough money into training those young men and we still fail to protect them. One of the sadnesses in Iraq is that, day after day, young male and female police recruits are slaughtered almost before they start their duties. Many noble Lords will speak about Iraq in this debate. It would be helpful if, at some stage, our ever ebullient Prime Minister were willing to recognise that the invasion of Iraq was a very serious mistake indeed in British foreign policy.

I pay tribute to the excellent speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, who spoke movingly about Afghanistan. Her comments were very

5 Dec 2006 : Column 1084

relevant to the situation. She spoke with great honesty about some of the problems Afghanistan faces. I will come to those in a moment, but I want to raise one other issue, which is a matter of great concern to NATO and which noble Lords with great knowledge of the alliance, such as my noble friend Lord Garden, might say something about. The Minister might also say something about it.

We know that the time of General Richards in Afghanistan has been applauded by all sides. Here is a military leader who has captured the imagination of many of his colleagues—Afghan, American and other allies alike; who is almost universally praised for the way in which he has handled the operation; who has gone out of his way to bring the battle for hearts and minds alongside the battle for military advantage; and who, after just nine months of outstanding success in Afghanistan, is to be switched to another post. Surely NATO could take these matters rather more seriously. Nobody, however brilliant, could grasp the complexities of Afghanistan in just nine months. No sooner has General Richards gained a powerful leadership position in that country—one we all applaud for bringing the political and military campaigns together—than he is suddenly moved somewhere else, to be replaced by an American general, who was last seen in Afghanistan at the height of the period of occupation by troops three years ago. That is a great pity. I wonder why people could not be retained on the grounds of their outstanding performance, rather than switched around simply because of some bureaucratic decision made by a NATO which finds it very difficult to work like an alliance, and in which each member state still has to get sovereign permission before accepting even very straightforward operational requests from the generals, because of the way it is constructed.

On Afghanistan, I want to follow what the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, said about the terrifying dependence on the poppy crop as a means of keeping very poor Afghans alive. Some 2 million people are totally dependent on it. The astonishing figures suggest that this is an area where we are losing hand over fist. In 2001—a time, I regret to say, when the Taliban was very powerful—7,606 hectares, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, were devoted to the growing and cultivation of the opium poppy. This year 165,000 hectares are devoted to the opium poppy—the highest level ever in Afghan history. It is astonishing that, despite terribly expensive efforts to destroy the poppy crop, which last year cost the United States alone $235 million, we are seeing—because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, rightly said, there are no alternatives—it grow and grow. Most of the product comes to the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe.

We have to be more imaginative. One of the suggestions made by an NGO, which may not be practical, was to buy a large part of the poppy crop to make legitimate drugs, of the kind still badly needed, such as morphine and other painkillers. I understand the difficulty of doing that when the Afghan Government is highly corrupt. If we cannot do that, surely we could at least consider creating a kind of common agricultural policy for the other crops. If we

5 Dec 2006 : Column 1085

have to pay too much for them for the next four or five years, it would still be far less expensive than what we are presently trying to do, and would enable Afghan farmers to lead decent and legitimate lives without being driven into what is increasingly a criminal economy in a large part of Afghanistan.

I agree completely with the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, on the position of girls and women in Afghanistan. She is obviously right to say that we must defeat the Taliban, but we cannot do it by military means alone. We have to find economic reasons for Afghans to believe that supporting the Taliban is not in their interests, let alone in the interests of the world.

I turn to two other issues—I am well aware of the pressure of time. The first, again, follows something that was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons—that is, the state of Lebanon. I say again as strongly as I can that I believe that our Prime Minister and President Bush made a desperate mistake in not insisting on a ceasefire in Lebanon at the beginning of the Israeli offensive on southern Lebanon. Why did we imagine for a moment that this weak but democratic, western-inclined state would be able to live with the consequences of so many civilians being killed and so many babies, who, as our televisions showed, were alive and then died, being carried out of burning buildings? That is no way to create support for a moderate Government in a country where hearts and minds are crucial. We have now put at risk the Lebanese Government, led by a decent, moderate and thoughtful man, President Siniora, whom the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, and I have met and been impressed by. What did we think we were doing? As a result, not only have Iran and Hezbollah been strengthened but the Government of Lebanon may not survive for more than the next few hours because of the level of demonstrations in the street. Talk about shooting oneself in the foot! This is to shoot oneself in the heart, and it is an absurd thing to have done. I only hope and pray that Lebanon’s Government survive to take part in a wider regional peace process. But, frankly, the odds are against it at present and very much in favour of a Government whom we would not like to succeed this decent one, led by a decent man, who supported western ideals and western values.

Lastly, I want to say a word about Israel and Palestine. It is worth remembering that it was King Abdullah of Jordan who said:

at the centre. That has been true for 40 years: it always comes back to the Israeli-Arab, Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

Again, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, about the extreme interest and concern that we should feel for the brave initiative of Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister of Israel. He said only a few days ago—at the end of November—that he was in favour of making a major initiative towards the Palestinians, admittedly at a time when the Palestinian state is

5 Dec 2006 : Column 1086

worse even than it has been over recent years because of the desperate plight of Gaza, to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester—I apologise to him for having missed the earliest part of his speech—made such moving reference. We should stop for a moment and consider how important that initiative is.

There is reason to believe that Mr Olmert has long been in favour of trying to reach a decent peace with Palestine. However, there are two great worries. The first was mentioned by the right reverend Prelate and others, including my noble friend Lord Wallace. It is what appears to be the double standard that western countries apply to Israel and the Palestinians. They are absolutely right to say that the Palestinians, in the shape of Hezbollah, should recognise Israel and abandon threats to destroy it, but alongside that equally goes the absolute necessity for Israel to recognise that the war and the settlements are contrary to international law. An even-handed Government, which I should like to see ours become, would make that clear at the same time to both those Governments in order to create the possibility of peace.

I have one other great fear, which I shall mention in this final minute. I do not know how many noble Lords saw the very troubling article that appeared in Ha’aretz on 3 December. In it, a very brave journalist, Gideon Levy, refers to the fact that, time and again, when peace has been very close between Israel and the Palestinians, when there was a referendum on the prisoner proposals, and when Hamas and the Palestinian Authority came together to create a united Government, a very high-level Palestinian figure has been assassinated and, shortly afterwards, the terrorism has begun all over again. So we now need to couple with our requests and demands to Israel and the Palestinians to pave the way for a peace that might be lasting—and, God knows, that too hangs on a thread—a request for an end to judicial assassinations, because they are completely contrary to the ability to run politics in a civilised manner and, in the end, will destroy those who are responsible for them.

4.50 pm

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, I am grateful to the Government for giving the House a long overdue opportunity for a debate exclusively devoted to the Middle East and Afghanistan. Many of your Lordships will no doubt have decided to concentrate on the dangerous and critical situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon and on our relations with Syria and Iran. It will not surprise many noble Lords if, like the right reverend Prelate, I choose to concentrate on the situation and prospects for relations between Israel and the Palestinians, not only because the gracious Speech rightly accorded this long-standing problem high priority in the Government’s foreign policy agenda, but also because I believe that we are at a critical and important moment when there are or should be real prospects for progress towards a lasting and fair peace settlement.

It is arguable that the simultaneous crises in Iraq, Gaza and Lebanon now present opportunities as well as challenges. There are signs that not only moderate

5 Dec 2006 : Column 1087

Arab states, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but also Israel and even Syria are looking afresh at ways to ease the interconnected tensions in both Palestine and Iraq. Many of us in this House have argued, as I do again today, that a fair and balanced approach to the Palestinian problem is a central and essential pillar, not only for the many problems that threaten our interests in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, but also for our relationships with the wider Muslim world and within our own domestic communities.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page