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5.50 pm

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, today’s debate on the Middle East and Afghanistan is my first opportunity to contribute as a defence spokesperson since I was a defence procurement Minister in the other place over 20 years ago. I am recalled to the colours following the very sad, almost brutal death of our dear colleague, Tim, Lord Garden. He entered your Lordships’ House following a distinguished military career, and his military experience and opinions carried huge respect here and beyond. I come after Tim, but in no way can I say I follow him. We all miss him greatly, no one more so than my noble friend Lady Garden, who is with us today.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I concur with the sentiments the noble Lord has uttered. Tim Garden was a splendid contributor to this House and a very fine man. We feel just as the noble Lord does.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, I would like the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to know that noble Lords on all Benches were enormously respectful of

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the work done by Lord Garden. I am still an active member of the group he established on non-proliferation, which does essential work. He was diligent about having an excellent range of speakers on that issue, and we very much regret his passing. We hope that in due course the noble Baroness will be able to take an active part in our proceedings.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, we on these Benches are very grateful for the comments of the two noble Lords.

When, at the Ministry of Defence in the early to mid-1980s, I was involved in privatising the Royal Ordnance factories and contractorising the dockyards, the official Opposition at that stage was led by a certain new Labour Member of Parliament called Gordon Brown. My ministerial colleague at that stage, the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, visited Rosyth to spell out the benefits of our contractorisation policy. Sadly, if I remember correctly, his ministerial car received a severe rocking, but the men of Lerwick are built of stern stuff and the noble Lord survived. I am delighted to see him in the Chamber today.

I intend to focus my comments primarily on the defence aspects of Afghanistan, although of course the widely held view, as was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, is that the failure to solve the Middle East conflict between Israel and the Palestinians lies at the historical heart of so many regional conflicts and terrorism issues. My noble friend Lord Wallace will be talking about the Middle East and its wider dimension later on.

Sometimes I think that, were instructors at staff colleges to create a mythical country posing the most difficult challenge to our forces, it would have many of the characteristics of Afghanistan today: a large inhospitable landmass with extreme temperatures; a complex tribal population; 90 per cent of the world’s opium production, with all the corruption that goes with that; borders virtually impossible to police, with pursuit over them barred; above all, a country that has defeated and devoured invading foreign armies over the centuries. Our forces in Afghanistan today are being asked to undertake a task somewhere between one fraught with extreme difficulty and a nightmare. That they have achieved so much is a tribute to their training, their character and their bravery, but are we asking them to achieve the “Mission: Impossible”, given their limited numbers and resources?

I am delighted that our military chiefs, politicians across the political divide, the British Legion and the media are now campaigning for greater recognition of what our Armed Forces do for us, for better accommodation, for better medical and psychological support for the wounded and for a better financial package for those service personnel and/or their families following serious injury or death. But all that is for another day’s debate.

In the defence policy debate in the other place last week, the Secretary of State, Des Browne, attempted to put the most favourable interpretation on events.

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To be fair, there have been real achievements: 40,000-plus Afghan troops trained; 4.8 million refugees returned home; 83 per cent of the population having access to medical facilities, as the Minister referred to; 5 million children in education; and Afghanistan close to becoming self-sufficient in food production. Virtually parallel with that, however, we have a Chatham House publication entitled Coalition Warfare in Afghanistan: Burden-sharing or Disunity?, which paints a very different picture:

It continues:

We expected so much from our allies. Western forces in Afghanistan amount to approximately 50,000, plus potentially a similar number of Afghan forces. Using a formula based on population and landmass, the US forces’ counterinsurgency manual estimates that a force of 400,000 to 600,000 is required to pacify a country like Afghanistan. Too many NATO countries are just not pulling their weight. We have the ludicrous example, quoted in the aforementioned Chatham House paper, of reconnaissance data collected by German Tornado aircraft under ISAF being denied to the more combat-oriented US-led Operation Enduring Freedom mission. All this with Brigadier John Lorimer, the commander of British forces in southern Helmand province, telling us that troops face a marathon mission lasting decades.

It must be heart-wrenching for our valiant forces to conquer positions and seize territory, only to know that lack of numbers means that those gains cannot be properly held and are likely to have to be retaken. That is intolerable. Thankfully, there has been an improvement in equipment, vehicle protection and helicopter numbers, from a slow start. The dominant problem, however, is a major shortage of troops on the ground. With Afghanistan, we are talking about a country the size of France.

In drawing my remarks to a close, I have four specific questions for the Minister. First, can he foresee a serious increase in troop levels from either ourselves or our allies? Secondly, do Her Majesty’s Government favour the appointment of an Allied supremo to whom the Karzai Government could relate, rather than the current multiplicity of military and civilian chiefs, often with divergent missions? Thirdly, what exactly is our policy on opium production? And, fourthly, given that our Apache helicopters have to be used for escort duties as well as combat roles, what are the implications for the rest of our Apache fleet back in the UK?

Few can doubt that the uncertainty and concern that reign in Afghanistan today are compounded by a regional backdrop of anxiety: the unresolved Israeli/Palestinian issue, the turmoil in Pakistan, possible

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Turkish action in Iraq, the re-arming of Hezbollah and the rising militias in Lebanon and, above all, concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its role as the quartermaster of insurgency. It is difficult to be other than pessimistic and very worried at this time.

5.59 pm

Lord Roper: My Lords, I thank the usual channels for including in this debate the Motion in my name. The report from the European Union Committee that we are considering was prepared by its Sub-Committee C, which I chair, and I am grateful to the members of the sub-committee—four of whom will be taking part later in this debate and may also have things to say about our report—and to our staff for the hard work they have put in to prepare it. It is an attempt—this takes up some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford—to discover what value added the European Union provides for its member states in approaching the Middle East peace process as well as trying to find out what further measures could now be taken.

The sub-committee is very grateful to those who gave evidence to us, particularly Dr Solana, the High Representative for the CFSP in Brussels, and Dr Howells, the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We are also grateful to the Government for sending us their reply last week, and for the kind remarks that the Minister made in his introduction today. Some points in the government response showed that they did not fully share our approach, and I will return to these.

The sub-committee had completed taking evidence and virtually completed the report when—as we make clear in chapter six—the growing hostilities in Gaza and the West Bank between Fatah and Hamas and the takeover of Gaza by Hamas militias led to the dismissal of the National Unity Government and the declaration of a state of emergency by President Mahmoud Abbas. While these significantly changed the environment, the sub-committee believes that they reinforce the overall conclusion of our report—that the European Union now needs to play a more active and energetic role in the search for peace in the Middle East. I will return to this.

While the situation when we completed our report in June looked particularly difficult, when we started work on the report at the beginning of the year there were a number of encouraging signs. The Saudi initiative, which led to the Mecca agreement, provided the basis for the Palestinian National Unity Government in mid-March. On the diplomatic front, the United States Secretary of State increased the number of her visits to the Middle East in an attempt to unblock the negotiating deadlock and Dr Solana was tasked by the European Union's Council with missions to the Middle East, including direct talks with the Syrian and Saudi Governments.

The report sets out—this is important because it is not always noticed—the history of the development of the European Union's relation with the region from the EC's Venice Declaration of 1980, where the call for a Middle East peace process was first

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formulated, and which by recognising the Palestinian right to self-determination provided the initial basis for a negotiated two-state solution. It is fair to say that although the United States has normally led the political negotiations, the European Union has often provided innovative ideas, and since 2002 through its role in the quartet, has been directly involved in the negotiations together with the United States, Russia and the United Nations.

The European Union has also played an important part in humanitarian aid, and from 1995, in providing financial and technical assistance for the creation and functioning of the institutions of an emerging Palestinian Authority. We were told that at one stage it provided half of the budget of the Palestinian Authority. The European Union, taking together the spending of the European Commission and the member states, is far and away the largest donor to the Palestinians, estimated by the Government in their response to be some €800 million in 2007. There is no doubt that at various stages there was abuse of some of this aid but we received evidence of a variety of mechanisms that had been introduced to check that the funding was properly monitored. We welcome the assurance in the Government’s response that they are,

Although, as the report makes clear, European Union aid, and for the last year the temporary international mechanism,

Analysing the impact of the boycott of the Palestinian Government introduced by key members of the quartet in March 2006 following their assessment that the Hamas-led Government had not complied with the three principles, the sub-committee expressed its grave concern,

The sub-committee cited the European Union General Affairs and External Relations Council conclusion of 18 June 2007 which stated that the,

Since the report was completed the situation has deteriorated in both the West Bank and Gaza, as the valuable reports from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs make very clear. There are too many of these to quote, but in the West Bank UNOCHA reported in September that 40 more control points had gone up compared with the position in June. That was in the West Bank, not in Gaza. In Gaza the position has also deteriorated in the past month since the Israeli designation of the strip as an “enemy entity”. In its report of 9 October on Gaza, UNOCHA stated that since 19 September a large reduction has been reported in the number of

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truckloads entering Gaza. The average of 106 truckloads per day that was recorded between 10 June and 13 September has dropped to approximately 50 truckloads per day since mid-September. This trend is giving rise to growing concerns among aid agencies about shortages of certain food supplies.

As regards the opportunity for those in Gaza to get medical assistance, in September there was a significant reduction in the number of patients crossing into Israel and the West Bank for medical treatment: fewer than five patients crossed each day compared to an average of 40 patients per day in July.

The situation is perhaps best summed up in the statement made yesterday after news came of the closure of medical units and clinics because of the absence of anaesthetics. Sir John Holmes, the United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said:

In this situation I should like to ask the Minister what the European Union and its member states are doing to fulfil the commitments they made in June not to abandon the people of Gaza.

The sub-committee was concerned at the rigidity of the European Union within the quartet over the three principles, particularly after the creation of the National Unity Government in March of this year. The committee was clear,

As regards the requirement to accept and respect the positions established collectively by the Arab side, we considered that by signing the Mecca agreement the Government had committed themselves to respecting the existing bargaining position and agreements signed by the PLO and more generally by the Arab side. On the other hand, the question of the formal recognition of the state of Israel as distinct from the de facto recognition implicit in accepting the objective of a two-state solution seems open to debate.

Hamas, we felt,

We expressed the hope that the Government and the European Union would,

We regret that on this point the Government in their reply was unable to agree.

As chairman of the sub-committee it is not appropriate for me to discuss in detail the approach adopted by Secretary of State Rice in her negotiations or the prospects for the meeting in Annapolis later this year. I wish them well, even if it is difficult at this stage to be too optimistic about the outcome.

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However, two matters discussed in our report are relevant to the ongoing search for peace. We made clear that the peace process should not be held hostage by any faction, individual or state. We said:

That was linked to our view, reiterated after the events in Gaza in June, that a precondition of the success of any peace process is that it must be as inclusive as possible. I welcome the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, on this point. The exclusion of Hamas can be explained by its behaviour, but many of us feel that it significantly reduces the chances of ultimate success.

The overall conclusion of our report was that the European Union,

We made it clear that this should be in close co-operation with the United States. However, in the developments since June, the initiative has been very much that of the Secretary of State of the United States. Whatever happens between now and the end of the year, it would be important that the European Union realises the central contribution it an its members can make to the political, as well as the security, development of the Middle East in the coming months.

6.12 pm

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, developments in many parts of the world, but particularly in the Middle East and central and south Asia, whether political, economic or social, are increasingly influenced by religion—a word that I have not heard so far in the debate. Religious beliefs and values permeate what may appear to be just diplomatic, political and even military moves. It is as well for us to recognise this reality and to structure our response accordingly.

Whether we like it or not, the Westphalian consensus is dead—certainly in this region, if it ever existed there. But such a death also has implications for us in our conduct of business. One way to discover people’s religious commitments is dialogue. An Iranian minister said to me recently, when asked, that the cornerstone of his country’s foreign policy was “the spirituality of justice”, to which I replied, “What about the spirituality of love?”. But this dialogue needs to respect the integrity of each side and cannot be conducted on terms decided by one side alone, which was a danger in the otherwise welcome letter written by some Muslim leaders recently.

What should be on the agenda for such a dialogue? It seems clear that Islamist movements of various kinds will remain important on this scene for some time to come. The question is—this has already been implied—whether their programme is to be merely theocratic or whether they will recognise the need for intermediate political, social and legal institutions. Some such movements are in an interesting phase of

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transition in this respect. Islam has never historically produced an enduring theocracy. There have always been political institutions, such as the caliphate; legal ones to codify, develop and implement the Sharia—we need to note the very important role played by Muftis, the jurisconsults, in the development of fiqh or codified law; the role of the Grand Mufti in Egypt at this time in this area is worthy of note—political and legal institutions; and, of course, we must not forget the socio-religious ones such as the Sufi orders. It has been shown that wherever Sufi orders have been suppressed by authoritarian regimes there has been some kind of emergence of fundamentalist and militant movements.

In the region, there are customary and religious means of governing by consent. That is the phrase we should adopt rather than the loosely used word “democracy”, as the noble Lord has already reminded us. In the joint declarations between Afghanistan and the UK, and between Afghanistan and the European Union, there is a welcome commitment to develop parliamentary institutions in that country, but how will it be done? What kind of development will there be? The convening of the Loya Jirgah, reformed to include women, was a good start in using a customary institution to promote government by consent. Will such sensitivity continue to be shown in the further development of a participatory system in Afghanistan as the national assembly and the provincial assemblies are developed? What about Iraq? As I have said previously in this House, both religious and customary practices—such as baia, the recognition of a ruler’s legitimacy, and shura, a process of participatory consultation—can be developed here to provide continuity. In the past, the Government have always responded to such suggestions to use custom and religious institutions by saying that the Iraqi people are free to have the form of government that they want. But do we not have a responsibility for taking history, custom and faith seriously as partners, for better or for worse, in this dialogue?

In the relationship with Iran, we have to be aware of the complexity of Irani society. We do not have the political and social monolith of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It is quite possible to continue dialogue with sections of even the ulema—they were referred to as mullahs recently, but no matter—academics, prominent politicians and government officials, and even to discuss, as has been said, the possibility of a modern civilian nuclear industry, as with the P5+1 proposals, as well as Iran’s genuine security worries, without in any way condoning internal oppression or external aggression and condemning in no uncertain terms any threats to destroy the state of Israel. Their great poet, Firdausi, who wrote a book on the politics of kings long ago, said that,

hundreds of words do not compare with half a good deed. Iran needs to show, by word and by example, its peaceful intentions.

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