Friday 17 July 2009

Parliamentary Debate on Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan has claimed more lives of British soldiers this week. This terrible loss of life prompted a debate in Parliament today (Thursday). The debate focused on an at times unseemly tussle between the political parties on whether the Government had provided sufficient support in terms of troops and equipment to fight this war. I spoke in the debate to express my distress at the loss of so many young lives and my view that this war was unnecessary, unwinnable and ill-judged.

See a video of my contribution to the debate on my Parliamentary/constituency website

This is the text of my speech. With only 6 minutes allowed to speak I tried to get across not very well a sense of the tragic futility of this war.

Commons Speech

As a parent, I find it extremely distressing to see photographs of the young men who have died in the conflict in Afghanistan. Many are so young: I find it hard to come to terms with the death of an 18-year-old barely out of school.

Parents and families have taken solace from the fact that their sons have given their lives courageously in the service of this country, and I share that view wholeheartedly. When those young men signed up for military service, they signed up to the compact under which they pledged their lives to the service of this country. However, there are two sides to that compact; we are the other side. We pledge to do all that we can to keep them out of harm's way, and to ensure that they are treated properly when injured and that their families are cherished if they sacrifice their lives. Many statements have been made today about the way in which we are fulfilling that compact, and it is important that the Government consider those messages seriously.

Another element of that compact is that we do not send our young men into unnecessary and ill-judged wars that cannot be won. I believe that the Government have failed that critical element of the military compact. This is an unnecessary and ill-judged war that cannot be won. After eight years, it is becoming increasingly difficult to answer the question, "Why do we need this war?" It was a reaction to 9/11, started with a failed bombing campaign and led inevitably to invasion. The objective was to destroy al-Qaeda, but inevitably when the bombing strategy failed and we moved to invasion, we discovered what leaders of the British empire discovered in the 19th century and what the Russian's discovered in the 20th century—that it is impossible to fight a successful war in this terrain. I must add that all those invasions claimed the consent of the people.

I believe that the strategy of destroying al-Qaeda flies in the face of all that we know and understand about modern terrorism, which does not need a fixed territorial base. As we have discovered, modern-day terrorists can be based as much in Leeds as in the mountains of Afghanistan itself. The attempts to evict al-Qaeda from Afghanistan have simply led to its wider dispersal across Pakistan, Somalia and terrorist cells deeper into western Europe. If the war aim was to destroy or remove the Taliban because they harbour al-Qaeda, it completely underestimated, as hon. Members have said, the complexity of the relationships within the Taliban and the scale and depth of support for them in the region, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

If the objective of the war was to tackle terrorism associated with al-Qaeda, a more effective alternative would have been to focus on states' policing role in gaining intelligence on terrorist organisations and activities and in intervening to prevent terrorist strikes. As important is to negotiate with elements that might be attracted to support or harbour terrorists, to divide them wherever possible and to ensure that we gain some purchase on negotiating opportunities with the Taliban. Of course, an effective anti-terrorist strategy must ensure that no action is taken that mobilises support for terrorism, and must win the hearts and minds of potential recruits by addressing grievances. Far from addressing such a strategy, the war in Afghanistan is using resources on military action that should be used in the policing and prevention of terrorism. Far from isolating the Taliban, it has spread their influence into Pakistan, and far from dividing them, it has united Taliban elements into a cohesive fighting force. Far from winning hearts and minds, the war, as in Iraq, has become a rallying symbol for terrorist recruitment.

A tragedy is being played out in Afghanistan, and in our society too. The argument that we are tackling the drugs problem has been undermined today. Afghanistan is now the drug capital of the world. There is the argument that we are installing a democratic Government, but, as has been explained today, that Government is corrupt and considered illegitimate even by their own people—it is a Government of warlords oppressing their own people. As my hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said, the argument about the oppression of women has been undermined by women in Afghanistan demonstrating the oppression that they say has actually been worse than under the Taliban.

We need to address this tragedy: the lives being lost, the families being destroyed, the immense human suffering. At some stage, the Government will have to face up to the need to negotiate a withdrawal. We need to request that other regional powers come to our aid in negotiating with all parties, including the Taliban, a constitutional settlement for the long-term future of Afghanistan. The strategy must involve conflict resolution, bring people together, and recognise their grievances and why they have taken up arms, as they see it, to protect their own country. It is also about developing an alternative terrorism strategy involving intelligence, policing and ensuring respect for the grievances that lead people to take up terrorist activity. The sooner we come to terms with that, the sooner we can end the suffering of the British and Afghani families who have been drawn into this tragic and desperate war.