AFGHANISTAN DEPLOYMENT (FRONT BENCH) – 14 February 2006

Dr Julian Lewis: The debate has been outstanding. There has not been a single bad speech. Indeed, on the contrary, every contribution has added something, but the palm must go to my Hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) who not only secured the debate, but outlined the case in a comprehensive and singularly authoritative way. In seeking to sum up in the short time available, I shall try to predicate my remarks on the different contributions, but set them around four concepts: strategy, security, narcotics, and the size and structure of the force that we propose to send.

I start with strategy. On the surface, it seems fairly straightforward. We should have two strategic aims in Afghanistan: the defeat of terrorism, which took us there in the first place, and the building up of a society so that terrorism cannot return. I slightly take issue with the Hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), although I agree with him on other things, on the comparison that he made with the Soviet invasion. The invasion by the Allied Forces after the 2001 atrocities in America was very different to the Soviet invasion because it was not about outside society seeking to overturn the indigenous rule of the local people; it was about outside society seeking to protect itself from the unmistakeable aggression that originated from that territory as a result of the way in which the regime there, which had hijacked control of that society, had opened up that territory for terrorist training.

Paul Flynn: The Hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable about such things, but is he aware that the Soviets saw the invasion of Afghanistan as being almost wholly benign? They saw their mission there as rescuing the Afghan population from the middle ages and were astonished by what happened. They certainly created the mujaheddin in such numbers.

Dr Lewis: I am not aware of that; indeed, I think it absolute balderdash. We do not want to spend our limited time refighting the Cold War, but the Soviet invasion was an act of the utmost brutality and oppression, and was responsible for many of the problems that we are fighting today. It was one more terrible legacy of the 1917 revolution, which led to many of the evils that have since visited the international community.

On strategy, we want to take out the terrorist training bases and build up the society. My Hon. Friend the Member for Newark [Patrick Mercer] talked about the danger of having a war on two fronts; I suggest that we are in danger of fighting a war on three fronts, the first two being Iraq and Afghanistan and the third being a narco-war. I do not accept – here I agree with the hon. Member for Newport, West and my Hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Tobias Ellwood), among others – that it is one and the same thing to eradicate the poppy trade using military means and to achieve our strategic objectives of securing Afghanistan both against terrorism and for democracy.

This matter came up in Foreign Affairs questions, in which the Minister for the Middle East said that there is a risk of the Taliban joining forces with warlords. He said:

"There is a risk of that happening – there is no question about that – but we have no choice but to try to take it on." – [Official Report, 7 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 728.]

That is precisely the mindset that the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, my Hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), has said all along that we must avoid. It is true that no action is not an option, but that does not mean that we must take inadequate or counterproductive action. Our actions must be efficacious.

In answer to questions from the Shadow Defence Team, the Minister for the Middle East [Dr Kim Howells] admitted that, historically, the overwhelming majority of the warlords were opposed to the Taliban. He also admitted that he was not sure to what extent warlords and those involved in the drugs trade are also involved in the Government of Afghanistan, who are trying to function.

Other people have been more outspoken. The Afghan Minister of Counter Narcotics, Habibullah Qaderi, stated that he does not deny the fact that corruption is linked to the drugs trade, going right up to the level of the Cabinet. He said:

"We are seeing links between the Taliban and the drug smugglers for the first time in Southern Afghanistan. The Taliban has been distributing leaflets saying people who do not support the growing of poppy will be killed."

It is clear that our enemies are seeking to form an alliance with the indigenous poppy growing population and they will succeed if we use military force for the third war – the eradication of the poppy trade by military physical means – rather than for the second war, which is the eradication of the enemy that is fighting to overthrow the delicate democratic structures that are being erected in Afghanistan. We have to ask ourselves who that enemy is, because it is insufficiently clear. Is the enemy the al-Qaeda internationally inspired Islamist terrorist movement, or is it the internal Taliban movement, which gave that international movement succour? There have been a number of statements to suggest that the enemy is primarily coming in the form of insurgents who are being trained in neighbouring Pakistan.

It is a matter of considerable concern – we have advanced this theme time and again in such debates – that not enough is being done to win the information and propaganda war in all these conflicts. It is a matter of the greatest significance, when suicide bombings occur in Afghanistan, to know the origins of the suicide bombers and whether they are indigenous Afghanis, external people from the Islamofascist international terrorist movement, or people specifically being trained and coming into the area from neighbouring Pakistan. It may well be that people close to the conflict have good ideas about this and think that the rest of the world fully understands it. However, the reality is that far too little effort is being made to get the information into the public domain. Without understanding the enemies we face, we cannot expect public support for the battles that we have to fight.

We are told that the British remit in this operation is to protect the reconstruction teams that are building roads, schools and clinics, improve security and assist the Government's drug eradication efforts without becoming involved in destroying poppy fields. We are told time and again about the distinction to be made between counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. I pay tribute to my Hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Keith Simpson) for pointing out the absurdity of playing with such definitions.

I am concerned that if we are taking over an area where the Americans were previously involved in what is now called counter-terrorism and sending a signal to our opponents that we will be involved in something that is only called counter-insurgency, we will send a message to those who would attack our Forces, saying, "There used to be a strategy in Southern Afghanistan that basically told people: 'Keep well clear of our forces because we are coming out to get you.' However, you don't have to worry about that any more, because the strategy that is now being put in place in South Afghanistan means that we will build up society and have troops to protect the rebuilding process who will largely fire back only when you choose to attack them."

Saying that is, perhaps, to repeat the parallel with Vietnam. Hon. Members shuddered a little when the Hon. Member for Newport, West brought that up, but I do not share his counsel of despair. There is no reason why this campaign should fail. There is, however, a parallel with Vietnam because when insurgencies were taking place there, the campaign was fought in such a way that restrictive rules did not enable the counter-insurgency techniques that had been pursued successfully in other campaigns – such as the Malayan campaign – to be applied sensibly.

Is the Minister satisfied that the force that is being sent out – of which only a small proportion are combat troops – will be able to be active, instead of being passive and waiting to be shot at? Is it true that the designated commander of that force has asked for many more troops than he has been allocated? Do the Government have flexible arrangements in mind to ensure that when that force runs into difficulties – when it is engaged in combat – and it needs reinforcement, those reinforcements will be immediately forthcoming? Can the Minister be sure that by making a spurious distinction between counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, the signals that he sends out to those who wish to wage a campaign of terrorism against everything that we stand for and hope to build in Afghanistan are not counter-productive?