AFGHANISTAN CAMPAIGN (FRONT BENCH) – 5 February 2009
Dr Julian Lewis: I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) not only for the breadth and depth of the speech that he has just made, but for lining up exactly what I wish to begin with – a word or two about counter-insurgency in general. I have a mantra, which is that there are four elements to a counter-insurgency campaign. Some of them are more familiar than others. The first three are very familiar – to identify, to isolate and to neutralise – but the fourth element is to negotiate. That is what my hon. Friend was referring to.
However, negotiation cannot be carried out at every stage of a counter-insurgency process. During an insurgency’s early stages, when the insurgents think that they are on course for victory, negotiation is not an option. The time for that comes either when the insurgents are in retreat, or when a stalemate exists – that is, when the insurgents cannot achieve their aims and the counter-insurgents cannot totally eliminate the insurgents.
At this point, I must pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who focused the House’s attention on the central point of our war aim in Afghanistan. It is not a great, positive aim, but a negative one: to prevent Afghanistan from being used in future to host what has shown itself to be not some sort of patriotic, anti-colonial, nationalist organisation, but one engaged in an ideological crusade worldwide.
Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, over time and as part of the aim of deterring the Taliban from harbouring terrorists, we need to build the Afghan state and capacity to provide services, job opportunities and infrastructure?
Dr Lewis: I partly accept the hon. Lady’s point. What we need to do is help the Afghan state to build up a workable life for itself. However, we must not fool ourselves into thinking that that will involve a carbon copy or mirror image of the sort of lifestyle that it has taken us in our modern societies hundreds of years to develop.
Mr Mohammed Sarwar indicated assent.
Dr Lewis: I am glad to see some assent to that point on the Labour Benches.
Paul Flynn: Part of the aim was to destroy al-Qaeda’s safe place from which to organise terrorism. We have not been successful: that safe base continues, either on the borders or in Pakistan itself. Where is the threat of Taliban action in Britain? Is there any evidence that the organisation is planning terrorism here?
Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is confusing my argument, which he has perhaps not fully grasped. I am talking not about the Taliban in this connection, but about al-Qaeda. The whole point about how insurgencies end with a negotiated settlement is that our war aim should be to demonstrate to everyone with influence in Afghanistan – including the Taliban – that they are on to a loser when they give house room to an organisation such as al-Qaeda, which certainly has aims of causing mayhem in our own societies. The concept of negotiation should come into play precisely when we have shown the Taliban that they are at best in a military stalemate.
I will lay a large wager that the people, groups, sects and tribes who make up Taliban forces will be as fissiparous as any other insurgency movement. There will be those among them who will be willing to do deals, compromise and realise that they made a terrible strategic mistake when they accommodated al-Qaeda; others among them will be diehards who say that they will never do a deal. Our job must be to show the more pragmatic among the insurgents that they made a strategic error, which they can rectify by isolating militants and giving no house room to al-Qaeda.
Although the hon. Gentleman rightly says that al-Qaeda is now to be found in other parts of the world, the NATO mission in Afghanistan, if it is to succeed, should have as one of its aims showing other countries that they should think long and hard before emulating the mistake of the Taliban and giving house room to al-Qaeda so that it can launch its attacks against the west.
Mr Sarwar: There is an unfortunate perception among the people of Pakistan about the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It is important that the leadership of Pakistan tells the people of Pakistan that the Taliban are killing Muslims and non-Muslims and bombing girls’ schools in Pakistan. This is a war that it is essential to win for the sake of the integrity and prosperity of the people of Pakistan.
Dr Lewis: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He leads me on to the next stage of my argument, which is to do with the ideological war that needs to be articulated.
Paul Flynn: The logic of what the hon. Gentleman is saying is that if we now discovered that al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden had a base in Pakistan, we should invade Pakistan. I am sure that that is not what he means to say, but that is the logic behind it. Is it not a terrible mistake to put all these groups – al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the insurgency in Iraq, North Korea and other countries – together as one group, as terrorists, and talk about a war on terrorists? Surely we have got past that nonsense.
Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that not all the groups with which we have been militarily engaged are part of a single organisation, but the ones that belong to al-Qaeda are part of a single organisation, and our job should be to show the other groups that they should have nothing to do with AQ.
Let me quote from a report in the Daily Telegraph of 10 January about one of the drone attacks that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mohammed Sarwar) condemned. However, this was one of the more productive drone attacks. The report reads:
“The head of al-Qa’ida in Pakistan and one of his senior henchmen have been killed in an American air strike, according to intelligence sources. Usama al-Kini and his aide, Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, both Kenyan nationals, are believed to have been killed by a missile fired by a ‘predator drone’ in South Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold close to the Afghan border.
The men are believed to have been involved in the bombing of the Marriott in Islamabad last year, in which 55 people were killed when suicide attackers drove a truck bomb into the security gates. They were also suspected of planning a failed assassination attempt on the late Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, shortly after she returned from exile in 2007.
They were indicted in the US for their role in the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and were believed to have played a key role in training recruits to carry out terrorist attacks in Britain and Europe.”
I want to impress on the House the fact that we are dealing with two very different types of enemy. One group is a declared enemy of everything that we stand for. It comprises people such as those in that report, who were from Kenya and yet, strangely enough, ended up in Waziristan. They do these things not because NATO responded to the attacks in America by invading Afghanistan, from which the organisers of the attacks had been operating, but because they have declared holy war on our way of life. The other, wider group – the enemies about whom we have to be concerned – are people who we have a lot of potential for working with if we can show them that dealing with al-Qaeda is ingesting a form of poison into their own lives and societies.
I say frankly to the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) that if al-Qaeda is expelled from one country after another, then takes root in a third, and then shows every sign, as it almost certainly would, of continuing to launch attacks against the West, then yes, we would have to work with that third country to cut them out, and if the third country were not prepared to work with us to do that, we would have to cut them out anyway – unless he is proposing that Western countries simply sit back as terrorist outrages are committed in the centres of their cities.
I have spent enough time on the theory, so I would like to say a few words about the debate. When the Foreign Secretary said that he would not be here at the end, he gave the excellent excuse that he is going to have talks with General Petraeus. If those talks are going to be about a possible increase in the British troop commitment to Afghanistan, I would like the Minister to answer a specific question. If he answers nothing else that I say from this Dispatch Box today, I would like him to answer this question: how will any extra troops that are sent to Afghanistan, if that is agreed, be funded? Will they be funded in-year from the Treasury Reserve Budget, or will they be funded in such a way that the money can be clawed back from the central Ministry of Defence Budget? I am sorry to inject a rather banal, cost-and-effect, penny-pinching approach to this debate, but the Minister will be as aware as anyone else that, at the moment, however well our armed forces are doing in theatre, the chiefs of the armed forces are at each others’ throats in a civil war of their own over inadequate defence resources. We know that one Service is attacking another Service’s prime projects and reciprocation is not likely to be delayed for long.
We have been fighting two medium-sized conflicts on a peacetime Defence Budget – now it is going down to one. I have said before from this Dispatch Box, and I make no apology for saying it again, that Prime Minister Tony Blair gave the game away when he said that throughout the decade that new Labour had been in power, defence spending had remained roughly constant at 2.5 per cent. of GDP, and added the fateful words:
“if we add in the extra funding for Iraq and Afghanistan”.
Whenever we talk about Treasury Reserves and so on, when we lump everything together, we find that we have been fighting two conflicts on a peacetime Defence Budget, and now the Services are seriously talking about having to abandon one of the strategic roles of the armed forces in peacetime – which is to insure against conflict with another state – if we are to go on fighting these counter-insurgency campaigns, even at the present level. That is totally unacceptable, so we must have an assurance from the Government that any extra cost arising from further deployment to Afghanistan will be paid for by extra money. Otherwise, it cannot be contemplated.
Denis MacShane: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Dr Lewis: I am sorry, but my time is nearly up.
Mr MacShane rose –
Dr Lewis: Very well.
Mr MacShane: Is this now official Conservative policy? We need to know. The hon. Gentleman is talking about a huge amount of money.
Dr Lewis: I have no problem with that at all; I have talked about it before as well. I have been challenged about the matter before, I am asked the same question every time and I always give the same answer: the official Conservative policy on defence is that we will fully fund our defence commitments. That means increasing the money for defence, reducing the commitments, or doing something in between the two. If the Government are proposing to increase their commitment, they have got to find the extra funding for it. They cannot do it at the expense of the core MOD Budget.
I feel that I have neglected all the people who have contributed to the debate, so I shall try to make amends very briefly. I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), and I am only sorry that no other Liberal Democrat MP was present to hear her make it. My hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) has made a consistent case about the follies of getting involved in Afghanistan, but his point was anticipated neatly by my right hon. Friend the Shadow Foreign Secretary when he pointed out that unlike the Russians – and for that matter, unlike the British in the past – we are not out to conquer Afghanistan. We are out to work with people and groups in Afghanistan to enable them to deal with terrorist elements there. The reason why our casualties, grievous as they are, have come nowhere near the sort of levels incurred by the Russians, is precisely that difference. They were out to conquer and we are not.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea made a masterly speech, and I would sum it up as follows:
“We don’t mind who runs Afghanistan, as long as they do not give a base to al-Qaeda”.
There is a certain amount of credibility on the line here, both for NATO generally and for its individual component nations. For NATO generally, that is because it responded when one of its countries came under attack, and because it has invested a lot in the campaign. However, not all NATO countries have invested anything like the same amount, and that needs to be considered. I welcome moves in NATO to start examining how interventions are funded, and I believe it is moving in the right direction with the suggestion that if some countries are not so willing to undertake the fighting, they should be more willing to put money into a central pot to help finance those of us that are.
We have heard a number of dissenting voices, but at the end of it all there are only two ways of leaving Afghanistan. One is to capitulate, and basically to say:
“It’s okay. You can house international terrorist organisations. They can launch attacks on our major cities and we will not respond”.
The other is to identify the main elements in the country – not just the ones that we regard as the most democratic but the real power-brokers – and say:
“Look here, we don’t want to run your country, but we cannot tolerate a situation in which you allow splinter groups of foreigners to attack us, so we want to negotiate a deal”.
As most insurgencies do end in a negotiated deal, I close by reminding the House of one fact: when one negotiates a deal, one must negotiate from a position of at least equal strength to that of one’s opponent. We might not be able to win militarily – we never thought we would – but we are certainly capable of ensuring that our opponents cannot defeat us. When they realise that, the basis for a deal will be available and the outcome will be the isolation and removal for good of the cancer of al-Qaeda.
[The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Quentin Davies): … The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis) spoke a lot of sense, as he normally does, but I take his point about inadequate funding of our defence budget with a pinch of salt. Until recently, the Conservative Party was not prepared to say that it went along with our defence budget. The Conservatives have made additional commitments, such as on the three battalions, which is quite absurd, but they have not said what they will cut back if they go ahead with that commitment. I can give him an assurance that we always finance our military commitments overseas out of the reserve. We have always done so, and I cannot imagine that we would ever change that policy. I can give him an assurance that we will fund –
6 pm: Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).]