DEFENCE POLICY (FRONT BENCH) – 15 October 2009
Dr Julian Lewis: Unusually, we have had two days in a row in which to consider the grave problems facing our armed forces in the context of the Afghanistan campaign. Yesterday, we had a major statement from the Prime Minister and an opportunity to question him. Among the points that he acknowledged was the fact that 80 per cent. of our casualties arise from roadside bombs. That is an important factor – in fact, it is the supremely important factor because, although my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Tobias Ellwood) has just said that we must concentrate on getting in, getting on and winning, the reality is that we need to wage a campaign in which we do not take levels of casualties that the public are not prepared to bear.
That, above all, is the single reason that people in this country are dissatisfied with the campaign in Afghanistan. It is not a question of a lack of patience, or of not spending enough money or of troops going back on a recent tour to the same forward operating base that they occupied two, three or four years ago. The country will not put up with a disproportionate cost in lives for a campaign that shows no sign of ending. We cannot be defeated on the battlefield, but we can be defeated in the battle for morale. Above all, that is why the Government should focus on doing everything they can to protect our servicemen and women in the field and to ensure that they are not exposed to unnecessary risks.
I venture to suggest that, if our enemies in Afghanistan focused on a strategic objective of ensuring that they killed two or three British service personnel every week, keeping that up for a sufficient length of time would be enough to harden opposition to the continuance of the campaign. We must therefore be as canny as our opponents, not only because we owe it to our servicemen and women to protect them but because it is essential for the success of the campaign. We must go out of our way to ensure that our enemies cannot do the one thing that would force us to feel that we had to leave.
That is why I was disturbed to get an unsatisfactory answer from the Prime Minister yesterday, when I asked him about the fact that 80 per cent. of our casualties were caused by roadside bombs. I asked:
“What proportion of the convoys attacked by those bombs were resupply convoys, which could and should have been transported by air but which were not because of the disgraceful shortage of air transport capacity?”
The Prime Minister replied that he did not accept my conclusion. He went on to say:
“A lot of the casualties have, unfortunately, been those people who have been on foot patrol, trying to build relationships with the Afghan people”.
That might well be true of some of the casualties, but it is certainly not true of all of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) intervened on the Prime Minister subsequently to say that he was
“staggered at the Prime Minister’s characterisation of the deaths from IEDs as being caused by foot patrols and not by the lack of helicopters.”
My hon. Friend went on to say:
“Commanders regularly complain of unnecessary logistical road moves.” – [Official Report, 14 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 316, 320.]
I know that to be true because I have had similar complaints made to me. This matter is not going to go away, and I advise Defence Ministers to ensure that it is a complaint that will not be repeated in the future, although it has been justified in the past.
My mind goes back to the ‘Defence in the UK’ debate of 26 March, when we heard from three Government Back-Bench speakers, seven Conservative Back-Bench speakers and no Back-Bench speakers from the Liberal Democrats. Today, we have heard from five Government Back-Bench speakers, 11 Conservative Back-Bench speakers and, once again, no Back-Bench speakers from the Liberal Democrats. [Interruption.] I am asked why not, but I am afraid that I can provide no enlightenment on that.
The Shadow Secretary of State and the Secretary of State rightly focused on the Afghanistan campaign, as did many other Members in our debate. The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), who is no longer in his place, told the tragic story of Kyle Adams and concluded that we ought to give up, whereas my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), in a passionate and most moving speech, gave an account of the loss of so many members of his former unit and concluded that we must crack on. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Dai Havard) made the important point, re-emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East a few moments ago, that we must work with the grain of Afghan society and not against it.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) wanted the nuclear deterrent to be included in the strategic defence review, while the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Ian Davidson) wanted the aircraft carriers to be excluded from it. The aircraft carriers were also a cause close to the heart of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck).
Much concern was expressed about the need to give maximum support to those grievously injured in body and in mind. My hon. Friends the Members for East Devon (Hugo Swire), for Newbury and for Mid-Sussex (Nicholas Soames) and the hon. Member for Bridgend (Madeleine Moon) spoke about that. In that connection, when it comes to reintegration of grievously wounded people into society, I welcome the emergence of organisations such as Soldier On!, which is organised by a very able young man called Nicholas Harrison, who is determined to find ways in which an employment agency can be created in order to get people who have lost limbs into civilian work so that they can live their lives earning and working their own way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex stressed the absurd duplication of top-level bureaucratic posts, while my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) was as robust as he always is on both Trident and the carriers, adding a detailed study of the potential of the Hebrides missile-testing range.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Michael Jack) referred to the dangers of cyber attack, to which I would add the dangers of electromagnetic pulse attack. People are constantly talking about the possibility of rogue states getting nuclear weapons and using them to attack other countries directly, but a single nuclear weapon used by a rogue state and exploded above a target country could well do irreparable damage to its infrastructure without directly attacking the country itself. My right hon. Friend also stressed, as always, the vital importance of the aerospace industry and the necessity of keeping it as an essential part of our defence industrial base.
Huge concern was expressed about the threat to future reserves. Apart from the robust comments of the shadow Secretary of State, we heard contributions from the Chairman of the Defence Committee, from my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Sussex and for East Devon and especially from my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Julian Brazier), who has shown a long dedication to the cause of the reserves. When the Minister replies, will he tell us whether the Government will guarantee first not to extend the non-payment of the Territorial Army beyond this simonth period and, secondly, not to extend it to the Army Cadet Force as well?
I must stress to Ministers that people in the reserve forces do it not for the money, but for the training and the love of it. My own modest career as a seaman in the Royal Naval Reserve would not have appealed to me if I had not had a ship to go to sea on at the weekends as part of my training. If such training is cut off from people for six months, we may well find that, even if the tap is turned on again at the end of the process, such crews are no longer available.
Andrew Mackinlay: The hon. Gentleman has raised the subject of the number of Members who went in to bat today. I have been silent for a variety of reasons and I have been in and out of the Chamber, but I want to express my concern and, I think, that of many other Labour Members about the threat that has been posed. It is a narrow but important point. I accept that we can probably be reassured about the resources available for the training of the Territorial Army and other reserve forces, but I hope that the Minister can reassure us about that, particularly in relation to the Army but also in relation to the Royal Naval Reserve.
Dr Lewis: As always, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am only sorry that he was not present to contribute more fully to the debate. The preparation of reserves to go into the front line is a continuum. If a major segment of the training process is removed, that will work its way through the system so that when it is necessary to move on to the next section of the continuum, there will be nothing but a black hole. That is the threat to which the Government have exposed our reserves with this penny-pinching and unjustified measure.
Harry Cohen: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Dr Lewis: I am sorry: not for the moment.
Let me complete my quick survey of the contributions that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Robert Walter) spoke of the duty of European countries to work as individual countries through the institutions that are available, but not to try to offload their defence responsibilities onto those institutions in order to contribute to collective security. My hon. Friends the Members for Billericay (John Baron) and for Congleton (Ann Winterton) shared a rather gloomy outlook on the prospects of the campaign in Afghanistan.
My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay reckons that the anti-opium campaign is failing, that women’s rights are failing, that democracy is failing, and that corruption is rife. That is to suggest that the objectives of our presence in Afghanistan were to get rid of the opium trade, to assert the rights of women, to create a democracy, and to root out corruption. Those are all worthy and desirable aims, but they are not the reason we are there. We are there because an attack was made on cities, killing thousands of people, and because that attack was orchestrated and organised by an organisation whose headquarters were in Afghanistan. The question that we must ask ourselves is this: is our strategy, and are our tactics, adequate to deal with that threat and prevent it from arising again? I have to say that I have some doubts, but I am not prepared, and do not have time, to articulate them fully on this occasion.
Mr Baron: My hon. Friend may have misheard what I said. I was suggesting that what we needed in Afghanistan at the end of the day was a political solution, and that the failures that I cited were all signs that we were not near to a political solution. I did not for a moment suggest that solving those problems was the main objective of our forces.
Dr Lewis: I fully accept that. Unfortunately, however, if a political solution is to be found in a counter-insurgency campaign, there must be a means of dealing with the element of society that is determined that no political accommodation will be reached. That is a problem that has not yet been solved and cannot be solved by political means alone, just as it cannot be solved by military means alone.
Harry Cohen: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Dr Lewis: No, I will not. I am sorry. Time is against me, and I wish to go a little wider than the question of the Afghanistan campaign, central though it is to our considerations. I wish to revert very briefly to another point touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury: the unpredictability of future conflicts.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have been involved in counter-insurgency campaigns in the past. We were involved in a long counter-insurgency campaign in Malaya which lasted from 1948 to 1960, but that did not lead us to believe that because we were involved in fighting a counter-insurgency then, we would always be involved in counter-insurgency campaigning in the future. We remained fully committed to NATO and fully engaged in the Cold War. Important as the campaign in Afghanistan is, it would be a strategic mistake to say “We do not need aircraft carriers; we do not need Trident; we do not need conventional forces.” We need a range of capabilities to deal with the range of threats that might rise up against us in 10, 20, 30 and 40 years’ time. Some people say that we are making a mistake because we are reckoning to fight the wars of 10, 15 or 20 years ago. I say that we are planning to deter and protect against the wars of 10, 15 and 20 years in the future, and if we judge those just by what we are doing today we are making the same mistake as when we judge what we are doing today by what we were doing 15, 20 or 25 years ago. We must have the full range of military capability that we can afford. That is the issue the strategic defence review, which the Conservatives were the first party to demand, will decide. It will be a difficult and tough task, but it is an absolutely essential one.