CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

STRATEGY IN AFGHANISTAN – 9 September 2010

Dr Julian Lewis: I beg to move amendment (a), at end add –

‘provided that a more realistic military strategy is adopted designed to fulfil the United Kingdom’s long-term interests in the region at lesser cost in life, limb and financial resources.’.

It is a privilege to have the opportunity to move the first Back-Bench amendment to a motion selected for debate in this House by Back Benchers themselves. I have a friend who is engaged to a corporal in the Army. He is a medic who has been on two tours of Afghanistan, the second of which he volunteered for before he had to go. As a medic, he is one of a number of people who go out on every patrol because something horrible may happen to one of their comrades. He understands the importance of that vital role and so decided to stay on for two weeks longer than necessary at the end of his second tour, to avoid there being no proper handover to the medics who would succeed him.

In the second of those two extra weeks that he voluntarily undertook, on the second tour for which he also volunteered, he was blown up. He was in a new Husky armoured vehicle, so he and his entire crew survived. It is typical of his spirit that the picture of him grinning in front of the absolutely devastated vehicle now adorns the laptop of his fiancée, my friend. Had he been blown up a week earlier, he would have been in a Vector armoured vehicle and he and all his comrades would be dead. So, in this case, it is one up for the former Government and for the Armed Forces, but it is not one up for the strategy which we have been pursuing.

Over past months, I have made various inquiries about where casualties are primarily incurred, because the question of deadlines is related to casualties more than to anything else. The previous and present Governments have made no secret of the fact that the overwhelming majority of casualties are incurred on predictable patrols by uniformed military targets, which is what our Armed Forces have become under the current strategy.

For the sake of clarity – it is important that people following this debate should understand this, given what we are told about the audiences who will listen to, see and read what we say today – may I spell out the difference between my amendment and the original motion? The motion is very simple and it states:

"That this House supports the continued deployment of UK Armed Forces in Afghanistan".

Those who think that the mission should be open-ended should therefore vote for the motion. If they think that the troops should come home straight away and that the whole thing is a lost cause, misguided and counter-productive, as some have argued today, they should vote against the motion. However, if Members think, as I do, that the mission is justified and important, but that it is not being pursued in the right way, they should consider voting for my amendment.

The reason for that was made clear when my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (James Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, so typically put his finger on the heart of the matter. As he said, it is true that if the public believe we have a strategy that will succeed, they will support the mission. Why is public support for the mission draining away? It is because the public are not satisfied with the strategy. That is why I propose adding the words of the amendment to the end of the motion.

Sir Robert Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman think that the coalition’s move to much more of a political engagement to try to move things forward is the right way to proceed in order to bring the troops home in the long run? Does he think that we need to find a political solution on the ground, and that it is not so much the military strategy that has had to be refocused but the political context of that strategy?

Dr Lewis: The answer to that is ‘yes and no’: ‘yes’, in the sense that all counter-insurgencies end, eventually, with a negotiated political outcome, which is what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and ‘no’ in the sense that now is not the time to negotiate. There has been a lack of strategic consistency in the advice given to Governments. The hon. Member for Walsall North (David Winnick) referred approvingly to General Richards’ recent statement that we ought to negotiate with the Taliban. What he did not state was the Taliban’s response to that, as relayed through the BBC, which has some quite good contacts with the Taliban in a purely professional way. It was that they saw no reason to negotiate because they were winning anyway and deadlines had been set for withdrawal.

The strange thing is that this is the same general – he is a talented and charming man and I have had a number of conversations with him over the years – who said a few months ago, when appointed head of the Army, that we would need to be in Afghanistan for 30 to 40 years and that there was no question of our withdrawing. Now, because we are getting political messages from the White House and from Downing Street that the Governments – or at least the leaders of the Governments – of the United States and the United Kingdom are not prepared to go on indefinitely, we are being told

"Oh yes, well perhaps we could get out in four years after all"

and

"Oh yes, let’s talk to the Taliban".

David Winnick: If the general has changed his view in such a substantial way, I welcome it. In my view, he has seen the light. If he was wrong on the subject of talking, as the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, why was he not contradicted by Defence Ministers at the time or by those who are now Ministers?

Dr Lewis: That is, of course, the reason for my amendment. I am saying that all the Governments are signed up to an unrealistic strategy which ought to be changed. The reality is that General Richards was not really wrong in what he said previously and he is not really wrong when he says that we ought to be talking to the enemy. It is a question of timing. The truth of the matter is that General Petraeus is absolutely right to pursue such a counter-insurgency strategy, provided that we have all the time in the world and that we are prepared to take the casualties that are being inflicted on us by irregular forces. If we are not prepared to take those casualties, we will have to adopt a more realistic strategy, because otherwise we will withdraw arbitrarily and, on our withdrawal, the likelihood of the Afghan Government’s being able to sustain themselves is open to doubt.

What should we be thinking about in terms of our policy? There are those who believe that it should be possible to fight using Special Forces alone, and they have a particular point, which is as follows. I have been concerned at the artificial distinction drawn between counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, as if insurgents and terrorists were two different things. Terrorism is not an ideology but a tactic. Sometimes insurgents use it and sometimes they use other methods. In Afghanistan at first, the insurgents were using much more open methods – mass attacks and ones that enabled us effectively to take their Armed Forces on and to defeat them in fairly open conflict. Gradually, they learned the lesson from Iraq and adopted a different strategy. They started to use terrorism tactics that enabled them to pick off our Servicemen and women one by one in an attritional method of campaigning which uniformed Armed Forces are unable to counter effectively.

That is why the answer to such fighting is the deployment of Special Forces who can meet it appropriately; but that in itself is not enough. If we put pressure on one side by saying "We are going to withdraw in a few years’ time, President Karzai, so you had better get your act together", but we want to negotiate with the other side and to get a settlement, we have to put pressure on them too.

That is why I say that we ought to be doing something which I have mentioned in the House before: we ought to be using the time that has been bought by the surge to build up a Strategic or Sovereign Base and Bridgehead Area, so that, when the time comes at which we say "We are going to withdraw from being thinly spread over the entire country", rather than quitting completely we withdraw into an impregnable base.

Time does not permit me to take this issue further, but I say simply to hon. Members on both sides of the House that there is nothing dishonourable in fighting for a better strategy for our troops – it is not sending a signal that we are not supporting the troops. To support the troops when they are being led by a faulty strategy is not to support the troops at all.

[For Julian's paper on this subject, INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM – THE CASE FOR CONTAINMENT, in the April 2012 edition of the leading US military journal, JOINT FORCE QUARTERLY, click here.]