MPs vent their frustration during Afghanistan debate

July 19, 2009 at 2:12 pm Leave a comment

merlinhelicopter
Merlin helicopters are used by the UK Armed Forces

by Tony Grew

The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan was the subject of a lengthy debate in the Commons last week, during which the government was accused of not providing British troops with enough equipment.

David Miliband, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, opened the debate.

“The military operation in Afghanistan has now lasted for nearly eight years and has claimed more lives than the conflict in Iraq,” he said.

“It is important that we regularly discuss the situation there, and that is why the Government have scheduled this debate today.”

He set out the government’s strategy: “Neither we nor our Afghan partners will allow extremists and terrorists…to regain control of Afghanistan or use it as a base for terror.”

Mr Miliband said there is a “widely-shared basic agreement in this House that the strategy needs to be a military one and include governance, development and Afghan-Pakistan co-operation.”

Lib Dem MP Mike Hancock asked for evidence that al-Qaeda was no longer a threat in Afghanistan and had been beaten.

Mr Miliband said the terrorist group had been driven out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan.

“The important thing is that we know that Taliban rule provided an umbrella and incubator for al-Qaeda,” he said.

“We also know that the 1,600 mile—2,600 km—border is porous in many places, which allows the flow across that border.

“I think that this is an ongoing struggle, until Afghan governance can be established on the Afghan side and the writ of the Pakistani authorities can run on the Pakistani side.”

He said the “immediate priority” is the elections on August 20th.

“Our objective is that these should be as credible, secure and inclusive as possible, not only because they will be the first Afghan-led elections since the 1970s, but because they will determine the political direction of the country for the next five years.

“Given the security and political situation in which Afghanistan finds itself today, none of that will be easy, but we are working with the UN, the EU, the US and the rest of the international community to give the Afghan people the best chance that we can of them expressing their will.

“All the time, we must remember that our aim is to split the insurgency.

“The Taliban foot-soldiers must be convinced that the Afghan Government will be in charge in the years to come and can provide the protection and security that they want.

“As the objective of our mission is our own safety, the ultimate test is our own safety, but there are important proxies for progress.

“NATO forces have trained 90,000 army personnel and 80,000 Afghan police, and they are now working closely alongside the international troops and civilian staff.

“The number of poppy-free provinces jumped from six to 13 in 2007, and this year it rose again to 18, representing more than half the provinces in the country. Cultivation was down by 19 per cent. last year.

“School attendance or basic health care are not the reasons why we are conducting military operations in Afghanistan, but they are down-payments to the people of Afghanistan, and the increases in the number of students, from 1 million in 2001 to 6 million today, and in the number of people living in districts with access to basic health care, from 10 per cent. of the country to more than 80 per cent. today, are the building blocks of legitimacy and support from the Afghan people.

“The Afghan people and Government do not want the Taliban to come back.

“With our help, they can be prevented from doing so. That is in their interest and in ours, and that is what we must achieve.”

Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague said it is “vital” that the British public understand why the British Army is in Afghanistan.

“It is vital, too, that we are clear about what we are trying to do, and the Foreign Secretary was clear about that in his speech,” he said.

“We went into Afghanistan not out of choice, but out of necessity—to deny al-Qaeda the use of Afghanistan as a launch pad for training and planning attacks on western targets.

“It was a collective national purpose that was accepted by all parts of the House, and the consequences of failure are so serious for the whole region and the wider world that we have to do our utmost to make it work.”

Mr Hague pointed out that the Chief of the General Staff said that the Army needed more “boots on the ground” to secure areas and win the confidence of the Afghan people.

“That echoes his reported remarks in March that 2,000 extra troops were needed in Afghanistan and that elements of 12 Mechanised Brigade had been earmarked for Afghanistan,” he said.

“In contrast, the Prime Minister announced on 29 April a temporary increase of 700 in UK forces.

“In the debate in February, we asked Ministers to bear in mind the overstretch of the armed forces when evaluating any request for additional troops—not that we were aware of any of the military advice that was then being given.

“That overstretch remains a serious factor.

“It has been suggested in the press that the Defence Secretary’s predecessor supported the deployment of 2,000 extra troops and that the United States was expecting the United Kingdom to deploy them.

“Indeed, it is said that of four options presented to Ministers, the deployment of 2,000 was clearly preferred among military commanders—something that the Government have never confirmed in public and of which the House has never been informed.

“However, the Prime Minister and Chancellor opted instead for an increase of 700, and for a tightly limited period.”

Mr Hague said the Tories want tightly defined objectives in Afghanistan.

“We want the Government to explain their strategy and their achievement—or non-achievement—of objectives regularly to the House and the country.

“We want the Afghan strategy to be reviewed in the round after the elections and co-ordinated with that of the United States.

“We want unrelenting attention to be paid to what the nation—and many hon. Members—believe are deficiencies in the number of helicopters provided for our troops.

“If “clear, hold and build” is the approach, we want to know that, in current operations, in which so many of our soldiers are making every effort, the Government are confident that we can hold and build as well as clear.

“That is the road to eventual success.”

Labour MP Jim Hood spoke of the guilt “we all feel when our young men and women pay the ultimate price.”

“However, it is not good enough just to say how sorry we are—and we are; how proud we are—and we are; how the fallen did not die in vain—they did not; or that the mission is defensible—it is,” he said.

“The families, in coping with their grief and loss, need a bit more than that from Parliament.

“They need to know that their loss is not in vain and that the terror that threatens every man, woman and child in every community in our country will be defeated—and it will.”

Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey said the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan supports the Pakistan Government, “but that still prompts the question of when sufficient stability will have arrived in southern Afghanistan to provide an acceptable level of stability in Pakistan.”

“The political stability required to provide us with sufficient security from a repeat of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks might have quite a messy, chaotic and confused aspect,” he said.

“It may well be that that type of political stability could be provided by a state that is relatively weak.

“That is why I am trying to tease out from the Government whether they really expect a western-style strong democracy to provide the political stability we need or whether there is some other shape to it.

“I believe that we are sometimes in danger of suggesting that we have to defeat the Taliban totally and everywhere in order to win and then withdraw our troops, but that does not seem to me to be realistic.

“We need to focus for part of the time on how best to contain the Taliban with strengthened Governments in Kabul and in Pakistan.”

John Reid, a former Defence Secretary, said the UK’s strategic objective had been clear from the beginning.

“It may have been formulated in different ways, but it is as follows: to protect our country’s security by assisting the democratically elected Afghanistan Government to reconstruct their civil, political, military and economic capacity.”

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Foreign Secretary under John Major, said:

“Since the campaign began, the UK has tragically lost 184 soldiers, but the US has lost 739.

“The Canadians, whose commitment is far smaller than ours, have lost no fewer than 124 troops.

“Our public are well aware of that, but we must remind them that people lose their lives when wars break out.

“People are rightly paying tribute to the awful loss of life that has happened, but they are much more robust than we sometimes give them credit for.

“They realise, as they did during the Falklands war, that death is inseparable from any serious war with proper ends and a proper approach.”

Veteran Tory MP Sir Peter Tapsell said he had “great misgivings” about the current mission.

“It seemed to me that the objectives that were announced would require a vastly greater commitment of troops, helicopters and back-up than Britain was capable of providing, and that the whole operation would break down because of the inadequate use of force,” he told the House.

“Furthermore, it has to be borne in mind that the most important event in the history of Islam was when the Prophet Mohammed drove out the foreigners from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

“That is the inspiration for Osama bin Laden and the theological basis of his appeal to Muslims throughout the world.

“One will not find any well brought up six-year-old Muslim child who does not know that story, and it absolutely chimes with the basic feelings of people who live in Afghanistan.”

Former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell said:

“We have no conscripts. Our armed forces are professional, and we therefore expect of them professionalism, skill and courage.

“However, we have no right to expect them to display those qualities unless, in return, we give them the best equipment available.

“We have no right to expose them to unnecessary risk and no right to take advantage of their loyalty.

“In Afghanistan, they have not failed in their duty, but—I do not say this lightly—I believe that we have failed in ours.”

Nicholas Soames, a former Tory defence minister, said “the co-ordination and overall arrangement of these matters has been absolutely disgraceful, and I think people should be very angry about it.”

He added: “We in the House should be collectively ashamed that the finest army in the world is fighting in the most inhospitable, extreme and dangerous environment, under-resourced for an entirely valid and viable mission by a Government whose actions in these matters too often seem largely beyond parody.”

Labour MP Paul Flynn called Mr Soames’ speech “disgraceful.”

“To suggest to those whose grief is raw, who are suffering, whose sobs we heard from the town of Wootton Bassett, that there was some alternative, some other way—that if another Government had been in power, or if there had been a different configuration here or there, their loved ones would not have died—is a cruel and callous deception.”

Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox criticised the government’s “inability to admit mistakes.”

“Time and again in recent days, we have pointed out that the cut to the helicopter budget of £1.4 billion in 2004, in the middle of two wars, was a catastrophic decision,” he told the House.

“The Government were warned about the consequences, did not do anything to deal with the matter and are now playing catch-up.

“Worse, instead of admitting the mistakes, they are treating us to word games and distorting statistics.

“I sometimes wonder whether the Prime Minister has a pathological inability to admit that mistakes have been made.

“When he talked about a 60 per cent. increase in helicopter capacity over two years, he failed to point out that since we deployed properly to Helmand three years ago the number of troops has increased by 100 per cent.

“It does not take a genius to do the maths and work out what that means.

“Does he think that that fools anyone? Does he think our troops will not see through the spin being applied?”

Mr Fox said the mission should be clear.

“When it comes to what we mean by winning, we have to stand back and recognise that this is a geopolitical struggle,” he said.

“The reason why we can define what we mean by winning is that we want to see a stable Afghanistan, able to manage its own internal and external security to a degree that stops interference from outside powers and allows the country to resist the terror bases and the training camps that were there before.

“That is what success means in Afghanistan.

“We are not trying to apply, or we should not be trying to apply, a Jeffersonian democracy or a western European ethos to a broken 13th century state—and certainly not within a decade.

“Those are unrealistic aims that are likely only to disappoint public opinion in the UK and to frustrate those in Afghanistan who are finding it difficult to build on the ground.”

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, winding up the debate, paid tribute to the armed forces: “the best of the best: professional, skilled, determined and courageous.”

“As many Members of the House have today, I want to add my tribute to the fallen: their sacrifice must never be forgotten, and neither should we forget the sacrifice of those who return with life-changing injuries, whether physical or mental.”

Mr Ainsworth said the discussion about helicopters was “important.”

“I shall tell the House what I will do, but first I shall tell it what I will not do,” he said.

“I will not put Merlins into Afghanistan before they are ready—before the crews are trained and the blades, defensive suites and night vision are fitted.

“I will not put soldiers in the back of helicopters in a war zone when the crews and frames are not ready.

“Some newspapers, and perhaps some Members, are suggesting that we can and should do that, but we cannot put Merlins in Afghanistan before December this year if we want a good, safe and capable force.

“We cannot bring that forward. I have talked to many people about whether we can, but we cannot.

“Let me tell the House what I will do.

“I will, if necessary, bend people out of shape to ensure that the Lynx has all the necessary capability from this October, so that we do not have to withdraw it in the spring.

“I will consider again whether there is any way in which we can bring the eight useless Chinooks that we bought back in 1996 into service any more quickly.

“Our plan is to get additional Chinooks out there next summer, and if we can do it more quickly, we will.

“I will consider again whether we can squeeze more out of every frame that we have. When troops are in the field, I am going to satisfy myself that every single muscle is being flexed in every single part of our helicopter capability.”

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