Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 6:41 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee 6:41 pm, 15th May 2007

Of course I agree with that. To turn briefly to the subject of Afghanistan, apparently everybody assumes that there is broad support for what is going on there, but looking at the history of Afghanistan and our previous involvement there, I have enormous doubts about what is happening in that country. I have doubts about whether we will ever resolve the situation, and whether we will ever defeat the Taliban, their successors, or the successors of their successors, because once again we are being sucked into a vortex of military operations in an Arab country. Of course my hon. Friend is right. Apparently, we are all in agreement on the problem: in future, we must have a resolution before we go to war. However, there are still enormous doubts about how to ensure that that happens.

Where I part company from many people in the House—I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I have to say this—is that I believe that we need another vote on whether we should stay in Iraq. As I said to the Leader of the House, to the Prime Minister last week and to the Secretary of State for Defence yesterday, although the point was constantly brushed aside, the situation has changed fundamentally. We went into Iraq because we feared for the security of the region, and we believed that the country's Government was a threat to the region. We now justify our continued presence by saying that we are asked to be there by the democratically elected Government, and we say that we will stay there as long as is necessary. However, there has been very little debate in the House about what is actually going on Iraq, and what little debate has taken place has had to be forced on the Government.

We all know that, in reality, the writ of Iraq's ostensibly democratic Government hardly extends beyond the green zone. We face the same situation that we faced in Vietnam and in many other wars: our Government and the American Government are desperately finding an excuse to get out. The excuse will be that we have somehow resolved the security situation, and that the democratically elected Government of Iraq is happy for us to scale down our forces, but we all know that that is simply not true. We all know that there is a complete and desperate mess out there. None of us has any time for what Saddam Hussein did, and we all know that he was a ruthless and desperate tyrant, but we have enormous sympathy for ordinary Iraqi people. When I visited Iraq while Saddam Hussein was in power, those people were going about their business. They were running their little stalls in the marketplace in some semblance of peace and security, but now they are living in a vortex of violence. Our troops are still there, and it appears that no Government Member has the courage to come before the House and say, "It's all over. The mission has failed; it simply has not worked, and we are going to get out."

As I said yesterday to the Secretary of State for Defence—my point was brushed aside—we all know that the incoming Prime Minister will get us out of Iraq before the general election. It is inconceivable that British troops will still be in Iraq at the time of the next general election. Any Government that still had troops in Iraq at the time of a general election would be swept aside by our electorate. Such is the complete breakdown in trust, and such is the opposition of the British people to our continuing presence in Iraq, that whatever happens, and whatever the security situation on the ground, our troops will leave. For that reason, the process is subject to an arbitrary timetable of three, or more probably two, years.

Is there any sensible debate? No. Is any real intelligence coming out of Iraq? We are told, of course, that we are doing terribly well in the southern part of the country, although the Americans are having all sorts of problems, and we are told that we are gradually withdrawing, but we have not actually been told what has been happening in the provinces from which we have withdrawn. We all know that gradually a strong military or political force will take over as we leave. Apparently, we will now withdraw to the airport, but does anyone think that a country can be run from an airport? The reason we are withdrawing to the airport is to try to reduce our casualties. It means that we can maintain the political fiction that we are still in the country and are sustaining the Government, and that everything is all right. We are stuck in the airport. Armies that retreat to airports are armies that are leaving the country.

The only way we can run Iraq is by having many more British troops there. We would need not 5,000, but 10,000, 15,000 or 20,000 troops on the ground throughout the southern part of the country. Is there any real discussion of the subject? Is there a vote? There is nothing. We are deluding ourselves. When we leave, one of two things will happen: either there will be complete chaos and civil war, or some strong man will take charge. We are all apparently agreed that terrible mistakes were made in the aftermath of the invasion, that we should have left the Iraqi army in place, that we should have left Ba'athists in charge of the army, and that we should have got out within three months—and there were all the prison scandals, too. However, that is all said with hindsight. At the end of the day, a strong man will emerge, and it will not be the present bunch of corrupt politicians who are sheltering in the green zone, and who have just awarded themselves a two-month summer recess while American troops are dying in the streets trying to protect them. Incidentally, there is a lot of disquiet in America about that.

Why do we not have the courage to hold another vote, or to start doing what the United States Congress is doing? Ours is now one of the weakest Parliaments in the western world. The United States Congress is applying massive pressure to the American Administration. Negotiations continue daily, and votes are threatened that would cut off President Bush's supply; he is having to negotiate his way out of that impasse. Here, we are brushed aside with soft words. We are told, "The Prime Minister says that we are in Iraq at the behest of its Government", and we are told that we are making progress, but no details are given.

There are no intelligence reports, just as there were no intelligence reports before the war, and I suspect that there is actually very little intelligence. Before the war, we all imagined that the Government were equipped with massive amounts of sophisticated intelligence, and that there were agents on the ground informing the Government what was happening. I do not believe that that sophisticated intelligence is out there at the moment. I think that the Government's intelligence on what is happening in the provinces that we have vacated is very weak indeed. The Government are flying by the seat of their pants, and they have no idea what will happen; they simply want to get out. Why do we not have the courage to have another vote in Parliament, or to do what other self-respecting legislators have had the courage to do and say, "It's all over"?

Iraq is not worth the life of another British soldier. It does not matter whether we get out next month, in a year's time or in two years' time; Iraq will find its own way, and that is the right way. I cannot understand why we have a sort of intellectual imperialism as regards Arab people and the Muslim world, or why we think that we are entitled to impose our ideas of western liberal democracy. Of course, in this House, we all believe that those ideas are superior, but do we have no idea what is going through the mind of ordinary Iraqis, apart from those few politicians sheltering in the green zone? Do we really imagine that we are popular in Iraq? I know that there is a division of opinion on that, and that some people would perhaps like us to stay, but fundamentally, most people are opposed to what we want, and opposed to our way of life. They see violence around them, and they want us to get out. The days of us imposing our views on those people are over.

This is a great debate, and we have made enormous progress. As a result of a massive breakdown in trust, there will be no more wars that commit us in the way Iraq did. However, the time has come for another vote—a vote calling for an immediate, ordered withdrawal of British troops, so that the Iraqi people, and the Iraqi Government, whatever shape or form they take—military, semi-democratic, Shi'a, Sunni or Kurd—can find their own way to peace and justice, according to their own lights. Let us have another vote, and let us get ourselves out of this mess.