Backbench Business — [3rd Allotted Day] — UK Armed Forces in Afghanistan

Part of Privilege – in the House of Commons at 4:09 pm on 9th September 2010.

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Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran 4:09 pm, 9th September 2010

I commend the Backbench Business Committee on choosing the motion. If the Committee had existed in 2001, perhaps there would have been an opportunity for a proper vote in the House before troops were deployed. I only hope that we are never again faced with having to consider whether to enter another armed conflict. However, I would also hope that if the Government were not willing to provide us with the opportunity to vote in such a situation, the Backbench Business Committee would have the courage to create the space for a debate and a vote on such issues.

There was a vote in 2001 on a technicality, and as has been said, 13 Labour MPs voted to make a protest, with a number of Tellers involved too. I was not an MP at that time, but I was involved outside this place in campaigns to try to stop the war, and I marched against it. They were small campaigns; there were not many hundreds of thousands of people on the streets at that time. It is probably fair to say that most of the British public were supportive of the intervention in 2001. That stands in stark contrast to the position in 2003, when, along with a far greater number of Members voting against the war in Iraq-139 Labour MPs broke the Whip and voted against the intervention-there were also massive protests and demonstrations. In terms of public support, therefore, the situation that we are debating today is very different from the situation in relation to Iraq.

However, it is also fair to say that most people in 2001 would not have believed that we would still be in Afghanistan nine years later. Most of the British public accepted the version of events that was put to them. At the time, the war was said to be about capturing the terrorists-al-Qaeda and, in particular, bin Laden. The tabloid press focused very much on that, but within a few weeks bin Laden's name was no longer being bandied around as what the war was all about. One reason why I was extremely concerned at the time about the proposed intervention was the lack of clarity about war aims. That lack of clarity has only intensified over the years, and a number of Members talked about the different war aims that have been claimed at different times over the past nine years.

In 2001, the human rights of women were given in Labour party circles as a reason why women in the party should support the intervention. That was done to pull at the heartstrings of people who were perhaps not sure whether we should pursue the intervention. There are many of us who very much feel for the women and girls in Afghanistan. We had severe concerns about human rights prior to 2001, and we have had them since then, not just for women and girls, but for all in the community. We thought that that was something maybe worth fighting for, if it were possible to achieve something meaningful in Afghanistan for the long term.

Although I am in no way trying to underplay any achievements that have been made or the fact that girls have had access to education as a result of the west's intervention, these are not achievements that it will be possible to sustain; indeed, they are not being universally applied throughout the country. We need only read the press in this country to learn about some of the human rights abuses and the terrible situations that women in Afghanistan face-my hon. Friend Mrs Moon touched on those-or about how women who are accused of infidelity or who refuse to co-operate with the men in their families are treated. Many of those abuses are happening legally in Afghanistan because, for cultural reasons, values that we would regard as acceptable are not necessarily those which that society signs up to.

My concern is that those values are not going to change, irrespective of what happens to the motion today and of whether western forces stay in Afghanistan for many years, or withdraw immediately or over a short period. It is not in our power to change the value system in that country, and a forced, military intervention is perhaps the least best way of winning hearts and minds.

I did not support the intervention in Afghanistan at the time, not only because the war claims were unclear but because of the history of the region. Even my poor knowledge of the history of Afghanistan told me that occupying country after occupying country had had difficulty in achieving their war aims there over the decades and even the centuries. The cynic in me therefore found it difficult to believe that we could achieve a different outcome. My major reason for not supporting the intervention, however, was that I suspected that it would simply become a recruiting sergeant for the fundamentalists and the terrorists, and I fear that that is what has happened. British Muslims who have become involved in terrorist activity or hold fundamentalist beliefs say that those involved in terrorist activity in Iraq and other parts of the world cite what the west is doing in Afghanistan as a reason for adhering to those values and beliefs.

The position now is very different from the one in 2001, in that the British public are now war weary, as many hon. Members have pointed out. Opinion polls suggest that most of the British public want us to leave Afghanistan sooner rather than later. The most recent poll shows that 30% want immediate withdrawal, and that 42% want withdrawal soon. I suspect that everyone wants withdrawal as soon as possible. After nine years, I do not believe that any military strategy that might be pursued over the coming months and years is going to help us to achieve our aim of addressing problems such as the drugs trade and terrorism and the issue of human rights.

I want to put on record that it is a shame that the amendment in the name of-

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