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

Part of Privilege – in the House of Commons at 4:54 pm on 9th September 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 4:54 pm, 9th September 2010

I pay tribute to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have this debate, and to the Members who have contributed to it. Bob Stewart, who is not in his place, and my hon. Friend Paul Flynn set the tone from both sides of the argument in a way that has enabled a thorough debate. Without patronising anyone, let me say that a large number of the new Members who came to the House after the last election have added a great deal to the debate, particularly Rory Stewart with his expertise.

At the start of the debate, there was an emphasis on recognising the audiences who will be listening and the importance of not having an impact on the morale of troops. I take that caution carefully, although those arguments have been used in every debate about every recent war, even during the first world war when people were arguing about the tragedies of the trenches. I interpret my duty in the House as to ensure that we never put our troops in harm's way unnecessarily or irresponsibly, so I encourage their withdrawal from Afghanistan as rapidly as possible so that they no longer face the risks that they have faced there. Like other Members, I find it heart-rending to hear the names read out at Prime Minister's Question Time, because I think that, tragically, our troops are dying unnecessarily. The best way that we can serve them is to secure their withdrawal.

I was in the Chamber when the decision was made to send in the troops. There was no sense of jingoism; there was serious concern, but the then Secretary of State for Defence expressed the hope that not a shot would be fired. That hope has not been realised, and with 330 dead it is a tragedy that we have allowed the conflict to go on for so long.

In our last debate on Afghanistan, I was one of the few Members who urged that negotiation with the Taliban should be commenced. Subsequently, I was roundly abused in the media and, as often happens to Members, received correspondence and e-mails calling me a traitor and saying that I lacked courage or conviction-all the usual things. However, it is interesting that debate has moved on. There have been some expressions of victory during today's debate, but they have not been the same as in the past. There is much more serious and sophisticated discussion about how we can withdraw. The debate today demonstrates that part of the withdrawal process needs to start quickly and with a negotiated settlement.

Some years ago, we debated a proposal for a Ministry for peace, following which we set up the all-party group on conflict issues. I am one of its joint chairs; the others are from other parties. The group brought us into contact with a wide range of international organisations and experts in promoting and securing peace. I refer Members to an excellent report produced recently by the Afghanistan Study Group in America. It is entitled "A New Way Forward: Rethinking US Strategy in Afghanistan." The study group includes a range of specialists-ex-military, intelligence experts, regional specialists and people involved in conflict resolution in the past across the world. The report reflects many of the statements that have been made by Members today, including my right hon. Friend Mr Ainsworth, Mr Baron and my right hon. Friend Mr Meacher.

The report includes sober analysis of the need for us to enter direct dialogue with participants in the conflict. As many Members have done today, it analyses the war in Afghanistan, describing it not as a struggle between the Karzai Government and an insurgent Taliban movement allied with international terrorists seeking to overthrow the Government, but as a civil war about power-sharing. The lines of contention are partly ethnic, chiefly but not exclusively between Pashtuns, who dominate the south, and other ethnic groups such as the Tajiks and Uzbeks who are more prevalent in the north. The conflict is partly rural versus urban, and of course partly sectarian. As many Members have said, it is also influenced by surrounding nations with a desire to promote their own interests-Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others. As others have emphasised, the conflict is interpreted by many in Afghanistan as having elements of resistance to what is seen as a military occupation.

The key issue that has arisen from the debate is how we can further discussions about resolving the distribution of power in Afghanistan among the various factions and between central Government and the provinces. That is a critical crossroads. The proposals in the report emphasise, first, power-sharing, political inclusion and the start of a dialogue among all parties to enable such inclusion, including a fast-track peace process. Secondly, they suggest downsizing and, eventually, ending military operations in southern Afghanistan and reducing the military footprint immediately.

The issue is about focusing security efforts, as some have said today, on al-Qaeda and domestic security, encouraging economic development and engaging regional and global stakeholders. We and the Government have a critical role to play in that process, and the study group's blueprint is a good one for our debate about how we go forward. However, there is a sense of urgency, because I do not believe that there is any potential for military victory. Indeed, I believe that, if we go further, the cost in human lives could even escalate.

That is why I take up the point made my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton. Who do we go to now? In what forum can we find an arbitration model and arbitration partners? We have to go back to the United Nations for an open discussion about the process and where we are now, because where we are now is certainly not in a successful position, and it can only deteriorate from hereon in. Given that there is an unstable Government, allegations of corruption and conflicts between central Government and the regions, we are behoved to involve the UN, but, if a peacekeeping force is offered, those who were involved in the invasion certainly cannot participate in it.

We are now entering a critical period, and I urge Members to study the report by the US study group. It provides a way forward to secure peace and protect the interests of this country in the long term, in combating terrorism, combating drugs and securing the region itself for the long-term future.

Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website