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

Part of Privilege – in the House of Commons at 5:02 pm on 9th September 2010.

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Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset 5:02 pm, 9th September 2010

Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you very much, indeed. The last time that you allowed me to speak was at my maiden speech, so I am very grateful to be called again. It is a huge privilege to talk about this war, which in my view has not been debated in the House since it started in 2001.

I begin by uttering my unequivocal support for our armed forces. Still recognised throughout the globe as the finest fighting men and women in existence, they are the gold standard for many other countries. Our forces' training, organisation and skills are widely admired and emulated, and their service to date in Afghanistan and in other conflicts has been nothing less than exemplary. All of us can take lessons from their courage, dedication and selflessness.

We have heard again and again this afternoon that the war started in 2001, and we have borne a heavy cost: 334 dead and more than 1,500 wounded in action, many with horrific injuries. In Dorset, where I come from, I have been associated with our largest county regiment, The Rifles, for some years. They alone have sustained losses of 54 men, with more than 200 seriously injured. A commanding officer whom I met before the election, and who had served in Afghanistan, told me that he thought the war was justified. He told me that the hardest job that I would have, were I to be elected, would be to convince the public of that same point. How right he was. More and more constituents tell me that they have doubts about the war.

Committing our armed forces to battle is, let us face it, our gravest duty in this House. It is we who send them to war, and it is we, ultimately, who bring them home, so this debate is a great chance to challenge our responsibilities, which means that we have to ask the crucial questions that we have asked this afternoon. Should we be there, can we win, and can we afford it?

First, should we be there? Yes, I have no doubt about that, and the Secretary of State eloquently explained to us all why we should be. In addition, there is no doubt in my mind that our international responsibilities are important. It is no good whingeing on the sidelines in years to come if we abdicate our responsibilities now. We cannot expect others to guard our interests or police world trouble spots on our behalf. The Afghan war is an international conflict in the sense that terrorism knows no boundaries. The grim anniversary of 9/11 this coming Saturday underlines that point, which I would like to underline. Terrorism, in my view, is here to stay for the foreseeable future in one shape or another. We cannot beat it, but we can tackle and, one hopes, contain it. That is why we will need a lot of courage in this House to defend our realm. Contrary to the many press reports, serving soldiers I have spoken to-and I have spoken to many-say they are making huge progress. In the end, how far that progress can be sustained probably comes down to money. If that is the case, as I suspect it is, then we as a Government must continue to underwrite our hard-won freedoms-they do not come cheap.

Can we win? History says that we cannot, in the strict military sense. The fate of earlier attempts-from Alexander the Great, as we have heard, to Russia-provides stark warnings to those who would take on this rugged, proud and tribal nation. Traditions, both religious and cultural, are deeply rooted and resist outside interference. But the cold fact is that we are there now. So what do we do? If we pull out, Afghanistan could go back to the dark ages under the Taliban. If we stay, we incur huge costs in blood and treasure. I agree with the Secretary of State that we should maintain a presence for the longer term in mentoring and training roles to allow a political solution to take root and grow. It would be a bleak day if we pulled out altogether and this huge sacrifice were for nothing.

Lastly, can we afford it? Clearly, we cannot. We have inherited from the Labour Government a £38 billion liability in defence spending, with more to come. To me, this is the heart of the matter. Can we afford, and do we want, a fully equipped manned expeditionary force capable of conducting significant military operations in places such as Afghanistan, or do we retreat into our shell and have something like a gendarmerie? That is the big question we have to face as a nation. My view, emphatically, is that we need the former. We should never, ever put a price on our freedom. The armed forces are already cut to the bone, and I would push for the defence review to exclude the defence budget, at the very least.

Our armed services have been built up over hundreds of years. It takes but a minute-the slash of a red pen-and they have gone, taking years to reassemble. Are we, as a Conservative-led Government during a war, going to place our young men and women on the front line one minute and give them a redundancy note the next? These are tough questions, but ones that are relevant to this debate, not least in relation to our troops' morale. That is why I believe that the defence budget should be protected.

I recently met the mother of a dead soldier. She asked me, "Do you think the deaths of my son and his comrades are worth while? When a mother looks you in the eye and asks you a question like that, by heavens does it concentrate the mind, and it really brings home the huge responsibility that we have in this House. Should this House ever decide to send our troops to war again, and I am fortunate enough to be an MP in it, I will bear that question in mind.

I support the motion for continued deployment of UK troops in Afghanistan, with the proviso that a long-term strategy is announced and is clear. I caution the Government against setting time lines for withdrawing the majority of our troops for fear of providing succour to our enemy and promising something that maybe we cannot deliver.

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