International Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:09 pm on 18th October 2001.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement) 9:09 pm, 18th October 2001

My Lords, of all the debates on this issue in which I have taken part--that is, in three of the four which have now nearly been completed--this has been the best. There have been some extremely powerful speeches from all sides of the House which have reflected the depth of experience and expertise that this House offers in subjects such as this. I am not one of those who believe that the House offers expertise and experience in all the subjects that it debates--there are some noble Lords who believe that it does--but on these issues it can do so, as it has shown very clearly today.

The Government will consider very carefully the points raised by noble Lords on a variety of subjects, most of them concerned with the subject of the debate--that is, international terrorism. I do not think that the issue of Challenger tanks and Exercise Saif Sareea have much to do with what we are supposed to be discussing; I am a little surprised that it has been raised. However, putting that on one side, most of the contributions today have been to the point, even if that was not.

My duty in standing at the Dispatch Box as a defence Minister is to tell the House what has been done so far and to state, as far as I can, the Government's intentions in the near and far future. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I do not go down some of the important avenues that they have pursued, but deal, in the limited time I have available, with what has happened and what may happen in the future.

The Government are extremely grateful for the widespread support that they have received in the House--from the Official Opposition, from the Liberal Democrats and, indeed, from all parts of the House. That support makes our standing that much stronger in these difficult times. We are extremely grateful for that support, which has been so strongly expressed, for example, by the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, in the past few minutes.

The whole world, effectively, has come together in a campaign to defeat international terrorism. The United States leads that campaign and it is appropriate that it should do so. It has many unique military capabilities, just as it has a unique role in the world's diplomatic and economic affairs. But let us not forget that it was that country which suffered far and away the greatest losses on 11th September--more than 5,000 people killed, most of them Americans, and two great cities of the world, both in the United States, subjected to acts of terror and a complete disregard for human decency. In the past few days there have been reports that it has perhaps been exposed to a new horror--biological warfare.

It was not only the United States that was stung by these events; we were stung and the world was too. Citizens of some 80 countries died and people from right across the world were murdered without thought to their nationality, their colour or their faith. In the case of our country, we lost at least 100 of our citizens--the greatest ever loss of British lives to terrorism.

In another place, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister gave his conclusions--conclusions which have, frankly, convinced nearly every government in the world about who was responsible. Within the constraints imposed by security considerations, he offered a cogent and compelling case for calling Osama bin Laden and his Al'Qaeda network to account for these crimes. The video footage released by Al'Qaeda last Sunday containing threats to attack more aircraft and more skyscrapers has strengthened the force of my right honourable friend's case, as well as providing a terrible warning that future atrocities cannot be ruled out. Is there really any serious opinion left that does not believe that the main perpetrator of the activities of 11th September was the person named and the organisation that he runs?

It is equally clear now that that organisation shelters behind the Taliban in Afghanistan. Without the Taliban, Al'Qaeda could not train or plan and prepare its barbarities. In return--because there is a deal--Al'Qaeda fights for the Taliban in Afghanistan's seemingly endless civil war. Both organisations co-operate and profit from trafficking in heroin--in other words, their activities lead to deaths on the streets of Britain.

The United Kingdom, like the United States and so many other countries, has been attacked. Now we are taking measured, proportionate action in self-defence, in full accordance with international law. It is important to remember that.

The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, in a powerful speech, almost quizzed me about the use of the word "proportionate". I do not want to go too far down that avenue. The best definition I can give is that in this context it means "reasonable"--in the sense that self-defence in English law must be "reasonable". The noble Lord's point is that when such horrific things are done, in one obvious sense it is difficult to think of any "unreasonable" response. Perhaps I may put it in these terms: it is not to kill for the sake of killing, and it is not to act in pure revenge. Those would not be reasonable or proportionate responses. I do not want to say more on the matter this evening.

My noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean spoke about the wider strategic objectives in the campaign against international terrorism. I shall reiterate them briefly, because they are a major factor in shaping our military aims. The strategy is broad and covers many aspects, embracing action in the diplomatic, humanitarian, economic, legal and military spheres. We have made it clear that we seek: first, to bring those guilty of the attacks on 11th September to account; secondly, to ensure that Osama bin Laden and the Al'Qaeda network are never able to pose a terrorist threat again; and thirdly, to ensure that Afghanistan no longer harbours and sustains international terrorism. Fourthly, if Mullah Omar does not comply with our legitimate demands, we shall also seek sufficient change in the leadership in Afghanistan to ensure that the country's links with international terrorism are broken. These objectives are set out clearly and expertly in the paper that has been placed in the Library. I hope that noble Lords have had an opportunity to read it.

As I have said, military action is only part of our approach, but it is an important one in the achievement of these objectives. But as noble and gallant Lords among us would be quick to confirm, military action is not, and should not be, an end in itself. It must be undertaken with a clear set of goals from the outset. These we have. They are: first, to destroy the terrorist camps; secondly, to pressurise the Taliban regime to end its support for Osama bin Laden; and thirdly, to create the right conditions for future operations in Afghanistan.

The coalition has now attacked over 70 separate targets. All have a clear terrorist or military significance. They range from terrorist training camps to early warning and air defence capabilities, such as airfields and missile batteries. They cover military command and control sites, garrisons and, increasingly, Taliban and Al'Qaeda units in the front line.

We are making good progress towards achieving our military objectives, although we are not there yet. The terrorist camps received a good deal of attention from the coalition. The damage is extensive. Many of the camps have been placed beyond use. In addition, the Taliban's command and control facilities have been hit hard. Their early warning and air defence systems, their radar systems and surface-to-air missile sites lie devastated so do the nine airfields struck by the coalition, as has already been said. The vast majority have had their operational capability degraded or destroyed, and with that most of the Taliban's air force. We have achieved air supremacy at medium and high levels over Afghanistan.

An essential task now is to ensure that we build on these gains. The terrorists must not be allowed to recover if the coalition is to operate as freely and safely as possible. The coalition is prepared to repeat such strikes to make sure of that in a very obvious demonstration of our resolution. I do not suppose that anyone is in any doubt about what we mean when we say that our commitment is long term. We shall be there until the Taliban regime surrenders Al'Qaeda's leaders and renounces its support for terrorism.

The United Kingdom has played a full role in all of this. The Royal Navy has twice launched--most recently last Saturday--salvoes of Tomahawk Cruise missiles against terrorist training camps. We have authorised the United States to operate out of the base at Diego Garcia. Since 9th October, the Royal Air Force has flown about 70 reconnaissances and air to air refuelling sorties in support of American strike aircraft, including nine sorties last night. These are vital missions and ones in which the RAF excels, as the United States knows because they asked us to deploy them. Some 150 reservists, all with very specialised skills, have been called out initially, at least, on a voluntary basis. They demonstrate the great reservoir of commitment and ability that the reserves represent.

We are not limited to only military functions. We shall also use our Canberra PR9S, which are remarkable and sophisticated aircraft, to find the thousands of refugees who are stranded inside Afghanistan as they try to flee the regime. That will enable us to provide important information to the World Food Programme and others who are delivering humanitarian aid, allowing them to bring some relief from suffering.

The scale of the humanitarian crisis is huge and we certainly do not underestimate that fact. However, it is appropriate to stress that this terrible crisis predates the events of 11th September and is a result in large part of the actions of the Taliban regime. The United Kingdom is responding with large aid programmes, for which my noble friend gave the figures earlier. We are working closely with the United Nations to see what further steps we can take.

I am aware that some aid agencies have called for the air operations to be suspended to ease the flow of aid into Afghanistan. I understand that view and no one doubts the absolute sincerity of such views. We have no alternative to taking the most rigorous action against those who carried out the attacks of 11th September. To suspend such action regardless of the reason given would be interpreted by those whom we seek to bring to justice as a contemptible sign of weakness.

The Taliban have been given ample opportunity to accept the demands of the international community for justice. They have not done so and there is no sign that they intend to do so. Our only option is to act decisively to achieve our aims as quickly as possible. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, made the point that speed was of the essence.