Afghanistan

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:20 pm on 5th November 2001.

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Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Liberal Democrat 8:20 pm, 5th November 2001

My Lords, we have had a wide-ranging debate today and we have heard two excellent maiden speeches from the noble Lords, Lord King and Lord Jones. However, it appears that perhaps two debates have been taking place because there seems to have been a juxtaposition. It is neatly summed up by the fact that the debate was initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, the Minister for defence, and it is to be wound up by the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, representing the interests of DfID.

That is one of the great problems which faces the campaign in Afghanistan. On the one hand a military action is being undertaken and on the other there is a humanitarian crisis. Many noble Lords mentioned that today, not least of whom were the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Rea, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich.

One of the aspects of the humanitarian crises which has been brought home to me by listening to some of the debates is that this one has not been caused by the military action alone. It might well be exacerbated during the winter, but the window of opportunity we are looking at—that is, two weeks before the snows come—is at the end of a long period during which opportunities to supply food to the people of Afghanistan were missed. For the past three years Afghanistan has faced a drought and a civil war has left it with a large population of refugees and displaced persons.

However, it has been ruled by a regime which has exacerbated the problem. I read with horror the fact that even now aid convoys, which are desperately needed, must face a levy and a tax. Indeed, a few months ago we heard stories of NGOs involved in the production of food being expelled and a bakery in Kabul which employed women being forced to close down. The treatment of half the population of Afghanistan—the women—must cause horror to those with liberal ideals or any degree of humanitarian viewpoint.

We on these Benches support the military aspects of the campaign. However, this is a campaign being fought on two fronts. It is being fought in the glare and spotlight of media attention and it is extremely sensitive to the coverage, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, pointed out, is sometimes contradictory. It is difficult for those watching at home because the regime does not have forces fighting in uniform; it is difficult to see who your opponent is and who you are attacking when the one badge of military office appears to be the Kalashnikov.

The issue of bombing has been raised by many noble Lords today and it is one about which we on these Benches have concerns. However, I would not say that we are wobbling, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, suggested we were. The "wobbler" is a term coined by the Sun, which depicted heads on top of jellies. That is simplifying the issue. I believe that the bombing campaign should not be looked at as anything other than a tool. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself. That point was made clearly by the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Bramall and Lord Craig of Radley.

We are reaching the point at which we may have to consider military intervention on the ground. To what extent that is to take place will be a matter for the military commanders, but one myth must first be exploded. It is that special forces will be able to conduct and complete the campaign. The idea that special forces, by some unknown and mythical powers, will be able to go into the country and topple the Taliban is highly dubious.

Immediate concerns have been raised in the debate and I have only one question to ask the Minister. It relates to aid corridors. If they are to be brought about, I doubt that it will happen while the Taliban is still in power in parts of Afghanistan. I believe that a UN force could go in only with a charter to police a peace. However, one of the problems which has faced many forces within Afghanistan is that of lawlessness. Will the Minister say whether such a force will fall within the UN charter if, when it is policing the corridors acting in a military capacity, it comes under fire from bandits?

The issue of cluster bombs has been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, said that it would be wrong to deny such weapons if that would put our troops at risk. We on these Benches have real concerns about cluster bombs, especially as a result of the issues raised in Kosovo. I speak particularly of the two British servicemen who lost their lives dealing with unexploded cluster bombs. They are weapons which can be used but we would look to their most effective use. Furthermore, as was pointed out by my noble friend Lord Phillips, Afghanistan has one of the largest concentrations of landmines, and cluster bombs may add to that problem.