Afghanistan

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:53 pm on 14th November 2001.

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Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative 3:53 pm, 14th November 2001

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for repeating the Statement. It is entirely right that the Prime Minister came to Parliament to deliver it. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that we have seen a complete vindication of the strategy pursued by the coalition over the past four weeks, and indeed, of the wholesome and fulsome support given by these Benches? Had we heeded the cause of those who demanded a pause in the bombing, the coalition would not have achieved the successes it has. Nor would we be any closer to a situation in which effective humanitarian aid could get through. That is now a priority which faces the coalition.

The Prime Minister has been greatly strengthened by the support of a united Parliament. That broad parliamentary support will be needed in the long haul ahead. Can the Leader of the House give the House an assurance that there will soon be a debate on the Afghan situation and the role of British troops so that the whole question can be debated more fully?

We meet against a fast-changing political and military background. A major deployment of British troops could now be involved. That alone underlines the importance of further debate. It also reinforces the need for clarity in our purpose. What are our war aims? We began with the aim of destroying Al'Quaeda and bin Laden. Can the noble and learned Lord assure the House that it remains our central aim to pursue not only bin Laden but the whole international terrorist network relentlessly and ruthlessly for so long as it takes until the threat is destroyed?

To secure bin Laden we set out to remove from power the Taliban which was sheltering him. I am glad to say that that has now been done. The Taliban has been removed from power. Is it also now our aim to remove its capability to do further damage within Afghanistan? Given the welcome collapse of Taliban authority in many Afghan cities, will the coalition now be seeking to harass and destroy Taliban forces in the mountains? Is the Leader of the House in a position to say whether British forces will be involved in that process?

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the role played by the coalition forces so far, including the role played by our own Armed Forces. We support the decision to place British troops on standby ready to be deployed in Afghanistan should their presence on the ground be required. Can the noble and learned Lord go further and spell out the roles which he envisages will be played by our Armed Forces? I hope that we all agree that their objectives must be clearly defined. We do not want to find our forces indefinitely garrisoning exposed military positions. Can he assure the House that the rules of engagement they are given will allow them to protect themselves in all circumstances? I wonder whether the words in the Statement read to the House by the noble and learned Lord are clear enough in that regard?

The last thing we need is a power vacuum in which ancient hatreds and rivalries resurface among the people and tribes which now exist in Afghanistan. The need to form a broadly-based administration that can command widespread support has never been more urgent. Can the Leader of the House say more about when he believes that will be achieved? Is he satisfied with the urgency of the United Nations' action in that regard? Can he also tell us at what level the United Kingdom's diplomatic presence will be, and whether he envisages a long-term role for the former king in the future government of Afghanistan?

Finally, I welcome the comments in the Statement on humanitarian aid. Few will forget the prompt action taken by the British government 10 years ago to help Kurdish refugees in harsh winter conditions. We have a narrow opportunity to act in Afghanistan before the winter. What are we doing now to deliver aid to those in the refugee camps and others displaced from their homes in recent weeks? Does the noble and learned Lord agree that there now has to be an intensive humanitarian effort by all involved to ensure that the aid gets through to those in desperate need? I wonder whether British troops will be used to help in that task.

It is essential that we do not relent in the fight against international terrorism now that it has begun. We stand four square behind our Armed Forces and the coalition effort. We will continue to do so. I hope that the noble and learned Lord recognises how much we share with the Prime Minister an admiration for the outstanding leadership of President Bush in recent weeks. The unity of purpose has brought us a long way, but there is still a long way to go.