Afghanistan

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 14th November 2001.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 4:00 pm, 14th November 2001

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for repeating a Statement made by the Prime Minister. It would be churlish not to recognise the remarkable function and role of the Prime Minister and also of President Bush in what has happened. We also recognise the work of the special forces, both British and American, and their remarkable achievement so far.

It is worth taking a moment to reflect on the situation which the Soviet Union encountered in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Taliban disappeared into the mountains, regrouped and returned to stop a Soviet attack which was marked by heavy equipment, a large number of soldiers and the brutal behaviour of those soldiers towards civilians. Is the noble and learned Lord satisfied that reports of the collapse of the Taliban are borne out by intelligence and military information? I recognise that he cannot reveal all he knows, but some of us are concerned because under the Soviet invasion the Taliban previously retreated into the mountains, bogged down almost all of the Soviet armed forces in the mountains and then returned to seize large parts of the country. Is the noble and learned Lord satisfied that it is reasonable to talk about "total collapse"? Does he agree that we should not yet regard the war as over, as the media have begun to describe it, perhaps too soon?

Secondly, it is vital at this stage to try to win the support of the population of Afghanistan. In that respect, I am concerned by the report that liberated peoples may be visiting their vengeance on those whom they feel to be responsible for their oppression and suffering. One must admit that the record of the Northern Alliance as warriors is outstanding, but as people with a fine sense of civilised values rather less so. There are already troubling reports from Mazar-i Sharif and elsewhere of extreme actions by the Northern Alliance. No doubt part of that is attributed to their success, but part of it is likely to be attributed to inadequate guidance on the way in which they should treat the civilian population. Can the noble and learned Lord assure the House that messages are being received by the Northern Alliance to the effect that it is vital that it needs to win the support of the civilians of Afghanistan, which requires proper behaviour towards them?

Thirdly, the noble and learned Lord was understandably encouraging about humanitarian aid, which was good to hear. Does he believe that there is any chance of getting aid through to the south? We understand that around Herat, which has fallen, many people are at the edge of starvation. The noble and learned Lord mentioned the centre and the north, and we are grateful for that information, but perhaps he can address that further issue. As regards the food which is being sent to advance positions, are there strategies for fanning it out into the villages which are being cut off, perhaps by air drops, in order to ensure that they receive the food that they desperately need?

Fourthly, I want to ask the noble and learned Lord a brief question about the rules of engagement, also referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. Will the rules of engagement relating to our own forces permit them to protect civilians in situations in which they may be at risk? The noble and learned Lord will recall the difference between the rules of engagement under which our forces were restrained in Bosnia, where they had no permission to protect civilians, and in Kosovo, where they had. There was then a substantial difference in the role which our troops took. If the noble and learned Lord cannot comment on the rules of engagement, perhaps he will be able to do so on another occasion.

I turn to the role of the United Nations which the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House, in repeating the Statement, made clear was of vital importance. I want to ask two questions. There has been a report that the United Nations special representative indicated that the transition could last for as long as two years. No doubt that is to allow for the refugees to return and for stability to be established. What steps, if any, have been taken so far to establish an international committee to supervise the setting up of a government of the Afghan people, given that half the population—namely, women—was not represented in the previous government and that there is a great problem of proportionate representation among the tribes, which differ among themselves?

My final question relates to the refugee camps, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. We understand that they are still in considerable financial difficulties as regards caring for the refugees, particularly in Pakistan and Iran. Once again, we on these Benches—and we do so frequently—request the Government to consider with the coalition underpinning the financial cost of the refugees in those desperately poor countries in order to show how much we want to support them in their charitable and humanitarian work.