Afghanistan

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:05 pm on 14th November 2001.

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Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords 4:05 pm, 14th November 2001

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is right in saying that the successes in swift moving circumstances are a vindication that the Government were right to be resolute not to have a pause. The noble Lord was right in his historical resumé. If there had been a pause, we should not have had the successes. I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that they are successes so far and we still have a long journey to negotiate.

Our purposes have been plain. Our immediate purposes were to bring Osama bin Laden and his fellow criminals to justice; to close down the Al'Qaeda network; and to take action against the Taliban regime which sponsors both. Turning to the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, our wider objectives are to end the terrorist threat on Afghan soil; to tackle the machinery—his particular point—of terrorism world-wide; to deal with the immediate humanitarian crisis; and thereafter to help to reconstruct Afghanistan society, including—the noble Baroness's particular point—as broadly based a government as we can assist to be brought about.

We intend to pursue international terrorism. That is the whole underpinning theme of the legislation which my noble friend Lord Rooker will be introducing. Your Lordships will have to make difficult choices on those occasions. They will have to be faced and they need to be faced while remembering why we are here on such occasions.

As regards the role of our Armed Forces, the main purpose of any British troops will be in the context of multi-national efforts to make safe the humanitarian supply routes which are now opening up. Some of our troops may be securing airfields, clearing unexploded ordnance, and assisting the safe return of the UN agencies and non-governmental organisations to Afghanistan. However, I repeat what I said earlier—I appreciate that only two of your Lordships had advance copies of the Statement—that we cannot rule out some of our troops being used in offensive front-line operations.

I know from my previous employment that the rules of engagement are constantly reviewed. The more prudent course, if it is acceptable to your Lordships without being discourteous, would be for me to speak privately to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, in order to give them appropriate details. I do not believe that it would be wise or prudent, or necessarily right, to go into detail about what our Armed Forces can and cannot do in the difficulties of instant decisions. But of course I accept that the House is entitled to know, and I know that your Lordships will trust the party leaders opposite to receive the material from me.

The matter is urgent and I do not believe that I could have said anything more focused. We intend to have diplomatic representation in Kabul by this weekend. The United Nations will be there on Friday. If I had read out this Statement and had said that two weeks ago, your Lordships would politely but firmly have come to a certain conclusion about my mental state of health. These are remarkably fast-moving circumstances. In the nature of things, one has to be cautious about coming to conclusions which may soon be vitiated by the alternative track of events.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked about the former king. He is part of the equation. We have to work with the United Nations and in particular our international colleagues to give the people of Afghanistan the opportunity to make their choices. If the king features in their choices, essentially that must be a matter for them. But we shall give all assistance we can to whatever proper choices they wish to make.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked about humanitarian aid. Of course we are eager to assist with the refugee camps. As the ultimate goal, we want people to be able to go to their homes. I am not being complacent. Having told your Lordships recently that we were hoping to reach the figure of 1,700 tonnes, 2,000 tonnes a day is a very considerable achievement in difficult circumstances and in the recent context of three years of drought and decades of civil war.

Of course one bears in mind what happened when Russia invaded Afghanistan. No one is under the slightest illusion about the magnitude of the task we face. There are troubling reports—I do not know how accurate they are—about atrocities and who caused them. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness. One cannot simply be content to substitute one barbaric tyranny for another. I believe that the messages are getting through. We have a powerful influence far and away beyond our military force. I repeat—it is not a party political point—that no one should under-estimate to the slightest degree the powerful effect that the Prime Minister of this country has had, particularly when mean-minded people urge him for domestic political advantage to attend to domestic matters when he has been doing this country's work magnificently well.

There is the problem of the south. The Statement was right to concentrate on those areas where we are succeeding. There is much to be done in the south.

I recognise the validity of the point about aid for refugees and the assistance of the United Nations. I do not think that this country has been ungenerous in either effort or resource and we intend to continue along that path.