Afghanistan

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:55 pm on 17th December 2001.

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Photo of Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank Crossbench 4:55 pm, 17th December 2001

My Lords, I first thank Members and the staff of your Lordships' House for making me welcome and for their advice. I am honoured to have become a Member of your Lordships' House and trust that I will be able to make an appropriate contribution. I am also pleased to find that I have served in the Army with a surprising number of the Doorkeepers; I joined my regiment with one of them more than 40 years ago.

The operations in Afghanistan are continuing satisfactorily—very much more satisfactorily than some commentators predicted. The United States has given the coalition good leadership and only struck after calm deliberation and careful analysis. As the Minister said, the Taliban is in disarray and although some of its surviving members could still cause serious trouble, Afghanistan has been freed from a vile regime by what many Afghans—not just those supporting the Northern Alliance—see as a war of liberation, not as a war against Islam. There is every reason to suppose that in time Osama bin Laden will be captured or killed; he has no escape.

Much progress has been made in Bonn and elsewhere to find a new government. We should not expect a tidy solution or one that is similar to that which developed democracies enjoy. In a land where tribe has often been against tribe and, within a tribe, family against family, power sharing does not come naturally. We have every reason to hope for better leadership; more representative leadership; leadership that is not feared or hated; and leadership that gives Afghans hope. However, we should not be surprised if there are some members of the new government with whom we are not comfortable.

The scale of the humanitarian crisis has been nowhere near what was predicted by some. Great credit is due to our own NGOs and the DfID for their contribution to the international community's achievements.

The conflict in Afghanistan that we are witnessing may well prove to be relatively easy when compared with what remains to be done in the struggle against international terrorism. We should remember that Saddam Hussein has killed more than 1 million Muslims and that he was decisively defeated in the Gulf War but that he remains a hero to many Muslims. It is important that Osama bin Laden appears, particularly to the younger generation, as the evil man he is—whose actions have brought nothing but misery.

The recently secured and widely shown video—it has already been referred to—of a gloating bin Laden, should help. However, if he does emerge as a hero, the long struggle that we have embarked upon against international terrorism—which can certainly succeed—will be even harder and longer.

The front-line states in the conflict deserve our understanding—none more so than Pakistan, which has many internal, cross-border and ethnic problems and disputes with its neighbours, mostly notably over Kashmir with India. The president, General Musharraf, has with great courage steadfastly supported the coalition against terror and Al'Qaeda, and he deserves our help and understanding in return.

For far too many years, Pakistan was treated as an outcast. Certainly, some of her problems were of her own making. But those who cry for a quick return to democracy fail to understand that there has never been what we understand by "democracy" under the rule of either civilians or generals in Pakistan. President Musharraf has already shown that he is moving in the right direction and is committed to democratic rule. Once the crisis in Afghanistan is over, it will be indefensible for the people of Pakistan to be abandoned, as they have been before, by the richer members of the coalition.

I want to raise two other matters. The first is the quite outstanding work of the BBC World Service. Between 60 and 70 per cent of Afghan male heads of households are regular BBC listeners. Broadcasts in Pashto and Persian have been increased to more than 90 hours a week since 11th September. BBC radio broadcasts are trusted and are the only way that many Afghans, a large percentage of whom cannot read or write, receive independent, impartial information. That will continue to be important when the fighting stops and Afghanistan is being rebuilt. The importance of the World Service needs to be recognised in the next spending round.

Secondly, and lastly, the Armed Forces have yet again performed magnificently under particularly difficult and dangerous conditions. I am proud that the regiment in which I served and of which I am now the Colonel Commandant has yet again been in the van. Our forces remain respected and admired at home and overseas. But for how much longer can we go on taking that for granted? The defence programme was underfunded before 11th September. There is now a new commitment. Is there anything that can sensibly be given up now that we are involved in Afghanistan and the struggle against terrorism?

Priorities—particularly spending priorities—are always difficult. But we must avoid falling into the trap of becoming so mesmerised by Osama bin Laden and Al'Qaeda that other key parts of defence are neglected and underfunded and we are found unprepared when confronted by a new threat. For we live in dangerous times and we can be absolutely sure that new threats will appear.