Queen’s Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:50 pm on 15th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Liberal Democrat 4:50 pm, 15th May 2013

My Lords, in listening to my noble friend’s speech at the Dispatch Box, I was struck by a lacuna. I hope that she might take this opportunity to clarify the position of the Afghan interpreters. We are in severe danger of committing an act both unwise and discreditable, if not shameful. I cannot understand why my Government have not before now clarified the position of these men, who have placed their lives at the service of our country and stood shoulder to shoulder with our troops in some of their most difficult hours. Without them, those troops could not have acted at all.

These men are different from our troops in this sense: our troops can be sure that their families are home, secure and safe, in Britain, whereas they cannot.

Their families live, day in and day out, threatened by mortal threat from the Taliban in Afghan society. Our troops come home every six or nine months, whereas they do not. They have served us, day in and day out, month in and month out, year in and year out, yet the Government are havering as to whether they should have the same rights that interpreters had in Iraq. We are not asking much; we are not asking anything new, or for something that the Government have not done before. The precedent is already established.

There are some 400 Afghan interpreters—that is all. So what is holding this up? What is the Government’s position? I am told that the Ministry of Defence is perfectly content to make sure that those same conditions are offered to these brave men—they are all men, of course—who have done such service to our nation and to our troops on the ground. I am told—and it surprised me, because this is where I thought the problem might be coming from—that the Home Office is perfectly content. I am told that it is coming from Downing Street. I do not know whether that is true.

The Prime Minister has certainly said—and I understand where he is coming from—that he wants these men to stay in Afghanistan, because they have something to contribute there. I understand that. I remember very well in Bosnia the damage done by the internal brain drain, when salaries paid to those working for the international community so outweighed those paid by the local community that, for instance, my driver in Afghanistan was getting more than the Prime Minister. I understand that and I understand that the Government may wish to put an economic value on those people, if they wanted to stay and contribute to Afghanistan in peace.

Let us assume a value, plucking one out of thin air. I imagine that it is nowhere near this, but let us say that it is £50,000 for such people to stay in Afghanistan. That is fine—I am glad that the Government are prepared to monetise the value of their continuing in Afghanistan. However, the choice must be theirs to take. It is theirs to decide whether they want to balance their own life and face the risk, under mortal, declared and deliberate threat from the Taliban, against the sum of £50,000. Let us double that. I wonder how many of your Lordships would accept £100,000 to leave yourselves at such mortal risk, and leave your family there as well. If the Government wish to come forward and place a sum of money that expresses the value of their staying in Afghanistan, I am entirely for that, provided that the choice is left to them.

It is time that the Government came clean on this and acted in honour. It is time that we did not continue with this shameful delay in clarifying the position of these men. We have paid a very high price for our engagement in Afghanistan. Let us not add to that price now with an act of dishonour by leaving these people in the lurch.

My second point is on Syria. I heard what the noble Baroness said and I welcome what the Prime Minister said. I congratulate him on negotiating with the Russians the possibility of a peace agreement. It appears that there is a chance of that happening. That is good. I do not accept that it will deliver very much; having a peace agreement is not the same as delivering a peace, but it is good that we should try to obtain such an agreement. What worries me is the implied threat that lies behind that. I heard it explicitly in Paris, it is also being said in Whitehall and it is certainly being discussed in Washington that we should lift the arms embargo. I have to say that that would be an act of the grossest folly.

I will try to explain why that is the case. What is the reasoning for this argument? Do the rebels need more arms? No, they do not. Some 3,500 tonnes of arms have been delivered, funded by rich Saudi businessmen and Qatar and facilitated by the CIA. By the way, that 3,500 tonne figure is not questioned by American official sources. Arms have also come from Croatia. We are talking not about tanks in that 3,500 tonne figure but about small arms. There is no shortage of weapons at all. By the way, I know where they are coming from: they are coming from Tito’s underground arms manufactories in Bosnia. I have no doubt that that arms trade is also funding their deeply corrupt forces. As I say, there is no shortage of arms. Indeed, the Government admit that there is no shortage of arms. They say, “We will supply arms in order to influence the moderate forces”. However, it is a fundamental fallacy that you influence people by supplying them with arms.

However, the real danger that I worry about is that we have misread the situation. Some in Britain believe that this is somehow Bosnia revisited. No, it is not; almost nothing about the present situation in Syria is comparable with that of Bosnia. It is deeply more complicated. By the way, those of us who knew something of Bosnia during the Bosnian war never recommended that we should lift the arms embargo.

Here is the problem: the law of unintended consequences will come into play again. We believe that we are fighting a rather simplistic battle between a brutal dictator and innocent citizens. Actually, I have to tell noble Lords that behind this a different battle is being fought. It is not a battle for Syria; it is a battle in which Syria is only one front line. What we are now seeing being prepared is funded by Saudi Arabian businessmen—I have to believe with the agreement of the Saudi Arabian Government—and the Qataris: namely, to capture the Sunni Umar and to radicalise it as a preparation for a wider war against the Shi’ites. That is what this is about. Some seek to produce that outcome. The war being fought in Syria is the same as that being fought in Mali, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere. The Salafists and Wahhabists do not love each other very much but they are working with the same aim of capturing the Sunni Umar as a precursor to a wider war. I do not know whether they will succeed, but that is their intent. I think that that would be catastrophic.

It is important that we understand the Russian position on this. It is not just about supporting their last supporter in the Middle East—Assad—but about the fact that they know that the same thing is happening in their Muslim republics, such as Dagestan. We need to understand that there are forces in the Arab world for whom the war is no longer a war against the great Satan; it is the preparation of a war against the great refusant of the Shi’ites. What is at stake here is a wider regional war. Mao Tse-Tung used to say that the First and Second World Wars were the European civil wars. Perhaps they were. Perhaps that is a better way of looking at it. It is possible to have a regional war with global consequences. It would be disastrous if we were inadvertently to stoke that up and enable it, with weapons being passed out of the control of those whom we would like to have them into the control of those whom we would not. It would be disastrous if the wider consequence was not that of alleviating the situation in Syria but that of building towards a much wider conflict in which we are instrumentalised on the side of the Sunnis and the Russians are instrumentalised on the side of the Shia. Let us at least understand what is at stake in this. I earnestly hope that we can achieve peace, as innocent people are suffering terribly every day in Syria, but let us not, by lifting the arms embargo, contribute to an even more terrifying and widespread conflict.