War against Terrorism

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:28 pm on 4th November 2004.

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Photo of Greg Pope Greg Pope Labour, Hyndburn 3:28 pm, 4th November 2004

I am grateful to follow the two right hon. Members who are members of the Committee.

I want first to make a point about Iraq. I supported the war; I voted for it in March last year. Unlike Sir John Stanley, I think that it was the right thing to do. The world is a better place without Saddam Hussein. All hon. Members must have found it a difficult decision. I certainly found it difficult to decide how to vote.

Whatever we thought about the war, and whatever the rights and wrongs of going into Iraq, we can agree, and should be able to form a consensus on, our duty not to walk away from the people of Iraq now. Some people in the Stop the War Coalition—not all, but some—urge that British troops should pull out. We cannot leave the people of Iraq to the Ba'athist elements, to the al- Zarqawis of this world, to the al-Qaedas or to the anarchy of terrorism. We have a duty to make Iraq a stable place, to make the elections in January a success and to rebuild and reconstruct Iraq.

We can be enormously proud of the work of the British Army in Iraq. I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Iraq a while ago. I spent a brief time in Baghdad with the British Office and then went to Basra to see the work that British soldiers are doing there. As a House of Commons, we can be enormously proud of the work that our soldiers are doing in some of the most difficult and dangerous circumstances imaginable, especially in the south of the country.

It is quite likely that the Queen's Lancashire Regiment will be recalled to Iraq as part of the reconfiguration of our troops there. The regiment has already served with distinction there, and I know that if it has to go back, it will rise to the challenge and serve with distinction again, but that might be easier if it were not threatened with a merger, or abolition.

I wish to focus also on Afghanistan. I add to those of my right hon. Friend Donald Anderson and the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, my congratulations to President Karzai, whom we were fortunate enough to meet when the Committee visited Afghanistan this year. There has been remarkable success in that country, which had never had elections before. Between 9 million and 10 million people, of whom about 4 million were women, registered to vote in those elections. Women now have a say in the running of Afghanistan for the first time.

We should be proud of our contribution to making Afghanistan a more democratic nation, but that is not to say that there are not problems. There is a problem with drug production and poppy cultivation. We flew over Afghanistan into Kabul and then to Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, and somebody told us that every cultivated field that we could see out of the porthole of the RAF Hercules was a poppy field. They go on for mile after mile. If we are serious about tackling that problem, we must provide some of the peasant farmers with a viable and profitable alternative. It is too easy for them to fall back on poppy production, which is enormously profitable, and for us to leave them in league with some of the warlords.

In south Afghanistan, there is still fighting with Taliban elements; there is fighting along the border in the south Waziristan area on the Pakistan border. At some point, we will have to tackle the warlords. We saw the work that the British Army is doing in Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north, where a small provincial reconstruction team of perhaps 40 British soldiers is doing remarkable work. Those soldiers are winning a hearts-and-minds campaign with the people in that area; they are respected and popular, and we should be proud of them. However, if we put the issue in context, we see that there are 40 British soldiers in north Afghanistan, whereas General Dostum has about 10,000 men under arms in that area. We cannot allow that situation to continue indefinitely.

I agree that there are too few troops on the ground, but that is not necessarily our fault. I do not think that British forces should make up the shortfall in peacekeeping troops in Kabul. We are a member of NATO, and it is about time that some of our colleagues in NATO who enjoy talking about Afghanistan started to put troops on the ground there. However, although we are talking about the extra contribution that our allies could make, we need more money. There is a danger that we are trying to rebuild Afghanistan on the cheap. If we want to see a stable, prosperous, peaceful and democratic Afghanistan, that will require a lot more money than is currently going in.

My third area of focus is the middle east peace process. During the American presidential elections, it struck me that one name cropped up more than that of most foreigners. That was the name of our Prime Minister. I hope that when he picks up the telephone and congratulates President Bush on his re-election, he urges him to breathe life into the middle east peace process. During the Clinton Administration, we saw what a difference it can make if, in his second term, a President does not have to look over his shoulder and worry about a re-election campaign. Instead, he can focus on, and make a difference in, some areas of the world.

In the dying days of his presidency, President Clinton came incredibly close to doing a deal that at least offered a chance of lasting peace in the middle east. It was put to us in Washington—Mr. Maples will remember this—by somebody who had served in the Clinton Administration that the deal that Clinton had offered to the Palestinians right at the end was not the deal of a lifetime, but the deal of three lifetimes, but the Palestinians walked away from it. I understand why the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon made the points that he did: it is easy to see why President Bush did not make the middle east peace process a top priority given what happened to the Clinton Administration's efforts to find a resolution to the conflict. However, we must reinvigorate the process. The sickening endless cycle of helicopter-gunship attacks on Palestinians followed by the atrocities of the suicide bombers cannot possibly be allowed to continue. I am very pleased that our Prime Minister has said that it will be the top foreign policy priority. He is right: it should be.

The Committee saw an Israeli security wall when we visited the area last year. First, we went to a village near Qalqiliya. The village is on a hilltop and is surrounded by razor wire. The Israeli defence force had cut off the water supply to the village, which was slowly being strangled. I suspect that there are no Palestinians left in that village. In Qalqiliya, which is a much larger town on the west bank, the Israelis have built a wall with razor wire that entirely circles the town. People told us that it took up to two hours to go through one checkpoint—there is only one way in and out.

We met a farmer whose farm is on one side of the wall and whose land is on the other. He was sleeping outside because he could not get back through the checkpoint to go home at night. We saw children whose homes were on one side of the wall, but whose school was on the other. I never saw the Berlin wall, but I imagine that it looked like that. The wall in Qalqiliya was enormously high, had watchtowers with Israeli soldiers in them, and was incredibly intimidating. There is no possible security justification for encircling entire Palestinian towns on the west bank. I have no sympathy for the suicide bombers, but one can see where the anger comes from—it fuels the suicide bombers—in the degradation, humiliation and oppression of the Palestinian people in towns such as Qalqilya. We should redouble our efforts to tell the Government of Israel that the wall is a disgrace and that such treatment of an entire people is simply unacceptable in the modern world.

I shall briefly talk about Iran, which the Committee was also fortunate enough to visit. This is beginning to sound a little like extreme tourism, as the Committee has visited a variety of places that probably few people would want to visit on holiday. A claim that is often made about British policy is that we are just a poodle of American foreign policy. Nothing gives the lie to that claim better than our approach to Iran. On one side, there is the American neo-con view that Iran is part of an axis of evil. On the other side—the British side—there is the very clear view that we should have constructive engagement with Tehran.

I very much welcome the announcement made this week by our Foreign Secretary, which in effect ruled out a military solution to the threat that Iran poses. That threat, however, is real and needs to be dealt with. Iran is attempting to build a civilian nuclear power programme, although it is hard to think of a country that needs a nuclear power programme less than Iran. It is rich in all sorts of energy resources and does not need such a programme. The obvious fear that it is developing weapons-grade uranium is real. The answer, however, is not military intervention but diplomacy through the United Nations and the troika of European nations—Britain, France and Germany.