By Jonathan Isaby and Paul Goodman
8.45 pm update: It's also worth noting the amendment tabled by Julian Lewis, supported by three other Conservative MPs, which sought to add to the motion the following words –
"provided that a more realistic military strategy is adopted designed to fulfil the United Kingdom's long-term interests in the region at lesser cost in life, limb and financial resources".
Lewis argued that –
"…all the Governments are signed up to an unrealistic strategy which ought to be changed. The reality is that General Richards was not really wrong in what he said previously and he is not really wrong when he says that we ought to be talking to the enemy. It is a question of timing. The truth of the matter is that General Petraeus is absolutely right to pursue such a counter-insurgency strategy, provided that we have all the time in the world and that we are prepared to take the casualties that are being inflicted on us by irregular forces. If we are not prepared to take those casualties, we will have to adopt a more realistic strategy, because otherwise we will withdraw arbitrarily and, on our withdrawal, the likelihood of the Afghan Government's being able to sustain themselves is open to doubt."
His speech can be read here. He was supported in the lobbies by Philip Hollobone and Andrew Turner. Conservative MPs seem to have been whipped to vote against the amendment.
Yesterday saw a debate initiated by the Backbench Business Committee on the presence of British troops in Afghanistan.
The motion before the Commons was "That this House supports the continued deployment of UK armed forces in Afghanistan" and was passed by 310 votes to 14. Only one Conservative opposed the motion – John Baron – and two Lib Dems, Julian Huppert and John Hemming. The remaining opponents were a variety of Labour MPs along with the Green and a Plaid Cymru member.
Below are some of the highlights of the Conservative contributions.
"We have made some fundamental mistakes. I am not blaming anyone, but we made mistakes in 2006 when we dissipated our forces so they were in platoon houses and were not within the envelope. That meant that they could not have protection from artillery, and we had to use air power instead. The air power protecting them knocked out houses around them and killed local people, turning the people against our forces. In 2007 and 2008 we had gone back to counter-insurgency tactics—taking, holding, building—and our gallant troops went in to take, but they could not hold. They had to withdraw. Perhaps Members remember those pictures of helicopters flying with men strapped aboard to try to bring troops back. We could not hold the ground. Also, of course, our enemy came in and put devices on the ground that caused real problems, and they continue to do so to this day.
"We now have a situation in which there is an increase in the number of soldiers on the ground, principally from the United States, and the principles of counter-insurgency are, in fact, beginning to work. They are protecting the people, and the key is whether the Afghan people feel protected and safe and can live a decent life."
"We all know that we have a real problem in Afghanistan. We have a military aim, which is probably relatively simple: to make sure that Afghanistan never threatens us again. We also have a political aim, which is, fundamentally, that we want Afghanistan to have a decent lifestyle and to take its part in the international community, and also that we do not want to allow groups such as the Taliban to return to the country, and thereby threaten us. The job our troops are doing is very difficult; I am clear about that.
"I want to conclude by talking briefly about what we can do. The fact of the matter is our soldiers require our support. I accept the point that they have a problem with understanding the nuances of people saying, “We support our troops, but we don’t support the war.” When we talk to them, they say, “Come off it, we’re out here doing a mission; support us! Don’t just say, ‘We support you.’ We don’t quite get that.” One of them said to me, “Are you smoking dope?” [Interruption.] I was not, actually; I never have smoked dope, and if I had, I would have been chucked out of the Army. Another one said to me about the strategic situation and the tactical decisions made, “Isn’t it strange, Bob, that in this country we penalise our soldiers for losing a rifle more than we penalise our generals for losing a war?” We have not made some decisions very well thus far.
"There is now great optimism that we will be able to reach the endgame, and get to a situation where our troops can come home and feel that John Sanderson and 333 other young men—and one woman, I think—have given their lives for something worth while. That is terribly important. I pay great tribute to what our armed forces are doing, of course, and I want them all to come home soon—as soon as possible, and before 2014 if that is achievable—but the only way they can come home quickly is if we get it right, give them what they require and understand that we are fighting a war. Let us imagine what would have happened if there had been reductions in the defence budget when we were at war in 1940. I know that our country has a big economic problem, but we have to make sure that those people who are running huge risks on our behalf are given everything they require and our support. I therefore ask the House to support the motion."
"There are two central questions. How much does Afghanistan matter? And what can we do about it? We have heard Members from both sides of the House make eloquent arguments about the significance and importance of Afghanistan, and it matters in five main ways. They should not be trivialised, because Afghanistan does, in a sense, matter.
"First, Afghanistan matters in terms of counter-terrorism and 9/11. It was the place from which the 9/11 attacks were planned. Secondly, Afghanistan matters enormously in terms of narcotics. It produces the majority of the world’s heroin. Thirdly, Afghanistan matters for us and our credibility. For nine years we have pinned our reputation and that of our allies to this adventure. Fourthly, as people have said, Afghanistan matters to Pakistan. There is an extent to which Afghanistan will have an influence on that state, which, as we have heard, is nuclear-armed, unstable and has jihadist elements. Finally, Afghanistan matters to its own people. Nobody in the Chamber wants the Taliban to take over, and nobody is in any doubt that they represent a brutal, horrendous and cruel form of government—utterly discredited from 1996 to 2001."
"What can we do about the problem? The answer has been gone over again and again, and General McChrystal has an answer in his report. What have we done? Broadly speaking, over the past nine years we have had successes in health, education, counter-terrorism, rural development and urban regeneration. We have had a series of other things, which we like to describe as challenges—in counter-narcotics, as the hon. Gentleman said, in counter-insurgency when fighting the Taliban, in the rule of law, in governance, in anti-corruption and in state building. And we have come to the conclusion that we have a talisman, a way of dealing with Afghanistan and a new solution, which is in that report and is called counter-insurgency warfare strategy.
"We must wish the surge all our best. We have embarked on it and are committed to it, and that is where we are going. So let us hope that it works—however, there is a very real reason to believe that it may not, within the time frame that General McChrystal anticipated or predicted. In other words, when at the end of this year General Petraeus reviews the strategy, and when in the middle of next year President Obama begins the draw-down of troops, it is unlikely that we will have achieved McChrystal’s two main conditions: sufficient pain inflicted on the Taliban for them to wish to go to the negotiating table; and, on the other hand, the creation of a stable, effective and legitimate state."
"I cautioned against our initial deployment in Afghanistan and I have been critical of policy since, so I speak in this debate as a sceptic about our mission generally. There can be no doubt in the Chamber that the preparations for our mission in Afghanistan defied all the lessons of history. We fundamentally underestimated the task at hand and we under-resourced it accordingly. We have been playing catch-up ever since."
"Perhaps the most worrying aspect of our involvement in Afghanistan is that our mission has suffered from a lack of clarity of purpose. We have had mixed messages. As recently as last year, the then Prime Minister said that we were in Afghanistan to keep the streets of London safe from terrorism, but almost in the next breath he threatened President Karzai with withdrawal should he not clean up his act. Those statements do not stand well next to each other. Even today, there is not that much more clarity.
"If we are in Afghanistan to protect the streets of London and of our allies from terrorism, why are we setting a deadline and timetable? It simply does not make sense. Surely, if the mission is as important as is stated, our withdrawal should be dictated by the achievement of the objective, not arbitrary time lines. The Foreign Secretary has confirmed to me in this place and in Committee that we will be withdrawing in 2015 regardless of whether we have achieved our objectives. That simply does not stand up.
"At some point, the solution will have to involve an understanding with the Taliban and the tribal warlords. It will have to reflect the reality on the ground and involve a loosely federated state in which power is devolved to the provinces. That does not prevent a small but mobile force of special forces from being on hand to disrupt al-Qaeda activities should it return, but the war, as currently constituted, cannot succeed."
"UK troops have played a crucial role since first deployment. Our armed forces are integral to the success and completion of this mission. To remove them from theatre now or in the very near future would jeopardise the future security of all NATO member states. Of course, none of us wishes to see a single UK serviceman or woman in Afghanistan a day longer than needed, but it is right that we continue to mentor the Afghan army and Afghan national police to train them to a level at which they can secure the country for a long-lasting peace. I recognise that the ultimate solution will be political, but it is the work carried out, day by day, by British and US personnel with our allies that will pave the way to security in the region."
"It is my sincerest belief that the only way to end this conflict, and to prevent future conflicts in the region for generations to come, is to commit our forces to the completion of our objective—to create a stable, prosperous and free Afghanistan. Only with the continuing commitment of UK forces on the ground will we create the kind of stability in Afghanistan that we need for the safety of our families and our communities back home."
"Should we be there? Yes, I have no doubt about that, and the Secretary of State eloquently explained to us all why we should be. In addition, there is no doubt in my mind that our international responsibilities are important. It is no good whingeing on the sidelines in years to come if we abdicate our responsibilities now. We cannot expect others to guard our interests or police world trouble spots on our behalf. The Afghan war is an international conflict in the sense that terrorism knows no boundaries. The grim anniversary of 9/11 this coming Saturday underlines that point, which I would like to underline. Terrorism, in my view, is here to stay for the foreseeable future in one shape or another. We cannot beat it, but we can tackle and, one hopes, contain it. That is why we will need a lot of courage in this House to defend our realm. Contrary to the many press reports, serving soldiers I have spoken to—and I have spoken to many—say they are making huge progress. In the end, how far that progress can be sustained probably comes down to money. If that is the case, as I suspect it is, then we as a Government must continue to underwrite our hard-won freedoms—they do not come cheap.
"Can we win? History says that we cannot, in the strict military sense. The fate of earlier attempts—from Alexander the Great, as we have heard, to Russia—provides stark warnings to those who would take on this rugged, proud and tribal nation. Traditions, both religious and cultural, are deeply rooted and resist outside interference. But the cold fact is that we are there now. So what do we do? If we pull out, Afghanistan could go back to the dark ages under the Taliban. If we stay, we incur huge costs in blood and treasure. I agree with the Secretary of State that we should maintain a presence for the longer term in mentoring and training roles to allow a political solution to take root and grow. It would be a bleak day if we pulled out altogether and this huge sacrifice were for nothing.
"Lastly, can we afford it? Clearly, we cannot. We have inherited from the Labour Government a £38 billion liability in defence spending, with more to come. To me, this is the heart of the matter. Can we afford, and do we want, a fully equipped manned expeditionary force capable of conducting significant military operations in places such as Afghanistan, or do we retreat into our shell and have something like a gendarmerie? That is the big question we have to face as a nation. My view, emphatically, is that we need the former. We should never, ever put a price on our freedom. The armed forces are already cut to the bone, and I would push for the defence review to exclude the defence budget, at the very least."
"Our clear aim in Afghanistan is to prevent Afghan territory from again being used by al-Qaeda as a base from which to plan attacks on the United Kingdom and our allies. Our engagement in Afghanistan is first and foremost about national security. It is not the only place where we are confronting violent extremists, but it is crucial in that battle. The presence of ISAF—the international security assistance force—prevents al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime from returning while we train Afghan security forces to take over the task for themselves.
"We do not seek a perfect Afghanistan, but one able to maintain its own security and prevent the return of al-Qaeda. That aim also requires working with Pakistan to enhance the Pakistanis’ ability to tackle the threat from their side of the border. In Afghanistan, success means, first, continuing to reverse the momentum of the Taliban-led insurgency. Our second aim is to contain and reduce the threat from the insurgency to a level that allows the Afghan Government to manage it themselves. Our third aim is creating a system of national security and governance that is stable and capable enough for the Afghan Government to provide internal security on an enduring basis. That is why we are supporting more effective Afghan governance at every level, and building up the capability of the Afghan national security forces as rapidly as is feasible."
"We need to be clear about where successes are occurring, and part of that communication is telling people about successes. Less than six months ago, Afghan national army strength stood at about 107,000 trained soldiers, with a target of reaching 134,000 by October 2010. The Afghan Government met that target two months early. The Afghan national police force has grown to more than 115,000. I am the first to admit that challenges remain with its capability, but notable successes have been achieved, even over the past few weeks, such as the interdiction of bombers in Logar province just last week. Good things are happening, and we must not allow ourselves to believe that there is a non-stop tale of failure, as some would like to portray the situation."
"Failure would not only risk the return of civil war in Afghanistan, which would create a security vacuum; we would also risk the destabilisation of Pakistan with significant regional consequences, as the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) correctly pointed out. The second reason why we must not fail is that it would be a shot in the arm to jihadists everywhere, re-energising violent, radical and extreme Islamism. It would send the signal that we did not have the moral resolve and political fortitude to see through what we ourselves have described as a national security imperative. Premature withdrawal of the international coalition would also damage the credibility of NATO—the cornerstone of the defence of the west for more than half a century. Our resolve would be called into question, our cohesion weakened, and the alliance undermined. Our influence over the region and our contribution to wider stability would be severely diminished."