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Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I would very much welcome that briefing, and I look forward to taking advantage of it.

I am sure that the Foreign Secretary would agree that there is an urgency in this regard. The worst and most dangerous alternative to the Taliban would be a vacuum of power. If the Taliban were in the near future either to split or to implode—both of which I am told are perfectly possible—it is vital that the vacuum is not filled by another faction or Government who will merely reignite civil war, or by a Government beholden to international terrorism. Any stable alternative must share our commitment to the removal of bin Laden and al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. If that joint intent were to become decoupled, our objective of removing bin Laden could become much more difficult and hazardous.

There is also the urgency of the onset of winter. Although I am given to understand that the problems of passage and communication are at their worst in about February, time is not on our side, especially in relation to the humanitarian element, which is the desperate part of the picture. Many of the starving in Afghanistan are in the north and west—areas that will be especially affected by winter.

We have made it clear that the humanitarian crisis is every bit as important as the terrorist threat within Afghanistan. Our commitment, along with that of our allies and the coalition as a whole, to the defeat of terrorism must be matched by a similar commitment to meet and resolve the unfolding human disaster in a real and effective way. If our fight against terrorism is in the cause of freedom and peace, so must be our fight against the scourge of starvation that faces millions within Afghanistan and beyond its borders.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House realise that a massive humanitarian response will be necessary to avert the growing humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan. Although we welcome all the money that the Government have allocated to deal with the crisis, we have to question whether the extent of the aid provided will be sufficient to save those desperate people from disaster.

On the first night of the bombing, United States planes dropped 37,000 rations on Afghanistan. Leaving aside the enormous practical difficulties that bedevil air drops, how can 37,000 rations—each one enough for one person for one day—have an impact on a country where 7.5 million are dependent on food aid each day? We currently manage to get 500 metric tonnes of food into Afghanistan every day in food convoys. The Secretary of State for International Development said that we have to try to double that amount, but even if we were to triple it we would still be 10,000 metric tonnes short every month of the 55,000 tonnes of food that the World Food Programme says is necessary to feed the hungry in Afghanistan.

Oxfam has called the current food aid levels a "drop in the ocean". I want the Government to assure me that every effort will be made to provide adequate provision for

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more than 7 million hungry Afghans before winter sets in. That is the greatest challenge facing the coalition. It is the measure of our humanity in the face of the inhumanity of terrorism.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): I am interested in what the right hon. Gentleman says and entirely agree with him. Does he therefore support the request by Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, for a pause in the bombing to allow substantial aid to go into Afghanistan before the winter?

Mr. Ancram: I fear that the hon. Lady is not facing up to the problem that any pause in the bombing would allow the terrorists and the Taliban to regroup from where they have been dispersed to and to rebuild the facilities that have been destroyed. It would prolong and worsen the campaign that is being waged. I say that in all seriousness. We have to understand that that is a fact, and the humanitarian crisis must be dealt with in the light of it.

Dr. Tonge rose

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) rose

Mr. Ancram: I shall give way to my hon. Friend.

Dr. Lewis: Is my right hon. Friend aware that Mary Robinson has retracted the reports that were erroneously issued in which she requested a pause in the bombing? She hoped that aid could be delivered more efficiently and in a way that was more compatible with the necessary campaign.

Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of that. Mary Robinson, too, must have seen the dangers of calling for a pause in the middle of a campaign and the effects that that can have on prolonging it.

Tony Baldry (Banbury): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the quickest way of enabling a pause in the bombing is for the Taliban to hand over bin Laden? We should never lose sight of the fact that the first United Nations resolution calling on the Taliban to hand over bin Laden was way back in October 1999, following the bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. There is a great danger of our becoming somewhat morally confused on the issue. All the injuries and difficulties of feeding people in Afghanistan have been caused by the Taliban's refusal to comply with their commitments and obligations under the UN charter.

Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding the House of that; he is absolutely right to do so. I reiterate what the Foreign Secretary said: many of the problems in delivering aid are being caused by the deliberate activities of the Taliban. In the end, it will be the removal of the Taliban Government in Afghanistan that will unlock and open many of the doors that we face in that regard. However, we must be certain that enough is being done. I do not have that certainty at this time, and would welcome the Government's firmest assurances on the matter.

Dr. Tonge: The right hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way again and in his calls for the Government to

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increase aid to Afghanistan, but if we are not to stop the bombing, even temporarily, how does he suggest we get that aid into the country?

Mr. Ancram: I made one suggestion about the north of Afghanistan, where the Northern Alliance is opening an offensive against Mazar-i-Sharif. If that is successful, it will, I hope, enable trade routes to be opened for aid to enter that part of Afghanistan. That is another example of how in the end the issue can be resolved only by removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Once that is done, the problems that we currently face will be very much reduced.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as well as stepping up our aid programme to refugees in Afghanistan, it is equally important to step up the aid to Afghans who are already in Pakistan? Some of the surroundings in which they find themselves in the camps are woeful to say the least, and they have lived like that for many years. We could do a lot worse than to ensure that we better look after the Afghan people—for obvious reasons, in Pakistan as well.

Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for International Development has made that point on many occasions and, indeed, asked for assurances of adequate and proper standards in the camps. We are all concerned to hear reports that that may not be so, and obviously we want to continue to put pressure on the authorities in Pakistan to ensure that the problem is met. When I talked about Pakistan earlier, I hope that I indicated that I thought it was proper that aid was made available in order to help in areas where such problems occur.

The coalition must be sustained in its task. That task is not without risk. As the Foreign Secretary said, we must be on our guard. At the end of the day, terror is simply about creating fear. Terrorists succeed when people do what they would not normally do because of terror. We must never allow terror to divert us from the undertaking on which we are engaged, or to allow it to distract us from our normal ways of life. No fight can be undertaken without risk. We know the risks, and in light of them we have given our full backing to the Government and the United States of America. So long as their determination to eradicate international terrorism remains undiminished, and so long as their commitment to relieve the humanitarian crisis remains to the fore, we will continue to back them. What is being done is right. I once again offer the Government our support.

4.44 pm

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North): The Government, in partnership with other coalition countries, face taking the most grave decisions that any British Government have faced on the international front for a very long time. The House of Commons will have to face up to supporting or not supporting the decisions that the Government make independently or with other countries. That is evidenced by the fact that, for the first time in the institution's 40 years of existence, NATO has invoked article 5: NATO countries have for the first time said that they will come to the aid of another NATO country that has been attacked.

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I would find it difficult to say anything that might endanger a strategy that will ensure our future security or that is dependent on the actions of our troops. Even if I thought that I was right, I would be extremely wary of saying anything that might endanger troops who were carrying out the desires of the Government and of Parliament. I believe in proportionate action; I also believe that we must ensure that any action we take is effective; however, I do not believe that we Members of Parliament should remain mute or refrain from making observations that we believe are germane to the achievement of international security and stability, or that address the issue of international terrorism.

I shall focus first on current military actions, then offer some observations on some options that I believe the international coalition is considering taking in future. I understand why military strikes are necessary if a course of action using ground troops is to be attempted in future. We cannot endanger helicopters, aeroplanes or people that might be involved in some future project, so perhaps some military installations in Afghanistan should be taken out by military action. Where a need to do that can be demonstrated—I know that Ministers are extremely anxious to ensure that it can—I have no reservations about such action. If we decide that the right strategy is to intervene on the ground in Afghanistan, we must do all that we can to make it as safe as possible for whoever represents our interests.

Although I understand the need to take military action, I am concerned about some of the actions that television and newspaper reports reveal have been taken. When I see pictures of an airfield in Afghanistan where 14 Russian Mig fighters are lined up on the runway with a civilian aeroplane at the end of the runway presenting a target for our military action, I begin to think that the Taliban, for some reason, want us to carry out military strikes.

I know only a little about such matters, but no military commander in his right senses who was in so serious a position would line up his fighting capacity on an airfield, ready to be attacked by an enemy that had already declared its intention to attack. Any strategist would disperse those aeroplanes by any means possible—even hide them under haystacks—rather than line them up at an aerodrome. If a force had 10,000 Mig fighters, it might have nowhere else to put some of them and be forced to put them on that runway, but no one who had only a limited number of fighters would line them up in that way. That scene suggests to me that either those fighters were inoperable and useless, or that they were of some use but for political reasons the Taliban wanted television screens around the world to show their destruction.

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