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Mr. Paul Marsden: Is my hon. Friend aware that some military analysts have identified some of those aeroplanes as having been around since 1988? They are of no use at all, so when we declare that they are wonderful targets that we have managed to blow up, we miss the whole point. In fact, we are dropping bombs and blowing up kids, and it should stop now.

Mr. Henderson: I hear my hon. Friend. I have explained my position; I am not against military action, but it should be effective. Initially, a military purpose should be pursued consistent with a political purpose. Questions are now being asked. According to reports in

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The New York Times, the American Defence Secretary himself has been crying out for another strategy that would develop the coalition action from the form it has taken over the past nine or 10 days into something different. He has expressed what many of us are expressing; we want some military action, but it must have a purpose. If that purpose is achieved, the action should stop. I know that it is difficult for Ministers to respond on such an issue, but the public are asking those questions, so it is right for Parliament to debate the matter. Ministers must demonstrate that the action is necessary and is leading to something else.

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West): My hon. Friend spoke about the need for action to be precise and when it should stop. Does he accept that the House has heard about the coalition and how it is supported by the Muslim world? In reality, popular Muslim sentiment throughout this country and the world is against the bombing. The longer that it continues, the more unstable certain regimes in the world and our own British Muslim population will become. Incidentally, the British Muslim population should be highly praised because the majority has remained calm, although extremely perturbed. However, the longer the action goes on, especially the bombing, the more dangerous the world situation gets, especially in Muslim countries.

Mr. Henderson: I hear my hon. Friend and agree with a lot of what he said. I shall come on to that and shall try to keep my remarks as short as possible.

If we had a dilemma in deciding our initial action, we have a critical dilemma in trying to decide where we go from here. Essentially, there are two options. The coalition can say that there is only one way to deal with the problem; continue the bombing, perhaps extend it to other countries, send in ground troops, root out the Taliban regime and, if necessary, undertake a military campaign to achieve that. Military experts would recognise that that would take many months, if not years.

To try to ensure any degree of safety for our troops, we may estimate that we have to outnumber the other troops by a ratio of three or four to one, although military strategists will argue about the precise numbers. If the Taliban have 100,000 people prepared to fight, we need 400,000. If they have 200,000, we need 800,000; everyone can do their own calculations. If we went down that road, we would have to be prepared to face up to the issues raised by that strategy and their implications for public opinion in this country, Muslim opinion worldwide and the Governments and people of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Malaysia. If we took that route, it could lead to the huge consequence of our eventually creating a 21st century Vietnam.

It is all very well removing the Taliban Government under that strategy. What would be the next step? How would another Government be created in Afghanistan, and where would they come from? How would they establish any kind of law and order? If the United Nations had to establish a protectorate—that is an attractive idea—how would it be kept in power? Who would provide law and order and external security?

Those are difficult questions and reservations have already been expressed about handing over a position to the Northern Alliance to allow it to try to fill the vacuum. That would be an unacceptable solution.

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The problem is that if one enters the arena on the basis of backing forces that begin to struggle or are removed from power, one has a choice: to desert them and allow further anarchy, or to be trapped for a very long time, as the Americans were in Vietnam, before it is possible to extract military force and hand over power to a civilian Government. There is a genuine danger of such circumstances arising in Afghanistan.

The House may have gathered that I have grave doubts about a so-called all-out ground war. Even if bin Laden were apprehended and brought to justice by such an approach, would not the downside—the effect on the rest of the Muslim world—outweigh the benefits? Such an outcome might even encourage new bin Ladens to appear, day in, day out, not only elsewhere, but here in Britain. Serious questions must be asked about such an approach. I know that debates are occurring in the United States and inside the Government. I hope that the Government, who recognise the dangers, will acknowledge that there are hon. Members who are not afraid of taking military action or supporting a long-term campaign, but who would back them in holding such discussions. That applies internally, in relation to the British Cabinet, and externally, in terms of dealing with coalition partners.

We are all equally outraged about the atrocities that occurred in New York. The realistic option is to explain to the public that the campaign against terrorism cannot be waged in the short term or by ordering massive troop incursions. People here and elsewhere will ask why, if it is so easy, we have not solved the problem in Northern Ireland.

We must take a much longer-term view and be prepared to use stealth. The time to strike is when the terrorist is not awaiting action and does not expect to be apprehended and brought to justice, or eliminated if such an outcome is not possible. We would, however, have to prepare public opinion for the adoption of such an approach and tell people not to expect quick results. If we are extremely lucky, we may achieve such results with bin Laden, but in the light of the probabilities that are suggested by intelligence information, that seems unlikely. We should not be saying that the problem can be dealt with quickly. Our actions must be sustained for a long period and we must carry with us international and domestic opinion, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) pointed out.

4.58 pm

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) was right to draw our attention to the potential pitfalls of a massive ground operation of the sort that he described. The fairly recent experience of the Soviet Union would lend corroboration to the points that he made. I do not understand, however, that such an operation is being contemplated by Her Majesty's Government. I believe that they would be equally seized of precisely those elements of such an operation that would be so difficult and dangerous to accomplish.

I found a great deal with which to agree in the speeches of the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary. Despite our directly relevant and recent experience in the Gulf war and Bosnia and Kosovo, there

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are still some people—I suspect that their number is decreasing in the House—who cling to those two enduring myths that apply to modern military action, especially when it is taken from the air: that it guarantees the achievement of quick results, and that it can be executed without civilian casualties.

If the mood of the House has been sombre in the past, today it seems that it needs to be sober. As has been made clear in previous contributions, we are concerned not so much with the rhetoric of our outrage—or, indeed, the eloquence of our sorrow—but with the reason that is necessary for coping with the circumstances in which we now find ourselves.

The campaign is only nine days old, but its success will never be measured by conventional means—the number of missions flown or targets struck—because we are not dealing with a conventional enemy. There will be no conventional surrender, and it may be long after the campaign before we know the point at which a successful and terminal blow was struck. We must curb our impatience and hope that our example will curb that of the laptop generals of Fleet street.

We must recognise our moral obligation to provide maximum humanitarian assistance. Our moral authority for military action will be severely undermined if we do not fulfil our moral obligation to provide humanitarian relief. I have heard those who argue for a pause in the bombing. Whether Mary Robinson said one thing or another is not relevant; the fact that the issue was raised means that we should apply our minds to it.

If the bombing stopped, I do not believe that the Taliban would open all the entrances to Afghanistan, wave the aid through and say, "This is the support and assistance of an international community, fulfilling its humanitarian obligations under the auspices of the United Nations." I wish I could be confident that that would happen, leaving aside the propaganda advantage that would be taken of a pause and the question whether pausing would prejudice the overall military objectives.

There is no moral equivalence between the operations against the Taliban and the events of 11 September. It is disingenuous to argue otherwise. Unintended civilian casualties in Afghanistan do not alter the fact that the events of 11 September were conceived in cold blood, planned with skill and executed with deliberation and no regard for the consequences. By contrast, minimising civilian casualties in Afghanistan is a specific operational requirement of the current military action.

It is an unpalatable fact that any military action, however targeted and proportionate to need, runs the risk of civilian casualties. We have been seduced too often by videos; no bomb, however smart, is infallible. I do not want any civilian to die or be injured in Afghanistan, just as I did not want thousands to die in New York or Washington. However, it is not possible to guarantee that none will.

We must also bear it in mind that military action is not an end in itself, but a means of achieving political objectives. Mine are couched in slightly different language from those of the shadow Foreign Secretary, the Foreign Secretary or those with which the Prime Minister began his statement 10 days ago. They are: bring Osama bin Laden to justice; fracture the terrorist network over which he presides; try to remove the threat of terrorism wherever we find it in the world, and allow the people of Afghanistan a Government of their choosing.

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I do not believe that the final objective needs to await the achievement of others. As the shadow Foreign Secretary said, it is essential to avoid a political vacuum when the Taliban fall; otherwise, the Northern Alliance may replace an odious regime with one that many people in Afghanistan would find equally distasteful. We should therefore identify a clear role for the United Nations in rebuilding the nation. There is no better time to do it than, as the Foreign Secretary reminded us, in the week when Kofi Annan and his organisation have been awarded the Nobel prize.

We should make it clear that our purpose is to install a Government chosen by the people, not Washington or any other capital. If we do that, we shall assist in maintaining the coalition to which hon. Members have already referred. We should not underestimate its fragility. That is why I applaud the Prime Minister's initiative in relation to the middle east, because it is important in itself—I have argued that case in the House on many occasions—but also because of it influence on the coalition.

It is clear that the events of 11 September were not designed to achieve a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. The objective was to loosen, or even remove, United States military and political support for the ruling family in Saudi Arabia, to try to make their replacement by a more fundamentalist regime much easier. The fate of those poor Palestinians in the Shatila camp in Beirut, which many Members have seen, is no concern of those who turned aircraft into flying bombs and flew them into buildings in the United States.

Even if there had been a peaceful settlement in the middle east, the attacks would almost certainly have taken place, and even if there were a settlement tomorrow, it would not prevent other such attacks. The lack of a settlement, however, is an important factor in Arab capitals throughout the middle east, which we ignore at our peril. It is an issue not just among Governments but, perhaps more particularly, in the streets, where there is sincere—sometimes bordering on the hysterical—support for the Palestinian cause.

Let me suggest a formula: we must make progress on the Palestinian issue, and be seen to do so. Action, not articles, will be more persuasive. In doing so, we must help as far as we can to check the fervour of support in the streets. That in turn will assist the Governments and Arab capitals to give more support to our coalition; but it must be based on Israel's right to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries, free from threats and acts of force.

If those last few words sound familiar, they will sound familiar to those who have most recently read resolution 242 of the United Nations Security Council, of 22 November 1967. Some 34 years later, it could be argued that they are even more relevant today.

It appears from his meetings with the shadow Foreign Secretary, with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary—and, indeed, from the meetings that my right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats and I had with him—that President Arafat clearly recognises that there is an opportunity, perhaps a better opportunity than there has been for some time. He must have been encouraged by the recognition in Washington that the Palestinians must have justice and, as the Prime Minister put it, a viable Palestinian state. A certain ironical smile must have crossed the face of the Foreign Secretary when

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he heard the Prime Minister use that language: he may have thought that his immediate experience of the middle east had been, if not brushed away, certainly pushed to one side.

Let me remind the House of what I sometimes call the theory of raised expectations. If we do say that there is a better opportunity—if we do say that there is a demand, a requirement, a necessity for something to be done about the middle east peace process, even if only for the pragmatic purpose of securing the coalition, and then fail to do anything about it: if we raise expectations and then dash them—the position will be very much worse afterwards than it was before.

Finally, let me say something about the widening of military action. The last time we debated this issue, I said that I thought there was quite a bit of loose talk, particularly about Iraq. I think we would be well advised to get the military action in which we are currently engaged right, before talking about extending it to other countries. We should also understand—the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) perhaps knows this better than any other Member—that there is great sympathy throughout the middle east not for Saddam Hussein but for the people of Iraq, given their privations and suffering over the last 12 years. Any extension of military action against Iraq without clear and specific evidence would, in my judgment, rupture the coalition.

Equally alarming is the possibility that Saddam Hussein, repeating the provocations of the Gulf war, when he targeted Israel with missiles, would seek to draw Israel into conflict. The most sanguine of us must have some apprehension at even the remote possibility of a missile exchange between a nuclear power, Israel, and a regime hellbent on achieving capability in weapons of mass destruction, as Iraq is.

There is a further compelling reason against an extension of military action without clear and unequivocal evidence: it is precisely what bin Laden wants. If we turn this into a conflict between Christian and Islamic countries, we play precisely into his hands. We could not hand him a better propaganda weapon.

These are difficult and even dangerous days, requiring cool heads and determination. Those qualities are at a premium. Because we recognise them in the Government, they have our support.

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