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8.45 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. I pay tribute to the short but powerful speech of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), but I also wish to take issue with a couple of his points.

I believe that the operation is based on intelligence. The aircraft and weapons are as precisely targeted as military technology, and the gallant men of special forces—American and probably British—on the ground will allow.

Although the speech of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) was excellent as usual, his emotive language, which conjures images of B52s, carpet bombing and the weapons pictured on the cover of the Evening Standard, such as Puff the Magic Dragon, give the impression of a campaign in which we are not involved. We are not engaged in the Vietnam war or campaigns in the Balkans; we are prosecuting a different campaign, that has been marked so far by restrained, small and targeted operations against an enemy who has been sought out by some of the best intelligence assets that have ever been deployed.

Let us consider the propaganda aspects, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) mentioned earlier. As a former war correspondent, I hope that I can speak about that with some authority. Any dramatic footage, which will hold the public's attention,

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will be used mercilessly. The Taliban have not allowed western camera crews into Afghanistan by mistake. That country is hostile, the Taliban do not favour westerners, and it is difficult to travel inside Afghanistan. Many hon. Members have expressed that much better than I have. Yet television crews are being allowed in to film what is being done.

There is nothing novel about suffering, but it makes compelling television, and good copy in the newspapers and for the radio. It is a weapon that is being used against us as surely as those aircraft were used against the World Trade Centre on 11 September. Why did not we see suffering in America on 11 September? Because there were more dramatic scenes to film. There is nothing novel about watching death and carnage, but the sight of jet airliners flying into buildings is new.

It is worth remembering the extent of the casualties and why we did not see scenes of suffering. Most of those killed on 11 September died instantly; they were not available to be photographed. Their monument is the smoking ruin of the twin towers, which are mute testimony to bin Laden's random butchery.

If we engage in war, we must understand that it is a nasty business. Indeed, this war will be nasty, brutish but, I fear, not short.

I should like to discuss the idea that humanitarian aid is alien to military aims. We have heard about the three British campaigns in Afghanistan in the 19th and early 20th centuries. All were more or less failures. We have heard about the Soviet campaign in the late 20th century. However, we should consider two remarkably successful British counter-terrorist campaigns: the Malaya campaign and the little known Oman campaign. The latter was fought on the Jebel Akh'dar, largely by small numbers of special forces. However, an integral part of both campaigns was humanitarian aid.

The Americans adopted that concept for their campaigns in Vietnam—some would say that they applied it less successfully—and labelled it "hearts and minds". In "milspeak" or army speak, it has gone a stage further and is now called G5. It is an accustomed, accepted and fully understood part of the operational spectrum.

To suspend bombing—to suspend offensive operations—will make the prosecution of G5 operations difficult. No Taliban anti-aircraft gunner is likely to between a fighter or bomber and an aircraft carrying aid. To get humanitarian aid through, and to push forward the boundaries of "hearts and minds", anti-aircraft defences must be degraded. I suggest that the two things are not mutually exclusive.

Then there is the style of operations. There is talk of armchair generals. Heaven knows, I have become something like that, although I have never aspired to be a real general! The maps in the newspapers all show bin Laden's camps—al-Qaeda training areas—conveniently located around the borders of Afghanistan. Why are they there? Because that is all that our intelligence shows us. It is exceedingly difficult for even satellite imagery to get good fixes inside this hostile country; therefore, operations against the Taliban, al-Qaeda or whoever will be relatively simple around the border areas.

However, if we are serious about pursuing our enemies—if we are serious about pursuing bin Laden into his lairs—the time will come when we must establish forward operating bases deep inside Afghanistan. History

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tells us that there are three ways in which to operate inside that country: on foot, by donkey and by helicopter. If we accept that most of the operations will involve short-term, hard, quick and relatively clinical strikes, helicopters will have to be forward-based. They do not fly very far; they do not have much endurance, particularly at high altitude—operating in the mountains—and in cold weather. Any forward operating base will have to be secured not by special forces, because they are a precious asset, but by ordinary forces—in the American terminology, "grunts": the same people who fought the Vietnam war, with all the illusions that we covered earlier. That is why elements of Tenth Mountain Division are in Uzbekistan. There is nothing elite about them; they are not special forces.

It will be manpower-intensive. Securing the high ground around any airport that is taken will require infantry, supported by light support weapons and perhaps armour, but definitely helicopters. Then will come the casualties. It should be borne in mind that the campaigns conducted by this country were fought largely by indigenous forces—Sikhs and Gurkhas, troops who knew the country backwards and understood the skill and art of mountain warfare. They found it tough. The pick of Britain's regular Army found it tough. This is a new area—a completely new theatre—for American forces, and they will have a difficult time.

I return to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson). Should the Taliban collapse, should they be shattered militarily, should their centre of gravity be destroyed, they will return to what they know best—guerrilla warfare in the mountains—and that is when they are at their most dangerous.

How ready are British troops to stand—I borrow the phrase—shoulder to shoulder with American troops? I hope they are ready. I am delighted to learn that 150 specialist reservists have been called up. That is clearly only the tip of the iceberg, but I am told that those men and women have been asked to volunteer to be compulsorily called up. When they are compulsorily called up, their jobs and livelihood are protected by law, but one or two employers are saying that this is a scam and that these people have in fact volunteered. Industrial tribunal action may be forthcoming. Reservists have not been called up in such numbers before, and there may be difficulties. I want them to be protected from that threat.

I am glad to see that something is being done about the debacle of personal insurance. A soldier currently going through the Reserve mobilisation and training centre just outside my constituency in Nottingham said, "We want to commit ourselves to our country, but we're not sure if our country wants to commit itself to us." We must not allow that to happen. As has been said, we have the finest fighting men and women in the world. We must make sure that they are prepared in the best way that we can, and I wish them godspeed.

8.56 pm

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak in what has been an interesting and thoughtful debate encompassing many different points of view. I had heard people say that there would not be much

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new to be said, but I have learned a lot from listening to all the points of view. I say that as one who supports the military action.

I listened especially intently to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway). I disagree with his views, but he challenges every single one of us who supports military action to think more deeply and clearly about why we support it. This Parliament is sometimes decried as not being the debating Chamber that it once was, but the speeches that we have heard tonight, from both Government and Opposition Members, belie that. We have had an important and passionate debate on an issue that is clearly crucial to us.

I take issue with one point made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). He said that we had not seen tonight the gung-ho that had been present in previous debates. I have sat in many of the debates, and I have not noticed a gung-ho attitude, because everybody, of all points of view, has recognised the seriousness of what we are debating and the intensity of the arguments that will take place.

I support the military action, not because I want to see us bombing from 30,000 ft and forgetting about it, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) said, but because I genuinely do not believe that we have an alternative. Following an attack on our democracy and freedom, an attack not only on the American people but on British citizens and people from many different ethnic groups, we cannot stand by and do nothing. The challenge is what we do about it. I think that the use of force, as pursued by our Government, was the only option available.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin is absolutely right to make the point that Muslims in other parts of the world will point to attacks on and outrages against them that no one has done anything about. If he had visited Rwanda, he would have seen a place where horrors occurred that no one did anything about. We should use this outrage to say that whether someone is Muslim or African, or from the north, south, east or west, this marks a turning point in the international order so that one life lost in this way will not be tolerated by the international community. We must use this as an opportunity to look forward to that new order.

I see no alternative to the use of force. It gives me no pleasure to say that. I do not know anything about the armed forces, other than what I have learned from talking to people such as the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and others who have a much greater knowledge of the military than me. Like anyone, I am aware of some of the horrors that can be the consequence of bombing that goes wrong. I feel a responsibility, as one of those who support military action; I am sure that we all do. However, the fundamental point is that I see no alternative to the taking of military action to try to stop a repeat of what we witnessed in America a few weeks ago.

Contrary to what others have said, I believe that if we took no action, we would encourage more terrorism. That is a matter for debate between us. From my perspective, I believe that we need to take action to deter terrorism but, in taking the military option, we need to be clear about our aims in Afghanistan. Like other hon. Members, I am worried by some of the signals coming from Washington about an escalation into Iraq and other places.

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In terms of Afghanistan, our aims seem to be clear: the destruction of the Taliban and the elimination of bin Laden and his network. I hope that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence will reiterate that we want the creation of a new Afghanistan where human rights and the entitlements of everyone are catered for.

Having given my support for military action, I want to say that we need to focus on the humanitarian situation, which was bad before the military strikes and is now clearly worse. In answer to my parliamentary question yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development estimated that there were now 7.5 million people inside Afghanistan who were vulnerable and in need. According to UNICEF, a fifth of those—some 1.5 million—are children under five. In neighbouring countries, a further 4 million people are in need.

We should not be blinded by those statistics. Each represents an individual: a son, a daughter, a child, a mother or a father facing starvation, drought and war. Those of us who support military action must make the loudest demands of our Government for ever more urgent action with respect to humanitarian aid. If we are to demonstrate practically to Muslims in the region and elsewhere the fact that this is not a war against Islam, it is both morally right and an essential means of maintaining the coalition that we somehow get the aid to the people who need it.

I am aware that our Government are giving millions of pounds in aid and that air drops have taken place. However, we must find other ways to deliver aid. My right hon. Friend told me yesterday that she is examining how to open new land routes into Afghanistan for aid convoys from Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. We have talked about the propaganda war. The war is being fought in front of the television cameras and there could be no more powerful image than for this country to ensure that its humanitarian effort is second to none. Some people have called for a pause in the bombing. Others have called for other action. I do not know what would be the best approach, but we must do everything that we can.

I have two final points. First, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will say something about the continuing need to reassure our own people about any risks that they face. I am sure that all hon. Members have had such issues raised with them. Secondly, the international coalition that has been put together to fight terrorism must be maintained when the conflict is over. If we can bring so much energy and passion to fighting the situation in Afghanistan, we should bring the same amount to tackling the broader problems of poverty and conflict in many other regions. If we do that, some good will come from this particular bad.

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