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11. Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): What recent discussions he has had with the US Secretary of State regarding the situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. [8795]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): I visited Washington last week to hold discussions with Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, other members of the United States Administration and senior Members of Congress on the military situation in Afghanistan, the work of the United Nations, the future of Afghanistan and the middle east.

Mr. Mullin: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growing revulsion at the increasing number of civilian casualties arising from the bombing of Kabul and Kandahar, including the other day the slaughter of seven children and their father? Is he aware that the moral high ground in the dispute is rapidly being eroded by such mistakes? What are we bombing around Kabul and Kandahar, given that the Americans have said repeatedly that they are running out of things to bomb there? If that is so, would it not be best if we stopped?

Mr. Straw: The whole House seriously regrets civilian casualties in any military action. However, great care has been taken in targeting. I understand that across more than 3,000 targets, there have been misses in respect of five.

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That is five too many, but it indicates the care that has been taken. The death of any innocent civilian should diminish all of us, but while we are working to minimise civilian casualties the Taliban and the al-Qaeda organisation are working to maximise civilian casualties. It is precisely because of the appalling threats that they pose and the overwhelming truth that, unless we take military action, they will carry out those threats in the future, that we must take such military action.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Will the Foreign Secretary address directly the question that he was asked? It is more than three weeks since the allies claimed air superiority, so why is there continued bombing of military targets in population centres, which carries a huge risk of mistakes and civilian casualties? Has he read the article by Abdul Haq published posthumously four days after he was murdered by the Taliban, in which he warns the allies that the bombing of civilian centres in Afghanistan is likely to strengthen rather than weaken the Taliban hold on the country? Has he read the article and understood it, and does he intend to do anything about it?

Mr. Straw: On the latter point, I regret that I have not read the article. I am certainly familiar with the arguments, which we heard at this stage in the Kosovo campaign, as well. In respect of Kosovo, it was argued here and elsewhere that the military action was only strengthening Milosevic. We heard that repeatedly and we are hearing the same argument now.

Bombing has had to be undertaken in order to take out the air capacity of the Taliban, and also to destroy the terrorist training camps of the al-Qaeda organisation and to degrade the overall military capability of the Taliban. Of course, there will not be bombing of targets that are not there or where the targeting has already worked, but the hon. Gentleman should be sufficiently aware of the nature and complexity of the terrain and the density of the Taliban's military operations in many parts of Afghanistan to understand that three weeks is a relatively short period, not a long period. We have said repeatedly—and the Prime Minister underlined it again in a speech to the Welsh Assembly earlier today—that we must be in for the long haul.

I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I say to others who are concerned about the military action, that I have yet to hear any serious alternative to counter the threat posed by the al-Qaeda organisation. Of course we would have preferred a peaceful answer. One was offered by President Bush in his speech to Congress on 20 September, when a clear ultimatum was issued to the Taliban to deliver Osama bin Laden and his key associates, to wind up the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation, and to allow international verification of that.

All those things could have happened without a further drop of blood being spilt. The fact that, sadly, they have not happened is the responsibility of the Taliban. Our responsibility is to keep the world safe from this kind of continuing threat, and, although I regret the fact that we must carry out the military campaign, it is none the less a necessity.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Do not all the indicators show that the appalling massacre of Christian worshippers in Pakistan was, in effect, carried out by

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close allies of the regime in Afghanistan? If that is indeed so—and, as I have said, all the evidence seems to point to it—does it not, like 11 September, illustrate the nature of the enemy we are facing? In my view, to give in virtually before this has even started would be the worst kind of appeasement of tyranny.

Mr. Straw: I share my hon. Friend's opinion. Along with many other Members in all parts of the House, he has been steadfast in his resolution in support of the necessity of the military action.

What we need to understand is that, well before 11 September, the Taliban were marked out as one of the most inhuman and brutal regimes in human history. Their actions led, for instance—well before 11 September—to more than 4.5 million refugees having to flee their native land because of the brutality of that regime.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes): It must be right that the Prime Minister reminded us today of the horrors and evils of the events of 11 September, as the cause of the current crisis and, indeed, the justification for the military action. Is it not also essential, however, to remind us all continually of the clear objectives that flowed from that atrocity, and which are the basis for Conservative Members' support for the action being taken in pursuit of them?

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that there has been no change in, or dilution of, the objectives published on 16 October, and that they still include the bringing to justice of bin Laden and the destruction of al-Qaeda, the changing of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the alleviation of the humanitarian disaster facing so many people in that country and, in the longer term, the elimination of the threat of international terrorism wherever it occurs?

Mr. Straw: I can confirm all those objectives, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did in his speech

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today. We have just been speaking more about the military campaign, but a huge effort is being undertaken to get humanitarian aid into Afghanistan.

Last Saturday, when asked whether there should be a pause in the military action to allow food to get in, Mr. Kenzo Oshima, the United Nations Under-Secretary in charge of humanitarian affairs, said on Radio 4:

The simple fact is that if we are to save Afghanistan for the people of that country, we must continue a military campaign that is targeted and focused; we must continue giving humanitarian aid; and we must continue our efforts to build a better future for Afghanistan under the auspices of the United Nations.

Mr. Ancram: Does the Foreign Secretary accept that, as well as sustaining political and international support—which is being done successfully—we must sustain the confidence of the British public in the actions that are being taken? Is not the greatest enemy of confidence uncertainty, and has the Foreign Secretary noticed, as I have, a growing public perception of uncertainty about the immediate relationship between the declared objectives and the current bombing campaign? Should not the Government move urgently to dispel that uncertainty by clearly and continuously setting out the specific reasons for the bombing, and—without, of course, disclosing sensitive strategic information—explaining how it is directly linked to the achievement of the vital objectives to which we all remain committed?

Mr. Straw: What is remarkable, but also heartwarming is the extent of the support in this country and abroad for the international coalition against terrorism and for military action. Notwithstanding that, I accept that we should continue to explain why we are doing these things and continue to explain to the public and to the wider world how the action is proportionate, targeted and consistent with international law.

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Speaker's Statement

3.30 pm

Mr. Speaker: I have a short statement to make. Following the Home Secretary's statement yesterday, I made a comment from the Chair which some observers have interpreted as a political statement. I wish to assure the House that I am wholly committed to maintaining the long-standing tradition that the Speaker stands aside from politics. The remark I made yesterday stemmed from my personal experience with constituents in my Glasgow, Springburn constituency, particularly in the community of Sighthill. Members may be aware that there was a particularly tragic murder of a young asylum seeker in that area during the summer recess. If, contrary to my intention, my remark was subject to the interpretation that has been placed on it, I seek the indulgence of the House.

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