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5.26 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): I am very pleased indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker, to have the chance to speak in this very important debate.

The events of 11 September were a crime against humanity. Nobody on either side of the House doubts that action must be taken in the long and short term, and that it must be diplomatic, legal, military and political. The question being debated in the House this afternoon is whether the current short-term military strategy in which we are engaged is the right one. Even as we meet today, public opinion in this country is turning against the bombing. Colleagues will ignore public opinion at their peril. It is turning against the bombing not because people are wobbling, as some Ministers rather patronisingly assert, or because people have forgotten 11 September, which is the other patronising assertion.

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Nobody will ever forget where they were when they first saw the pictures of those aeroplanes flying into the twin towers with the consequent horrific loss of life. Just as the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima have for ever been the image of death and destruction in the 20th century, I believe that those images of planes flying into the twin towers will be the image of death and devastation that symbolises the 21st century. No one has forgotten 11 September. Still less is public opinion turning against the bombing because the public lack moral fibre, as has also been asserted. It is turning against the bombing for precisely the opposite reason. It is the innate moral sense of the British public that is leading them increasingly to ask questions of this particular military strategy. Some of us in the House believe that it is our duty to come here, ask these questions and hold the Government to account.

Some colleagues who support the bombing cling to the notion of precision targeting. Some of them appear to believe that war can be like a video game and that technology can reduce civilian deaths to some marginal percentage. I urge those colleagues who are so quick to talk about precision bombing and new technology when some of us quote the figures of civilian casualties to look at the reports that were published in the aftermath of Kosovo on the actual accuracy of those bombs, as opposed to the accuracy that was claimed at the time.

An article in Flight International in August last year referred to a Ministry of Defence operational analysis that said that only 40 per cent. of the bombs dropped by the RAF in Kosovo hit their targets. Colleagues cannot comfort themselves with the notion of precision targeting that somehow drains warfare of its blood, its horror and its sacrifice.

Colleagues should be left in no doubt about the fact that a cluster bomb that falls to the ground with many of its bomblets unexploded is as brutal and as much a threat to civilian life as any land mine. Is the battle in Afghanistan so in the balance and in such a precarious position that we have to use weapons that have been condemned all over the world? I urge colleagues to consider the horror of yellow cluster bombs being lodged in the ground, and children and young people running to pick them up because they are the same colour as the humanitarian food parcels of which colleagues are so proud. I hope that we hear a little less about precision targeting and make a closer study of the accuracy of the bombing during the war in Kosovo.

I have a word to say to the tendency in the House of Commons that I would describe as "cluster bombs for feminism." It will be of no comfort to the women of Afghanistan to hear the protestations and concern about their civil rights when thousands of them have died from a war that may continue through the winter into the spring. Many thousands more will die as a result of the humanitarian disaster, which all the aid agencies, without exception, have said will happen if there is no pause in the bombing.

Any military action that is part of a long-term, complex political and diplomatic initiative to rid the world of the scourge of terrorism must be politically sustainable. I remind colleagues that, as a consequence of the bombing campaign, which is only a few weeks old, there have been riots in northern Nigeria and Indonesia, and that 70 per cent. of the population of Pakistan are against the bombing. In Europe, people are beginning to express their

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concern about the bombing in Le Monde and other journals. I do not believe that a bombing campaign—accompanied by a rising tide of civilian casualties—that lasts through the winter into the spring, which is the earliest there can be a proper ground war, is sustainable in the eyes of the public. If it is not sustainable in public opinion, it is not politically sustainable and it runs the risk of undermining the political and diplomatic objectives that colleagues profess to hold.

I cannot speak for Muslims in other constituencies, but if colleagues continue to assert against the evidence of their own eyes that the Muslim community in this country supports and is happy about the bombing, they will be leading themselves into error. Of course the Muslim community deplores the events of 11 September and shares the world's horror, but it is deeply unhappy about the bombing. Colleagues must take cognisance of that fact.

Time is against us, so my final point is about the humanitarian crisis. I repeat that every aid agency has asked for a pause. We have 20 days to save millions of people in Afghanistan from starvation. Colleagues should beware of mixing up the humanitarian mission with the political mission. What the aid agencies are frightened of—more than the bombing—is that they are seen to be partisan. Aid agencies that are seen to be on one side in a war can no longer effectively carry out their mission. Mixing up the humanitarian rhetoric with the military rhetoric will make the job of the aid agencies very much harder in the long term.

The events of 11 September were a crime against humanity and no one will forget where they were when they saw the pictures on television. The British public, however, are turning against the bombing and, what is more, whatever their views on that strategy, they cannot understand how British troops might become involved in what everyone accepts will be the most difficult and dangerous ground war in our lifetime without a vote in the House of Commons. That is why, I, with some of my colleagues, will vote against the bombing if we have the chance to do so later today.

5.35 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark): It seems to be my lot to speak shortly after the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway). He always speaks with enormous skill and persuasive powers, but again, he was inaccurate. I level the same accusation at the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). We must make sure that we understand the use of cluster bombs. They are directed at airfields, area targets and specific targets such as armoured vehicles. They are not land mines and they are not designed to attack personnel.

Also, the term "carpet bombing" is not accurate. [Interruption.] We seem to have another aerial weapon. Our carpet has indeed been bombed!

Everything that is now being done is designed to shatter the cohesion and morale of our enemies in Afghanistan. People will get hurt, including those who are not directly involved. War is a dirty business and soldiers, civilians and the innocent may be injured. We have only to ask the relatives of the 6,000 people whose graves are in the centre of New York and Washington.

The Secretary of State for Defence said earlier that additional troops have now been committed and that we can sustain and support them over a long period. He said that that is a clear indication of our resolve.

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Last week, I spent some time in Oman with members of the Select Committee on Defence talking to troops on Exercise Saif Sareea 2. It was clear that they were expecting to be committed for a further operation. I spent some time with the officers of the headquarters of Third Commando brigade. There were two quotations that were causing them some trouble. The House will be familiar with the first, because it has oft been quoted, but that will not stop me doing it again.

Those Royal Marines had no doubt that the fight facing them would be particularly difficult.

The second quote, which they found even more contentious, is from Colin Powell when he was faced with the commitment of troops to the Balkans some years ago. He said:

Both those quotations were giving the brigade commander and his staff considerable cause to think.

How does one decide whether that senior commander should have been "used"—as was suggested earlier—to make a political point? Let us think what is involved. The Third Commando brigade has been on exercise in hostile and difficult conditions for several weeks. It is only 60 per cent. manned and is short of one third of its combat power. It is under-recruited by a platoon—what the Royal Marines would call a troop—in each company. The commander of that brigade must now regroup. He must draw troops from two different commandos, 40 and 45, into a single cohesive unit. He must give them support weapons, artillery, sappers and the like. He must also winnow out the mountain leaders from his troops throughout the brigade. No wonder, then, he says he is not yet sure about his specific targets. He is not yet sure what specific training he will be asked to carry out; he is not sure about his tasks, his rules of engagement, or the operational command and control of his unit.

Those are all legitimate military points of view. Let us not be too harsh on the commander; but let us understand that what he says is very different from what the Secretary of State for Defence would suggest—that the troops are ready for immediate action. They are not, and they cannot be.

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