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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The right hon. Gentleman's 10 minutes are up.

6.20 pm

Mr. Michael Portillo (Kensington and Chelsea): As the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) commented, it is an awesome responsibility to commit our forces in this way. This is a situation of grave danger and the Secretary of State has taken a great responsibility upon himself. He has been much in my thoughts during these days. Even more in my thoughts have been the Royal Marines who are being committed and their families.

I very much support the mission to which the Secretary of State has committed those forces. Because of that, it is highly regrettable that at first he sought to give the House no opportunity to have a debate. It is unfortunate that he had to be forced into having a debate, because that leaves him looking shifty and lacking in confidence at the very time when we need him to appear sure-footed and confident. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) dealt with the issue of the discourtesy to the House, but when our soldiers are being put into such extreme danger, it is a grave discourtesy to them to suggest that the sacrifice that they offer the nation is not worth three hours of debate in Government time. It is marvellous to have the opportunity this afternoon for

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so many Members of Parliament to express their commitment to our forces and their support for the decision that the Government have taken.

Mr. Hoon: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that the Government did not oppose this debate in any way, shape or form.

Mr. Portillo: None the less, the Secretary of State will accept that he did not give the House the opportunity of a debate and it would have been better if he had. However, I commend him on his performance today, when he did appear sure-footed and confident. That is what we all expect from him if he is to lead us through these difficult days.

This is not an American war. It is a war of many allies, in which we have committed ourselves to defeat terrorism. We did not commit ourselves for the short term or say that we would be committed to defeating terrorism for as long as it remained easy; we said that we were committed to that objective until we had achieved it. I remember that our first thought was that the campaign would be very difficult. Subsequently, it appeared to be easier than people had anticipated, but I agree with the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) when he said that those who thought that that was how it would turn out were deluding themselves. The situation that we now face in Afghanistan is the one that we first anticipated: we would face tough resistance, with the terrain against us; it would be a hard struggle; and we would have to be willing to bear casualties.

This is no time to flinch. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife referred to the decision to commit the Royal Marines as a tactical decision in support of a strategic decision that had already been taken. He is right in that, but thank goodness that tactical decision has been taken, because it demonstrates resolve. If we failed to take that decision, the terrorists would not lose much time in regrouping, as the Secretary of State pointed out. If they were to do so, they would pose a major threat to the rest of Afghanistan, neighbouring countries and countries throughout the world. More than that, the fact that they were left intact and undefeated would be a major encouragement to extremists and militants all over the world. Therefore, their defeat remains a critical strategic objective.

I would go further and say that the attacks on New York city and Washington were a test for western society on whether it was willing to defend the values of a free society. The background to the attacks on 11 September was not, as many people have alleged, a decade in which the United States had shown an overbearing and arrogant foreign policy towards the rest of the world. I take the opposite view. The decade that preceded 11 September was one in which people had become unclear about the resolve of the United States and, therefore, the resolve of the allies.

First came the failure to topple Saddam during the Gulf war, for reasons that we all understand, which was taken as a sign of irresolution. Then came the series of moral victories that Saddam was allowed to win, including continuing with his programme of weapons of mass destruction and his decision to expel the United Nations inspectors without any satisfactory response from the allies. Perhaps most extraordinary were the attacks on the US embassies in Africa and the attack on USS Cole, which met with a perfunctory response from the US.

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I regret to say—and many of my hon. Friends will not like me saying this—that even the September 2000 proposals by President Clinton and Prime Minister Barak, with major concessions proposed by Israel under the United States' umbrella, were taken by enemies as a sign of weakness—[Interruption.] They may have been good proposals in themselves, but my point concerns how they were interpreted.

Since 11 September, the US response to terrorism has been extraordinarily clear. The response of the UK Government has also been clear. It has not been completely consistent, but it has been consistent at the major points of decision. Like the right hon. Member for Walsall, South, I find it surprising that elements in the press and on the Labour Back Benches would now wish to give a less clear-cut answer to terrorism. That would put us in a great deal of danger. We are committed to the struggle and it is important that we demonstrate resolve.

Perhaps most important of all in the perception of the terrorists who took advantage of western society on 11 September was the perception that the US would be unwilling to sustain any casualties in combat. In New York city on that day, there were 3,000 casualties. The US has turned over a new leaf in that respect and is now willing to face the prospect of casualties in order to defend its society and its way of life.

Let me now comment directly on this deployment. The forces that the Secretary of State has chosen to send appear to be well constructed, robust and capable of defending themselves. The number and range of capabilities also appear to have been well chosen. We are contributing some capabilities that the US does not have, including, in particular, units that are able to locate mortars more effectively. Mortars represent a formidable weapon in this campaign. Let us also remember that UK staff are fully integrated into the battle staff in Tampa, which is an extraordinarily privileged and important position for this country to enjoy.

During the past few months, I get the feeling that some commentators have learned a few pieces of random terminology about military affairs, including phrases such as "mission creep" and "exit strategy". Sometimes those phrases are applied without sufficient thought being given to whether they are appropriate. I agree with the Secretary of State when he says that the mission is to defeat terrorism and that when Afghanistan has been secured and the mission completed, that will be the time to leave and that is the exit strategy. In war, there is little else to be said, and I am pleased that so many right hon. and hon. Members have made that point during this debate.

Last night I and several other hon. Members had the privilege of attending a dinner to honour those who had earned Victoria Crosses in the past, in the presence of the widow of Colonel H. Jones and a couple of Victoria Cross winners from the second world war. I am convinced that the people who are now being sent to Afghanistan are capable of showing the same bravery, courage and valour and of making the same sacrifice. The people we are sending are lions and, I am pleased to say, they are not led by donkeys, as it is alleged once happened in our history. These lions are also commanded by lions. All I would say to the Government, as they make this difficult decision and see it properly debated in the House, is that

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my wish for those fine people whom we are sending to Afghanistan is that they may always receive from their political masters the respect and consideration that they so richly deserve.

6.29 pm

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North): Three or four years ago, I spent three or four days in northern Norway with 45 Commando. whom I hold in the highest regard. I saw at first hand their dedication, motivation, skills and professionalism.

This deployment is a major deployment by comparison with anything in recent times. Lives are at risk, as the Secretary of State said in his statement on Monday, and I believe that we owe it to those soldiers to display clear thinking in the House and provide an opportunity for debate on the issues that affect them.

It is always said that in military action two tests must be satisfied. First, there must be a just cause; secondly, there must be a reasonable chance of success. When we discussed these issues six months ago in the House, many colleagues addressed those tests. There is a danger that one begins to forget the tests as the campaign develops. If we are to have credibility as a House, we must subject the campaign to those tests as it develops, because public opinion will be taking note of what happens.

There was clearly support among the British people for intervention although, as opinion polls showed, there were differences of view as to how that intervention could best take place. The danger is that if we are deflected from continually testing on the just cause and on the best way forward and the likelihood of success, we are likely to begin to lose public support. One thing that will very much influence public opinion in this country and in the United States is the extent to which our forces, and the politics that underpin our forces, are perceived in the theatre as forces that are acting for the good of the people there.

My first concern today is that because of the dual role—the peacekeeping role and the offensive role—there is a danger that local support in Afghanistan, and the other Islamic parts of the world that will identify with Afghanistan, may begin to doubt whether a just cause is being pursued.

The subject of American contributions to peacekeeping forces was aired in the House earlier today. I cannot understand why it is acceptable or appropriate for Britain to be involved in a dual role in Afghanistan yet it is not acceptable for the other major player, the United States, to be involved in a dual role. The United States might argue that Denmark and Germany are involved in a minor way in a dual role, but that is a very different situation because people in the streets of Kabul and elsewhere probably will not know that Denmark or the Czech Republic, for instance, are involved but they will know that the Americans and the British are involved. It is somewhat unwise to have that dual role—I do not understand why it is right for the United Kingdom to undertake that dual role, but it is apparently not right for the United States to accept that role.

My second worry is linked to the previous one. We have heard, and I read in the press, about the support that the different contributors to the provisional Government in Afghanistan give to those who are helping them establish the process of law and order in that country.

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Collectively they undoubtedly support the involvement, although they may have different motives and factional fights are still taking place.

Although I do not have access to the intelligence reports that Ministers have, I am not convinced from the reports that I read that support on the ground in Afghanistan is as strong as the support among the political factions. That problem could be aggravated if people on the ground in Afghanistan see British soldiers in two different capacities. As the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) said, some opponents in Afghanistan might fancy a pop at a peacekeeper whereas they would not fancy a pop at a Royal Marine up in the mountains.

I have only 10 minutes in which to speak, so I shall be brief. My third point relates to the test of whether there is a reasonable chance of success. It is not good enough to apply that test only at the start of a campaign; it must be applied throughout. I agree with the hon. Member who said that we are talking not about strategy but about tactics. We have had our arguments about the strategy, but on tactics, is the next tactic that we are deploying consistent with the original criteria that we laid down as necessary for a degree of success?

There are many unknowns in this issue. I recognise that Ministers have a difficult task, as they may have access to information that it would be unwise to share with the House or the public because it would give knowledge to our enemies. However, there is a real danger that we may get bogged down in something that we cannot control in Afghanistan. That is a very serious worry.

Some might say that we have already had offensive soldiers in Afghanistan, and peacekeepers over the past three or four months, but the number of offensive soldiers has been small. They have not been very visible and have probably not been known to the civilian populations in Afghanistan. However, when one starts introducing 1,700—who, for all we know, may need to be reinforced by many thousands more for logistical or fighting reasons—it becomes obvious to the people in Afghanistan what is happening.

The worry is that if law and order begin to break down, if the local population gradually cease to support those who are trying to keep peace and trying to rid us all of the threat of al-Qaeda, and if people begin to see that that is not happening, we could easily become involved in a civil war in which we are forced to choose, in any particular military situation, between backing one faction in the provisional Government and another. I read in the press that fighting is indeed taking place. If we have many soldiers in that theatre, we might have no choice but to take sides or to become involved in such a situation.

It would be bad enough to get caught in a civil war; it would be tragic to get caught in an imperial war. The danger is that one transforms into the other very quickly. What starts as a battle between factions in Afghanistan could easily end up as fighting between those from outside the country and those within the country, which would be perceived by the local population and by important Islamic-friendly states as a 21st century imperial intervention by a number of countries that were tied together in the coalition.

There is that grey area between an intervention with a specific purpose, a clear mission and a targeted operational structure—something that is understandable,

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has local support and is recognised internationally—and something much bigger, that is perceived as an outside force, that has lost its way, that does not have local support and that gets bogged down in something that it does not want to become involved in, and cannot see an exit strategy for itself.

Those are the dangers. I am not predicting that that will happen, but I will say that if hon. Members read the clear and detailed history of Vietnam, they will find that there are very many parallels with the way in which the numbers of American forces grew from a few thousand in 1965 or 1966 to 550,000 by 1970. I have no doubt that all were established initially as acting as a force for good. I do not expect Ministers to share all their information with the House, but there is a balance to be struck.

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