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6.40 pm

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): I happened to be in New York on the morning of 11 September, and I remained in the United States—because no one could get out—for the next seven days. I therefore have a clear picture in my mind of the force of American public opinion on that terrible tragedy and their continuing determination to get their revenge.

Revenge is not a word that is often used in this context, but I have a great many American friends and I have been back to the United States since 11 September, and I can tell hon. Members that it animates their policy. They are determined to get revenge, and I have no doubt that they will do so. I fully support the United States in its desire to stamp out international terrorism. However, that is not to say that we should not, in our cool, British way, consider the situation as it develops and make quite certain that each step down the road is carefully chosen.

There is a great danger in using the broad brush. People talk about those who are fighting in Afghanistan—the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the third group, who might be described as tribal gangsters—as though they were all the same sorts of people, but they are entirely different. I know Afghanistan fairly well. Indeed, I have my father's 1919 Afghan medal, my grandfather fought in the second Afghan war and I grew up in a house full of Afghan carpets, daggers, pistols and so on.

The last time I was in Kabul was a few weeks before the Russians invaded. They stayed in Afghanistan for 10 years, put in 300,000 troops and left 30,000 dead behind them. Those are useful statistics to bear in mind when talking about sending 1,700 immensely gallant and highly trained Royal Marines into the snow-clad mountains of eastern Afghanistan. I have walked in those mountains—although not very high up, and certainly not when there was snow around—and it would be impossible to use armoured vehicles on those tracks, which one can hardly get mules up and down. As we all remember, by the time the Russians left Afghanistan the whole country was littered with burned-out Russian tanks. The nature of the challenge should not be underestimated.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) mentioned Vietnam. I visited Vietnam three times during the war. The first time I went, there were 300 American advisers in civilian clothing. The last time I went there were 500,000 American troops in uniform. During that visit, General Westmoreland, the great US commander of the day, assured me that the war would be over by Christmas. It is always worth remembering the difficulties that have arisen in the past as a result of intervening in such situations.

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The Afghans have been fighting each other all through history. In reality, there is no such place as Afghanistan. Until the late 19th century, it was simply called the Afghan region. A British civil servant called Sir Mortimer Durand drew a line on the map and said that that was going to be the frontier between the then India and Afghanistan. People use the extraordinary phrase "a porous frontier" to describe the area. They have heard only of the Khyber pass, up which I have driven from Peshawar to Kabul on three occasions, but I am told that there are approximately 200 passes on the 900-mile frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The tribesmen can move backwards and forwards with total freedom, as the Secretary of State admitted.

Although each war is different, I should like to make another historical reference. When a Conservative Government put one battalion into Bosnia, I asked the then Foreign Secretary, "What is the use of sending one battalion when you need four divisions to do the job?" The Serbs capitulated only when four divisions were in Macedonia on the frontier of Kosovo. We should therefore understand that sending in the magnificent Marine Commandos will not end civil war in Afghanistan, which will go on for decades in different forms, as it always has done.

We must consider the importance of the war in the wider world context. Although the attack on the twin towers and the terrible suffering and grief that it caused in America were appalling, if we are to consider the matter objectively we must study our enemy. It was a brilliantly organised terrorist strike. Anyone who has tried to organise a cheese and wine party for a Conservative association will appreciate the difficulty of getting the sandwiches there on time. The attack must have been one of the best organised operations in modern history.

One of the most amazing aspects was that the strike obviously took years of preparation but was never leaked. I have spoken to Congressmen and Senators about the matter, and they have expressed great anger that the American secret service did not see it coming. A congressional committee of inquiry is currently examining that. Only yesterday, the director of the FBI said in answer to the committee that al-Qaeda was reorganising and regrouping in approximately 34 countries.

The problem is not only in the caves in the mountains of Afghanistan. I have never had great faith in what might be described as troglodyte technology. I simply do not believe that the attack on the twin towers was organised in detail from the caves. We know that no Afghans were involved in the actual attack, which was carried out almost entirely by Egyptians and Saudis who had been in the United States for a long time. They had tremendous technological training for the job. We should acknowledge that although a genuine danger of future terrorist attacks exists, not only in the United States but possibly in Britain, the people who will launch them are almost certainly in the US and Britain now, not fighting in the snow of the Afghan mountains.

We need a much more sophisticated approach to the subject than the media, at least, present. I should like to believe that the US has worked that out, that it recognises the fact that 1 billion people in the world are Muslim and

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that the whole Arab world has been antagonised by our actions. We must tackle the macro-strategic as well as the micro-tactical problem.

I devoutly hope that our Royal Marines can carry out their duties with minimum casualties, but I am not confident that their numbers will be sufficient to do that. We will therefore have to face the choice of greatly increasing their numbers through large-scale reinforcements or withdrawing them and concentrating on the much greater threat from Iraq.

6.50 pm

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I commend the speeches of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). The House may well choose to reflect carefully on the analysis provided by the former and the cautionary wisdom and ministerial experience offered by the latter.

The views I shall express stem from the very first announcement made to the House by the Secretary of State on Monday, in which he said

It is important to separate what we know from what we do not know. We know that 1,700 troops are currently committed by the United Kingdom to join forces from the United States. We know that those troops will be de facto under the control of the United States. What we do not know is how long they will be there, and for what purposes.

It worried me that the Secretary of State described the move as chasing the "remnants" of al-Qaeda. What do we mean by "remnants"? Estimates of the number vary from 2,000 to 20,000. On 19 December last year, the Washington Post quoted an FBI analysis according to which the sum of military achievements was, at best, the limiting of al-Qaeda's capacity by about 30 per cent. If that is the case, we are sending our troops to face very sizeable "remnants".

We do not know how long the troops will be there. Will they be there for 10 weeks, 10 months, 10 years? An ominous piece of string is being dangled before us, whose end we cannot see. We do not know what is the military endgame for the deployment of the troops, and we do not know the exit strategy. My fear is that we, as a Parliament, are in danger of making a commitment which, without those clear objectives, would make it easy for us to send troops in and end up counting them out.

We do know that Operation Anaconda was anything but a mopping-up exercise. We also know—thanks to, in particular, the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and discussions between the NATO delegation from the United Kingdom with Russian delegations—that the issue never concerned an initial military success over Afghanistan. The Russians have repeatedly pointed out to our delegation that they took over the country in six weeks. The fact is that 10 years later, minus 30,000 of the troops they had sent in, they were forced to crawl out of a country whose terrain and fighters had defeated them.

It is important for the House to consider our responsibilities with real caution before we send British troops into potentially similar conditions. We need a clear

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mission statement, and we need to be clear about its limits. We also need to remember that this deployment, the largest deployment of UK fighting troops since the Gulf war deployment in 1991, is to a region where we were told before Christmas the war had ended. Our troops are being sent to a place where, in fact, the fighting has far from ended.

After 11 September many of us had real disagreements about the tactics of pursuing this war, but a number of us did not disagree about whether we should pursue Osama bin Laden or whether we should pursue and seek to dismantle the al-Qaeda network; we disagreed about the tactics and the prospects of success involved in taking such action by conventional military means.

Personally, I still favour the use of specialist troops to bring out, or take out, Osama bin Laden, but at this stage we do not know whether the troops we are sending have any idea whether they are pursuing bin Laden or his shadows. We have no real doubts now about the threat posed by the al-Qaeda network, but I think the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) was right to say that it is not to be found in the caves outside Kabul. The next set of terrorist threats, like the last set, are being planned in comfortable apartments outside the region rather than in caves outside the capital.

We must at some point acknowledge that one of the first casualties of our continuing down a route driven entirely by military presumptions was the death of diplomacy, and of the UN's role in pursuing non-military solutions to what is legitimately described as an asymmetrical threat to the stability of societies. I do not want to retreat from, or understate, the nature or size of that threat, but I question the wisdom and the presumption that there are conventional military solutions, and I specifically question whether those solutions will be found in the Afghan mountains.

Many Members wish to express legitimate fears that we are in danger of fighting the right war, or maybe struggle, in the wrong way. There is an additional danger, mentioned by some Members today, of our encouraging a form of mission creep that may begin in Kabul but end in Baghdad. That would not bring peace to a region or country, but would add massively to the sense of instability, threat and risk felt by all of us.

The House should issue legitimate warnings, and assert the right to ask questions about the implications of this action, its limits and its constraints. The stability of the region, the safety of our troops and the interests of the international community demand a clearer and more coherent mandate for the military action being embarked on, and a stronger likelihood of the success test mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North. It cannot be right for us to deploy UK fighting forces simply on the basis of a whistle and a wink from the American Administration. That is unlikely to be a winnable strategy, given the much more complex threat that the world currently faces.

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