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7.13 pm

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), whose remarks were informed and measured. He asked several questions and this debate provides the ideal forum for the Minister to respond. I am pleased that Mr. Speaker granted the Standing Order No. 24 emergency debate today, allowing the House the opportunity to present to the Government its views on the substantial deployment of troops in Afghanistan in a war situation. It is different from the position in Kabul where the international security assistance force is guaranteeing security, helping to ensure law and order and assisting the interim Government.

I can only pray, as have other contributors to the debate, that the warlords, the Northern Alliance and the Pashtun forces can work together as part of the interim

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Government and bring permanent stability and peace to Afghanistan, depriving terrorist organisations of refuge in the country. Remaining elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban are now fighting from caves in the eastern mountains of Afghanistan. I hope that the special forces that we are sending in—they are without reservation the best trained and most disciplined in the world—will be successful in routing those elements. I make no bones about the need to remove them, because they are a danger to mankind and to the future stability and prosperity of Afghanistan.

I said in an earlier intervention on the Secretary of State that I entirely endorse the Government's actions, as does my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin). We are fully behind the deployment of 1,700 additional personnel to Afghanistan to carry out a job for which they are ideally trained and suited.

In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), I was in America on 11 September. I was not in New York on that date, but 60 hours before the two towers of the World Trade Centre were bombed by hijacked civilian aircraft, my wife— my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton)—myself and our second son who works in New York, just two and a half blocks from what was then the World Trade Centre, were on top of the south tower, so we felt close to the American people in what they experienced on 11 September.

I would not go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle in saying that the American people are seeking revenge. What happened on that date was that, for the first time in history, American soil was invaded, so their attention was highly focused on the dangers of international terrorism. The world as a whole, after many decades of tolerating international terrorism, has realised that it is a scourge that needs to be eradicated.

That can be done in many ways, but it is not the purpose of this debate to describe how to ensure that countries do not become a haven for terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden. However, we can work in Afghanistan to narrow the scope for world terrorism to operate: it will be reduced, squeezed and reduced again. In the end, the evil that terrorists perpetrate will not be tolerated in any part of the world.

I am one of the few Members on either side of the House who has served in Her Majesty's forces—in my case, not as a regular soldier, but as a national service soldier in the late 1950s. That experience has stayed with me ever since and was a wonderful teacher. Having served in the Army then and, two years ago, having participated in the armed forces parliamentary scheme—I recommend it to all hon. Members as a worthwhile opportunity—I have come to understand what motivates those who serve in the armed services.

I sought an assurance from the Secretary of State earlier, when he was responding to my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex, that the Government would guarantee that all facilities, all resources and all equipment will be provided to our forces who are facing a war situation in Afghanistan. If we expect our soldiers—men and women—to fight and risk their lives, the House should ensure that the Ministry of Defence guarantees them all that they need to carry out that work.

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I have a tremendous respect for our armed services, who do a wonderful job. I believe that they are the most respected armed services in the world. I am not critical in any way of the United States, the most powerful nation in the world, but historically and traditionally, our armed services are trusted and respected and have always proved their worth wherever they have fought in defence of freedom and peace.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) uttered wise remarks when he drew on his experience to give a measured explanation of how he viewed the situation. It is for such a reason that the emergency debate is essential. I only wish that the Government had offered the time themselves. However, I commend the Secretary of State on the full and proper way in which he expressed the Government's position and responded to many interventions. That is what the House is about. I praise our armed services and fully support the Government. I hope that the House sends the message to our armed services that we are entirely with them in the difficult job that they are doing and that we wish them success.

7.20 pm

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): I have supported our action in Afghanistan from the beginning and I agree that the new deployment is necessary as part of our legitimate response to the atrocity of 11 September and of our legitimate aim to destroy the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

As ever, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) made a thought- provoking speech. He raised the concern that security troops will be in Kabul while combat troops are elsewhere. I would never take any of his concerns lightly, but I share the hope expressed by the Prime Minister in Prime Minister's questions that the risk of retaliatory action may be reduced because they are in distinct areas of the country.

During the campaign we have heard, because we are dealing with Afghanistan, the usual jeremiads about the experience of the Victorian British and the USSR. People who cite those are guilty of three things: first, of presenting a far too mechanistic theory of history; secondly, of underestimating the extent to which victory has already been gained; and, thirdly, of underestimating the fact that al-Qaeda in particular and the Taliban in general, are not indigenous Afghan forces, but largely foreign and alien forces.

My hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) and for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) raised the spectre of Vietnam. In one important respect the action that we are discussing moves us away from one of the dangers of Vietnam, where high-altitude, and sometimes indiscriminate, bombing led to too many innocent people being killed and to the alienation of the indigenous population.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham): How does the hon. Gentleman explain, therefore, that up to

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8,000 civilians died as a result of the bombs dropped on Afghanistan? Does he not think that that alienates the population?

Mr. Savidge: I do not know the precise number of civilian casualties and I suspect that some people have exaggerated them considerably. However, I was worried that some of the bombing might be less discriminating than it should be. I was especially concerned about the bombing of certain towns. The form of deployment that we are discussing means that specialist forces can target action specifically at armed enemies, and that is a correct approach.

The campaign has been more successful than the Jeremiahs predicted, but the very fact that the new deployment is necessary should be a salutary reminder that war is not an easy option. There is a real danger that we may suffer serious casualties, which is why it is right that the tone of the debate has been sombre.

In our continuing campaign against terrorism since 11 September, we must recognise that it will not necessarily be appropriate to take similar military action in all circumstances. We must also realise that major wars to change Governments are certainly not an easy option. For that reason, and because of the concern about overstretch, we should be wary of extending our war to countries not related to events on 11 September. We should concentrate on the present campaign against terror that is related to those terrible events.

It is important to our Afghan campaign that we have the backing of a United Nations resolution and the support of a broad international coalition. We must be wary of doing anything to alienate that coalition or to divide it, or of taking any actions that could appear to be unilateral.

Reference was made in an intervention to press speculation that there might be an association between al-Qaeda and Iraq. It is important to remember that that speculation was started by a member of the present Bush Administration who, during an interview in Congress, said it should be recognised that countries like Iraq are happy to co-operate with terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda. That does not sound as if it is based on hard intelligence and we should be wary of using such silly speculation as a basis for considering future action. British military action should be based on intelligence in both senses of the word. It should never be based on the ideology of the US hard right. Under no circumstances should we consider sacrificing British interests or British lives for the sake of a special relationship with a particular US Administration.

The action in Afghanistan is based on a just cause—our response to events on 11 September. We must be careful, however, that we do not take action when it is less obvious that we have a just cause or a proper right, or if it could seem in any way that we are assuming a right to start wars with other countries. We should not lightly go to war in this region. We have been successful because we have had clear objectives and there were predictable consequences, despite the delicate situation in relation to Pakistan. We should not lightly go to war in regions where there could be wholly unpredictable consequences and if there is a chance of causing a catastrophe, possibly involving exchanges of weapons of mass destruction, with perhaps one side using biological and chemical weapons and another using nuclear weapons.

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I support the action, but I hope that when we consider future action, we seek to maintain the unity of the international community in dealing with a dangerous and difficult world.

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