The House of Commons debated Afghanistan yesterday  9 September 2010 in a debate on a substantive motion.entitled "UK Armed Forces in Afghanistan"

Here is the link to my speech

9 Sep 2010 : Column 503

1.48 pm
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome this debate, which is both timely and necessary. I agree with other hon. Members who believe that it is time in this century for Parliament to have a more explicit and direct vote on important military matters. Apart from anything else, in terms of public support, it is important that we have a clear expression of the will of the House of Commons on these matters so that there can be no ambiguity once today's motion is, I hope, carried.

Mr Gray: I absolutely agree. It is terribly important that this House should send a strong message of support for our troops. However, does the hon. Gentleman not see a real danger that if we were to have such a vote on every occasion there is at least the possibility that the vote would be evenly split or that even a no vote would be the result, which would have terrible consequences for the war?

Mike Gapes: I do not argue that we should have a vote every week or month, but from time to time it is important that Parliament makes it clear that the Executive, when it deploys our forces, has the continuing support of the nation. It is our job to speak for the nation and it is very important in a democracy that Parliament is the voice of the nation and that we do not just leave things to the Executive.

Last year, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs published a major report on Afghanistan and Pakistan. It concluded that there could be no question of the international community abandoning Afghanistan and that there was a need to convey publicly that the international community intends to outlast the insurgency and to remain in Afghanistan until the Afghan authorities are able to take control of their own security. That must be a primary objective. Yesterday, the current Committee decided to mount a new inquiry into Afghanistan and Pakistan over the coming months.

I am concerned that, since the previous Committee's recommendations of last year, there has been a significant change in the positions of both the United States Administration under President Obama and the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government who were elected in May. We now have an arbitrary deadline, set by the Obama Administration, to begin withdrawal of military forces from July 2011, and an even more firm statement about a complete withdrawal of British forces from 2014-15, which was confirmed by the Foreign Secretary when he answered questions at yesterday's Select Committee sitting.

I think it is extremely unwise to have arbitrary target deadlines. Many commentators have pointed out that the process should be conditions-based and should not involve just setting artificial deadlines. One reason why that approach is so difficult and dangerous is in the signals it sends to the Afghan people. In a recent opinion poll, only 6% of Afghans said that they would support the return of the Taliban, whereas 90% said that they would prefer the present, dysfunctional, corrupt and in many ways useless Government to the thought of the Taliban returning. The ability of Afghans publicly to associate themselves with the international forces or even the Karzai Government at this time is greatly undermined by the thought that within a year, 18 months or perhaps four years, that international community support will go and they will be faced with the potential return of the Taliban. We face a real crisis here. There is a conflict between the military objectives of nation building and counter-insurgency, which require many years-perhaps a generation-to be successful, and a political agenda driven by the body bags and casualties and the simplistic solutions that are touted by various people.

What we are dealing with in Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It is also about Pakistan-a country of 170 million people which has nuclear weapons, unresolved border disputes and potential conflict with India. Pashtun people who live on both sides of the Durand line can move backwards and forwards, and the border is impossible to police. If there is a collapse of any form of central Government and we return to an overt civil war, as opposed to the incipient civil war that still goes on in Afghanistan, without international support for the Afghan Government we could be faced with a situation not simply of the Taliban's return but of a complete failed state-not just Afghanistan but Pakistan.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): How exactly would the collapse of Afghanistan affect Pakistan? Why is the hon. Gentleman so confident that a failed state in Afghanistan would have calamitous effects for Pakistan?

Mike Gapes: When the Foreign Affairs Committee visited Pakistan last year, we were in Islamabad when the Pakistani Taliban got to within 80 miles of Islamabad. At that point, the Pakistani Government got out of denial and started a very difficult process of taking on the insurgents from the FATA, or federally administered tribal areas, and other areas. They pushed up the Pakistani Taliban towards the Afghan border. There is an area on that border, on both sides, where the insurgents can regroup, hide and get training. If the Pakistani state is faced with a failure by us or the Afghan forces to press on the other side, there will be an easy way for the insurgents to work on both sides of that border without having sustained pressure from both sides. That is a fundamental dilemma for the Pakistani Government and I do not think that we appreciate quite how many Pakistanis have died in recent years and the great sacrifice that Pakistani people have made because of terrorism, because of outrages within their society such as those in Islamabad, Karachi and other parts of Pakistan, and because of the potential threat to the state imposed by Islamist radicalism and extremism.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mike Gapes: No, I cannot take any more interventions; I have to conclude my remarks.

I am conscious that we are dealing with a very difficult issue. There is a global struggle within Islam between a whole spectrum of points of view. There is conflict between Sunnis and Shias and there is conflict
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within Sunni Islam. That conflict is being fought out within Pakistan and Afghanistan at the moment. It is sometimes attractive for people to think that we can somehow step back, be neutral and avoid being involved in all this because it is nothing to do with us. Some people have a tendency to think that, but more than 1 million British citizens have family connections with that region-with Pakistan. Islam is part of our European culture and our modern world. Given the globalisation of economics and politics, we cannot be neutral in this struggle. We all have to try to assist the moderates and internationalists in this process, and to combat jihadism wherever it is. That does not mean that we must always fight it militarily: we must also fight it intelligently and politically.

It might well be that because of the deadlines set by our Government and the US Administration, because of the lack of wider international support and because of the growing public fear that we have been in this for so long that we have to get out quickly, we will have to accept a very difficult and messy compromise in Afghanistan that will involve some kind of return of Taliban influence or Taliban groups in at least part of the country. However, let us not forget that the wider struggle will still require us to be involved in supporting the democrats, the internationalists and the anti-jihadists in Pakistani society as well as those in Afghanistan. For that reason, I support the motion.


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