HC Deb 05 March 1987 vol 111 cc1130-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Durant.]

10.13 pm
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for selecting my debate on Her Majesty's Government's policy towards Afghanistan. The subject is a timely one in view of the reopening at Geneva last week of the United Nations proximity talks to discuss the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the visit of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary to Moscow later this month.

The last occasion on which I raised the subject of Afghanistan in an Adjournment debate was on 20 December 1985, one week before the sixth anniversary of the Soviet invasion and subsequent occupation, an occupation by invitation, it was said, to counter foreign interference, just like the invitation from Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hungary in 1956. I did so then because I felt that there existed a distinct danger that in the euphoria that was following the first summit meeting between President Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev there might be a temptation to some in the West to compromise their original position over Afghanistan in a desire to pursue detente and achieve success in arms control.

I raise the subject again tonight because of what has happened since and what is happening now, which may also tempt some to compromise to match Mr. Gorbachev's recent quite remarkable and, on the face of it, encouraging rhetoric on internal reforms in the Soviet Union and accommodation on arms control. It is especially important that, at this time, we continue to give the fullest possible support to Pakistan as it continues to negotiate on behalf of free Afghanistan, bearing as it does the considerable strain imposed on it with the presence of more than 3 million Afghan refugees and, in recent days, the totally unacceptable air raids on its border villages by the Afghan air force which have killed 66 people and injured many more. I hope that appropriate protests to the Afghan authorities have been made.

In many ways, the seventh year of Soviet occupation has seen an intensification of the conflict on both sides. Mr. Gorbachev has been making new political attempts to impose a Communist-dominated solution on Afghanistan, while demanding a more effective military response against the Mujahideen, who have responded in kind. In May last year, the Kremlin replaced one puppet leader, Babrak Karmel, as general secretary of the so-called Ruling Peoples Democratic party—the Communist party—with another, Dr. Najib, who had impeccable Marxist credentials and a reputation for ruthless brutality as head of the KGB-trained Afghan secret police, the Khad.

As a member of the largest tribal group, the Pashtuns, Dr. Najib has been trying to widen the basis of support for his regime through a policy of national reconciliation. His measures have included an attempt to strengthen his depleted and demoralised armed forces through new conscription, the staging of local elections and the convening of jirgas—traditional councils—the inclusion of non-party figures in his administration, and protestations of his regime's respect for Afghan traditions and the Islamic religion. Emulating Mr. Gorbachev, Dr. Najib has campaigned against inertia and corruption in the party, for which he blames the regime's lack of success in mobilising popular support.

Parallel to that has been a new drive on the part of the Kremlin to convince the world of its desire to withdraw from Afghanistan as soon as possible. In July, Mr. Gorbachev announced in Vladivostock that six Soviet regiments—about 5 per cent. of the total of about 115,000 troops in Afghanistan—would be withdrawn. He repeated that announcement during his following visit to India. It was clearly intended to impress the forthcoming new round of United Nations-sponsored talks. In October great publicity was made, with the actual withdrawal timed to precede the annual debate on Afghanistan at the United Nations General Assembly.

That had little effect—quite the reverse, in fact. The plenary session, which my hon. Friend the Minister addressed on behalf of the 12 member states of the European Community, on which I heartily congratulate him, passed by 122 votes to 21, with 11 abstentions, a resolution calling for immediate withdrawal of foreign troops. Meanwhile, the Mujahideen maintains its brave resistance throughout most of the country, inflicting heavy losses on Soviet and Afghan forces, particularly convoys travelling to and from the Soviet Union, and attempting to reinforce garrisons within the country. They continue to control large parts of towns and whole areas of countryside. They remain active in and around the capital, Kabul, in which areas exist where no Russian dares to go. They are showing greater ability to co-ordinate their activities and to speak with one voice.

That is despite the increasingly sophisticated approach to strategy and tactics by Soviet forces, using smaller units and mobile helicopter-borne troops, and especially their specialised commandos, the Spetnaz, together with ruthless Soviet and Afghan retaliation against the civilian population and the continued abuse of human rights that has so rightly been condemned by the United Nations in response to the reports of its special rapporteur.

Only recently have we learnt of the new Soviet AK74 rifle being used against the Mujahideen with dum-dum bullets which wreak devastating damage to the human body in total violation of the Geneva convention. In his reply to the debate which 1 initiated in December 1985, my hon. Friend the Minister referred in some detail to the rapporteur's previous findings: the conscription of children aged 15 years, the displacement of people from their homes, acts of brutality by the armed forces, the bombardment and massacre of villages, and the use of anti-personnel mines and of booby-trapped toys, all of which have been responsible for the deaths of more than 500,000 Afghans since 1979, most of them innocent civilians.

Similar abuse of human rights has been noted by Amnesty International, whose report last November referred to widespread and systematic torture of political prisoners by the KHAD with the participation of Soviet personnel, and the prevention of the international committee of the Red Cross from visiting Afghan prisons since 1982. Unlike its protestations against prisons in Turkey, we hear nothing from the Left about conditions in Afghanistan. Throughout last year the refugee problem has remained largely ignored by public opinion throughout the world. According to UNICEF last June, the population of Afghanistan is now 7 million compared with 15 million in the 1977 census. Over 3 million refugees in Pakistan constitute the largest concentration of refugees in the world. A further 2 million are in Iran. We should all be grateful for the widespread international aid and voluntary help given to Pakistan to service the 350 camps and to provide food to the families. This includes £40 million worth of aid from Britain since 1980. The European Community, too, has provided substantial help. The American Congress is to consider $4 billions worth of further aid to Pakistan later this month.

It is no doubt because of the consistent attitude of the United Nations, of the Islamic conference and of the Non-Aligned Movement that Mr. Gorbachev, through Dr. Najib, announced a qualified six-month ceasefire with the Afghan resistance starting on 15 January, an amnesty for rebel prisoners, the formation of Government of national unity to include resistance leaders and a guaranteed safe passage for them to take part in peace talks. As the House knows, such an offer has been rejected out of hand by the Mujahideen. To it, the acceptance of a ceasefire without a total, immediate and unconditional end to Soviet occupation after so much sacrifice and suffering would be tantamount to a shameful surrender to the enemy. No doubt Stalin took the same view against Hitler in the 1940s.

To the Mujahideen, complete peace and security will return only upon the unconditional withdrawal of Soviet forces and the overthrow of the atheist puppet Government and the establishment of an Islamic state. A coalition Government with the present regime would serve only to maintain Soviet influence, and would be a certain recipe for continued civil was as well as to contradict succesive resolutions of the United Nations. To the Mujahideen, any invitation to refugees to return is interpreted as a new source of enforced conscripts I o bolster the Afghan army.

At the mass rally of the Islamic alliance of the Afghan Mujahideen in Peshawar on 17 January, it confirmed its commitment to a ceasefire following the withdrawal of Soviet troops, to the establishment of an interim Government to supervise elections to a representative Islamic Government who would be empowered to draft a constitution, the immediate establishment of a commission to draft guidelines for that Government, and the formation of a means of arbitration to resolve differences between the individual groups. It fears, however, that its resolve will not be matched by those who have supported it in the past or who are now negotiating on its behalf. It fears that we in the West will be charmed by Mr. Gorbachev, in the interest of "real politik", into accepting an Afghanistan within the Soviet sphere of influence. It fears that ex-King Zahir Shah, who has already been approached by the Najib regime, will be an acceptable head of state for a client Government.

The Mujahideen fears that the Islamic conference is wavering in its previous insistence on an immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops. It fears that China and Iran might compromise their previous support as a trade-off for better relations with Moscow. lit fears that Pakistan, which has been under so much economic strain as a result of the presence of the refugees who are blamed for unrest and riots among its population, will finally climb down from its previous insistence on a withdrawal of Soviet troops within four months instead of two years. It fears an end to western aid as part of the compromise, thus leaving the Mujahideen isolated and increasingly defenceless against the Soviet forces intent on eliminating all those who refuse to join the coalition Government.

I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister's reply tonight. I look forward to hearing from him that Her Majesty's Government continue to support fully the sovereignty of the Afghan people, their right to determine their country's future, be it neutral or non-aligned as suggested by Lord Carrington in 1980, or in alignment with others, Islamic or otherwise, if that is their wish.

I look forward to the Government's insistence that a timetable of Soviet withdrawal must not be linked with negotiations between the Afghans themselves, and that it must take place as soon as possible to allow those negotiations to commence. I look forward to the Government's insistence that any plan suggesting the supremacy of the Communist People's Democratic party, which would have to be enforced with terror and the denial of human rights, as in all other Communist countries, is totally unacceptable.

I look forward to the confirmation of continued aid and support to the Mujahideen until the Soviet forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan lock, stock and barrel. Finally, I look forward to learning that they are the messages that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be taking to Moscow with her later this month.

10.26 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Eggar)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for selecting this important topic for debate, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) for moving the motion this evening.

This debate is extremely timely. The personal representative of the United Nations Secretary-General is conducting renewed proximity talks in Geneva between Pakistan and the Kabul regime. We wish Mr. Cordovez's efforts well. There can be no military solution to the dreadful war of occupation in Afghanistan. There can only be a political settlement, and it must be genuine. The Afghan people deserve no less after the horrors of the past seven years.

Afghanistan's fate offers a clear warning to independent and sovereign nations within reach of the Soviet Union's military might. They know that, seven years ago, 85,000 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. The number has now risen to more than 110,000. At the last United Nations general assembly, 122 countries again endorsed the principles that could—if the Russians wish—be the basis of real and lasting peace. Those principles are the complete and immediate withdrawal of the Soviet forces, the right to self-determination of the Afghan people, the safe and honourable return of the refugees, and the restoration of Afghanistan's independence and nonalignment. Only 20 countries joined the Soviet Union in voting against such a sensible recipe for a peaceful solution to the agonies of Afghanistan.

We have noted with interest the many Soviet statements of intent to withdraw from Afghanistan. Do they want a genuine political settlement? Or are they merely trying to achieve, by cosmetic political gestures, what they failed to achieve militarily? Only they can answer. That answer is needed now. Stage-managed "withdrawals" like that of last October are irrelevant. Each month's delay, each year's delay, in withdrawing Soviet troops is another month or year of brutal pressure on the people of Afghanistan, to ensure that they acquiesce in the loss of their freedom.

We must not forget what is really going on. My hon. Friend painted a grim picture. Just over a year ago Mr. Gorbachev called Afghanistan a "bleeding wound". The blood has not been staunched. Things have only got worse. A few days ago in Geneva the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights, Dr. Ermacora, reported on the situation. His analysis shows clearly that the human tragedy continues to unfold. He estimates that between 10,000 and 12,000 civilians died last year in the period up to September alone.

He reports : Official government statements that refugees are returning in great number are not confirmed by officials in Pakistan and Iran who are directly responsible for the refugee problem. Such returns, if any, have been sporadic and negligible in relation to the total refugee population…The total of Afghan refugees might now be estimated to be in excess of 5 million". The special rapporteur quotes recent examples of oppression in Afghanistan. They are, for instance the execution of four inmates of the Pol i Charki prison in January, the death of 500 civilians in early September 1986, following a bombardment in Kunduz, the destruction of a clinic at Shinwar in Nangahar province in November and, at the same time, three bombardments of a basic health unit in Tani in Paktia province, the very critical food situation resulting from the armed conflict in some areas, and the widespread measures adopted to impose alien cultural values—especially through the system of education.

Dr. Ermacora's conclusions took careful note of the Kabul regime's recent initiatives of what it chose to call a "ceasefire", a "national reconciliation" and an "amnesty". He noted that the amnesty was not unconditional, that certain types of political crimes were excluded and that its implementation depended on the screening of the cases by a commission, the composition of which corresponded to the political structure of the regime.

Dr. Ermacora adds : In spite of the political declarations concerning peaceful reconciliation, there has so far been no marked change in the human rights situation in the country : fighting is continuing, particularly in the border areas: many wounded persons are crossing the border and the number of refugees is increasing steadily". Therefore, says the UN special rapporteur the unchanged human rights situation continues to be the source of deepest concern because of the sufferings of the civilian population and the magnitude of the economic, social and cultural problems confronting millions of refugees. That, then, is the reality, described not by a partial observer but by the representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations. In addition, as my hon. Friend pointed out, Amnesty International has painted a grim picture of torture of political prisoners. Its reports said : Torture is widespread and systematic. It is most commonly inflicted on men and women prisoners held in the custody of Khad (the secret police)". Soviet personnel were allegedly present during many of the torture sessions. Hon. Members will know that Khad, this instrument of torture, now grandly renamed the Ministry of State Security, is the power base of Najib, who ran it until the Russians moved him to replace Karmal, no doubt hoping he could win Afghan hearts and minds where Karmal had failed.

Can such a man inspire Afghan confidence? On 12 January, less than two weeks after asking the Mujahideen to lay down their arms, he told the Ministry of State Security that during this so-called process of national reconciliation…the role and importance of the organ of the Ministry of State Security, its political bodies and its party organisations will be further enhanced. In other words, at a time of national reconciliation, as he calls it, he was calling for a strengthening of the role and power of the secret police.

As we speak, major military operations continue along the border with Pakistan, and Pakistan's international border continues to be repeatedly violated. There have been nearly 300 bombing raids and other incidents this year alone. We all greatly admire the forbearance of the Pakistan Government in the face of this threat to their security. A week ago, shortly after the Geneva talks resumed, at least 110 people died and 200 were injured in Afghan regime air raids on Pakistani border towns—the worst such incidents since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Government wholeheartedly condemn such atrocious and provocative attacks which come at a time when the Soviet Union and Kabul regime claim to be engaged in serious negotiations for a peaceful, political settlement. Moreover, Kabul regime inspired terrorist bombing incidents inside Pakistan territory were reported almost daily last month. There were over 500 such incidents last year.

It is astonishing that some hon. Members—not previously noted for their humanitarian concerns in Afghanistan and noticeably absent tonight—put their names to early-day motions 587, 588 and 593 concerning alleged breaches of the ceasefire offer and the shooting down of an Antonov 26 aircraft near Khost. Khost was precisely the area in Paktia province where the Kabul regime and the Russians were concentrating major military operations. Not only is it unusual that civilian aircraft are allowed anywhere near military operations, but the AN26 is an aircraft used for ferrying military personnel. Nor can a "ceasefire" be "breached" when it is unilateral, when it requires the other side effectively to surrender and when it is not applied in the first place to the border areas where most regime attacks have concentrated. Such early-day motions bring the House into disrepute. Certain honourable Members find it convenient to overlook the thousands of civilians killed through the bombardment of their villages, the women, children and old men lying dreadfully wounded in International Committee of the Red Cross hospitals in Peshawar and Quetta, and the fact that one third of the Afghan people have been forced to flee abroad. At least 85,000 refugees have crossed into Pakistan in the last year.

Mr. Speaker, the Government will continue to provide substantial aid to Afghan refugees and victims of the war. The Russians and the regime use a deliberate policy of depopulation and crop destruction in certain strategic areas. Instead of villages full of life, there remain just empty shells. Drought and famine will play an increasing role in coming months. Those who do not become refugees have two choices—to go to Kabul, where the population has swollen over seven years from 700,000 to 2.5 million, or to go to the hills. In Kabul, the Soviet-style education system spreads communist propaganda. The rural areas are abandoned to the brave European and humanitarian organisations which provide the only health, education and other services. The Russians are trying to remove the sea so that the fish cannot swim, but they reckoned without the morale and bravery of the Afghan resistance, which remain as high as ever. The Russians should learn from Afghanistan's history that they cannot break the spirit of the Afghan people.

Why do we know so little about the real war? While Western journalists are invited to Kabul, which is surrounded by 20,000 Soviet troops, a condition of the .so-called ceasefire offered by Kabul in January was an end to the illegal entry of foreign journalists into the area beyond Kabul's control. Journalists take their lives in their hands when they try to tell the tale of the true horror of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

The Afghan resistance has grown in political coordination. We admire its continuing courage against great odds in resisting foreign domination, and we welcome the increasing co-ordination under certain commanders inside Afghanistan. We will continue to keep in touch with them. The resistance leaders must be involved in a settlement.

I have already spoken of the current pressures being exerted on the Pakistan Government. It is much to their credit that they have maintained a principled position, while doing their utmost to contribute to the search for a real solution.

Peace is urgently needed. The key lies in Moscow. We welcome any reduction in the fighting but for peace, to last it must address the root problems and solutions. We assure the Soviet Union that neither we, the rest of Europe nor the West have any interest in prolonging the war. We recognise that an independent Afghanistan should have friendly relations with all its neighbours—including, of course, the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is in a quandary. If it is still its objective to preserve at all costs an Afghan regime dominated by a client Communist party, it will still be propping it up and fighting an unwinnable war years from now. If it wants to move towards a genuine settlement, it can be assured that we will be constructive. The UN package contains guarantees of non-interference and non-intervention designed to meet Soviet concerns. A neutral Afghanistan has also been referred to by Soviet leaders.

The first step needed is for the Russians to make an irrevocable commitment to a short timetable for the departure of their troops. This would build confidence so that the Afghans would be encouraged to work towards a genuinely representative Government in order that a genuinely representative Government can evolve.

Trying to predetermine a Government based on Najib or the Communist party simply will not work. That is not self-determination. Najib's references to consolidating the gains of the revolution and its "irreversibility" are illustrative. So is the attitude of Mr. Shevardnadze who went to Kabul in January and reassured Najib that the Soviet Union saw the Communist party as the "back bone" of the so-called policy of nationwide reconciliation.

The only route to stability is by the removal of foreign occupation and the emergence of a Government truly representative of the refugees and the Mujahideen. We hope that the Soviet Union's statements of intent mean that it is moving towards this realisation. That is in its control. It is up to the Soviet Union to withdraw its troops. There is no time to lose for the sake of the people of Afghanistan. It is their interests that count. We must not forget them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.