Parliamentary debates on Afghanistan have a habit of going against the prevailing government. In Holland the government fell after losing a vote and in Canada it led to the decision to withdraw combat troops. So it was probably with a degree of trepidation that British ministers contemplated the debate held on Thursday. In fact, this was the first full-day debate ever held in the House of Commons on this subject and it only took place because the newly formed Backbench Business Committee decided to call it.
In the end ministers had little cause for concern. The House debated the motion: "This House supports the continued deployment of UK armed forces in Afghanistan" which was supported by an overwhelming majority. The official Hansard transcript of the debate can be found here.
Peter Bone, the Tory MP for Wellingborough who moved the motion, stated that "Parliament has not previously had a chance to debate the war in Afghanistan on a substantive motion", which is shocking, considering the fact that British troops have been there for almost ten years.
Many fascinating points were made on both sides of the debate. Bob Stewart, a former commanding officer in the 1st Battalion, The Mercian Regiment, pointed out that out of the 300 soldiers in the Battalion, 12 had been killed on the present tour and 70 more had been injured. There is still a month to go on the tour.
Labour MP Paul Flynn led the opposition to the motion. He noted that 334 British soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan and six times as many had been wounded. He criticised the British move into Helmand province in 2006 and noted that the Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary had been unable to complete their tour of Afghanistan recently due to enemy action. His criticisms are worth repeating:
"We have heard optimism, and nothing but, year after year and in debate after debate, when they have told us that we have turned the corner. The Deputy Prime Minister used the same expression the other day, saying that things are going well now and we just have to hang on. We have turned so many corners that we have been around the block half a dozen times in Afghanistan, but we are still in hell and the situation is still getting worse. We believe in the possibility that the Afghan national army can take over, but it is mainly drug addicted and it routinely oppresses its own people. In one incident, 300 members of the Afghan army were guarding a convoy when they were attacked by seven members of the Taliban and they fled, with their commander saying, "Why should they sacrifice their lives and kill fellow Afghans in order to defend a corrupt leader from a different clan and to promote the policies of a foreign country?" Indeed, one is entitled to ask that.
"The Afghan police service routinely extorts money from its own citizens. When the police went into the village of Penkala, the local elders came forward and said, "Last time they came here, they practised bacha bazi on our young boys." That refers to the routine ritual sexual exploitation of young boys. They also said, "The Taliban were here before. They were wicked people, but they were people of principle." The Afghan police are a criminal police service. Many of them are not paid, so they are expected to get their money in this way."
Former diplomat and founder of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul, Rory Stewart, also spoke eloquently in the debate.
After five hours of debate the House divided by 310 to 14 in support of the motion. Those voting against: John Baron, Katy Clark, Jeremy Corbyn, John Cryer, Jonathan Edwards, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, Dr Julian Huppert, Mark Lazarowicz, Caroline Lucas, John McDonnell, Dennis Skinner, Karl Turner and David Winnick.