National Liberal Club Annual Dinner

The National Liberal Club is so beautiful – the rooms of great elegance and glorious design – and such a friendly, non-stuffy atmosphere. The Reverend Paul Hunt is in his third year as Chair and was warm, and friendly and welcoming – as is the club itself. It has all the charm, grace and magnificence of a club – with none of the stuffiness.

When I had looked in my diary for my Wednesday night engagements, I had seen ‘Toast to the Health of the National Liberal Club’ at their 127th Annual Dinner. I had met a young man at the remembrance service last Sunday who said to me ‘I am so sorry I can’t come to the dinner next Wednesday with you as Guest of Honour – I would love to hear you speak’. It was at that moment that I realised that ‘toasting the health of the National Liberal Club’ was code for ‘ speaker’ – which when I anxiously telephoned the Club the next day – proved to be exactly the case.

As I scrambled to find what would be the appropriate subject – I decided that despite the sombre nature of the subject – I would talk about Afghanistan and terrorism. It was Armistice Day – and I wanted to make a speech that would voice the views (almost identical to the Liberal Democrats anyway) of some of those in the forces who had spoken to me of their concerns and their views as to our mission.

This is my speech:

Mr President, Chair, Honoured Guests, I am delighted to be here tonight to toast the health of the National Liberal Club.

My instructions were to be short and be funny –

short isn’t the problem

Anyway – they say women aren’t any good at jokes – and I’m not going to prove them wrong – I’m going to leave the gags to Chris (Huhne) tonight – no pressure Chris.

For I want to be serious.

In honour of our forces today on Armistice Day – I want to speak about Afghanistan and terrorism.

And whilst the Sun Newspaper may wish to reduce this to some political row or opportunity to attack Gordon Brown – and although attacking Gordon Brown has its attractions – the fact someone with such poor eyesight can become Prime Minister should be something to praise, not something to belittle.

I have a certain distaste for furore this week and the tape recording of the conversation between him and the grieving mother.

The issues around Afghanistan and our role there should not be trivialised – or used as a political football.

I remember when we first went into Afghanistan.

There were dire warnings that no invading force ever succeeded – beaten back by landscape, tribal warriors, drug barons or harsh, unbearable winters.

But of course we had to go there – to the heart of the world’s crucible of evil where Osama Bin Laden was meant to be hiding.

The West was angry and hurt, scarred by 9/11 – and its author cloaked in mystery – a millionaire, billionaire who forswore all worldly goods and who seemed in control of a network of devotees ready to die at his command.

Terrorist Al-Qaeda members all over the world seemed able to activate anywhere, anytime – a mixture of amateur and superb sophistry and deadly as hell.

So – we had to go and fight to rid ourselves of the scourge of terror. And we Liberal Democrats supported this mission. We believed it was the right thing to do.

And now we have been there for eight years and have lost 232 of our troops and rising. They stare at us from the front of our newspapers.

Every Prime Minister’s Questions the three leaders give condolences for someone’s brother, son or father.

We pay genuine tribute to the bravery of our fallen soldiers – week after week. And as we stare at the unbelievably young faces, boys of 18, who die for Queen and country, only now there is the widespread asking of why and where and how.

Operation Panther’s Claw – made possible the elections in Helmand Province – but I felt absurd using the language of games and comics to describe that push to rid area of Taliban prior to the presidential elections.

To what avail – with a corrupt government unable to command respect or trust?

So up spoke Nick Clegg and put a great big fat question mark over what we are doing there. Not that we shouldn’t be there. But we should be clear about why, what we can achieve and how we exit..

Nick Clegg opened the floodgates as he broke the cozy consensus around our sortie in Afghanistan. From the inadequacy of the equipment for our troops to the need for a strategy that delivers an ending.

Of course – the truth is that in the end the solution will lie not with making war, but with making peace – with restoring enough of a stable government across enough of the country involving enough of the stakeholders so that the future fate of Afghanistan can rest in the hands of those Afghanis who do not see the future as one of perpetual war with their neighbours.

So tonight I want to speak for those in the forces who cannot speak for themselves because they must remain voiceless in this battle.

I want to give voice to a young, handsome, navy officer who came to me on Remembrance Sunday and said please speak for me as I cannot. I put their case – which is all but identical to the Liberal Democrat case.

There is a pressure now, since we Liberal Democrats spoke out about the need for a strategy, not just for a government of national unity, not just for an end to corruption, not just for better equipment – but a real pressure to sound the retreat – and to be frank who would not be tempted by that scenario.

Memories of our position on Iraq encourage those thoughts – but unlike Iraq – we did not vote against this war.

The forces do not want us to go so far so fast. They beg us to find a political solution. So – if a political solution is the way forward then it has to happen in the Afghan way.

Last time in December 2001, in the midst of the US-led rout of the Taliban, the United Nations brokered the so-called Bonn Agreement – creating a roadmap for the development of a new government in Afghanistan.

Central to the process laid out in the agreement was the convening of an Emergency Loya Jirga, the traditional Afghan Grand Council.

That spawned the first President and Cabinet – post invasion of Afghanistan.

That government no longer commands respect or trust amongst the many many leaders of local tribes and communities.

So we need once again to devolve power down to those local leaders – that is why we need another emergency Loya Jirge – to chart an agreed pathway acceptable to all the players.

As Ed Davey, our Shadow Foreign Secretary said at our autumn conference, it is time for us to talk with the Taliban.

And we need to understand that the continuation of civilian casualties – where we only report our boys dying – there are thousands of Afghani casualties that undermine the legitimacy of fighting terrorism and the credibility of the Afghan peoples’ partnership with the international community.

And then we wonder why their population is so angry with us.

And we need to look at what it will take. If we need to buy loyalty – then let us buy loyalty.

If the Taliban pay £10 per day – then let us pay more. Of course – that is too easy to be the answer on its own – there are no easy answers, no magic solution that fixes everything whilst keeping all our morals purer than pure – instead we have to choose between sometimes uncomfortable options, and the least worst is to pay for time to build stability…

We must pursue an end to the killing and to 30 years of war in Afghanistan, and the start of a regional peace process, not contingent on ‘Western’ forces ‘having the upper hand militarily’ – and the pursuit of a ceasefire, leading to a political & constitutional settlement within Afghanistan.

Our Government must press the US government to end its ‘military first’ approach, and shift priority to the economic, political and social development of Afghanistan.

Our stated purpose is – that we are now there – to stop terrorists here.

But the terror of terrorism is not only the deaths on our streets in 7/11 but that terror removes our civil liberties.

One of the recruiting drives of Al Qaeda and its ilk has been its calls to cleanse the world of corruption and immorality.

Just the sort of corruption and immorality that results in governments, for example, turning a blind eye to drug cultivation in their territory because some are being bribed and others are ensuring a tax-rake gets taken off the drug payments.

Only – the government I am thinking of in this case is Al Qaeda’s own top favourite, the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, with Osama Bin-Laden not just letting the drug trade take place under his nose – but benefiting from it too.

It shows a remarkable degree of ineptness that this actual record – sordid, corrupt and immoral – is so little known, giving those same extremists a free hit in claiming to be different, better and purer.

With terrorists and extremists attracting support for opposition to corruption, our own activities to tackle it need not just to publicise this hypocrisy, but also to fight corruption itself. Too often the UK drags its feet on international anti-corruption standards.

In conclusion – as we wait for President Obama to decide what to do with regard tot General McChrystal’s demand for 40,000 extra troops for counter insurgency – I welcome Obama’s long pause for thought.

I take some hope and inspiration from the fact that he is a thoughtful and intelligent man.

He is going away tomorrow and it is very doubtful that a decision will be taken before he goes – but I hope that the conclusion he reaches delivers a strategy that understands Afghanistan. That understands the impossibility of continuing to act as some imperial force imposing democracy, that respects the Afghan ways and delivers a way ahead that let’s us leave that country.

And to the handsome naval officer who is due to go to Afghanistan on counter insurgency operations in 2012 – I hope I have given you a voice here tonight – on this day – on Armistice Day.

Mr President, Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentleman, can I ask you to charge your glasses and please be upstanding

The Health of the National Liberal Club