HC Deb 19 December 2001 vol 377 cc304-19 4.22 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

The recent Bonn agreement on the future governance of Afghanistan called for the deployment of an international force to Afghanistan to assist the new Afghan Interim Authority, which formally takes office on Saturday 22 December, with the provision of security and stability for Kabul.

Two days ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed that the United Kingdom was willing, in principle, to lead such a force. I can now confirm that the United Kingdom is formally prepared to take on the leadership of an international security assistance force for a limited period of three months. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has today written to the Secretary-General of the United Nations to inform him of our decision. That decision follows further discussions with the United States, the other nations that have indicated that they may be willing to contribute troops to the force, the United Nations and the designated leaders of the Interim Authority in Afghanistan.

A number of issues are still to be finalised. We have not yet settled every detail about the force, but it is right that I should inform the House about progress so far, in particular about the letter to the UN Secretary-General, and today is the last opportunity for me to bring this before the House before the Christmas recess.

As the Prime Minister emphasised, the situation in Afghanistan remains fragile. The international security assistance force is a vital part of the international community's efforts to assist the Afghan people in this early and difficult period of the reconstruction of their country. A deployment of this kind—involving troops, equipment and logistical support from several nations—is undoubtedly a complex undertaking. We have no illusions about Afghanistan. Deploying forces there inevitably involves an element of risk. It is a challenging, difficult and sometimes dangerous environment.

The force will be charged with assisting the Afghan Interim Authority in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding area. The ultimate responsibility for security will remain with the Interim Authority. Tasks could, however, include liaison with, and providing advice and support to, the Interim Authority as well as the UN on security issues, together with scoping future requirements for help in establishing and training the new Afghan security forces.

The United Kingdom will provide the force commander and his headquarters. The force commander will be Major General John McColl, who is currently serving as the General Officer Commanding, 3(UK) Division, which is based at Bulford. General McColl, as the House will be aware, led last weekend's reconnaissance and liaison team to Kabul. The force headquarters will also be drawn from 3 Division, as will some of its main force and many of its essential support troops. Other elements will be drawn from the headquarters of 16 Air Assault Brigade, and key enablers and units that are maintained at very high readiness, including elements of 40 Commando Royal Marines and the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment.

Indicative planning to date suggests that the United Kingdom's contribution will be in the region of 1,500 troops, although the actual figure will depend on the contributions made by other nations. The force will be an international force. It is too soon to say exactly how many troops it will include, or the nations from which they will come, but it will number 3,000 to 5,000 and will include contributions from the armed forces of several nations.

Sixteen nations were represented at last Friday's conference for potential troop contributors, and 21 nations are represented at today's follow-on conference at the permanent joint headquarters in Northwood. We expect to establish the detailed force composition over the next few days. The United States has indicated that it fully supports the deployment of the force and will provide essential enabling support to deploy and sustain it, which is a vital and considerable task.

The House will wish to know the arrangements for command and control. The force will have a particular mission, distinct from Operation Enduring Freedom. If the United Kingdom's offer to be lead nation is accepted, the United Kingdom will exercise command. As I have said, General McColl will be the force commander. The force will work very closely with the United States, as set out in the letter from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to the United Nations Secretary-General, a copy of which has been placed in the Library of the House.

I should like to place on record our gratitude to the United States, which has led the global coalition's offensive operations against international terrorism with great success. Its generosity in finding the capacity to support the international security assistance force by providing enabling capabilities that no other country can match should be recognised and applauded. I should also like to take the opportunity to record our appreciation to all the nations who have indicated that they are willing to provide troops. The international security assistance force is a reflection of the strong international support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan and will go to Kabul with the backing of the wider international community. Work is under way in New York to draw up a United Nations Security Council resolution to authorise the deployment under chapter VII of the UN Charter. We anticipate that it will be agreed within the next few days.

The House will have a number of proper questions about issues that have yet to be resolved. We have not yet finalised all the details of the force; there are still major questions, both about its exact size and precise composition, including which nations will contribute. We expect to refine the answers to those questions over the coming days. We need to agree with the Afghan authorities the precise tasks that the force will undertake and the modalities of its deployment. Let me be clear: the international community is sending the force to assist the Afghans, not to interfere in their affairs. Discussions with designated members of the Interim Authority, including its Chairman, Defence, Interior and Foreign Ministers, indicate that they welcome our intention to lead the ISAF.

General McColl's reconnaissance and liaison team met leading designated members of the Interim Authority to discuss how the force could best assist the Afghans and how it should relate to the Interim Authority. Further discussions are required and General McColl will be returning to Kabul later this week. Those tasks will need to be encapsulated in a detailed military technical agreement, which we anticipate finalising with the Interim Authority as soon as possible after it is established. Once that agreement and the authorising UN Security Council resolution are in place, the international security assistance force will be able to deploy in full.

Needless to say, British forces deploying to Afghanistan will be properly equipped for the tasks that they will undertake and they will be provided with robust rules of engagement. The United Kingdom has been invited to take on lead nation status because we and others believe that our forces have the capability and experience required to undertake that operation. We have the ability to get a force in and up and running very quickly. It is therefore right that we take on that responsibility when so much depends on the early success of the political process that the force will support.

I am absolutely satisfied that the operation is within our capacity. Our commitment is limited in numbers—up to 1,500 troops—and duration, which will be up to three months. After three months, we will hand over lead nation status to one of our partners. There have already been indications that others may be willing to take this on. General McColl and his immediate team will return to Kabul later this week to continue detailed negotiations with the Afghan authorities on the terms of a detailed military technical agreement. They will also be present for the inauguration of the Interim Authority on 22 December. Troops from 40 Commando Royal Marines will be available to support General McColl and, if required, the Interim Authority. A company of Marines is being sent this week to bolster the existing presence at Bagram.

The deployment of the main elements of the ISAF will be dependent on the outcome of discussions on the military technical agreement and the complexity of the task. Given the circumstances, the main body will not begin to deploy before 28 December at the earliest. It will then be some weeks before a substantial force can be deployed into Afghanistan.

I am very conscious that our decision to lead this force will mean that some of our troops will not be able to spend Christmas with their families. Some of our troops have been at Bagram for some time. Separation from family and friends is never easy, least of all at this time of year. Our troops will, however, deploy to Afghanistan knowing that they will be carrying out a vital and a worthwhile task, contributing to restoring peace and stability to a country that has been torn apart by strife and international terrorism.

In offering to be the lead nation for the ISAF and to deploy British troops to Afghanistan, we are aware that we have taken on significant responsibilities. The war there is being won; we must now secure the peace. The United Kingdom is proud to be able to play an important role in this. I am confident that we will.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the Secretary of State for delivering the statement on the last day of term. I am grateful to him for receiving a copy of it well in advance of his making it.

We applaud the conclusions of the Bonn agreement to establish a broadly based administration in Kabul with international backing. We support the principle that an international security assistance force should be made available to help the new Government settle down. We have previously expressed our concerns about the British element of this deployment. These are concerns that the Prime Minister has acknowledged are perfectly legitimate. However, we fully respect the decision that the Government have now taken, and we will give our troops every support for the job ahead.

I understand that there are many fundamental aspects of the deployment that have yet to be agreed. That underlines the need for clarity on these issues before the Secretary of State can finally agree to go ahead with the deployment. These aspects concern the nature of Afghan consent for the deployment of British troops, the level of US practical support for the British troops on this operation, the objectives of the British deployment, the funding of the deployment and the problems of overstretch.

On consent, British forces have been pursuing a fighting role in Afghanistan. That has made us many enemies as well as friends there. A former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Bramall, warned on Monday that as the realities of non-Muslim forces getting involved in internal domestic power struggles and squabbles sink in, their safety could become increasingly precarious. The new Afghan Defence Minister continues to issue conflicting statements, so what comfort has the Secretary of State been given to reassure him that the British will be welcome guests of all the main factions in Afghanistan?

The rules of engagement must of course remain secret, but will they be agreed with the Afghans before deployment? The Prime Minister indicated that the stabilisation force will be deployed under a chapter VII UN mandate, as the Secretary of State has confirmed. Has that principle been accepted by the Afghans? Do we have armoured vehicles and munitions support to sustain a credible fighting force to carry out a chapter VII deployment?

Secondly, on US support, the Americans have made it clear that they do not feel that they are suited to this role. Is the Secretary of State confident that the US is fully committed to supporting and sustaining, and if necessary to protecting, multinational forces in Afghanistan? Another former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Inge, warned the Government on Monday: My biggest concern is that unless they have troops on the ground they will not concentrate or focus their minds in quite the same say. Who else but the Americans can provide the heavy lift, mobility, air cover, surveillance and the necessary logistical support for any sustained military engagements, and the means of extraction in case of an emergency?

Will the United States have no command role at all? That is a surprise. Is the entire operation to be run from UK permanent joint headquarters? What experience does the PJHQ have in such a large multinational planning role?

Thirdly, on the objectives, Lord Inge remarked: The operational commitment has … 'mission creep' written all over it."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 December 2001; Vol. 630, c. 46–50.] The present Chief of the Defence Staff has described how we could trap our hands in the mangle of Afghanistan". I am grateful for the assurance given by the Secretary of State that the deployment is not intended to extend beyond three months. However, Bosnia was meant to be a short-term deployment, and years later we still have thousands of troops there. Sierra Leone was meant to be "over in a month", according to the then Foreign Secretary. Yesterday we learned in a written answer that British troops will be there beyond two years.

Fourthly, on the funding for the deployment, the most recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, said: The defence programme was underfunded before 11th September. There is now a new commitment."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 December 2001; Vol. 630, c. 44.] Last week, the Chief of the Defence Staff commented starkly: Something will have to give … we simply do not have the resources"— a point unanimously reinforced by the Select Committee report that came out this week.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the £100 million allocated for the cost of Operation Veritas is less than his Department's underspend at the end of last year, which he was forced to surrender to the Treasury? When will he and the Prime Minister succeed in addressing the question of defence spending, which is running at £1 billion a year in real terms below the levels that they inherited five years ago, alongside considerably more deployed and more operational armed forces than they inherited?

On the wider campaign, the Government will continue to have our fullest support for their conduct of the campaign against international terrorism. To that end, I should be grateful if the Secretary of State would confirm that the UK Government remain ready and willing, as he previously indicated, to support the United States in further military action in other countries where terrorism is tolerated or sustained, if that proves necessary and where justified by the evidence. Will the Government continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States for the long haul?

We will give British forces our fullest support in the operation. Our soldiers are the finest in the world and they enjoy our absolute confidence. Knowing the Parachute Regiment, which is based in my constituency, I believe that its members will be itching to get on with the job. We wish them and the Royal Marines every success. We wish a happy Christmas to them and their families, who will be particularly in our thoughts at this time.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's general support, although sometimes he does "but" a little too much in the way he appears to qualify his support. It is a charitable season, so I shall assume the most charitable interpretation of his reservations and try to deal with his observations.

First, on the nature of Afghan consent, that will be dealt with in the military technical agreement. The hon. Gentleman will have read the terms of the Bonn agreement, under which the designated members of the Interim Authority signed up for precisely such a force, so they have already given consent. [Interruption.] I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's points in turn, if he will contain his impatience for a few seconds.

On the level of US support, that is set out clearly in the letter to which I referred, which has been placed in the Library for all right hon. and hon. Members to see. I am sure that a detailed study of that letter will repay his concern.

With regard to overstretch, I made it clear in my statement that the deployment is limited in numbers and time as far as the United Kingdom is concerned. Obviously, any increase in our commitment has an impact on the level of activity of all our armed forces, whether they are deployed or remain in base. Nevertheless, I am confident that we can contain for this limited period the degree of impact on the armed forces to satisfactory levels.

On rules of engagement, the Interim Authority will certainly be consulted, but I want to repeat to the House that the rules will be robust. The situation in Afghanistan is not easy and I shall take personal responsibility for ensuring that the rules of engagement are sufficient to allow our forces to protect themselves as they properly should. The chapter VII United Nations Security Council resolution is agreed by the designated Interim Authority. Equipment is a matter that is being considered today and tomorrow in the force generation conference. Obviously, that is the job of those who are responsible for putting together the package of armed forces and equipment that is necessary for this sort of operation. There has been close consultation with the United States on its command role. Again, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the letter that has been placed in the Library.

In terms of objectives, the hon. Gentleman referred to a long list of possibilities. The one thing that I have learned as a Minister in a number of Departments is that there are always reasons for not doing something. It is always possible to find a long list of risks and problems, but the responsibility of Governments and Ministers is to take decisions to do things. I am confident that it is right that we should take on this particular responsibility.

On funding, I undertake to give the hon. Gentleman a brief about the way in which departmental funding works. I only wish that the Ministry of Defence had a real underspend on its budget. That would certainly make my life and those of my fellow Ministers a great deal easier. I promise that I shall explain to him precisely how the budget of the Ministry of Defence works.

As for the United States, we are certainly willing to support it and to stand shoulder to shoulder with it in its leadership of the international coalition. I have no hesitation in saying that.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance notice of his statement.

The Liberal Democrats have sympathy for yet another commitment that will separate even more British service men and women from their families while the rest of this country enjoys the Christmas and new year holiday, but we understand the importance of post-conflict rebuilding of a civil society in Afghanistan. The promotion of the rule of law is key to that process, as we know from the Balkans experience. The fact that UK forces are especially experienced to undertake this sort of operation makes us proud of them. Indeed, the whole House should be proud of them.

May I ask the Secretary of State a few questions? He gave a time limit of three months. Can he tell the House whether any UK forces are being prepared in advance to replace the forces that are leaving in that three-month period, or can he give an absolute assurance that those forces will be replaced by forces of other nations? What about the many thousands of service men and women in the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy who have now been out in the Arabian sea for some months, including for Operation Saif Sareea? Will they be rolled over or relieved before Christmas?

On force protection, the right hon. Gentleman said that a letter concerning United States air cover had been placed in the Library, but are there any contingency plans for the UK to provide air cover RAF units to go out to Afghanistan to support the force on the ground? Finally, does he agree that the need for the UK to be in the lead again underlines the importance of establishing a proper EU military process and the need to get that up and running so that the burden can be shared. [Laughter.] The Conservatives laugh, but once again they criticise the Government for deploying forces and criticise a means by which they are trying, with support from the Liberal Democrats, to provide a solution.

Rebuilding Afghanistan is a key part of the campaign against terrorism and the debt that the west owes to the much-abused people of that sad country. The Liberal Democrats wish the Government and our forces well in that task.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Let me deal as well as I can with his specific questions. I cannot give him an absolute guarantee about the precise three-month time limit. Such operations do not work in that way. For example, in Macedonia, the majority of forces deployed by the United Kingdom were withdrawn after the 30-day time limit. Several remained on the operation, essentially to hand over their knowledge and expertise about circumstances on the ground. I anticipate a similar handover process for the lead elements in the operation that we are considering.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about forces at sea is similar. Those matters are properly tackled in the chain of command. I assure hon. Members that when commanding officers make their decisions, they take full account of the length of time that our armed forces spend on specific operations.

I specifically referred not to US air cover but to US support. However, the hon. Gentleman will find detailed reference to the support in the letter that was placed in the Library.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the United Kingdom being the lead nation. I do not agree with him about the development of a European Union military capability in the case that we are considering. The United Kingdom has received the request to be the lead nation because it is acknowledged that we have tremendous capability to do the job. We can get people into an operation quickly and organise an operation, especially one that is difficult and involves several elements from several different countries. Expertise, not simply the pursuit of dogma, is important.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

I can give my right hon. Friend some clues about how the defence budget works: he should look over the road and talk to people at the Treasury.

Why is the United States not prepared to do more at this stage than provide general support for the ground forces in Kabul? Will the large military presence of between 3,000 and 5,000 people, working alongside Afghan forces, operate only in Kabul or in any other cities?

Mr. Hoon

I do not accept my right hon. Friend's comments about the United States. For example, the Americans have stated their willingness to organise the airstrip at Bagram for the considerable deployment and resupply of the force. That is an enormous task. The airstrip is not only relatively dangerous because of the unexploded ordnance, but primitive and basic. The Americans' willingness to take on the responsibility of ensuring that a significant number of flights can get on and off the airstrip and that appropriate air traffic control exists, and of supporting people as they get in and out of Afghanistan, is an enormous contribution. When my right hon. Friend gives the matter a few moments thought, I am sure he will realise that.

It is important that my right hon. Friend does not underestimate the significance of United States involvement not only in Afghanistan but in other theatres. It has deployed many troops to tackle what continues to be the international community's primary concern: hunting down the remaining elements of al-Qaeda and ensuring that Afghanistan is never used again as a base for international terrorism. That is a great responsibility, of which the United States bears the lion's share.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

Is the Secretary of State aware that there will be considerable concern that his statement contained no explicit reference to the way air protection cover will be provided for the international force? In his response to the Liberal Democrat spokesman, he appeared to dismiss the possibility. Will he clarify that fundamental point? Will the force be deployed with a clear agreement with the United States that it will provide air protection? Or will the international force be deployed without a formal agreement on air protection? If the latter is the case, the Government are proceeding with doubtful responsibility.

Mr. Hoon

I am a little puzzled by the right hon. Gentleman's emphasis on air protection, because although the ISAF is going into a dangerous environment on the ground—I am the first to concede that—there is no particular threat from the air in Afghanistan of which I am aware. On air protection, the right hon. Gentleman may be referring to a range of different ideas, but the truth is that extraction is the only issue that is particularly relevant. I am confident that we shall be able to secure the force's extraction when and if that becomes necessary. Again, we would not contemplate deploying a force if we were not confident that it could be deployed successfully to Afghanistan and sustain itself there for the time necessary.

Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. If Conservative Members did not know that this day would come, they are very foolish indeed. We are in the most difficult phase of the Afghanistan situation—the reconstruction—and security is everything. Without it, the other good things cannot occur.

My right hon. Friend referred to training. Does he anticipate that, as in Sierra Leone, a major role for the international force will be equipping Afghanistan with its own army, which it does not have, and a police force, which is vital to the future and which it also does not have?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his observations. The annexe to the Bonn agreement refers to the creation of an international security force and the importance of developing Afghanistan's security and armed forces. I anticipate that, in due course, the ISAF could begin to provide the necessary training and development of Afghanistan's armed forces, obviously so that they can protect themselves against further threats.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

This will clearly be a difficult mission. The Secretary of State says that he intends the force to be properly equipped—he used those words—and that discussions as to exactly how that will be achieved are still going on. It is essential that the force is properly equipped, so will he say whether other units of 16 Air Assault Brigade, in particular 7 Regiment Royal Horse Artillery based in Aldershot and 9 Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers, will be deployed? That would be helpful.

On resources, the Secretary of State significantly failed to answer my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) on the £147 million underspend last year. The recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff has said in the other place that the armed services were underfunded before 11 September, but we have committed to a raft of new engagements. Where will the money come from? The Secretary of State cannot keep robbing Peter to pay Paul, and I understand that there is no money left for training. Where will the new money come from to fund all these expeditions?

Mr. Hoon

On the equipment, I repeat what I said earlier: there is a force generation conference under way whose purpose is to assess the various offers from other countries in terms of the capabilities required and to put together a force package to do the job. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's difficulty in the light of my statement—I would have much preferred to make it once the process is complete—but it is difficult to give precise answers to his detailed questions. However, having developed a concept, the forces offered will be applied to it, and I anticipate sufficient offers from sufficient countries to deal with any scenario required.

Equally, depending on those offers, we may need to look elsewhere for other forces that might be deployed to Afghanistan, but that is not in my mind at present. I have been told that there are more than enough offers of people and equipment to satisfy the likely requirements in Afghanistan.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not satisfied by my answer on spending. He should know that, under this Government, the money available to defence has increased significantly. The real defence spending cuts were conducted by Governments supported consistently by him. He consistently entered the Lobby to support a Government who cut defence spending by more than 20 per cent. and he must say why he did that, as he now comes to the House to complain when the defence budget is increasing.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Progress, both military and political, has been remarkable, and we should not allow it to lose momentum or to stall at this stage. My right hon. Friend said that we in the United Kingdom would lose our lead nation status in three months or so. Can he say what will happen then in terms of the commitment of UK forces? He said, for example, that there would be a role for those who would train a local police and military security force. Will we be involved in that from the start? If so, how many UK personnel are likely to be involved in a continuing commitment in Afghanistan?

Mr. Hoon

My right hon. Friend asked a fair question about what would happen at the end of the three months. I said in my statement that I anticipated a handover to another lead nation. There have been a number of indications of interest from our international partners, and I hope that following such a handover the process will continue in a still more benign environment. We envisage developments such as that mentioned by my right hon. Friend—the training and organisation of a future Afghan security force. I trust that my right hon. Friend will forgive me, however, if I say that it is a little early to anticipate those developments, although I would welcome them.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Will the Secretary of State now answer the questions asked by my hon. Friends the Members for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), and by the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George)—the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee—about resourcing? If it is really true, as the Secretary of State claims, that there was no underspend last year, at a time when our forces are so pitifully undermanned, the financial constraints must be even worse than the House thought. Can the right hon. Gentleman not understand why many Conservative Members, while strongly supporting our forces who are undertaking this dangerous and risky operation, are deeply concerned about the rapid worsening of overstretch?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman, too, consistently supported a Government who consistently cut the defence budget. I do not recall his standing up at that time and whining in the way he is today—about a Government who have consistently increased defence expenditure. Unless he can sort out that dilemma, his comments cannot be taken seriously.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Is it not true that consolidating military success in Afghanistan by helping to stabilise the country will improve international security, while engaging in reckless military adventures elsewhere, as advocated by some extreme right wingers on both sides of the Atlantic, could make the world much less safe?

Mr. Hoon

As I said in answer to the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), there are always reasons for not making decisions and there are always reasons for making bad decisions. The exercise of judgment in Government is vital. I accept that different people would put their judgment in different places, but I am confident that the Government get it right.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party fully support the international peacekeeping force.

The Secretary of State said that the rules of engagement would be robust. Can he confirm that the force will undertake Petersberg tasks? Will he also confirm that if an extension of military action beyond the boundaries of Afghanistan were likely, the approval of the international community would be sought before such action was taken?

Mr. Hoon

I do not want to be drawn down either of those routes, because the hon. Gentleman is confusing two separate issues. The tasks for the force will be set out both in chapter VII of the United Nations Security Council resolution and, in a more detailed way, in the military technical agreement reached with the Afghans—based, obviously, on the terms of the Bonn agreement. I do not think either of the hon. Gentleman's points is relevant to what will be essentially a security assistance task in Afghanistan, as defined in that fashion.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

I know that my right hon. Friend will have had advice from previous military chiefs of staff on the dangers of a peacekeeping force getting caught up in offensive action. I very much welcome the fact that the British lead of the peacekeeping force will be for three months. I realise that few nations could provide that lead at this stage.

Is there anything in the military technical agreement between the different factions that will constitute the Afghan Government about how they will build their own security forces—their military forces or their law and order capacity through a police force?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend asks a good question about the security forces that will determine the safety and security of Afghanistan. In all honesty, I cannot give him a proper answer at this stage. The military technical agreement will be signed by the Interim Authority, so it will be signed on behalf of all the various factions that agreed the Bonn agreement.

I recognise that a key question for the future of Afghanistan is whether the various factions are prepared to work together to rebuild their country. Crucially, the future of any Afghan army, security forces or police force must be central to that. That is what the international community and the Afghans must work towards. I am given confidence by the Afghans' willingness to move so quickly towards an agreement at Bonn, and their apparent determination to see that agreement fulfilled in full. That is why I believe that it is right for the United Kingdom and the international community to play their part in this process.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

The Chief of the Defence Staff has said publicly that something will have to give to allow this operation to take place. From which budget will this operation be funded: the Defence budget, the Foreign Office budget or the Government's contingency reserve? If something has to give to allow this operation to take place, what will that be?

Mr. Hoon

The funding for such operations comes from a number of different budgets. That is always the case. The Ministry of Defence will, as always, provide the salaries of those who are deployed, and it recognises that it is funded for that purpose. Other budgets, especially the contingency reserve, are routinely called on to support such operations. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the exact answer to his question that he desires, but it leads me to believe that Conservative Members need to spend some time studying how budgets for Departments operate.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the international force will interface with a community in which the majority of women are deeply traumatised. Is he aware of the advice that the United Nations has given to Governments regarding special gender training of soldiers, which should be given to those who are entering into such post-conflict situations? Can he assure me that such training is being given? The Afghan women with whom I have contact, both in this country and in Afghanistan, welcome the international force and Britain's leadership of it.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her observations, and I shall ensure that her suggestion is acted on.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

Further to the question from the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, could the Secretary of State enlighten us as to the thinking of our American allies? They have declined to put ground troops into the peacekeeping force. Were they led to the inescapable truth that, in a theatre as complex and dangerous as Afghanistan, they can be either peacemaker or protagonist, but not both?

Mr. Hoon

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is wrong about that. There will be United States forces on the ground. It is self-evident that there will need to be a US presence to operate an airstrip, as there is already in a number of operations inside Afghanistan. He is wrong to make that assertion. Given the tremendous contribution that the United States is already making with its offensive operations in and around Afghanistan, which require significant logistic support, he should not suggest that the US is not capable of involvement in the peacekeeping operation as well.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East)

At the risk of being accused of advocating mission creep, may I ask my right hon. Friend to reflect on whether it might be appropriate, in view of the training role that he envisages, to provide UK police and Customs and Excise resources to Afghanistan, so that the interim authority and any new security forces will be properly trained to deal with the drug situation, especially the heroin trade, which originates mostly in Afghanistan?

Mr. Hoon

Again, consistent with an answer I gave earlier, I anticipate that a range of requirements across Government functions will be needed by the interim Administration in Afghanistan. I will certainly ensure that my hon. Friend's suggestions are passed on to the appropriate quarter.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)

I believe that Lord Guthrie said that the Ministry of Defence was underfunded before 11 September. Was he wrong?

Mr. Hoon

I have worked closely with the noble Lord and we have had regular exchanges on the nature of the defence budget. I do not speak for the noble Lord, but I do speak for the Government. In assessing the budget of all Departments it is necessary to take some very difficult decisions sometimes, but this Government have consistently increased the amount spent on defence. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a relatively recent arrival, so I cannot blame him for supporting previous Conservative Governments who cut the defence budget, but I assure him that they did.

Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the provision of an agreed United Nations international security and assistance force going to assist Afghanistan is a remarkable achievement, and one that not so long ago many of us would never have thought possible? Does he also agree that there are no armed forces better able or better trusted to lead it in its first, crucial stages than those of the United Kingdom? Does he further agree that it is contradictory of the official Opposition spokesman to express concerns about overstretch of our armed forces, but also to say that our armed forces should be willing and prepared to follow the US wherever it wants them to go?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend makes several good points, on which I am sure Opposition Members will carefully and maturely reflect. I hope that both sides of the House agree that in the immediate aftermath of the first launch of the military operations, no one would have thought that before Christmas we would be talking about a peace support operation, given the considerable dangers and difficulties involved in the offensive operations. That is a remarkable tribute to the leadership of the US and the support that several nations, including the UK and its armed forces, have been able to give.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

Could the Secretary of State clear up the confusion between his statement, in which he mentioned a three-month deployment, and the letter from the Foreign Secretary to the UN Secretary-General, which has just been placed in the Library, which says that the deployment will end no later than 30 April 2002."? That is four months. Is it three months or four months, and why did he not mention the 30 April date?

Mr. Hoon

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has had time for a close textual analysis of the letter and I am equally delighted that that is the only problem that he has been able to identify. The answer is straightforward and if he had listened carefully to what I said—perhaps he was too busy reading the letter—he would have noticed that I mentioned the difficulty of getting the force into Afghanistan and that the three months will run from the point at which the force is ready and doing its job.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton)

Anything done to ameliorate the Afghan tragedy is to be welcomed and, in that context, the Secretary of State's statement is welcome today. Given the comments made by Sir Michael Boyce, the Chief of the Defence Staff, to the Royal United Services Institute and given the intention of the US Administration to extend the present campaign to other countries in the mid-east and the horn of Africa, does he envisage British forces being further involved in similar situations in countries attacked by the US in pursuance of its anti-terrorist strategy, or does he rule that out?

Mr. Hoon

The US and British Governments have worked together extremely closely during these offensive operations. We have had detailed consultations at every level of Government and of the military, and I anticipate that that will continue. I am sure, therefore, that, in appropriate circumstances, the UK will want to support the US in its continuing operations against international terrorism.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

I welcome the deployment, but I return to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley). Air cover is an important element of these operations, and when I was with the UN operation in Bosnia, the UN—and the IFOR and SFOR follow-up forces—all used it. In his reply, the Secretary of State said that air cover would not be available and that it was merely used for insertion and extraction purposes. Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify that point?

Mr. Hoon

I assure the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) that I did not suggest that air cover was not available or that it was not required. I said that I did not see any immediate threat from the air. There may be a need for air cover, but that will certainly depend on judgments made by the military. The force generation conference will obviously make a military judgment about the requirement for air cover. If air cover is judged to be necessary, the relevant assets will be made available.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon)

I add my appreciation of the work of our armed services and intelligence services. They have performed remarkable work throughout the conflict. They have shown that they well deserve the confidence not just of the British people but of the whole international community.

Is it not the case, as many hon. Members have seen at first hand in Kosovo and the Balkans, that troops may need to be deployed for some time if urgent humanitarian relief is now to be delivered by the non-governmental organisations, the UN, the EU and many other national Governments and international organisations? That relief is needed urgently if Afghanistan is to be set on the road to sustainable development in the longer term.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is right to urge caution about what is a highly dangerous mission. Does he agree that there is no doubt that Britain is well qualified to lead its initial stages? Does he agree that, without such a mission, there is no chance of a better future for the men, women and children of Afghanistan?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks, especially for those in connection with the armed forces, which will be deeply appreciated.

As for humanitarian relief, it is vital that there is a greater degree of security in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. I know that NGOs are working around the clock to deliver aid, especially given the onset of some pretty brutal weather in Afghanistan. We have had a considerable number of offers from other nations in the international community regarding the deployment of troops. They are willing to play their part, but not all will do so in the early stages of the process. I look forward to being able to tell the House in future of the contributions that other nations will be able to make.

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

I am full of admiration for the troops who are about to deploy, but will the Secretary of State say whether 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, and 40 Commando Royal Marines will be deploying at peace establishment or war establishment? In either event, which units have been stripped of manpower to make them deployable?

Mr. Hoon

As the hon. Gentleman probably knows better than I, those are matters for the military command chain. That is why such questions are left to the military leadership. Those officers provide advice to Ministers, who are ultimately responsible and accountable to this House.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)

The Secretary of State said that the mission for this force does not include the pursuit of al-Qaeda. However, it is possible that the pursuit elsewhere in Afghanistan might switch suddenly to the Kabul area. What preparations has the Secretary of State made to deal with that contingency?

Mr. Hoon

That is a fair question, and one that has been the subject of detailed discussions. It has been agreed with the US that there must be clear co-ordination on any deconfliction of operations involving American forces engaged in pursuing al-Qaeda and the peace support operation. I assure the hon. Gentleman, and the House, that absolute priority will be given to the pursuit of the remaining elements of al-Qaeda.