HC Deb 29 October 2001 vol 373 cc621-4
12. Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Which nations have committed their armed forces for combat deployment in fighting the war against terrorism. [8362]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

As well as the United Kingdom, we understand that direct military support is being offered to the United States by countries including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, the Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Romania, Singapore, Spain, Turkey and Ukraine. NATO has also deployed forces in support of the coalition.

Mrs. Browning

While the global alliance to fight terrorism, which was brought about by diplomatic effort before any military deployment in Afghanistan, is very important, does the Secretary of State accept that if this is to be a protracted campaign, it is important also that the United States and the United Kingdom do not become isolated in global opinion? Given the long list of countries that he has just read to the House, will he ensure that, in deployment, this does not simply become an Anglo-American operation; otherwise there is a danger that over a long period the international coalition could fragment?

Mr. Hoon

I agree with the hon. Lady. It is important that those countries should not only commit themselves to providing members of their armed forces but do so when the operational circumstances are right. I can demonstrate why that is so important by reference to the deployment of AWACS aircrews, because some 12 nationalities are represented among those crews, and they are actively participating in the campaign today. It is therefore important that we continue to maintain international solidarity in our response to the appalling events in the United States on 11 September.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

In view of the impressive list of countries which he has just read out, does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a good time to remind some of the commentators from whom we heard over the weekend that a core aim of the international community is to have a Government in Afghanistan who do not allow their territory to be used to train people on suicide missions to fly passenger aircraft into buildings? That is why there is such an impressive list of countries offering military support. It would be helpful if some outside commentators remembered that a core aim is to deal with the establishment and maintenance of training camps in countries such as Afghanistan.

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is right, and indeed one of the military aims that has been achieved is the destruction of a number of terrorist training facilities in Afghanistan. They have been rendered incapable of being used for terrorist purposes, certainly in the near future. That is why it is important that we maintain the unity of the coalition to deal with threats to our security, particularly those arising in Afghanistan.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Does the Secretary of State accept that the only realistic prospect for replacing the Taliban as the Government of Afghanistan is the land victory of the Northern Alliance forces? Would it therefore be appropriate for other nations' combat forces directly to contribute to that objective now?

Mr. Hoon

The contribution of the Northern Alliance land forces is in relation to the continuing need to put pressure on the Taliban regime. That pressure comes, obviously, from the Northern Alliance, but equally from aerial attacks and operations such as those conducted by the United States recently on the ground in and around Kandahar. A range of means is being used to put pressure on the Taliban, and although the Northern Alliance is an important part of that, it is not the only part.

Clive Efford (Eltham)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that aid agencies estimate that about 2.2 million more Afghan people are about to be made homeless as a result of the action that is being taken. What action is he taking to plan for the future and to increase aid to Afghanistan to meet the needs of those refugees? What consideration has been given to asking a country that is not directly involved in the conflict to try to broker an arrangement to deliver additional aid to areas away from the conflict, so that people will receive more aid at this crucial time?

Mr. Hoon

I do not accept that 2.2 million people have lost their homes as a result of any coalition activity. Many people had left their homes long before 11 September, and the refugee problem in Afghanistan has largely been caused by a lack of rainfall for several years. However, the international community has recognised a long-term responsibility to the people of Afghanistan. This country has provided more than £60 million of assistance, which continues to go to refugees in camps in Afghanistan. We continue to recognise our responsibility to ensure that there should not be suffering in that country. I have to say to my hon. Friend that that undertaking would be far easier to uphold if we did not suffer the interference and deliberate disruption of aid supplies by the Taliban regime.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

Given that we are at the forefront of our share of the campaign, will the Secretary of State confirm the role of the Royal Marines? Why was it decided to keep HMS Fearless, not HMS Ocean, on post? Will he confirm that technical or mechanical problems are not related to the return of HMS Ocean to the United Kingdom?

Mr. Hoon

HMS Ocean does not face the mechanical difficulties to which the hon. Gentleman refers. There is a routine programme of maintenance. The decision on which ship should remain in and around the theatre wholly reflected both existing plans and the need to ensure rotation of available equipment and the crews responsible for that equipment. It is necessary to take decisions for the longer term, not simply to decide which ship should remain. Had we chosen to place HMS Ocean rather than HMS Fearless on station, he could have asked the same question the other way round. HMS Ocean will play its part in the campaign in due course.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

As my right hon. Friend knows, there is considerable distaste in the House and outside about the use of cluster bombs in the war. What influence can he exert on the United States to persuade it not to use cluster bombs, given that we in this country fought so hard over the years to get rid of land mines?

Mr. Hoon

Cluster bombs are a weapon that was used in Kosovo and has been used on a limited number of occasions so far in Afghanistan to deal with a specific military threat—armoured vehicles. They are not used against civilian populations and the number of occasions on which they have been used in Afghanistan is, as I said, extremely limited. Cluster bombs are in no way comparable to land mines. They are not defined as land mines in any international agreement and their use is wholly lawful. Unless and until there is a better means of dealing with the threat posed by armoured vehicles, the UK and the US will continue to use them.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

There are service men and women now serving on Operation Veritas who had hoped to be at home this Christmas. The officer commanding B Company, 40 Commando has said: There's been an awful lot of speculation since September 11, some of it jingoistic and possibly a little bit too upbeat. I think it has caused some worry for the families back in the UK. Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to comment on the welfare package that is available to our service men, given that they undertake this mission on our behalf not as part of some clash of civilisations, but to liberate ordinary Muslims from abominable tyranny and to lift the threat of terror from the whole world?

Mr. Hoon

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. I thank him for his thoughtful question, not least because when I was in Oman on Thursday, Friday and Saturday last week, I received a number of complaints from members of the armed forces about speculation in newspapers back here that was affecting them. The telephone calls element of the welfare package appears to have been working quite well because they were clearly concerned about the impact that some of those speculative headlines had had on their families. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise those questions. There are issues relating to the welfare package that we will need to address at the end of the exercise. Conversations with several members of the armed forces caused me to become concerned that—at least initially—the package had not worked as well as it should.

The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of our action to maintain support for the wider Islamic community. Islam is a religion of tolerance, understanding and compassion, and it is important that we share that with members of the Islamic community who are equally committed to dealing with the threat of international terrorism.