HC Deb 29 April 2002 vol 384 cc649-52
1. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

If he will make a statement on the deployment of British troops in Afghanistan. [50940]

10. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

If he will make a statement on the work of Royal Marine Commandos based at Bagram, Afghanistan. [50949]

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

British troops in Afghanistan have been carrying out security assistance and combat tasks. The United Kingdom has led, and made a substantial contribution to, the international security assistance force in Kabul since its inception. Our troops have been widely praised for their work in helping the Interim Administration to maintain security and stability in Kabul as the Afghans begin the rebuilding of their shattered country. The number of British troops committed to ISAF in Kabul is now less than 1,500, compared with 2,100 at its peak.

The deployment to Bagram of a battle group formed around 45 Commando Royal Marines is nearing completion. Its first task, Operation Ptarmigan, achieved all its objectives. The Royal Marines searched a high mountain valley and its caves, where they found evidence of occupation by al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists. That included large quantities of ammunition, which they destroyed, as well as valuable intelligence material, which we are now studying. The operation enabled our forces to gain vital experience of operating in Afghanistan and to test our battle procedures and command and control arrangements.

Kevin Brennan

Can my right hon. Friend comment on reports that the Turkish Government have agreed to take over the leadership of ISAF, and can he tell us when that will happen and whether British troops will remain in ISAF under the leadership of the Turkish Government?

Mr. Hoon

I can confirm that the Turkish Prime Minister's office issued a statement this morning that it had been decided by the Council of Ministers that Turkey would take over command of the international security and assistance force from the United Kingdom for a period of six months. Obviously, I warmly welcome that announcement. Discussions on the date of transfer are continuing. However, as I told the House on 11 April, we may well have to remain as lead nation until June. In any event, our commitment to ISAF will continue and a significant number of British troops will remain in Kabul under Turkish command.

Michael Fabricant

The Secretary of State will be aware that there is growing instability in Afghanistan and that battles are going on between various warlords. He will also be aware of the recent attack on Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, not too far away from the capital of Afghanistan itself. Is the right hon. Gentleman concerned that 45 Commando may become involved in peace operations, trying to separate rival forces? If so, what are the risks posed to the lives of those in 45 Commando?

Mr. Hoon

There are no plans for 45 Commando to become engaged in such tasks. I have set out to the House on more than one occasion the expectation of what 45 Commando will be engaged in. With regard to the security situation outside Kabul, the hon. Gentleman should not be too carried away with the idea that battles are taking place all across Afghanistan. Incidents are certainly occurring from time to time, and it is important that we are not in any way complacent about them, but the Interim Administration are responsible for the security of Afghanistan in general—that is, outside Kabul. That is why we so strongly welcome the successful completion of ISAF's training of the first battalion of the Afghan national guard. That is an important stage in the process of security sector reform in Afghanistan, and one to which we are determined to continue to contribute.

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw)

Does my right hon. Friend share my dismay at the report in last Thursday's Daily Record stating that it had been banned from visiting Afghanistan to report on the work of 45 Commando? An MOD press officer was quoted as saying: We prefer to deal with newspapers which are helpful to the Ministry, and not ones which write bad stories about us. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is intolerable for any newspaper to be barred, and will he make sure that that does not happen again to any newspaper that writes either good or bad stories about the MOD?

Mr. Hoon

I can tell the House that there is simply no truth in that suggestion. The Daily Record has not been banned from any visit to Afghanistan. Indeed, as I understand it, one of its correspondents will join a visit to Afghanistan in due course.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

The Secretary of State was right to warn the House that the operations of 45 Commando might result, tragically, in some casualties. Can he give an assurance today that he is satisfied with the existing medical service? We would not expect him to go into detail about that, but is he satisfied about the medical evacuation of troops in the event of any casualties?

Will he briefly explain what the Government's view would be of any prisoners that we might take? Would we treat them as prisoners of war under the Geneva convention? If we transfer them to America, as the Secretary of State has suggested, who would make that decision, and what would we do with those prisoners whom we did not transfer to America?

Mr. Hoon

It is vital that our forces deployed in Afghanistan have access to the best quality medical facilities. I am confident that our arrangements secure that objective.

Prisoners will be handed over to the Interim Administration in Afghanistan, who are primarily responsible for security in Afghanistan. I am entirely happy that the arrangements that we have agreed with them are appropriate and within international law.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

Key to the success of any operations in the eastern mountains of Afghanistan is the attitude of the Pakistani military. Will the Secretary of State confirm that they are co-operating with operations and are actively involved in them?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Obviously, we recognise that terrorists may try to escape from remote parts of Afghanistan across a difficult border into Pakistan. That is why we are co-operating closely with the authorities in Pakistan, which maintains a substantial number of troops along the border with Afghanistan. Indeed, it has recently had considerable successes in apprehending people fleeing from Afghanistan.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Will the Secretary of State give us his estimate of roughly how long the commitment will last in Afghanistan? We all know that this matter is very difficult, but is it an open-ended commitment? If so, what impact will it have on other spheres in which the British Army is involved?

Mr. Hoon

I have made it clear to the House on previous occasions that the deployment of 45 Commando is anticipated to last about three months. That will clearly depend, however, on the situation on the ground, the circumstances that 45 Commando faces and whether it can bring the operation to an end more quickly. A period of three months is the planning assumption that has been made.

On ISAF, I have previously indicated to the House my anticipation that at the end of the current United Nations Security Council resolution mandate, an extension will be made for a period, especially bearing in mind the Bonn timetable. Although Britain would want to continue to make a substantial contribution to the success of ISAF, today's news that Turkey will assume responsibility as lead nation is extremely welcome and will certainly allow us to reduce our forces.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

We, like all others in the House, remain filled with admiration for the way in which British armed forces are carrying out operations in Afghanistan, and we send them our best wishes. I welcome the news that Turkey has now made a commitment to take over command of ISAF, although I am a little distressed that the Secretary of State still cannot say when it will do so. Following up the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), what exactly will be the level of our future commitment? After Turkey takes over, what will be the total UK troop commitment to Afghanistan, and how long will that commitment now last?

Mr. Hoon

I have already answered the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question. I hope that the House would not expect me to deal with the issue again quite so soon after the hon. Member for Blaby asked the same question. As I have already indicated, I anticipate that there will be a reduction in total numbers once Turkey assumes lead-nation responsibility for ISAF, but, equally, I have said that it is important that the United Kingdom continues to play its part. It would not be sensible at this stage, before final negotiations with Turkey are completed on the precise handover date and the numbers that are required, to give the House a specific indication of a figure that has yet to be renegotiated. Therefore, all I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that it will be rather less than the current figure.

Mr. Jenkin

Does that not rather underline how foolish the Government were to make an initial planning assumption of only three months for the deployment? Does not the present situation also demonstrate that involvement in nation-building is inevitably protracted and makes a heavy call on our limited resources? When will the Government start to plan more effectively? Why leave it all to the last moment? What are they doing to ensure that the additional commitments are fully funded and do not simply contribute to the continued rundown of the rest of the armed forces?

Mr. Hoon

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman sees things in that light. He moves from congratulating us on the deployment of forces and on decisions taken back in the United Kingdom to being extremely critical about the process. He cannot have it both ways; he needs to make up his mind on which approach he will take and decide whether he will support the deployment or criticise it. At the moment, he seems to want the best of both worlds.

On the decision that was taken, it is obviously important—he would encounter the same problem if he were standing where I am—that we take decisions not in the light of some abstract suggestion made at the start of operations, but once those operations are under way and we can make judgments about how they develop and the contribution that the United Kingdom can make. I am absolutely convinced that we have taken the right decisions about the contribution that we can make, that those decisions are properly funded and that there will be no financial difficulty in sustaining the operations. If the hon. Gentleman thought about the issues more carefully, he would agree with me.

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