HC Deb 20 June 2002 vol 387 cc407-21 12.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the contribution that British forces have made to operations in Afghanistan, and the future disposition of our forces there.

Two groups of British forces have been deployed in Afghanistan, with separate but closely complementary aims—security assistance to the Afghan Interim Administration, and offensive operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The United Kingdom has contributed to the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, which we have led since its inception, and through Task Force Jacana we have contributed to Operation Enduring Freedom, aimed at al-Qaeda.

I shall address ISAF first. The House will recall that, from the outset, we planned to reduce our contribution to ISAF once we had transferred its leadership to one of our partners. That has taken longer than we originally anticipated, but we had to get it right: ISAF's success has been crucial to the stability of Kabul and, more widely, to Afghanistan, a strategic aim that is profoundly important to the United Kingdom.

I told the House on 16 May that we were working towards achieving the handover of the command of ISAF by the end of June. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that command of ISAF was formally transferred from General McColl to General Zorlu of the Turkish Army a few hours ago, in a ceremony attended by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence and the Chief of the General Staff.

Let me take this opportunity to record our thanks for the considerable efforts that Turkey has made to ensure a successful handover. The United States has also made a significant contribution to the process, not least by providing strategic airlift to move Turkish troops to Kabul. For our part, we have agreed to leave computer and communications equipment and a fire engine in Afghanistan for use by the new ISAF headquarters. Some British troops will remain with ISAF as well; I will say more about that later.

No one who has been involved—and the British and Turkish staffs have been working closely together for some time now—can doubt the great importance that Turkey attaches to a successful tenure in command. We have every confidence in General Zorlu and his troops as they build on and take forward the excellent work that ISAF has already achieved.

ISAF under General McColl has been a great success. It is no exaggeration to say that the force, while limited geographically to the area of Kabul, has had an impact right across Afghanistan. The emergency Loya Jirga and its local and regional groups would have been impossible without the reassurance, stability and sense of normality that ISAF helped the Afghan Interim Administration bring to Kabul; and without a secure place where representatives of all Afghanistan's people could meet to discuss how they want to govern their country, the gains of the past nine months could have been lost. Members of our armed forces who have been involved with ISAF should feel proud of what they have achieved. They have the thanks of the House, and indeed of the British people.

The emergency Loya Jirga, which concluded this morning, offered the Afghan people their first opportunity in decades to play a decisive role in choosing their Government. That demonstrates the great progress that has been made since the collapse of the Taliban. Less than a year ago, the lives of the Afghan people were blighted by that cruel regime. It is a remarkable tribute to the decisive coalition action against the Taliban, to the Afghan people, and to the Interim Administration under Hamid Karzai that within only six months this large and peaceful assembly, representing all the Afghan people, has met in Kabul.

The Loya Jirga has given the Afghan people the chance to build a future based on mutual respect, human rights and democracy. It is a significant step towards the goal of representative, democratic elections, which are due to be held in 2004.

As for the emergency Loya Jirga itself, I warmly welcome its decision to elect Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan's head of state. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has written on behalf of the Government to congratulate him personally. Hamid Karzai risked his life to play a crucial role in the early stages of rebuilding Afghanistan. He deserves, and gets, our full support.

Through a combination of tact, diplomacy, understanding and firm authority, ISAF has made a real difference on the ground. In the six months that it has been in Kabul, it has mounted 2,185 joint patrols with the Afghan police, increasing security on the streets of Kabul. It has destroyed or disposed of nearly 3 million munitions, including guided weapons, fuses, rockets, submunitions, bombs, shells, small arms ammunition, mortar bombs, grenades and both anti-tank and anti-personnel land mines. Indeed, nearly 80 per cent. of all the munitions destroyed were anti-personnel land mines—on its own, a massive contribution towards the safety of the Afghan people.

ISAF has operated an ambulance service across Kabul throughout the night-time curfew. It has begun the process of reforming Afghanistan's security sector through the training of the 1st Battalion of the Afghan National Guard. It has completed some 200 aid projects in co-operation with the local civil authorities and other agencies, repairing roads, utilities, health, education and administrative services.

All this has made a real improvement to the lives of the people of Kabul. There is still more to do, but Kabul is again a bustling city. The vast majority of the people recognise, value and support ISAF's work. The warm welcome that its patrols receive on the streets is proof enough of that, as I have seen for myself.

This is, of course, not simply a British achievement. ISAF is a truly multinational force. Nineteen other countries answered the call to provide forces. The United States has given invaluable assistance and help. Without the efforts of all those nations, ISAF would not have been the success that it has been, but we should certainly take pride in the particular British contribution to the force. General McColl and the British contingent have made a lasting and favourable impression on the Afghan people. Thanks to the efforts of British service men and women, we now have many friends in Afghanistan, from children on the streets of Kabul to the most senior members of the Afghan Administration.

The House will be pleased to know that the 1st Battalion, the Royal Anglian Regiment will come home once it has completed transferring its responsibilities to the Turkish battle group that is replacing it. Together with many of the British forces committed to ISAF, it will have returned to the United Kingdom by the middle of next month, but that is not the end of our involvement with ISAF. It remains vital to the maintenance of security in Kabul and a stable future for Afghanistan.

The United Kingdom will remain a major contributing nation. In total, our contribution will reduce from about 1,300 to about 400 troops, who will be primarily engineers and logistics support troops—high value specialists, who can bring important expertise that will be of specific use to ISAF.

There is now a degree of optimism in Afghanistan that was unthinkable just a few months ago, and ISAF has played a major role in creating a more secure environment, but although Kabul is a safer place and Afghanistan as a whole is more secure, there is still a terrorist threat. The mountainous and inaccessible regions remain an ideal hiding place for the al-Qaeda and Taliban forces that are working to destroy that new found sense of security. That was why we deployed Task Force Jacana—a 1,700 strong battle group formed around 45 Commando Royal Marines—at the request of the United States.

There is no doubt that al-Qaeda has been dealt a shattering blow by the coalition military action, but elements of al-Qaeda remain. Recent arrests in Morocco and the United States have demonstrated that al-Qaeda retains both the ambition and the capacity to threaten, and take, many lives. It is striving every day to find ways to use that capacity, including in Afghanistan.

The future of Afghanistan now looks brighter than it has for some time. A significant milestone has been passed successfully with the conclusion of the Loya Jirga, but al-Qaeda has not gone away; we know that it has been determined to undermine and derail that rebuilding process. The presence of Royal Marines and others on the ground in eastern Afghanistan has helped to prevent al-Qaeda from achieving that. Our forces have denied ground to al-Qaeda remnants and destroyed terrorist infrastructure. They have been crucial in providing a secure environment for the emergency Loya Jirga to take place.

The four operations conducted by Task Force Jacana—Ptarmigan, Snipe, Condor and, most recently, Buzzard—have involved destroying 28 bunkers and caves; flying more than 1,000 helicopter sorties in the Chinooks of 27 Squadron, in an environment so demanding that it required us to operate at the edge of the aircraft's capabilities; and finding and destroying 45,000 rounds of munitions, from machine gun rounds to 155 mm artillery shells. British troops also recovered two mortar systems and 440 107 mm rocket systems. Every round destroyed helps to contain the terrorist threat and safeguard Afghanistan's future.

Our troops conducted significant humanitarian assistance work in their area of operations, winning the hearts and minds of Afghan people in areas previously dominated by the Taliban and by al-Qaeda. For example, more than nine tonnes of wheat and 1,100 blankets have been distributed to those who need them.

I want to make it absolutely clear to the House that Task Force Jacana has been led in exemplary fashion from the very start. Brigadier Roger Lane has done an outstanding job in leading his troops in four demanding operations through rugged, high-altitude terrain that has been as tough as any that British units have had to tackle in recent memory.

We should bear it in mind that those operations carried, and still carry, real risks, and we should be grateful that we have achieved such success without loss of life. Those who carp about the "lack of action" do so from a position of ignorance about the nature of warfare. That is one thing, but it is quite another to wish that our forces had come under fire, which appears to have been the hope of some armchair commentators in recent weeks.

It would have been quite wrong had I come before the House just over three months ago and not warned of the risks that our forces would face. British troops were, and are, keen to engage the enemy. They want to demonstrate their courage and professionalism—the hallmarks of Britain's armed forces. But the enemy is no fool: he has learned from the harsh defeat he suffered during Operation Anaconda and has avoided further direct contact with our forces

I have previously told the House that the Jacana deployment would last in the order of three months. On the completion of Operation Buzzard, Task Force Jacana will be withdrawn from Afghanistan. The phased drawdown of the force will begin on 4 July and, subject as always to operational demands, should be complete by late next month.

The drawdown will enable us to rest and reconstitute our forces for future contingencies. After consultation with the United States and our other coalition partners about the challenges and likely tasks ahead, I have concluded that there is no need to replace 45 Commando immediately. We will, however, retain stores in Afghanistan to enable an even more rapid deployment than the initial one should that be required.

Taken together, the handover of the ISAF command, the return home of 1st Battalion, the Royal Anglian Regiment and the drawdown of Task Force Jacana means that the number of British forces in the operational theatre—both in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region supporting the operations—should reduce from more than 4,000 today to about 2,000 by late summer. However, we will still maintain a Tomahawk-armed submarine presence, ships, aircraft and elements of other forces in Afghanistan and the region. That will include forces on the ground—elements of 40 Commando will remain at Bagram, where they have played a vital role in helping to secure and protect the airfield. We shall also have logistics support personnel at Bagram, as part of our capacity rapidly to deploy additional forces if the operational situation demands it.

This reduction in numbers does not mean a reduction in our commitment either to Afghanistan or to the campaign against international terrorism. In fact, it is proof of our willingness to keep up military action for as long as it takes. This is not a conventional campaign; it will vary in tempo and location. The United Kingdom has forces with capabilities that few can match. That is why we must use them where they can do the most good.

Crucial to the long-term future of Afghanistan as a stable and secure state will be the reform of its entire security sector—the army, the police and the structures that guide and control them. That is crucial if Afghanistan is to enjoy the stability that will permit economic and social recovery from decades of conflict. It is essential to ensure that Afghanistan does not slip back to being a failed state that provides a safe haven for terrorists. Together with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence is making a significant contribution to the international effort to achieve security sector reform.

The United Kingdom is therefore co-ordinating international counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan. The new Afghan authorities have taken a tough line on drugs, issuing a decree banning the cultivation, processing and trafficking of heroin. We should applaud their resolve in tackling this problem, given the poppy crop's economic significance to people in parts of Afghanistan. Financial assistance has been offered to farmers who voluntarily eradicate their crops. That has had some success, and we estimate that around a third of this year's crop has been destroyed. But Afghan farmers who currently depend on opium production must have an alternative, and legal, livelihood, and the international community needs to provide carefully targeted assistance to that end. It is obviously a long-term problem, not one that can be solved in a single season.

Our forces have been engaged in invaluable work in Afghanistan, and they have carried out their duties with outstanding professionalism. There is more to do in the rebuilding of the country, and we are determined to play our full part in that. That means ensuring that we maintain a sustainable commitment of forces and preserve a balance between contributing to military operations, training and maintaining skills, as well as, importantly, giving our forces the opportunity to rest and to spend time with their families. The changes in our contributions to operations in Afghanistan do that. I am sure that the House will give them its support.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for providing an advance copy earlier today.

The first thing that the House must do is to join him in congratulating Her Majesty's armed forces on a job well done in Afghanistan. General McColl has shown an extraordinarily deft touch in bringing peace and order to the war-torn and devastated city of Kabul and enabling the new Government to establish their authority. Elsewhere, 45 Commando Royal Marines and other elements have been engaged in, and prepared for, battle with al-Qaeda in the most arduous and testing conditions. The terrorists who previously ran a state within the state have been militarily neutralised and have fled. I join the Secretary of State in congratulating Brigadier Lane on his leadership of a difficult and often frustrating operation.

The Secretary of State has not announced a complete withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, but I welcome this substantial reduction, which I understand will extend to the Balkans in due course. We have long argued that the British armed forces are overstretched, by which we mean that UK forces are engaged on more operations, with fewer resources, than was envisaged in the Government's 1998 strategic defence review.

The scaling back of deployments will not just be a chance for soldiers and Royal Marines to spend time with their families. The events of 11 September underlined the fact that the post-cold war world is dangerous and unpredictable. The UK and our allies must keep our armed forces fully prepared for the unexpected and ready to respond at very short notice—perhaps, as the Secretary of State suggested, for further fighting operations in Afghanistan. The UK does not have sufficient forces to sustain long and protracted peacekeeping operations as well, as General McColl confirmed on Radio 4 this morning.

Overstretch means that time on operations comes out of time for training. Does the Secretary of State accept that inadequate training adds risk to military operations? What assurances can he give that there will be fewer cancelled exercises and better supplies of parts, ammunition and equipment, so that the full programme of Army training can he fully restored? Overstretch drives some of our most experienced people to leave the armed forces. The Army is severely under-recruited—36 of the British Army's 45 regiments are now under strength. Will the right hon. Gentleman now put the necessary resources and willpower behind the Army recruiting campaign that has so far, obviously, been lacking?

There is confusion about the Government's targets for Army manpower. Four years ago, Labour promised an extra 3,300 troops for the Army, raising the fully trained target to 108,500. The Adjutant-General confirmed that to the Select Committee on Defence. Why does the Secretary of State not stand by that target? What are we to make of the regular briefings that the Army is to be cut to 95,000? Does he realise that this will be the smallest standing Army that Britain has had since the days of Wellington? How does the Secretary of State square such cuts with the very real threats that the free world now faces and the plans being laid for the next phase in the war against terrorism, to which he referred?

The former NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Wesley Clark said on Radio 4 this morning that the allies will go after states, not shadowy networks of terrorists. He also said: Inside the American and British Governments, the decision has been made to apply the tools in hand to—Saddam Hussein, rather than focusing for a longer, more extended period of time on breaking up the al-Qaeda network itself. Is that the Government's plan? Has such a decision been made?

One final question remains to be resolved that concerns British forces on operations abroad. I ask the Secretary of State for clarification on the Government's commitment to the International Criminal Court. Given that the Government have consistently argued that the court will be no threat to British forces conducting operations abroad, and that he has criticised the United States for its concern to maintain the immunity of its troops, will he comment on the report in the Washington Post this morning that the UK and French Governments have quietly obtained for their troops the very immunity that they would deny to the US? We have consistently warned of the need for such immunity. Has he now accepted our view?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's initial comments about the contribution made by Britain's armed forces. He and I agree on those matters, but we disagree on his allegations of overstretch, which he makes regularly. When he criticises the number of operations in which British forces are engaged, he has never been prepared to say from which operation the Opposition would recommend withdrawal. At one stage, we heard some reservations about an operation in Macedonia, but as that was concluded successfully within 30 days, he will, no doubt, rewrite history on that point. I agree with him that inadequate training is a risk to operations, but that is a matter on which the chiefs of staff should advise Ministers. I assure the House that if the chiefs believe that training is inadequate, they will say so clearly to Ministers, and Ministers will act on that.

On the subject of numbers, the shadow Defence Secretary should pay a little more attention to the facts and a little less to newspapers. He repeats as fact what he reads in the newspapers, and that is a very dangerous tendency that I would advise him against. I shall give him the facts so that he is not tempted to repeat what he said earlier. The review of the Army's future manpower requirement has recently been concluded. It has been published, so perhaps his researchers would do better to research the material issued by the Ministry of Defence than the pages of certain newspapers. The revised manning target is 106,978. The figure for I May 2002 showed that whole Army strength stood at 101,320. Contrary to what he told the House a few moments ago, Army strength has increased by some 1,300 in the past 12 months. That is not by enough or fast enough and we would like recruitment to improve, but it is an increase. His researchers should work a little harder on facts, not suppositions.

As for General Clark's comments, I assure the House that no decision has been taken on military operations in Iraq, other than those military operations that are conducted at great risk to British aircraft and aircrew as they patrol the no-fly zones over that country.

On the ICC, the Government negotiated an effective immunity for British forces. It is contained in the draft treaty and that is why we support it. Obviously, that degree of immunity is available to any country that chooses to sign the treaty.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement on Afghanistan today and for the advance notice that I was given of it through a telephone call from his right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence. May I thank him for the close consultation that he has had with me, the Conservative spokesman and the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence on the deployments in Afghanistan in the past few months?

Almost every Member of the House will welcome the announcement today. I am especially sure that it will be welcomed by the forces themselves, their families and their friends. It is right to pay special tribute to the families of our forces who will be particularly pleased about the news.

Liberal Democrat Members fully supported the ISAF deployment and the deployment of 45 Commando. It is fair to say that some people's fears that engagements with different roles might lead to tension did not come to pass. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that it has been clear for some time that our forces have been operating at the very limit of our commitments. Does he therefore agree that, until the manning problems from which the Army especially suffer are remedied, further operational commitments, whether in the campaign against terrorism or in other cases of national interest, would continue to stretch our forces to the limits?

As always, the forces in Afghanistan have conducted themselves in an exemplary fashion, and have performed the task set them with great vigour and courage. Whatever the criticism that may have been levelled at the mission undertaken by 45 Commando in Afghanistan—that it was over-hyped—it is clear, at least from the Liberal Democrat Benches, that none of that criticism was directed at the brave men and women in Afghanistan or at their commanding officer.

The Secretary of State will agree that the presence of the Marines, as well as the operations that they have undertaken, has served as an active deterrent against the al-Qaeda threat, and has allowed the Loya Jirga to take place successfully and peacefully. Will he tell the House, however, what is the situation along the border with Pakistan, which has often given us cause for concern? Who will patrol that now?

I commend the Royal Anglians, and the Parachute Regiment before them, for the exemplary work that they have done as part of ISAF. Indeed, the success of the Loya Jirga concluded today is a great compliment to them.

Finally, I add a note of caution. Is the Secretary of State concerned that such a visible and large-scale withdrawal of British troops from ISAF, coupled with the withdrawal of the Marines from Bagram, could be considered in some quarters as a sign that we are turning away from the difficult years ahead in Afghanistan, or at least seen as a reduction in the British commitment to the reconstruction of a peaceful future for Afghanistan? If that were the case, does he agree that the considerable success of which he can rightly be proud might be undermined in the future?

Mr. Hoon

I thank the hon. Gentleman especially for his comments about the families of service men and women. They take a considerable amount of trouble on behalf of their husbands, wives and partners, and we recognise the sacrifice that they make, which is often not acknowledged. It is therefore right that the hon. Gentleman should do so.

The hon. Gentleman quotes me entirely accurately in saying that we have been operating at the limits of our commitments. That is something that I have said on previous occasions, which is why I was so determined that there should be a drawdown consistent with the announcement that we made at the time. If he checks what I have said in the past about Task Force Jacana he will see that, within days, we will be reducing numbers entirely consistently with what I outlined to the House. He is right that we need to ensure an active deterrent against al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants, which will continue in border areas, for now at any rate, without the active participation of British Royal Marines. Other forces on both sides of the border will ensure that the passage enjoyed by certain al-Qaeda elements is not as easy as they might have anticipated.

I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that this announcement involves no lessening of our commitment to Afghanistan. We have taken an enormous amount of trouble to support the rebuilding of that country. As I indicated, there will still be more than 2,000 members of Britain's armed forces in and around Afghanistan assisting in the continued rebuilding of the country. It is not simply military forces, however, that are involved in the rebuilding of the country. This operation is conducted right across Government, and in my statement I paid tribute to other Departments that will also be actively engaged in making sure that Afghanistan does not slip back to where it came from.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Can my right hon. Friend make an assessment of how many anti-personnel land mines remain unexploded in Afghanistan as a result of all the wars in that country? Will the clearance continue and, if so, how long will it take? Does he also feel confident that the Turkish force will appreciate the importance of human rights, particularly as far as women are concerned?

Mr. Hoon

I will not even try to guess how many unexploded land mines there might be in Afghanistan. The country has had 20 years of conflict and each and every organisation engaged in the conflict there has sadly laid anti-personnel land mines. That includes forces on both sides in the conflict involving the Soviet Union, which was followed by a particularly nasty and brutal civil war. It is only in recent times that efforts have been made to deal with the problem. Dealing with unexploded land mines has cost several lives recently and, although I acknowledge the risks involved to the people doing that work, I assure my hon. Friend that the efforts to deal with the problem will continue.

On my hon. Friend's point about human rights, the general in charge of ISAF from now on is an experienced officer who has served under previous United Nations commands. He has an extremely good reputation for the way in which he commands his men.

Mr. Michael Portillo (Kensington and Chelsea)

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his having the privilege of being able to make this statement about two successful operations by British forces that did not involve the loss of life. I thank him warmly for making a statement to the House of Commons. I have a feeling that Members of Parliament do not have many uses under this regime, but one thing that we can do is express on behalf of the nation the gratitude and sense of relief at the safety of our forces that we feel as they return. We can also wish them well on behalf of the nation when they go into battle. I therefore ask the Secretary of State to make statements to the House not only when he withdraws forces, but when he announces further deployments, as I feel sure that he will in due course.

May I associate myself strongly with what the Secretary of State said about armchair critics? It is true that our forces have not been involved in headline-grabbing confrontations—thank God. However, the fact that people have been able to operate in peace and security in recent times in a country where there have been 20 years of mayhem and slaughter represents probably the biggest news story to have come out of that country in many years.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He had the privilege of occupying the position that I now occupy and he probably brings much greater understanding to the difficulties that people in this position face. I am grateful for his remarks, and I will ensure that they are passed on to the men and women of our armed forces. They will very much appreciate what he has said.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

If, as the Secretary of State unambiguously assures the House, no decision has been made on Iraq, should the Government not ask General Wesley Clark to withdraw or, at least, clarify the statements that he made on the "Today" programme?

Mr. Hoon

I assure my hon. Friend that no decision has been made about military operations in relation to Iraq other than the decisions that are taken and that are necessary day to day to support our aircraft and aircrew patrolling the no-fly zones in Iraq.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

May I particularly welcome the Secretary of State's remarks about the role of the UK in co-ordinating the international efforts in Afghanistan against the drugs trade? He will know that it is a deadly problem that translates directly from Afghanistan to the streets of our towns and cities. Now that our involvement in Afghanistan is diminishing somewhat, will he use his considerable skills to ensure that this anti-narcotics strategy is pursued in every way with vigour and effectiveness across the British Government?

Mr. Hoon

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his timely observations. We must continue to address the problem. We estimate that 90 per cent. of the heroin sold on the streets of the United Kingdom has its origins in Afghanistan. The trade has a pernicious effect right along the route from Afghanistan to the United Kingdom. The route involves terrorists and criminals and the trade allows many terrorist organisations to purchase their arms. We are absolutely determined to continue the pressure and effort to deal with the origins of the trade in Afghanistan and with the route of heroin back to the United Kingdom.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. It will also be welcomed by the families of service men and women, and those close to them, who will no doubt give them a warm reception when they come home in coming months. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the separation in times of deployment which they have to endure is made infinitely worse by some of the wilder speculation of the armchair commentators, to which a number of hon. Members referred? It has ranged from questioning whether there has been a job for the battle group to do to speculation on whether they have been in wild danger.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating my local evening paper, the Evening Herald, which has given consistent, strong, positive and informed coverage of what has been happening? Does he agree that James Garnett, the defence correspondent, in quoting Captain—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Perhaps the hon. Lady could show the article to the Secretary of State afterwards.

Linda Gilroy

I certainly will and I would have great pleasure in showing it to any other hon. Member.

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend made her point more effectively than I could.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

In warmly endorsing all the points made by the Secretary of State and welcoming with tremendous pleasure the great success of our troops in Afghanistan, may I associate myself wholly with the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo)?

Does the Secretary of State agree that the unique experience that British soldiers bring to such operations, much of it learned on the streets of Belfast over the past 27 years where they served with such distinction, and the calm professionalism with which they deal with extremely dangerous and difficult situations enables our soldiers to win friends wherever they go? No one should be deluded about the dangers that our soldiers have faced in Afghanistan. They have dealt with them magnificently.

Will the Secretary of State assure me that the lessons, in particular those learned by the Commandos from operating in difficult conditions at altitude and at a considerable tempo, will be disseminated throughout the wider Army so that other regiments of the line can be deployed on major operations? He should not be deluded about the tremendous desire of regiments to participate in such operations and the increasing resentment that is felt because they are not called forward. The lessons need to be well learned so that we enable other regiments to take over the mantle that has been so brilliantly borne not only by the Parachute Brigade, but by the Commandos.

Mr. Hoon

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments which are treated seriously in the Ministry of Defence, not least because of his considerable experience in that Department. There is always a challenge for any Minister in my position, as he knows. As a result of our involvement in Northern Ireland over a long period, our armed forces have the qualities, experience and commitment needed to conduct operations in Afghanistan and the Balkans, where they still serve.

Although we have that experience, the challenge is to get others to develop it too. The United Kingdom simply cannot commit its forces wherever those requirements arise. The transfer of the leadership role to Turkey means that another country will develop that expertise, which I certainly welcome. There will also be a process of lessons learned, as there always is from such deployments, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I assure him that those lessons will be disseminated across the armed forces. The experience has been unique in recent times and we need to learn from it.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to 45 Commando Royal Marines for its involvement in Afghanistan? Does my right hon. Friend recognise that there is now something of a military void there, because if 45 Commando was necessary to act as a deterrent, to root out al-Qaeda and to chase it over the border, as it undoubtedly has done, there is now a problem in making sure that al-Qaeda does not return to Afghanistan and begin to disrupt the peace process established by the council in Kabul this week? Will he give the House further details about how the border is to be patrolled and al-Qaeda kept out?

Mr. Hoon

I do not accept my hon. Friend's observation about there being a military void. In response to an earlier question I indicated that there will be other forces on both sides of the border. Pakistani forces will be present in some numbers on their side, together with coalition forces, still led by the United States but involving new countries and those that are currently in the process of "rouling" their forces in order that they can continue their commitment—so there will be a significant coalition presence in those difficult border areas.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

I warmly welcome the news that 45 Commando is shortly to return home, which will be a great relief to the families back in Arbroath. I assure the Secretary of State that, whatever the armchair commentators may think, the families of the troops and the whole community in Arbroath are extremely relieved that 45 Commando has carried out its important work without sustaining any casualties.

The Secretary of State mentioned the border areas and the continuing threat from al-Qaeda. Given that he has also said that ISAF is basically confined to Kabul, can he tell us what assessment he has made of the Interim Administration's ability to provide internal security in other parts of Afghanistan to prevent the return of al-Qaeda and the Taliban?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman asks a fair question that needs addressing by the Interim Administration. The conclusion of the emergency Loya Jirga and the allocation of portfolios and responsibilities to what are, in effect, Ministers, means that No. 1 on their agenda of responsibility is the establishment of security throughout Afghanistan. We are certainly able to play a part by ensuring that they have the appropriate advice and assistance to develop their own security, but it is the people of Afghanistan and their Government who are ultimately responsible for that.

The reconstruction of an Afghan army, which I referred to near the end of my statement, is the key to that, and we shall certainly continue our support for its training efforts. That army is vital if Afghanistan is to control its own territory.

Hugh Bayley (City of York)

Like other Members, I should like to express my congratulations to all our armed forces and, in particular, to the Royal Anglian Regiment, whose cap badge I had the great honour to wear for three years as a cadet.

The best defences against a resurgence of al-Qaeda or Taliban influence are peace and security, particularly food security. To what extent has the security brought to Afghanistan by our forces allowed the replanting of food crops, rather than drug crops, to help to ensure that next winter there will be fewer food shortages than there were last winter?

Mr. Hoon

I had not suspected my hon. Friend of military involvement, and I am delighted to hear of his substantial connection.

On the replanting of food crops, the signs are encouraging. There is food on the streets. Clearly, some of it has been imported—I suspect from Pakistan—but it is being increasingly made available locally.

Food security is a challenge. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) referred to the need to persuade farmers away from the lucrative cash crop of poppies towards something more substantive as far as the people of Afghanistan are concerned. Although in this first year we have had some success in the destruction of the crop, in truth we need to ensure that a system is in place to encourage farmers to grow crops for food rather than for destruction.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

I associate myself entirely with the Secretary of State's remarks about our forces in Afghanistan. However, he is aware that although the Pakistani army has had access to the border areas for some time, it has only recently gained unrestricted access to Waziristan. How confident is he that the remnants of al-Qaeda have not regrouped in that area, and what threat does he think they pose?

Mr. Hoon

The remnants of al-Qaeda certainly continue to pose a threat, and there is some information about their efforts to regroup. That is why, as I said in response to an earlier question, it is vital that there are continuing coalition efforts to make it difficult to cross what is nevertheless an extremely inaccessible border area. Those efforts will continue, as I stated, on both sides of the border.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

I join the tributes to our armed forces and the exemplary way in which they have conducted themselves in their mission. I also pay tribute to the organisations within the Ministry of Defence that are less visible, such as the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, which has helped to keep the Chinooks flying throughout the mission. We sometimes overlook those organisations.

I endorse the comments of the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) regarding the armchair critics who, to my disbelief, somehow see the mission as a failure because of the absence of bloodshed and killing. That is outrageous, and we should put that on the record.

Finally, I am glad to see a Muslim force taking over from the British, but those troops do not have the same experience as our forces have had in peacekeeping and policing human rights. Will we continue to play a role to support them in their new mission?

Mr. Hoon

As I made clear in my statement, we will continue to play a role. We will supply vital specialist forces to ISAF. It is important that the existing contributors do so and give Turkey the support that it needs. I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to an aspect that is often overlooked in the House—the enormous contribution that civilians make to our defence effort. That is not given proper regard, alongside the tributes that are rightly paid to our armed forces. Some 100,000 civil servants work for the Ministry of Defence. In my view, the MOD is the most joined-up Government Department, integrating people from the military and the civil service, and it is right that they should all get our praise and appreciation for the successful conduct of operations such as that in Afghanistan.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil)

I, too, associate myself with the comments of other hon. Members and congratulate all the armed services that have served in Afghanistan over the past few months. I remind the Secretary of State of the answer that he gave me in this place on 20 March, when I asked him how long the deployment would continue. His words were: The deployment will be for as long as it takes to deal with the continuing threats."—[Official Report, 20 March 2002; Vol. 382. c. 337.] Can we really say that we have dealt with the continuing threats, and is there not a risk that as our troops leave the country, the Taliban and al-Qaeda will come back in?

Mr. Hoon

It is important that the hon. Gentleman recognises that our contribution was part of a coalition—an international effort, which continues, as I made clear in answer to a number of questions. There are more forces than the Royal Marines, well though they have served in those areas. As I said, should a requirement arise for British forces to return to that part of the world, we have made contingency plans, including leaving substantial stores available to allow us to return at even shorter notice than we were given on a previous occasion.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon)

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his statement and welcome what he told the House about the handover of the command of ISAF, which represents an important staging-post in the stabilisation of the military as well as the political situation in Afghanistan. Does he agree that one of the lessons of recent British involvement in post-conflict situations, such as Kosovo, is that British forces can play an important role not just in maintaining security, but in helping to rebuild basic infrastructures, such as the water supply, transport links and the provision of electricity to schools and hospitals? Will he confirm that some British troops will remain in Afghanistan, both for the immediate future, as he said, and beyond the summer, in order to help with such essential tasks?

Mr. Hoon

As I indicated earlier, the task ahead of us is not simply a military one. British forces have made a significant contribution in assisting in the resolution of some of the military problems that Afghanistan faces as well as the reconstruction of an army. Throughout all departments, there will be a necessary effort to rebuild the infrastructure of Afghanistan. There cannot be real peace and security in that country until that infrastructure is properly available to its people.

Mr. Jenkin

I should like to press the Secretary of State very briefly about General Wesley Clark, as he has so far not been clear about the matter, despite my giving his office notice that I would raise it.

General Clark did not say that a decision had been made about military operations, although that is the question that the Secretary of State keeps answering. He said that the decision has been made to go after states, not shadowy networks of terrorists". Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify whether, if that is the case, we will be dealing with states rather than terrorist networks in the war against terrorism?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman draws a distinction without real meaning. In Afghanistan, for example, after an appropriate notice period elapsed and the Taliban regime failed to deliver up al-Qaeda as they should have done, the state was under notice that we would take military action, which is precisely what happened. That has always been the position of the international community. Any state that harbours terrorists and gives them the sort of support that the Taliban regime gave to al-Qaeda is certainly a state against which we will consider taking action.