HC Deb 20 March 2002 vol 382 cc328-73 4.52 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

Leave having been given on Tuesday 19 March under Standing Order No. 24.

Our calling of this debate on the war in Afghanistan should not be allowed to cast any doubt on our continuing support for the Government in the war against terrorism. We applauded the Prime Minister's instant and unequivocal support for the United States after 11 September. More recently, his very clear statements about the need to deal with Iraq demonstrate that he remains shoulder to shoulder with the United States. The Prime Minister will continue to have our support while he continues to do the right thing.

In the statement by the Secretary of State for Defence on Monday, the Government announced a very significant escalation of our commitment to combat operations in Afghanistan. Let there be no doubt that we support the principle of that decision; but it was wrong for the Government to make such an announcement without anticipating the need for a proper debate on the subject. I asked the Government for a debate and they could have avoided the need for me to invoke Standing Order No. 24, but Ministers ignored our polite requests.

Yesterday was an important day for Parliament. Mr. Speaker made it clear that that situation was unacceptable to the House of Commons, and his decision to accept our request for a debate clearly had support in all parts of the House. Please will you, Madam Deputy Speaker, pass those remarks and our thanks to him?

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston)

May I ask whether the hon. Gentleman's judgment could be called into question? There was an Opposition-day debate yesterday, which was used to discuss the Chinook helicopter crash. This matter could have been raised yesterday, instead of using this procedure to raise it here today.

Mr. Jenkin

First, I do not think that this is going to be an occasion to make party political comments. [Interruption.] I say to the Secretary of State for Defence that I was making a point on behalf of the House of Commons, not my party. Secondly, I think that the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) will find that quite a number of his right hon. and hon. Friends are grateful that this debate is taking place.

45 Commando are trained in high-altitude mountain warfare, and it is in mountain warfare that they are now to engage. They are trained for close-quarters combat, for flexible, autonomous and lightly armed operations beyond the front line, with the minimum of logistical support. The United States made the request because, undoubtedly, they are some of the finest troops that anyone will find on this earth. They are ideally fitted to the task, which is to defeat our enemies—those who threaten our people in our country and the peoples of our friends and allies. That is why we have our armed forces: to protect our people.

The men of 45 Commando Royal Marines understand the dangers, but they will relish the challenges ahead, provided they have a clear mission, under a clear chain of communication and command, access to tactical lift and close air support when required, and the best equipment.

The House is entitled to ask Ministers about the reasons for their decision and for assurances. In the spirit of genuine inquiry, I invite the Secretary of State to use this occasion to build confidence in this deployment and in the Government's decision.

First, can the Secretary of State tell the House exactly when the Government first received indication of the request? I believe that it may have some bearing on the short notice of his statement.

Secondly, on the mission, the objective must be to assist United States armed forces to search out and defeat the remaining elements of largely non-Afghan al-Qaeda terrorists. Once that job is done, 45 Commando should come home. Can we be sure that that is indeed their mission? Can the Secretary of State clarify exactly who is still resisting in the mountains of Shah-i-Kot? Do we have enough intelligence to assess their number, their capabilities and their determination, and to develop a clear understanding of how they operate? What lessons have we learned from Tora Bora and Operation Anaconda? How will we improve the effectiveness of co-operation with indigenous Afghan forces, and what measures will be taken to prevent al-Qaeda from simply running away, as they have in the past?

The CIA informed the Senate armed services committee yesterday that coalition forces will face increased danger of attack from small pockets of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, who remain hidden in the mountains in what was described as "classic insurgency format". They will use very small groups of fighters to attack and perhaps to pin down much larger coalition formations. Can the Secretary of State explain how we will avoid being bogged down in such fighting, so that we can press ahead to the main objective and a swift conclusion?

I would be grateful if the Secretary of State explained what he meant when he said on BBC Radio 4 yesterday: It is an open-ended commitment to the extent that we have a job to do to deal with the remaining elements of al-Qaeda and Taliban. He cannot seriously be saying, and I do not for a moment think that he is, that he has no idea how long the operation will take. However, the House should be aware that the Canadians are already extending their six-month commitment to these operations.

There is also the question of force rotation. How long is it intended that 45 Commando remain in combat before being relieved? With each commando of 3 Commando Brigade being short of one company—that is, short of 100 men each out of some 900—that will create manning challenges across the whole corps. Can the Secretary of State say something about how that will be addressed?

Thirdly, the chain of command should be clear. I understand that 45 Commando and 3 Commando brigade headquarters, which will be set up at Bagram airport, will be fully integrated into the US operational command of Operation Enduring Freedom. That is under the field command of the US General, Major-General Hagenbeck, who commands the US 10th Mountain Division. Why have we been asked to provide a brigade headquarters at all, as it is unnecessary for the deployment of this one battle group? Are we keeping an option open to deploy further British troops to expand the UK commitment to Enduring Freedom, or will Brigadier Lane take command of some of the US elements already in the field?

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

On that point, if a brigade headquarters is effectively sitting on top of commando headquarters, it will be a top-heavy structure that will get in the way of the operational deployment of the commando itself.

Mr. Jenkin

I hear my hon. Friend's concern and hope that the Secretary of State will deal with that point.

My understanding is that the United States would not have made its request unless it was confident that we already shared a joint concept of operations and that Brigadier Lane already had a relationship and operational understanding with those with whom he will be working. The Royal Marines should be more than happy to work alongside 10th Mountain Division's second battalion or US 101st Airborne Division. Standard NATO operating procedures will underpin their effective co-operation.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many troops of all nationalities this formation will put in the front line of operations? The UK will have some 900 troops, plus some unspecified minor elements in the front line. The United States has only 2,000 troops in this theatre, as against our 1,700. How many US troops will be held forward for front-line operations? Might the British force comprise as much as 30, 40 or even 50 per cent. of the front-line fighting capability?

Fourthly, Lord Inge, former Chief of the Defence Staff, raised an important issue in the other place on Monday—the lack of British dedicated air power, known as close air support. The Americans already have carrier-based F-14s and F-18s and land-based F-15s and A-10 ground attack aircraft alongside the Apache attack helicopters and heavy bombers based in Diego Garcia. Have we considered offering to deploy our own dedicated close air support? The Italians are flying off a carrier in theatre and the French have deployed Mirage 2000D jets based in Kyrgyzstan and Super Etandards from the carrier Charles de Gaulle in the Indian ocean.

Sadly, too many British ground-attack Jaguars are either committed to other operations or laid up waiting for new engines, other spares or pilots. If we have nothing else to deploy, has the Secretary of State been given the necessary assurances by the United States about the availability of close air support for British forces as and when required?

Will our Royal Marines on the ground be able to communicate directly with US aircraft, which is vital for quick response and to minimise the risk of friendly-fire self-inflicted casualties? Frankly, only dedicated air support to a particular operation will do.

That leads to the wider question of communications. What systems will 45 Commando be using? Will they be secure, and will they be fully interoperable at all tactical levels with the Americans and any other nation's forces in theatre?

I am sure that the House can have every confidence that a suitable welfare package will be in place for communication with families back home and that they will have the best medical support available. If we are to rely on US field hospital support, will British medical personnel be available to deal with casualties?

I shall now move on to the other British military operation in Afghanistan that is part of the war against terrorism—the international security assistance force, or ISAF, under UK command in Kabul. That, too, was originally intended to be a swift and decisive deployment, but has proved more protracted than the Government originally anticipated. There needs to be a clear understanding that ISAF is completely separate from combat operations elsewhere. We are concerned about mission creep, the open-ended commitment to our leadership of ISAF and the size of our contribution to it.

The Conservative party is not always content with the way in which the Government choose to use British armed forces. We do not always agree with the way that our limited and over-extended armed forces are spread across the globe on so many lower-level peacekeeping tasks that are more suited to a gendarmerie than a fighting army. I recall the words of a soldier of 2 Para, who was reported in the press as saying that Kabul is great experience but not what we are trained for".

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

Will the hon. Gentleman give one example of a mission from which we should withdraw?

Mr. Jenkin

If I may say so, that is a tiresome and cheap point. I do not begin to assume that it is easy to withdraw from such operations. It might be fairer to ask which original deployments we would not have made. [Interruption.] No, that is right. We have made our views on that clear. I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that short deployments are justified from time to time, but all too often under him, and his predecessor, those have become open-ended commitments, putting further pressure on our already stretched armed forces. We should not devalue the gold standard of our armed forces in this way.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)


Mr. Jenkin

I will press on because many people want to speak.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I ask a tiresome question? Does the Conservative party have any qualms about supporting what is both a military action and a peacekeeping role? Can one do the same thing in the same country at the same time?

Mr. Jenkin

That is a question that I have raised from the Dispatch Box before and I note that it has also been raised by the leader of one of the minority parties. I do not believe that the Government have ever given a satisfactory answer. [HoN. MEMBERS: "You answer the question."] Well, the answer is that if everything goes well and there are no unforeseen eventualities, there might not be any difficulties. However, as soon as something unexpected occurs, such difficulties might be created. It is unsound military doctrine to have two completely separate types of operation in the same theatre under split chains of command with split objectives. It invites another uncertainty into the picture, and we remain concerned about that.

What exactly is the goal that we are trying to achieve in Kabul, and when do we think that it will be achieved? How did we ever believe that it could be achieved under a United Nations mandate of just six months? Why did the Government give such fulsome assurances that we would get away with only three months' commitment from our troops? What has been the outcome of discussions about the future leadership of ISAF? The Government led us to believe that Turkey had made a firm offer to take over. The Secretary of State said: We have received an offer from Turkey, which would be willing to take over at the end of the three-month period".—[Official Report, 14 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 5.] On Monday, we expected that to be confirmed by the Turkish Prime Minister. An announcement has yet to be made.

I also asked on Monday about the financial contribution that Britain is being asked to make to support Turkey's leadership. I understand that Turkey is now demanding $300 million for a six-month operation, which is likely to be funded by the United States and the United Kingdom alone. The Turkish Defence Minister is in London today. Will the Secretary of State give us an update on the situation? What provision has been made, if any, for the eventuality that Turkey declines to take over ISAF? I dare say that the Turkish commanders are asking the same questions about the long-term prospects of ISAF.

I regret to inform the House that many of the fears that we expressed when the Government announced ISAF are becoming a reality. It looks as though our troop commitment will become longer; it will be impossible substantially to reduce the numbers that we have committed and no other nation is willing or able yet to make a commitment to take over ISAF's leadership. Now Mr. Brahimi of the United Nations has called for an extension of ISAF's mandate, which can only compound the difficulties facing the Government. Of course, there remains the underlying issue of two operations taking place in the same theatre, which the Father of the House raised a moment ago.

I want to keep my remarks as short as possible. This debate was vital for the House of Commons to be able to do its job of scrutinising the Government's decision, but it is also an opportunity for hon. Members on both sides of the House to send a message of support to all those in the British armed forces who have been called upon to fight for our security, our values and our beliefs. I regret that the Foreign Secretary—or indeed the Prime Minister—is not in his place, but I am sure that the House will join me in wishing our forces in the field the very best of luck and every success in the weeks and months ahead.

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

The House already knows a great deal about the deployment of British troops to Afghanistan—I went through much of the detail during my statement on Monday. I do not intend to repeat that detail, but I am delighted to be able to take this opportunity to answer the various questions that have been asked and to clear up a number of misconceptions.

Let me begin by making three points to set the context for the rest of what I will say. It is essential that, in discussing the detail of the deployments, we do not lose sight of the bigger picture. First, we are right to act in Afghanistan. The terrorist attacks in the United States last September were only possible because Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda had been able to draw on the support and shelter offered by the Taliban regime. If we had not responded, there was no doubt that bin Laden and his accomplices would have carried out further attacks—perhaps, by now, even in the United Kingdom.

We were right, therefore, to act in self defence under article 51 of the UN charter. We were right to act to prevent Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda from posing a continuing terrorist threat, and we were right to act to break the links between Afghanistan and international terrorism and to try to reintegrate Afghanistan as a responsible member of the international community to ensure that those links could never be established again.

Secondly, the action that the international community has taken has been remarkably successful. As I said on Monday, Afghanistan is now a very different country. The decision to deploy considerable military force against the terrorists and their supporters has been vindicated. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network have been dealt a heavy blow. The Taliban regime, whose support was so important for al-Qaeda, is no more. The decision to deploy the international security assistance force to Kabul to help the Afghan Interim Authority to maintain security in the capital has also been vindicated.

Afghanistan is beginning to return to something like normality. Given its recent history, perhaps that is hard to believe, but I saw that change for myself when I visited Kabul some weeks ago. There were market stalls full of food, people out on the street and normal life was slowly returning.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Notwithstanding what the Secretary of State has just said, surely the seriousness of the deployment shows that the conflict in Afghanistan is very far from over, despite what the Prime Minister said a number of weeks ago. Does that not underline the danger of the foolish talk of extending spheres of conflict to other countries before the situation in Afghanistan is fully stabilised? Is it correct, as press reports suggest, that the German and Russian Governments believe that any offensive military action on Iraq would require a new and specific UN Security Council resolution? What is the Government's attitude to that position?

Mr. Hoon

I had the privilege of meeting the Russian Foreign Minister this morning and the subject of Iraq was not raised or discussed. The hon. Gentleman and journalists seem to be raising the prospect of military action, although the Government have, in fact, repeatedly said that the question of Iraq has not even been decided and, certainly, that the prospect of any military action has not been resolved.

Several hon. Members


Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. I remind all hon. Members that this Adjournment debate is about Afghanistan, not Iraq.

Mr. Hoon


Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hoon

I will give way on the subject of Afghanistan.

Mr. Hogg

As one who supports the deployment of British troops to Afghanistan, but one who also wants to reinforce parliamentary authority, may I say to the right hon. Gentleman that it would he right for the Government to come to the House and ask for an express vote authorising that deployment? Will he be so good as to say why he is not seeking the express authority of the House?

Mr. Hoon

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has much longer experience of this House than I. He has supported Governments who have deployed forces and has never raised that question previously. He has sought to do so only when a Labour Government have taken responsibility for such decisions. He therefore needs to ask himself why he makes that point today when he never made it to a Government whom he supported over a long period. With his experience of the House, he knows that there is no automatic need for a vote. Why, then, should we take seriously such a question today?

Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough)

What forces does the Secretary of State have available to reinforce those whom he is rightly deploying in Afghanistan? What forces does he have available to reinforce those in other theatres while we are deploying in Afghanistan? I repeat that I fully support the moves that he and his Government are making at the moment.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his question. I assure him and, indeed, the House that we have a sufficient number of forces to take on any military actions that might be necessary in the short term, notwithstanding the deployment of 45 Commando—not least because it has been held in readiness for precisely this kind of operation for some time.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

I also entirely support this deployment, but will the right hon. Gentleman clarify the answer that he gave to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Gamier)? Given the specific and inevitably dangerous and time-limited nature of the deployment, what forces has he further stood up to replace the 45 Commando battle group in the event of the commitment being required to continue?

Mr. Hoon

As the hon. Gentleman knows from his experience in the Ministry of Defence, there is a process whereby forces who are deployed are replaced. That is part of the normal process of plotting the commitment of Britain's armed forces over a long period. He also knows—he might need to assist some of his Front Benchers on this question—that the issue is the nature of any further operations that arise. As he well knows, if there were an immediate threat to the territory of the United Kingdom, for example, then a great number of deployments would have to be effected and a great number of forces returned to the UK to deal with that threat. I assume that he is not talking about that kind of operation. Therefore, the normal arrangements for the rotation of our forces would proceed as planned.

Mr. Savidge

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hoon

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I need to make a little more progress.

Another context in which I make my remarks is that of British forces playing a vital role in the success of the situation in Afghanistan. I shall not run through in detail once again the contribution that British forces have made, but it has been very considerable. British forces have a reputation right around the world for their skill and professionalism. Time and again, they have made a massive contribution to bringing stability to the world's trouble spots. Afghanistan is the latest example of that. We take immense pride in all that our forces do and in the credit that they bring to the United Kingdom. Let me take this opportunity to note our appreciation for the widespread support in the House for the work that British forces have done in Afghanistan and for the work that they will continue to do. That support means a great deal to our forces and in particular to their families.

Mr. Savidge

Specifically on the subject of this deployment, does my right hon. Friend recognise that, although many of us would support it, we should still feel, for many reasons such as overstretch or the risk of distracting ourselves from the main campaign against terror relating to the events of 11 September, even more wary of getting involved in war in Iraq?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have already said that this Adjournment debate is about Afghanistan.

Mr. Hoon

I turn now to the more detailed issues and questions that have been raised. I shall deal first with the international security assistance force. As the House is aware, the United Kingdom agreed to take on the leadership of this force from its inception for a limited period. We took on this role for a number of reasons. It was a job that had to he done, and done well, if the Bonn agreement was to have the best possible chance of success.

The United Kingdom was particularly well placed to do that. Our armed forces had the right capabilities and experience in expeditionary operations and rapid deployments. We knew that we could provide effective command structures and enablers to get a force in and up and running in the time scale required. We were right to take on that responsibility.

The fact that we have been leading the security force is reflected in the number of British troops that have been deployed to Kabul—up to 1,800 personnel, along with another 300 or so to repair Kabul international airport. Of course, the actual size of our contribution fluctuates from day to day. The sort of capabilities that we need change over time, and we are also limited, to a certain extent, by the capacity of the local airstrips.

We made it clear that we would hand over our leadership of ISAF after three months. We always planned to transfer the responsibility by the end of April. As I said in the House in January, and again two days ago, Turkey has indicated an interest in taking over as lead nation of ISAF. We are in detailed discussions about that with Turkey. Good progress was made when a joint UK/US team of officials and military officers visited Ankara last week. We are making more progress in further military technical discussions with Turkey this week.

That such negotiations take time should surprise no one. What is at issue is the transfer of the leadership of a large and complicated multinational force that has a demanding task to fulfil. Of course, Turkey wants to get it right, to make sure that it has the right structures, and, where necessary, the right support, to ensure that ISAF is as successful up to June as it has been so far.

Turkey will need continuing contributions of troops from other nations. Certainly the United Kingdom will continue to have troops in ISAF after we have handed over the lead. We have promised Turkey that that will be the case. Other nations have done so as well. That does not change our determination to draw down the number of British troops deployed as part of ISAF at that point. As I have made clear on a number of occasions, we are looking to make a significant reduction in the number of British troops, but not to withdraw them completely.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)

On 19 December I asked the Prime Minister if he could tell us the maximum amount of time that our troops would remain in Afghanistan. In the course of his answer, he said: I know that there has been some speculation that we would be sending thousands upon thousands of troops—we are not—or that they would be there for a very long time—they will not be."—[Official Report, 19 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 287.] Has that changed?

Mr. Hoon

No, that has not changed. The position is precisely as the Prime Minister set out and as I have set out. We are seeking to engage in a process of rebuilding Afghanistan—ISAF is an important part of that process—while at the same time ensuring that Afghanistan is secure against any continuing threat from al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and that the wider international community is similarly secure.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Given the fact that when Russia had its troops in Afghanistan, it got a bloody nose and got bogged down, particularly in the mountains, what is the difference now between the two conflicts?

Mr. Hoon

That is one of the things that I did discuss this morning with the Russian Foreign Minister. [Interruption.] I am amazed that the Opposition find that remarkable. Surely it is vital that we should discuss the situation in Afghanistan. Opposition Members, having instigated the debate, should recognise that.

On my hon. Friend's question, the difference is the way in which the Soviet Union tried to deal with Afghanistan—largely by occupying ground, which obviously made it vulnerable to attack, whereas the whole purpose of the operation that we are discussing today is to ensure that in swift search-and-strike operations, we remove any threat, not specifically to our own forces, although that is part of it, but more generally to the stability of Afghanistan. That is a very different concept and approach.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

The Secretary of State says that we will not have thousands and thousands of troops in Afghanistan. Can he tell the House how many troops we have in Afghanistan?

Mr. Hoon

I shall certainly be able to do that in a second, as I go through the detail. It is more sensible that I should do so in the context of what I am saying to the House.

As for the wider future of ISAF, the House will know that United Nations Security Council resolution 1386 permits the force to remain in Kabul for six months—that is, until 20 June. As I said on Monday, the resolution may well be renewed, extending the duration of its deployment within its existing area of responsibility. Certainly, it is clear that such a force will have a continuing role to play in bringing security to Kabul and its immediate surroundings.

Let me make it clear that speculation that ISAF will become a NATO force, a European Union force, or anything other than a "coalition of the willing" is just that—speculation.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

My right hon. Friend referred earlier to the pride felt by the families of service men going out to Afghanistan. He will also know that those families are used to dealing with facts that are often difficult, and that their pride is mixed with anxiety. However, speculation about the future can cause particular difficulties, especially for families with young children. Will my right hon. Friend join me in urging Members of this House, and commentators, to be measured and restrained when raising issues, and considerate of the families involved?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a good point. I entirely endorse what she says. One reason why so much trouble is taken to brief forces personnel and their families about the precise nature of operations is to avoid the sort of speculation that so often causes the worries that my hon. Friend quite properly describes.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil)

The Secretary of State will be aware that families will be very interested in the duration of the latest deployment. He will be aware that, after he made his statement on Monday, senior Ministry sources briefed newspapers that the latest deployment could be expected to last about three months. However, the right hon. Gentleman has said that the latest deployment represented an open-ended commitment. Will he tell the House which version is correct?

Mr. Hoon

Like the spokesman for the official Opposition, the hon. Gentleman is taking my comments out of context. When I was asked whether the deployment was open ended, I responded by saying that it was, but that the number of forces that would be deployed had to be limited by the length of time that any individual could be asked to spend in a very difficult situation such as obtained in Afghanistan.

The deployment will last as long as it takes to deal with the continuing threat. However, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), and the official Opposition, appear to want me to give a precise figure for the length of the deployment. That simply does not make sense. The deployment will be for as long as it takes to deal with the continuing threats. If it becomes necessary to replace the Royal Marines in-theatre, that decision will have to be taken according to circumstances on the ground. Anyone who considers the matter for any time will appreciate the common sense of that approach.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I agree with the Secretary of State: the deployment must be open ended, as we have to win the battle. I fully support the deployment of 45 Commando to Afghanistan, and the wonderful work being done in Kabul, but will the right hon. Gentleman assure me and the House that our military will not be deprived of any of the resources or equipment necessary to undertake the task successfully?

Mr. Hoon

That is uppermost in my mind, and in the minds of the senior military personnel responsible for the deployment. As I shall explain in due course, we are sending the Royal Marines in part because of their considerable skill at operations of this nature. They are trained for precisely the circumstances that obtain in Afghanistan. I certainly endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), and I shall ensure that his recommendation is carried through.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Will the Secretary of State give way on that point?

Mr. Hoon

I really do need to make a little more progress. I hope that hon. Members will be patient. I have yet to deal with the deployment of 45 Commando. If questions are raised when I do, I shall be able to deal with them in context.

There has also been speculation about a possible expansion of ISAF' s area of responsibility. This is set out clearly in UN Security Council resolution 1386 and in the military technical agreement between ISAF and the Afghan Interim Administration. The security situation outside Kabul is very different from the situation in the city. What is clear is that, ultimately, security in Afghanistan is a matter for the Afghans themselves. We will continue to look at how we can help them in this, especially through the process of security sector reform.

Before I move on to talk about the deployment of 45 Commando, let me repeat that the United Kingdom is committed to the continued success of ISAF. Transferring our role as lead nation will not change that. ISAF has done great work, not just by patrolling the streets of Kabul, important though that is. Helping to train the first battalion of the new Afghan national guard—helping, for that matter, the new police force with such basic needs as pens and notepads—helps to ensure the future stability of Afghanistan.

Mr. Gamier

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way to me for a second time. I want to follow up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). I know that the MOD will wish that its resources are fully behind those who are to be deployed in Afghanistan and the majority of the House is behind the MOD in that. I wanted to be assured that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his Ministers were equally behind the MOD, because without the Chancellor's support, much of what the Secretary of State is doing, perfectly properly, will be hampered.

Mr. Hoon

I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that the Chancellor of the Exchequer fully supports the deployments that have been made and will ensure that all the financial costs of these deployments are returned to the MOD budget in a way that has been consistent across a number of Administrations. There is no difficulty about ensuring that process, which is agreed between Departments and has been agreed regularly between the MOD and the Treasury.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

With this new deployment of fighting troops in another part of Afghanistan, are not the ISAF troops in Kabul in much greater danger? If they are attacked by one of the remnants of al-Qaeda, as they are called—we do not know how big these remnants are—will they stand by and say, "Sorry chaps, we do not fight. We are here to keep the peace"? Will not the war then spread back to Kabul?

Mr. Hoon

I will try to be as fair as I can to the hon. Lady, but the short answer to her question is that if she had been listening to anything said since 11 September, she would know that there have been fighting troops in Afghanistan since the first deployments. That has not affected the security of the ISAF during that long period of time.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

What is the Secretary of State's analysis of the situation in Afghanistan beyond Kabul? How far does the writ of the Afghan Government run? How many of the various warring factions of the Northern Alliance are still at war with each other? Is there a Government in control of the whole country? Are we not in danger of involving ourselves in a long-term and serious civil war?

Mr. Hoon

That is a good question and one that clearly needs addressing. The issue has concerned Chairman Karzai, who raised it here during his visit. I recognise that it remains of concern to the Administration there. But—this is a very important "but'—the people that I met when I was there, who represented a number of different ethnic groups from different parts of Afghanistan, were all equally determined to take this opportunity of rebuilding that country. They wanted to take the opportunity of the international community's support to ensure that the kind of civil war that has so disfigured Afghanistan in the past will not be allowed to return.

That is not to say that there are not tensions, or that there have not been, from time to time, clashes. But, overall, the country has remained remarkably committed to the process of reconstruction; more committed, perhaps, than at any other time in its recent past. That is a testimony to the determination of the Afghan people to take this chance to ensure that their country can return to the international community.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is it not the case that if we had not intervened in the first place, the only Government in existence in Afghanistan would have been the Taliban? I wonder whether some of the critics would like that to happen again. If I have any criticism of the allies, it is that they have been somewhat over-optimistic about the elimination of terrorism. But is not the essence of this matter that if the terrorists are not eradicated—I assume that the whole purpose of the exercise is to do precisely that—the allies will be revisiting this business in Afghanistan within a short period of time? It will come back as a nightmare.

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend's second point, which I made at the outset, is absolutely right. On his first point, I suspect that that is a matter for historians. When the history of this period comes to be written, what I think will be remarkable is not the Northern Alliance's reoccupation of a territory in the north of Afghanistan, but the astonishingly rapid collapse of the Taliban in those areas where many commentators said that they were strongest because they drew their strongest support—in the south. The Taliban collapsed in the south in a matter of weeks, indicating that ordinary Afghans simply had no time for their extremism.

Mr. Jenkin

We have given the Government unequivocal support in that battle on that question. My question arises from the remarks of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). What is the Secretary of State's assessment of the numbers of Taliban and al-Qaeda forces that are still resisting in the mountains in the east of Afghanistan? Does he have an assessment?

Mr. Hoon

There is an assessment. The number is initially in the hundreds; clearly it could be in the thousands. If the hon. Gentleman thinks about the nature of the deployment that we have announced, he will realise that the purpose of putting forces on the ground is, in the first place, to search out the remaining elements. Without putting forces on the ground, it will otherwise be an extraordinarily difficult military task to identify numbers. In those circumstances, we will need to take decisions as and when that information becomes available. We will ensure at that stage, according to the operations that are being conducted, that we have the right kind and number of forces to he able to deal with that threat.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Hoon

I should like to make some progress if right hon. and hon. Members will forgive me.

The deployment of 45 Commando to Afghanistan is entirely consistent with our campaign objectives. It does not undermine, or even threaten to undermine, our support for ISAF. Since the military campaign began, we have made clear our determination to act to prevent Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda from posing a continuing terrorist threat. That is why British forces have been involved in operations on the ground in Afghanistan for some months now.

We have also made it clear that rooting out the remaining elements of al-Qaeda will take time. That was a constant theme of our statements in the early days of the military deployment. Even in the early period after 11 September, defence analysts rightly pointed out that search and strike operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban elements were likely to continue into the spring. Certainly, al-Qaeda ceased to exist as a coherent force some months ago, and the Taliban regime has long since been removed from power.

However, as the recent USA-led Operation Anaconda has demonstrated, sizeable elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban remain in Afghanistan, hidden away in the remoter areas of the country. We have to deal with those threats. The threat of attack from these groups and individuals remains high. If we do not deal with them, they will threaten all that the Afghan people and their supporters in the international community have achieved so far. They would certainly work to retain Afghanistan as a base for training and organising terrorism. Left to regroup, there is no doubt that al-Qaeda and its supporters would continue to pose a direct threat to states outside Afghanistan, including the United Kingdom. That is why we are deploying 45 Commando to join United States troops in continuing operations against these al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants. It is simply continuing the work that we started last October.

The decision to deploy 45 Commando makes sense. They are able to deploy quickly, having been held at high readiness on HMS Ocean in the Arabian sea and in their bases here in the United Kingdom. They are also trained to be able to manoeuvre quickly across difficult terrain. The Royal Marines are expert in mountain and cold-weather warfare—they have trained in this role since the 1970s. All Royal Marines undertake mountain training every year—45 Commando last did so only last December. Elements of 3 Commando brigade exercise in Norway each year. They are equipped to fight in arctic conditions.

The Commando group is also able to sustain itself. It must be able to call on the support of heavy weapons. The Commando group is equipped with machine guns and mortars. It also has a battery of 105 mm guns—a formidable piece of highly mobile artillery.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

I of course support the deployment announced by the Secretary of State. Will he tell us whether it is correct that other Governments are continuing to support al-Qaeda? There is a suggestion in the press today that Iraq might still be supporting al-Qaeda.

Mr. Hoon

I have certainly seen the press speculation. I have said—this remains the best information on the subject—that there are no obvious links between Iraq and the events of I I September. However, we are well aware of Iraq's general support for terrorism and its condoning various terrorist acts, which clearly is a great cause for concern. I cannot comment further on the press reports. I certainly have nothing to add to what they say.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

On 45 Commando, which is based in my constituency, I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying about its usefulness for this operation and I agree, but given his earlier answer about the unknown number of al-Qaeda fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan, the fact that the terrain is difficult and treacherous and that those fighters can fight fanatically, as was shown in Operation Anaconda, this could be a long operation. Has he had any discussions with other nations that have specialist troops in that area about those troops rotating with 45 Commando or other British troops to ensure that the operation can finally be finished?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman makes a proper point, but perhaps I need to explain in a little more detail the sort of operations that 45 Commando will be conducting and, indeed, the sort that were conducted by the Americans and others during Operation Anaconda. We are not talking about a pitched battle, or about tens of thousands of al-Qaeda lining up to fight the Royal Marines. We are talking about a series of small pockets of resistance.

Frankly, part of the difficulty is that it is almost impossible to say precisely how many of those small pockets there might be in the remoter parts of Afghanistan, or the numbers involved. Each operation against each of those discrete pockets—there is little doubt that we have been able to deal with communication between elements of al-Qaeda—will be separate. As we progress through the country—that is very much the programme that General Franks has outlined—we will be able to take each stage at a time.

I think that the hon. Gentleman implied that this is an all-or-nothing commitment—we either commit ourselves to deal with all the elements of al-Qaeda that we discover or we do not. The answer to his question is that this is a continuing series of smaller scale operations, working through the country to eliminate those pockets of resistance as we find them.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Hoon

I will give way to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve).

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

The operations in the east of the country clearly lie close to the border with Pakistan and there has been much comment about the porous nature of that border and the ability of al-Qaeda terrorists to move back and forth across it. What steps will be taken to deal with the problem of al-Qaeda terrorists taking refuge in Pakistan in the tribal areas and then returning to Afghanistan? Unless that is dealt with, there must be a danger that there will be a continuous pool of fighters who can cross the border and cause problems.

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point—it was raised on Monday in the questions following my statement. In truth, as I set out then, it will be an extraordinarily difficult military exercise to seal that border. I was asked whether that was contemplated and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not; it is simply not possible, given the terrain and the circumstances. Obviously, part of the military planning is to have a means of organising the forces involved to deal with those who might try to escape from the initial pocket of resistance that is attacked. That was part of the battle plan for Operation Anaconda—a part that worked extremely successfully.

Mr. Robathan

I support this deployment. The Secretary of State mentioned the equipment for 45 Commando and its arctic training. That equipment is vital while the snows are in place in the hills of Afghanistan, but within a month those snows will be melting and heat will be the problem. He is talking about small groups of troops deployed across the country. They will need to change from arctic to tropical or desert kit. Has that been worked out?

Mr. Hoon

1 do not think that there is much desert at 10,000 ft in Afghanistan, but I will certainly ensure that those troops have the appropriate kit should the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman has described arise.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton)

My right hon. Friend described in some detail the sort of operations that 45 Commando would be involved in—highly mobile and highly focused. Would he characterise those operations as in any way similar to the search-and-destroy missions that took place at an early stage in the Vietnam conflict?

Mr. Hoon

Not in the least. The terrain is very different, as are the circumstances and there is a very different history. My hon. Friend has sought hard to make that comparison and I am sorry to disappoint him with my answer.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

One element that was missing from the order of battle that the Secretary of State took us through was any light armoured component to the commando force. Such a component was used very successfully in the Falkland Islands and in a number of other operations since, and would seem to be ideal for the present operation. For example, what about the use of mobile gun platforms? Has any thought been given to that matter? If not, will the right hon. Gentleman give it some thought?

Mr. Hoon

I am sure that some thought has been given to it, but I am not entirely sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman's premise. I am not convinced, given the terrain in which the troops will be operating that I have seen and the rapidly moving nature of the operations that I anticipate, that light armour will be of much assistance. Certainly, that was not the case for Operation Anaconda. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should study more carefully the contour map of Afghanistan before making that suggestion.

Hugh Bayley (City of York)

The campaign objectives are to prevent al-Qaeda forces from carrying out further terrorist attacks, which is why almost all hon. Members on both sides of the House support the deployment. What will happen to prisoners who are taken? Will they remain in Afghanistan and will they be treated under British or American law?

Mr. Hoon

Prisoners will be dealt with on exactly the same basis as they have been in the past. Most are still held in Afghanistan. I anticipate that those prisoners who can contribute to further understanding of the events of 11 September will be handed over for questioning to the United States.

Before I took those interventions, I was pointing out that 45 Commando has a long history of operating and training alongside US forces, including in northern Iraq and Kosovo. The Royal Marines possess highly skilled forward air controllers, who train regularly with US forces. So, 45 Commando is ideally placed to join troops from the US and a number of other nations in further operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants in Afghanistan. The House will recall that troops from several nations took part in Operation Anaconda. That is why we have decided to deploy that particular force. Our decision is not—absolutely not—as some have suggested anything to do with British public opinion being more ready to accept the possibility of casualties than US public opinion. That suggestion deserves the contempt that it has already received.

Mr. Jenkin

I fully concur with the right hon. Gentleman on that matter. Can he inform the House of when the Government received the request from the United States for this deployment? Obviously, his decision is a response to that request. I understand that he was indisposed over the weekend and therefore had some difficulty responding personally to some of the issues.

Mr. Hoon

I will deal with that question in due course as it makes more sense to deal with it in the chronology that I have prepared.

Some people have tried to read things into the fact that we have chosen to deploy the group now. The decision was taken following a formal request from the United States at the very end of last week and in close consultation with them. It has not been taken because the Americans or the other coalition forces are exhausted or need to be rescued, or have somehow failed—they did not. They fought in Operation Anaconda and they won against a heavily armed enemy, dug into prepared defensive positions in the rocks and caves. We should applaud their success, not try to decry it as some have done.

Therefore, the specific answer to the question posed by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) is Friday. Obviously, that decision followed, as such decisions always follow, a long period of contact, consultation and discussion—not only about the particular requirements that an ally has, but the sorts of forces that we have available and that can be deployed in appropriate time and in the appropriate circumstances.

The Opposition defence spokesman also suggested the other day that we were deploying this force without dedicated air support—something that he repeated just now. As we have made clear time and again, the Commandos will operate alongside the United States. They will be able to call on an extraordinary array of air power. The expert military advice that I have received is that there is no need to augment coalition air power with our own strike aircraft in support of this particular deployment. The House should be aware that British forces have very recent and very relevant experience of co-operating with the United States and drawing on its close air support during ground operations in Afghanistan. As the commanding officer of 45 Commando made clear on the radio this morning, we routinely train with US forces and use common procedures. He is quite content with the arrangements for fire support, as am I. That is not to say that the Royal Air Force has no role here. It does, most obviously through the Chinook helicopters that we are deploying, but also through the range of reconnaissance, air transport and air-to-air refuelling that has supported the coalition so successfully since last October. I am sure that these assets will continue to play an important role in future operations, including those that 45 Commando may undertake.

Some have suggested that this deployment will contribute to the supposed overstretch of the armed forces. Certainly, our three services are extremely busy. That is also true of the Royal Marines. This time last year, no one could have predicted that more than 6,000 British service personnel would be engaged in operations in Afghanistan. However, there is no doubt that it is right that they are there. We keep these commitments under review and always assess them against routine programmed activities, and, where necessary, make adjustments to ensure the necessary balance between operations and other tasks.

It is worth remembering that the Royal Marines were first put at high readiness for operations in Afghanistan in late October last year, and 45 Commando have been at high readiness—some on board HMS Ocean and others at home in Arbroath—since mid-November. We have therefore been ready for an operation of this sort for some months. There is no overstretch.

There have also been questions and concerns about the command and control arrangements in place for 45 Commando Group. It is entirely separate from the international security assistance force and will have separate command and control arrangements. ISAF comes under national command, although US Centcom has responsibility for ensuring that there is no conflict between ISAF activities arid those that continue as part of Operation Enduring Freedom; 45 Commando Group come directly under Centcom's command. Brigadier Roger Lane and the headquarters of 3 Commando Brigade will therefore be embedded in the American-led coalition headquarters at Bagram. That means that the ISAF commander, Major General McColl, will not have authority over 45 Commando Group. In turn, Brigadier Lane will not have command over ISAF. They command distinct forces with distinct jobs to do in discrete parts of Afghanistan. Other nations which have contributed troops to ISAF are in exactly the same situation. It will not have escaped the notice of the House that Denmark, France, Germany, and Norway have all sent ground forces to participate in Operation Anaconda, while other elements of their armed forces remain in Kabul under General McColl.

Our decision to deploy 45 Commando Group to Afghanistan was not taken lightly. However, it is the right decision. The remaining al-Qaeda and Taliban elements must be dealt with. We shall continue to pursue them until the job is done. We must complete the task in full. The events of 11 September have shown us what could happen if we do not.

That is why I am not prepared to put a precise date on when we will bring these troops back home. Clearly, the decision will be taken in the light of the circumstances on the ground and in the light of the tasks that these troops may undertake. Our exit strategy is that we will leave when the task is completed. I welcome the fact that there is so much support in the House for this deployment and widespread appreciation of why it is so necessary.

Several hon. Members


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

5.54 pm
Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who is unavoidably absent. I shall allow myself the indulgence of the following thought. Whatever our views on hunting—I accept that there are very strong views on both sides of the House—it is a relief that this week we have found time, however it was achieved, for a debate on the deployment of so many of our armed forces. Had we not, I suspect that people looking at the House of Commons from outside would have wondered precisely where our priorities lay.

I believe that the Government are entitled to the support of the House for this deployment. More particularly, our service men are entitled to that support. They are being asked to undertake hazardous operations in conditions that are unimaginably inhospitable—a long way from the air-conditioned comfort of this Chamber. Just as the Government are entitled to our support, the House, too, is entitled to clear military and political explanations from the Government for this deployment.

The truth is that the decision to make this fresh deployment is tactical, not strategic. The strategic decision has already been taken. It was taken in the immediate aftermath of 11 September, when, by common consent, the House agreed that military force should be used in Afghanistan to achieve four stated objectives. The first was to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. The second was to disrupt and destroy as far as possible al-Qaeda's network of terrorism. The third was to drive the Taliban Government out of Kabul. The fourth was to allow the people of Afghanistan to have the chance to choose their own Government. At this date, only the third of those objectives has been achieved.

If the deployment or the decision to make it had been announced before Christmas, I doubt whether there would have been any concern other than from those who honourably and sincerely oppose the use of force in principle in Afghanistan. What is different today is, first, the speed of response to the request from the United States, which, as the Secretary of State has just told us, came formally on Friday last week. It was so recent that the Government could not offer the usual consultation on Privy Council terms with other parties in the House. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, a perception had grown up here and elsewhere that we had enjoyed early and comprehensive military success, and, consequently, all that was left to do was some form of mopping up—a description of military action that is as factually inaccurate as it is militarily inept.

Those who joined the chorus of "I told you so" may now wish to reflect at leisure on the American expression, "It isn't over until it's over." Perhaps unconsciously, that principle lay behind the observations of which I understand the Secretary of State has given further explanation today, and on which he has been reported as saying that this may be an open ended commitment. In that regard, I agree with an intervention by, I think, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). The truth is that, in the war against terrorism, the commitment is always open ended. That is particularly the case, if, as we now know, the terrorist uses the principles of what is described as asymmetric warfare—never risking full-blooded confrontation. The truth is that in a campaign against terrorism, it may be virtually impossible to answer the question, "How do you know when you've won?" If one looks for a classical allusion, the mythology of the dragon's teeth comes easily to mind.

It is axiomatic that military force should not be used unless clear political objectives can be achieved. In modern military thinking, however, it is increasingly accepted that just as intervention must be justified against clear criteria, such intervention must also be accompanied by an equally clear exit strategy. There must be a point at which one concludes that one's objectives have been achieved, or—more difficult, and often more important and acute—a point at which one concludes that one's objectives cannot be achieved and that withdrawal is the necessary response. We have not yet heard—nor, I suspect, could the Secretary of State provide—clear exit criteria of that kind. However, a point must surely arise in the conduct of the operations that he has described in which the need for such criteria will be paramount. Although the House takes him on trust—I shall return to that point—we are entitled to say that we expect him to be sufficiently rigorous in his supervision of these operations to be alive to the need for clear exit criteria of the kind that I have described.

We must also recognise that we are sending highly specialised troops into circumstances that are admitted to be of very considerable danger. The Secretary of State was rightly sombre in his statement to the House on Monday when he described the nature of the risk. We are sending troops against the background of an uncertain immediate history, which—notwithstanding what he has just said—may be capable of explanation only by accepting that the United States troops previously engaged have, in truth, bitten off more than they could chew both physically and tactically. That seems to underline the risk to which we are inevitably exposing those whom we now wish to deploy.

All of us who support military action—and I mean all of us and not just the Government—have an overwhelming moral obligation not to exploit the competence, bravery and professionalism of our troops. I therefore, wish to make a point in parenthesis. Reservations have been and will be expressed by others in the debate. However, if we were American senators or members of the House of the Representatives and the circumstances were reversed, there could be no doubt that we would all raise the same issues on behalf of those whom we represented as matters of principle.

There is nothing disloyal in wanting to put to the test a Government who face the awesome responsibility of making such deployments or in forcing that Government to come to the Chamber of the House of Commons to justify their actions. Indeed, it is my recollection that precisely the same principles applied during the Gulf war, Kosovo and in other similar engagements.

This deployment is perforce a very public one. The Secretary of State was quick to dismiss any reservations that Members might have about two different deployments. However, I suggest that, although we might be clear about the separation between ISAF and 45 Commando and the roles for which they are being deployed, the distinction may be less obvious to those with malign intent. Indeed, they may positively ignore it. In an age of asymmetric warfare, we are dealing with a terrorist organisation whose sophistication is warranted each time we come across the places where it keeps a cache of manuals or equipment, so I postulate whether it is impossible that someone will say, "Well, we won't take on the British uniforms of 45 Commando in the mountains. We may find it rather easier to target the British uniforms of the Royal Anglians in Kabul." There is some justification for the view that there may be an increased risk to the forces in Kabul.

I had the good fortune to visit Kabul a few weeks ago at the invitation of the Foreign Secretary. On these occasions, it is conventional to talk with pride of the achievements of British forces. Sometimes we do that as a matter of ritual rather than of substance, but I genuinely felt a swelling of pride at the quality and competence of those who were wearing the Union Jack. That competence has been built up in operations such as ISAF, but is based to a large extent on our pretty horrific experiences over 30 years in Northern Ireland. Such operations form as important a part of the range of abilities of British armed forces as does the most high-intensity war fighting.

There are risks in concentrating on operations such ISAF, because our capacity for high-intensity war fighting may be irremediably eroded. I think that that has been the experience of the Canadians, but I have no doubt that we possess a capacity as a result of our experiences in Northern Ireland that is vital in many circumstances. We should never attempt to describe that capacity in such a way as to cause people to think that it is something second rate.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) asked about the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that the border has been freely crossed by elements of al-Qaeda who have gone for rest and recreation in Pakistan. They have regrouped and, with fresh men and material, returned to Afghanistan. I suspect that that pattern may be repeated for a considerable time and, if it is, the length of the commitment to which the Secretary of State referred will be greater. Those of us who support this deployment should not do so without recognising what the consequences might be.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

When the Secretary of State replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), I thought that he missed the point. The issue is what Pakistani forces will do within the borders of Pakistan to ensure that a safe haven for al-Qaeda is not created there. It is impossible to make the border impenetrable.

Mr. Campbell

The hon. Gentleman is right. What might in other circumstances might be described as host-nation support by elements of the Pakistani armed forces could make al-Qaeda's opportunities for reinforcement all the greater. I acknowledge that point and if it happens—it is not unreasonable to assume that it might—it will have consequences for the nature and length of the commitment into which we may enter.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Campbell

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I wish to make progress. I know that many other Members wish to speak. Although I am not subject to the 10-minute rule, I do not want to abuse my position.

There is no greater political or moral responsibility for any Government than to commit forces to combat in which their lives are at risk. By endorsing the decision—as most of us in the Chamber do—we take unto ourselves a share of that responsibility. However, on this deployment as on so many decisions that the Government have taken since 11 September, it is necessary for the House and the country to take the Government on trust. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State and he said nothing this afternoon which in any way could prejudice the security or the operational effectiveness of the troops that we are about to deploy. I understand that. It would have been improper for him to have given away information that might have led to such consequences. However, in turn, that merely reinforces the fact that we have to take him and the whole Government on trust.

A failure in this area could lead to seismic political consequences. Circumstances now are nothing like those in the first and second world wars, but students of history will remember that Asquith was replaced, as Chamberlain was 35 years later, because the House of Commons lacked confidence in the conduct of the war.

I believe that the Government are entitled to our support, and so too are our forces. We have a duty both to Government and to the forces. However, the Government have a duty as well. They have a duty to the House of Commons and to the country to make sure that they get it right.

6.10 pm
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

Events in Afghanistan may initially have appeared to vindicate proponents of air power. It seemed that one could win a war from 20,000 or 30,000 ft, but the events of the past few weeks have suggested that there is still a role for ground forces, and that wars cannot be won through the use of one branch of the armed forces alone.

Those who thought that the conflict was winding down to a quiet termination were truly naive or stupid beyond words. Even in December, before the conflict had reached its current state, the Defence Committee said: Whatever the outcome of the present action in Afghanistan or the fate of Osama Bin Laden and a1 Qaeda, we cannot expect to neutralize the new threats easily or quickly … This is not to say that the battle against global terrorism cannot be won; it can be and it must be. But it will not be won quickly, and it is likely that whatever success is achieved against al Qaeda itself, a number of groups associated with it or sympathetic to its causes will continue to pose a threat. Perhaps it was thought that the first stage of the battle in Afghanistan had been won, but it has not. I am afraid that those who think that we can get back to normal in one month, two months, six months or a year will be disappointed.

I recently read a wonderful book, entitled "War Without End", which is dedicated to the subject of terrorism. We live in an era in which the war against terrorism will be an almost perennial feature of our existence. Regrettably, we will have to operate in many theatres, although hopefully not all.

Mr. Gamier

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. George

I am sorry, but I have only eight minutes left.

I agree with much of what the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) said, but I am not sure that it is wise to talk publicly about an exit strategy only a few months after establishing an entry strategy. To do so would give potential adversaries an advantage in calculating how to deal with the threat.

I give the Government my near-unequivocal support, and I am not going to list a host of provisos. The Government's actions during this crisis have been quite correct, and most people in the House and outside it endorse what they are doing. I certainly agree with current deployments, but the additional forces will have a rather different task.

The Opposition's support is very welcome, and any differences that emerged were largely marginal. However, those of us who support deployment in the war against terrorism will continue to be accused of warmongering and imperialism—I was accused on the radio of being slightly racist—and of being stupid for not realising what others have realised. Of course, Islamicists will not be too pleased either.

I do not denigrate those who argue differently from the majority of Members, but in my view what the Government have done and are doing is absolutely correct in every sense—morally, politically and in terms of international law. Some will find the deployment of the Royal Marines rather surprising. Perhaps it was a surprise, but they have been operating in the Indian ocean for the past six months. They are not there simply to get a bit of a sea breeze. It seemed pretty obvious to me and many others that the Americans would request their presence at some stage—and not just for the peacekeeping operation in Kabul. To put it modestly, they are the among the best armed forces in the world; to put it correctly, they are the best armed forces in the world.

The call did indeed come. Last October, 40 Commando were on stand-by on board HMS Fearless, in the Arabian sea. They were then sent to Bagram. More recently, 45 Commando were on stand-by on board HMS Ocean. So the deployment of the Royal Marines was not a complete surprise. Nor was it a complete surprise that the conflict in Afghanistan did not have the perfect ending that we associate with major American films, in which everything happens as one would wish. I suspect, however, that those who said that the conflict was coming to an end were addressing their domestic audience, and will live to be rather embarrassed by their statements.

The idea that there was any alternative to what the Government are doing is rather fanciful. If the Government had accepted the argument of some Labour Members that we should not have participated in the operation, what message would that have sent to other special forces, our own public, the Americans, the Germans and other countries—including the Canadians, for whom such an operation is spectacular—that are participating alongside the United States? It would have sent the message that the United Kingdom was not prepared to join them because it was fearful of the consequences—that its troops would be exposed to risks and that the war might last a long time. If the Government were unwise enough to follow that line of argument, we could do without a Ministry of Defence, because the future deployment of troops in the national and international interest would he unlikely.

Of course there are risks, as the Secretary of State made clear. One cannot fight a very capable but non-professional al-Qaeda force in a home territory consisting of caves, and at an elevation of 10,000 ft, without the aid of tanks such as Challenger l and 2. Lives may well be lost, perhaps even those of our adversaries. On embarking on such a task, one has to be realistic and not assume that the light casualties of the past 30 or 40 years constitute a virtual right or a scientific law.

The point made by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), which some Members mocked, is a serious one. Dual and contrasting roles will pose problems. The roles of peacekeeper and of fighter may not be totally incompatible, but it could prove exceedingly difficult to persuade people that a demarcation has been drawn between two unique operations.

Yes, there may be mission creep, but I doubt whether the conflict will turn into another Vietnam, as Afghanistan's Interim Administration will have greater legitimacy. It is vitally important that, in conjunction with the Interim Administrations national guard, we put considerable effort into training indigenous forces, as we have done in Sierra Leone. Such forces are best able to fight al-Qaeda—if necessary—for an indefinite period, and they have the greatest legitimacy. It is wrong, however, to assume that our operation will come to a swift end.

The Government did not decline the United States' request. Threats and risks do exist, but those of my hon. Friends who think that we should not have undertaken this task are in essence saying. "Countries such as Russia, Uzbekistan and Pakistan can take a risk, but Britain must be risk-free. The boys can come home unscathed, with no adverse consequences to their, or this House's, reputation."

I should tell those of my colleagues who are devotees of the Labour party and its history that it has been an internationalist party throughout its existence. The idea that socialism ends at the borders of Europe is mistaken. We have commitments to help Governments in other parts of the world, however far from our shores. During Operation Saif Sareea, the Defence Committee met several Royal Marines. We saw them climbing mountains. They frightened us, and I am sure that they will have an adverse effect—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. The right hon. Gentleman's 10 minutes are up.

6.20 pm
Mr. Michael Portillo (Kensington and Chelsea)

As the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) commented, it is an awesome responsibility to commit our forces in this way. This is a situation of grave danger and the Secretary of State has taken a great responsibility upon himself. He has been much in my thoughts during these days. Even more in my thoughts have been the Royal Marines who are being committed and their families.

I very much support the mission to which the Secretary of State has committed those forces. Because of that, it is highly regrettable that at first he sought to give the House no opportunity to have a debate. It is unfortunate that he had to be forced into having a debate, because that leaves him looking shifty and lacking in confidence at the very time when we need him to appear sure-footed and confident. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) dealt with the issue of the discourtesy to the House, but when our soldiers are being put into such extreme danger, it is a grave discourtesy to them to suggest that the sacrifice that they offer the nation is not worth three hours of debate in Government time. It is marvellous to have the opportunity this afternoon for so many Members of Parliament to express their commitment to our forces and their support for the decision that the Government have taken.

Mr. Hoon

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that the Government did not oppose this debate in any way, shape or form.

Mr. Portillo

None the less, the Secretary of State will accept that he did not give the House the opportunity of a debate and it would have been better if he had. However, I commend him on his performance today, when he did appear sure-footed and confident. That is what we all expect from him if he is to lead us through these difficult days.

This is not an American war. It is a war of many allies, in which we have committed ourselves to defeat terrorism. We did not commit ourselves for the short term or say that we would be committed to defeating terrorism for as long as it remained easy; we said that we were committed to that objective until we had achieved it. I remember that our first thought was that the campaign would be very difficult. Subsequently, it appeared to be easier than people had anticipated, but I agree with the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) when he said that those who thought that that was how it would turn out were deluding themselves. The situation that we now face in Afghanistan is the one that we first anticipated: we would face tough resistance, with the terrain against us; it would be a hard struggle; and we would have to be willing to bear casualties.

This is no time to flinch. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife referred to the decision to commit the Royal Marines as a tactical decision in support of a strategic decision that had already been taken. He is right in that, but thank goodness that tactical decision has been taken, because it demonstrates resolve. If we failed to take that decision, the terrorists would not lose much time in regrouping, as the Secretary of State pointed out. If they were to do so, they would pose a major threat to the rest of Afghanistan, neighbouring countries and countries throughout the world. More than that, the fact that they were left intact and undefeated would be a major encouragement to extremists and militants all over the world. Therefore, their defeat remains a critical strategic objective.

I would go further and say that the attacks on New York city and Washington were a test for western society on whether it was willing to defend the values of a free society. The background to the attacks on 11 September was not, as many people have alleged, a decade in which the United States had shown an overbearing and arrogant foreign policy towards the rest of the world. I take the opposite view. The decade that preceded 11 September was one in which people had become unclear about the resolve of the United States and, therefore, the resolve of the allies.

First came the failure to topple Saddam during the Gulf war, for reasons that we all understand, which was taken as a sign of irresolution. Then came the series of moral victories that Saddam was allowed to win, including continuing with his programme of weapons of mass destruction and his decision to expel the United Nations inspectors without any satisfactory response from the allies. Perhaps most extraordinary were the attacks on the US embassies in Africa and the attack on USS Cole, which met with a perfunctory response from the US.

I regret to say—and many of my hon. Friends will not like me saying this—that even the September 2000 proposals by President Clinton and Prime Minister Barak, with major concessions proposed by Israel under the United States' umbrella, were taken by enemies as a sign of weakness—[Interruption.] They may have been good proposals in themselves, but my point concerns how they were interpreted.

Since 11 September, the US response to terrorism has been extraordinarily clear. The response of the UK Government has also been clear. It has not been completely consistent, but it has been consistent at the major points of decision. Like the right hon. Member for Walsall, South, I find it surprising that elements in the press and on the Labour Back Benches would now wish to give a less clear-cut answer to terrorism. That would put us in a great deal of danger. We are committed to the struggle and it is important that we demonstrate resolve.

Perhaps most important of all in the perception of the terrorists who took advantage of western society on 11 September was the perception that the US would be unwilling to sustain any casualties in combat. In New York city on that day, there were 3,000 casualties. The US has turned over a new leaf in that respect and is now willing to face the prospect of casualties in order to defend its society and its way of life.

Let me now comment directly on this deployment. The forces that the Secretary of State has chosen to send appear to be well constructed, robust and capable of defending themselves. The number and range of capabilities also appear to have been well chosen. We are contributing some capabilities that the US does not have, including, in particular, units that are able to locate mortars more effectively. Mortars represent a formidable weapon in this campaign. Let us also remember that UK staff are fully integrated into the battle staff in Tampa, which is an extraordinarily privileged and important position for this country to enjoy.

During the past few months, I get the feeling that some commentators have learned a few pieces of random terminology about military affairs, including phrases such as "mission creep"' and "exit strategy". Sometimes those phrases are applied without sufficient thought being given to whether they are appropriate. I agree with the Secretary of State when he says that the mission is to defeat terrorism and that when Afghanistan has been secured and the mission completed, that will be the time to leave and that is the exit strategy. In war, there is little else to be said, and I am pleased that so many right hon. and hon. Members have made that point during this debate.

Last night I and several other hon. Members had the privilege of attending a dinner to honour those who had earned Victoria Crosses in the past, in the presence of the widow of Colonel H. Jones and a couple of Victoria Cross winners from the second world war. I am convinced that the people who are now being sent to Afghanistan are capable of showing the same bravery, courage and valour and of making the same sacrifice. The people we are sending are lions and, I am pleased to say, they are not led by donkeys, as it is alleged once happened in our history. These lions are also commanded by lions. All I would say to the Government, as they make this difficult decision and see it properly debated in the House, is that my wish for those fine people whom we are sending to Afghanistan is that they may always receive from their political masters the respect and consideration that they so richly deserve.

6.29 pm
Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

Three or four years ago, I spent three or four days in northern Norway with 45 Commando. whom I hold in the highest regard. I saw at first hand their dedication, motivation, skills and professionalism.

This deployment is a major deployment by comparison with anything in recent times. Lives are at risk, as the Secretary of State said in his statement on Monday, and I believe that we owe it to those soldiers to display clear thinking in the House and provide an opportunity for debate on the issues that affect them.

It is always said that in military action two tests must be satisfied. First, there must be a just cause; secondly, there must be a reasonable chance of success. When we discussed these issues six months ago in the House, many colleagues addressed those tests. There is a danger that one begins to forget the tests as the campaign develops. If we are to have credibility as a House, we must subject the campaign to those tests as it develops, because public opinion will be taking note of what happens.

There was clearly support among the British people for intervention although, as opinion polls showed, there were differences of view as to how that intervention could best take place. The danger is that if we are deflected from continually testing on the just cause and on the best way forward and the likelihood of success, we are likely to begin to lose public support. One thing that will very much influence public opinion in this country and in the United States is the extent to which our forces, and the politics that underpin our forces, are perceived in the theatre as forces that are acting for the good of the people there.

My first concern today is that because of the dual role—the peacekeeping role and the offensive role—there is a danger that local support in Afghanistan, and the other Islamic parts of the world that will identify with Afghanistan, may begin to doubt whether a just cause is being pursued.

The subject of American contributions to peacekeeping forces was aired in the House earlier today. I cannot understand why it is acceptable or appropriate for Britain to be involved in a dual role in Afghanistan yet it is not acceptable for the other major player, the United States, to be involved in a dual role. The United States might argue that Denmark and Germany are involved in a minor way in a dual role, but that is a very different situation because people in the streets of Kabul and elsewhere probably will not know that Denmark or the Czech Republic, for instance, are involved but they will know that the Americans and the British are involved. It is somewhat unwise to have that dual role—I do not understand why it is right for the United Kingdom to undertake that dual role, but it is apparently not right for the United States to accept that role.

My second worry is linked to the previous one. We have heard, and I read in the press, about the support that the different contributors to the provisional Government in Afghanistan give to those who are helping them establish the process of law and order in that country. Collectively they undoubtedly support the involvement, although they may have different motives and factional fights are still taking place.

Although I do not have access to the intelligence reports that Ministers have, I am not convinced from the reports that I read that support on the ground in Afghanistan is as strong as the support among the political factions. That problem could be aggravated if people on the ground in Afghanistan see British soldiers in two different capacities. As the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) said, some opponents in Afghanistan might fancy a pop at a peacekeeper whereas they would not fancy a pop at a Royal Marine up in the mountains.

I have only 10 minutes in which to speak, so I shall be brief. My third point relates to the test of whether there is a reasonable chance of success. It is not good enough to apply that test only at the start of a campaign; it must be applied throughout. I agree with the hon. Member who said that we are talking not about strategy but about tactics. We have had our arguments about the strategy, but on tactics, is the next tactic that we are deploying consistent with the original criteria that we laid down as necessary for a degree of success?

There are many unknowns in this issue. I recognise that Ministers have a difficult task, as they may have access to information that it would be unwise to share with the House or the public because it would give knowledge to our enemies. However, there is a real danger that we may get bogged down in something that we cannot control in Afghanistan. That is a very serious worry.

Some might say that we have already had offensive soldiers in Afghanistan, and peacekeepers over the past three or four months, but the number of offensive soldiers has been small. They have not been very visible and have probably not been known to the civilian populations in Afghanistan. However, when one starts introducing 1,700—who, for all we know, may need to be reinforced by many thousands more for logistical or fighting reasons—it becomes obvious to the people in Afghanistan what is happening.

The worry is that if law and order begin to break down, if the local population gradually cease to support those who are trying to keep peace and trying to rid us all of the threat of al-Qaeda, and if people begin to see that that is not happening, we could easily become involved in a civil war in which we are forced to choose, in any particular military situation, between backing one faction in the provisional Government and another. I read in the press that fighting is indeed taking place. If we have many soldiers in that theatre, we might have no choice but to take sides or to become involved in such a situation.

It would be bad enough to get caught in a civil war; it would be tragic to get caught in an imperial war. The danger is that one transforms into the other very quickly. What starts as a battle between factions in Afghanistan could easily end up as fighting between those from outside the country and those within the country, which would be perceived by the local population and by important Islamic-friendly states as a 21st century imperial intervention by a number of countries that were tied together in the coalition.

There is that grey area between an intervention with a specific purpose, a clear mission and a targeted operational structure—something that is understandable, has local support and is recognised internationally—and something much bigger, that is perceived as an outside force, that has lost its way, that does not have local support and that gets bogged down in something that it does not want to become involved in, and cannot see an exit strategy for itself.

Those are the dangers. I am not predicting that that will happen, but I will say that if hon. Members read the clear and detailed history of Vietnam, they will find that there are very many parallels with the way in which the numbers of American forces grew from a few thousand in 1965 or 1966 to 550,000 by 1970. I have no doubt that all were established initially as acting as a force for good. I do not expect Ministers to share all their information with the House, but there is a balance to be struck.

6.40 pm
Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

I happened to be in New York on the morning of 11 September, and I remained in the United States—because no one could get out—for the next seven days. I therefore have a clear picture in my mind of the force of American public opinion on that terrible tragedy and their continuing determination to get their revenge.

Revenge is not a word that is often used in this context, but I have a great many American friends and I have been back to the United States since 11 September, and I can tell hon. Members that it animates their policy. They are determined to get revenge, and I have no doubt that they will do so. I fully support the United States in its desire to stamp out international terrorism. However, that is not to say that we should not, in our cool, British way, consider the situation as it develops and make quite certain that each step down the road is carefully chosen.

There is a great danger in using the broad brush. People talk about those who are fighting in Afghanistan—the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the third group, who might be described as tribal gangsters—as though they were all the same sorts of people, but they are entirely different. I know Afghanistan fairly well. Indeed, I have my father's 1919 Afghan medal, my grandfather fought in the second Afghan war and I grew up in a house full of Afghan carpets, daggers, pistols and so on.

The last time I was in Kabul was a few weeks before the Russians invaded. They stayed in Afghanistan for 10 years, put in 300,000 troops and left 30,000 dead behind them. Those are useful statistics to bear in mind when talking about sending 1,700 immensely gallant and highly trained Royal Marines into the snow-clad mountains of eastern Afghanistan. I have walked in those mountains—although not very high up, and certainly not when there was snow around—and it would be impossible to use armoured vehicles on those tracks, which one can hardly get mules up and down. As we all remember, by the time the Russians left Afghanistan the whole country was littered with burned-out Russian tanks. The nature of the challenge should not be underestimated.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) mentioned Vietnam. I visited Vietnam three times during the war. The first time I went, there were 300 American advisers in civilian clothing. The last time I went there were 500,000 American troops in uniform. During that visit, General Westmoreland, the great US commander of the day, assured me that the war would be over by Christmas. It is always worth remembering the difficulties that have arisen in the past as a result of intervening in such situations.

The Afghans have been fighting each other all through history. In reality, there is no such place as Afghanistan. Until the late 19th century, it was simply called the Afghan region. A British civil servant called Sir Mortimer Durand drew a line on the map and said that that was going to be the frontier between the then India and Afghanistan. People use the extraordinary phrase "a porous frontier" to describe the area. They have heard only of the Khyber pass, up which I have driven from Peshawar to Kabul on three occasions, but I am told that there are approximately 200 passes on the 900-mile frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The tribesmen can move backwards and forwards with total freedom, as the Secretary of State admitted.

Although each war is different, I should like to make another historical reference. When a Conservative Government put one battalion into Bosnia, I asked the then Foreign Secretary, "What is the use of sending one battalion when you need four divisions to do the job?" The Serbs capitulated only when four divisions were in Macedonia on the frontier of Kosovo. We should therefore understand that sending in the magnificent Marine Commandos will not end civil war in Afghanistan, which will go on for decades in different forms, as it always has done.

We must consider the importance of the war in the wider world context. Although the attack on the twin towers and the terrible suffering and grief that it caused in America were appalling, if we are to consider the matter objectively we must study our enemy. It was a brilliantly organised terrorist strike. Anyone who has tried to organise a cheese and wine party for a Conservative association will appreciate the difficulty of getting the sandwiches there on time. The attack must have been one of the best organised operations in modern history.

One of the most amazing aspects was that the strike obviously took years of preparation but was never leaked. I have spoken to Congressmen and Senators about the matter, and they have expressed great anger that the American secret service did not see it coming. A congressional committee of inquiry is currently examining that. Only yesterday, the director of the FBI said in answer to the committee that al-Qaeda was reorganising and regrouping in approximately 34 countries.

The problem is not only in the caves in the mountains of Afghanistan. I have never had great faith in what might be described as troglodyte technology. I simply do not believe that the attack on the twin towers was organised in detail from the caves. We know that no Afghans were involved in the actual attack, which was carried out almost entirely by Egyptians and Saudis who had been in the United States for a long time. They had tremendous technological training for the job. We should acknowledge that although a genuine danger of future terrorist attacks exists, not only in the United States but possibly in Britain, the people who will launch them are almost certainly in the US and Britain now, not fighting in the snow of the Afghan mountains.

We need a much more sophisticated approach to the subject than the media, at least, present. I should like to believe that the US has worked that out, that it recognises the fact that 1 billion people in the world are Muslim and that the whole Arab world has been antagonised by our actions. We must tackle the macro-strategic as well as the micro-tactical problem.

I devoutly hope that our Royal Marines can carry out their duties with minimum casualties, but I am not confident that their numbers will be sufficient to do that. We will therefore have to face the choice of greatly increasing their numbers through large-scale reinforcements or withdrawing them and concentrating on the much greater threat from Iraq.

6.50 pm
Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I commend the speeches of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). The House may well choose to reflect carefully on the analysis provided by the former and the cautionary wisdom and ministerial experience offered by the latter.

The views I shall express stem from the very first announcement made to the House by the Secretary of State on Monday, in which he said

The United States has now formally requested that the UK provides forces to join in future military operations against other remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban elsewhere in Afghanistan."—[Official Report, 18 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 38.] It is important to separate what we know from what we do not know. We know that 1,700 troops are currently committed by the United Kingdom to join forces from the United States. We know that those troops will be de facto under the control of the United States. What we do not know is how long they will be there, and for what purposes.

It worried me that the Secretary of State described the move as chasing the "remnants" of al-Qaeda. What do we mean by "remnants"? Estimates of the number vary from 2,000 to 20,000. On 19 December last year, the Washington Post quoted an FBI analysis according to which the sum of military achievements was, at best, the limiting of al-Qaeda's capacity by about 30 per cent. If that is the case, we are sending our troops to face very sizeable "remnants".

We do not know how long the troops will be there. Will they be there for 10 weeks, 10 months, 10 years? An ominous piece of string is being dangled before us, whose end we cannot see. We do not know what is the military endgame for the deployment of the troops, and we do not know the exit strategy. My fear is that we, as a Parliament, are in danger of making a commitment which, without those clear objectives, would make it easy for us to send troops in and end up counting them out.

We do know that Operation Anaconda was anything but a mopping-up exercise. We also know—thanks to, in particular, the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and discussions between the NATO delegation from the United Kingdom with Russian delegations—that the issue never concerned an initial military success over Afghanistan. The Russians have repeatedly pointed out to our delegation that they took over the country in six weeks. The fact is that 10 years later, minus 30,000 of the troops they had sent in, they were forced to crawl out of a country whose terrain and fighters had defeated them.

It is important for the House to consider our responsibilities with real caution before we send British troops into potentially similar conditions. We need a clear mission statement, and we need to be clear about its limits. We also need to remember that this deployment, the largest deployment of UK fighting troops since the Gulf war deployment in 1991, is to a region where we were told before Christmas the war had ended. Our troops are being sent to a place where, in fact, the fighting has far from ended.

After 11 September many of us had real disagreements about the tactics of pursuing this war, but a number of us did not disagree about whether we should pursue Osama bin Laden or whether we should pursue and seek to dismantle the al-Qaeda network; we disagreed about the tactics and the prospects of success involved in taking such action by conventional military means.

Personally, I still favour the use of specialist troops to bring out, or take out, Osama bin Laden, but at this stage we do not know whether the troops we are sending have any idea whether they are pursuing bin Laden or his shadows. We have no real doubts now about the threat posed by the al-Qaeda network, but I think the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) was right to say that it is not to be found in the caves outside Kabul. The next set of terrorist threats, like the last set, are being planned in comfortable apartments outside the region rather than in caves outside the capital.

We must at some point acknowledge that one of the first casualties of our continuing down a route driven entirely by military presumptions was the death of diplomacy, and of the UN's role in pursuing non-military solutions to what is legitimately described as an asymmetrical threat to the stability of societies. I do not want to retreat from, or understate, the nature or size of that threat, but I question the wisdom and the presumption that there are conventional military solutions, and I specifically question whether those solutions will be found in the Afghan mountains.

Many Members wish to express legitimate fears that we are in danger of fighting the right war, or maybe struggle, in the wrong way. There is an additional danger, mentioned by some Members today, of our encouraging a form of mission creep that may begin in Kabul but end in Baghdad. That would not bring peace to a region or country, but would add massively to the sense of instability, threat and risk felt by all of us.

The House should issue legitimate warnings, and assert the right to ask questions about the implications of this action, its limits and its constraints. The stability of the region, the safety of our troops and the interests of the international community demand a clearer and more coherent mandate for the military action being embarked on, and a stronger likelihood of the success test mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North. It cannot be right for us to deploy UK fighting forces simply on the basis of a whistle and a wink from the American Administration. That is unlikely to be a winnable strategy, given the much more complex threat that the world currently faces.

6.58 pm
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon)

Despite having served in the armed forces, I make no great claim to be a military strategist, but I feel qualified to make some observations, having spent considerable time on the Afghan border in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation. I have first-hand knowledge of some of the terrain so graphically brought to life by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell). Perhaps more relevant is the fact that Commando Training Centre Lympstone, the spiritual and in some cases actual home of the Royal Marines, is in my constituency.

As we have heard today, the Royal Marines are already doing more than their fair share in this conflict. The deployment of the remaining elements of 45 Commando and the combat and services support elements is the largest military deployment since the Gulf war. As we know and have heard again today, the lead elements of 45 Commando, its headquarters company and "Whisky" and "Zulu" companies are already in theatre on HMS Ocean.

Personally, I can think of no better force to send to that theatre to back up the more specialist forces already there than the Royal Marines. They are tough; they are highly professional; they have done extensive mountains training; and they are certainly battle fit. However, we should not for one moment delude ourselves into thinking that what they are undertaking will be like an exercise on Woodbury common with live rounds. It will not. It would be unrealistic to imagine that, out of an additional force of some 1,700 men, there will be no casualties. There will be. Nothing short of a miracle can prevent that. Given that, it is crucial that we know exactly what we are asking them to do.

Some Labour Members are concerned that the latest deployment represents mission creep. It may, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) said, Labour Members' comments serve only to highlight their ignorance of matters military. In a theatre of war—basically an anti-terrorist war—there is bound to be an element of mission creep due to the ever-changing nature of the conflict. However, that does not mean that the basic objectives need to change.

Paragraph 4 of the Government's aims, as outlined in their original campaign objectives, states: The immediate objectives will be achieved by all available means, including both political and military … unless the Taliban regime complies with the US ultimatum, taking direct action against Usama bin Laden, the Al Qa'ida networks and the terrorist facilities in Afghanistan, and where necessary taking political and military action to fragment the present Taliban regime, including through support for Pushtun groups opposed to the regime as well as forces in the Northern Alliance". Events have obviously moved on since then. The Taliban did not comply, and in my view there has been a singular failure to support the most effective Pashtun forces. Incidentally, it is exactly that failure which has led to the continuing resistance by some of the recalcitrant elements of the Taliban.

The aims, though broadly the same, have changed slightly. It is now a stated aim to find and bring to justice Mullah Omar as well as Osama bin Laden. It is my suspicion that bin Laden has long since departed Afghanistan and is almost certainly elsewhere—in Chechnya or even Algeria. Mullah Omar may or may not still be within the national borders—the 250,000-odd square miles that constitute Afghanistan, but we know that large remaining elements of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters are. What if some are not? What if, as is believed, there are elements in neighbouring Baluchistan, the North-West Frontier province or even Kashmir? What will the orders to our troops be then?

To my way of thinking, something has already gone slightly wrong with the campaign. I suspect that it is a failure of operational intelligence. I suspect that the number of al-Qaeda fighters killed was overestimated, and the remaining number still alive and willing to fight underestimated.

We know that the Americans have encountered much heavier fighting than they had anticipated during Operation Anaconda. We do not know accurately what casualties they have suffered to date. While I, like other right hon. and hon. Members, applaud the work of the US 10th Mountain Division, it is clear that elements are battle-weary—hence the request for assistance from the Royal Marines.

I believe that it is right that we have responded positively to that request, but given the history of British and even Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, we need to bear in mind an exit strategy. For how long should we be prepared to be there? Clearly, until we have finished the job.

Only yesterday, CIA director George Tenet stated in evidence to the Senate armed services committee: you're entering into another phase here, that actually is more difficult because you are probably looking at smaller units who intend to really operate against you in classic insurgency format. It is obvious that the United States is nervous about being drawn into a protracted guerrilla war in Afghanistan. History shows that it has every right to be but it must not be up to Britain to fill the vacuum in the event of America's attentions being diverted to new theatres.

It is not an easy time for the Secretary of State for Defence or indeed the Government to commit British forces to front-line combat operations. As we have heard again and again in speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House this afternoon, we have the finest, most professional forces in the world. We know that they will do whatever it is they are asked to do. That is their duty, just as it is our duty as politicians to support their endeavours; to make certain that the task set for them by the Government is achievable; that they have all the necessary back-up and equipment they need; that their orders and aims are made crystal clear; and that their families and loved ones left behind are properly taken care of. We know that they will not let us down. We in turn must play our part in supporting them to the fullest.

7.6 pm

Jim Knight (South Dorset)

I join other hon. Members from both sides of the House in welcoming the deployment of 45 Commando and their support element in Afghanistan.

There is little pleasure, I am sure, in sending service personnel into highly dangerous combat, but there must also be great pride that British armed forces are found to be the best for the job, and it is right that we should play a full part in finishing off what we started in standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States after 11 September, which has already achieved the ending of the Taliban regime and of a safe haven for al-Qaeda.

It has already been shown that UK armed forces are uniquely skilled in peacekeeping. We have highly skilled troops deployed all over the world, most recently to great effect in Operation Essential Harvest in Macedonia, and now in commanding the international security assistance force in Afghanistan. Others are increasing their capability in that growing area of work but I believe that the UK is still uniquely respected in that role. That is a dangerous job, albeit perhaps not a popular or glamorous one, and I pay great tribute to the troops currently deployed in Kabul. I am delighted that the ISAF headquarters is being handed over to the Germans, as was successfully done in Macedonia. I will come back to the handover of the command of ISAF later.

It is surely a great compliment that the United States, the supremely equipped military power in the world, which on the face of it does not need us, has called on us for the very difficult and dangerous remaining mission in Afghanistan. It is not just our peacekeeping capability that deserves great pride.

I again pay tribute to our armed forces. I was fortunate enough to meet members of "Whisky" company in Oman, one of the companies in 45 Commando. The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) described them as the finest body of men that we are ever likely to deploy overseas."—[Official Report, 18 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 47.] I do not have the colonel's expertise but they seemed very tough, very keen and very professional to me. Incidentally, they were also successfully using the first roll-outs of the Bowman communications system when I saw them in Oman. I know that, waiting in the less than perfect conditions aboard HMS Ocean, they will be eager to do the job they are trained to do as part of the deployment. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) that they are specialist troops ideal for removing the threat that remains in the scattered parts of the country.

The pride that I have in our armed forces is matched by a pride in the work of the Department for International Development in so often leading the world on debt relief, poverty eradication and emergency response, and pride in our foreign policy which projects a balanced and just response to events around the world. Our credible military and humanitarian force is matched by our diplomatic skill, but questions do remain and I welcome this opportunity to raise them.

The capability to which I have paid tribute is remarkable and we achieve great value for money, but we are right up against limits of capacity. Yesterday, with other members of the Select Committee on Defence, I visited RAF Coningsby. It has no recruitment problem but retention is very difficult. The situation is starting to improve with the new retention package but there is no doubt that, particularly for support grades such as catering, continuous overseas deployment is damaging family life, and the strain is showing. There is a vicious circle: as another person leaves, it increases the strain on those who remain. I know from my constituency and from feedback I have had from Bovington that those in Coningsby and, indeed, in the RAF are not alone in that regard. I know that in broad terms the Army deployment is now at 1997 levels but I do not think that that is the full story when we look at individual grades and individual services within the armed forces as a whole.

We are close to having to take some difficult decisions, which the deployment brings into full relief. I see only three options. First, to reduce our long-standing commitments: do we still need the current level of deployment in Northern Ireland or the Falklands? Secondly, we could make fewer new commitments and pool some capabilities with our European allies—the former supported by the Opposition, the latter perhaps not. Like the Opposition, I cannot name what to cut, so I effectively discount the option of commitment cuts. Thirdly, we could continue to do more, but with more resources and more recruitment.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary cannot comment on discussions with the Treasury, but I wish him well in securing the necessary extra money to go with the extra chapter of the strategic defence review, the option that I favour. We must continue the Government's upward trend on defence spending.

I have some further questions. Will the Minister comment on a report from Reuters this morning on Vice-President Cheney's visit to Turkey? It states: I think we're pretty close,' he said referring to talks with largely Muslim Turkey on leading the security force. 'They've agreed to consider the possibility.' Issues outstanding include financial support, how forces would be transported, communications and intelligence support. `I think there's general agreement that what we are talking about here for the ISAF is focused in and around Kabul. We're not talking about expanding it to other regions. The United States will clearly have to find ways to deal with problems that may arise in Mazar-i-Sharif … or Kandahar.' How close are we to agreement on Turkey's takeover, given that the list of outstanding issues in that quote from the Vice-President seems pretty major? What discussions have the Government had with the United States about dealing with problems that may arise outside Kabul? Is it likely, as the Vice-President suggested, that the force would be US-led, and under what mandate?

Finally, will the Minister comment on the longer term? We are talking about a substantial level of deployment. Should our foreign policy require further ground operations, is there further capacity to do more in Afghanistan or elsewhere in the middle east? Do we need to scale back commitment elsewhere and increase capability in other sectors, such as special forces?

In conclusion, I have made my support for the deployment in Afghanistan clear. I also support our foreign policy with accompanying commitments for the varied skills of our armed forces. I know that the new chapter of the strategic defence review will deal with many of my questions, but I would be grateful if the Minister responded to some of them today.

7.13 pm
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), whose remarks were informed and measured. He asked several questions and this debate provides the ideal forum for the Minister to respond. I am pleased that Mr. Speaker granted the Standing Ordet No. 24 emergency debate today, allowing the House the opportunity to present to the Government its views on the substantial deployment of troops in Afghanistan in a war situation. It is different from the position in Kabul where the international security assistance force is guaranteeing security, helping to ensure law and order and assisting the interim Government.

I can only pray, as have other contributors to the debate, that the warlords, the Northern Alliance and the Pashtun forces can work together as part of the interim Government and bring permanent stability and peace to Afghanistan, depriving terrorist organisations of refuge in the country. Remaining elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban are now fighting from caves in the eastern mountains of Afghanistan. I hope that the special forces that we are sending in—they are without reservation the best trained and most disciplined in the world—will be successful in routing those elements. I make no bones about the need to remove them, because they are a danger to mankind and to the future stability and prosperity of Afghanistan.

I said in an earlier intervention on the Secretary of State that I entirely endorse the Government's actions, as does my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin). We are fully behind the deployment of 1,700 additional personnel to Afghanistan to carry out a job for which they are ideally trained and suited.

In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), I was in America on 11 September. I was not in New York on that date, but 60 hours before the two towers of the World Trade Centre were bombed by hijacked civilian aircraft, my wife—my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton)—myself and our second son who works in New York, just two and a half blocks from what was then the World Trade Centre, were on top of the south tower, so we felt close to the American people in what they experienced on 11 September.

I would not go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle in saying that the American people are seeking revenge. What happened on that date was that, for the first time in history, American soil was invaded, so their attention was highly focused on the dangers of international terrorism. The world as a whole, after many decades of tolerating international terrorism, has realised that it is a scourge that needs to be eradicated.

That can be done in many ways, but it is not the purpose of this debate to describe how to ensure that countries do not become a haven for terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden. However, we can work in Afghanistan to narrow the scope for world terrorism to operate: it will be reduced, squeezed and reduced again. In the end, the evil that terrorists perpetrate will not be tolerated in any part of the world.

I am one of the few Members on either side of the House who has served in Her Majesty's forces—in my case, not as a regular soldier, but as a national service soldier in the late 1950s. That experience has stayed with me ever since and was a wonderful teacher. Having served in the Army then and, two years ago, having participated in the armed forces parliamentary scheme—I recommend it to all hon. Members as a worthwhile opportunity—I have come to understand what motivates those who serve in the armed services.

I sought an assurance from the Secretary of State earlier, when he was responding to my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex, that the Government would guarantee that all facilities, all resources and all equipment will be provided to our forces who are facing a war situation in Afghanistan. If we expect our soldiers—men and women—to fight and risk their lives, the House should ensure that the Ministry of Defence guarantees them all that they need to carry out that work.

I have a tremendous respect for our armed services, who do a wonderful job. I believe that they are the most respected armed services in the world. I am not critical in any way of the United States, the most powerful nation in the world, but historically and traditionally, our armed services are trusted and respected and have always proved their worth wherever they have fought in defence of freedom and peace.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) uttered wise remarks when he drew on his experience to give a measured explanation of how he viewed the situation. It is for such a reason that the emergency debate is essential. I only wish that the Government had offered the time themselves. However, I commend the Secretary of State on the full and proper way in which he expressed the Government's position and responded to many interventions. That is what the House is about. I praise our armed services and fully support the Government. I hope that the House sends the message to our armed services that we are entirely with them in the difficult job that they are doing and that we wish them success.

7.20 pm
Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

I have supported our action in Afghanistan from the beginning and I agree that the new deployment is necessary as part of our legitimate response to the atrocity of 11 September and of our legitimate aim to destroy the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

As ever, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) made a thought-provoking speech. He raised the concern that security troops will be in Kabul while combat troops are elsewhere. I would never take any of his concerns lightly, but I share the hope expressed by the Prime Minister in Prime Minister's questions that the risk of retaliatory action may be reduced because they are in distinct areas of the country.

During the campaign we have heard, because we are dealing with Afghanistan, the usual jeremiads about the experience of the Victorian British and the USSR. People who cite those are guilty of three things: first, of presenting a far too mechanistic theory of history; secondly, of underestimating the extent to which victory has already been gained; and, thirdly, of underestimating the fact that al-Qaeda in particular and the Taliban in general, are not indigenous Afghan forces, but largely foreign and alien forces.

My hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) and for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) raised the spectre of Vietnam. In one important respect the action that we are discussing moves us away from one of the dangers of Vietnam, where high-altitude, and sometimes indiscriminate, bombing led to too many innocent people being killed and to the alienation of the indigenous population.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

How does the hon. Gentleman explain, therefore, that up to 8,000 civilians died as a result of the bombs dropped on Afghanistan? Does he not think that that alienates the population?

Mr. Savidge

I do not know the precise number of civilian casualties and I suspect that some people have exaggerated them considerably. However, I was worried that some of the bombing might be less discriminating than it should be. I was especially concerned about the bombing of certain towns. The form of deployment that we are discussing means that specialist forces can target action specifically at armed enemies, and that is a correct approach.

The campaign has been more successful than the Jeremiahs predicted, but the very fact that the new deployment is necessary should be a salutary reminder that war is not an easy option. There is a real danger that we may suffer serious casualties, which is why it is right that the tone of the debate has been sombre.

In our continuing campaign against terrorism since 11 September, we must recognise that it will not necessarily be appropriate to take similar military action in all circumstances. We must also realise that major wars to change Governments are certainly not an easy option. For that reason, and because of the concern about overstretch, we should be wary of extending our war to countries not related to events on 11 September. We should concentrate on the present campaign against terror that is related to those terrible events.

It is important to our Afghan campaign that we have the backing of a United Nations resolution and the support of a broad international coalition. We must be wary of doing anything to alienate that coalition or to divide it, or of taking any actions that could appear to be unilateral.

Reference was made in an intervention to press speculation that there might be an association between al-Qaeda and Iraq. It is important to remember that that speculation was started by a member of the present Bush Administration who, during an interview in Congress, said it should be recognised that countries like Iraq are happy to co-operate with terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda. That does not sound as if it is based on hard intelligence and we should be wary of using such silly speculation as a basis for considering future action. British military action should be based on intelligence in both senses of the word. It should never be based on the ideology of the US hard right. Under no circumstances should we consider sacrificing British interests or British lives for the sake of a special relationship with a particular US Administration.

The action in Afghanistan is based on a just cause—our response to events on 11 September. We must be careful, however, that we do not take action when it is less obvious that we have a just cause or a proper right, or if it could seem in any way that we are assuming a right to start wars with other countries. We should not lightly go to war in this region. We have been successful because we have had clear objectives and there were predictable consequences, despite the delicate situation in relation to Pakistan. We should not lightly go to war in regions where there could be wholly unpredictable consequences and if there is a chance of causing a catastrophe, possibly involving exchanges of weapons of mass destruction, with perhaps one side using biological and chemical weapons and another using nuclear weapons.

I support the action, but I hope that when we consider future action, we seek to maintain the unity of the international community in dealing with a dangerous and difficult world.

7.28 pm
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I intend to be brief because the key part of our purpose in calling for the emergency debate was to give the House itself a chance to express its views. I am sure that you will agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the quality of the debate and its measured nature have fully vindicated Mr. Speaker's decision to accede to our request. Furthermore, it is inconceivable that our involvement in Afghanistan could be increased from a peacekeeping role to a war-fighting role without Parliament having the opportunity to consider the issue.

The debate also provides us with an opportunity to correct the record. The Prime Minister told the House on Monday that my right hon. Friend the leader of the Opposition does not believe that we should be in Afghanistan".—[Official Report, 18 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 25.] That is entirely untrue. My right hon. Friend and the Conservative party fully support the deployment of British troops for fighting terrorism, as part of an important contribution to the coalition with the United States in attempting to eradicate the al-Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan. Indeed, we have consistently made the point that our troops are trained for war fighting, although sufficiently versatile to perform superbly in the role of peace enforcers. I hope that no hon. Member is under any illusion, given the speeches made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and my other colleagues, about the fact that we support the Government in their move to deploy our forces further in Afghanistan.

This is not an occasion on which to divide the House tonight. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex asked a number of key questions that we believe the Government should address, and I intend to turn to them in a moment. The issues raised are not pedantic points of debate, but critical questions that the House and the British people are entitled to ask. We are entitled to seek assurances that the Government have addressed those issues before committing our troops to what the Secretary of State said on Monday would be missions conducted in unforgiving and hostile terrain against a dangerous enemy."—[0fficial Report, 18 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 39.] Indeed, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) articulated the view of the House when he said that there was nothing disloyal in seeking to call the Government to account before deploying our troops.

In the short time available to me, I should like to go through some of the points made in the debate, but if I miss a few hon. Members' contributions, I hope that they will not take it as a personal slight on what they said. I first turn to the right hon Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, whose near unequivocal support of Her Majesty's Government ought to go down in the history books; it was as near as any Government have come to having his approbation on a defence issue. The Government are entitled to take that as full support from him. He was right to say the t the Select Committee always maintained that the war will not be resolved quickly, which is certainly the realisation of all hon. Members tonight.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) made a splendid speech—a man who was unquestionably one of the finest Secretaries of State for Defence that we have seen in modern times and a man who commanded enormous respect in the military community throughout the United Kingdom. His loss to that office in 1997 was a loss to the country as well. He was right to say that this is no time to flinch and that, if we fail in this mission, al-Qaeda will regroup, thereby threatening not only Afghanistan and the stability that we seek to create there, but other neighbouring countries, as well as those further afield. Leaving al-Qaeda intact would, as he said, only serve to encourage terrorism elsewhere in the world.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson)—a former Defence Minister—made an extremely important speech and a very interesting contribution, in which he set out the great difficulties involved in Britain having a unique dual role. I shall turn again to that matter in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) is a man who provides the House with continuity. I always feel that we have a connection right the way back to many Parliaments before this one, and it will come as no surprise to the House to know that, like me, he has been up the Khyber. As ever, he speaks with great authority—he is a man who understands parts of the world that many of us will never have been near. He was right to say in our rather cool British way—indeed, in his rather cool British way—that we should carefully consider every step on the road, not make hasty decisions.

My hon. Friend was also right to utter some salutary warnings, not only about the experiences of the Russians when they were in Afghanistan, but to remind us, the country and indeed the civilised world that-even if we root out all those people from the caves and clear them from Afghanistan, which we are sure will be done—there are nevertheless sleepers in the United States and the United Kingdom who threaten us and remain permanently ready to cause mayhem and havoc in our country.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) made an interesting speech. As he said, he does not know where the military endgame will be, and I fear that that is something which we all feel.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) made a perceptive speech. He spoke on behalf of one of the great homes of the Royal Marines and was right to remind us of his own military experience, which he brings to the House and which we therefore value. He also reminded us of the condition of the families—those wives, mothers, daughters and indeed, I suspect, husbands sons and others—whose loved ones are about to embark on a mission for us in defence of freedom. He was right to remind us that we owe them a debt of gratitude and that, throughout the forthcoming weeks, we must support them as well.

The hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) made a very perceptive speech. Indeed, he put his finger on the key point that the Government face two options—we all face them: one is to reduce our long-standing commitments; the other is to provide more resources, and he made his views absolutely explicit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) made, as ever, a robust contribution, in which he said that we must have the necessary kit. I am sure that Ministers will be well aware not only of the need to do that, but that any failure to provide our troops with the kit that they require will be a dereliction of duty, and I am sure that Ministers will not wish to be cast in that light.

I wish to ask four questions that have not been adequately dealt with by the Government, and I hope that the Minister will do so in responding to the debate. First and foremost, will he say what proportion of the front-line forces in the mountains will be provided by the United Kingdom? That question was put to the Secretary of State, but I do not think that he was able to answer it. We are entitled to know to what extent those forces are being provided by us and to what extent by the United States of American and, indeed, other countries whose forces are active in the front line.

Secondly, if the numbers of al-Qaeda produce a greater threat than we anticipate, what plans exist to reinforce 45 Commando? Thirdly, what is ISAF's mission? That is a critical point about ISAF's role, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South. Is our commitment to ISAF open ended? For example, 3 Commando Brigade headquarters will be inside ISAF's remit area. If the peacekeeping forces come under attack and need to be reinforced, can the Minister explain how the lines of communication will work? How will that issue be resolved operationally, so that those forces can be reinforced—presumably by troops under the command of US Central Command, Centcom?

Finally, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North raised the issue of Britain's unique role in providing front-line combat troops and peacekeepers on the streets of Kabul. The Minister will have heard the hon. Member's comments on the very real difficulties involved, and the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife also made that point. The House would welcome more explanation from the Minister, to try to help us with that Issue.

The House has made it abundantly clear tonight that it is under no illusions about the dangers that our troops face and the responsibility that rests on the House, and especially on those Ministers who are responsible for the deployment. As Major General Hagenbeck, commander of US ground forces in Afghanistan, has said, the al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters represent

a very smart, aggressive and sophisticated enemy. The latest deployment is composed of commando gunners, engineers, logisticians, signallers, medics and medium-lift helicopter support personnel. Together they constitute a coherent battle group, which has had the advantage of taking part in the recent demanding exercise in Oman, and we acknowledge, as the right hon. Member for Walsall, South said, the foresight of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in holding them well forward in preparation for just this eventuality.

However, the heart of the operation will be the infantry. The Royal Marine Commandos enjoy an awesome reputation around the world, by land and by sea—per mare per terram. We know that, just as in the Falklands, those green berets will instil fear in the hearts and minds of al-Qaeda, as they have in this country's enemies ever since they took Gibraltar 300 years ago. They are tough, versatile and highly trained. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea said, they are lions commanded by lions. On behalf of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, I wish them all possible good fortune as they embark on a mission which, although many thousands of miles from these islands, is designed to search out and destroy those responsible for one of the most appalling atrocities of modern times and whose continued existence threatens our very way of life.

7.40 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie)

We have been fortunate in the considerable time that the House has been able to find over the past six months to comment on and debate the war on terrorism. That has provided some thoughtful and measured exchanges. It is certainly evident that, as the debates have progressed over the months, the quality of contribution has improved. Today's debate is certainly no exception.

I assure the House that its general support and many, if not most, of hon. Members' contributions are appreciated by the Government. It is important, of course, that the outside world and our armed forces see and understand the strength of support that the Government command in our actions. I thank the House for its support. The opportunity to reaffirm support for our armed forces, which has been taken in all quarters of this House, is clearly vital, particularly at a time like this. We heard that on Monday, but it always bears repetition.

I shall attempt to answer as many specific points raised as possible—of all the debates to which I have responded from the Front Bench, the fewest questions have been asked of me in this one—but I want first to highlight some of the points made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. First, we believe that we are right to act in Afghanistan. Secondly, we think that the House should note that the action that the international community has taken to date has been successful. Thirdly, British forces have throughout played a vital role in that success.

I hope and trust that many in the House were reassured by my right hon. Friend's explaining that, first, there is no incompatibility or inconsistency in operating within the international security assistance force and undertaking the missions that we are planning with the deployment of 45 Commando.

Secondly, on the question of Turkey, we have been as honest and open as possible in explaining the status of the negotiations and the prospect of Turkey assuming leadership of ISAF. Frankly, all that I can add is that discussions continue, they will be continuing this week, and we hope that they will reach a resolution very quickly. Thirdly, we have constantly stressed—I am sure that that is why the point has also been accepted by the Opposition, certainly by the official Opposition—that the rooting out of the remaining al-Qaeda elements would take time, but that it must be done.

Members have commented and made suggestions on a number of what I would term specific and quite detailed military issues. I hesitate to disappoint Members of all parties, but we generally take our advice from our military staff. That may answer many of the helpful and, perhaps particularly, not quite so helpful suggestions that have been made. I know that many Members have an interest in military affairs, and I certainly recognise that some have military experience—some over many generations, including in the regions concerned—but I do not think that any would claim to match that of the Chief of the Defence Staff.

The House might care to note in passing that in the autumn the Chief of the Defence Staff said: We are in this for the long haul". He was right then, and he is right now. We do not send our forces off around the world on a whim. His advice has been crucial in determining what forces we deploy, for which missions and for how long.

I want to address one or two specific points mentioned. I hope that the Opposition are now satisfied with the response that they have been given: 45 Commando group command and control is entirely separate from that of ISAF, and is integrated in the system for patrolling active operations in the country. The 45 Commando group will come directly under Centcom's command, through our own officers. Frankly, that is entirely normal and correct.

Exit strategies have been mentioned, in which regard I sometimes feel one is expected almost to assume the mantle of the forecaster of tomorrow's racing. It really is not like that. We make the best estimates that we can. The exit strategy on this occasion is simple: we will leave when the task is completed.

I want to cover some of the more detailed points made in the debate. It was suggested by—I think—more than one hon. Member that perhaps some form of armour should be available to the force. That point was equally quickly knocked down by those who have ever been in the area. To provide such armour would surely create a force that is the antithesis of the Royal Marines. It is correct to say that 45 Commando soldiers are lightly equipped. That is one reason for their being what they are. They are mobile and their use in mountain terrain in much of Afghanistan depends on that ability. They rely on speed, surprise and flexibility of operation. They form a composite unit; they have their own light artillery, logistic support and engineers.

Hugh Robertson

I should like to clear up that point. There is all the world of difference, as I am sure the Minister realises, between armour and light armour. The Marines, as a light-armoured force, have been training with light armour for many years. Indeed, I went on such an exercise with them in Norway and spent a whole summer attached to them. Such light-armoured vehicles could play some part in Afghanistan.

Dr. Moonie

I do not want to go into too much operational detail about what we are doing. I assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that if we need armoured vehicles they will be supplied.

Mr. Jenkin

Is the hon. Gentleman able to answer the question that the Secretary of State was unable to answer? Obviously, many of the Marines whom we are deploying will be in the front line. What proportion of the front line will be British forces rather than Americans and others?

Dr. Moonie

That is a rather difficult question to answer. I am not here to give details of an operational point. This is not a single deployment. We are sending troops to add to the forces that are available in order to root out remnants of the al-Qaeda network. Therefore, on the basis of the information that we have, each deployment will be of the strength thought necessary to carry out the job involved. I cannot answer the question with any certainty. One can conceive of an operation involving part of the frontline strength, and of an operation involving all of it. One can conceive of them acting on their own in relatively small numbers, and of engaging all forces committed to the action. I cannot give any more or clearer answers than that. I hope that that is enough to satisfy the hon. Gentleman.

On the support that is necessary, we must recognise that complete air supremacy is available in Afghanistan. Therefore, at any time during any conflict, the Marines will be able to call on quite a wide array of air-support measures. Clearly, as I have said, we will make provision should armour be thought necessary, but 1 honestly do not think that that will be necessary.

The point was made again about the Pakistani border. Anybody who has been anywhere near the border in Afghanistan will know full well just how difficult it is to contain. We acknowledge that the terrain, geography and ethnicity of the people are factors that demonstrate the difficulty of ensuring that the border remains closed to any member of al-Qaeda who is trying to evade capture. We certainly continue to urge the Pakistan Government to take measures to help to seal the border where necessary, and they have been very helpful in that regard.

We can confirm—again, I shall not give any details—that full operational intercapability of communications is available, as it has been throughout our operations in Afghanistan. Our Marines routinely train with US forces, so they are well used to operating together.

On some of the specific points made, the analogy of the dragon's teeth is not a particularly good one, as Perseus defeated the warriors involved—

Mr. Menzies Campbell

After some time.

Dr. Moonie

But he did defeat them. I shall recite the story in Greek, if the House wants; in fact, I cannot. Enough of such unseemly levity. The right hon. and learned Gentleman pointed out that our people are going into a dangerous situation.

Much has been made of the risk to ISAF. When ISAF was deployed, it was never envisaged that it was going into a risk-free situation. There have always been exits in view, so that if the worst came to the worst and anything really vicious happened there, the force could withdraw to Bagram and defend itself. I can assure hon. Members in all parts of the House that it can defend itself very well.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

A question was asked about the number of troops that were part of our contribution to ISAF. Am I right in thinking that the figure is about 1,800?

Dr. Moonie

The figures is about 1,600 at present and is scheduled to drop as the mission develops.

Our forces are involved in two distinct roles—peacekeeping duties and top-level fighting. We excel in both. That point must be underlined.

Mr. Weir

The Minister has not mentioned the families of the soldiers, a subject that was mentioned during the debate. He will understand that those families are interested less in geopolitics or the war against terrorism than in the fact that the soldiers are in action. Has the Minister any plans to visit the families?

Dr. Moonie

I have had plans to visit that area for some time. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I live near there. I shall be happy to visit the families involved.

It being three hours after the commencement of the proceedings, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings pursuant to Standing Order No. 24 (Adjournment on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration) and the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.