HC Deb 04 November 2002 vol 392 cc12-5
11. Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

What recent discussions he has had with international partners regarding extending the mandate of the intervention force in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. [76703]

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

The United Kingdom currently contributes about 400 British troops to the international security assistance force, based in Kabul. I have regular discussions with international colleagues about ISAF, including on the continuing need for such a force after the expiry of its current United Nations authorisation on 20 December this year.

Mr. Mullin

My I put it to my right hon. Friend that the situation in Afghanistan remains on a knife edge and that, unless ISAF's mandate is extended, there is a danger that Afghanistan will slide back into the sort of chaos that brought the Taliban to power in the first place? What discussions has he had with our allies about extending the mandate as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Hoon

I accept my hon. Friend's observation that there are continuing concerns about security in Afghanistan. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said only in September: I want to make it clear, once again, that we are entirely committed to its reconstruction. We will not desert the Afghan people. We will stick with them until the job …is done."—[Official Report, 24 September 2002; Vol. 390, c. 6.] That is why we are having detailed discussions, particularly with the United States, on planning how the coalition can further stabilise Afghanistan and, together with other allies, are looking at a range of different possibilities, but I have to tell my hon. Friend and the House that it is rather too early to say what that might involve at this stage.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

I am sure that all hon. Members will wish to praise the role of the British armed forces in Afghanistan under extremely difficult circumstances, but may I return the Secretary of State to the phrase "defence assumptions", which he used in answer to questions from my hon. Friend the Members for Aldershot (Mr Howarth) and for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin)? The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) made the very important point that the situation in Afghanistan is very delicate indeed. Can the right hon. Gentleman perhaps tell the House what contingency plans the Ministry of Defence has to reinforce British troops in Afghanistan if, unfortunately, the situation deteriorates, and whether that will have an adverse impact on the other preparations that the MOD is now making in relation to possible UN or other operations against Iraq?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations about British forces in Afghanistan, but it is only right that we should acknowledge the very considerable contribution made by other allies as well. Clearly, it is not simply for the United Kingdom to respond to any significant deterioration in the situation in Afghanistan. That would involve an effort by the international community, which is very well represented in Kabul and, indeed, in other operations in that country, so were there to be such a situation, we clearly have plans available that would allow the United Kingdom to make a contribution further to secure the situation in Afghanistan. As of today, I am delighted to say that that is not necessary, but it is obviously a matter that we keep under constant review.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde)

Has my right hon. Friend seen reports that it is estimated that this year's poppy harvest in Afghanistan is something like 10 times larger than the harvest in the last year of the Taliban? Even if it is not larger to that degree but has none the less increased, will he assure me that the allied armed forces in Afghanistan are not in any way turning a blind eye to the cultivation of this crop as a quid pro quo for keeping warring factions together? He knows as well as I do that the crop will inevitably find its way on to the streets of his constituency and mine as heroin.

Mr. Hoon

I certainly share my hon. Friend's concern about the poppy harvest. I am not an expert on poppy cultivation, but I anticipate that he is rather ahead of things as regards the harvest. I am aware of speculation about the prospects for this year's production, and I assure him that we and other members of the international community keep that under review and are discussing urgently the steps that can be taken to limit the amount that is produced in Afghanistan.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that last December he gave me a categorical assurance that British troops would only be stationed in Afghanistan for a very short period? When I expressed scepticism about that, and predicted that they would remain for a very much longer period, he was firm in telling me that I was wrong. Why has the policy been changed?

Mr. Hoon

There has been no change in the policy. As I recall, the hon. Gentleman asked me about the duration of war-fighting operations, and I was able to tell him that those forces will be there for as long as necessary. We do not have significant numbers of British troops on the ground involved in war-fighting operations, and our contribution to the international security assistance force, as I explained to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, is significantly lower numerically than that of several other countries. That is why it is important that we recognise the contribution made by allies.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the United States has just withdrawn reconstruction aid from Masar-e-Sharif because it considers it too dangerous to allow its personnel to operate in that area? In view of that, can he explain to me what the coalition means by saying that it wishes to extend the ISAF effect outside Kabul?

Mr. Hoon

That is simply shorthand for the kinds of discussions that I indicated are taking place, involving the United Kingdom and other allies, about how best to secure other parts of Afghanistan away from Kabul. The idea is to find means of working with the transitional Administration to ensure that the difficulties that I know have been a recurrent feature of Maser are not repeated elsewhere.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

May I take the Secretary of State back four questions, and confirm that the Opposition support the operations in Afghanistan? We believe that there should be more NATO involvement in the ISAF operations. What action is he taking to ensure greater involvement of NATO?

Mr. Hoon

ISAF is a UN peacekeeping operation, and, for the moment, I do not anticipate that there need be NATO involvement. The countries that supply troops to the ISAF operation are, by and large, members of NATO, although not exclusively so. Provided that there is sufficient support from the international community to maintain ISAF in its present form up to 20 December—and beyond, should the UN consider it necessary—I am content that we would not need NATO support for that particular operation.

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