HL Deb 19 December 2001 vol 630 cc288-301

5.36 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Statement is as follows:

"Mr Speaker, the recent Bonn agreement on the future governance of Afghanistan called for the deployment of an international force to Afghanistan to assist the new Afghan interim authority, which formally takes office on Saturday, 22nd December, with the provision of security and stability for Kabul. Two days ago my right honourable friend the Prime Minister confirmed that the United Kingdom was willing in principle to lead such a force.

"I can now confirm that the United Kingdom is formally prepared to take on the leadership of an International Security Assistance Force for a limited period of three months. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has today written to the Secretary-General of the United Nations to inform him of our decision.

"Our decision follows further discussions with the United States, with the other nations that have indicated that they may be willing to contribute troops to the force, with the United Nations, and with the designated leaders of the interim authority in Afghanistan.

"There are a number of issues still to be finalised. We have not yet settled every detail about this force. But it is right that I should inform the House today, in particular about the letter to the UN Secretary-General. And today is the last opportunity for me to bring this before the House before the Christmas Recess.

"As the Prime Minister emphasised, the situation in Afghanistan remains fragile. The International Security Assistance Force is a vital part of the international community's efforts to assist the Afghan people in this early and difficult period of the reconstruction of their country.

"A deployment of this kind, involving troops, equipment and logistical support from several nations, is a complex undertaking. We have no illusions about Afghanistan—deploying forces there inevitably involves an element of risk. It is a challenging, difficult and sometimes dangerous environment.

"The force will be charged with assisting the Afghan interim authority in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding area. Responsibility for security will remain with the interim authority. Potential tasks could, however, include liaison with and advice and support to the interim authority as well as the UN on security issues, together with scoping future requirements for help in establishing and training the new Afghan security forces.

"The United Kingdom will provide the force commander and his headquarters. The force commander will be Major-General John McColl, who is currently serving as the General Officer Commanding 3(UK)Division based at Bulford. General McColl, as the House will be aware, led last weekend's reconnaissance and liaison team to Kabul. The force headquarters will also be drawn from 3 Division, as will some of its main force and many of its essential support troops. Other elements will be drawn from the headquarters of 16 Air Assault Brigade and key enablers and units that are maintained at very high readiness, including elements of 40 Commando Royal Marines and the Second Battalion, the Parachute Regiment.

"Indicative planning to date suggests that the United Kingdom's contribution will be in the region of 1,500 troops, although the actual figure will depend on the contributions made by other nations. This will be an international force. It is too soon to say exactly how many troops it will include, or the nations from which they will come. But the force will number 3,000 to 5,000 and will include contributions from the armed forces of several nations.

"Sixteen nations were represented at last Friday's conference for potential troop contributors. Twenty-one nations are represented at today's follow-on conference at the Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood. We expect to establish the detailed force composition over the next few days.

"The United States has indicated that it fully supports the deployment of the International Security Assistance Force. The United States will provide essential enabling support to deploy and sustain the force. That is a vital and a considerable task.

"The House will wish to know the arrangements for command and control of the International Security Assistance Force. The force will have a particular mission, distinct from Operation Enduring Freedom. If the United Kingdom's offer to be lead nation is accepted, the United Kingdom will exercise command of the International Security Assistance Force. As I have said, General McColl will be the force commander. The force will work very closely with the United States, as set out in the letter from the Foreign Secretary to the UN Secretary-General—a copy of which has been placed in the Library of the House.

"I would like to place on record our gratitude to the United States. The United States has led the global coalition's offensive operations against international terrorism with great success. Their generosity in also finding the capacity to support the International Security Assistance Force, by providing enabling capabilities that no other country can match, should be recognised and applauded.

"I would also like to take this opportunity to record our appreciation of all the nations which have indicated that they are willing to provide troops for the International Security Assistance Force.

"The International Security Assistance Force is a reflection of the strong international support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. It will go to Kabul with the backing of the wider international community. Work is under way in New York to draw up a United Nations Security Council Resolution to authorise the deployment under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. We anticipate that it will be agreed within the next few days.

"The House will have a number of proper questions about issues that have yet to be resolved. We have not yet finalised all of the details about the force. There are still major questions, both about its size and composition—including which nations will contribute. We hope to refine the answers to these questions over the coming days.

"We also need to agree with the Afghan authorities the precise tasks that the force will undertake and the modalities of its deployment. Let me be clear: the international community is sending the force to assist the Afghans, not to interfere in their affairs. Discussions with designated members of the Interim Authority, including its chairman, Defence, Interior and Foreign Ministers, indicate that they welcome our intention to lead the ISAF.

"General McColl's reconnaissance and liaison team met leading designated members of the Interim Authority to discuss how the force could best assist the Afghans and how it should relate to the Interim Authority. Further discussions are required and General McColl will be returning to Kabul later this week. These tasks will need to be encapsulated in a detailed military technical agreement, which we anticipate finalising with the Interim Authority as soon as possible after it is established. Once this agreement and the authorising UN Security Council Resolution are in place, the International Security Assistance Force will be able to deploy in full.

"Needless to say, British forces deploying to Afghanistan will be properly equipped for the tasks that they will undertake and they will be provided with robust rules of engagement.

"The United Kingdom has been invited to take on lead nation status because we and others believe that our forces have the capability and experience required to undertake this operation. We have the ability to get a force in and up and running very quickly. It is, therefore, right that we take on this responsibility, when so much depends on the early success of the political process that the force will support.

"I am absolutely satisfied that this operation is within our capacity. Our commitment is limited in numbers—up to 1,500 troops—and duration, up to three months. After three months, we will hand over lead nation status to one of our partners. There have already been indications that others may be willing to take this on.

"General McColl and his immediate team will be returning to Kabul later this week to continue detailed negotiations with the Afghan authorities on the terms of a detailed military technical agreement. They will also be present for the inauguration of the Interim Authority on 22nd December. Troops from 40 Commando Royal Marines will be available to support General McColl and, if required, the Interim Authority. A company of Marines is being sent this week to bolster the existing presence at Bagram. They will also enable the International Security Assistance Force, once it is formed, to deploy more quickly.

"The deployment of the main elements of the ISAF will be dependent on the outcome of discussions on the military technical agreement and the complexity of the task. Given the circumstances, the main body will not begin to deploy before 28th December at the earliest. It will be a matter of weeks before a substantial force can be deployed.

"I am very conscious that our decision to lead this force will mean that some of our troops will not be able to spend Christmas with their families. Some of our troops have been at Bagram for some time. Separation from friends and family is never easy, least of all at this time of year. Our troops will, however, deploy to Afghanistan knowing that they will be carrying out a vital and a worthwhile task, contributing to restoring peace and stability to a country that has been torn apart by strife and international terrorism.

"In offering to be the lead nation for the ISAF and to deploy British troops to Afghanistan, we are aware that we have taken on significant responsibilities. The war there is being won; we must now secure the peace. The United Kingdom is proud to be able to play an important role in this. Mr. Speaker, I am confident that we will".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.47 p.m.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Perhaps I may say from the outset that we shall support Her Majesty's Government on whatever decision is taken about the deployment of troops to the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan.

However, your Lordships may recall that in the excellent debate last Monday I sounded words of caution about British military involvement in any multinational peacekeeping force, as did four former Chiefs of Defence Staff and one former Secretary of State for Defence.

We on these Benches support the case for A1'Qaeda to be located and destroyed wherever it is; but if we had to commit many more troops, significant overstretch would occur. The Army is now at full stretch, and if this commitment should last for an indefinite period and replacements are required, and if the Army should be required to be deployed to Somalia or other areas in support of the destruction of A1'Qaeda, it would become significantly overstretched.

The Statement refers to a commitment of up to three months. How do we know that it will be for only up to three months? Who has agreed to replace us? This must be made known as soon as possible, as whoever it is should start assembling the replacement force now and start immediate training in the likely tasks once they are known. The Secretary-General of the United Nations must bring pressure to bear to nominate the replacement lead nation now.

I should like to ask why we should commit our troops to peacekeeping operations when their many military skills may be needed in further fighting. Many other nations can carry out peace-keeping duties, leaving our troops available for more serious fighting operations.

Before I ask the Minister some questions that arise from the Statement, I stress that if we are to commit troops to the operation, it is essential that they are able to meet the unexpected. It is therefore vital that the force is robust, with a secure airhead, protected air corridors and a secure forward operating base. It is essential that there are enough troops to deal with the unexpected and that reserves are on immediate call to reinforce the situation when required.

What is the exact mission for the British troops and the security force? There is mention of potential tasks of liaison and of advice and support on security issues to the interim authority, but the fact that the precise tasks to be undertaken by the force that we are about to commit still have to be agreed with the interim authority is hardly acceptable. They must be clarified in a mission statement.

There still do not seem to be answers to some of the questions that I raised in the House on Monday evening, which I shall repeat. We have not been given a reason why a Muslim force could not take the lead role and assume command of ISAF. What are the reasons for that not happening? What are the reasons for France and Germany not leading ISAF if a Muslim force is not acceptable to Afghanistan? Will the United States remain in overall command? Will they continue to provide the necessary air superiority for complete air cover?

The UK will be in command of ISAF, but to whom will the force under the command of Major-General McColl report? In other words, who and where is the superior headquarters? What will be the exact chain of command? The Statement refers to US essential enabling support to deploy and sustain the force. Perhaps the Minister can expand on that and clarify the command situation.

Who will provide the heavy airlift for the insertion and extraction of the force? What other support will the United States provide? What will be the precise objectives of the force? They have not yet been mentioned.

Is the Minister aware that in such situations it is impossible to know when we will be able to withdraw and hand over the commitment? Only time will tell. The operation is totally different from those in the Balkans, with extremely long lines of communication and many difficulties. The unexpected may well come about, bringing about changes and sucking in many more troops.

I am grateful to the Minister for his Statement and look forward to his reply. I repeat again that my party supports Her Majesty's Government on the deployment of troops to Afghanistan.

5.53 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, I echo the thanks to the Minister for repeating the Statement. During the debate on Monday he did not give any details, but told us that if we waited there would probably be some movement before the end of the week. It is gratifying that he has come forward with a Statement before the House rises.

The Statement sets out the movement of troops. That fits well with the remit set out in Annex 1 of the Bonn agreement. It is worth noting, as the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, said, that the body will not have a peacekeeping role. Unless I have misunderstood the remit of the force, it will be there to support the civil authority, which we hope will assume power on 22nd December.

I am not going to ask 101 questions this afternoon, because the situation is very fluid. I said the same on Monday, because we were awaiting the assessment of Major-General McColl. Asking too many questions now might lead to no answers being given.

We are concerned that so far, although the Bonn agreement has been signed, there does not seem to be much overt support for it on the ground from many of the leaders of the different factions. Although I believe that such overt support will be forthcoming, a good deal of political persuasion will be required.

The Minister mentioned that there would be 1,500 troops on the ground. I have two questions about that. First, he mentioned that further troops would be needed for 22nd December. Will they have enough time to be on the ground by then? If they are not on the ground then, will the troops that we already have there be sufficient for the job of the handover? What is envisaged for the handover? Secondly, although 1,500 troops are envisaged, that number could be greatly reduced if other nations are prepared to take the strain. My party and most others in the House feel some pride in the fact that other nations are prepared to accept our expertise in the lead role, but if others also take the strain, will the troops that we put on the ground be made up less of infantry and more of headquarters staff and logistics staff such as engineers? The Minister mentioned that Christmas is fast approaching. Although we wholeheartedly support the movement of troops, it is worth mentioning that we very much echo his sentiments that at this time of year our thoughts go to the families of those troops who are being sent out to what is still quite a dangerous situation.

5.57 p.m.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their general support on behalf of their parties for the action that the Government are taking. That is much appreciated. It has been present from the beginning of the conflict and I have no doubt that it will last as long as the conflict lasts.

My second point before I deal with the questions is that ideally the Statement would not have been made today, but, as this is the last sitting day of another place before Christmas, the choice was between waiting until everything was absolutely in order—which would have meant recalling Parliament to make the Statement—or making the Statement today. A Statement was necessary, because both Houses want to know what is going on before they break up for the Christmas Recess. I apologise in advance if I cannot give as many answers as I would like.

The noble Lord, Lord Vivian, asked about the exact purpose of the mission. The tasks that will be required will no doubt emerge as a consequence of the military technical agreement that will be negotiated and announced on or just after Saturday, when the interim authority comes into being. We have said as much as we can about the sort of jobs that will be required of the international force.

Why us? I hope that the Statement makes that plain. We are committed to helping the Afghan interim authority, which is so important if we are to achieve the wider objective of breaking the link between Afghanistan and terror. We have highly capable forces with experience in rapid expeditionary deployment. Our task will be to get ISAF in and running. We will then hand over leadership to one of our partners.

As for command and control, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, to look at the letter—there is a copy in the Library, and I know that he has a copy—from the Foreign Secretary to the United Nations Secretary-General. The letter deals with the particular point as best we can at the moment, and it makes clear what the command and control structure will be.

The noble Lord's last question was on how the force would get in and then get out. Part of the American support will be an overall operational interest in how we get in and get out. However, we shall have to wait a few days for the details of the individual countries that will be involved.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked about Afghan support. As he knows, deployment of an ISAF is included in the Bonn agreement, which was reached by all the Afghan parties and is at the root of the force. The deployment will of course be made with the agreement of the Interim Authority. As I said, we shall finalise the details of our agreement with the authority later this week. However, in recent discussions, Hamid Karzai has welcomed both the United Kingdom's help in recent months and the deployment of an ISAF. He noted that the force symbolises the international community's determination to help Afghanistan and gives the Afghan people hope for the future.

I very much appreciate the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on our troops spending Christmas away from home. The comments will be appreciated by our troops and are a view shared on all sides of the House.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, also asked about our 1,500 troops, and particularly about the ones we want to be there by 22nd December, which is the day on which the Interim Authority effectively comes into being. Those troops are not part of the ISAF; I have made it clear that the ISAF members would not begin to be in place until 28th December at the earliest. However, those troops will be there by 22nd December to assist in the inauguration which is a very important event for the new administration.

As I said, a large number of other nations want to play a part, and their very role is being discussed in today's Northwood conference to which I referred in my Statement.

Before I sit down, I should also like to echo the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that we should be very proud as a country that we are taking on this role. I shall leave it there for now.

6.3 p.m.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's Statement. As it acknowledges that there is still much to be settled, I think that it would be quite inappropriate to bombard the Minister now with a series of questions that may be difficult to answer. It is, however, perhaps worth touching on two points.

First, although the involvement of the United States is very welcome, the command arrangements between the United States and ISAF need most careful consideration and to be formalised. The Foreign Secretary's letter to Kofi Annan states that the United States Central Command will have authority over the International Security Assistance Force". Could the Minister expand on that rather short description of command and control?

Secondly, we must welcome the fact that our service men will be given robust rules of engagement in this area. However, it is also very important that all other forces operating in ISAF work with similar rules of engagement. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the House that the rules of engagement agreed for United Kingdom forces will be applied throughout ISAF.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I thank the noble and gallant Lord for his comments; his support is very welcome indeed. On command and control, the passage in the letter from the Foreign Secretary to which he referred continues: the United States Central Command will have authority over the International Security Assistance Force to deconflict International Security Assistance Force and Operation Enduring Freedom activities and to ensure that International Security Assistance Force activities do not interfere with the successful completion of Operation Enduring Freedom. Today, I cannot go further than that particular sentence.

The noble and gallant Lord's comments on the rules of engagement were very welcome. He has also not even asked what the rules of engagement will be, as he knows that such matters are not discussed in public. He can, however, be assured that the rules of engagement affecting British troops will also affect troops from other countries.

Lord Judd

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister accept that many of us on these Benches welcome the clarity and purpose of his Statement? Does he also accept that we send our best wishes to everyone involved in this difficult task and that, while we think of service men separated from their families, like others, we also think very much of wives and families separated from their husbands and fathers at such a time?

I ask my noble friend to comment on a few matters. First, I think that we all take heart from the emphasis that he placed on the very specific way in which the Government and the Prime Minister are ensuring that the action is being taken with UN authorisation.

Secondly, does my noble friend accept that many of us take great pride in the fact that British armed services are acquiring such an outstanding international reputation for such work? It is something of which we can all be proud.

Thirdly, does my noble friend accept that, as the stated objective of our activities has been a humanitarian victory as well as a military victory, it is extremely important that there should be close co-ordination between the work of this force and the work of the humanitarian agencies, whose leaders have welcomed the proposal for such a force'? Will he assure us that arrangements will be put in place to ensure that that co-operation and co-ordination are all that they might be?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his support. He speaks as a distinguished Peer in two spheres: as a former Defence Minister, and in the role that he has played in humanitarian organisations. I am therefore particularly grateful for his comments.

The United Nations' role is very important in this whole enterprise. Indeed, my noble friend will not be surprised to hear that the letter from the Foreign Secretary effectively tells the Secretary-General that we are prepared to take such a leading role if we are asked to do so. It states: The International Security Assistance Force will have a particular mission authorised by a United Nations Security Council Resolution that is distinct from Operation Enduring Freedom. We hope that that resolution will be forthcoming in the next 48 hours or so.

The coalition has always regarded the humanitarian aid effort as vital and as equally important to the military and diplomatic efforts. As has been said from this Dispatch Box on many occasions already, our war is not with the Afghan people but with those who harbour terrorism.

I have to make it clear to the House that ISAF's prime role is not a humanitarian one; one suspects that it will have enough on its plate without doing that very important job as well.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister saying as a definite undertaking that the Security Council will meet in the next 48 hours? If so, how does that square with his earlier comment that the military agreement will not be signed until the day on which the Interim Authority takes over? Will the Interim Authority then pass a resolution of its own giving authorisation to the troops to be present in Afghanistan pending any resolution of the Security Council if it has not been passed by then?

Perhaps I may ask also about the time scale for this interim force. The acting Defence Minister said that it would be there for only six months but as I understand the Bonn agreement, the requirement is for the Loya Jirgah to meet within six months and not necessarily for the new authority to have taken over by then. May we have an assurance that there is an agreement with the Interim Authority in Afghanistan that the force will remain there until the Loya Jirgah has completed its work and the new authority takes over?

Lord Bach

My Lords, as regards when the UN Security Council will meet to discuss any proposal, my understanding is that it will meet within the next 48 hours. I cannot confirm that but that is my understanding. That is the chronology that is intended at least, leading up to Saturday 22nd, when the new authority takes over.

I cannot give the undertaking about the ISAF and six months. It is not in my power to do that. But I say from this Dispatch Box that I should be very surprised indeed if the ISAF were not there until the time at least that the Loya Jirgah met.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I am sure that the House is grateful to the Minister for coming here today, clearly before he is really ready to do so. I have three questions which occur to me which he may or may not be able to answer.

First, I echo the surprise of my noble friend Lord Vivian that the British force will be in effective control for a period of only three months. Is that really practical? Secondly, which units—not which individual units—of what arms are likely to be sent to Afghanistan for that purpose? Thirdly, what will happen to the tasks which are at present being undertaken by 3 Div?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Lord is right; I cannot answer all three questions. We believe that the three-month period is sensible. There would be an outcry if there were some indefinite period for British troops to lead this force. Bearing that in mind, we think, and it is thought proper from a military point of view, that three months is a proper period.

I want to make a point about the three months in answer to the noble Lord's question. It is three months from when the force is operational. I have pointed out already to the House that it will not begin to be formed until 28th December and will take some weeks after that. So we are not, for example, saying three months from this Saturday.

On the second question, the noble Lord knows which divisions and which troops are going to Afghanistan but as to the detail of his question, I shall have to write to him. On the role of 3 Div, that role will be filled by others while elements from that division are serving in Afghanistan.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, perhaps I may say how very much I welcome the Statement repeated by the Minister. As I said on Monday, it is absolutely vital that we give every necessary assistance to the Interim Authority to bring about a better life for the people of Afghanistan and better governance. If it is appropriate that that assistance is in the form of our Armed Forces, then it is a very good thing that we are sending our Armed Forces. I am extremely pleased to hear that they are taking a leading role because of their professionalism and expertise in that field.

I accept entirely that this is not the time to ask detailed questions of my noble friend. I ask only one question. Will he confirm that, in addition to the troop movements which he has announced in the Statement, British forces who are already in theatre, on land and at sea, and doing such a magnificent job, will stay in position?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her support and her question. We are discussing today those troops which are to go into Afghanistan. We know that there are some there already. We know also that in theatre, there are many British service people at sea. They will remain there because, of course, the fight against terrorism is far from over. As the Statement says, the war is being won but it is not won yet. The ships that we have there are no doubt a source of great comfort to those troops who will be going in to Afghanistan to lead the force.

Before leaving the point, it should be said from this House too that not only do we wish well those who are giving up their Christmas, as it were, to be out there, but we also appreciate those who have been out there now for some time who will also be there over Christmas and the New Year. We send them our best wishes too.

Lord Howe of Aberavon

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will take comfort, as we all intend, from the extent to which this mission is so widely supported as a necessary step in response to the disintegration of the former state of Afghanistan and the need to put it together again.

But will the Minister also derive some wisdom from the experience of not dissimilar exercises? There have been many variations over the past 20 or 30 years. I have in mind, for example, at least one in the Middle East. One draws two conclusions from that. It is extremely important for every contingency to be foreseen as far as possible. Nothing can shake such a mission more seriously than the impact of the unexpected. Will he accept that? Will he accept also that that is all the more reason for the different nations coming together in creating this multi-national force to have the closest possible political co-operation throughout at the most intimate level in order to be sure that they react nationally as well as internationally in the same kind of way to those hazards which may yet develop?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for what he has said, speaking as he does with vast experience of these matters over many years. There is nothing in his contribution to which I could possibly take exception. I know that we are looking into all the matters which he raised. We do not believe that this is an easy operation. The Statement did not say that it was and no one can pretend that it will be. We must take into account the historical precedents. At the same time, it is gratifying, as the noble and learned Lord said, that we have such widespread support for what we are doing here because it is clearly the right thing to do.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept my thanks too for the Statement which he has repeated and the positive decision that has been taken? Does he not agree that it is crucial that one of the very few countries (which the United Kingdom is) which can quickly deploy forces in peace operations should step forward on an occasion like this? There are not many countries around the world which can do that and if they all stand back and ask each other to do it, such operations will not be performed properly.

Will the noble Lord say something about steps which could be taken through the broadcasting, radio and television media in the vernacular languages to explain the purposes of this mission and to ensure that the people of Afghanistan know that the troops are coming there to help them to get themselves on their feet again? There have been really serious shortcomings in a number of peace operations in recent years when a lot of disinformation has been put around by people who have a vested interest in giving the impression that people are coming in to dominate them, to be colonial and so on. Therefore, it is extremely important that that dimension of this operation should be taken in hand.

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, speaks with great experience of these matters. I am grateful for his comments. He is right to say that there are few countries in the world that can take the lead in a matter such as we are discussing. Dare I say from the Dispatch Box that perhaps no other country could do it as well as we can? As regards the media, the noble Lord will recall from the debate the other day that praise was heaped on the BBC World Service for the part that it has already played. It was suggested that in the next spending review it should be rewarded handsomely for what it has done and continues to do. Although I do not have a direct answer on that point and nothing fresh to add, it is an important consideration. I shall make sure that it is appreciated by those who take the relevant decisions.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Minister give an assurance that out of the 1,500 British troops sent to Kabul too many will not be dispersed to police, staff and other duties and that a force which will be an influence of good for the Government will be kept intact?

Lord Bach

My Lords, so far as I can, I give the noble Lord the assurance that he seeks. It is not for me to say how that will work operationally on the ground. If he is concerned about the security of our forces, he can rest assured that their protection is our first consideration.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords. I join other noble Lords in supporting strongly the expressions of goodwill for our forces who now have to undertake an exceptionally difficult and dangerous task, not made easier by the singularly untidy nature of the present deployment. I do not criticise the Government for that; it probably could not be otherwise. However, it is exceptionally difficult for the forces going out.

The impression has grown—not, I think, due to the Minister—that somehow the military technical agreement is guaranteed to be signed on 22nd December when the authority will formally take office. The Minister has not said so, but the Statement makes clear that General McColl will continue discussions in a few days' time in the hope of reaching a satisfactory agreement. That emphasises how untidy the position is.

The Minister will be aware that there is some contrast between the Statement and the letter that the Foreign Secretary sent to the Secretary General of the United Nations on the term of deployment. The Statement says that after three months we shall hand over lead nation status to one of our partners. The letter asks the Secretary General to support efforts to identify a successor lead nation by asking member states to consider urgently the possibility of taking over. Perhaps that matter has already been agreed.

Noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, rightly paid tribute to the quality of our forces and our command. I refer not merely to their speed of deployment but also to the capability that they bring to the command and control role. For reasons of propriety some countries are obviously not suitable to take over that job in Afghanistan at the present time. Other countries do not have the capacity to do so. There is a limited number of countries which can take over the role. We have been good at getting in but I have the gravest misgivings as to whether we shall be able to withdraw from that command and control role as early as the Government suggest.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his comments and questions. He is right to comment on the difficulty of the enterprise. However, it is certainly our intention that three months from when the force becomes operational we shall give up our lead nation status. As regards the military technical agreement, I remind the noble Lord of what the Statement says. If I have given a false impression in answering questions, I retract that. The Statement says: These tasks will need to be encapsulated in a detailed Military Technical Agreement, which we anticipate finalising with the Interim Authority as soon as possible after it is established". I think that 22nd December will be a busy enough day, but I do not think that the MTA will be signed on that day.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords—

Lord Grocott

My Lords, we are well past the 20 minutes point at this stage. I realise that this is an extremely important Statement but there is another one due immediately.