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Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): It was a privilege for me, as a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, to be with the fleet last week and see that dedication. The Prime Minister mentioned that air assets might be used. It is a matter of public knowledge that our air assets in that region are the eight GR7 Harriers on HMS Illustrious. Of course, the assets available to the Americans are hugely greater. They can fly with minimal risk. Will the Secretary of State confirm that while our RAF pilots are totally dedicated, brave and will do what they are asked to do, they will be sent into action only on clear military advice that their effort is needed, not just to provide political support to the Americans, important as that is? Of course, such support has been provided by the use of cruise missiles.
The strikes conducted last night were aimed at damaging, disrupting and destroying al-Qaeda's terrorist network camps and elements of the military infrastructure of its Taliban supporters that have allowed Afghanistan to be used as a base for international terrorism. Clearly, the attacks supported our immediate objectives: to bring those responsible for the attacks of 11 September to account; to prevent them from posing a continuing terrorist threat; and to ensure that Afghanistan ceases to harbour and sustain international terrorism.
The 30 targets included four terrorist training camps and a range of Taliban military facilities, including airfields and air defence sites capable of threatening our operations in the future. Action against such varied targets requires a wide range of forces. Most of these came from the United States. Obviously, it took the lead. But, as the House will want to know, the United Kingdom has three nuclear submarinesHMS Superb, HMS Trafalgar and HMS Triumphin the region. We were fortunate that exercise Saif Sareea meant that so many UK military assets were available. Tomahawk land attack missiles were fired at one of the targets, a terrorist site.
I recognise that the House will also want to know about the effectiveness of last night's strikes. Detailed battle damage assessment is still under way. The House would not expect me to announce specific details while the initial phase of the operation continues. However, we can say that initial indications are that coalition operations were successful in achieving their objective of destroying and degrading elements of the al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorist and military facilities. There is more to be done. Last night was the first strike. A second night of attacks is under way. There will be further attacks.
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I know that the Secretary of State, along with the Prime Minister, will have given enormous thought to the risk that in a country as fractured, complex and poor as Afghanistan, bombing will simply produce more terrorists than it kills. If the purpose of our bombing strategy is either to remove the Taliban or so to weaken the infrastructure of the al-Qaeda network as to allow subsequent troop involvements to dismantle it, will the Secretary of State say whether Britain intends to go to the United Nations to seek a mandate that, rather than defining the precise military purposes of the involvement, sets the parameters, aims and limitations of such on-going international involvement in Afghanistan?
Mr. Hoon: I will deal with the role of the United Nations in due course, but I assure my hon. Friend that the attacks have been against legitimate military targets and that those attacks are wholly and entirely consistent with international law and the United Nations charter.
Mr. Hoon: This is a coalition operation and I have no doubt that, for technical legal purposes, we are covered by the notification that the United States has given, but I will certainly investigate whether that legal advice is right and whether we need to make a formal notification ourselves as a country.
In dealing with media reports of bombs and missiles, I am confident that the reports so far of attacks on civilian areas are unnecessarily alarmist. Our targeting selection processes are demanding and we have taken very considerable care to minimise any risk to the people of Afghanistan. Detonations at nearby targets and anti-aircraft fire can easily give the impression, particularly at night, that civilian areas are under attack. I can assure the House that that was not the case.
I want to emphasise that neither the Afghan civilian population nor their homes and property have been targeted. All 30 sites that were attacked were terrorist camps or military installations. Three, as the Prime Minister said, were in Kabul and four were close to other large settlements, but 23 were in remote areas of Afghanistan. Claims by the Afghan media should be treated as what they areclaims by a media network that is no more than a mouthpiece of the Taliban regime. We can expect plenty of propaganda in the days ahead, so I ask the House to remember that no independent journalists are given permission to be inside Afghanistan.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I am grateful to the Secretary of State because although we in the House have willed the ends andwithout dissent, I thinkthe means, many honest and decent people across the country, including the leaders of the Muslim community, may have been taken in by claims of collateral damage affecting civilians. I hope that the Secretary of State will make it clear to people, as far as possible, that those claims have no substance, and furthermore, do his best to bring the Muslim leaders and those many decent people who support them on board in the action that is being taken.
Mr. Hoon: The latter suggestion is sensible. Clearly, as regards the former, the situation will depend on the detailed battle damage assessment that is under way. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not make further observations about that at this stage.
In addition to the Tomahawk missile-equipped submarines, we have made available Royal Air Force reconnaissance and other support aircraft. Those began to deploy to the region today and will be available to support further operations during the coming days.
Military action is never taken lightly. But in this case our justification is plain. The attacks on the United States involved the murder of more than 6,000 innocent people, including scores of our fellow citizens. Tens of thousands are now grieving the loss of friends and family.
We know, without doubt, who was responsible for what happened in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network planned and carried out those attacks. The Prime Minister has already released evidence that makes that clear. But bin Laden's guilt goes back far beyond 11 September. Hundreds of innocent civilians were murdered and more than 4,500 injured when al-Qaeda bombed the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in August 1998. Seventeen United States service men were killed and many more injured when the USS Cole was attacked last October.
The evidence reveals that bin Laden and his network were able to carry out those attacks on the United States because the Taliban regime knowingly gave them shelter and support. Osama bin Laden and the Taliban support and feed off each other. In return for the support that they give him, he trains their forces and fights alongside them in Afghanistan's civil war. Both bin Laden and the Taliban profit from the drugs trade.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): The Secretary of State mentioned Pakistan. I am sure that he and the whole House agree that General Musharraf's Government in Pakistan have been particularly robust in their support for the coalition's action against international terrorism. He will also be well aware that Pakistan itself is a nuclear-armed state. Can he reassure the House that the British Government and their allies in the coalition will do all that they can to bolster General Musharraf from any attempts by extremist elements in his country to undermine his Government because of their support for the fight against terrorism?