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Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): We are grateful to the Prime Minister for responding to our and other requests for a statement this afternoon. May I start by saying that I join the Prime Minister in his warm and quite correct tribute to President Bush for the way that he has led and shaped the coalition?

Clearly, what has happened in Afghanistan during the past few days—as the Prime Minister has made absolutely plain—is a complete vindication of the strategy that has been pursued by the coalition, led to a great degree by the Prime Minister and his Government during the past four weeks. Had we heeded the calls of those who, for whatever reason, demanded a pause in the bombing, we would not have achieved the successes that have been achieved so far; nor would we be any closer to a situation in which effective humanitarian aid can be brought through. That is clear.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the general role of the coalition forces, including, as it appears, our own armed forces. The Opposition support the decision to place British troops on stand-by, ready to be deployed, if necessary, in Afghanistan. If the need arises for them to be deployed in areas such as Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, we will continue to support the Government in that decision.

I also associate myself totally with what the Prime Minister has said about our armed forces being the best in the world. We are in no doubt that whatever they may be called upon to do, they will do it with their customary professionalism, bravery and effectiveness, and the thoughts of all hon. Members must surely be with them and, moreover, their families, who wait with expectation for what may come.

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We welcome the fact that the UN is now able to establish a presence in Kabul, as the Prime Minister said. However, there have been some mixed messages from the UN in recent days about its role or how it saw its role. Does the Prime Minister now feel confident that the UN is clear about its objectives and its role, as that could affect any deployment of our armed forces and the length of time that they may have to spend in Afghanistan?

We have now achieved our first objective—the removal of the Taliban Government from Kabul—yet we cannot afford to be complacent, as the Prime Minister said. The Taliban remain undefeated and dangerous in other parts of Afghanistan. Does the Prime Minister agree that, even as we enter the month of Ramadan, any let up in the coalition forces' campaign would be disastrous? Will he confirm that, beyond defeating the Taliban, our objectives still remain as they were—to bring bin Laden to justice, to dismantle the al-Qaeda terrorist network, to deliver effective aid and to wage war on international terrorism wherever it rears its head?

Having come so far, the last thing that we now need is for a power vacuum to be created in Afghanistan, into which people or groups could begin to take the law into their own hands. As the Prime Minister said, and as I know he is aware, the Northern Alliance is, in essence, an alliance perhaps in name only, and it cannot necessarily fill that vacuum. There is now an urgent need for the formation of a new broadly based Administration who can command widespread support in Afghanistan and who are committed to handing over bin Laden and to dismantling al-Qaeda, as the Prime Minister said.

The Prime Minister is also right, in case there is any doubt, to restate bin Laden's guilt by even adding to the charges that there were already. I must say that I have always been surprised by those who have said that they needed more evidence of his guilt than that already available. He was guilty as charged when we last discussed this issue; whatever else comes simply makes his guilt even more obvious.

The other immediate priority is to deliver aid to those in the refugee camps and others who have been displaced from their homes around the borders. As the key supply routes are opened up, and with the Taliban no longer in control, we have a very narrow window of opportunity to do that before the winter sets in. I hope that the Prime Minister will state, a little more clearly perhaps, some of the aspects of that aid in which we shall engage. We welcome what he has said about humanitarian aid in general. Does he agree that the point has been made that delivering aid was always dependent on defeating the Taliban, without which it would have been nearly impossible?

At the outset, the President of the United States described this as a war against international terrorism, and I have always believed that he was right. Surely one of the lessons of 11 September is that, if we fail to maintain the pressure on terrorism everywhere, we are all at risk. Last night, the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said:

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I totally agree with him, and I am sure that the Prime Minister does, too. The message must go out loud and clear: terrorism is not being tolerated now and it will not be tolerated in the future. The days of safe havens—wherever they are—are at an end.

No civilised country will any longer be allowed, or should be allowed, to foster groups such as the Taliban and allow them to use terrorism for their own twisted purpose. Therefore, does the Prime Minister agree that our long-term objective has to be the continued prosecution of the international campaign against terrorism, wherever it occurs and wherever it finds shelter?

The Prime Minister: I can be reasonably brief in my response because I think that we agree on all the main points. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the support that he has given for the decision to put our armed forces on standby. I also agree with what he has just said about the importance of making sure that we defeat international terrorism in all its forms.

I wish to deal with two or three of the points that the right hon. Gentleman raised. The first relates to the United Nations being clear about its objectives. Obviously, aspects are still under discussion, but, as I know from my conversations with the UN Secretary-General, the UN wants to do all that it possibly can to help. However, some difficult logistical and practical questions need to be resolved. We are in conversation with the Secretary- General about them, but the decision to hold a broad-based meeting of representatives of the Afghan people, and the decision of Mr. Vendrell and Mr. Sackett to go to Kabul as soon as possible, are an indication that the UN is moving with the necessary rapidity.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman's point about the power vacuum shows precisely why the UN should move with rapidity; we do not want a power vacuum to open up. As I said in an interview with BBC Pushtun radio earlier today, it is important that people understand that the Government in Afghanistan must involve more than simply the Northern Alliance. There is a very clear understanding on that.

The final point relates to the guilt of Osama bin Laden. At the very beginning, there was a thought—not so much in this country, but certainly in other parts of the world—that, because this was a terrible terrorist act and because Osama bin Laden was the best-known terrorist in the world, we had merely decided that we would simply say that he was responsible. In actual fact, it was very clear that the acts of 11 September bore all the hallmarks of Osama bin Laden. It is now also clear that we can trace the majority of the hijackers to the al-Qaeda network. The intelligence evidence is now absolutely convincing about the complicity of al-Qaeda and bin Laden.

The document that we have placed in the Library today is an updated version of the previous document and provides a lot more intelligence detail about what we have discovered. We are now able to provide such detail. I hope that it is read not merely here but throughout the world in any situation where people have any doubt about bin Laden's guilt. Once people believe that he is guilty, we return to the question that has been at the heart of this from the beginning: do we let him get away with it, or do we pursue him? I think that most people—whatever their faith or country and whatever view they have of America, the west, the United Kingdom or any other country—

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will understand that we had no option. Some 6,000 or more people were slaughtered in cold blood in America, so when we knew who was responsible, we had no option but to pursue them. We shall continue to pursue them until they are brought to justice.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): I am sure that the House will greet the Prime Minister's statement with a mixture of relief and apprehension given the current fast-moving situation. There is relief that tangible progress is now being made against the Taliban and towards the bringing to justice of bin Laden and the eventual elimination of his al-Qaeda terrorist network. Equally, however, there is apprehension based on the revulsion that many in this country and internationally have expressed about some of the atrocities that have been committed by the Northern Alliance. They have a bearing on the situation into which British forces may find themselves deployed in but a matter of days.

I make it clear on behalf of the Liberal Democrats that if and when British troops are deployed as part of the stabilisation force, they will have our full support in this most difficult and dangerous set of circumstances. Any such troop deployment must surely mark the beginning, not the end, of an integrated campaign on the ground further to isolate and ultimately to capture bin Laden.

May I ask the Prime Minister one or two specific questions about the British troops? Can he clarify under whose command they will be, and can he tell us more about the rules of engagement? For example, will the troops be able to intervene to stop atrocities that are under way, or will they be able to act only in self-defence? Can he also guarantee that all efforts will be made, beyond the UN Security Council resolution to which he referred, to secure a further resolution, so that if our troops are deployed, they are not viewed by the Afghans as taking one side of a civil war? That would lend still greater moral authority to the moral authority that we already possess in the action that we are undertaking.

In the longer term, Britain and the United States will need to maintain pressure on the Northern Alliance, for reasons of common humanity and in terms of strategy towards establishing a broadly based, post-conflict Administration for Afghanistan as a whole. Does the Prime Minister agree that that must go hand in hand with giving support now to the refugee camps on the borders in Pakistan and Iran, and support later to the rebuilding of Afghanistan?

Finally, on wider issues, the Prime Minister is well aware of the pressures in Washington—opinion in the Administration—on President Bush to make the action in Afghanistan part of a wider action. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that he will use his influence with the President to stop military action being expanded to include Iraq? In the likely long winter ahead, not least for our troops and the poor people of Afghanistan, all of us must hope that evil and insanity can yet give way to good and stability.

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