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The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The Royal Navy has been involved from the outset, alongside United States forces. Royal Navy submarines fired a small number of Tomahawk land attack missiles on 7 and 13 October. An amphibious task groupled by the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, converted for helicopter operationshas remained in the region since the end of Exercise Saif Sareea 2, with a Tomahawk missile-armed submarine presence. United Kingdom forces, including elements of 40 Commando Royal Marines, embarked with the task group, have also been deployed at the military airfield at Bagram, some 30 miles outside Kabul.
Other forces, including Headquarters 3 Commando Brigade and 45 Commando Royal Marines, were brought to very high readiness from 17 November, for possible deployment to Afghanistan against a range of contingencies. That was a sensible precautionary measure, taking into account what was a very fluid situation. In the light of developments since, and given the more
This move is a measured response that affords maximum flexibility of response. It will enable us to sustain a significant capability over the long haul, while reducing the immediate strain on our service personnel.
Miss McIntosh: I welcome that reply. The Secretary of State will recall that, together with two Labour Members, I served on HMS Cumberland last year as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I wish to pay tribute to the members of the dark bluesthe Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. He will appreciate, however, that to be kept almost permanently on continuous 48-hour readiness and a state of high alert is a very tall order. Is he able to tell the House why our forces are still on a state of alertness, whereas the United States marines have gone into action?
Mr. Hoon: I have just recognised the importance of maintaining a significant degree of flexibility, but I accept the hon. Lady's point that it is important that we maintain the right level of preparedness according to the needs of our joint rapid reaction force. Even in its normal state of preparedness, that force maintains a level of readiness that very few countries can match. As she said, it is important that we recognise that it is not right to keep elements at a higher state of readiness than we can justify in the light of particular circumstances. We will continue to review those circumstances and take appropriate decisions accordingly.
With regard to the city of Kunduz and the al-Qaeda network, will my right hon. Friend confirm that we do not allow the prisoners who have been captured to escape, thereby negating the military objectives? In the same sense, will he also assure us that the prisoners are treated humanely?
Mr. Hoon: The situation in Kunduz remains confused, although the latest reports indicate that the city has finally fallen. We obviously want the minimum level of bloodshed and urge the Northern Alliance to abide by international conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. However, the foreigners in Kunduz should not be allowed to escape simply to mount terrorist attacks elsewhere. That message has been received loud and clear, and certainly will be acted on.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): The Secretary of State has mentioned the Royal Marines at Bagram, so will he tell us what measures have been put in place to secure the safety and force protection of British forces? For example, does he intend to increase the marine force at Bagram? Can he tell us exactly what the mission of the Royal Marines based there is? Are they likely to be used in support of US marine operations?
Given the reports over the weekend about some British casualties in Afghanistanthe Secretary of State will know that I spoke to his office about that this morningis he able to tell the House any more about that?
Mr. Hoon: Certainly, we keep under constant review the question of force protection for members of Her Majesty's armed forces at Bagram. That is very high on Ministers' agendas and something that we keep under constant review.
The Royal Marines' mission has not changed since they first went there. It is to secure the base and ensure that there are opportunities for those conducting diplomatic and humanitarian missions to use the airstrip should that prove necessary. Indeed, yesterday, the RAF facilitated flights from Bagram for members of the Northern Alliance who were on board and heading for the talks in Bonn. Therefore, the United Kingdom played a significant and very visible role in ensuring that those talks can take place.
Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): Further to my right hon. Friend's reply and in view of what took place on 11 September, has he had an opportunity to make an assessment of the rapid reaction capability of some of our NATO allies and of our ability to respond in future to acts of mass terrorism?
Mr. Hoon: There are clearly a range of capabilities within NATO forces. For example, forces in the United Kingdom and, for that matter, the United States are available at very low levels of notice and are in high states of readiness. This country has benefited from the results of the strategic defence review, because many of the decisions required on notice and readiness were taken as part of the SDR and as part of the process that continues to ensure that we have rapidly deployable forces. It is something that we want other countries that do not necessarily have that level of readiness to be able to emulate.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I am sure that the whole House will wish to extend sympathy, if it is needed, to any British soldiers who have been injured. We await further news on that with trepidation.
I reiterate the support of Her Majesty's Opposition for the Government's policy of standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States in their objectives of removing the Taliban, destroying al-Qaeda and continuing the pursuit of bin Laden and his associates. May I welcome the decision to stand down the forces who it is not necessary to hold on 48-hour standby? That will be a disappointment to the forces concerned, but a considerable relief for their families. Will he clarify a comment made by the Leader of the House who put it on the record yesterday that
Mr. Jenkin: We appreciate that the situation remains fluid and the Secretary of State needs to maintain flexibility, but is he able to clarify plans for the contingent of Royal Marines at Bagram? There are reports that he is receiving advice that he must either reinforce that contingent or withdraw it. I note that 2 Para are remaining in readiness. Which is it to be?
Mr. Hoon: I encourage the hon. Gentleman not to believe the kinds of reports that appear in the newspapers, which seem to be the source of his information. Those reports are not true. That contingent of Royal Marines will remain there while they have a useful a job to do, which I set out in response to an earlier question, and while they are safe to do it. That is the position today.
Mr. Jenkin: I am grateful for the Secretary of State's clarification. There is now every confidence that Afghanistan's role as a sponsor for international terrorism will be successfully concluded. There are, however, other threats from other organisations that have grievances, the motivation, the money, the means and the capability to pursue international terrorism. The Government set out their wider objectives, which are:
Mr. Hoon: The Government have worked closely with the United States and other members of the coalition since 11 September. That is why, as the hon. Gentleman's question implies, it is important not solely to concentrate on the military response, but to recognise that a range of action has been taken against international terrorism, including financial measures, measures to ensure that terrorists cannot take advantage of our rules to allow free movement across international boundaries and measures to track down individuals in particular and bring them to justice if appropriate. A range of measures has been taken across the international coalition since 11 September. Obviously our military response has concentrated on Afghanistan. As I said previously, that sends a clear message to any other country that might be tempted to support or condone terrorism about the action that is likely to result unless they back off.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): What guidelines have been given to our forces to try to find the hordes of opium that are said to be in the possession of both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance? Is due account taken of the
Mr. Hoon: British forces are not there to track down hordes of opium, but they are there to destroy support for terrorism and the al-Qaeda organisation, which has extensive involvement in drug smuggling. There is little doubt that in tracking down al-Qaeda and destroying its facilities we will in the process also destroy its ability to supply drugs into this country and elsewhere.