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Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Let me deal as well as I can with his specific questions. I cannot give him an absolute guarantee about the precise three-month time limit. Such operations do not work in that way. For example, in Macedonia, the majority of forces deployed by the United Kingdom were withdrawn after the 30-day time limit. Several remained on the operation, essentially to hand over their knowledge and expertise about circumstances on the ground. I anticipate a similar handover process for the lead elements in the operation that we are considering.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about forces at sea is similar. Those matters are properly tackled in the chain of command. I assure hon. Members that when commanding officers make their decisions, they take full account of the length of time that our armed forces spend on specific operations.

I specifically referred not to US air cover but to US support. However, the hon. Gentleman will find detailed reference to the support in the letter that was placed in the Library.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the United Kingdom being the lead nation. I do not agree with him about the development of a European Union military capability in the case that we are considering. The United Kingdom has received the request to be the lead nation because it is acknowledged that we have tremendous capability to do the job. We can get people into an operation quickly and organise an operation, especially one that is difficult and involves several elements from several different countries. Expertise, not simply the pursuit of dogma, is important.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South): I can give my right hon. Friend some clues about how the defence budget works: he should look over the road and talk to people at the Treasury.

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Why is the United States not prepared to do more at this stage than provide general support for the ground forces in Kabul? Will the large military presence of between 3,000 and 5,000 people, working alongside Afghan forces, operate only in Kabul or in any other cities?

Mr. Hoon: I do not accept my right hon. Friend's comments about the United States. For example, the Americans have stated their willingness to organise the airstrip at Bagram for the considerable deployment and resupply of the force. That is an enormous task. The airstrip is not only relatively dangerous because of the unexploded ordnance, but primitive and basic. The Americans' willingness to take on the responsibility of ensuring that a significant number of flights can get on and off the airstrip and that appropriate air traffic control exists, and of supporting people as they get in and out of Afghanistan, is an enormous contribution. When my right hon. Friend gives the matter a few moments thought, I am sure he will realise that.

It is important that my right hon. Friend does not underestimate the significance of United States involvement not only in Afghanistan but in other theatres. It has deployed many troops to tackle what continues to be the international community's primary concern: hunting down the remaining elements of al-Qaeda and ensuring that Afghanistan is never used again as a base for international terrorism. That is a great responsibility, of which the United States bears the lion's share.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling): Is the Secretary of State aware that there will be considerable concern that his statement contained no explicit reference to the way air protection cover will be provided for the international force? In his response to the Liberal Democrat spokesman, he appeared to dismiss the possibility. Will he clarify that fundamental point? Will the force be deployed with a clear agreement with the United States that it will provide air protection? Or will the international force be deployed without a formal agreement on air protection? If the latter is the case, the Government are proceeding with doubtful responsibility.

Mr. Hoon: I am a little puzzled by the right hon. Gentleman's emphasis on air protection, because although the ISAF is going into a dangerous environment on the ground—I am the first to concede that—there is no particular threat from the air in Afghanistan of which I am aware. On air protection, the right hon. Gentleman may be referring to a range of different ideas, but the truth is that extraction is the only issue that is particularly relevant. I am confident that we shall be able to secure the force's extraction when and if that becomes necessary. Again, we would not contemplate deploying a force if we were not confident that it could be deployed successfully to Afghanistan and sustain itself there for the time necessary.

Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. If Conservative Members did not know that this day would come, they are very foolish indeed. We are in the most difficult phase of the Afghanistan situation—the reconstruction—and security is everything. Without it, the other good things cannot occur.

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My right hon. Friend referred to training. Does he anticipate that, as in Sierra Leone, a major role for the international force will be equipping Afghanistan with its own army, which it does not have, and a police force, which is vital to the future and which it also does not have?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his observations. The annexe to the Bonn agreement refers to the creation of an international security force and the importance of developing Afghanistan's security and armed forces. I anticipate that, in due course, the ISAF could begin to provide the necessary training and development of Afghanistan's armed forces, obviously so that they can protect themselves against further threats.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): This will clearly be a difficult mission. The Secretary of State says that he intends the force to be properly equipped—he used those words—and that discussions as to exactly how that will be achieved are still going on. It is essential that the force is properly equipped, so will he say whether other units of 16 Air Assault Brigade, in particular 7 Regiment Royal Horse Artillery based in Aldershot and 9 Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers, will be deployed? That would be helpful.

On resources, the Secretary of State significantly failed to answer my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) on the £147 million underspend last year. The recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff has said in the other place that the armed services were underfunded before 11 September, but we have committed to a raft of new engagements. Where will the money come from? The Secretary of State cannot keep robbing Peter to pay Paul, and I understand that there is no money left for training. Where will the new money come from to fund all these expeditions?

Mr. Hoon: On the equipment, I repeat what I said earlier: there is a force generation conference under way whose purpose is to assess the various offers from other countries in terms of the capabilities required and to put together a force package to do the job. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's difficulty in the light of my statement—I would have much preferred to make it once the process is complete—but it is difficult to give precise answers to his detailed questions. However, having developed a concept, the forces offered will be applied to it, and I anticipate sufficient offers from sufficient countries to deal with any scenario required.

Equally, depending on those offers, we may need to look elsewhere for other forces that might be deployed to Afghanistan, but that is not in my mind at present. I have been told that there are more than enough offers of people and equipment to satisfy the likely requirements in Afghanistan.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not satisfied by my answer on spending. He should know that, under this Government, the money available to defence has increased significantly. The real defence spending cuts were conducted by Governments supported consistently by him. He consistently entered the Lobby to support a Government who cut defence spending by more than

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20 per cent. and he must say why he did that, as he now comes to the House to complain when the defence budget is increasing.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): Progress, both military and political, has been remarkable, and we should not allow it to lose momentum or to stall at this stage. My right hon. Friend said that we in the United Kingdom would lose our lead nation status in three months or so. Can he say what will happen then in terms of the commitment of UK forces? He said, for example, that there would be a role for those who would train a local police and military security force. Will we be involved in that from the start? If so, how many UK personnel are likely to be involved in a continuing commitment in Afghanistan?

Mr. Hoon: My right hon. Friend asked a fair question about what would happen at the end of the three months. I said in my statement that I anticipated a handover to another lead nation. There have been a number of indications of interest from our international partners, and I hope that following such a handover the process will continue in a still more benign environment. We envisage developments such as that mentioned by my right hon. Friend—the training and organisation of a future Afghan security force. I trust that my right hon. Friend will forgive me, however, if I say that it is a little early to anticipate those developments, although I would welcome them.

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