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Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, a copy of which I received in good time, for which I am grateful, and for his continued efforts to keep Parliament fully informed about developments in Afghanistan. May I reassure him and the House that, whatever reservations Opposition Members may express about the deployment of the ISAF, we share the hopes of the Government and the whole House that it will be successful? Moreover, the Government continue to enjoy the support of Her Majesty's Opposition for their backing of the United States in the war against terrorism and their commitment to the reconstruction of Afghanistan alongside the continuing humanitarian aid programme.
I should be grateful if the Secretary of State would clarify four main issues. First, I understand that there has been an inevitable measure of uncertainty about the timing and mechanics of the deployment. Will he express his sympathy and understanding to the families of some elements of 2 Para that have been put on 48-hour standby and then stood down many times since 11 September and more than once over the Christmas period?
Incidentally, can the right hon. Gentleman say anything about the welfare of our troops? What accommodation will United Kingdom soldiers have in Afghanistan? Will they have anything more than sleeping bags on concrete floors in derelict buildings for the coldest winter months? What access will they have to telephones and e-mails for contacting families back home?
Secondly, uncertainty inevitably compounds the effects of overstretch. I note the right hon. Gentleman's attempt to deal with that point. However, does he recall that 2 Para was in Northern Ireland last Christmas and was sent to Macedonia at short notice during the school holidays in August? After this operation, it is due to serve in Northern Ireland again next Christmas. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman fully understands that such intensive disruption to family life is one of the factors that drives good soldiers to leave the British army. Can he set a date for the withdrawal of our main elements of the ISAF as well as for handing over responsibility to the follow-on force in three months?
Thirdly, on overall command, is it true that the Government waited for the approval of all EU states, including non-NATO members, which are not involved in the ISAF or have only a token role, such as Austria, Finland and Sweden or no role, such as Ireland, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported on 14 December? Is it also true that our European partners objected to the principle of overall US command? Again, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported on 16 December:
Why has the Secretary of State allowed the shadow of the Euro army to cloud the Government's judgment? He has been determined to involve as many EU members as possible at the expense of NATO allies. That is not only my criticism; the Canadian Defence Minister can discern no other reason for the refusal of Canada's offer of help. On Monday he told a press conference in Ottawa:
We are told that ISAF patrols must defer to the Afghan police. How are they meant to distinguish between Afghan police and Northern Alliance troops, given that they are the same people? Why are we patrolling in "Kabul alone" to quote the Secretary of State, when the Bonn agreement clearly states:
The Secretary of State must answer these questions about the political leadership of ISAF. As for the British armed forces, they are once again demonstrating their supreme professionalism, and we are confident that everyone, from the high command and General John McColl to the troops on the ground, is ready to meet any challenge that they are given. I assure them that we wish them every success.
Mr. Hoon: I welcome a number of the observations made by the hon. Gentleman, but he rather spoils the impact of his sensible questions by his continuing obsession with things European. He risks becoming a kind of Dr. Strangelove figure, unable to control his European obsessions, with his characteristic lack of understanding of the way in which these matters operate. Instead of concentrating on the matters at hand, about which he has some sensible questions to ask, he shows his obsession with Europe and European issues, which ruins what would otherwise be a perfectly sensible set of questions on behalf of the Opposition.
I will deal with the points that the hon. Gentleman has made in relation to the overall command of the force by referring to the statement that I have just made. Having given him the opportunity of reading it, I am surprised that he did not study the details of the command more carefully. This is a UN-mandated force, a coalition of the willing, that includes a significant number of countriesI read the list out fairly slowly for the hon. Gentleman's benefit. Countries such as Norway, Romania, Turkey, Bulgaria and New Zealand have not yet exhibited characteristics consistent with being members of the European Union. I realise that the hon. Gentleman's grasp of geography might be a little less than desirable. [Interruption.] It is no good Opposition Front-Bench Members sitting there saying, "This is cheap". We read the shadow Defence Minister's observations on the front page of The Times the other day. We know what his obsession is; he has repeated it here today. If he wants his observations on defence matters to be treated sensibly, he really ought to make sensible ones. Frankly, talking about a European army is simply a characteristic of the obsession that the Conservative party and its Front-Bench spokesmen have, sadly, been gripped by.
The force is a coalition of the willing. It works as a result of the 18 countries represented working together to provide the appropriate forces necessary to do this particular job. The hon. Gentleman asks why UK forces
I set out our position clearly on the relationship with the United States Central CommandCentcomin the statement. There is a clear relationship agreed between the United Kingdom and the United States to ensure deconfliction between the two forces. That is a matter that any sensible Ministry of Defence would resolve, and it has been resolved entirely satisfactorily between the United States, the United Kingdom and other contributors to the ISAF.
I also set out the position in relation to Canada in the statement. Canada offered a complex battle group which, unfortunately, duplicated the kinds of forces that we had been offered by a number of other countries. In trying to provide a satisfactory solution for Canada, as well as for those other countries, we offered Canada the opportunity for its force to come in to replace a British battle group. This was a matter for Canada, and it judged that it was better for its force to become involved in the operations in southern Afghanistan. We entirely welcome that. The matter was agreed with Canada and it is not worth the comment that the hon. Gentleman chose to make about it.
On the more sensible points that the hon. Gentleman raised, I share his concern about the impact on families, particularly over a holiday period, of the change in notice requirements and the difficulties that that causes, but it is an inevitable consequence of the uncertainties that we obviously face in a fast-moving situation such as that in Afghanistan.
Work is being done on an accommodation and welfare package. One of this country's key abilities is getting forces into a theatre quickly, and we shall address the comprehensive welfare package that goes with it, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that the accommodation is the best available in the circumstances, although I do not pretend that it is not pretty robust. The Prime Minister told me this morning that he is very impressed by the efforts made by British forces, which he saw for himself in Bagram the other day. We shall continue to work on the matter.
I do not accept that there is any impact on overstretch. On the date for withdrawing the force, I referred in my statement to the time scale. We anticipate being the lead nation for three months, but we do not anticipate leaving the theatre entirely thereafter, simply because it is important that we continue to contribute to the six-month effort that the UN has mandated. We are pleased that Turkey has offered to replace the United Kingdom as lead nation and anticipate that, by the end of the three months, that will have led to a significant reduction in the number of British troops deployed.
The hon. Gentleman's questions about a wider involvement do not address the matter of the kind of force that has been and will continue to be deployed in Afghanistan. The force is there to support the Interim Administration as they struggle with the difficulties of restoring Afghanistan to the international community.