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House of Commons

Monday 14 January 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): If he will makea statement about the United Kingdom's role in international peacekeeping in Afghanistan. [24462]

4. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): If he will make a statement on the number of British troops deployed in Afghanistan. [24465]

5. Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): What size of force has been deployed to Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. [24466]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): As I told the House on 19 December and10 January, the United Kingdom has agreed to lead the international security assistance force—ISAF—in Afghanistan. Under the terms of the Bonn agreement of

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5 December 2001, ISAF will assist the Afghanistan interim Administration to provide security and stability in Kabul. ISAF will play a vital part in the international community's support to the Afghan people in the difficult task of rebuilding their country.

The United Kingdom will be lead nation of ISAF for a limited period of three months. The UK will provide up to 1,800 personnel for ISAF. In addition and in the short term, we are deploying nearly 300 Army and Royal Air Force personnel to help repair and operate Kabul international airport. As of today, we have some600 troops in Kabul.

In total, ISAF will be around 5,000 strong. So far, some 1,000 troops have deployed to Kabul. In all, 17 countries will be deploying troops alongside UK forces as part of ISAF.

Mr. Edwards: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in addition to Britain's lead contribution to ISAF, an additional force is being sent to repair and to operate Kabul international airport and that that is absolutely vital to allow aid supplies to get through to the people of Kabul? Will he join me in commending the professionalism of the British troops who will be working in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the oppressive Taliban regime?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right. It is an important job to be able to ensure access to Afghanistan, a country that has been ravaged by many years of war. The present arrangements for Bagram are satisfactory, but I would not go any further than that. Therefore, the ability to make use of Kabul international airport will be an important element in speeding up the deployment of ISAF. In addition to the main contribution to ISAF, as I said earlier, we are temporarily deploying another 300 Army and Royal Air Force personnel to repair and operate Kabul international airport. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's observations.

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Mr. Robathan: I welcome the presence of British troops under General McColl. I am sure that they will do an excellent job in Kabul.

Given the problems of overstretch and recruitment in the Army in particular and throughout the armed forces, will the Secretary of State tell the House how long exactly he expects the troops to remain there? Will he assure the House that, in a year's time, we will not still have a similar force based in Afghanistan?

Mr. Hoon: The issue of overstretch is not exacerbated by a deployment that is limited in time. As I told the House the other day in a statement about Afghanistan, it is important that we are able to limit the deployment of our forces to the three months that I have set out. I cannot absolutely guarantee to the House, nor would it be sensible to do so, that some members of Britain's armed forces will not remain after that three-month period, but there will certainly be a significant reduction in numbers once we cease being lead nation.

The forces in Afghanistan are not contributing to problems of overstretch, not least because we do not anticipate an open-ended commitment or a commitment that will require large numbers of forces to be replaced in position. We are talking about a limited responsibility as lead nation for a period of three months only.

Mr. Waterson: Can the Secretary of State confirm that, on 19 December, he talked about 1,500 troops and that that figure has now risen to 2,100 overall? Will he now set a limit on the number of British troops committed to Afghanistan and can I press him to be a bit more precise about what proportion of that number is likely to remain, on any view, after the three-month stint is over?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there was an increase from about 1,500, although if he checks the terms of my original statement, he will see that it was heavily qualified. An increase to 1,800 is certainly not at all surprising in the very difficult circumstances of Afghanistan. The figure of 2,100 that he quotes includes the additional 300 to whom I have just referred and who will be there on a very temporary basis to deal with the problems at Kabul international airport.

I will not give a specific guarantee on numbers simply because those numbers must reflect the circumstances on the ground, not least because significant elements in the force will be engaged on repair work and on ensuring the successful arrival of other elements of ISAF. The job of those elements of the force will depend on how long it takes to ensure safe access to Afghanistan. However,I certainly assure the House that, if there is any significant change in the numbers, the House will be the first to hear of it.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the effectiveness of the peacekeeping force is as dependent on maintaining the international coalition as it is on the undoubted excellence of the forces on the ground? Does he fear, as do I, that international cohesion will be in danger of falling apart if the United States does not alter its attitude towards, and its treatment of, Taliban prisoners? If they are not to be

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kept under the terms of the Geneva convention, will he ensure that they at least have the protection of basic human rights?

Mr. Hoon: I am afraid that I do not accept my hon. Friend's premise. The biggest difficulty with which the Minister of Defence has had to deal in recent weeks is the number of countries that wanted to participate in ISAF. Some 18 countries in total are participating. The practical problem that we faced in organising that force was explaining to a number of disappointed countries that we could not manage to take their forces as well. There is no danger of the international coalition falling apart in the way suggested by my hon. Friend. Certainly, it is important that whoever is responsible for holding prisoners in Afghanistan ensures that they are treated with proper respect for international law. I know of no evidence to indicate that the United States is not doing that.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): If the joint patrols between Afghan units and British units were attacked, who would have operational command? Would it be the British or the Afghan units?

Mr. Hoon: In the event of the joint forces coming under attack, I have little doubt that they would co-operate together as successfully as they have done in the course of joint patrolling. I want to emphasise that British forces, as part of ISAF, have robust rules of engagement that are entirely appropriate to their mission. They allow those forces to defend themselves robustly in the face of any threat to them, so I do not anticipate that difficulty arising.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): Does the Secretary of State recall that at column 669 of Hansard on 26 November last year, he agreed with me that British troops, as coming from one of the combatant forces, should be used in Afghanistan only for brief periods, against specific targets, and not as an occupation force? Why has he changed his mind? Or have he and the service chiefs been overruled by our increasingly gung-ho and vainglorious Prime Minister?

Mr. Hoon: I accept neither the premise nor the conclusion of the hon. Gentleman's observations. All the indications that I have given to the House of the likely duration of any operations sit entirely with what I said in those comments. We are talking about a brief period of three months as lead nation, in which we will make a significant contribution to the position in Afghanistan.I am sure that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that what is important about the deployment of ISAF is that it is there not as an occupying force, but with the consent of the interim Administration, pursuant to a United Nations resolution. It is there to ensure that Afghanistan cannot descend into the chaos that we saw in the all too recent past, so that there is no support there for the international terrorism that led directly to the events of 11 September and so that we win the peace, having very successfully won the military conflict.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): I thank my right hon. Friend for the helpful response that he gave last week in his statement on reserves. Can he confirm reports in

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today's papers that the Government are to exercise their right of a compulsory call-up of reserves? If so, how long will that last and how many people will it involve?

Mr. Hoon: I was able to tell the House that we were actively considering the possibility of further mobilisation of reservists to assist in the continuing campaign against terrorism. Since the call-out order was signed last October to permit reservists to support the operation, 74 reservists from all three services have volunteered to be called out. Others have been supporting the operation and other forms of service, and we are immensely grateful to them all.

As a further measure to enable the current level of operations to be sustained, I have authorised the compulsory call-out of up to 140 specialist Territorial Army personnel. The majority of those specialist personnel are required to provide intelligence support to headquarters' organisations in the United Kingdom. A small number—up to 40—will provide intelligence support to the UK land force deployed in Afghanistan. That action is fully in accordance with our stated intention to have more usable, integrated and relevant reserve forces.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for informing the House about the reserves, but it would have been helpful to have answers to our written questions that were tabled last week on the same topic, instead of a planted question and a leak today.

Following the right hon. Gentleman's statement to the House of Commons on Thursday last week, may I draw his attention to the letter that I subsequently wrote to him, requesting substantial answers to the questions that he avoided then? In particular, can he confirm who will take over from the UK lead of ISAF, and what representations he has received from other countries about which country it should be?

Mr. Hoon: No decision has been taken yet about who will take over, which is why I was not in a position on Thursday to answer the hon. Gentleman's question. I am afraid that I am in no better position to answer his question today. No decision has been reached. We have received an offer from Turkey, which would be willing to take over at the end of the three-month period which I set out with regard to the United Kingdom's responsibilities. That is a matter to be discussed with Turkey and other contributors to the international force.

Mr. Jenkin: Pursuant to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), can the Secretary of State at least confirm that the 1,800 British troop commitment to ISAF will be substantially reduced after the 90 days, which is clearly the impression that he sought to give, so that he can restore their availability for training and other possible operations?

Mr. Hoon: That is precisely what I said the other day and again today.

Mr. Jenkin: I am grateful for that assurance. The right hon. Gentleman has given it more clearly now than we had it before. However, it represents yet another major new commitment, on top of the thousands of troops that the Government have committed to open-ended operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and

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elsewhere. Does the Secretary of State plan simply to ignore the warnings of former chiefs of staff such as Field Marshal Lord Bramall, who warned that that would "significantly increase overstretch", or Field Marshal Lord Inge, who warned in December that the UK was "already dangerously over-committed" and said:

that is, British troops—

or General Lord Guthrie, who confirmed that

If the Prime Minister's foreign ambitions are to be like the imperial anthem—"Wider still and wider"—will the Secretary of State make it clear to him that Britain's armed forces cannot be expected to carry an ever greater burden on a budget that has been cut by £1 billion since Labour came to power? He is trying to do too much with too little.

Mr. Hoon: I certainly take account of the views of the former chiefs of staff, but I take advice from the current chiefs of staff.

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