Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement, which I received earlier today. However, I am bound to say that I am a little surprised that we and the minority parties have had no advance discussions about this very significant announcement.

Nobody should be under any illusions that this is the most significant statement by the Secretary of State, the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister since 11 September. The Secretary of State has announced the commitment of the largest force to combat operations since the Gulf war in 1991. Moreover, this deployment follows Operation Anaconda in and around Gardez where American and German troops have been killed on operations. This is not just a continuation of existing operations.

Before asking about the deployment of 45 Commando Group, may I join the Secretary of State in congratulating our forces who are already in Afghanistan? In addition to

18 Mar 2002 : Column 40

other operations, 16 Air Assault headquarters and 2 Para have been doing an absolutely outstanding job. We are proud of them. We remain concerned about the future of our role in the international security and assistance force, so will the Secretary of State confirm that ISAF is proving a more protracted operation than he had initially hoped? Moreover, will he confirm that, as of two weeks ago, there were more than 2,000 troops committed to Operation Fingal in ISAF? When will we see substantial reductions in that number, so that we can go some way to reducing the over-commitment of British troops?

On the question of Turkey's leadership, I can tell the House that Turkey's decision on whether to lead the force is imminent, but has yet to be made. I can only assume that the Secretary of State had hoped to be able to make that announcement today. What assurances has Turkey been seeking? Is it true that, like Her Majesty's official Opposition, it has been seeking clarification of the nature of the ISAF commitment, so that it is not left stranded with an open-ended commitment without clear objectives? Will the Secretary of State confirm that it would prefer ISAF to be a NATO operation and that it wants ISAF's mandate to be confined to Kabul, as he suggested it would be when he first announced ISAF? Is it also true that only the United States and the United Kingdom will shoulder the financial burden of finding the $100,000 that Turkey has requested to undertake the operation? Why should Britain and the United States be the only countries to carry this financial burden?

The announcement about 45 Commando comes as a surprise. However, we unequivocally support the Government's decision to continue standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the war against terrorism. We recognise the dangers to which the Secretary of State has referred, but it is entirely appropriate that we should be prepared and proud to make this commitment. We supported the Government's initial deployment for fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and we continue to support continuing operations.

I have some immediate questions. Under whose command will the operation be undertaken? Will the United Kingdom commander of ISAF have any role in the command of this brigade? We have warned in the past of complications and the possible confusion that might arise from the split chains of command that now exist in the Afghan theatre, with two UK deployments under separate commands undertaking diametrically opposite roles? Will the Secretary of State say anything to address that ongoing potential problem?

There will be further and urgent questions, which I am sure the House will want to discuss. May I ask the Government, through the Secretary of State, to consider replacing Thursday's debate with a debate on the war on terrorism and the war in Afghanistan to give the House a proper opportunity to debate the serious issues raised by this very significant statement? In the meantime, on behalf of the Opposition, I wish our forces every success in the challenges ahead. They fight far away for our security at home; they risk their today for our tomorrow. We think of their families. God go with them.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support and, indeed, his good wishes to the armed forces involved and their families. I shall endeavour to deal in turn with the points that he made. First, the deployment of ISAF is governed by a United Nations resolution that

18 Mar 2002 : Column 41

is due to expire in June. As I told the House in defence questions earlier today, to be honest, I recognise that there is every prospect of the resolution being extended in June, but no specific decisions have been made, nor have any decisions been made about the involvement of British forces in any operation that might continue thereafter. However, all of us looking at the situation in Afghanistan must recognise that it is difficult and demanding and that ISAF is making a significant contribution to improving it; the likelihood of an extension of ISAF's mandate cannot possibly be ruled out.

As for substantial reductions in our forces, the hon. Gentleman gave some figures that showed that there has already been a significant reduction. Initial elements have been withdrawn, having completed in particular the task of bringing up to standard the runway at the former international airport, which is now being used successfully and regularly.

As for discussions with Turkey, it is not appropriate to go into detail now about the continuing negotiations with Turkey. I have told the House about the attitude of Turkey's leadership; I am sure that once many of the outstanding questions have been resolved, the commitment that Turkey has expressed in principle can be carried through.

On the Royal Marine contingent, clear command and control arrangements are essential, as the hon. Gentleman said. As part of our deployment, Brigadier Lane, the commander of 3 Commando Brigade, and his headquarters will deploy to Bagram, joining the headquarters of United States Central Command—Centcom—which is already there, to work alongside their American counterparts in Afghanistan. It is obviously important that there should not be any confusion between the various forces deployed in Afghanistan, particularly those on offensive military action. Ultimately, of course, the responsibility for command lies with Centcom, as it has done throughout operations. However, its role will be clearly distinct from ISAF's; there will not be any confusion of roles, subject to the agreement already entered into, for the avoidance of difficulty.

The hon. Gentleman requested a debate. The Opposition could doubtless pursue that through the usual channels, so I shall not make a specific response at this stage. However, there is a full Opposition day tomorrow, part of which is already devoted to a defence matter. If the hon. Gentleman thought it vital to have that debate tomorrow in time already available to the Opposition, I am sure that the Government would accede to his request.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): I am not in the least surprised that 45 Commando is to be deployed in Afghanistan. I have just returned from Central Command; enormous tribute was paid to British service men already serving on the front line in Afghanistan. Because of our traditions and conventions, we are unable to pay them proper tribute, yet in the United States, people can. Is my right hon. Friend looking at the role of our special forces and our ability—I appreciate the complications—to pay tribute to them for the fantastic work that they are doing?

Mr. Hoon: It is obviously important to pay proper tribute to the role of British forces, particularly in Afghanistan, but also in other theatres. It is equally important that we maintain operational confidentiality and do not in any way put at risk those forces carrying out tasks on the Government's behalf.

18 Mar 2002 : Column 42

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I, too, thank the Secretary of State for sending me an advance copy of his statement, although I echo the concerns of the shadow Defence Secretary; a deployment of this kind merits prior discussion, at least among party leaders.

May I pay tribute to the men and women of our armed forces, who continue to risk their lives in Afghanistan? As always, they perform an incredibly difficult task with great courage and skill. I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to General John McColl, who is doing an excellent job. The whole House will offer its support to the men of 45 Commando—and their families—in the endeavours that they are about to undertake.

On ISAF, I welcome the Secretary of State's comments about Turkey. Does he agree that withdrawing any peacekeeping force before an indigenous law and order force can take over would deeply destabilise the people of Afghanistan, and throw away much of the good work already done? Does he therefore agree that the success of Operation Fingal is just as important as that of Operation Veritas? Given that ISAF is a UN-mandated force, does the UN plan to extend the duration of its mission or the mission boundaries? Indeed, is deployment of 45 Commando requisite on UN authorisation?

Will the United Kingdom or the United States provide logistic support for 45 Commando's deployment, and what is the timetable for deployment? How long, in the Secretary of State's view, will the Royal Marines be there, and can he assure the House that their rules of engagement will be robust? I echo the concerns of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) about command and control. Will the operation be controlled directly from Centcom, in Tampa, or via Operation Veritas?

Most importantly, although we Liberal Democrats offer our support, can the Secretary of State confirm that our forces are being deployed not just as a replacement for American forces? What assurance has he been given that the United States will remain committed on the ground, as well as in the air, until the terrorist threat from Afghanistan is ended? Does he agree that "shoulder to shoulder" surely means not only going in together, but coming out together?

Next Section

IndexHome Page