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Mr. Hoon: I recently visited Pakistan and had a meeting with the President and other senior Government figures. The hon. Gentleman is right that it is vital that we take forward those operations in consultation with the Government of Pakistan, as well as with other countries that neighbour Afghanistan. Their role not only in operations in general, but specifically as part of the political process of rebuilding Afghanistan is vital.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): Clearly, the thoughts of Members in all parts of the House are with the forces
Mr. Hoon: There is a precise mandate for the ISAF operation. The follow-on operations that I announced this afternoon are covered by the UN charter as justified in self-defence.
Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife): Does my right hon. Friend agree that fears over loss of life among the troops in Afghanistan, which we all share, will increase if we do not move with the speed and stealth referred to in the statement? Indeed, if we are serious about tackling terrorism, we must use the tactics that have been applied in this instance.
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend makes a number of very good points with which I entirely agree. It is vital in this kind of operation that security is not compromised in any way.
Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): Are the 1,700 troops that we are deploying precisely what the United States requested, or did it ask for more? Secondly, will the Secretary of State tell us which other countries are providing combat troops, as part not of ISAF but of this operation? Presumably, this force was put together in consultation with Centcom and other national headquarters, so he must be able to tell us what other countries will provide combat troops to fight alongside ours.
Mr. Hoon: I can certainly give the House an idea of which other countries are likely to be involved, but I anticipate that those countries will have to make the same kind of announcements to their Parliaments as the one that I am making this afternoon, and it would be wrong at this stage to give the House a definitive list. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall be able to do that in due course, however.
So far as American requests are concerned, I am absolutely confident that we are providing to the Americans precisely what they have been looking for to work alongside their own forces dealing with the remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): I am delighted that the ISAF troops have managed to help the humanitarian effort in Afghanistan, but will the Secretary of State tell us how many Afghans have been killed during the operation, either by military action or by starvation? Does he not agree that the United States should finish its job in Afghanistan before it embarks on another war with Iraq?
Mr. Hoon: I cannot tell the hon. Lady precisely how many Afghans have been killed during these operations. That figure is simply not available to anyone. I anticipate, however, that it is much lower than much of the hysterical comment has suggested from time to time. As a result of an astonishingly well targeted bombing campaign, I expect the number of civilian casualties to be very low. I will not deal with the other subject.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): May I ask the Secretary of State several brief questions? First, will he
Mr. Hoon: No decisions have been taken yet about calling up reserves as a result of this operation. I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's third question next. It is unlikely that the operation will have a significant impact on tour plots, for precisely the reason set out in my statement earlier, which is that elements of the Royal Marines are already deployed and have been on HMS Ocean for some time. The remaining elements that we intend to deploy are being held at very high readiness for precisely this kind of operation.
There are now some excellent medical facilities in and around Kabul. I mentioned the contribution that the Czech Government were prepared to make, and we are discussing with them the best way of deploying a state-of-the-art field hospital that they have available. That is why I was so pleased with the contribution that they were able to make. It is this kind of specialist contribution that allows this kind of international operation to be so effective in difficult circumstances.
Patrick Mercer (Newark): Last year the Select Committee on Defenceof which I am a memberwas lucky and privileged enough to visit the men of 45 Commando Royal Marines on Operation Saif Sareea. They struck me as the finest body of men that we are ever likely to deploy overseas. However, the additional troops that are going to Afghanistan, and that we may or may not be deploying to the Balkans, and the lack of any apparent reduction in the forces in Northern Ireland, will all make the pipswhich are already hard-pressedbegin to squeak even more. May I seek from the Secretary of Statewhose presence here I applaud after his illness at the weekendan assurance that new and imaginative ideas will be used to reduce commitments and deployments elsewhere?
Mr. Hoon: As I have told the House on many occasions, I am responsible for ensuring that our commitments are balanced and can be maintained within the capabilities we have available. That continues to be my responsibility.
Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): In his statement, the Secretary of State rightly drew our attention to the continuing threat from al-Qaeda. Some of those fighters will no doubt stand and fight, as in Operation Anaconda; others may well contemplate guerrilla action, which we have seen many times in Afghanistan over the years. Can the Secretary of State tell us what plans we
Mr. Hoon: The one thing I have become in recent months is something of an expert on maps and the topography of Afghanistan, and I will not pretend that sealing the border is in any way realistic. That applies not least to the border along Pakistan. A number of Afghanistan's external borders consist of extraordinary terrain, and frankly there are not the troops to do what the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Let me say, however, in the spirit of the hon. Gentleman's question, that the operations in prospect, consistent with Operation Anaconda, deal with precisely the kind of guerrilla threat about which he is rightly concerned. It is important that we get to those elements before they are in a position to conduct a guerrilla campaign. That is why Operation Anaconda was necessary, and why the follow-up operations I have described are also necessary.
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): In his statement, the Secretary of State said that 45 Commando and other forces would be used against the remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Can he tell us how large those remnants are, in his judgment and that of the intelligence we have?
So far, in their military operations abroad, the Government have been careful to set precise time scales and targets for the deployment of our forces. What consideration has the Secretary of State given to the question of when our missionthe mission of 45 Commandocan be said to have been completed?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman's questions are perfectly proper and perfectly fair, but I will not go into the detail of the numbers with which we expect to have to deal. I said earlier that the resistance to Operation Anaconda had been significantly greater than might have been originally anticipated, and had led to some serious fighting. What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that if he studies the nature of the deployment we propose, he will see that we are delivering a particularly potent force to Afghanistan. That is not coincidental; it will sit alongside similar deployments from the United States and a number of other countries. It is designed to deal with the elements concerned, and to deal with them extremely effectively.
Mr. Jenkin: I thank the Secretary of State for the full answers that he has given. He has described a fast-moving situation. Other partners may be involved in the operation taken on by 45 Commando; meanwhile, the question of ISAF's leadership remains unresolved. May I reiterate the need for a full debate which should, I stress, be in Government time? [Interruption.] I do not think it appropriate to make light of that request. The Secretary of State has made a very serious announcement, and the House is entitled to debate it. I merely ask the Secretary of State to take the request to the usual channels, and to use his influence. I know that he has some.