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Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a good point. I entirely endorse what she says. One reason why so much trouble is taken to brief forces personnel and their families about the precise nature of operations is to avoid the sort of speculation that so often causes the worries that my hon. Friend quite properly describes.
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): The Secretary of State will be aware that families will be very interested in the duration of the latest deployment. He will be aware that, after he made his statement on Monday, senior Ministry sources briefed newspapers that the latest deployment could be expected to last about three months. However, the right hon. Gentleman has said that the latest deployment represented an open-ended commitment. Will he tell the House which version is correct?
Mr. Hoon: Like the spokesman for the official Opposition, the hon. Gentleman is taking my comments out of context. When I was asked whether the deployment was open ended, I responded by saying that it was, but that the number of forces that would be deployed had to be limited by the length of time that any individual could be asked to spend in a very difficult situation such as obtained in Afghanistan.
The deployment will last as long as it takes to deal with the continuing threat. However, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), and the official Opposition, appear to want me to give a precise figure for the length of the deployment. That simply does not make sense. The deployment will be for as long as it takes to deal with the continuing threats. If it becomes necessary to replace the Royal Marines in-theatre, that decision will have to be taken according to circumstances on the ground. Anyone who considers the matter for any time will appreciate the common sense of that approach.
Mr. Hoon: That is uppermost in my mind, and in the minds of the senior military personnel responsible for the deployment. As I shall explain in due course, we are sending the Royal Marines in part because of their considerable skill at operations of this nature. They are trained for precisely the circumstances that obtain in Afghanistan. I certainly endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), and I shall ensure that his recommendation is carried through.
Mr. Hoon: I really do need to make a little more progress. I hope that hon. Members will be patient. I have yet to deal with the deployment of 45 Commando. If questions are raised when I do, I shall be able to deal with them in context.
There has also been speculation about a possible expansion of ISAF's area of responsibility. This is set out clearly in UN Security Council resolution 1386 and in the military technical agreement between ISAF and the Afghan Interim Administration. The security situation outside Kabul is very different from the situation in the city. What is clear is that, ultimately, security in Afghanistan is a matter for the Afghans themselves. We will continue to look at how we can help them in this, especially through the process of security sector reform.
Before I move on to talk about the deployment of 45 Commando, let me repeat that the United Kingdom is committed to the continued success of ISAF. Transferring our role as lead nation will not change that. ISAF has done great work, not just by patrolling the streets of Kabul, important though that is. Helping to train the first battalion of the new Afghan national guardhelping, for that matter, the new police force with such basic needs as pens and notepadshelps to ensure the future stability of Afghanistan.
Mr. Garnier: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way to me for a second time. I want to follow up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). I know that the MOD will wish that its resources are fully behind those who are to be deployed in Afghanistan and the majority of the House is behind the MOD in that. I wanted to be assured that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his Ministers were equally behind the MOD, because without the Chancellor's support, much of what the Secretary of State is doing, perfectly properly, will be hampered.
Mr. Hoon: I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that the Chancellor of the Exchequer fully supports the deployments that have been made and will ensure that all the financial costs of these deployments are returned to the MOD budget in a way that has been consistent across a number of Administrations. There is no difficulty
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): With this new deployment of fighting troops in another part of Afghanistan, are not the ISAF troops in Kabul in much greater danger? If they are attacked by one of the remnants of al-Qaeda, as they are calledwe do not know how big these remnants arewill they stand by and say, "Sorry chaps, we do not fight. We are here to keep the peace"? Will not the war then spread back to Kabul?
Mr. Hoon: I will try to be as fair as I can to the hon. Lady, but the short answer to her question is that if she had been listening to anything said since 11 September, she would know that there have been fighting troops in Afghanistan since the first deployments. That has not affected the security of the ISAF during that long period of time.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): What is the Secretary of State's analysis of the situation in Afghanistan beyond Kabul? How far does the writ of the Afghan Government run? How many of the various warring factions of the Northern Alliance are still at war with each other? Is there a Government in control of the whole country? Are we not in danger of involving ourselves in a long-term and serious civil war?
Mr. Hoon: That is a good question and one that clearly needs addressing. The issue has concerned Chairman Karzai, who raised it here during his visit. I recognise that it remains of concern to the Administration there. Butthis is a very important "but"the people that I met when I was there, who represented a number of different ethnic groups from different parts of Afghanistan, were all equally determined to take this opportunity of rebuilding that country. They wanted to take the opportunity of the international community's support to ensure that the kind of civil war that has so disfigured Afghanistan in the past will not be allowed to return.
That is not to say that there are not tensions, or that there have not been, from time to time, clashes. But, overall, the country has remained remarkably committed to the process of reconstruction; more committed, perhaps, than at any other time in its recent past. That is a testimony to the determination of the Afghan people to take this chance to ensure that their country can return to the international community.
David Winnick (Walsall, North): Is it not the case that if we had not intervened in the first place, the only Government in existence in Afghanistan would have been the Taliban? I wonder whether some of the critics would like that to happen again. If I have any criticism of the allies, it is that they have been somewhat over-optimistic about the elimination of terrorism. But is not the essence of this matter that if the terrorists are not eradicatedI assume that the whole purpose of the exercise is to do precisely thatthe allies will be revisiting this business in Afghanistan within a short period of time? It will come back as a nightmare.
Mr. Jenkin: We have given the Government unequivocal support in that battle on that question. My question arises from the remarks of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). What is the Secretary of State's assessment of the numbers of Taliban and al-Qaeda forces that are still resisting in the mountains in the east of Afghanistan? Does he have an assessment?
Mr. Hoon: There is an assessment. The number is initially in the hundreds; clearly it could be in the thousands. If the hon. Gentleman thinks about the nature of the deployment that we have announced, he will realise that the purpose of putting forces on the ground is, in the first place, to search out the remaining elements. Without putting forces on the ground, it will otherwise be an extraordinarily difficult military task to identify numbers. In those circumstances, we will need to take decisions as and when that information becomes available. We will ensure at that stage, according to the operations that are being conducted, that we have the right kind and number of forces to be able to deal with that threat.