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Mr. Hoon: I should like to make some progress if right hon. and hon. Members will forgive me.
The deployment of 45 Commando to Afghanistan is entirely consistent with our campaign objectives. It does not undermine, or even threaten to undermine, our support for ISAF. Since the military campaign began, we have made clear our determination to act to prevent Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda from posing a continuing terrorist threat. That is why British forces have been involved in operations on the ground in Afghanistan for some months now.
We have also made it clear that rooting out the remaining elements of al-Qaeda will take time. That was a constant theme of our statements in the early days of the military deployment. Even in the early period after 11 September, defence analysts rightly pointed out that search and strike operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban elements were likely to continue into the spring. Certainly, al-Qaeda ceased to exist as a coherent force some months ago, and the Taliban regime has long since been removed from power.
However, as the recent USA-led Operation Anaconda has demonstrated, sizeable elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban remain in Afghanistan, hidden away in the remoter areas of the country. We have to deal with those threats. The threat of attack from these groups and individuals remains high. If we do not deal with them, they will threaten all that the Afghan people and their supporters in the international community have achieved so far. They would certainly work to retain Afghanistan
The decision to deploy 45 Commando makes sense. They are able to deploy quickly, having been held at high readiness on HMS Ocean in the Arabian sea and in their bases here in the United Kingdom. They are also trained to be able to manoeuvre quickly across difficult terrain. The Royal Marines are expert in mountain and cold-weather warfarethey have trained in this role since the 1970s. All Royal Marines undertake mountain training every year45 Commando last did so only last December. Elements of 3 Commando brigade exercise in Norway each year. They are equipped to fight in arctic conditions.
The Commando group is also able to sustain itself. It must be able to call on the support of heavy weapons. The Commando group is equipped with machine guns and mortars. It also has a battery of 105 mm gunsa formidable piece of highly mobile artillery.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): I of course support the deployment announced by the Secretary of State. Will he tell us whether it is correct that other Governments are continuing to support al-Qaeda? There is a suggestion in the press today that Iraq might still be supporting al-Qaeda.
Mr. Hoon: I have certainly seen the press speculation. I have saidthis remains the best information on the subjectthat there are no obvious links between Iraq and the events of 11 September. However, we are well aware of Iraq's general support for terrorism and its condoning various terrorist acts, which clearly is a great cause for concern. I cannot comment further on the press reports. I certainly have nothing to add to what they say.
Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): On 45 Commando, which is based in my constituency, I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying about its usefulness for this operation and I agree, but given his earlier answer about the unknown number of al-Qaeda fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan, the fact that the terrain is difficult and treacherous and that those fighters can fight fanatically, as was shown in Operation Anaconda, this could be a long operation. Has he had any discussions with other nations that have specialist troops in that area about those troops rotating with 45 Commando or other British troops to ensure that the operation can finally be finished?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman makes a proper point, but perhaps I need to explain in a little more detail the sort of operations that 45 Commando will be conducting and, indeed, the sort that were conducted by the Americans and others during Operation Anaconda. We are not talking about a pitched battle, or about tens of thousands of al-Qaeda lining up to fight the Royal Marines. We are talking about a series of small pockets of resistance.
Frankly, part of the difficulty is that it is almost impossible to say precisely how many of those small pockets there might be in the remoter parts of Afghanistan, or the numbers involved. Each operation against each of those discrete pocketsthere is little doubt that we have been able to deal with communication between elements of al-Qaedawill be separate. As we progress through the countrythat is very much the programme that General Franks has outlinedwe will be able to take each stage at a time.
I think that the hon. Gentleman implied that this is an all-or-nothing commitmentwe either commit ourselves to deal with all the elements of al-Qaeda that we discover or we do not. The answer to his question is that this is a continuing series of smaller scale operations, working through the country to eliminate those pockets of resistance as we find them.
Mr. Hoon: I will give way to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve).
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): The operations in the east of the country clearly lie close to the border with Pakistan and there has been much comment about the porous nature of that border and the ability of al-Qaeda terrorists to move back and forth across it. What steps will be taken to deal with the problem of al-Qaeda terrorists taking refuge in Pakistan in the tribal areas and then returning to Afghanistan? Unless that is dealt with, there must be a danger that there will be a continuous pool of fighters who can cross the border and cause problems.
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair pointit was raised on Monday in the questions following my statement. In truth, as I set out then, it will be an extraordinarily difficult military exercise to seal that border. I was asked whether that was contemplated and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not; it is simply not possible, given the terrain and the circumstances. Obviously, part of the military planning is to have a means of organising the forces involved to deal with those who might try to escape from the initial pocket of resistance that is attacked. That was part of the battle plan for Operation Anacondaa part that worked extremely successfully.
Mr. Robathan: I support this deployment. The Secretary of State mentioned the equipment for 45 Commando and its arctic training. That equipment is vital while the snows are in place in the hills of Afghanistan, but within a month those snows will be melting and heat will be the problem. He is talking about small groups of troops deployed across the country. They will need to change from arctic to tropical or desert kit. Has that been worked out?
Mr. Hoon: I do not think that there is much desert at 10,000 ft in Afghanistan, but I will certainly ensure that those troops have the appropriate kit should the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman has described arise.
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): My right hon. Friend described in some detail the sort of operations that
Mr. Hoon: Not in the least. The terrain is very different, as are the circumstances and there is a very different history. My hon. Friend has sought hard to make that comparison and I am sorry to disappoint him with my answer.
Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): One element that was missing from the order of battle that the Secretary of State took us through was any light armoured component to the commando force. Such a component was used very successfully in the Falkland Islands and in a number of other operations since, and would seem to be ideal for the present operation. For example, what about the use of mobile gun platforms? Has any thought been given to that matter? If not, will the right hon. Gentleman give it some thought?
Mr. Hoon: I am sure that some thought has been given to it, but I am not entirely sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman's premise. I am not convinced, given the terrain in which the troops will be operating that I have seen and the rapidly moving nature of the operations that I anticipate, that light armour will be of much assistance. Certainly, that was not the case for Operation Anaconda. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should study more carefully the contour map of Afghanistan before making that suggestion.
Hugh Bayley (City of York): The campaign objectives are to prevent al-Qaeda forces from carrying out further terrorist attacks, which is why almost all hon. Members on both sides of the House support the deployment. What will happen to prisoners who are taken? Will they remain in Afghanistan and will they be treated under British or American law?