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Mr. Hoon: Prisoners will be dealt with on exactly the same basis as they have been in the past. Most are still held in Afghanistan. I anticipate that those prisoners who can contribute to further understanding of the events of 11 September will be handed over for questioning to the United States.

Before I took those interventions, I was pointing out that 45 Commando has a long history of operating and training alongside US forces, including in northern Iraq and Kosovo. The Royal Marines possess highly skilled forward air controllers, who train regularly with US forces. So, 45 Commando is ideally placed to join troops from the US and a number of other nations in further operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants in Afghanistan. The House will recall that troops from several nations took part in Operation Anaconda. That is why we have decided to deploy that particular force. Our decision is not—absolutely not—as some have suggested anything to do with British public opinion being more ready to accept the possibility of casualties than US public opinion. That suggestion deserves the contempt that it has already received.

Mr. Jenkin: I fully concur with the right hon. Gentleman on that matter. Can he inform the House of

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when the Government received the request from the United States for this deployment? Obviously, his decision is a response to that request. I understand that he was indisposed over the weekend and therefore had some difficulty responding personally to some of the issues.

Mr. Hoon: I will deal with that question in due course as it makes more sense to deal with it in the chronology that I have prepared.

Some people have tried to read things into the fact that we have chosen to deploy the group now. The decision was taken following a formal request from the United States at the very end of last week and in close consultation with them. It has not been taken because the Americans or the other coalition forces are exhausted or need to be rescued, or have somehow failed—they did not. They fought in Operation Anaconda and they won against a heavily armed enemy, dug into prepared defensive positions in the rocks and caves. We should applaud their success, not try to decry it as some have done.

Therefore, the specific answer to the question posed by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) is Friday. Obviously, that decision followed, as such decisions always follow, a long period of contact, consultation and discussion—not only about the particular requirements that an ally has, but the sorts of forces that we have available and that can be deployed in appropriate time and in the appropriate circumstances.

The Opposition defence spokesman also suggested the other day that we were deploying this force without dedicated air support—something that he repeated just now. As we have made clear time and again, the Commandos will operate alongside the United States. They will be able to call on an extraordinary array of air power. The expert military advice that I have received is that there is no need to augment coalition air power with our own strike aircraft in support of this particular deployment. The House should be aware that British forces have very recent and very relevant experience of co-operating with the United States and drawing on its close air support during ground operations in Afghanistan. As the commanding officer of 45 Commando made clear on the radio this morning, we routinely train with US forces and use common procedures. He is quite content with the arrangements for fire support, as am I. That is not to say that the Royal Air Force has no role here. It does, most obviously through the Chinook helicopters that we are deploying, but also through the range of reconnaissance, air transport and air-to-air refuelling that has supported the coalition so successfully since last October. I am sure that these assets will continue to play an important role in future operations, including those that 45 Commando may undertake.

Some have suggested that this deployment will contribute to the supposed overstretch of the armed forces. Certainly, our three services are extremely busy. That is also true of the Royal Marines. This time last year, no one could have predicted that more than 6,000 British service personnel would be engaged in operations in Afghanistan. However, there is no doubt that it is right that they are there. We keep these commitments under review and always assess them against routine programmed activities, and, where necessary, make adjustments to ensure the necessary balance between operations and other tasks.

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It is worth remembering that the Royal Marines were first put at high readiness for operations in Afghanistan in late October last year, and 45 Commando have been at high readiness—some on board HMS Ocean and others at home in Arbroath—since mid-November. We have therefore been ready for an operation of this sort for some months. There is no overstretch.

There have also been questions and concerns about the command and control arrangements in place for 45 Commando Group. It is entirely separate from the international security assistance force and will have separate command and control arrangements. ISAF comes under national command, although US Centcom has responsibility for ensuring that there is no conflict between ISAF activities and those that continue as part of Operation Enduring Freedom; 45 Commando Group come directly under Centcom's command. Brigadier Roger Lane and the headquarters of 3 Commando Brigade will therefore be embedded in the American-led coalition headquarters at Bagram. That means that the ISAF commander, Major General McColl, will not have authority over 45 Commando Group. In turn, Brigadier Lane will not have command over ISAF. They command distinct forces with distinct jobs to do in discrete parts of Afghanistan. Other nations which have contributed troops to ISAF are in exactly the same situation. It will not have escaped the notice of the House that Denmark, France, Germany, and Norway have all sent ground forces to participate in Operation Anaconda, while other elements of their armed forces remain in Kabul under General McColl.

Our decision to deploy 45 Commando Group to Afghanistan was not taken lightly. However, it is the right decision. The remaining al-Qaeda and Taliban elements must be dealt with. We shall continue to pursue them until the job is done. We must complete the task in full. The events of 11 September have shown us what could happen if we do not.

That is why I am not prepared to put a precise date on when we will bring these troops back home. Clearly, the decision will be taken in the light of the circumstances on the ground and in the light of the tasks that these troops may undertake. Our exit strategy is that we will leave when the task is completed. I welcome the fact that there is so much support in the House for this deployment and widespread appreciation of why it is so necessary.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

5.54 pm

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who is unavoidably absent. I shall allow myself the indulgence of the following thought. Whatever our views on hunting—I accept that there are very strong views on both sides of the House—it is a relief that this week we have found time, however it was achieved, for a debate on the deployment of so many of our armed

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forces. Had we not, I suspect that people looking at the House of Commons from outside would have wondered precisely where our priorities lay.

I believe that the Government are entitled to the support of the House for this deployment. More particularly, our service men are entitled to that support. They are being asked to undertake hazardous operations in conditions that are unimaginably inhospitable—a long way from the air-conditioned comfort of this Chamber. Just as the Government are entitled to our support, the House, too, is entitled to clear military and political explanations from the Government for this deployment.

The truth is that the decision to make this fresh deployment is tactical, not strategic. The strategic decision has already been taken. It was taken in the immediate aftermath of 11 September, when, by common consent, the House agreed that military force should be used in Afghanistan to achieve four stated objectives. The first was to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. The second was to disrupt and destroy as far as possible al-Qaeda's network of terrorism. The third was to drive the Taliban Government out of Kabul. The fourth was to allow the people of Afghanistan to have the chance to choose their own Government. At this date, only the third of those objectives has been achieved.

If the deployment or the decision to make it had been announced before Christmas, I doubt whether there would have been any concern other than from those who honourably and sincerely oppose the use of force in principle in Afghanistan. What is different today is, first, the speed of response to the request from the United States, which, as the Secretary of State has just told us, came formally on Friday last week. It was so recent that the Government could not offer the usual consultation on Privy Council terms with other parties in the House. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, a perception had grown up here and elsewhere that we had enjoyed early and comprehensive military success, and, consequently, all that was left to do was some form of mopping up—a description of military action that is as factually inaccurate as it is militarily inept.

Those who joined the chorus of "I told you so" may now wish to reflect at leisure on the American expression, "It isn't over until it's over." Perhaps unconsciously, that principle lay behind the observations of which I understand the Secretary of State has given further explanation today, and on which he has been reported as saying that this may be an open ended commitment. In that regard, I agree with an intervention by, I think, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). The truth is that, in the war against terrorism, the commitment is always open ended. That is particularly the case, if, as we now know, the terrorist uses the principles of what is described as asymmetric warfare—never risking full-blooded confrontation. The truth is that in a campaign against terrorism, it may be virtually impossible to answer the question, "How do you know when you've won?" If one looks for a classical allusion, the mythology of the dragon's teeth comes easily to mind.

It is axiomatic that military force should not be used unless clear political objectives can be achieved. In modern military thinking, however, it is increasingly accepted that just as intervention must be justified against clear criteria, such intervention must also be accompanied by an equally clear exit strategy. There must be a point at which one concludes that one's objectives have been

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achieved, or—more difficult, and often more important and acute—a point at which one concludes that one's objectives cannot be achieved and that withdrawal is the necessary response. We have not yet heard—nor, I suspect, could the Secretary of State provide—clear exit criteria of that kind. However, a point must surely arise in the conduct of the operations that he has described in which the need for such criteria will be paramount. Although the House takes him on trust—I shall return to that point—we are entitled to say that we expect him to be sufficiently rigorous in his supervision of these operations to be alive to the need for clear exit criteria of the kind that I have described.

We must also recognise that we are sending highly specialised troops into circumstances that are admitted to be of very considerable danger. The Secretary of State was rightly sombre in his statement to the House on Monday when he described the nature of the risk. We are sending troops against the background of an uncertain immediate history, which—notwithstanding what he has just said—may be capable of explanation only by accepting that the United States troops previously engaged have, in truth, bitten off more than they could chew both physically and tactically. That seems to underline the risk to which we are inevitably exposing those whom we now wish to deploy.

All of us who support military action—and I mean all of us and not just the Government—have an overwhelming moral obligation not to exploit the competence, bravery and professionalism of our troops. I therefore, wish to make a point in parenthesis. Reservations have been and will be expressed by others in the debate. However, if we were American senators or members of the House of the Representatives and the circumstances were reversed, there could be no doubt that we would all raise the same issues on behalf of those whom we represented as matters of principle.

There is nothing disloyal in wanting to put to the test a Government who face the awesome responsibility of making such deployments or in forcing that Government to come to the Chamber of the House of Commons to justify their actions. Indeed, it is my recollection that precisely the same principles applied during the Gulf war, Kosovo and in other similar engagements.

This deployment is perforce a very public one. The Secretary of State was quick to dismiss any reservations that Members might have about two different deployments. However, I suggest that, although we might be clear about the separation between ISAF and 45 Commando and the roles for which they are being deployed, the distinction may be less obvious to those with malign intent. Indeed, they may positively ignore it. In an age of asymmetric warfare, we are dealing with a terrorist organisation whose sophistication is warranted each time we come across the places where it keeps a cache of manuals or equipment, so I postulate whether it is impossible that someone will say, "Well, we won't take on the British uniforms of 45 Commando in the mountains. We may find it rather easier to target the British uniforms of the Royal Anglians in Kabul." There is some justification for the view that there may be an increased risk to the forces in Kabul.

I had the good fortune to visit Kabul a few weeks ago at the invitation of the Foreign Secretary. On these occasions, it is conventional to talk with pride of the achievements of British forces. Sometimes we do that as

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a matter of ritual rather than of substance, but I genuinely felt a swelling of pride at the quality and competence of those who were wearing the Union Jack. That competence has been built up in operations such as ISAF, but is based to a large extent on our pretty horrific experiences over 30 years in Northern Ireland. Such operations form as important a part of the range of abilities of British armed forces as does the most high-intensity war fighting.

There are risks in concentrating on operations such ISAF, because our capacity for high-intensity war fighting may be irremediably eroded. I think that that has been the experience of the Canadians, but I have no doubt that we possess a capacity as a result of our experiences in Northern Ireland that is vital in many circumstances. We should never attempt to describe that capacity in such a way as to cause people to think that it is something second rate.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) asked about the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that the border has been freely crossed by elements of al-Qaeda who have gone for rest and recreation in Pakistan. They have regrouped and, with fresh men and material, returned to Afghanistan. I suspect that that pattern may be repeated for a considerable time and, if it is, the length of the commitment to which the Secretary of State referred will be greater. Those of us who support this deployment should not do so without recognising what the consequences might be.

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