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6.58 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Despite having served in the armed forces, I make no great claim to be a military strategist, but I feel qualified to make some observations, having spent considerable time on the Afghan border in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation. I have first-hand knowledge of some of the terrain so graphically brought

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to life by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell). Perhaps more relevant is the fact that Commando Training Centre Lympstone, the spiritual and in some cases actual home of the Royal Marines, is in my constituency.

As we have heard today, the Royal Marines are already doing more than their fair share in this conflict. The deployment of the remaining elements of 45 Commando and the combat and services support elements is the largest military deployment since the Gulf war. As we know and have heard again today, the lead elements of 45 Commando, its headquarters company and "Whisky" and "Zulu" companies are already in theatre on HMS Ocean.

Personally, I can think of no better force to send to that theatre to back up the more specialist forces already there than the Royal Marines. They are tough; they are highly professional; they have done extensive mountains training; and they are certainly battle fit. However, we should not for one moment delude ourselves into thinking that what they are undertaking will be like an exercise on Woodbury common with live rounds. It will not. It would be unrealistic to imagine that, out of an additional force of some 1,700 men, there will be no casualties. There will be. Nothing short of a miracle can prevent that. Given that, it is crucial that we know exactly what we are asking them to do.

Some Labour Members are concerned that the latest deployment represents mission creep. It may, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) said, Labour Members' comments serve only to highlight their ignorance of matters military. In a theatre of war—basically an anti-terrorist war—there is bound to be an element of mission creep due to the ever-changing nature of the conflict. However, that does not mean that the basic objectives need to change.

Paragraph 4 of the Government's aims, as outlined in their original campaign objectives, states:

Events have obviously moved on since then. The Taliban did not comply, and in my view there has been a singular failure to support the most effective Pashtun forces. Incidentally, it is exactly that failure which has led to the continuing resistance by some of the recalcitrant elements of the Taliban.

The aims, though broadly the same, have changed slightly. It is now a stated aim to find and bring to justice Mullah Omar as well as Osama bin Laden. It is my suspicion that bin Laden has long since departed Afghanistan and is almost certainly elsewhere—in Chechnya or even Algeria. Mullah Omar may or may not still be within the national borders—the 250,000-odd square miles that constitute Afghanistan, but we know that large remaining elements of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters are. What if some are not? What if, as is believed, there are elements in neighbouring Baluchistan, the North-West Frontier province or even Kashmir? What will the orders to our troops be then?

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To my way of thinking, something has already gone slightly wrong with the campaign. I suspect that it is a failure of operational intelligence. I suspect that the number of al-Qaeda fighters killed was overestimated, and the remaining number still alive and willing to fight underestimated.

We know that the Americans have encountered much heavier fighting than they had anticipated during Operation Anaconda. We do not know accurately what casualties they have suffered to date. While I, like other right hon. and hon. Members, applaud the work of the US 10th Mountain Division, it is clear that elements are battle-weary—hence the request for assistance from the Royal Marines.

I believe that it is right that we have responded positively to that request, but given the history of British and even Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, we need to bear in mind an exit strategy. For how long should we be prepared to be there? Clearly, until we have finished the job.

Only yesterday, CIA director George Tenet stated in evidence to the Senate armed services committee:

It is obvious that the United States is nervous about being drawn into a protracted guerrilla war in Afghanistan. History shows that it has every right to be but it must not be up to Britain to fill the vacuum in the event of America's attentions being diverted to new theatres.

It is not an easy time for the Secretary of State for Defence or indeed the Government to commit British forces to front-line combat operations. As we have heard again and again in speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House this afternoon, we have the finest, most professional forces in the world. We know that they will do whatever it is they are asked to do. That is their duty, just as it is our duty as politicians to support their endeavours; to make certain that the task set for them by the Government is achievable; that they have all the necessary back-up and equipment they need; that their orders and aims are made crystal clear; and that their families and loved ones left behind are properly taken care of. We know that they will not let us down. We in turn must play our part in supporting them to the fullest.

7.6 pm

Jim Knight (South Dorset): I join other hon. Members from both sides of the House in welcoming the deployment of 45 Commando and their support element in Afghanistan.

There is little pleasure, I am sure, in sending service personnel into highly dangerous combat, but there must also be great pride that British armed forces are found to be the best for the job, and it is right that we should play a full part in finishing off what we started in standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States after 11 September, which has already achieved the ending of the Taliban regime and of a safe haven for al-Qaeda.

It has already been shown that UK armed forces are uniquely skilled in peacekeeping. We have highly skilled troops deployed all over the world, most recently to great

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effect in Operation Essential Harvest in Macedonia, and now in commanding the international security assistance force in Afghanistan. Others are increasing their capability in that growing area of work but I believe that the UK is still uniquely respected in that role. That is a dangerous job, albeit perhaps not a popular or glamorous one, and I pay great tribute to the troops currently deployed in Kabul. I am delighted that the ISAF headquarters is being handed over to the Germans, as was successfully done in Macedonia. I will come back to the handover of the command of ISAF later.

It is surely a great compliment that the United States, the supremely equipped military power in the world, which on the face of it does not need us, has called on us for the very difficult and dangerous remaining mission in Afghanistan. It is not just our peacekeeping capability that deserves great pride.

I again pay tribute to our armed forces. I was fortunate enough to meet members of "Whisky" company in Oman, one of the companies in 45 Commando. The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) described them as

I do not have the colonel's expertise but they seemed very tough, very keen and very professional to me. Incidentally, they were also successfully using the first roll-outs of the Bowman communications system when I saw them in Oman. I know that, waiting in the less than perfect conditions aboard HMS Ocean, they will be eager to do the job they are trained to do as part of the deployment. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) that they are specialist troops ideal for removing the threat that remains in the scattered parts of the country.

The pride that I have in our armed forces is matched by a pride in the work of the Department for International Development in so often leading the world on debt relief, poverty eradication and emergency response, and pride in our foreign policy which projects a balanced and just response to events around the world. Our credible military and humanitarian force is matched by our diplomatic skill, but questions do remain and I welcome this opportunity to raise them.

The capability to which I have paid tribute is remarkable and we achieve great value for money, but we are right up against limits of capacity. Yesterday, with other members of the Select Committee on Defence, I visited RAF Coningsby. It has no recruitment problem but retention is very difficult. The situation is starting to improve with the new retention package but there is no doubt that, particularly for support grades such as catering, continuous overseas deployment is damaging family life, and the strain is showing. There is a vicious circle: as another person leaves, it increases the strain on those who remain. I know from my constituency and from feedback I have had from Bovington that those in Coningsby and, indeed, in the RAF are not alone in that regard. I know that in broad terms the Army deployment is now at 1997 levels but I do not think that that is the full story when we look at individual grades and individual services within the armed forces as a whole.

We are close to having to take some difficult decisions, which the deployment brings into full relief. I see only three options. First, to reduce our long-standing commitments: do we still need the current level of

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deployment in Northern Ireland or the Falklands? Secondly, we could make fewer new commitments and pool some capabilities with our European allies—the former supported by the Opposition, the latter perhaps not. Like the Opposition, I cannot name what to cut, so I effectively discount the option of commitment cuts. Thirdly, we could continue to do more, but with more resources and more recruitment.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary cannot comment on discussions with the Treasury, but I wish him well in securing the necessary extra money to go with the extra chapter of the strategic defence review, the option that I favour. We must continue the Government's upward trend on defence spending.

I have some further questions. Will the Minister comment on a report from Reuters this morning on Vice-President Cheney's visit to Turkey? It states:

How close are we to agreement on Turkey's takeover, given that the list of outstanding issues in that quote from the Vice-President seems pretty major? What discussions have the Government had with the United States about dealing with problems that may arise outside Kabul? Is it likely, as the Vice-President suggested, that the force would be US-led, and under what mandate?

Finally, will the Minister comment on the longer term? We are talking about a substantial level of deployment. Should our foreign policy require further ground operations, is there further capacity to do more in Afghanistan or elsewhere in the middle east? Do we need to scale back commitment elsewhere and increase capability in other sectors, such as special forces?

In conclusion, I have made my support for the deployment in Afghanistan clear. I also support our foreign policy with accompanying commitments for the varied skills of our armed forces. I know that the new chapter of the strategic defence review will deal with many of my questions, but I would be grateful if the Minister responded to some of them today.

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