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7.28 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I intend to be brief because the key part of our purpose in calling for the emergency debate was to give the House itself a chance to express its views. I am sure that you will agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the quality of the debate and its measured nature have fully vindicated Mr. Speaker's decision to accede to our request. Furthermore, it is inconceivable that our involvement in Afghanistan could be increased from a peacekeeping role to a war-fighting role without Parliament having the opportunity to consider the issue.

The debate also provides us with an opportunity to correct the record. The Prime Minister told the House on Monday that my right hon. Friend the leader of the Opposition

That is entirely untrue. My right hon. Friend and the Conservative party fully support the deployment of British troops for fighting terrorism, as part of an important contribution to the coalition with the United States in attempting to eradicate the al-Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan. Indeed, we have consistently made the point that our troops are trained for war fighting, although sufficiently versatile to perform superbly in the role of peace enforcers. I hope that no hon. Member is under any illusion, given the speeches made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and my other colleagues, about the fact that we support the Government in their move to deploy our forces further in Afghanistan.

This is not an occasion on which to divide the House tonight. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex asked a number of key questions that we believe the Government should address, and I intend to turn to them in a moment. The issues raised are not pedantic points of debate, but critical questions that the House and the British people are entitled to ask. We are entitled to seek assurances that the Government have addressed those issues before committing our troops to what the Secretary of State said on Monday would be missions

Indeed, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) articulated the view of the House when he said that there was nothing disloyal in seeking to call the Government to account before deploying our troops.

In the short time available to me, I should like to go through some of the points made in the debate, but if I miss a few hon. Members' contributions, I hope that they will not take it as a personal slight on what they said. I first turn to the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, whose near unequivocal support of Her Majesty's Government ought to go down in the history books; it was as near as any Government have come to having his approbation on a defence issue. The Government are entitled to take that as full support from him. He was right to say that the Select Committee always

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maintained that the war will not be resolved quickly, which is certainly the realisation of all hon. Members tonight.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) made a splendid speech—a man who was unquestionably one of the finest Secretaries of State for Defence that we have seen in modern times and a man who commanded enormous respect in the military community throughout the United Kingdom. His loss to that office in 1997 was a loss to the country as well. He was right to say that this is no time to flinch and that, if we fail in this mission, al-Qaeda will regroup, thereby threatening not only Afghanistan and the stability that we seek to create there, but other neighbouring countries, as well as those further afield. Leaving al-Qaeda intact would, as he said, only serve to encourage terrorism elsewhere in the world.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson)—a former Defence Minister—made an extremely important speech and a very interesting contribution, in which he set out the great difficulties involved in Britain having a unique dual role. I shall turn again to that matter in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) is a man who provides the House with continuity. I always feel that we have a connection right the way back to many Parliaments before this one, and it will come as no surprise to the House to know that, like me, he has been up the Khyber. As ever, he speaks with great authority—he is a man who understands parts of the world that many of us will never have been near. He was right to say in our rather cool British way—indeed, in his rather cool British way—that we should carefully consider every step on the road, not make hasty decisions.

My hon. Friend was also right to utter some salutary warnings, not only about the experiences of the Russians when they were in Afghanistan, but to remind us, the country and indeed the civilised world that—even if we root out all those people from the caves and clear them from Afghanistan, which we are sure will be done—there are nevertheless sleepers in the United States and the United Kingdom who threaten us and remain permanently ready to cause mayhem and havoc in our country.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) made an interesting speech. As he said, he does not know where the military endgame will be, and I fear that that is something which we all feel.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) made a perceptive speech. He spoke on behalf of one of the great homes of the Royal Marines and was right to remind us of his own military experience, which he brings to the House and which we therefore value. He also reminded us of the condition of the families—those wives, mothers, daughters and indeed, I suspect, husbands sons and others—whose loved ones are about to embark on a mission for us in defence of freedom. He was right to remind us that we owe them a debt of gratitude and that, throughout the forthcoming weeks, we must support them as well.

The hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) made a very perceptive speech. Indeed, he put his finger on the key point that the Government face two options—we all face them: one is to reduce our long-standing commitments; the other is to provide more resources, and he made his views absolutely explicit.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) made, as ever, a robust contribution, in which he said that we must have the necessary kit. I am sure that Ministers will be well aware not only of the need to do that, but that any failure to provide our troops with the kit that they require will be a dereliction of duty, and I am sure that Ministers will not wish to be cast in that light.

I wish to ask four questions that have not been adequately dealt with by the Government, and I hope that the Minister will do so in responding to the debate. First and foremost, will he say what proportion of the front-line forces in the mountains will be provided by the United Kingdom? That question was put to the Secretary of State, but I do not think that he was able to answer it. We are entitled to know to what extent those forces are being provided by us and to what extent by the United States of American and, indeed, other countries whose forces are active in the front line.

Secondly, if the numbers of al-Qaeda produce a greater threat than we anticipate, what plans exist to reinforce 45 Commando? Thirdly, what is ISAF's mission? That is a critical point about ISAF's role, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South. Is our commitment to ISAF open ended? For example, 3 Commando Brigade headquarters will be inside ISAF's remit area. If the peacekeeping forces come under attack and need to be reinforced, can the Minister explain how the lines of communication will work? How will that issue be resolved operationally, so that those forces can be reinforced—presumably by troops under the command of US Central Command, Centcom?

Finally, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North raised the issue of Britain's unique role in providing front-line combat troops and peacekeepers on the streets of Kabul. The Minister will have heard the hon. Member's comments on the very real difficulties involved, and the right hon. and learned Member for North–East Fife also made that point. The House would welcome more explanation from the Minister, to try to help us with that issue.

The House has made it abundantly clear tonight that it is under no illusions about the dangers that our troops face and the responsibility that rests on the House, and especially on those Ministers who are responsible for the deployment. As Major General Hagenbeck, commander of US ground forces in Afghanistan, has said, the al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters represent

The latest deployment is composed of commando gunners, engineers, logisticians, signallers, medics and medium-lift helicopter support personnel. Together they constitute a coherent battle group, which has had the advantage of taking part in the recent demanding exercise in Oman, and we acknowledge, as the right hon. Member for Walsall, South said, the foresight of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in holding them well forward in preparation for just this eventuality.

However, the heart of the operation will be the infantry. The Royal Marine Commandos enjoy an awesome reputation around the world, by land and by sea—per mare per terram. We know that, just as in the Falklands, those green berets will instil fear in the hearts and minds

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of al-Qaeda, as they have in this country's enemies ever since they took Gibraltar 300 years ago. They are tough, versatile and highly trained. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea said, they are lions commanded by lions. On behalf of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, I wish them all possible good fortune as they embark on a mission which, although many thousands of miles from these islands, is designed to search out and destroy those responsible for one of the most appalling atrocities of modern times and whose continued existence threatens our very way of life.

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