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12. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): What recent discussions he has had with his European Union colleagues on military operations in Afghanistan. [50951]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I continue to have regular discussions with my European Union colleagues about operations in Afghanistan. All members of the coalition are committed to the fight against international terrorism, and to supporting the Afghan Interim Administration as the Afghans begin the rebuilding of their country.

Helen Jones: Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need not only to root out al-Qaeda but to ensure that Afghanistan cannot become a safe haven for terrorists in the future? If we are to achieve that, a reform of the whole security apparatus will be needed. What steps are we taking, alongside our colleagues in the European Union, to assist the people of Afghanistan to achieve that?

Mr. Hoon: I agree with my hon. Friend. I described to the House earlier the efforts being made by military forces, particularly by part of the international security assistance force, to train Afghan armed forces for their role in defending Afghanistan. It is equally important to explain how closely we, together with our European partners, are working with the Afghans to reform other areas of their security sector. For example, Germany is leading on the training of the Afghan police force and Italy on the reform of the judiciary, while France, working closely with the United States, will train two battalions of the new Afghan army.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): Did the agenda of the discussions that my right hon. Friend had with his European counterparts include the setting up of a taskforce, either within the European self-defence force or under the auspices of NATO, to block the drug route from Afghanistan through the Balkans? I ask that question because at the annual meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of NATO the Civil Dimension of Security Committee, on which I serve, was given a presentation by Interpol in which it was said that heroin is finding its way from Afghanistan through the Balkans. There was a view that bin Laden had been in the Balkans only two years before, and may have been involved in setting up the route through to Europe, so the taskforce would be very important.

Mr. Hoon: There are no specific plans for a particular taskforce, but I can tell my hon. Friend that determined efforts are being made, in co-operation with the Interim Administration inside Afghanistan, to deal with the current poppy crop. Further efforts will be made in each succeeding year. Each country along the route that my hon. Friend mentioned has been approached with a view to persuading it, where necessary, of the urgent action that should be taken against drug smuggling. That is certainly

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the case in the Balkans, where I know that determined efforts are being made to deal with the supply of drugs, especially heroin originating from Afghanistan.

Patrick Mercer (Newark): During the Defence Committee's recent visit to Afghanistan, I was impressed to see a rather unexpected additional French battalion of infantry, which was fully recruited. Meanwhile, 1 Royal Anglian, alongside, had struggled to find the recruits that it needed. Last Saturday four of my constituents tried to join their county infantry regiment, which expects to go on operations to Afghanistan in the not too distant future, only to be told that there were no places available for infantry training until at least September. Can the Secretary of State explain?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman knows full well, from the correspondence that he has entered into with the Ministry of Defence about this issue, that there is a temporary difficulty as a result of the fact that we are consolidating infantry training at Catterick. There is no secret about that, nor is this the shocking revelation that the hon. Gentleman and the "Today" programme appear to claim to have uncovered. That has been said to the hon. Gentleman clearly and plainly in recent correspondence.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the development of a properly trained and accountable Afghan national army is an important step towards Afghanistan's future peace and stability? Can he tell the House what role he sees such an army playing to achieve that goal in the longer term?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right. As I have explained already, it is important that we continue to support the Interim Administration's efforts to train an army that reflects the ethnic diversity of the Afghan people and can gain the confidence of people across the country in undertaking both internal and external security responsibilities.


13. Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): If he will make a statement on preparations for future military action in Iraq. [50952]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): We have made plain our concerns about Iraq's continued development of weapons of mass destruction and the potential threat the Iraqi regime poses to the international community. Allowing those programmes to continue unchecked is simply not an option. However, no decision on military action has been taken and no such action is imminent. Any decision that we make will be taken carefully, cautiously and in accordance with international law.

Mr. Osborne: Both the Prime Minister and the American President have made it clear that military action against Iraq is at least an option, even if no decisions have been taken. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House—or at least, the Opposition—that intensive

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preparations are under way for the contingency of military action, including a possible ground campaign; otherwise, the threat against Saddam Hussein is hollow?

Mr. Hoon: Intensive efforts are being made to require Iraq to comply not only with a series of resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, but with international law. Specifically, weapons inspectors, who have not been in Iraq since 1998, should be allowed to return. It is vital that we see for ourselves whether or not Saddam Hussein is, as we suspect, continuing in his efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. That is the diplomatic and international political route that we continue to take.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): Do the Secretary of State's recent comments concerning the possible use of nuclear weapons against Iraq signal a change of Government policy, whereby Britain is reneging on assurances given to non-nuclear weapons states under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? Indeed, are the Government abandoning the policy of successive British Governments of regarding nuclear weapons as a deterrent of last resort?

Mr. Hoon: There has been no change in the British Government's policy—the use of nuclear weapons is still a deterrent of last resort. However, for that to be a deterrent, a British Government must be able to express their view that, ultimately and in conditions of extreme self-defence, nuclear weapons would have to be used.

Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about today's press reports, suggesting that weapons are being smuggled from eastern Europe, through Syria and into Iraq? If so, will he investigate the matter? Does he also agree that, if the reports are true, they are a further indication that Saddam Hussein has no intention of voluntarily complying with the UN resolutions and allowing an inspection team into Iraq? His sole interest appears to be his own power, rather than a peaceful future for the Iraqi people.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is quite right: the matter must be investigated. So far as we have been able to discern, the Iraqi regime have no obvious intention of complying with either international law or the UN Security Council resolutions.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): The Secretary of State referred to the possible use of nuclear weapons in circumstances of

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"extreme self-defence". Can he help the House by explaining what that phrase means? People either defend themselves, or they do not.

Mr. Hoon: I accept that there are those—some of whom may well be sitting on the Labour Benches—who do not believe in the use of nuclear weapons in any circumstances, but that is not the position of the Government or of the Labour party. It is therefore important to point out that the Government have nuclear weapons available to them, and that—in certain specified conditions to which I have referred—we would be prepared to use them.

Sierra Leone

15. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): What recent assessment he has made of the involvement of UK forces in Sierra Leone; and if he will make a statement. [50954]

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I visited Sierra Leone in March, and I was therefore able to see for myself the excellent progress our forces have made in helping to develop a professional, accountable and effective Republic of Sierra Leone armed forces and Ministry of Defence. Our goal, however, is that the Sierra Leonean armed forces be able to protect the country's security and territorial integrity without the need for substantial external assistance, and much work needs still to be done if that is to be achieved. Following the May elections in Sierra Leone, the UK-led international military advisory and training team will continue to help build the capacity of the Sierra Leonean armed forces and Ministry of Defence over the longer term.

David Taylor: I am pleased to hear that IMATT will continue to operate after the May elections. However, how confident is the Minister that the Sierra Leonean armed forces will indeed be able to maintain security in that country in the period after those elections, which could well prove to be a time of considerable internal conflict?

Mr. Ingram: Our training is successfully transforming the Sierra Leonean armed forces into a more effective, disciplined and accountable fighting force, under a now functioning Ministry of Defence. British short-term training teams provided basic infantry training to some 10,000 men. Such training of all the Sierra Leonean armed forces should make them increasingly capable of protecting the country's security, and they are already deployed throughout the country to that end. In addition, under UNAMSIL, the largest UN mission in the world, some 17,500 troops are deployed throughout the country to keep the peace.

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