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Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): The Leader of the House, with his characteristic respect for Parliament, won plaudits from both sides of the House when he recently apologised to the House for giving incorrect information, albeit inadvertently. We read in today's papers that the Home Secretary won respect from police officers when he apologised yesterday for the way in which he has treated them in recent months; we look forward to his making a similar apology in the House shortly. Now that we know that the Transport Secretary is on his way out, will the Leader of the House and the Home Secretary take him to one side, preferably in a remote, darkened and sound-proof room, and explain that the only way for him

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to gain respect in the House is to follow their lead and apologise for his errors and the way in which he has treated the House?

Mr. Cook: I think that I went seven minutes on that question with John Humphrys last Friday, which was as testing as anything that I have encountered during business questions. There is no dispute whatsoever about the fact that at that meeting in February Martin Sixsmith and the permanent secretary discussed resignation; there is a dispute between the permanent secretary and Martin Sixsmith about how far they got in settling the question of resignation. It is the case that I came to the House and apologised; I did so because I had been given misleading information, and the person who provided that information was Martin Sixsmith.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Although recently there has been a welcome trend for Ministers to admit mistakes, it is nevertheless unusual for the Prime Minister to admit that his policy does not work, as he did this week with drugs policy. Will the Leader of the House allow us to have an early debate before the summer recess on drugs policy and what it should consist of, as the Prime Minister has clearly admitted that the policy we have been employing is not working?

Mr. Cook: If I may say so, no one in the Government is more vigilant in guarding against complacency than my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. When we find that a policy is not producing the results that any of us would wish, it is right to look at it again and consider alternative ways of developing it. That is the responsible way to do it, but I must tell my hon. Friend and the House that anyone who pretends that there is an easy, simple and guaranteed answer on drugs has not considered the problem and the reality with which we deal in many of our inner-city communities.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must move on.

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1.14 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I should like to bring the House up to date on recent developments in Afghanistan.

On Monday, taskforce Jacana—the force based around 45 Commando Group, Royal Marines—completed the first major operation in Afghanistan, Operation Snipe, but before I report on what Operation Snipe has achieved, I should say a few words about the medical situation at Bagram air base.

Over the past three days, 18 military personnel serving with 34 field hospital at Bagram air base have been taken ill with an unidentified feverish illness. The precise nature of the illness is not yet known and medical tests are being urgently conducted to isolate the cause. The symptoms are consistent with enteric febrile illness and the illness appears to be contagious.

Two people are very seriously ill, but fortunately their conditions have stabilised overnight. One has been returned to the United Kingdom for treatment and the other has been evacuated to a United States hospital in Germany. One other person remains seriously ill. He is being cared for by the remaining medical staff at Bagram. This patient and five others are scheduled for aeromedical evacuation to the UK today for further treatment and convalescence. Six other patients are under close medical supervision at 34 field hospital. Four patients have already been discharged.

In response to the outbreak, a number of actions have been taken. As a precaution, the field hospital has been closed to all but similarly infected patients, and strict barrier nursing protocols have been implemented. The occupants of the tent in which the disease first appeared have been placed under quarantine. Fresh rations are no longer being supplied; only operational ration packs are being used. An environmental health officer and his team have been deployed to Bagram, and an infection control nurse has been deployed from the United Kingdom. A consultant in infectious diseases is to be deployed as soon as possible.

Advice has been sought from the consultant adviser in communicable disease control, who in turn has consulted other national experts. An epidemiological study has commenced to investigate the origins of the infection and the pattern of its spread. A consultant physician, an anaesthetist and two intensive care unit nurses have been deployed to reinforce 34 field hospital. In the interim, the German hospital based in Kabul will provide hospital cover for British troops based in Afghanistan.

The situation is clearly very serious. We are, however, encouraged that there have been no new cases over the past 22 hours. We will keep the House informed of further significant developments, as appropriate. I know that all right hon. and hon. Members will join me in wishing all those who have been taken ill a full and rapid recovery.

I should also like to take this opportunity to bring the House up to date on the international security assistance force in Kabul. ISAF has been doing excellent work under British leadership. On 29 April I told the House of Turkey's decision to take over as lead nation. On 7 May, Turkish Foreign Minister Cem wrote to the United Nations Secretary-General to confirm this. We are now discussing the final details of the leadership transfer and are working towards achieving that by the end of June.

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On 9 and 10 May, Turkish and UK authorities co-hosted an ISAF force generation conference in Ankara, focusing on the next phase of the deployment. Twenty-six nations made offers covering almost all the force requirements. These nations are now making their final assessments of what capabilities they might be able to contribute. That includes the United Kingdom. It is too soon to say what will be the likely size of our future contribution to ISAF, but it will be a considerably smaller contribution than the number of UK personnel who are now deployed with that force. I am confident that, under Turkish leadership, ISAF will remain the well-balanced and capable force that it is today. I congratulate Turkey on its decision.

I turn now to Operation Snipe. The House should recall the context of the overall objectives of our action in Afghanistan, which we set out in detail when military action began. These are to bring Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders to justice; to prevent Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network from posing a continuing terrorist threat; to ensure that Afghanistan ceases to harbour and sustain international terrorism; and to effect a sufficient change in the leadership to ensure that Afghanistan's links to international terrorism are broken.

Those objectives still hold and have been substantially achieved. The Taliban have been removed from power and replaced by the Interim Administration under Hamid Karzai. He is moving Afghanistan along the road towards the Loya Jirga, which will shape the Government of Afghanistan for the next stage of their constitutional development.

We have gone a long way towards ensuring that Afghanistan ceases to harbour and sustain international terrorism, and we have made progress towards preventing al-Qaeda from posing a continuing terrorist threat elsewhere, but these objectives have not yet been fully secured. Previous offensive operations, including the US-led Operation Anaconda, did real damage to al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, which have been effectively destroyed as dominant organised forces in Afghanistan.

But al-Qaeda and the Taliban have not completely disappeared. The terrorists have not been finally defeated. Elements of these organisations continue to pose a threat inside Afghanistan. The enemy still exists. We need to keep up the pressure and prevent them from re-establishing themselves in Afghanistan. We have good evidence that small groups of terrorist forces continue to prepare for and conduct operations and to attack opportunity targets. In recent weeks there have been a number of—fortunately ineffectual—attacks against coalition bases throughout Afghanistan. Left to regroup, these terrorists would easily pose a direct threat—even, ultimately, to the people of the United Kingdom.

That is why ISAF has been deployed to Kabul, to help the Interim Administration to maintain security in these difficult early days. That is why, with allies, we continue to work with the Interim Administration on wider security sector reform, to ensure that the Afghan people are able to take on the responsibility for the long-term security of their country.

It is also why there is a continuing need to prosecute offensive operations against al-Qaeda. It is why, in March, we deployed the 1,700 strong group formed around 45 Commando, Royal Marines, to Afghanistan to play its part, with other coalition forces, in countering the threat

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from al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants. And that is why these Royal Marines carried out Operation Ptarmigan, from 13 to 18 April, and Operation Snipe, from 1 to 13 May.

The decision to deploy the Royal Marines on Operation Snipe was taken on the basis of clear military advice. As the Chief of the Defence Staff has set out, its strategic objective was to ensure that al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants were not able to regroup and launch new offensives against the Interim Administration or coalition forces. This is even more important as the country moves towards the Loya Jirga.

Operation Snipe's objectives were to search the area of operations, 220 sq km of land, for terrorists and terrorist infrastructure—the caves and bunker complexes, the arms caches, and supply dumps—and, when found, to destroy them. Had the Royal Marines encountered any terrorist groups, they would have dealt with them. The area of operations for Operation Snipe was chosen carefully as part of a wider coalition plan to deny space in Afghanistan to the terrorists. The area was chosen specifically because we knew it was where terrorist forces had operated, and where they were still capable of operating. It was chosen because it was somewhere that coalition forces had not previously operated.

This was a major operation, the largest offensive ground operation UK forces have undertaken since the Gulf conflict. In all, around a thousand personnel were involved—mostly drawn from 45 Commando, Royal Marines, ably supported by 3 Commando Brigade's brigade reconnaissance force; the 105 mm guns of 7 Battery, 29 Commando Regiment; 59 Independent Commando Squadron, Royal Engineers; the Commando Logistics Regiment; and Chinook helicopters from 27 Squadron.

This was a powerful, balanced, and capable force operating in close co-operation with other coalition forces. They worked closely with the Afghans, who provided guides, and also with American forces. They came under the local command and control of the United States 10 Mountain Division. US forces also provided helicopter support and, had it been required, were ready to provide close air support, a divisional reserve in the event of serious opposition, and medical support in the event of casualties.

The Royal Marines who deployed on Operation Snipe displayed the skill and professionalism that we have come to expect. Once again, they proved just how fortunate we are to possess forces of such high quality. They scoured terrain as rugged as any in the world, at extremely high altitudes—between 8,000 and 13,000 ft above sea level for two weeks.

The success of Operation Snipe should not be measured by the number of dead al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. No terrorists were killed or detained by the Royal Marines. There were no close contacts with the enemy, but to say this means that somehow the operation was a failure or a waste of time, as some have suggested, is quite wrong.

One obvious and tangible proof of the operation's success was the destruction of a massive arms cache. The Royal Marines found 2,300 rocket-propelled grenades, 1,200 mortar rounds of varying calibre, 200 land mines, and 30,000 other types of munitions ranging from heavy

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machine gun bullets to 155 mm artillery shells, spread over 10 caves, bunkers and other sites. Other than a small quantity of bullets and mortar rounds that were transferred to the new Afghan national army, this has all been destroyed. That means that Afghanistan is a safer place, as a direct result of Operation Snipe. The cache belonged to al-Qaeda or the Taliban, not to a local warlord. The types of munitions found, the fact that the area is one where we know that terrorists have operated in the past, and the location of the weapons and munitions at a point where the territories of three rival warlords intersect all indicate that they belonged to terrorists.

But it was not just the discovery of those weapons that made Operation Snipe a success. Two hundred and twenty sq km of land that provided a safe haven for terrorists has been checked and cleared for the first time in this campaign. Also, taskforce Jacana gained valuable intelligence, which is still being assessed. Moreover, al-Qaeda and Taliban members have been prevented from carrying out offensive operations from the areas covered by Operations Ptarmigan and Snipe. That is particularly important at a time when the country is moving towards the Loya Jirga. I ask the House to bear it in mind that the direct distance from Khost to Kabul is just under 100 miles. Operation Snipe therefore achieved its objectives.

There are those who may have been disappointed that there were no contacts with the enemy. Certainly, some Royal Marines were frustrated by that, but that does not detract from what they have achieved. Clearing country like this is hard, slow, difficult and dangerous work. It is not glamorous, nor is it spectacular, but it played, and continues to play, an important part in denying a large area of Afghanistan to the remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

On 16 October last year, when some were questioning the shape of the military campaign, I explained to the House that what was in prospect in Afghanistan was not a classical military campaign—because we were not, and are not, facing a standing army—so the phasing, tempo, and scale of operations differed from what would be used against a conventional opponent. That remains the case. One of the lessons of unconventional campaigns of the past is that ultimate success depends on action on many fronts—political, social and economic, as well as military—and cannot be measured in days. At the military level, comparable campaigns have been marked not by pitched battles, but by prolonged periods of patient, painstaking patrolling and information gathering. At times, direct offensive action may be required—Operation Anaconda was an example of such action—but that tends to be the exception, rather than the norm.

Operation Snipe must be seen in the context of a developing pattern of operations. Those operations will be intelligence-led and will vary in scale and intensity. Brigadier Lane, the commander of taskforce Jacana, was right when he said that offensive operations like Operation Snipe were drawing to an end. Taskforce Jacana is now in a period of recovery and preparation for further operations. The House would not expect me to set out where or when those operations will take place. They may look rather different from Operation Snipe—sometimes there may be no visible activity—but they will all be focused on the destruction of the terrorist infrastructure and, where terrorist groups are encountered, of the terrorists themselves. By conducting such operations, we will seek to ensure that al-Qaeda and

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Taliban remnants cannot regroup in a way that allows them to launch operations to undermine the stability of Afghanistan or to disrupt the emergency Loya Jirga—or, indeed, to threaten lives elsewhere.

To ensure that we are able to carry out continuing operations, we are announcing today the compulsory call-out of medical reserves. Five anaesthetists and two surgeons will be called out in mid-June for deployment in early July, and a further four surgeons will be called out in mid-July for deployment in early August. The period of call-out will be three months—they will then be replaced by others. Reservists play an increasingly important part in current operations. Those personnel will provide essential medical support to operations.

Ultimately, the future of Afghanistan is a matter for the Afghan people. It is their right, and ultimately their responsibility, to govern themselves in a society free of oppression or the malign influence of terrorists. We shall continue to support the Afghan people as they begin the long process of restoring the stability and prosperity of their country.

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