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Operations in Afghanistan

12.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the contribution that British forces have made to operations in Afghanistan, and the future disposition of our forces there.

Two groups of British forces have been deployed in Afghanistan, with separate but closely complementary aims—security assistance to the Afghan Interim Administration, and offensive operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The United Kingdom has contributed to the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, which we have led since its inception, and through Task Force Jacana we have contributed to Operation Enduring Freedom, aimed at al-Qaeda.

I shall address ISAF first. The House will recall that, from the outset, we planned to reduce our contribution to ISAF once we had transferred its leadership to one of our partners. That has taken longer than we originally anticipated, but we had to get it right: ISAF's success has been crucial to the stability of Kabul and, more widely, to Afghanistan, a strategic aim that is profoundly important to the United Kingdom.

I told the House on 16 May that we were working towards achieving the handover of the command of ISAF by the end of June. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that command of ISAF was formally transferred from General McColl to General Zorlu of the Turkish Army a few hours ago, in a ceremony attended by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence and the Chief of the General Staff.

Let me take this opportunity to record our thanks for the considerable efforts that Turkey has made to ensure a successful handover. The United States has also made a significant contribution to the process, not least by providing strategic airlift to move Turkish troops to Kabul. For our part, we have agreed to leave computer and communications equipment and a fire engine in Afghanistan for use by the new ISAF headquarters. Some British troops will remain with ISAF as well; I will say more about that later.

No one who has been involved—and the British and Turkish staffs have been working closely together for some time now—can doubt the great importance that Turkey attaches to a successful tenure in command. We have every confidence in General Zorlu and his troops as they build on and take forward the excellent work that ISAF has already achieved.

ISAF under General McColl has been a great success. It is no exaggeration to say that the force, while limited geographically to the area of Kabul, has had an impact right across Afghanistan. The emergency Loya Jirga and its local and regional groups would have been impossible without the reassurance, stability and sense of normality that ISAF helped the Afghan Interim Administration bring to Kabul; and without a secure place where representatives of all Afghanistan's people could meet to discuss how they want to govern their country, the gains of the past nine months could have been lost. Members of our armed forces who have been involved with ISAF should feel proud of what they have achieved. They have the thanks of the House, and indeed of the British people.

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The emergency Loya Jirga, which concluded this morning, offered the Afghan people their first opportunity in decades to play a decisive role in choosing their Government. That demonstrates the great progress that has been made since the collapse of the Taliban. Less than a year ago, the lives of the Afghan people were blighted by that cruel regime. It is a remarkable tribute to the decisive coalition action against the Taliban, to the Afghan people, and to the Interim Administration under Hamid Karzai that within only six months this large and peaceful assembly, representing all the Afghan people, has met in Kabul.

The Loya Jirga has given the Afghan people the chance to build a future based on mutual respect, human rights and democracy. It is a significant step towards the goal of representative, democratic elections, which are due to be held in 2004.

As for the emergency Loya Jirga itself, I warmly welcome its decision to elect Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan's head of state. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has written on behalf of the Government to congratulate him personally. Hamid Karzai risked his life to play a crucial role in the early stages of rebuilding Afghanistan. He deserves, and gets, our full support.

Through a combination of tact, diplomacy, understanding and firm authority, ISAF has made a real difference on the ground. In the six months that it has been in Kabul, it has mounted 2,185 joint patrols with the Afghan police, increasing security on the streets of Kabul. It has destroyed or disposed of nearly 3 million munitions, including guided weapons, fuses, rockets, submunitions, bombs, shells, small arms ammunition, mortar bombs, grenades and both anti-tank and anti-personnel land mines. Indeed, nearly 80 per cent. of all the munitions destroyed were anti-personnel land mines—on its own, a massive contribution towards the safety of the Afghan people.

ISAF has operated an ambulance service across Kabul throughout the night-time curfew. It has begun the process of reforming Afghanistan's security sector through the training of the 1st Battalion of the Afghan National Guard. It has completed some 200 aid projects in co-operation with the local civil authorities and other agencies, repairing roads, utilities, health, education and administrative services.

All this has made a real improvement to the lives of the people of Kabul. There is still more to do, but Kabul is again a bustling city. The vast majority of the people recognise, value and support ISAF's work. The warm welcome that its patrols receive on the streets is proof enough of that, as I have seen for myself.

This is, of course, not simply a British achievement. ISAF is a truly multinational force. Nineteen other countries answered the call to provide forces. The United States has given invaluable assistance and help. Without the efforts of all those nations, ISAF would not have been the success that it has been, but we should certainly take pride in the particular British contribution to the force. General McColl and the British contingent have made a lasting and favourable impression on the Afghan people. Thanks to the efforts of British service men and women, we now have many friends in Afghanistan, from children on the streets of Kabul to the most senior members of the Afghan Administration.

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The House will be pleased to know that the 1st Battalion, the Royal Anglian Regiment will come home once it has completed transferring its responsibilities to the Turkish battle group that is replacing it. Together with many of the British forces committed to ISAF, it will have returned to the United Kingdom by the middle of next month, but that is not the end of our involvement with ISAF. It remains vital to the maintenance of security in Kabul and a stable future for Afghanistan.

The United Kingdom will remain a major contributing nation. In total, our contribution will reduce from about 1,300 to about 400 troops, who will be primarily engineers and logistics support troops—high value specialists, who can bring important expertise that will be of specific use to ISAF.

There is now a degree of optimism in Afghanistan that was unthinkable just a few months ago, and ISAF has played a major role in creating a more secure environment, but although Kabul is a safer place and Afghanistan as a whole is more secure, there is still a terrorist threat. The mountainous and inaccessible regions remain an ideal hiding place for the al-Qaeda and Taliban forces that are working to destroy that new found sense of security. That was why we deployed Task Force Jacana—a 1,700 strong battle group formed around 45 Commando Royal Marines—at the request of the United States.

There is no doubt that al-Qaeda has been dealt a shattering blow by the coalition military action, but elements of al-Qaeda remain. Recent arrests in Morocco and the United States have demonstrated that al-Qaeda retains both the ambition and the capacity to threaten, and take, many lives. It is striving every day to find ways to use that capacity, including in Afghanistan.

The future of Afghanistan now looks brighter than it has for some time. A significant milestone has been passed successfully with the conclusion of the Loya Jirga, but al-Qaeda has not gone away; we know that it has been determined to undermine and derail that rebuilding process. The presence of Royal Marines and others on the ground in eastern Afghanistan has helped to prevent al-Qaeda from achieving that. Our forces have denied ground to al-Qaeda remnants and destroyed terrorist infrastructure. They have been crucial in providing a secure environment for the emergency Loya Jirga to take place.

The four operations conducted by Task Force Jacana—Ptarmigan, Snipe, Condor and, most recently, Buzzard—have involved destroying 28 bunkers and caves; flying more than 1,000 helicopter sorties in the Chinooks of 27 Squadron, in an environment so demanding that it required us to operate at the edge of the aircraft's capabilities; and finding and destroying 45,000 rounds of munitions, from machine gun rounds to 155 mm artillery shells. British troops also recovered two mortar systems and 440 107 mm rocket systems. Every round destroyed helps to contain the terrorist threat and safeguard Afghanistan's future.

Our troops conducted significant humanitarian assistance work in their area of operations, winning the hearts and minds of Afghan people in areas previously dominated by the Taliban and by al-Qaeda. For example, more than nine tonnes of wheat and 1,100 blankets have been distributed to those who need them.

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I want to make it absolutely clear to the House that Task Force Jacana has been led in exemplary fashion from the very start. Brigadier Roger Lane has done an outstanding job in leading his troops in four demanding operations through rugged, high-altitude terrain that has been as tough as any that British units have had to tackle in recent memory.

We should bear it in mind that those operations carried, and still carry, real risks, and we should be grateful that we have achieved such success without loss of life. Those who carp about the "lack of action" do so from a position of ignorance about the nature of warfare. That is one thing, but it is quite another to wish that our forces had come under fire, which appears to have been the hope of some armchair commentators in recent weeks.

It would have been quite wrong had I come before the House just over three months ago and not warned of the risks that our forces would face. British troops were, and are, keen to engage the enemy. They want to demonstrate their courage and professionalism—the hallmarks of Britain's armed forces. But the enemy is no fool: he has learned from the harsh defeat he suffered during Operation Anaconda and has avoided further direct contact with our forces.

I have previously told the House that the Jacana deployment would last in the order of three months. On the completion of Operation Buzzard, Task Force Jacana will be withdrawn from Afghanistan. The phased drawdown of the force will begin on 4 July and, subject as always to operational demands, should be complete by late next month.

The drawdown will enable us to rest and reconstitute our forces for future contingencies. After consultation with the United States and our other coalition partners about the challenges and likely tasks ahead, I have concluded that there is no need to replace 45 Commando immediately. We will, however, retain stores in Afghanistan to enable an even more rapid deployment than the initial one should that be required.

Taken together, the handover of the ISAF command, the return home of 1st Battalion, the Royal Anglian Regiment and the drawdown of Task Force Jacana means that the number of British forces in the operational theatre—both in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region supporting the operations—should reduce from more than 4,000 today to about 2,000 by late summer. However, we will still maintain a Tomahawk-armed submarine presence, ships, aircraft and elements of other forces in Afghanistan and the region. That will include forces on the ground—elements of 40 Commando will remain at Bagram, where they have played a vital role in helping to secure and protect the airfield. We shall also have logistics support personnel at Bagram, as part of our capacity rapidly to deploy additional forces if the operational situation demands it.

This reduction in numbers does not mean a reduction in our commitment either to Afghanistan or to the campaign against international terrorism. In fact, it is proof of our willingness to keep up military action for as long as it takes. This is not a conventional campaign; it will vary in tempo and location. The United Kingdom has forces with capabilities that few can match. That is why we must use them where they can do the most good.

Crucial to the long-term future of Afghanistan as a stable and secure state will be the reform of its entire security sector—the army, the police and the structures

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that guide and control them. That is crucial if Afghanistan is to enjoy the stability that will permit economic and social recovery from decades of conflict. It is essential to ensure that Afghanistan does not slip back to being a failed state that provides a safe haven for terrorists. Together with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence is making a significant contribution to the international effort to achieve security sector reform.

The United Kingdom is therefore co-ordinating international counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan. The new Afghan authorities have taken a tough line on drugs, issuing a decree banning the cultivation, processing and trafficking of heroin. We should applaud their resolve in tackling this problem, given the poppy crop's economic significance to people in parts of Afghanistan. Financial assistance has been offered to farmers who voluntarily eradicate their crops. That has had some success, and we estimate that around a third of this year's crop has been destroyed. But Afghan farmers who currently depend on opium production must have an alternative, and legal, livelihood, and the international community needs to provide carefully targeted assistance to that end. It is obviously a long-term problem, not one that can be solved in a single season.

Our forces have been engaged in invaluable work in Afghanistan, and they have carried out their duties with outstanding professionalism. There is more to do in the rebuilding of the country, and we are determined to play our full part in that. That means ensuring that we maintain a sustainable commitment of forces and preserve a balance between contributing to military operations, training and maintaining skills, as well as, importantly, giving our forces the opportunity to rest and to spend time with their families. The changes in our contributions to operations in Afghanistan do that. I am sure that the House will give them its support.

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