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The first thing that the House must do is to join him in congratulating Her Majesty's armed forces on a job well done in Afghanistan. General McColl has shown an extraordinarily deft touch in bringing peace and order to the war-torn and devastated city of Kabul and enabling the new Government to establish their authority. Elsewhere, 45 Commando Royal Marines and other elements have been engaged in, and prepared for, battle with al-Qaeda in the most arduous and testing conditions. The terrorists who previously ran a state within the state have been militarily neutralised and have fled. I join the Secretary of State in congratulating Brigadier Lane on his leadership of a difficult and often frustrating operation.
The Secretary of State has not announced a complete withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, but I welcome this substantial reduction, which I understand will extend to the Balkans in due course. We have long argued that the British armed forces are overstretched, by which we mean that UK forces are engaged on more operations, with fewer resources, than was envisaged in the Government's 1998 strategic defence review.
The scaling back of deployments will not just be a chance for soldiers and Royal Marines to spend time with their families. The events of 11 September underlined the fact that the post-cold war world is dangerous and unpredictable. The UK and our allies must keep our armed forces fully prepared for the unexpected and ready to respond at very short noticeperhaps, as the Secretary of State suggested, for further fighting operations in Afghanistan. The UK does not have sufficient forces to sustain long and protracted peacekeeping operations as well, as General McColl confirmed on Radio 4 this morning.
Overstretch means that time on operations comes out of time for training. Does the Secretary of State accept that inadequate training adds risk to military operations? What assurances can he give that there will be fewer cancelled exercises and better supplies of parts, ammunition and equipment, so that the full programme of Army training can be fully restored? Overstretch drives some of our most experienced people to leave the armed forces. The Army is severely under-recruited36 of the British Army's 45 regiments are now under strength. Will the right hon. Gentleman now put the necessary resources and willpower behind the Army recruiting campaign that has so far, obviously, been lacking?
There is confusion about the Government's targets for Army manpower. Four years ago, Labour promised an extra 3,300 troops for the Army, raising the fully trained target to 108,500. The Adjutant-General confirmed that to the Select Committee on Defence. Why does the Secretary of State not stand by that target? What are we to make of the regular briefings that the Army is to be cut to 95,000? Does he realise that this will be the smallest standing Army that Britain has had since the days of Wellington? How does the Secretary of State square such cuts with the very real threats that the free world now faces and the plans being laid for the next phase in the war against terrorism, to which he referred?
One final question remains to be resolved that concerns British forces on operations abroad. I ask the Secretary of State for clarification on the Government's commitment to the International Criminal Court. Given that the Government have consistently argued that the court will be no threat to British forces conducting operations abroad, and that he has criticised the United States for its concern to maintain the immunity of its troops, will he comment on the report in the Washington Post this morning that the UK and French Governments have quietly obtained for their troops the very immunity that they would deny to the US? We have consistently warned of the need for such immunity. Has he now accepted our view?
On the subject of numbers, the shadow Defence Secretary should pay a little more attention to the facts and a little less to newspapers. He repeats as fact what he reads in the newspapers, and that is a very dangerous tendency that I would advise him against. I shall give him the facts so that he is not tempted to repeat what he said earlier. The review of the Army's future manpower requirement has recently been concluded. It has been published, so perhaps his researchers would do better to research the material issued by the Ministry of Defence than the pages of certain newspapers. The revised manning target is 106,978. The figure for 1 May 2002 showed that whole Army strength stood at 101,320. Contrary to what he told the House a few moments ago, Army strength has increased by some 1,300 in the past 12 months. That is not by enough or fast enough and we would like recruitment to improve, but it is an increase. His researchers should work a little harder on facts, not suppositions.
As for General Clark's comments, I assure the House that no decision has been taken on military operations in Iraq, other than those military operations that are conducted at great risk to British aircraft and aircrew as they patrol the no-fly zones over that country.
On the ICC, the Government negotiated an effective immunity for British forces. It is contained in the draft treaty and that is why we support it. Obviously, that degree of immunity is available to any country that chooses to sign the treaty.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement on Afghanistan today and for the advance notice that I was given of it through a telephone call from his right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence. May I thank him for the close consultation that he has had with me, the Conservative spokesman and the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence on the deployments in Afghanistan in the past few months?
Almost every Member of the House will welcome the announcement today. I am especially sure that it will be welcomed by the forces themselves, their families and their friends. It is right to pay special tribute to the families of our forces who will be particularly pleased about the news.
Liberal Democrat Members fully supported the ISAF deployment and the deployment of 45 Commando. It is fair to say that some people's fears that engagements with different roles might lead to tension did not come to pass. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that it has been clear for some time that our forces have been operating at the very limit of our commitments. Does he
As always, the forces in Afghanistan have conducted themselves in an exemplary fashion, and have performed the task set them with great vigour and courage. Whatever the criticism that may have been levelled at the mission undertaken by 45 Commando in Afghanistanthat it was over-hypedit is clear, at least from the Liberal Democrat Benches, that none of that criticism was directed at the brave men and women in Afghanistan or at their commanding officer.
The Secretary of State will agree that the presence of the Marines, as well as the operations that they have undertaken, has served as an active deterrent against the al-Qaeda threat, and has allowed the Loya Jirga to take place successfully and peacefully. Will he tell the House, however, what is the situation along the border with Pakistan, which has often given us cause for concern? Who will patrol that now?
I commend the Royal Anglians, and the Parachute Regiment before them, for the exemplary work that they have done as part of ISAF. Indeed, the success of the Loya Jirga concluded today is a great compliment to them.
Finally, I add a note of caution. Is the Secretary of State concerned that such a visible and large-scale withdrawal of British troops from ISAF, coupled with the withdrawal of the Marines from Bagram, could be considered in some quarters as a sign that we are turning away from the difficult years ahead in Afghanistan, or at least seen as a reduction in the British commitment to the reconstruction of a peaceful future for Afghanistan? If that were the case, does he agree that the considerable success of which he can rightly be proud might be undermined in the future?