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Mr. Hoon: I thank the hon. Gentleman especially for his comments about the families of service men and women. They take a considerable amount of trouble on behalf of their husbands, wives and partners, and we recognise the sacrifice that they make, which is often not acknowledged. It is therefore right that the hon. Gentleman should do so.
The hon. Gentleman quotes me entirely accurately in saying that we have been operating at the limits of our commitments. That is something that I have said on previous occasions, which is why I was so determined that there should be a drawdown consistent with the announcement that we made at the time. If he checks what I have said in the past about Task Force Jacana he will see that, within days, we will be reducing numbers entirely consistently with what I outlined to the House. He is right that we need to ensure an active deterrent against al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants, which will continue in border areas, for now at any rate, without the active participation of British Royal Marines. Other forces on both sides of the border will ensure that the passage enjoyed by certain al-Qaeda elements is not as easy as they might have anticipated.
I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that this announcement involves no lessening of our commitment to Afghanistan. We have taken an enormous amount of trouble to support the rebuilding of that country. As I
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): Can my right hon. Friend make an assessment of how many anti-personnel land mines remain unexploded in Afghanistan as a result of all the wars in that country? Will the clearance continue and, if so, how long will it take? Does he also feel confident that the Turkish force will appreciate the importance of human rights, particularly as far as women are concerned?
Mr. Hoon: I will not even try to guess how many unexploded land mines there might be in Afghanistan. The country has had 20 years of conflict and each and every organisation engaged in the conflict there has sadly laid anti-personnel land mines. That includes forces on both sides in the conflict involving the Soviet Union, which was followed by a particularly nasty and brutal civil war. It is only in recent times that efforts have been made to deal with the problem. Dealing with unexploded land mines has cost several lives recently and, although I acknowledge the risks involved to the people doing that work, I assure my hon. Friend that the efforts to deal with the problem will continue.
On my hon. Friend's point about human rights, the general in charge of ISAF from now on is an experienced officer who has served under previous United Nations commands. He has an extremely good reputation for the way in which he commands his men.
Mr. Michael Portillo (Kensington and Chelsea): I congratulate the Secretary of State on his having the privilege of being able to make this statement about two successful operations by British forces that did not involve the loss of life. I thank him warmly for making a statement to the House of Commons. I have a feeling that Members of Parliament do not have many uses under this regime, but one thing that we can do is express on behalf of the nation the gratitude and sense of relief at the safety of our forces that we feel as they return. We can also wish them well on behalf of the nation when they go into battle. I therefore ask the Secretary of State to make statements to the House not only when he withdraws forces, but when he announces further deployments, as I feel sure that he will in due course.
May I associate myself strongly with what the Secretary of State said about armchair critics? It is true that our forces have not been involved in headline- grabbing confrontationsthank God. However, the fact that people have been able to operate in peace and security in recent times in a country where there have been 20 years of mayhem and slaughter represents probably the biggest news story to have come out of that country in many years.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): If, as the Secretary of State unambiguously assures the House, no decision has been made on Iraq, should the Government not ask General Wesley Clark to withdraw or, at least, clarify the statements that he made on the "Today" programme?
Mr. Hoon: I assure my hon. Friend that no decision has been made about military operations in relation to Iraq other than the decisions that are taken and that are necessary day to day to support our aircraft and aircrew patrolling the no-fly zones in Iraq.
Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): May I particularly welcome the Secretary of State's remarks about the role of the UK in co-ordinating the international efforts in Afghanistan against the drugs trade? He will know that it is a deadly problem that translates directly from Afghanistan to the streets of our towns and cities. Now that our involvement in Afghanistan is diminishing somewhat, will he use his considerable skills to ensure that this anti-narcotics strategy is pursued in every way with vigour and effectiveness across the British Government?
Mr. Hoon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his timely observations. We must continue to address the problem. We estimate that 90 per cent. of the heroin sold on the streets of the United Kingdom has its origins in Afghanistan. The trade has a pernicious effect right along the route from Afghanistan to the United Kingdom. The route involves terrorists and criminals and the trade allows many terrorist organisations to purchase their arms. We are absolutely determined to continue the pressure and effort to deal with the origins of the trade in Afghanistan and with the route of heroin back to the United Kingdom.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. It will also be welcomed by the families of service men and women, and those close to them, who will no doubt give them a warm reception when they come home in coming months. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the separation in times of deployment which they have to endure is made infinitely worse by some of the wilder speculation of the armchair commentators, to which a number of hon. Members referred? It has ranged from questioning whether there has been a job for the battle group to do to speculation on whether they have been in wild danger.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating my local evening paper, the Evening Herald, which has given consistent, strong, positive and informed coverage of what has been happening? Does he agree that James Garnett, the defence correspondent, in quoting Captain
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): In warmly endorsing all the points made by the Secretary of State and welcoming with tremendous pleasure the great success of our troops in Afghanistan, may I associate myself wholly with the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo)?
Does the Secretary of State agree that the unique experience that British soldiers bring to such operations, much of it learned on the streets of Belfast over the past 27 years where they served with such distinction, and the calm professionalism with which they deal with extremely dangerous and difficult situations enables our soldiers to win friends wherever they go? No one should be deluded about the dangers that our soldiers have faced in Afghanistan. They have dealt with them magnificently.
Will the Secretary of State assure me that the lessons, in particular those learned by the Commandos from operating in difficult conditions at altitude and at a considerable tempo, will be disseminated throughout the wider Army so that other regiments of the line can be deployed on major operations? He should not be deluded about the tremendous desire of regiments to participate in such operations and the increasing resentment that is felt because they are not called forward. The lessons need to be well learned so that we enable other regiments to take over the mantle that has been so brilliantly borne not only by the Parachute Brigade, but by the Commandos.
Mr. Hoon: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments which are treated seriously in the Ministry of Defence, not least because of his considerable experience in that Department. There is always a challenge for any Minister in my position, as he knows. As a result of our involvement in Northern Ireland over a long period, our armed forces have the qualities, experience and commitment needed to conduct operations in Afghanistan and the Balkans, where they still serve.
Although we have that experience, the challenge is to get others to develop it too. The United Kingdom simply cannot commit its forces wherever those requirements arise. The transfer of the leadership role to Turkey means that another country will develop that expertise, which I certainly welcome. There will also be a process of lessons learned, as there always is from such deployments, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I assure him that those lessons will be disseminated across the armed forces. The experience has been unique in recent times and we need to learn from it.