The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I am considering the recommendations of the joint combat aircraft basing review and hope to make an early announcement. The review has taken into account the potential impact of the joint combat aircraft on civil aviation operations at Newquay Cornwall airport.
Matthew Taylor: The Minister will be aware that military operations at RAF St. Mawgan help to support the civilian service, which is crucial to the economy in Cornwall and whose withdrawal would create a gap in the maintenance of services. I understand that officials have asked the county council and others about the fact that the new aircraft's noise levels, which are double those of existing fighter aircraft, could render civilian operations at Newquay virtually impractical. On the one hand, there might be financial support in effect, but on the other, civilian operations may be impossible. Will the Minister clarify the position?
Mr. Ingram: We have undertaken comprehensive consultation with local interests on all the airfields affected by the review. Cornwall county council said that it was concerned about the potential noise of the new aircraft and its impact on the viability of the airport and the lives of local residents. It has therefore stated that it is unwilling to support the use of RAF St. Mawgan for the JCA, so it is basically saying that it does not want us there. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman supports the county council or whether he is campaigning for the basing to take place. As I indicated, I am considering all the representations.
On the future relationship between the MOD and the civil airport, clearly, it would not be appropriate to spend MOD money on maintaining a civil airport if we have no use for it because people could ask why Newquay gets our support when others do not. If we have a use for it, we will see what we can do. I will consult the Department for Transport, as well as local interests, but clarity from the hon. Gentleman would help: what does he want to happen there?
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The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): I first extend my condolences to the family and friends of Lance Corporal Steven Sherwood of the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment, who was killed in a shooting incident at Mazar-e-Sharif last month, and to the family and friends of Sergeant Christian Hickey of the 1st Battalion the Coldstream Guards, who was killed by an improvised explosive devise in Basra last month. I am sure that the thoughts and condolences of the whole House are with their families.
The House will be aware of reports coming in of a bomb in Kabul this afternoon. I utterly condemn today's terrorist bombing in Kabul. Despite that, the security situation in Afghanistan is broadly stable if, in places, fragile. Our armed forces are playing a pivotal role in security assistance, helping the Government of Afghanistan to create a prosperous, democratic and secure country, and denying the terrorists a base from which to prepare attacks.
John Reid: The role of our troops is to help the Afghan people establish a democratic, secure Afghanistan and to develop its economy and security forces. There is no question but that an Afghanistan with 60 per cent. of its gross domestic product and more involving narcotics will not be sustainable economically or politically. Therefore, countering the narcotics trade is integral to building a democratic, pluralistic, and politically and commercially non-corrupt Afghanistan. The two are absolutely interlinked.
Mr. Hurd: Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that the UK has sufficient manpower to complete our extended mission in Afghanistan without stretching logistics too thin or reducing tour intervals below the current average level?
Yes, indeed I can. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State issued a written statement today on training and preparation as a contingency for deployment to Afghanistan. We would not undertake any further deployment there unless I was satisfied both that we had the means to do so with the maximum effect and to ensure the safety of our troops, and that we had the necessary support from the international community.
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Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I join the Secretary of State in condemning the bomb. I praise our forces for their tremendous effort in all that they have done to date to liberate the country and the sacrifices that they have made. We liberated Afghanistan from the evil regime of the Taliban, which destroyed the spirit of that great country. Will he tell me the latest information about the position of the Taliban? In the end, eradicating and wiping out the Taliban must remain the focus of our intentions.
John Reid: I agree. The expulsion, capture, or even death of members of the Taliban in the short term is not sufficient to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a Trojan horse for terrorists to enter and launch attacks on the west or elsewhere. Helping the Afghans to build a stable and democratic society, with their own security forces, is necessary so that we can ensure that the terrorists never return. Incidentally, that also helps to counter the narcotics trade from which is derived 90 per cent. of the heroin that arrives on our streets. It is in the interests of Afghanistan, our self-protection and the protection of our young people that we carry out such action.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I add my condolences to those expressed for the member of the Wiltshires. I spent some time with the Wiltshires as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme.
I spent time with the Green Howards in Afghanistan. They were training the non-commissioned officers of the future Afghan army and the US was training the officers. However, the US has talked about pulling out in a much shorter time than I thought that we were anticipating. Have there been discussions about the UK's role in training or are we anticipating leaving at the same time as the US?
John Reid: I was in Washington a few days ago for discussions with my opposite number, Secretary Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Condi Rice. I assure my hon. Friend that the United States' commitment to Afghanistan is as prolonged as ours. Of course, we all want to reduce forces, but there is no question of us withdrawing completely from there in the near future.
In answer to the points raised by my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) about the British troops in the country, I repeat that I absolutely condemn today's terrorist attack in Kabul. Our condolences go to the family of the German solider who was killed and the civilians who were killed. I can tell the House that reports are still coming in as I speak. The latest information that I have is that no British troops have been involved in the bombings, but nevertheless British troops have opened fire to protect and prevent unauthorised entry into Camp Soutar, which is our camp in Kabul. As events unfold, I am sure that the thoughts of the whole House will be with our soldiers.
Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)
(Con): Has the Secretary of State seen the advice of the Duke of Wellington before the first Afghan war: it is easy to get into Kabul, but much more difficult to get out?
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John Reid: Yes. I do not mix in such salubrious company as the hon. Gentleman, so I do not have first-hand information from the duke. However, I always thought that the signs around London saying, "Do not enter the box unless your exit is clear," give sensible advice. I assure him that, on Iraq, as I outlined earlier, our strategy for leaving was set out some time ago. It is a strategy not for failure, but for success.
John Reid: Similarly in Afghanistan, our strategy is to build up the economy, civil society and security forces of the Afghan Government not only so that we can withdraw and leave the country, but so that when we do withdraw, we will not have a Trojan horse that terrorists could enter and launch the sort of attacks that they previously carried out. I am sure that the Duke of Wellington would be the first to tell us that defence at a distance is just as important as defence in proximity.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend's earlier remarks? With the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard), I had an opportunity to visit Afghanistan as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. We stayed in Camp Soutar, so I can only imagine what the problems are. We were all impressed by the professionalism of the British Army, particularly the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment, which hosted us for most of the visit. I should like to tease out from my right hon. Friend the solidity of the international community and the way in which its members are functioning. Two issues were raised with us. First, we have yet to put in place an effective legal system in Afghanistan, but it is vital to do so. Security is not just about the work of the Army but about what happens subsequently to people who are arrested. Secondly, will he say something about the training of the Afghan national army and the police, which need to be developed to make them as effective as possible?
John Reid: I agree on both counts. First, as in Iraq, we are in Afghanistan with support and as part of the international community under the auspices and framework of the United Nations. Secondly, although military power is a necessary condition of the defeat of terrorism in the short, medium and long term, it is not a sufficient condition, so we must build the infrastructure of a democratic state and the rule of law. Of course, that is a multinational effort. Our Italian colleagues are doing what they can to attend to the judicial process. The Germans and others are dealing with the training of police, and we are working in the counter-narcotics field. That is all part of a common effort to ensure not only that we expel the terrorists in the short term but that we leave a sustainable Afghanistan that will prevent their entry in the medium and longer term.
Tony Baldry (Banbury)
(Con): May I endorse everything that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, and ask the Secretary of State two questions? First, we move south to Helmand next year, so can he give the House an undertaking that a UK Army training team will be embedded with the Afghan national army, which is
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supporting our troops, to make sure that the ANA gives our troops optimum support? Secondly, if other NATO countries do not come up to the mark on the move south, whatever the caveats, will he give the House an undertaking that our forces will not be spread too thinly?
John Reid: I can give the hon. Gentleman assurances on both points. Indeed, to take the second one first, I will not announce the deployment to Helmand until I am satisfied that we have the military configuration that we ourselves need, and until we have the necessary back-up and resources across government here to provide alternative livelihoods to farmers whose current livelihood may be dependent on narcotics. To take away one form of income without substituting another would encourage insurgency rather than stability. Finally, I will not make that announcement until I believe that the multinational jigsaw has been put together and we have the necessary input from our NATO colleagues both in and around Helmand.
Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I join the Secretary of State in his condolences to the families of the servicemen and women who lost their lives, particularly as the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment is my own regiment. I also join him in his condemnation of the terrorist activity in Kabul today. We all know the pressure that that put on our troops, and I pay tribute to them. I have seen the statement by his right hon. Friend the Minister of State about beginning contingency planning for the time when we take over the control of the leadership of the international security assistance force. That will happen in May next year, come what may, so we are up against a time limit. Why is there such hesitation about the announcement of the deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan, which only yesterday the Chief of the General Staff conceded would be necessary? Surely, the military implications of expanding ISAF into south Afghanistan are already well known? Is the delay not the result of failure to reach agreement with other participants on operational issues, not least as to whether the task is to be expanded into counter-insurgency, and is there not damaging confusion about the rules of engagement under which they will operate? Surely, the Secretary of State can be a little more forthcoming.
John Reid: I will be as forthcoming as I can: the delay was caused not by the two elements mentioned by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but by my desire to be assured that our international and multinational colleagues will provide the necessary elements of force configuration not only in Helmand, but around Helmand. In other words, I hope that he agrees that I am right not to announce the deployment until I am satisfied by not only our configuration, but the supporting elements of military forces in the area.
In the spirit that has, I hope, largely featured in our exchanges, I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his constructive attitude, because I understand that this may be his last Defence questions as shadow Defence spokesman. [Hon. Members: "Shame."] I groan with despair along with all hon. Members at the thought that he may not be present to discuss these issues, but I wish him well in the futureI have enjoyed our exchanges, which I have found informative.
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