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Troop Deployment (Afghanistan)

12.31 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence about the proposed deployment of British troops in Afghanistan.

The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): I am grateful for the opportunity to set the record straight in the light of today's press reporting on possible future British military involvement in Afghanistan. First, may I say that no decisions have been taken about the deployment of British forces to Afghanistan; nor will they be taken until such time as I have had the opportunity not only to tell the House, but to consult my Cabinet colleagues?

Secondly, Mr. Speaker, as you will know, we have continually tried to update and inform the House on Afghanistan in written statements, debates and questions as recently as Monday of this week.

Thirdly, as I assume that today's urgent question has been prompted by, in particular, a report in The Sun this morning, let me say that, as far as I can see, there is absolutely nothing in today's media about our potential deployments that has not been reported before. Indeed, if hon. Members would like to read The Sun of 22 August last year, they will see that almost every element of this morning's story was reported as being imminent on 22 August. In The Sun in particular, the reporting reprises themes in that article. The only new element is the suggestion that I would be making a statement to Parliament tomorrow on our plans on which the article speculates.

I want to make it clear that there is nothing more important to me and to the Government than the need for Parliament and my Cabinet colleagues to hear of our plans before anyone else, and certainly before the media. I therefore want to make it equally clear that my officials did not speak to the press about the contents of any such statement. Let me explain precisely what did happen, as I think that that will be at least partly the concern of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox).

Conscious of next week's landmark London conference on Afghanistan, and the interest in the subject which has gone on for some considerable time and was reflected on Monday at Question Time, the Ministry of Defence offered an article under my signature to The Sun. [Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) laughs, but he should allow me to continue—I understand that he has a contest on.

The article set out in broad terms the achievements of the international community, and of the United Kingdom in particular, since our intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, and the importance of maintaining that commitment to see the job through. It was of the flavour of the answer that I gave to the Chairman of the Defence Committee on Monday, when I said that we were not about to hand Afghanistan back to the Taliban or the terrorist.

The article specifically did not go into detail about possible future military deployments or commitments. Indeed, when the article was suggested to the
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newspaper, it was rejected on Monday as being insufficiently newsworthy. Ironically, therefore, it was rejected precisely because we refused to leak details of any future possible statement. We never got to the stage of handing over the draft article. Secondly, it was suggested that I might do an interview on the matter of British deployment, and we refused that as well.

There has been endless media speculation for months on radio and television and in magazines about a possible announcement on Afghan troop deployment. I recall arriving home in the last week from Kuwait to hear that the headline article on the "PM" programme was yet further speculation about troop deployments to Afghanistan. On radio, television, the web and in the printed press, everyone has had an opinion, more or less well informed. This morning's reporting is a summary of that speculation—nothing more. The Ministry of Defence's press office has been, and continues to be, besieged by inquiries concerning our plans for Afghanistan; there are up to 20 a day.

Let me tell the House why I have refused at this stage to make an announcement about deployment. As I continually said to the House under questioning more than four months ago, I will not announce the detailed deployment to the south, although the principle of deploying to the south has already been announced, until I am absolutely satisfied about three things. The first is that the British military configuration is sufficient to meet the task in hand in the opinion of my commanders who advise me. The second is that the economic development aid and moneys are sufficient to offer alternative livelihoods and development if we are to tackle narcotics. The third is that we have a NATO configuration of military troops around us that satisfies me. As I pointed out to the House on Monday, I am satisfied on the first and I am satisfied on the second, but I am not yet satisfied on the third.

However, I noted at oral Defence questions on Monday that a statement would be imminent. If Members look at Hansard of only three days ago, column 1158, they will see that I said in relation to a possible statement:

I can only assume from the various indicators and the facts that I had announced an imminent statement, that it is Wednesday today, that we do not make statements on Friday and that the Afghan conference is to start on Monday, that it did not take a genius to work out that I was perhaps intending to make a statement tomorrow. Let me be absolutely clear that it was, and continues to be, my intention to make a statement on Afghanistan in the House tomorrow. The media this morning have guessed correctly on that.

I will not, however, make such a statement until I have consulted my Cabinet colleagues. Indeed, I chose to ask—if the authorities in the House think it appropriate—to make the statement tomorrow precisely so that the distance between my consultation with my Cabinet colleagues and the communication of any views to the House was so close together that, on such a sensitive issue, that we would not have leaks of this nature.

I want to make a statement tomorrow for the reasons I have already intimated. The London conference will take the development of Afghanistan to the next stage,
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and a statement will help the House to understand better how the UK military fits into that picture. I also want to lessen the uncertainty affecting service families in the wake of months of speculation about possible deployments, months during which I have refused to make any comment about those deployments. I wanted to tackle that further speculation head on. It is unfortunate that there has been another bout of it at such an untimely juncture.

I repeat that I did, and still do, plan to make a statement tomorrow if the House authorities and you, Mr. Speaker, think that that is appropriate. However, I cannot say today precisely what will be in that statement. It was my decision some weeks ago to make it in order to update the House, but the details and decisions will not be finally decided until I have completed the full consultation today and consultation tomorrow with my Cabinet colleagues. The media speculation, therefore, could turn out to be right or it could turn out to be very, very wrong indeed. I plan to discuss the issue with Cabinet colleagues over the next 24 hours, and that will determine the precise nature of the statement that I make.

I hope that I have explained the circumstances that have led to the most recent—and only the most recent—bout of speculation about deployment to Afghanistan. I hope that the House understands that I regret that as much as anyone else, not least because my Cabinet colleagues will ask the same question as the House.

Dr. Fox: I am grateful for both the tone and content of the Secretary of State's response. It is a pity, given the open nature of discussions on this issue between those on the two Front Benches, that he finds himself a victim of the briefing culture of his Government.

Today is an opportunity, however, to give the Secretary of State notice of the sort of issues that we will want to discuss in the House when it comes to his statement. After Iraq, it is essential that the House asks detailed questions and that the Government answer in a detailed way and with great clarity.

We know what many of the large issues will be. We will want to know about the security situation in the south of Afghanistan, what the current assessment of risk is, and what the intelligence is about further insurgent activity. We will want to know about the integration between the international security assistance force—ISAF—and Operation Enduring Freedom and command lines in those operations. We will want to know about Treasury funding for anti-narcotics and the potential conflict between the strategic objectives of anti-narcotics and anti-terrorism activity. We will also want to know exactly what powers of arrest and detention are available for prisoners and how they will be handled. There are many questions, which we will examine properly tomorrow, and Members on both sides of the House will want detailed answers about what will be a dangerous deployment of British troops.

The defence of our national security and the construction of a free and democratic Afghanistan are noble ideals shared by those on both sides of the House. We cannot fail to act in Afghanistan, but neither can we    act and fail. Therefore, we will support the
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Government's objectives, our troops and our allies, but we will hold the Government responsible for the implementation of those objectives, as is our duty. We look forward to the details of what the Government have to say tomorrow.

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