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John Reid: I thank the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) for the discussions that we have already had and for the tone of his comments today, too. It is entirely appropriate that Her Majesty's Opposition and others ask the sort of questions that he is asking. It might be of some assurance to him to learn that part of the reason that we have not yet announced any deployment is precisely that I have been asking some of the same questions. When we send our young men and women into a dangerous area, we ought to ask those questions.
I will not answer those questions today, however, because as I saidand it is absolutely truthfulI cannot make an announcement about a specific deployment until such time as I have consulted. If other questions are raised that cause me to reflect further, I assure the hon. Member for Woodspring that I shall not hesitate to come to the House to update it tomorrow and say that we have decided that we need further time on any of those matters.
The questions that the hon. Gentleman has raisedthe environment and ambience of the space in Helmand into which our troops will enter, right through to the chain of command, the clarity of mission, the adequate resources to accompany the military presence, the funding, the nature of handover of prisoners and the nature of our alliesare all perfectly legitimate. I will do my best today to assure him that I have already been addressing those questions, and that the answers are sufficiently robust to allow us to think that, in some areas at least, on the basis of the two big criteria that I mentioned, we might proceed.
On the question of the sharing of ideals, I have no doubt whatsoever that the hon. Gentleman shares the ideals of the whole House and of the whole world. It was, of course, United Nations auspices that caused us to go into Afghanistan. Whatever we do tomorrow in the statement or in the coming months, there is no one in the House who wants to see Afghanistan handed back to the terrorists or to the Taliban.
Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): May I say to the Secretary of State that we would echo the international consensus about the need for support for Afghanistan, which he has expressed? Clearly the Secretary of State and the House are caught in a somewhat difficult position today. I look forward to the statement that the right hon. Gentleman promises us tomorrow, or whenever he deems it appropriate to make it. While he is properly focusing on the issues to do with the NATO configuration, he has already said that he is satisfied about the British configuration and also with the economic development and other assistance that will be made available to the Afghanis in the future. In his statement, when he makes it, I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to cover details about those two issues as well.
I undertake to do that. This may sound pedantic, but I do not want anyone in the House to assume genuinely that I will come to the House
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tomorrow to say that we are deploying, and deploying in a said fashion. That would be to pre-empt the consultations that are yet to take place. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that in our deliberations and discussions so far, and in the questions that we have been rightly asking, as have our commanders, both the points that he has raised have featured highly. I will address them, one way or the other, tomorrow.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Can the Secretary of State at least tell us what requests or information have been received from the United States about the reduction of their troop numbers in Afghanistan because they are needed in Iraq, and whether or not there has been a direct request to Britain to replace those troops so the same number of forces remain in that country?
John Reid: On the first point, my hon. Friend is labouring under a misapprehension. The idea that the United States would be reducing its troop numbers in Afghanistan from about 18,000 to supplement them in Iraq, where at one stage there were about 180,000 troops, is an incorrect assumption. It is likely in both areas, depending on conditions, that US troop numbers will diminish, probably by the order of 2,000 in Afghanistan and in Iraq, where the deployment was as high as between 160,000 and 170,000, to possibly under 100,000 by the end of the year. None of what we have been discussing today is related to any of that reduction. What has been a feature of discussion in NATO and wider, as I think the House will be aware, is to what extent we can synergisebring togetherwhile keeping separate, the American-led mission of anti-terrorism, Operation Enduring Freedom and the NATO-led mission of reconstruction, under United Nations auspices, ISAF, which we will take over in May of next year.
There have been discussions on how the two missions relate to each other, but to reduce that to an assumption that an entry into the south is based on the fact that the Americans want to reduce troop numbers is a gross and misleading over-simplification.
Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): The Secretary of State has always been entirely straightforward with the House, and I fully accept what he has said today. Will he accept the apologies of many members of the Defence Committee who, tomorrow, will be visiting the Defence Procurement Agency in Abbey Wood, and may not be able to be here to ask questions? Will he confirm, to counter the impression that has grown up, that his decision on the strategic context of NATO being involved in Afghanistan apparently does not rest on the decision that the Dutch are likely to make next week?
First, I accept the right hon. Gentleman's apology. I thank him for his kind words about trying to be open. As he knows, I believe that the defence of the realm should be well above party politics. That does not mean that it is above criticism. It is the job of everyone in the House critically to analyse what the Government are doing when life-and-death matters are concerned. In his own case he will be on a visit with the Select Committee. I can tell him that today members of the
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armed forces parliamentary scheme are visiting the preparations being made for a potential deployment. The more open one is with such information, the more chance there is of the sort of thing that we saw this morning in the media.
On the multinational dimension, I welcome the fact that the Dutch Cabinet has unanimously recommended that the Dutch go into the south, along with the British. That is likely to be backed by the Dutch Parliament as well, although it does not have a formal mechanism for expressing such approval. The United States, Denmark, Australia and Canada, as well as the United Kingdom and perhaps others whom we continue to talk to may be part of that configuration in the southern area.
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): The whole House will welcome the clarification that the Secretary of State has given us this afternoon. Surely there is nothing more important than the decision to deploy our service people in a country where their lives are at risk. I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees that on narcotics, the best contribution that we could make would to limit the consumption of narcotics in this country. I trust that we will not make the mistakes that were made in south America. There is no military solution to the drugs problem. The only solution is to get involved with communities and provide encouragement and incentives to the small farmers to produce alternative crops. Of course, that will displace some of the narcotic crop to other countries.
John Reid: I take the point that my right hon. Friend makes. I am sure he was not suggesting that there is no role for police intervention and the judicial process, or that when dealing with drug barons and warlords who are willing to commit violence to protect the trade, it may not be necessary to give protection to the police. That would be one of our roles, were we to go into the south of Afghanistan. But he is right. There is no straight military or police solution to the problem. We can tackle the drugs barons and the warlordsthe mafias who make money off the drugs tradebut the Afghan farmers have nowhere else to go. If they are relieved of their income from an illicit trade, unless there is an alternative income we will create not stability there, but insurgency. My right hon. Friend makes a good point. Again I say that no decision has been made. I am trying to avoid getting involved in any discussions that should properly take place tomorrow, if such a statement is allowed.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con):
May I urge the Secretary of State to clarify tomorrow, if not today, what is becoming an artificial definition of the division of labour between allied forces in Afghanistan? The Americans are engaged in search and destroy anti-terrorism activities, and the proposed British deployment in the south would be engaged in reconstruction. That clear distinction is made in the House and among cognoscenti who discuss the subject, but people on the ground in Afghanistan make little or no distinction. One soldier is just like any other soldier. The Secretary of State should be robust and clear to the media that when we put our troops on the ground in Afghanistan, they will face genuine dangers. We should not shirk from that, as they are part of an overall effort to bring peace, reconstruction and democracy to that benighted country.
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