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26 Jan 2006 : Column 1528
Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Can we have an early debate on the future funding of fire authorities? Buckinghamshire fire authority has one of the lowest precepts in the country, and yet no account has been taken by Government of the rapid expansion of Milton Keynes. In addition, the blanket 5 per cent. cap disproportionately affects low-charging authorities such as Buckinghamshire rather than higher-charging authorities elsewhere in the country.

Mr. Hoon: I have indicated that there will shortly be opportunities to discuss local government financing. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the important issue of the fire precept. The Government keep such matters under constant review. Where there are changes in population, the ways in which financial assistance is calculated are appropriately adjusted.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): The Leader of the House will be aware that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said that he is considering withdrawing emoluments and allowances to Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, because even though they do their representative work, they do not engage in the Assembly. How on earth, therefore, can the Government justify bringing forward a motion to restore allowances, and increase them, for Sinn Fein Members for their representative work, when they do not attend the House? Will the Leader of the House give a commitment on behalf of the Government that if the Independent Monitoring Commission report confirms that, as the Chief Constable remarked recently, the IRA is still involved actively in criminality in Northern Ireland, he will withdraw the motion?

Mr. Hoon: That is an opportunity for the House to determine important questions about allowances, and I am not making observations about other institutions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made clear the importance of finding a way back to the arrangements that previously operated in Northern Ireland. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares that determination, but I accept his argument entirely. If organisations are not committed to a peaceful process and to democratic work, they should not be entitled to those allowances.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on laser weapons? Is he aware that they can act not only as a useful offensive weapon but as a defensive measure against incoming missiles?

Mr. Hoon: Yes, I am aware of that.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman came in very late. If hon. Members want to ask a question following a statement, including the business statement, they must come in to hear the statement. If he comes in early next week, I will call him early on.
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12.20 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the deployment of our armed forces to Afghanistan.

Just over four years ago, on 11 September 2001, we were given a brutal lesson in the consequences of leaving Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban and the terrorists. Since then, we in this country have been at the forefront of the international effort, under the auspices of the United Nations, to defeat international terrorism, to free Afghanistan from the ruthless grip of the Taliban and to rid the country of the menace of the terrorists and the greed of the drug traffickers.

That will not be achieved by military means alone. Therefore, although today's statement deals with the military elements of the deployment, the British Government have undertaken an unprecedented degree of cross-governmental co-ordination to ensure that this is a fully integrated package addressing governance, security and political and social change. I am grateful for the involvement of my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Secretary of State for International Development.

Last September, I visited Afghanistan. I saw for myself the real hope that the international community has brought to a new generation of Afghans: the hope that at last the Afghan people can rebuild their country, the hope that Afghanistan can take its rightful place as a country where men and women alike can live in peace and freedom, the hope for a better future.

We cannot risk losing those achievements. We cannot risk Afghanistan again becoming a sanctuary for terrorists. We have seen where that leads, be it in New York or in London. We cannot ignore the opportunity to bring security to a fragile but vital part of the world, and we cannot go on accepting Afghan opium being the source of 90 per cent. of the heroin that is applied to the veins of the young people of this country. For all those reasons, it is in our interests, as the United Kingdom and as a responsible member of the international community, to act.

In helping Afghanistan, we cannot look to resolve just one of those issues. Everything connects. Stability depends on a viable, legitimate economy. That depends on rooting out corruption and finding real alternatives to the harvesting of opium. That means helping Afghanistan to develop judicial systems, her infrastructure and the capability to govern herself effectively, which in turn brings stability and security.

That is where there is a clear role for the military: helping to create and to maintain a framework of security on which legitimate Afghan institutions can grow and thrive. NATO, through its leadership of the international security assistance force, itself under the auspices of the UN, has a major role to play in making that happen.

Thanks to NATO's leadership, ISAF has already expanded its activities to cover the north and west of Afghanistan, at the request of the democratically elected Afghan Government and with the authorisation of the
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United Nations. It now stands on the brink of expanding its operations into southern Afghanistan as part of a planned, pre-envisaged and phased expansion—stage 3. I believe NATO is now in a position to take those plans forward.

Our allies are playing their part in ISAF. In the north we shall hand over responsibilities to Germany, Finland, Sweden and Norway; in the west Italy and Spain lead ISAF, and Lithuania and the US also provide forces; and in the south the US, Canada and Romania already have troops stationed, Estonia has pledged forces, the Danish Parliament is examining a proposal to send forces—I spoke to its Minister this morning—and we are optimistic that the Dutch, whose Minister I also spoke to this morning, will also deploy forces. In addition, Australia and New Zealand may provide forces. This truly is and will be an international, multinational effort. On the ground and in the air, this is a truly multidimensional, international force. The US, for example, has offered to provide attack helicopters and support helicopters, and we know other countries are considering providing fast jets and transport aircraft.

We need that broad level of international support as the context in which to commit our British troops. We need the capabilities and the forces because ISAF expansion is no easy or small task in stage 3. Southern Afghanistan is undeniably a more demanding area in which to operate than either the north or the west. The Taliban remains active. The authority of the Afghan Government—and the reach of their security forces—is still weak. The influence of the drugs traffickers, by contrast, is strong.

ISAF must be prepared to meet these challenges. It means different forces and it may mean different tactics—not because we want to wage war: that is not our aim. Provincial reconstruction teams, building up Afghanistan's capacity, will remain at the core of ISAF's expansion into the south, just as it was in the north and west. But just as the threat is greater, so must be our ability and willingness to deter and defend ourselves against attack. The capabilities and experience of our armed services, to whom I again today pay tribute, make us well placed to help ISAF do both.

We have previously announced our decision to deploy the headquarters group of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps to lead ISAF from May 2006 to February 2007. ISAF, via NATO, will be under a British commander, General Richards. It will be supported by elements of 1 Signal Brigade, including troops from 7 and 16 Signal Regiments and the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps Support Battalion. This alone means a commitment of over 1,000 troops towards the headquarters based in and around Kabul.

We are also preparing for a deployment to southern Afghanistan. Next month 39 Regiment, Royal Engineers will deploy to Helmand province to build an encampment for our main deployment. A company from 42 Commando Royal Marines will provide protection and three CH-47 Chinook support helicopters from 18(B) Squadron, Royal Air Force, will offer essential lift and mobility in Afghanistan terrain largely without roads. All told, between now and July we shall send some 850 additional personnel to help prepare for our main deployment. That main deployment will have at its heart a new British-led PRT at Lashkar Gar, the capital of
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Helmand province. As in the north, the PRT will be based on a triumvirate of the British military commander, and officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and from the Department for International Development respectively. So we are working to ensure that we provide Afghanistan with a seamless package of democratic, political, developmental and military assistance in Helmand. All of that is necessary to ensure that international terrorism never again has a base in Afghanistan.

We are also working to make sure that our goals are Afghan goals, too. Assisting Afghan counter-narcotics initiatives is an obvious example. If we help them, we help ourselves at the same time. As I mentioned earlier, 90 per cent. of the heroin injected into the veins of young people in this country originates in Afghanistan. Helmand province is the largest single source of opium in Afghanistan. We can help to train Afghan counter-narcotics forces and support their operations, and we can provide intelligence. We can assist the Afghan Government in explaining their policies to the people. Above all, we can, along with the support of the Afghans, create the environment in which economic development and institutional reform—I again emphasise that both are essential to the elimination of the opium industry—can take place.

So the range of tasks for the provincial reconstruction team is large. It will form part of a larger, more than 3,300-strong British force providing the security framework. That force will itself come under a new Multinational Brigade (South), which will initially be under Canadian, alternating with British, command. Our contribution, the Helmand taskforce, will include elements of the headquarters of 16th Air Assault Brigade, and an airborne infantry battlegroup. Based initially around the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, it will incorporate a force consisting of eight Apache attack helicopters, provided by the 9th Regiment Army Air Corps. That will be the first time that we have deployed this impressive new capability on an operation. The 9th Regiment will also supply four Lynx light utility helicopters, while 27 Squadron Royal Air Force will provide a detachment of six Chinook support helicopters.

Other major units and capabilities include Scimitar and Spartan armoured vehicles from the Household Cavalry Regiment; a battery of 105 mm light guns from 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery; a battery of Desert Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles from 32 Regiment Royal Artillery; 13th Air Assault Regiment and 29 Regiment Royal Logistics Corps; 7th Battalion Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers; and 16 Close Support Medical Regiment. We shall also deploy four additional RAF C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. It is a substantial package—one that the chiefs of staff have agreed is necessary in order to maximise our chances and minimise our danger.

We aim for these deployments to be fully operational by July this year. The total number of our troops in Afghanistan—those already there, those at the new ISAF headquarters, the Helmand taskforce and the temporary surge engineering capability—will fluctuate over the next few months. It will peak, briefly, at some 5,700, before reducing to fewer than 4,700 as—
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according to current plans—the engineers building the encampments return home from Helmand in July, and our Harrier GR7 detachment withdraws in June. Our forces will then comprise those needed to command ISAF, some 300 troops engaged in support and training tasks in Kabul, and the Helmand taskforce. Predominantly, they will consist of regular troops. There will, however, be a small number of reservists, most of whom will be drawn from the Royal Rifle Volunteers or from the 4th Battalion Parachute Regiment.

I want to make a few things clear. The size and structure of the task force has been guided by a careful assessment of the likely tasks and threats that it will face. What matters is that we put the right forces in to do the job and to do it safely and well, and I make no apology if that requires more soldiers than some people initially envisaged.

Attack helicopters are certainly formidable, but they are also necessary. The roads in Helmand are very poor, and that means that support helicopters are essential. They in turn need attack helicopters to protect them and the forces that they deploy. Let me stress once more: we are deploying this potent force to protect and deter. The ISAF mission is unchanged. It is focused on reconstruction.

The resources for this deployment will be made available. This will be a three- year deployment, and it will cost around £1 billion over a five-year period. The resources will be made available, commencing in this financial year.

As I said earlier, we have a clear strategic interest in the renewal of Afghanistan. Obviously, that informed our decision. Equally, we have similar interests elsewhere, and an interest in maintaining effective and capable armed forces. We took careful account of those factors as well, including our other commitments. This deployment is manageable alongside those other, wider commitments, including Iraq. It does not require drawdown in Iraq. As we have said continually, that will be based on conditions in Iraq itself.

The House will be interested to hear about the command and control arrangements. To begin with, the multinational brigade as it arrives in Afghanistan in transitional format will come under the coalition. That is a necessary transitional measure, and is what happened when we established our first PRT in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif in 2003. Of course, Canadian, Romanian and US forces are already serving in the south of the country. However, other allies, such as Denmark, Estonia and, I hope, the Netherlands need time to build up sufficient forces in southern Afghanistan to implement ISAF's expansion into the region, just as we do. I therefore anticipate that later this year, at the earliest opportunity after the transitional period, ISAF will take control of the forces in the south from the coalition. That will happen during our command of ISAF. The Kandahar headquarters of the Helmand taskforce will alternate between Canadian and British command, but will ultimately come under the command of the ISAF headquarters. In turn, the ISAF headquarters will be commanded by the British general in command of the allied rapid reaction force headquarters that is moving there.
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All of this has but one aim—a secure, stable, prosperous and democratic Afghanistan, free from terrorism and terrorist domination. The House will be concerned about the risks and dangers of the deployment. Whatever the difficulties and dangers— and I do not hide them from the House or the country—those risks are nothing compared to the dangers to our country and our people of allowing Afghanistan to fall back into the hands of the Taliban and international terrorism.

We will not allow that, and the Afghan people will not allow that. They have already made great strides towards achieving a new future. They have a democratically elected President and Parliament, and democratically elected assemblies. Their legitimate economy is growing. Children—both boys and girls—are back at school, and refugees are returning home.

I am the first to accept that there is a long, long way to go. Extending ISAF into stage 3 in the south is a small but hugely significant step on the journey. This country has pledged to help the Afghan people as they continue on that journey. I am convinced that that is something that we should do to help, and that it is something that we will do.

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