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Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his necessarily long and detailed statement, and for making a copy available to the Opposition in advance. He was right at the outset to remind the House why we are in Afghanistan. We are there as part of the NATO response to the 9/11 attacks on the United States and as part of a wider coalition seeking to prevent Afghanistan from collapsing into a security vacuum that could so easily be filled by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. It is right to state in the House that we have a duty to stand with our allies—nations large and small that have joined the war on terror.

There are two unacceptable outcomes in Afghanistan—to fail to act or to act and fail. The slaughter in New York and London reminds us that our national security is best served by denying a breeding ground to those who are opposed to our way of life. So failure to act is not an option, but if we must act decisively, we must act effectively, since strategic failure would be a disaster. We need to know exactly what the mission is, what its objectives are and how success will be measured. Especially after Iraq, it is essential that the House asks detailed questions of the Government about the proposed deployment, and that the Government respond with clarity.

Let me begin with risk assessment. Our troops will be deployed to Helmand province, focusing on anti-narcotic and reconstruction activities. The Government have already described the situation as less benign than the norm, and the situation can worsen rapidly. Insurgents are mobile and may move to where ISAF troops are located. What assessment have the Government made of the current security status in the south of Afghanistan and in Helmand province specifically? How do the Government believe that the threat to our troops would change in the event of the appearance of either new insurgents or insurgents displaced from Iraq or other areas? Do the Government have any evidence that al-Qaeda is transferring operatives from other areas, notably Iraq, to
 
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Afghanistan, and what assessment have the Government made of the degree of interaction between insurgents and Iran, given that the Iranian border is only 150 miles away from Lashkar Gar, where the British troops will be stationed?

Let me ask about reconstruction. It would be wrong for the House to regard the reconstruction element as the easy road. Reconstruction will be a difficult task, as the tribal areas and the Afghan warlords do not share our view of how society should be constructed. Traditionally, successful Afghan Governments have been those with a light touch. What risk is there of our trying to apply a model of government suited to Kabul but unsuited to the southern provinces, and so creating resentment and hostility?

Let me ask a number of questions about the deployment. There is widespread support in the House for the strategic objectives—anti-narcotic, anti-insurgency and anti-terrorist—set out by the Government, but the Secretary of State will be well aware of widespread anxieties that the level of resources committed by ISAF may not be sufficient to achieve the stated objectives, and that we may consequently be drawn into an escalated conflict. How confident is the Secretary of State that the total complement of ISAF troops in Afghanistan is or will be sufficient to achieve the Government's objectives? How sure is he that all the necessary equipment will be available? Both the National Audit Office and the Defence Committee have identified a shortage of helicopter lift capacity. Has that been addressed? If so, how, and with what effect on other operations?

Then we come to the issues of command and control dealt with by the Secretary of State later in his statement. ISAF is a stabilisation force and as such is not geared for combat operations. Operation Enduring Freedom, however, is a counter-terrorism combat operation, and British troops will serve under both commands in Afghanistan and therefore operate under different rules of engagement. For example, under OEF, attacking insurgents can be shot at and pursued, but under ISAF rules of engagement, insurgents will not be pursued because that constitutes counter-terrorist activity. Even within ISAF, individual national contingents may operate their own specific rules of engagement different from ISAF's.

The Secretary of State said that we are deploying this potent force to protect and deter, but can he confirm that that does not include a counter-terrorism role? Does not that send dangerously mixed signals? Can he tell us what arrangements have been made for increased NATO-ISAF command integration with the US-led OEF? Is he satisfied with the clarity of the chain of command under which British troops will operate?

I said yesterday that we would want to know about the issue of prisoners. Can the Secretary of State tell us what powers of arrest and detention are available to British troops engaged in peacekeeping in Afghanistan, and how do they differ from those available to those acting under OEF command and those operating under ISAF command? What is the policy of NATO on the rendition of terror suspects detained by ISAF? What agreement, if any, has been reached between NATO and the Afghan Government relating to arrest and detention
 
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of suspects in Afghanistan? What assessment has he made of the effects of ISAF being integrated more closely in the longer term with OEF?

There are many other questions for the Government to answer on the tension between the anti-narcotic and anti-terrorist objectives, or training, or the overstretch effects on the British armed forces generally. For clarification, can the Secretary of State tell us if the £1 billion cost that he mentions will be met from reserves? Can he tell us how much money will be specifically earmarked to compensate the farmers he mentioned for decreased poppy production?

If the Secretary of State is unable to answer specific questions today, the House will expect clear answers before any deployment takes place. Every precaution must be taken to minimise the risk to our forces, whose courage and professionalism we salute today. The defence of our national security and the construction of a free and democratic Afghanistan are noble ideals. We cannot fail to act, but we cannot act and fail. It is in that respect that we will hold the Government to account, as is our duty.

John Reid: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supportive posture, which is balanced by legitimate and critical questions. It is important that we examine those questions. I hope that I have examined most of them, but one of the benefits of a dialogue on the issue is if someone identifies questions that I should have asked, but have not. I do not regard that as a point scored, but a benefit, especially to the armed forces, because our questions should be searching. Therefore, if I have missed any of the hon. Gentleman's questions—I tried to scribble them down—I will write to him and, if he wishes, place the answers in the Library for other hon. Members to read.

The hon. Gentleman asked about whether the resources available are from the reserve, and the answer to that is yes. He asked why there is a five-year plan when we are looking at three years, and the answer is because just as there is a build-up period, there is also a run-down period with preparations for people coming out. We have chosen an envelope that encompasses the envisaged three-year stay.

The hon. Gentleman asked an important question about resources for indirect build-up of infrastructure, including alternative livelihoods. That will be a long task. In the first instance, we will consider compensatory transitional payments and alternative livelihoods in the medium to longer term. I am grateful to the Department for International Development and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State who has spent so much time on this. A sum of the order of £20 million a year will be allocated to that specific area, some of it directly and much of it through Afghan Government projects. In addition, some $100 million is being spent a year and we have received assurances from the United States that that will continue for at least 18 months, so that is an additional amount. I am satisfied that the financial resources, which will complement our military intervention, are sufficient. However, how they are applied in terms of human beings working on the projects is, of course, dependent to some extent on the security situation, which is one of the reasons why we are there.
 
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The hon. Gentleman asked how we handle prisoners at present and how they will be handled. At present, we hand prisoners over to the Afghanistan Government and we envisage that that will continue. We have done a considerable amount of work to examine the threats to the security situation that face us, which is why the task force is so configured, but, of course, we update it. We have taken account of developments in places such as Iraq, such as the changing nature of the improvised explosive devices that have been used there, so that we can reallocate resources. There has been small—some would say significant—cost growth precisely to allow for contingencies and to compensate for new threats that come in.

I confirm to the hon. Gentleman that the role is not counter-terrorist. However, I also confirm, as the House would want me to do, that if we are attacked while pursuing our reconstruction objectives and providing the framework for others so to do, including the Afghans, we will respond robustly. That is why we make a distinction between insurgency, or terrorist attacks on us, and a primarily counter-terrorist role. That role is a task for OEF.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the possible synergy between the ISAF role in stage 3 in the south and stage 4, which will attempt to bring together American forces and our armed forces. There are several ways of achieving that. One is to have a chain of command that results in a double-hatted commander under whom there are two single chains of command: one on anti-terrorism, which would be mainly led by the Americans, and the reconstruction one in which we are involved. Another alternative would be that as we successfully exclude the terrorists, compared with some years ago, American forces could transfer over to reconstruction and join ISAF in helping to rebuild the nation of Afghanistan. There are thus several options open to us, but we will keep clear lines of command.

The hon. Gentleman asked for clarity on numbers. I hope that we have given that clarity today. The total number of troops in Afghanistan through ISAF when stage 3 is completed will be about 18,500. The number of NATO troops in the south, including ours, will be 9,000. That is a hugely significant increase from the number of troops who are there are present.

I hope that I have covered most of the main points that the hon. Gentleman made—I have done so at some length I know, Madam Deputy Speaker—but as I said, I will check the record and if I have missed others, which are equally important, I will write to him.


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