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Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be aware that our forces will face not only a resurgent Taliban, but a network of warlords throughout the whole of Afghanistan, many of whom are deeply involved in the pernicious heroin trade that exists in every province. He will also be aware that that trade has gone up by a factor of 20 in the past four years. That is why I am somewhat worried about the exact objectives when our troops are being deployed as a relatively small force—including the international component—in a country that has defied the US, the Russians and, historically, ourselves. How and when will he be able to measure whether the outcomes are successful? I do not expect anything specific, but on
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what criteria will he judge the success of our forces, who will be concentrated in one province of the huge country?

John Reid: I would make three points to my hon. Friend. He is quite right to point to the historical precedents, but as I said on Monday, there are two big differences between the Russian and previous British interventions, as well as those of other nations. First, we have been invited in by the Afghans themselves, including the country's democratically elected President and Government, which makes a big difference. Secondly, we are not there for imperialist reasons, unlike the situation during the several previous interventions, which the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) continually and correctly brings to our attention.

We are addressing not only one area because there is an incremental approach. Stage 1 was in the north and stage 2 is in the west. Stage 3 means that three quarters of Afghanistan will be covered. I fully accept that not every metre of it will be covered, but the more we go round the clock on the stages, the smaller the chances that we will end up just squeezing a balloon so that the air—the corruption and narcotics in this case—goes to another area.

I do not envisage that building a modern Afghanistan—which lacks a central corporate governance, in tradition and structure, unlike Iraq; which lacks a developed middle class, unlike Iraq; and which lacks the mineral resources of, say, Iraq—will be an easy or a short process. It will not be done during the three years in which we are there because there will be a continuing process for the Afghans themselves over many decades. I hope that we will be their friends and that we will support them over that period. I have no doubt that there will be other occasions when they will ask us for military assistance. We can make a significant difference in the south over three years by extending the writ of central Government, starting the development of alternative livelihoods and, at the end, having a force of the Afghan army and police in the order of 2,500 to 3,000 trained people, which would be similar to our numbers in Helmand. I think that my hon. Friend was asking whether there is an exit strategy for the deployment. Yes there is, and that is it.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): As I made clear yesterday, Liberal Democrats continue to back the international consensus of support on Afghanistan and agree with the aims set out by the Secretary of State in his comprehensive statement and the answers that he has given us thus far. Sadly, we cannot escape the fact that the country remains in a parlous state and that the new mission will be fraught with danger, especially in the south. We, like others, pay tribute to the bravery, professionalism and commitment of all the people who are to be deployed.

The Secretary of State has made it clear that the deployment will go ahead only if it satisfies three key criteria. The British contribution represents a huge deployment. As he said, it is bigger than we had been led to expect. Given our ongoing commitments in Iraq and elsewhere, how will we avoid serious overstretch in the armed forces? With the contributions from other NATO partners still not resolved, has he put a limit on the
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British forces that will be made available, or are we committed to plugging any gaps? As for economic and other assistance, is he saying that ahead of the London conference, commitments are in place to ensure that the country's next five-year development programme will be delivered?

John Reid: On the last point, I am sure that there will be commitments in place and I hope that further commitments will be made at the conference of which the hon. Gentleman speaks. The international community has a vested and enlightened self-interest in seeing Afghanistan prosper to such an extent that it is no longer a failed state that terrorists can use as a base for attacking the west.

The hon. Gentleman asked about plugging gaps over and beyond the troop numbers that I mentioned. No, we will not plug any gaps for others. I have spoken in the past 24 hours to Secretary Rumsfeld, the Secretary-General of NATO and my colleague the Dutch Defence Minister to tell them what we are planning and to say that we count on NATO. I am sure that NATO will provide all the means to fulfil the operational plans, including on numbers, but we will not fill the gaps for others.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the state of Afghanistan itself. I have been sombre in my statement to the House, not because I think that we should lack resolution or will, but because it is right not to approach these matters with a gung-ho attitude, or any bravado. Such pessimism when studying the situation should not diminish our resolution when we decide to go in. We need 100 per cent. support for our troops and 100 per cent. will to carry this through. That will be there from the Government, and I am sure that it will be there among the vast majority of hon. Members.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I note that the Front-Bench spokesmen have taken about 40 minutes, and that many Back-Bench Members seek to be called. I ask that supplementary questions and the answers to them might be kept as short as possible because of the limited time that is available.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): As regards counter-narcotics, I know that there are no simple solutions. However, has my right hon. Friend examined the feasibility study prepared by the Senlis Council, a reputable think tank, on the possibility of growing opium under licence for the international medical market, as happens in one or two other countries, as an alternative to the search and destroy method that is favoured by our American allies?

John Reid: Yes, we have considered that possibility, but our conclusion is that it would be hugely difficult—it would be too difficult to police legitimate and illegitimate commerce in that area. We consider all such proposals, but that one has been examined and thus far rejected.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): The Secretary of State will recall that I asked a specific question yesterday. I feel that in part he
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has answered it and that in part he has not. I have a real concern that there is now a divide—and an artificial one—between the activities that we are about to undertake in Afghanistan. In part, our strategic view is the restitution of civil authority and so on in the province, but I think that the terms of our rules of engagement should be set around what the threat is rather than our strategic aims and objectives.

What concerns me distinctly is that the rules of engagement may lead us to be far too restrictive. On the ground, people will see our soldiers deployed as part of the programme of enduring freedom. If they are unable to act in line with that, they will be in deep danger. I say this as someone who has deployed and has often been concerned about the rules of engagement. I urge the Secretary of State to look again at this matter. Such confusion is deeply dangerous.

John Reid: It is because I know that that I listen to the right hon. Gentleman with such respect.

We are convinced—that is my military advisers, the chiefs of staff and so on—that our rules of engagement are sufficiently robust. They are not the same rules of engagement as those of everyone else in Afghanistan. We do not have the same caveats as everyone else in Afghanistan. I can understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern. As I have said, we think that the rules of engagement are sufficiently robust. Given the right hon. Gentleman's experience and his previous position as leader of the Conservative party, I would be more than happy if he wanted to visit the Ministry of Defence and to discuss the matter in detail with some of my military advisers, if he wants to reassure himself on this point. I repeat that we think that the rules are adequate and robust. If they prove not to be, we will strengthen them.

Mr. Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend will know, I visited Afghanistan last November with colleagues from the House. I had the privilege, under the armed forces parliamentary scheme, to visit 16th Air Assault Brigade and the various other elements of the battle group yesterday, and to see their planning and preparations for the deployment.

I also saw the Estonian troops and even the Dutch military, who are quite happy to engage in this deployment should their politicians allow them to do so.

I was told that the Air Assault Brigade were happy to test their new air manoeuvre capability. They felt that in this way they could dominate the ground sufficiently in order to carry out the task, but they wished that to be reviewed on a constant basis so that they would have adequate support in terms of helicopters in particular. In the event that the Dutch do not arrive, our personnel were also concerned to ensure that there was requisite combat air support in the form of fixed-wing aircraft and other assets.

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