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House of Commons

Monday 27 February 2006

The House met at half-past Two o'clock



The House being met, the Clerk at the Table informed the House of the absence of Mr. Speaker from this week's sittings. Whereupon, Sir Alan Haselhurst, the Chairman of Ways and Means, took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am sure that I express the feeling of the House in regretting the reasons for Mr. Speaker's absence and in relaying the House's great good wishes for his early recovery and return.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): If he will list the aims of the UK deployment to southern Afghanistan. [53933]
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The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): The international community's involvement in Afghanistan is aimed at ensuring that Afghanistan will never again become a breeding ground for international terrorism, by helping the Afghan people to rebuild their democracy, their security and their economy. United Kingdom deployment to southern Afghanistan is part of the UN-mandated, NATO-led international security assistance force, which is expanding across the country in support of this commitment.

Anne Milton: Is the Secretary of State satisfied that there are enough troops in Afghanistan, bearing in mind the lessons from Iraq that ground troops are essential in order to complete missions adequately?

John Reid: Yes, I am satisfied. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that the Chiefs of Defence Staff fully endorse the force package we are sending. One of the three or four criteria that I laid down before the move south was that the military configuration and size desired by the Chiefs of Staff should be provided, and that was done.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I understand entirely why we have sent troops to the south, but does my right hon. Friend agree that we need a clear exit strategy, with an understanding of how multinational forces will in due course take over from the British so that we do not end up in a quagmire not of our own making, but because there is no clarity about the nature of the exercise?

John Reid: I am sorry that my hon. Friend does not understand it, but there is clarity about exactly what we are doing in Afghanistan and in the south. We are in Afghanistan under a UN mandate with the support of the world community, not through a multinational force but through a NATO-led and NATO-configured force—ISAF—to help the democratically elected Government of Afghanistan extend their democratic authority and build their own security forces, and to
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assist them in their economic development. That is precisely why we are going to the south. It was envisaged for some time that, after we went in, we would do that in stages. This is stage 3, and it is completely in accord with the planning that we have outlined. I do not hide from my hon. Friend the fact that it is more dangerous and difficult than the first two stages, but I recall, as will everyone in the House, why we are there. We are there to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a training ground, a planning arena and a launch platform for terrorist acts such as those we saw in New York—the worst terrorist act in history.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): Will the Secretary of State set out how individuals detained by UK forces will be handed over to the Afghan authorities, and the justice procedures that will follow? Are the arrangements common across ISAF forces, and how different are they from those that are reported to apply to US detainees at their base in Bagram?

John Reid: Yes. Anyone detained by British forces is handed to the Afghan authorities within a very short period. That rule applies across Afghanistan wherever British forces are concerned. I think it also applies to the rest of ISAF, but, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will write to him to clarify the second point that he raises.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Rather than destroying almost the only livelihood of farmers in the Helmand province of Afghanistan and possibly driving them into the arms of the Taliban, would it not be better to try to license their production to be used not for heroin production but for producing diamorphine? As we know, there is a world shortage of diamorphine, and anyone dying in a third world country has only a 6 per cent. chance of getting diamorphine because 70 per cent. of the world supply is taken by seven rich countries. Would it not be a more stable solution to divert production to diamorphine?

John Reid: No, I am afraid that I do not agree with my hon. Friend. More importantly, neither do our analysts on the ground or, even more importantly, the democratically elected Government of Afghanistan. I understand his suggestion, but we do not believe either that it would be of general benefit to Afghanistan or, indeed, that we could make such a distinction in the conditions that exist there. We therefore throw our whole weight behind the commitment of the Afghan Government, President Karzai and his colleagues in getting rid of that which corrupts the whole of the country's commerce and much of its politics—the production of opium that eventually ends up as the heroin that is pumped as poison into the veins of so many young people in this country.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): May I urge the right hon. Gentleman for the third time to halt the dispatch of small contingencies of our forces to south Afghanistan to undertake incompatible tasks that could not be successfully performed even by 100,000 troops or, as Max Hastings has written, by 300,000? Does the right hon. Gentleman remember that
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in the 1980s the Russians sent 300,000 troops into Afghanistan, but that, several years later, they fled the country, leaving 10,000 dead behind? They were soon followed to their graves by the Soviet Union itself.

John Reid: Yes, and if I remember correctly the then Government in this country and the United States spent a lot of money funding the Mujaheddin in order to fight the Russians. We are now seeing the fruits of some of those decisions, which the hon. Gentleman supported so many years ago.

I listen to what the hon. Gentleman says about Afghanistan and I read to try to catch up with his prolific reading on the subject, but as I pointed out to him previously, there is a difference on two grounds between this intervention and all previous ones. First, we are there at the behest and with the authority of the world community in the United Nations. Secondly, we are there at the invitation of the democratically elected Afghanistan Government. Those two things are not insignificant in comparison with what happened in previous interventions.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): As someone who supported and continues to support the presence of British troops in Afghanistan, certainly following 9/11, and who has no illusions whatsoever about the terrorists who continue to operate, may I ask whether our position would be better if we could persuade the United States that detainees should be charged and not held in Guantanamo Bay and that Guantanamo Bay is a disgrace to democracy and should be closed as quickly as possible? Let us urge that, as a partner and ally of the United States.

John Reid rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sure that the Secretary of State will recognise that the question is about deployment in Afghanistan.

John Reid: Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. People will have different views on Guantanamo Bay, but I think that the whole House will recognise that it was a response to the biggest ever terrorist attack in history, launched from Afghanistan, which is precisely why we are trying to prevent any such terrorist attacks in the future. Like my hon. Friend, I regret not only the need for Guantanamo Bay, as seen from the American point of view but, more importantly, the growth of international terrorism, which has confronted so many of us with the problems that we are now facing in terms of our own freedoms in this country. One of the great debates that we have had, of course, is to what extent we must curtail those freedoms to stop international terrorists using those very freedoms to destroy those very freedoms. Whatever differences and views we have on aspects of this matter, let us recognise where the cause of all these problems lies—with the international terrorists themselves.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): First, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I fully associate the Conservative party with your good wishes to Mr. Speaker? I am delighted that he chose to be treated in the unit in which I trained in Glasgow royal infirmary; I am pleased that it is still the unit of choice for VIPs.
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In Afghanistan, there is no question about the abilities of our troops or their commanders. There is some concern about a potential strategic mismatch. Our troops will be involved in the anti-narcotics operation in protection, lift, intelligence and everything except crop destruction itself. Unless a full programme is in place to compensate Afghan farmers, we might find that the war against opium makes the war against terror more difficult by creating a resurgent Taliban. Exactly what steps will be taken to provide alternative income to Afghan farmers and in what time scale, so that the risks to our troops are minimised?

John Reid: At the beginning of Defence questions, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I refrained from repeating your best wishes to the Speaker, but I follow the hon. Gentleman in doing so. I take a great deal of pride and satisfaction in the Speaker's choosing to use a vital part of our national health service in order to effect his recovery, about which I know all hon. Members will be pleased.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that if the narcotics trade is undermined as part of economic development, it is important that we accompany our attacks on the middlemen—the mafia—with making sure that the farmers who produce such crops have alternative livelihoods, which is a point that bore heavily on our consideration before we went in. The Department for International Development will put some £20 million into Helmand, and the American moneys allocated to that area, which amount to some $100 million, will continue for at least 18 months. Every effort will be made to ensure that any intervention to cut off income is supplemented by alternative income in the first instance and, eventually, by alternative livelihoods; otherwise, as the hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out, we will create not stability, but further insurgency.

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