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I fully understand why the Secretary of State cannot be here. His visit to Oman is extremely important and obviously his visit to Saif Sareea is appreciated. Let me first reaffirm the Opposition's support for the Government's continued resolve and determination to change the Taliban Government so that they cease to sustain terrorism, root out their al-Qaeda allies and bring Osama bin Laden to justice. To falter would send a fatal signal of encouragement to the terrorists and those who sustain them, not just in Afghanistan, but around the world.
The Government have taken a serious step. Nevertheless, it is merely a decision to maintain a range of military options. Will the Minister confirm that no decisions about large-scale operational deployments in Afghanistan have been made? Will the Government reassure the House that any such decisions to commit to ground operations in Afghanistan will be based on concrete intelligence and clear and achievable objectives, thereby enabling them to define and maintain clear operational aims?
Her Majesty's Opposition will not compromise the safety of our troops by inviting irresponsible speculation, but will the Minister comment on statements given to The New York Times by the Chief of the Defence Staff about the nature of the operations envisaged, which he said might extend to many weeks at a time?
The Secretary of State for International Development has referred to the possible creation of so-called safe areas to assist the aid effort in Afghanistan. If that is part of the plan, is the Minister aware of the aid agencies' concern about the militarisation of the aid programme and that we must therefore win them over on that point if the strategy is to succeed?
What facilities will be provided for the personnel deployed so that they can have full and regular access to telephone and e-mail contact with their families? Will the Minister confirm that every effort will be made to keep their families fully informed ahead of any announcements in the press? He will be aware of how perplexing it is when it appears that the press knows far more than those whose lives are so directly affected. I understand that families have been contacted in advance of the statement, but it follows a lengthy period of speculation which must have been extremely difficult for them.
I congratulate members of the armed forces who have made Exercise Saif Sareea such a success. Does the Minister agree that there are lessons to be learned that are of particular relevance to the logistics of a possible troop deployment in Afghanistan, and that the exercise has, as he said, also proved both the UK's capability to deploy considerable military force over very long distances and, yet again, the sheer prowess and professionalism of our armed forces? We have faith in them. We admire and are proud of them. They deserve nothing less than the unreserved support of the House.
I can confirm that there has been no decision for a large-scale deployment. If there is a change to that, clearly it would be based on best intelligence and what benefits could flow from such a deployment. That is how we have tackled the range of decisions that we have had to take on the campaign as it has developed.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the comments by the Chief of the Defence Staff in an article in The New York Times. He was rightly pointing up the changing nature of the tempo of operations and that those operations could continue for weeks at a time or be brief action. I said in my opening statement that it would be inappropriate to go into any detail on that, and the Chief of the Defence Staff did not do so in his comments to The New York Times. He rightly pointed out the nature of the way in which operations are likely to develop.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the humanitarian problem and comments made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. There is no question but that the humanitarian problem is deep and difficult, especially for those in the area who seek to find answers and for those in the United Nations and the countries that seek to provide aid who work alongside them in the immediate area and elsewhere. The associated problem is the way in which the Taliban are frustrating so much of the movement of humanitarian aid through the country. We must ensure that there is a better environment into which to deliver the aid.
As I have made clear, the military objectives will continue. Those are the main objectives of the coalition and I have set out what we are seeking to achieve, but we are highly conscious of the importance of the humanitarian problem and the very scale of it.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about leaving the military in limbo. I can give him assurances on that. We shall do our best to replace troops, given the tempo of operations as they develop, which is why 400 commandos have been returned. They will be able periodically to replace those on board, which is part of the underlying principle.
The hon. Gentleman also raised a question relating to the full welfare package which will be applied. We have made a great deal of effort to try to improve that welfare package so that those out in theatre, whether on exercise or actively deployed, can remain in close communication with their families. However, there will be times when that is simply not possible. Therefore, there is an onus on commanding officers and those who provide welfare support back home to ensure that the families are aware of what is happening.
I share the hon. Gentleman's sentiments about unhelpful speculation. The Secretary of State, to whom I have spoken this morning, made the same point to me. The press and media speculate about the numbers going in and what they will do, but there seems to be an ignorance of the reality of what happens when such comments are made. They can impact adversely on the families back home. I wish that the media would remember what speculation in the television studios and in print means to those of whom we ask so much.
I returned from Oman in the early hours of yesterday morning and I join the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), and the Minister in paying tribute to our forces there. I can tell the House that they are in good order and aware of the tasks that may be required of them. They and their families will welcome this morning's announcement because it will give them an idea of what their immediate future holds, but I must tell the Minister that they have a number of serious concerns about their equipment and I want to raise those with him.
First, after visiting 3 Commando in the desert, I must tell the House that a number of its members are sadly suffering from trench foot, because they have not been issued with desert boots. They were told that they could buy some, but they would not be issued. Can the Minister give an assurance that if they find themselves going into action in Afghanistan and if they require additional kit and equipment, they will have access to that and it will be given to them?
Secondly, there remains a grave concern about the SA80 rifle. It is well known that it has a problem in dusty and in cold conditions. It may be that both are experienced in action. Given that the Army has acquired a number of modified SA80s, which we understand are better, will they be available to the forces if required?
Mr. Ingram: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening comments. He raised a number of issues specifically on equipment. I will give him this assurance: if our troops are being actively deployed in Afghanistan, they will be given the equipment that they need to carry out any action that they take on our behalf. I shall not enter into debate about desert boots. I, too, was in Oman a few weeks ago and I received a slightly different message, so we have lessons to learn. His question deals with the specifics of that particular exercise, which is different from operational deployment.
On the SA80 rifle and the SA80 mark 2, a modified rifle that the hon. Gentleman understands is better, I give him an absolute assurance that the weapon has been tried and tested in all extreme conditionsnot by politicians, but by soldiers. They give me the absolute assurance that it is a first-class rifle. It will be made available to those in the field; we have sufficient numbers to do so.
On cluster bombs, I remind the House that this is a military campaign. Cluster bombs are part of the targeting approach being adopted by the coalition forces. The United States is dropping material that contains submunitions. They are targeted specifically: the particular weapons being used are optimised for use against armour and vehicles, usually in very concentrated numbers. That is the purpose. There is a threat on the ground, and that is how it has been judged best to tackle that.
I understand the sensitivity of the matter, but I again remind all right hon. and hon. Members that this is a military campaign. We are seeking to achieve a military objective. I know that people keep saying it, but we must never forget what happened on 11 September and what could have happened on that day: many more peopletens of thousandscould have lost their lives. The intent of that particular terrorist organisation is to carry forward their attacks on our people.