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The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): A detachment of Royal Marines is on the ground at Bagram airport in Afghanistan, and was augmented over the weekend. Operating under US tactical command, they are there as part of a coalition reconnaissance mission to help to secure the airport and make it safe
In addition, British forces have been active on the ground inside Afghanistan for some time. Working closely with US forces, they have been engaged on a range of operational tasks in different parts of Afghanistan. The House would not expect me to go into great detail, but I am confident that it will join me in paying tribute to the professionalism and gallantry of those involved, including the very small number who have been wounded in the conduct of those duties.
Mr. Chapman: Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on the press reports of a rift between us and the Americans regarding the deployment of the Marines at Bagram, as well as on the military objectives of the campaign in general? Does he envisage a long-term role for the Marines in building the peace, as they have done so splendidly in Kosovo?
Mr. Hoon: There is simply no truth in the reports to which my hon. Friend refers. The deployment at Bagram was carried out in close consultation with US forces and, as I have indicated to the House, our troops there are under the tactical command of a US officer. We have worked closely with the United States at every stage of the military operation and, indeed, of the humanitarian and diplomatic operation that is now under way.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): My hon. Friendif I may call him thatthe Member for Portsmouth, North (Syd Rapson) and I have the honour of chairing the all-party group on the Royal Marines, which will be receiving a detailed briefing from the Commandant-General of the Royal Marines in January. The whole House is of course invited, but in the meantime, would the Secretary of State care to say whether he feels that there are now sufficient numbers of Royal Marines at Bagram to maintain their safety? What were the original plans for the number of Royal Marines who were to be posted to Bagram? We are told that that number was curtailed because of lobbying by the Northern Alliance.
Mr. Hoon: I have already told the House that my overriding concern is for the safety of British forces deployed in any theatre, particularly in Afghanistan at the present time. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there are sufficient numbers for their safety. That is constantly reviewed and I assure him that we will continue that process. On his further question, there have been no plans to post Royal Marines, as he so elegantly put it, to Bagram airstrip. There was a range of contingencies 10 days ago, when a range of British forces were moved to a higher state of readiness. Those contingencies have changed in that 10-day period. That is why I judge it appropriate to relax, for some of those forces, their present state of readiness.
The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The UK deployed some 2,000 troops to Macedonia at the end of August as lead nation in Operation Essential Harvest, the NATO operation to collect weapons from the National Liberation Army. This was a time-limited task and those troops all withdrew by 12 October, having successfully completed their mission. The operation has made a significant contribution to the peace process in Macedonia and I congratulate those involved. Currently, about 40 British service personnel are deployed to Macedonia in headquarters roles at the British Embassy and in support of the Macedonian Government.
Vernon Coaker: I join my right hon. Friend in congratulating our troops in Macedonia. Is not one of the lessons of the action that they took there that, in many more such situations, they will have to be involved in peacekeeping missions and in preventing conflict before it breaks out, rather than dealing with the consequences? Will he talk to other countries and international bodies such as the UN about how that might be brought about?
Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend asks an interesting question. The answer must be that, yes, on occasion, what he describes may well be a requirement of a joint rapid reaction force, but it depends on the circumstances. Clearly, different demands can be made, whether the initiative is UN-led, part of a NATO deployment, or some other type of European deployment that is part of a NATO deployment. What we have achieved in Macedonia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Bosnia has shown that we are capable and are getting better. That is why there is always a request for British troops to be deployed: we are good at what we do.
Ross Cranston: I am sure that my right hon. Friend is as concerned as I am about the recent serious ethnic conflict in Macedonia. According to certain accounts, some of that conflict has been stirred up by hard-line elements in the Government, so our presence there has been essential. Am not I right in thinking that Germany now leads that deployment? If that is so, is it not a sign that Germany now shows a more confident, active and mature approach to European defence?
Mr. Ingram: Part of Taskforce Harvest, in which United Kingdom troops were originally deployed, involved France, Germany, Greece and Italy. All provided large numbers of troops. My hon. and learned Friend is right to say that Operation Amber Fox is under German leadership. That shows an increasing involvement of European Union countries as their capabilities build alongside ours. It also shows that they can carry out those tasks successfully.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Will the Minister confirm that the operations in Macedonia were undertaken entirely by NATO personnel and assets? Why, therefore, was it believed necessary to set up duplicate structures under the European security and defence
Mr. Ingram: The current operation is called Operation Amber Fox. I do not necessarily want to shoot the hon. Gentleman's fox, but he is wrong. No duplicate structures were set up and operations in Macedonia were clearly under the command of and controlled by NATO.
Patrick Mercer (Newark): The Minister knows that operations in Macedonia and now in Afghanistan have placed an intolerable burden on our intelligence-gathering assets, especially the defence intelligence staff and the Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre. After much probing in mid-October, several specialist reservists were called in specifically to help those two agencies. Why, several weeks later, is not a single reservist under arms?
Mr. Ingram: I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman's question. There was no intolerable pressure on our intelligence-gathering staff. They have performed their tasks admirably, and provide advice and support to those who make the ultimate decisions about finding answers to difficult and complex problems. A request was made to reservists, and only a few have been used.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I discussed international terrorism with my European counterparts at the capabilities improvement conference in Brussels on 19 and 20 November. In addition, in the past week I have had separate meetings with several ministerial counterparts, addressing international terrorism among other topics.
Tony Cunningham: I thank my right hon. Friend. Has he discussed with his European counterparts the implications of the action in Afghanistan for European defenceespecially, whether it has highlighted the need for European nations collectively to improve their defence capabilities?
Mr. Hoon: I suggested that to my European defence counterparts at the capabilities improvement conference. It is important to recognise that events in Afghanistan have further emphasised the need for European nations to improve their military capabilities. I set out that message at the conference and in a series of bilateral meetings with my counterparts. I am pleased that good progress has been made and that further progress is in prospect.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Will the Secretary of State admit that some of our European counterparts have been far less enthusiastic than us about our campaign against international terrorism? One or two have been decidedly hostile. Does he agree that it is
Mr. Hoon: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I cannot think of a single European nation that has not been equally enthusiastic in its determination to tackle international terrorism. Many European continental nations have experienced the frustration of not being able to get their forces into the theatre of operations quickly enough to participate. I repeat that our emphasis on European defence is in order to improve European military capabilities. Our European partners share that ambition.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth): I welcome my right hon. Friend's answer, but we all realise that we are working in NATO in a day-to-day relationship, and that our NATO partners have certain strengths and skills, because they have had an opportunity to use them that we have not recently had. Are those skills available to all partners in NATO, and are they being rolled out across the NATO theatre?
Mr. Hoon: A range of capabilities is available to NATO countries. One of the advantages for the United Kingdom is that we have been able to build on the work conducted through the strategic defence review process. It is important that other countries recognise the need to be able to deploy their forces rapidly into potential theatres of conflict. That is accepted across the board by our NATO partners and by EU countries, and it underlies NATO's work on the defence capabilities initiative and on the European Union headline goal process.
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): Will the Secretary of State tell us whether his recent discussions with his European counterparts reviewed the number of coalition casualties sustained in the conflict so far? In particular, will he tell us whether any of the British casualties have been evacuated back to the United Kingdom?