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Tessa Jowell: I remind my hon. Friend that the project is complex, as I am sure he recognises. It has taken a very

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long time to get to this stage. The first decisions were taken in 1995 and 1996. My job, and that of the Government, is to ensure that the final decisions represent the public interest and public value for money.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): May I tease my right hon. Friend about athletics? It is unlikely that we will bid for the world athletics championships until at least 2011, and the next Olympics that we could bid for will be in 2016. The technology for an athletics system might be outdated by then. If we are serious about going for 2011 or even 2016, we have to put the necessary infrastructure in place now. There is no point in having a system for athletics unless we are serious about 2011 and 2016.

Tessa Jowell: That is precisely why the technical matters to which my hon. Friend refers need to be considered by those who know about the standards that athletics bodies require to host an athletics championship. That is part of the business to be completed, which I mentioned earlier.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): I am grateful to get in just before the final whistle. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the stadium is not needed and, as far as I can see from surveys of England fans, not wanted? Would it not be better to pledge no further public money to the project, which would have the merit of ensuring that England football fans get what they want and that the FA cup final finds a permanent home in the finest stadium in the United Kingdom, Cardiff's millennium stadium?

Tessa Jowell: Nice try. My hon. Friend's arguments should be referred not to the Government, but to the Football Association, which will decide whether there is a national stadium and where it should be located.

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International Force (Kabul)

4.22 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The recent Bonn agreement on the future governance of Afghanistan called for the deployment of an international force to Afghanistan to assist the new Afghan Interim Authority, which formally takes office on Saturday 22 December, with the provision of security and stability for Kabul.

Two days ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed that the United Kingdom was willing, in principle, to lead such a force. I can now confirm that the United Kingdom is formally prepared to take on the leadership of an international security assistance force for a limited period of three months. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has today written to the Secretary- General of the United Nations to inform him of our decision. That decision follows further discussions with the United States, the other nations that have indicated that they may be willing to contribute troops to the force, the United Nations and the designated leaders of the Interim Authority in Afghanistan.

A number of issues are still to be finalised. We have not yet settled every detail about the force, but it is right that I should inform the House about progress so far, in particular about the letter to the UN Secretary-General, and today is the last opportunity for me to bring this before the House before the Christmas recess.

As the Prime Minister emphasised, the situation in Afghanistan remains fragile. The international security assistance force is a vital part of the international community's efforts to assist the Afghan people in this early and difficult period of the reconstruction of their country. A deployment of this kind—involving troops, equipment and logistical support from several nations—is undoubtedly a complex undertaking. We have no illusions about Afghanistan. Deploying forces there inevitably involves an element of risk. It is a challenging, difficult and sometimes dangerous environment.

The force will be charged with assisting the Afghan Interim Authority in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding area. The ultimate responsibility for security will remain with the Interim Authority. Tasks could, however, include liaison with, and providing advice and support to, the Interim Authority as well as the UN on security issues, together with scoping future requirements for help in establishing and training the new Afghan security forces.

The United Kingdom will provide the force commander and his headquarters. The force commander will be Major General John McColl, who is currently serving as the General Officer Commanding, 3(UK) Division, which is based at Bulford. General McColl, as the House will be aware, led last weekend's reconnaissance and liaison team to Kabul. The force headquarters will also be drawn from 3 Division, as will some of its main force and many of its essential support troops. Other elements will be drawn from the headquarters of 16 Air Assault Brigade, and key enablers and units that are maintained at very high readiness, including elements of 40 Commando Royal Marines and the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment.

Indicative planning to date suggests that the United Kingdom's contribution will be in the region of 1,500 troops, although the actual figure will depend on the

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contributions made by other nations. The force will be an international force. It is too soon to say exactly how many troops it will include, or the nations from which they will come, but it will number 3,000 to 5,000 and will include contributions from the armed forces of several nations.

Sixteen nations were represented at last Friday's conference for potential troop contributors, and 21 nations are represented at today's follow-on conference at the permanent joint headquarters in Northwood. We expect to establish the detailed force composition over the next few days. The United States has indicated that it fully supports the deployment of the force and will provide essential enabling support to deploy and sustain it, which is a vital and considerable task.

The House will wish to know the arrangements for command and control. The force will have a particular mission, distinct from Operation Enduring Freedom. If the United Kingdom's offer to be lead nation is accepted, the United Kingdom will exercise command. As I have said, General McColl will be the force commander. The force will work very closely with the United States, as set out in the letter from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to the United Nations Secretary-General, a copy of which has been placed in the Library of the House.

I should like to place on record our gratitude to the United States, which has led the global coalition's offensive operations against international terrorism with great success. Its generosity in finding the capacity to support the international security assistance force by providing enabling capabilities that no other country can match should be recognised and applauded. I should also like to take the opportunity to record our appreciation to all the nations who have indicated that they are willing to provide troops. The international security assistance force is a reflection of the strong international support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan and will go to Kabul with the backing of the wider international community. Work is under way in New York to draw up a United Nations Security Council resolution to authorise the deployment under chapter VII of the UN Charter. We anticipate that it will be agreed within the next few days.

The House will have a number of proper questions about issues that have yet to be resolved. We have not yet finalised all the details of the force; there are still major questions, both about its exact size and precise composition, including which nations will contribute. We expect to refine the answers to those questions over the coming days. We need to agree with the Afghan authorities the precise tasks that the force will undertake and the modalities of its deployment. Let me be clear: the international community is sending the force to assist the Afghans, not to interfere in their affairs. Discussions with designated members of the Interim Authority, including its Chairman, Defence, Interior and Foreign Ministers, indicate that they welcome our intention to lead the ISAF.

General McColl's reconnaissance and liaison team met leading designated members of the Interim Authority to discuss how the force could best assist the Afghans and how it should relate to the Interim Authority. Further discussions are required and General McColl will be returning to Kabul later this week. Those tasks will need to be encapsulated in a detailed military technical agreement, which we anticipate finalising with the Interim Authority as soon as possible after it is established. Once

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that agreement and the authorising UN Security Council resolution are in place, the international security assistance force will be able to deploy in full.

Needless to say, British forces deploying to Afghanistan will be properly equipped for the tasks that they will undertake and they will be provided with robust rules of engagement. The United Kingdom has been invited to take on lead nation status because we and others believe that our forces have the capability and experience required to undertake that operation. We have the ability to get a force in and up and running very quickly. It is therefore right that we take on that responsibility when so much depends on the early success of the political process that the force will support.

I am absolutely satisfied that the operation is within our capacity. Our commitment is limited in numbers—up to 1,500 troops—and duration, which will be up to three months. After three months, we will hand over lead nation status to one of our partners. There have already been indications that others may be willing to take this on. General McColl and his immediate team will return to Kabul later this week to continue detailed negotiations with the Afghan authorities on the terms of a detailed military technical agreement. They will also be present for the inauguration of the Interim Authority on 22 December. Troops from 40 Commando Royal Marines will be available to support General McColl and, if required, the Interim Authority. A company of Marines is being sent this week to bolster the existing presence at Bagram.

The deployment of the main elements of the ISAF will be dependent on the outcome of discussions on the military technical agreement and the complexity of the task. Given the circumstances, the main body will not begin to deploy before 28 December at the earliest. It will then be some weeks before a substantial force can be deployed into Afghanistan.

I am very conscious that our decision to lead this force will mean that some of our troops will not be able to spend Christmas with their families. Some of our troops have been at Bagram for some time. Separation from family and friends is never easy, least of all at this time of year. Our troops will, however, deploy to Afghanistan knowing that they will be carrying out a vital and a worthwhile task, contributing to restoring peace and stability to a country that has been torn apart by strife and international terrorism.

In offering to be the lead nation for the ISAF and to deploy British troops to Afghanistan, we are aware that we have taken on significant responsibilities. The war there is being won; we must now secure the peace. The United Kingdom is proud to be able to play an important role in this. I am confident that we will.

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