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Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the Secretary of State for delivering the statement on the last day of term. I am grateful to him for receiving a copy of it well in advance of his making it.

We applaud the conclusions of the Bonn agreement to establish a broadly based administration in Kabul with international backing. We support the principle that an international security assistance force should be made available to help the new Government settle down. We have previously expressed our concerns about the British

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element of this deployment. These are concerns that the Prime Minister has acknowledged are perfectly legitimate. However, we fully respect the decision that the Government have now taken, and we will give our troops every support for the job ahead.

I understand that there are many fundamental aspects of the deployment that have yet to be agreed. That underlines the need for clarity on these issues before the Secretary of State can finally agree to go ahead with the deployment. These aspects concern the nature of Afghan consent for the deployment of British troops, the level of US practical support for the British troops on this operation, the objectives of the British deployment, the funding of the deployment and the problems of overstretch.

On consent, British forces have been pursuing a fighting role in Afghanistan. That has made us many enemies as well as friends there. A former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Bramall, warned on Monday that

The new Afghan Defence Minister continues to issue conflicting statements, so what comfort has the Secretary of State been given to reassure him that the British will be welcome guests of all the main factions in Afghanistan?

The rules of engagement must of course remain secret, but will they be agreed with the Afghans before deployment? The Prime Minister indicated that the stabilisation force will be deployed under a chapter VII UN mandate, as the Secretary of State has confirmed. Has that principle been accepted by the Afghans? Do we have armoured vehicles and munitions support to sustain a credible fighting force to carry out a chapter VII deployment?

Secondly, on US support, the Americans have made it clear that they do not feel that they are suited to this role. Is the Secretary of State confident that the US is fully committed to supporting and sustaining, and if necessary to protecting, multinational forces in Afghanistan? Another former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Inge, warned the Government on Monday:

Who else but the Americans can provide the heavy lift, mobility, air cover, surveillance and the necessary logistical support for any sustained military engagements, and the means of extraction in case of an emergency?

Will the United States have no command role at all? That is a surprise. Is the entire operation to be run from UK permanent joint headquarters? What experience does the PJHQ have in such a large multinational planning role?

Thirdly, on the objectives, Lord Inge remarked:

The present Chief of the Defence Staff has described how we could

I am grateful for the assurance given by the Secretary of State that the deployment is not intended to extend beyond three months. However, Bosnia was meant to be a short-term deployment, and years later we still have

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thousands of troops there. Sierra Leone was meant to be "over in a month", according to the then Foreign Secretary. Yesterday we learned in a written answer that British troops will be there beyond two years.

Fourthly, on the funding for the deployment, the most recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, said:

Last week, the Chief of the Defence Staff commented starkly:

a point unanimously reinforced by the Select Committee report that came out this week.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the £100 million allocated for the cost of Operation Veritas is less than his Department's underspend at the end of last year, which he was forced to surrender to the Treasury? When will he and the Prime Minister succeed in addressing the question of defence spending, which is running at £1 billion a year in real terms below the levels that they inherited five years ago, alongside considerably more deployed and more operational armed forces than they inherited?

On the wider campaign, the Government will continue to have our fullest support for their conduct of the campaign against international terrorism. To that end, I should be grateful if the Secretary of State would confirm that the UK Government remain ready and willing, as he previously indicated, to support the United States in further military action in other countries where terrorism is tolerated or sustained, if that proves necessary and where justified by the evidence. Will the Government continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States for the long haul?

We will give British forces our fullest support in the operation. Our soldiers are the finest in the world and they enjoy our absolute confidence. Knowing the Parachute Regiment, which is based in my constituency, I believe that its members will be itching to get on with the job. We wish them and the Royal Marines every success. We wish a happy Christmas to them and their families, who will be particularly in our thoughts at this time.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's general support, although sometimes he does "but" a little too much in the way he appears to qualify his support. It is a charitable season, so I shall assume the most charitable interpretation of his reservations and try to deal with his observations.

First, on the nature of Afghan consent, that will be dealt with in the military technical agreement. The hon. Gentleman will have read the terms of the Bonn agreement, under which the designated members of the Interim Authority signed up for precisely such a force, so they have already given consent. [Interruption.] I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's points in turn, if he will contain his impatience for a few seconds.

On the level of US support, that is set out clearly in the letter to which I referred, which has been placed in the Library for all right hon. and hon. Members to see. I am sure that a detailed study of that letter will repay his concern.

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With regard to overstretch, I made it clear in my statement that the deployment is limited in numbers and time as far as the United Kingdom is concerned. Obviously, any increase in our commitment has an impact on the level of activity of all our armed forces, whether they are deployed or remain in base. Nevertheless, I am confident that we can contain for this limited period the degree of impact on the armed forces to satisfactory levels.

On rules of engagement, the Interim Authority will certainly be consulted, but I want to repeat to the House that the rules will be robust. The situation in Afghanistan is not easy and I shall take personal responsibility for ensuring that the rules of engagement are sufficient to allow our forces to protect themselves as they properly should. The chapter VII United Nations Security Council resolution is agreed by the designated Interim Authority. Equipment is a matter that is being considered today and tomorrow in the force generation conference. Obviously, that is the job of those who are responsible for putting together the package of armed forces and equipment that is necessary for this sort of operation. There has been close consultation with the United States on its command role. Again, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the letter that has been placed in the Library.

In terms of objectives, the hon. Gentleman referred to a long list of possibilities. The one thing that I have learned as a Minister in a number of Departments is that there are always reasons for not doing something. It is always possible to find a long list of risks and problems, but the responsibility of Governments and Ministers is to take decisions to do things. I am confident that it is right that we should take on this particular responsibility.

On funding, I undertake to give the hon. Gentleman a brief about the way in which departmental funding works. I only wish that the Ministry of Defence had a real underspend on its budget. That would certainly make my life and those of my fellow Ministers a great deal easier. I promise that I shall explain to him precisely how the budget of the Ministry of Defence works.

As for the United States, we are certainly willing to support it and to stand shoulder to shoulder with it in its leadership of the international coalition. I have no hesitation in saying that.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I, too, thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance notice of his statement.

The Liberal Democrats have sympathy for yet another commitment that will separate even more British service men and women from their families while the rest of this country enjoys the Christmas and new year holiday, but we understand the importance of post-conflict rebuilding of a civil society in Afghanistan. The promotion of the rule of law is key to that process, as we know from the Balkans experience. The fact that UK forces are especially experienced to undertake this sort of operation makes us proud of them. Indeed, the whole House should be proud of them.

May I ask the Secretary of State a few questions? He gave a time limit of three months. Can he tell the House whether any UK forces are being prepared in advance to replace the forces that are leaving in that three-month period, or can he give an absolute assurance that those

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forces will be replaced by forces of other nations? What about the many thousands of service men and women in the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy who have now been out in the Arabian sea for some months, including for Operation Saif Sareea? Will they be rolled over or relieved before Christmas?

On force protection, the right hon. Gentleman said that a letter concerning United States air cover had been placed in the Library, but are there any contingency plans for the UK to provide air cover RAF units to go out to Afghanistan to support the force on the ground? Finally, does he agree that the need for the UK to be in the lead again underlines the importance of establishing a proper EU military process and the need to get that up and running so that the burden can be shared. [Laughter.] The Conservatives laugh, but once again they criticise the Government for deploying forces and criticise a means by which they are trying, with support from the Liberal Democrats, to provide a solution.

Rebuilding Afghanistan is a key part of the campaign against terrorism and the debt that the west owes to the much-abused people of that sad country. The Liberal Democrats wish the Government and our forces well in that task.

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