Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his team on the role that they have played in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. I know that the contribution made by British forces is much appreciated. I particularly want to ask him about reports that the International Committee of the Red Cross has been unable to gain access to prisoners. Will he set out the status of prisoners being held in Afghanistan? Are they held under the Geneva convention or not? On what basis are prisoners being sent to the United States or Cuba or being held in Afghanistan?

Mr. Hoon: I would expect all prisoners held in Afghanistan to be subject to the Geneva convention and we would expect that, ultimately, the ICRC will have access to them.

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale): I, too, thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of the statement and I welcome its content. We on these Benches continue to support the deployment of UK troops under the Bonn agreement of 5 December and UN resolution 1386 of 20 December. We congratulate the Ministry, and in particular General McColl and his team, on getting themselves into such a state of preparedness at this early stage. However, I seek clarification of certain points in the statement.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the rules of engagement are robust enough to ensure the safety of the British troops deployed in this exercise? Will he further clarify the time scale he has mentioned? In particular, has the three-month period begun; if so, at what point did it begin? He was careful to say that British troops would not be withdrawn completely at the end of the three months; what scale of operation does he expect Britain to continue to support after that?

Is the right hon. Gentleman confident that the United Nations mandate is flexible enough to allow the troops to ensure the safety of Afghan civilians? Will he also clarify the role of the UN Secretary-General? Resolution 1386 specifically asks the force to report to the Secretary- General. It is important to understand the relationship between that and the line of command to the United States.

Many of our armed forces have been in the region under Operation Veritas. When does the Secretary of State expect them to be either redeployed or returned home—

10 Jan 2002 : Column 696

or are they being retained in the area for possible deployment in other theatres, should the situation develop further?

Mr. Hoon: As I said on the last occasion, it is important for the rules of engagement to be robust and to provide for the safety and security of our armed forces. I assure the House that that is the case.

I expect the three-month period to run from the point at which the force becomes fully operational. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise date today, but I am sure that the House will be informed. It will depend on the extent of the logistical problems involved in conveying a large force and its supplies to a difficult environment within an appropriate time scale. There are uncertainties in the region at present, and it is important for us to take them into account. If all goes according to our current plans, however, I shall expect the period to start very shortly.

As I said in my statement, this is a UN-mandated force, and regular reports to the Secretary-General are of course involved. As I have also said, however, the force's role is to assist the Interim Administration. It is not there to perform a peacekeeping role, or to police the streets of Kabul day in, day out. It is therefore the Interim Administration's responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Afghan citizens, although that does not mean that the rules of engagement are not robust enough to allow our forces to intervene in appropriate circumstances.

Obviously we will have regard to ensuring that forces are replaced in theatre when that is necessary, or allowed to return to the United Kingdom or another appropriate base when the time comes.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): I welcome the statement. Other members of the defence forces will want to play their part; what implications has the deployment for our reserve forces?

Mr. Hoon: The impact on our reserve forces has already been clear. There has been a call-out order since last October, which allows us to call out individual volunteer reservists for operations resulting from the terrorist attacks in the United States. The process has worked very well to date, but we must now consider how to sustain our operations in the future. One possibility is limited further mobilisation, particularly in specialist areas, and I am considering that. It conforms to our policy of integrated and usable reserve forces as set out in the strategic defence review, and although we have not yet made a decision, we may do so in the near future.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): Does the Secretary of State agree that we should not underestimate the difficulty of recent operations, and that all those involved in the planning and implementation of the operations in Afghanistan deserve our heartfelt appreciation? I join those who have paid tribute to the courage, determination and skill of our armed forces.

Can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that, if we continue to expose our troops to hazard in an area with a primitive infrastructure, they will have first-class medical support?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations. He is right to say that it is a difficult theatre,

10 Jan 2002 : Column 697

and it does not pay to underestimate the problems that our forces have already faced and will continue to face in Afghanistan. I am also grateful for his tribute to the armed forces. I have said that a British medical force will be deployed, alongside medical units from other countries, and access to up-to-date medical facilities is a vital aspect of support for any deployed force. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that will be the case.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): Further to the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), can my right hon. Friend clarify whether all alleged terrorists in Afghanistan, including those held by US forces, will be dealt with in due course under the auspices of the UN, through the International Criminal Court?

Mr. Hoon: I mentioned earlier the UK's expectation that all prisoners will be covered by the Geneva convention. I cannot go further, because it is not my responsibility to determine how the Interim Administration or the US should deal with prisoners. I assure my hon. Friend that it is not the responsibility of the United Nations to deal with those matters either. In international law, the Geneva convention applies and that is the best statement that I can give of British policy.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Given that we train our troops for war fighting and given—as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) said—that our troops have played a distinguished role in the offensive alongside our American counterparts in what has been a most successful operation, can the Secretary of State tell us why Canadian troops are being deployed in Kandahar to assist the Americans in the offensive activities that are still necessary to rid Afghanistan of al-Qaeda, and why our troops are restricted to their present role? The Secretary of State says that that role is not peacekeeping, but I am not sure what else it is. It certainly does not mean involvement in the offensive activity.

Mr. Hoon: Again, I would be delighted to answer questions on behalf of the Canadian Defence Ministry, but I am not in a position to do so. As for war fighting, some 5,000 British troops are engaged in continuing operations in and around Afghanistan. They are doing their job magnificently, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would expect. Equally, the international community has assumed a separate responsibility, which the UK has taken on as lead nation, to assist in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. I am sure that with a moment's reflection the hon. Gentleman will realise that it is equally important, having dealt with the threat that the Taliban regime posed to international security, that we should ensure that the Interim Administration have the opportunity to rebuild Afghanistan, if for no other reason than to avoid a further threat from that part of the world. After all, we got into the difficulties with Afghanistan because of the failure of the international community after the Russian withdrawal to recognise that Afghanistan could pose a threat beyond its borders. We must avoid at all costs repeating that mistake.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): To what extent is it anticipated that our troops will play a role in securing the distribution of aid? The Secretary of State will have

10 Jan 2002 : Column 698

seen reports that people in the interior of Afghanistan are surviving on grass, and it is important that aid reaches them as quickly as possible. Aid seems to be reaching the country, but it then appears to be stockpiled instead of being distributed in some of the more difficult areas.

Mr. Hoon: That will not be a responsibility of our present force. As I emphasised earlier, its responsibilities are limited to Kabul. I have read those accounts and it is obvious that there are difficulties in certain more remote parts of Afghanistan. I know that serious attention is being given to distribution, which is the problem at present. I said in my statement that more food is now getting into Afghanistan than at any time before. The problem is making sure that once it arrives, it reaches those parts of that country that are at the moment somewhat inaccessible. However, I assure my hon. Friend and the House that every effort is being made to deal with the problems right across the country.

Next Section

IndexHome Page