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Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): On over-commitment and the deployment of service personnel overseas, does the right hon. Gentleman share the view of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who is peddling the idea of using mercenaries as an alternative? Most hon. Members are horrified by that suggestion, and would be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman would clarify the position of the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Hoon: As I understand the position, the Foreign Office has published a discussion document, enabling that issue to be discussed. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will make a vigorous contribution to that debate.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): My right hon. Friend mentioned the fact that we have troops on the ground in Afghanistan, but we are getting very little information about what is happening there. Professor Mac Herold from the university of New Hampshire has estimated the death toll of civilians in Afghanistan from October to 6 February as 3,600. What is the Government's estimate, and when are we going to have a debate solely on what is going on in Afghanistan?

Mr. Hoon: It has proved extraordinarily difficult to make any accurate estimate of the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan; obviously, we regret any casualties. Certainly I do not recognise the figure that my hon. Friend has suggested as being anywhere near the reality, but it has proved difficult to make any precise estimate at this stage. I assure my hon. Friend that if we can do so, we shall report those estimates to the House in due course.

While the United States has shouldered much of the burden of the military campaign, my American colleagues have made no secret of how much they value our support and the invaluable experience, talent and skill of our armed forces. I once again pay tribute to the soldiers, sailors and air force personnel who have taken part, and are still taking part, in operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): As my right hon. Friend knows, I supported the war, but I remember that he told me in an answer—I am sure that it was not his intention to mislead me—that the prisoners of war would be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva conventions. A lot of nonsense has been talked about the Geneva conventions, but article 5 makes it clear that any dispute

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about the status of prisoners must be determined by an independent tribunal. Is that my right hon. Friend's understanding, and if so, why are not those Geneva conventions being upheld by the people with whom we fought the war?

Mr. Hoon: I do not want to get into a technical and legal argument with my hon. Friend, who has looked at this subject in detail, but as soon as she uses the phrase "prisoners of war" she is already generalising about the position of a number of prisoners who are not in fact prisoners of war. For example, there is little doubt that al-Qaeda terrorists do not, under any definition, qualify to be prisoners of war; in those circumstances, the position that has been taken by the United States Administration is the one recognised and agreed to by the United Kingdom.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): In support of what the Secretary of State has just said, it would have been absurd if Carlos the Jackal had been arrested and claimed protection under the Geneva convention. That would have been a manifestly ludicrous claim, but people could have argued, like the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), that until the claim was resolved, he had to be afforded such protection. Intelligence must be got from these prisoners, and that is why the protection under the Geneva convention must not be inappropriately applied.

Mr. Hoon: That is a fanciful example, but on this occasion I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

Ann Clwyd: Further to that point, will my right hon. Friend give way again?

Mr. Hoon: I may be courting trouble, but I give way again.

Ann Clwyd: I would respectfully say to my right hon. Friend that it is not a technical argument. The Geneva conventions were framed to cover issues of this kind, where there is a dispute about the status of the people taken prisoner. It is not up to my right hon. Friend, Donald Rumsfeld or anyone else to determine the prisoners' status; it is for an independent tribunal. They may or may not be prisoners of war, but it is for that independent tribunal, under the Geneva conventions, to determine.

Mr. Hoon: We are getting into another technical debate. I do not recognise my hon. Friend's interpretation of how the Geneva conventions operate in this case. It is for the determining authority to decide on the status of prisoners. In the circumstances, it is proper for the United States Administration to be that determining authority. The Geneva conventions were framed against the background of war between states. That cannot apply to alleged al-Qaeda terrorists. I am confident that the US Administration and the UK Government are taking the right approach.

Many of the campaign aims that we set out at the start of military action in Afghanistan have been met. The ability of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to pose a continuing terrorist threat has been severely limited. We have seen a change in the leadership of Afghanistan, which is no longer a state that supports or sustains international terrorism. One of our longer-term aims in

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the campaign was to end Afghanistan's self-imposed isolation and reintegrate the country as a responsible member of the international community.

The Bonn agreement is being implemented successfully. A key part of that is the deployment to Kabul of the international security assistance force, for which the UK is currently the lead nation. I saw that at first hand last week when I visited British troops in Afghanistan and met members of the Interim Administration. Hamid Karzai and other members of the Interim Administration deserve real credit for all that they have achieved.

In addition to the enabling force of 250 that we sent to support the early stages of the deployment, there are now some 1,700 British troops in Kabul as part of ISAF. In total, ISAF numbers around 3,600 troops, with forces from 13 of the 17 other troop-contributing nations now in place. ISAF is on course to achieve full operating capability later this month.

Hon. Members will have seen the media coverage of the joint patrols conducted by the ISAF and the Afghan police. Those have been well received. I went on patrol with a considerable number of members of 2 Para last week, so I know from first-hand experience that the reception from the local people is excellent.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I am not sure whether the Royal Air Force TriStar is used in Afghanistan, but I regret that the Government have not awarded the maintenance contract to Marshall's, which is likely to cause the loss of 80 to 100 jobs in my constituency. Marshall's works to high standards and provides high-quality services to British Airways, Lufthansa and KLM.

Mr. Hoon: TriStar is not being used in Afghanistan, but I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern for her constituents and for Marshall's. I have visited that company several times and it is an admirable example of excellent British engineering. However, it has not been maintaining TriStar for about five years. Notwithstanding the quality of its bid, it was not successful in a competitive process with others that are engaged in maintaining TriStar.

It is clear that ISAF is making a difference on the streets of Kabul, and not simply by providing security. It has also been working with the Department for International Development to identify useful projects to help to restore Kabul as a functioning modern city. I saw, for example, efforts that British soldiers are making to bring a school that was badly damaged in the civil war back into use.

As lead nation of ISAF, the UK played a major role in establishing the force. We plan to maintain that role until late April when we expect to hand it over to one of our partners. We are working with Turkey to encourage it to turn its expression of interest in becoming the lead nation into a formal offer.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I am interested in what the Secretary of State says about the reconstruction of Afghanistan and other improvements. What is being done about the quantities of unexploded ordnance, especially cluster bombs, that have been found in

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Afghanistan? Can he make it clear whether British, American or any other forces used depleted uranium at any stage during the conflict?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the problem of unexploded ordnance in Afghanistan. That has been a significant problem for many years, and the ordnance dates back to the occupation by the Soviet Union, the civil war and the range of conflicts that have taken place in that country. Members of ISAF are certainly engaged, day by day, in clearing parts of the city. I saw some of that work myself and heard still more of it. It is an enormously difficult and potentially dangerous task, and they are going about it with considerable skill.

Mr. Hancock: Bearing it in mind that we are now told that there are more than 7,000 prisoners of one form or another in Afghanistan, has the Secretary of State been approached by his American allies with the suggestion that British troops be deployed in holding those prisoners securely? Have any negotiations taken place on the repatriation of the British prisoners currently held in Afghanistan to the United Kingdom?


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