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Mr. Hoon: I began by writing down that the hon. Gentleman's initial observations were practical and realistic, in that he did not ask questions that cannot be answered properly in a fast-moving and difficult situation. Unfortunately, he then proceeded to ask a number of such questions, but I shall do my best to deal with each of them.

On UN authorisation, the operation is being conducted in self-defence against those elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban that continue to threaten the United Kingdom and other countries. Logistic support will be provided through the numbers that I gave to the House. In such difficult and dangerous environments, it is important that the forces deployed be self-sustaining.

I shall not give the hon. Gentleman a specific answer on timetabling; clearly, it will depend on what the forces find on their deployment on the ground, the resistance that they meet and the operations that they will have to conduct. Such deployments always demonstrate that there is a limit to how long we can keep people in the field—particularly a field such as that.

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I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman ended with that comment about the United States, which recently lost soldiers on the ground in conducting extremely dangerous and difficult operations. The United States will remain committed on the ground, and I am proud that British forces will work alongside their American counterparts in precisely such operations.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): I welcome the progress made so far in Afghanistan, and the new deployment. It is vital that we remain committed in Afghanistan for as long as it takes, and we should not allow short-term domestic considerations—I know that my right hon. Friend will not—to pressure us into jeopardising what has been achieved so far. However, the lesson of the complications that we are encountering in Afghanistan surely is that we will not have resources available for any adventures in other parts of the middle east, such as Iraq.

Mr. Hoon: I think that I shall probably stick to talking about Afghanistan.

My hon. Friend is right to talk about the need to be there as long as it takes. No one who has read accounts of Operation Anaconda could be anything other than concerned about the level of resistance, the numbers involved and the determination of fighters, many of whom were not native Afghans but foreigners who remained to prosecute continuing attacks—in this case, against the United States. It is likely that there are similar organised elements in other parts of Afghanistan and it is vital for the future of Afghanistan—and the safety of the rest of the world—that we take the fight to those elements and deal with them.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): Does the right hon. Gentleman recall assuring me before Christmas that the British Government would certainly not be sending British troops in to Afghanistan on the ground for any permanent combat operation, but would send them in only for special operations from which they would come out quickly? Does he recall what happened to the Russian army when it went into Afghanistan? Why should he suppose that our experience would be any different?

Mr. Hoon: The Royal Marines are ideally suited to precisely the kind of operation that I and the hon. Gentleman describe to the House, which involves moving fast, deploying quickly and dealing with the type of threat that I have described to the House.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): I am sure that the Secretary of State will confirm that this is mission creep on a massive scale. Will he tell us how many extra troops are being committed from the other 18 countries in the coalition? Will he confirm that parts of Afghanistan are now being carved up by some of the old warlords and that people are moving out of those areas? Can he give us an assurance that our troops will not be deployed in those areas, where they might get caught up fighting the Northern Alliance?

Mr. Hoon: The purpose of the operation is as I have set out. It is to deal with the remaining elements of

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al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who pose a continuing threat and it will involve other countries. I do not have the precise details to hand because that is a matter for those countries and, ultimately, for the United States. There are already other countries involved—countries other than the US were involved in Operation Anaconda—and I do not accept that there is any risk of British soldiers becoming involved in any fighting against the Northern Alliance, because this is a specific mission designed to deal with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Will the Secretary of State accept that I welcome the deployment, not least because I am in no doubt—given its size and composition—that it would not be going unless it were absolutely necessary. I share the views of my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence in wishing them well.

Will the Secretary of State pay tribute, in the way that only he can, to the astonishing skill at arms of British forces in Afghanistan in the past few weeks? They have behaved remarkably and we owe them an enormous debt. I mean not only the special forces, but the soldiers doing the run-of-the-mill work around Kabul and elsewhere, which has been very hazardous. Will he also say a word about the importance of the ongoing commitment to getting aid into those areas of Afghanistan that find themselves in a difficult state? Will he assure us that there will continue to be that commitment to Afghanistan that was so lacking last time?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman who makes his points effectively and with his customary clarity. I have had the privilege of seeing the full range of commitments that Britain's armed forces have engaged in and he is right that they have displayed remarkable skill in what they do. He is also right that that applies across the board, because it is not only those at the sharp end—although I pay tribute to them as well. Deploying forces at this distance for this length of time—and sustaining them in a difficult and dangerous environment—is a considerable achievement by our logistics people, who have done a remarkable job.

I shall not go into too much detail on the question of aid at this stage, save to say that I am assured that aid is continuing to flow and that the flow of aid is improving day by day. That is a recognition of the much improved security environment across Afghanistan and not simply in Kabul.

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford): What is the latest assessment of the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden?

Mr. Hoon: The latest assessment is that we still do not know. Determined efforts continue to bring him to account, together with other prominent figures from al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Tony Baldry (Banbury): The ISAF operation is mandated by the United Nations, but is there not a broader point here? Is not the UN Secretary-General entitled to seek wider support among the community of nations for his mandates? Of course everyone fully supports what the United Kingdom is doing, but does the Secretary of State think not that we are doing too much, but that other countries are not fully pulling their weight? That issue

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involves not only Afghanistan, because there are, I am afraid, other failing states around the world. Unless other nations prepare to support the Secretary-General, the prospects for civilisation are bleak.

Mr. Hoon: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). The difficulty is not lack of commitment or support from other nations. Indeed, unusually for an international operation, I have had to turn down contributions to the ISAF. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) will recall from his days in government that that is unusual. Normally, the Defence Secretary spends a good deal of time on the telephone trying to persuade other countries to participate in international operations, but the reverse is true on this occasion.

The reason for that is that we required particular, specialist skills. Those necessary for the early deployment of the ISAF involved engineering—rebuilding runways and ensuring that the basic infrastructure could accommodate a force of such a size. The operations that I set out in my statement involve determined war-fighting skills and the ability to deploy rapidly in extraordinarily difficult and dangerous surroundings. Again, there are simply not that many armed forces in the world that can complete those tasks at such notice.

Mr. Mike O'Brien (North Warwickshire): I congratulate our armed forces on their operations to date and acknowledge that the announcement is indeed significant. Of course, 45 Commando will go, and ought to know that it goes, with the full support of the House. Can my right hon. Friend reassure us that he has received assurances that 45 Commando will have available to it full air and logistic support where necessary from US forces in any combat operations that it may undertake?

Mr. Hoon: This will be an integrated force working alongside its US counterparts and receiving US back-up in precisely the way that my hon. Friend describes.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): In pursuing his forward strategy in Afghanistan—a debate on which would be highly desirable at the earliest possible date, preferably tomorrow—will the Secretary of State ensure that he balances it with vigorous efforts to maintain the closest liaison with and support for the Government of Pakistan, without whose stability no progress towards pacifying the region and eradicating terrorism could be achieved? That is particularly so in view of the horrendous atrocity at an Islamabad church yesterday.

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