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Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): What forces does the Secretary of State have available to reinforce those whom he is rightly deploying in Afghanistan? What forces does he have available to reinforce those in other theatres while we are deploying in Afghanistan? I repeat that I fully support the moves that he and his Government are making at the moment.
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his question. I assure him and, indeed, the House that we have a sufficient number of forces to take on any military actions that might be necessary in the short term, notwithstanding the deployment of 45 Commandonot least because it has been held in readiness for precisely this kind of operation for some time.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): I also entirely support this deployment, but will the right hon. Gentleman clarify the answer that he gave to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier)? Given the specific and inevitably dangerous and time-limited nature of the deployment, what forces has he further stood up to replace the 45 Commando battle group in the event of the commitment being required to continue?
Mr. Hoon: As the hon. Gentleman knows from his experience in the Ministry of Defence, there is a process whereby forces who are deployed are replaced. That is part of the normal process of plotting the commitment of Britain's armed forces over a long period. He also knowshe might need to assist some of his Front Benchers on this questionthat the issue is the nature of any further operations that arise. As he well knows, if there were an immediate threat to the territory of the United Kingdom, for example, then a great number of deployments would have to be effected and a great number of forces returned to the UK to deal with that threat. I assume that he is not talking about that kind of operation. Therefore, the normal arrangements for the rotation of our forces would proceed as planned.
Another context in which I make my remarks is that of British forces playing a vital role in the success of the situation in Afghanistan. I shall not run through in detail once again the contribution that British forces have made, but it has been very considerable. British forces have a reputation right around the world for their skill and professionalism. Time and again, they have made a massive contribution to bringing stability to the world's trouble spots. Afghanistan is the latest example of that. We take immense pride in all that our forces do and in the credit that they bring to the United Kingdom. Let me take this opportunity to note our appreciation for the widespread support in the House for the work that British forces have done in Afghanistan and for the work that they will continue to do. That support means a great deal to our forces and in particular to their families.
Mr. Savidge: Specifically on the subject of this deployment, does my right hon. Friend recognise that, although many of us would support it, we should still feel, for many reasons such as overstretch or the risk of distracting ourselves from the main campaign against terror relating to the events of 11 September, even more wary of getting involved in war in Iraq?
Mr. Hoon: I turn now to the more detailed issues and questions that have been raised. I shall deal first with the international security assistance force. As the House is aware, the United Kingdom agreed to take on the leadership of this force from its inception for a limited period. We took on this role for a number of reasons. It was a job that had to be done, and done well, if the Bonn agreement was to have the best possible chance of success.
The United Kingdom was particularly well placed to do that. Our armed forces had the right capabilities and experience in expeditionary operations and rapid deployments. We knew that we could provide effective command structures and enablers to get a force in and up and running in the time scale required. We were right to take on that responsibility.
The fact that we have been leading the security force is reflected in the number of British troops that have been deployed to Kabulup to 1,800 personnel, along with another 300 or so to repair Kabul international airport. Of course, the actual size of our contribution fluctuates from day to day. The sort of capabilities that we need change over time, and we are also limited, to a certain extent, by the capacity of the local airstrips.
We made it clear that we would hand over our leadership of ISAF after three months. We always planned to transfer the responsibility by the end of April. As I said in the House in January, and again two days ago, Turkey has indicated an interest in taking over as lead nation of ISAF. We are in detailed discussions about that with Turkey. Good progress was made when a joint UK/US team of officials and military officers visited Ankara last week. We are making more progress in further military technical discussions with Turkey this week.
Turkey will need continuing contributions of troops from other nations. Certainly the United Kingdom will continue to have troops in ISAF after we have handed over the lead. We have promised Turkey that that will be the case. Other nations have done so as well. That does not change our determination to draw down the number of British troops deployed as part of ISAF at that point. As I have made clear on a number of occasions, we are looking to make a significant reduction in the number of British troops, but not to withdraw them completely.
Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): On 19 December I asked the Prime Minister if he could tell us the maximum amount of time that our troops would remain in Afghanistan. In the course of his answer, he said:
Mr. Hoon: No, that has not changed. The position is precisely as the Prime Minister set out and as I have set out. We are seeking to engage in a process of rebuilding AfghanistanISAF is an important part of that processwhile at the same time ensuring that Afghanistan is secure against any continuing threat from al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and that the wider international community is similarly secure.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): Given the fact that when Russia had its troops in Afghanistan, it got a bloody nose and got bogged down, particularly in the mountains, what is the difference now between the two conflicts?
Mr. Hoon: That is one of the things that I did discuss this morning with the Russian Foreign Minister. [Interruption.] I am amazed that the Opposition find that remarkable. Surely it is vital that we should discuss the situation in Afghanistan. Opposition Members, having instigated the debate, should recognise that.
On my hon. Friend's question, the difference is the way in which the Soviet Union tried to deal with Afghanistanlargely by occupying ground, which obviously made it vulnerable to attack, whereas the whole purpose of the operation that we are discussing today is to ensure that in swift search-and-strike operations, we remove any threat, not specifically to our own forces, although that is part of it, but more generally to the stability of Afghanistan. That is a very different concept and approach.
As for the wider future of ISAF, the House will know that United Nations Security Council resolution 1386 permits the force to remain in Kabul for six monthsthat is, until 20 June. As I said on Monday, the resolution may well be renewed, extending the duration of its deployment within its existing area of responsibility. Certainly, it is clear that such a force will have a continuing role to play in bringing security to Kabul and its immediate surroundings.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): My right hon. Friend referred earlier to the pride felt by the families of service men going out to Afghanistan. He will also know that those families are used to dealing with facts that are often difficult, and that their pride is mixed with anxiety. However, speculation about the future can cause particular difficulties, especially for families with young children. Will my right hon. Friend join me in urging Members of this House, and commentators, to be measured and restrained when raising issues, and considerate of the families involved?