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7.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): We have been fortunate in the considerable time that the House has been able to find over the past six months to comment on and debate the war on terrorism. That has provided some thoughtful and measured exchanges. It is certainly evident that, as the debates have progressed over the months, the quality of contribution has improved. Today's debate is certainly no exception.

I assure the House that its general support and many, if not most, of hon. Members' contributions are appreciated by the Government. It is important, of course, that the outside world and our armed forces see and understand the strength of support that the Government command in our actions. I thank the House for its support. The opportunity to reaffirm support for our armed forces, which has been taken in all quarters of this House, is clearly vital, particularly at a time like this. We heard that on Monday, but it always bears repetition.

I shall attempt to answer as many specific points raised as possible—of all the debates to which I have responded from the Front Bench, the fewest questions have been asked of me in this one—but I want first to highlight some of the points made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. First, we believe that we are right to act in Afghanistan. Secondly, we think that the House should note that the action that the international community has taken to date has been successful. Thirdly, British forces have throughout played a vital role in that success.

I hope and trust that many in the House were reassured by my right hon. Friend's explaining that, first, there is no incompatibility or inconsistency in operating within the international security assistance force and undertaking the missions that we are planning with the deployment of 45 Commando.

Secondly, on the question of Turkey, we have been as honest and open as possible in explaining the status of the negotiations and the prospect of Turkey assuming leadership of ISAF. Frankly, all that I can add is that discussions continue, they will be continuing this week, and we hope that they will reach a resolution very quickly. Thirdly, we have constantly stressed—I am sure that that is why the point has also been accepted by the Opposition, certainly by the official Opposition—that the rooting out of the remaining al-Qaeda elements would take time, but that it must be done.

Members have commented and made suggestions on a number of what I would term specific and quite detailed military issues. I hesitate to disappoint Members of all parties, but we generally take our advice from our military staff. That may answer many of the helpful and, perhaps

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particularly, not quite so helpful suggestions that have been made. I know that many Members have an interest in military affairs, and I certainly recognise that some have military experience—some over many generations, including in the regions concerned—but I do not think that any would claim to match that of the Chief of the Defence Staff.

The House might care to note in passing that in the autumn the Chief of the Defence Staff said:

He was right then, and he is right now. We do not send our forces off around the world on a whim. His advice has been crucial in determining what forces we deploy, for which missions and for how long.

I want to address one or two specific points mentioned. I hope that the Opposition are now satisfied with the response that they have been given: 45 Commando group command and control is entirely separate from that of ISAF, and is integrated in the system for patrolling active operations in the country. The 45 Commando group will come directly under Centcom's command, through our own officers. Frankly, that is entirely normal and correct.

Exit strategies have been mentioned, in which regard I sometimes feel one is expected almost to assume the mantle of the forecaster of tomorrow's racing. It really is not like that. We make the best estimates that we can. The exit strategy on this occasion is simple: we will leave when the task is completed.

I want to cover some of the more detailed points made in the debate. It was suggested by—I think—more than one hon. Member that perhaps some form of armour should be available to the force. That point was equally quickly knocked down by those who have ever been in the area. To provide such armour would surely create a force that is the antithesis of the Royal Marines. It is correct to say that 45 Commando soldiers are lightly equipped. That is one reason for their being what they are. They are mobile and their use in mountain terrain in much of Afghanistan depends on that ability. They rely on speed, surprise and flexibility of operation. They form a composite unit; they have their own light artillery, logistic support and engineers.

Hugh Robertson: I should like to clear up that point. There is all the world of difference, as I am sure the Minister realises, between armour and light armour. The Marines, as a light-armoured force, have been training with light armour for many years. Indeed, I went on such an exercise with them in Norway and spent a whole summer attached to them. Such light-armoured vehicles could play some part in Afghanistan.

Dr. Moonie: I do not want to go into too much operational detail about what we are doing. I assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that if we need armoured vehicles they will be supplied.

Mr. Jenkin: Is the hon. Gentleman able to answer the question that the Secretary of State was unable to answer? Obviously, many of the Marines whom we are deploying will be in the front line. What proportion of the front line will be British forces rather than Americans and others?

Dr. Moonie: That is a rather difficult question to answer. I am not here to give details of an operational

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point. This is not a single deployment. We are sending troops to add to the forces that are available in order to root out remnants of the al-Qaeda network. Therefore, on the basis of the information that we have, each deployment will be of the strength thought necessary to carry out the job involved. I cannot answer the question with any certainty. One can conceive of an operation involving part of the frontline strength, and of an operation involving all of it. One can conceive of them acting on their own in relatively small numbers, and of engaging all forces committed to the action. I cannot give any more or clearer answers than that. I hope that that is enough to satisfy the hon. Gentleman.

On the support that is necessary, we must recognise that complete air supremacy is available in Afghanistan. Therefore, at any time during any conflict, the Marines will be able to call on quite a wide array of air-support measures. Clearly, as I have said, we will make provision should armour be thought necessary, but I honestly do not think that that will be necessary.

The point was made again about the Pakistani border. Anybody who has been anywhere near the border in Afghanistan will know full well just how difficult it is to contain. We acknowledge that the terrain, geography and ethnicity of the people are factors that demonstrate the difficulty of ensuring that the border remains closed to any member of al-Qaeda who is trying to evade capture. We certainly continue to urge the Pakistan Government to take measures to help to seal the border where necessary, and they have been very helpful in that regard.

We can confirm—again, I shall not give any details—that full operational intercapability of communications is available, as it has been throughout our operations in Afghanistan. Our Marines routinely train with US forces, so they are well used to operating together.

On some of the specific points made, the analogy of the dragon's teeth is not a particularly good one, as Perseus defeated the warriors involved—

Mr. Menzies Campbell: After some time.

Dr. Moonie: But he did defeat them. I shall recite the story in Greek, if the House wants; in fact, I cannot. Enough of such unseemly levity. The right hon. and learned Gentleman pointed out that our people are going into a dangerous situation.

Much has been made of the risk to ISAF. When ISAF was deployed, it was never envisaged that it was going into a risk-free situation. There have always been exits in view, so that if the worst came to the worst and anything really vicious happened there, the force could withdraw to Bagram and defend itself. I can assure hon. Members in all parts of the House that it can defend itself very well.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: A question was asked about the number of troops that were part of our contribution to ISAF. Am I right in thinking that the figure is about 1,800?

Dr. Moonie: The figures is about 1,600 at present and is scheduled to drop as the mission develops.

Our forces are involved in two distinct roles—peacekeeping duties and top-level fighting. We excel in both. That point must be underlined.

Mr. Weir: The Minister has not mentioned the families of the soldiers, a subject that was mentioned during the

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debate. He will understand that those families are interested less in geopolitics or the war against terrorism than in the fact that the soldiers are in action. Has the Minister any plans to visit the families?

Dr. Moonie: I have had plans to visit that area for some time. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I live near there. I shall be happy to visit the families involved.

It being three hours after the commencement of the proceedings, Mr. Deputy Speaker interrupted the proceedings pursuant to Standing Order No. 24 (Adjournment on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration) and the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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