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Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): When the Secretary of State made his statement about the deployment of 45 Commando, he was not able to tell us what the remnants of al-Qaeda consisted of. I realise that he cannot be too specific, but has he received any further intelligence about the numbers that 45 Commando and other troops will face in Afghanistan?
Mr. Hoon: I went into as much detail as I considered appropriate about the nature of the operations that would be carried out, and about what we expected would be found. Part of the purpose of the operations, however, is to seek out and find those elements. Obviously it is vital to me to have confidence, as I do, in the number and skill of the commandos who will be engaged in the task; but I cannot be precise, and it would not be appropriate for me to be so even if we had the information. This is about ensuring that we have the right quality of peoplewhich we haveto perform a difficult and demanding task.
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): In a parliamentary answer given to me yesterday by the Ministry, it was suggested that the remnants of the al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan amounted to several thousand people who would have to be hunted down in one way or another. Will the Secretary of State explain where that figure came from? Was it based on intelligence from forces still in Afghanistan, or on intelligence from forces going back and forth across the Pakistan border?
The deployment of 45 Commando Group has not been without difficulties. Deploying troops to Afghanistan exclusively by air is not easy, as I suspect Members who have visited Afghanistan can testify and as I can testify from my own experience. Nor is Afghanistan an easy place in which to operate. We had originally planned to accommodate the Royal Marines in former Soviet barracks at Bagram airfield, but following further consultations with the Afghan authorities we have concluded that those barracks are not suitable. We have had to build a new tented camp, which has taken time because the welfare of our troops is crucial.
Members on both sides of the House have strongly supported the Government's action in the campaign against international terrorism. They have applauded the steps we have taken to destroy the al-Qaeda network, remove the Taliban regime from power and reintegrate Afghanistan as a responsible member of the international community, ensuring that it will never again become a safe haven for terrorism. We remain committed to completing those tasks.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Can the Secretary of State assure the House that we are giving our service personnel in Afghanistan the best possible accommodation and facilities? He will know, as I do from my experience of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, that the facilities and accommodation provided for our service personnel in Bosnia were the worst that I had ever seen. Will he assure me that if we put our personnel in the line of firewhere they may risk their livesfor any length of time, they will be given the quality of accommodation that they deserve?
Mr. Hoon: As the hon. Gentleman will recognise, in the conduct of this kind of expeditionary warfare there is necessarily a trade-off between the best possible accommodationwhich of course we would all want to be providedand the speed of deployment, and ensuring that people are capable of carrying out such operations. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not expect new barracks to be constructed in a place such as Kabul. He understands the needs of expeditionary operations but, within those, it remains important that people have proper accommodation suitable for the tasks that they have to carry out. I assure him that we have constant regard to that; but that is not to say that I do not strongly believe that there are areas where we need to improve the expeditionary accommodation available.
Mr. Hoon: Again, the same type of balancing exercise has to be undertaken. Different countries make different contributions to the capabilities of ISAF, but it is most important that appropriate facilities are available across that force.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Before my right hon. Friend leaves the subject of Afghanistan, he will recollect that some of us expressed misgivings that two strands were involved. One was a peacekeeping role and the other was an operational, offensive role to counter al-Qaeda. Our qualms were based on the fact that the two roles may have been somewhat incompatible. In retrospect, were our misgivings and our qualms ill founded? Has the problem been solved, or is there still incompatibility between those two roles?
Mr. Hoon: I had no reservations so it is a little difficult for me to decide whether I have resolved those of my hon. Friend. I have certainly sought to do so, in that I have explained to the House on more than one occasion how the command and control structure of the different forces works. Indeed, it is right to say that we constantly check to ensure that there is no overlap, nor the possibility of the confusion about which my hon. Friend was concerned. That is a constant part of our effort.
Will he explain the details of the rules of engagement and how 45 Commando will operate under an American commander? Do the rules of engagement give those forces the right to cross into Pakistan if they are in pursuit of Taliban or al-Qaeda rebels?
Mr. Hoon: We went into that matter on the last occasion that we discussed this subject so I do not propose repeating what I said then. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that our forces have robust rules of engagement that allow them to do their job. It has never been the practice of any Government, when discussing such matters, to go into detail about the nature of those rules of engagement.
Even without the continuing operations in Afghanistan, this has been a particularly busy year for the armed forces and, indeed, for the civil servants who work so closely with them. Service personnel are engaged in operations over Iraq, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Sierra Leone and throughout the world. Operations in Afghanistan have meant that some people have, perhaps, overlooked the remarkably successful deployment of about 2,000 British troops to Macedonia last summer, to collect weapons from Albanian fighters in support of the framework agreement that continues to provide the basis for Macedonia's moves towards greater stability.
In view of the 20th anniversary this year of the Falklands conflict, I should also mention those members of the armed forces who are deployed in the islands. I recently visited the Falklands again and was able to see for myself the excellent work that British forces continue to carry out there.
Closer to home, the armed forces have continued their work in Northern Ireland in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and, more recently, the Police Service of Northern Ireland. They also played a key role in helping to control the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
Our service men and women are obviously busy. About 28 per cent. of the Army are currently committed to operations. That is a high proportion, although not as high as the 44 per cent. committed to operations at the peak of the Kosovo campaign. In addition, 11 per cent. of the Royal Navy and 10 per cent. of the Royal Air Force are deployed on operations.
The armed forces are very busy, but they are not operating beyond what they can bear, although we recognise that a number of unitsparticularly specialistsand those who serve in them face specific strains. I would like to say something about what we are doing to tackle those issues, but I emphasise that the amount of time people spend on operations and the amount of time they have to recover and spend with their families are key concerns. We are determined to achieve and maintain a balance of commitments. We aim to commit our troops to operations for no longer than is absolutely necessary. We will continue to withdraw them at the earliest opportunity and to press our allies and partners to take on their share of the responsibility.
Our efforts are largely successful. As I have said, the proportion of the Army that is currently committed to operations is well down from the peak of activity in Kosovo. Relevant guidelines for the Royal Navy are largely being maintained. Only 2.3 per cent. of trained RAF personnel spent more than 140 days away from their parent unit last year.
Our reserve forces have an important part to play. They have made a significant contribution to meeting our current operational commitments, reaffirming the emphasis that we have placed on integrating them more closely with our Regular forces and making them still more relevant to current operations. At any one time, some 10 per cent. of our forces in the Balkans are reservists. Reservists have also been called out to support operations in Sierra Leone and the United Nations observer mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.