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Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North): May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to 45 Commando Royal Marines for its involvement in Afghanistan? Does my right hon. Friend recognise that there is now something of a military void there, because if 45 Commando was necessary to act as a deterrent, to root out al-Qaeda and to chase it over the border, as it undoubtedly has done, there is now a problem in making sure that al-Qaeda does not return to Afghanistan and begin to disrupt the peace process established by the council in Kabul this week? Will he give the House further details about how the border is to be patrolled and al-Qaeda kept out?

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Mr. Hoon: I do not accept my hon. Friend's observation about there being a military void. In response to an earlier question I indicated that there will be other forces on both sides of the border. Pakistani forces will be present in some numbers on their side, together with coalition forces, still led by the United States but involving new countries and those that are currently in the process of "rouling" their forces in order that they can continue their commitment—so there will be a significant coalition presence in those difficult border areas.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): I warmly welcome the news that 45 Commando is shortly to return home, which will be a great relief to the families back in Arbroath. I assure the Secretary of State that, whatever the armchair commentators may think, the families of the troops and the whole community in Arbroath are extremely relieved that 45 Commando has carried out its important work without sustaining any casualties.

The Secretary of State mentioned the border areas and the continuing threat from al-Qaeda. Given that he has also said that ISAF is basically confined to Kabul, can he tell us what assessment he has made of the Interim Administration's ability to provide internal security in other parts of Afghanistan to prevent the return of al-Qaeda and the Taliban?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman asks a fair question that needs addressing by the Interim Administration. The conclusion of the emergency Loya Jirga and the allocation of portfolios and responsibilities to what are, in effect, Ministers, means that No. 1 on their agenda of responsibility is the establishment of security throughout Afghanistan. We are certainly able to play a part by ensuring that they have the appropriate advice and assistance to develop their own security, but it is the people of Afghanistan and their Government who are ultimately responsible for that.

The reconstruction of an Afghan army, which I referred to near the end of my statement, is the key to that, and we shall certainly continue our support for its training efforts. That army is vital if Afghanistan is to control its own territory.

Hugh Bayley (City of York): Like other Members, I should like to express my congratulations to all our armed forces and, in particular, to the Royal Anglian Regiment, whose cap badge I had the great honour to wear for three years as a cadet.

The best defences against a resurgence of al-Qaeda or Taliban influence are peace and security, particularly food security. To what extent has the security brought to Afghanistan by our forces allowed the replanting of food crops, rather than drug crops, to help to ensure that next winter there will be fewer food shortages than there were last winter?

Mr. Hoon: I had not suspected my hon. Friend of military involvement, and I am delighted to hear of his substantial connection.

On the replanting of food crops, the signs are encouraging. There is food on the streets. Clearly, some of it has been imported—I suspect from Pakistan—but it is being increasingly made available locally.

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Food security is a challenge. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) referred to the need to persuade farmers away from the lucrative cash crop of poppies towards something more substantive as far as the people of Afghanistan are concerned. Although in this first year we have had some success in the destruction of the crop, in truth we need to ensure that a system is in place to encourage farmers to grow crops for food rather than for destruction.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I associate myself entirely with the Secretary of State's remarks about our forces in Afghanistan. However, he is aware that although the Pakistani army has had access to the border areas for some time, it has only recently gained unrestricted access to Waziristan. How confident is he that the remnants of al-Qaeda have not regrouped in that area, and what threat does he think they pose?

Mr. Hoon: The remnants of al-Qaeda certainly continue to pose a threat, and there is some information about their efforts to regroup. That is why, as I said in response to an earlier question, it is vital that there are continuing coalition efforts to make it difficult to cross what is nevertheless an extremely inaccessible border area. Those efforts will continue, as I stated, on both sides of the border.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): I join the tributes to our armed forces and the exemplary way in which they have conducted themselves in their mission. I also pay tribute to the organisations within the Ministry of Defence that are less visible, such as the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, which has helped to keep the Chinooks flying throughout the mission. We sometimes overlook those organisations.

I endorse the comments of the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) regarding the armchair critics who, to my disbelief, somehow see the mission as a failure because of the absence of bloodshed and killing. That is outrageous, and we should put that on the record.

Finally, I am glad to see a Muslim force taking over from the British, but those troops do not have the same experience as our forces have had in peacekeeping and policing human rights. Will we continue to play a role to support them in their new mission?

Mr. Hoon: As I made clear in my statement, we will continue to play a role. We will supply vital specialist forces to ISAF. It is important that the existing contributors do so and give Turkey the support that it needs. I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to an aspect that is often overlooked in the House—the enormous contribution that civilians make to our defence effort. That is not given proper regard, alongside the tributes that are rightly paid to our armed forces. Some 100,000 civil servants work for the Ministry of Defence. In my view, the MOD is the most joined-up Government Department, integrating people from the military and the civil service, and it is right that they should all get our praise and appreciation for the successful conduct of operations such as that in Afghanistan.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): I, too, associate myself with the comments of other hon. Members and congratulate all

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the armed services that have served in Afghanistan over the past few months. I remind the Secretary of State of the answer that he gave me in this place on 20 March, when I asked him how long the deployment would continue. His words were:


Can we really say that we have dealt with the continuing threats, and is there not a risk that as our troops leave the country, the Taliban and al-Qaeda will come back in?

Mr. Hoon: It is important that the hon. Gentleman recognises that our contribution was part of a coalition—an international effort, which continues, as I made clear in answer to a number of questions. There are more forces than the Royal Marines, well though they have served in those areas. As I said, should a requirement arise for British forces to return to that part of the world, we have made contingency plans, including leaving substantial stores available to allow us to return at even shorter notice than we were given on a previous occasion.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon): I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his statement and welcome what he told the House about the handover of the command of ISAF, which represents an important staging-post in the stabilisation of the military as well as the political situation in Afghanistan. Does he agree that one of the lessons of recent British involvement in post-conflict situations, such as Kosovo, is that British forces can play an important role not just in maintaining security, but in helping to rebuild basic infrastructures, such as the water supply, transport links and the provision of electricity to schools and hospitals? Will he confirm that some British troops will remain in Afghanistan, both for the immediate future, as he said, and beyond the summer, in order to help with such essential tasks?

Mr. Hoon: As I indicated earlier, the task ahead of us is not simply a military one. British forces have made a significant contribution in assisting in the resolution of some of the military problems that Afghanistan faces as well as the reconstruction of an army. Throughout all departments, there will be a necessary effort to rebuild the infrastructure of Afghanistan. There cannot be real peace and security in that country until that infrastructure is properly available to its people.


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