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Angus Robertson (Moray): I thank the Secretary of State for taking an intervention from someone who has not been called to speak in the debate. On 31 October, he wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond):
Mr. Hoon: Even before 31 October I said that a range of options and actions were being considered to deal with international terrorism. They are not only military. Obviously, military actions are my primary responsibility but, from 11 September, several actions have been taken against terrorist organisations. They include restricting their finance, ensuring that they cannot travel freely from one country to another and all sorts of pre-emptive steps in several different countries. They may well have frustrated terrorist activities; we may never know how many. However, significant action has been taken, and I emphasise to my hon. Friend the need to concentrate not only on military actions, important though they are in the context of my responsibilities.
Mr. Jenkin: I assure the Secretary of State of our continued support for his policy of not ruling out military action against any country that may harbour terrorists. That is consistent with the objectives that the Government set out earlier in the campaign.
As I have made clear, we have taken action on several fronts. I have already mentioned diplomatic action to build international support for our task. We have also taken economic action to freeze the financial resources on which terrorists rely, legal action, which hon. Members have the opportunity to debate later, and humanitarian action. We never allowed ourselves to forget the need to help the ordinary people of Afghanistan, millions of whom have been forced to leave their homes and were facing famine. My hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) expressed that well.
My specific responsibility is for the United Kingdom's contribution to the coalition's military action in Afghanistan. The fanatical intransigence of the Taliban regime left us with no option other than to use force. Our use of military force had specific objectives: to destroy the terrorist camps; to pressurise the Taliban regime to end its support for Osama bin Laden; to enable us to mount future operations in Afghanistan; and to maintain that pressure.
The United Kingdom's armed forces have played a significant and essential part in the coalition's military action. They have done far more than many perhaps realise, taking part in direct strikes on terrorist targets and providing support for coalition partners. In the early days of the military action, the Royal Navy twice fired salvoes of Tomahawk missiles at terrorist training camps.
Today, we have a large naval force in the Indian ocean; it is second in size only to the element from the United States navy. Led by HMS Illustrious, the United Kingdom's contribution includes the assault ship HMS Fearless, the destroyer HMS Southampton, the frigate HMS Cornwall, and seven ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Those ships form a base for operations by the 200 men of 40 Commando Royal Marines who have
We have also deployed UK ground forces deep into the country. The House will understand that I cannot give details of those operations, but I can say that our troops are there, actively participating in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda terrorists.
The presence of Royal Marines and, more recently, members of the Army and the Royal Air Force at Bagram airstrip has been vital. They helped to secure the airstrip for humanitarian aid and diplomatic flights. They also helped to secure our embassy buildings in Kabul. Royal Engineers, including explosive ordnance disposal experts, have been deployed to repair parts of the airstrip's infrastructure in readiness for the winter. I regret to say that it was one of those soldiers who was injured by a land mine last week.
The presence of those troops at Bagram was essential to the success of the Bonn negotiations; indeed, they could not otherwise have taken place. Securing the airstrip and confirming that it could be used by military transport aircraft made it possible for the Royal Air Force to fly the Northern Alliance's delegation to Bonn to participate in the conference.
The Royal Air Force has also played a major role. We have a number of fixed-wing aircraft in theatre. They include Tristar and VC10 air-to-air refuelling aircraft, Hercules transport aircraft, E3D Sentry airborne warning and control system aircraft, Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, and Canberra PR9 photographic reconnaissance aircraft.
Patrick Mercer: I wonder whether the Secretary of State would answer some of the questions that were posed about timings, missions, mission creep and all the other problems that are giving us such a headache?
Mr. Hoon: I have not got five minutes left. I want to set out in detail for the benefit of Conservative Members the extent of the contribution of Her Majesty's armed forces in the campaignnot all of it has been properly recognised, especially in the media. It is therefore important that Opposition Members listen with the patience for which they are renowned.
I want to stress the importance of our air-to-air refuelling tankers and their role in coalition operations. They are essential to the operations of the United States navy's strike aircraft, on which so much of the coalition's air campaign has relied. Operating from its aircraft carriers, the US navy cannot fly tanker aircraft as large as ours. The US air force has many tanker aircraft but it uses a different technique, developed originally to refuel its strategic bombers. The RAF has therefore stepped in to fill that capability gap. The United States has welcomed its support, which it values enormously.
A few statistics illustrate the importance of the RAF's tankers. They have flown more than 280 sorties, each lasting up to eight hours. They have provided coalition aircraft with nearly 10 million litres of fuel, which is no small task.
The United Kingdom has also made a major contribution to the coalition's command and reconnaissance capabilities. Nearly 160 such sorties have been flown, some of very long duration. The E3D Sentry aircraft have flown missions of up to 14 hours controlling and co-ordinating coalition air strikes. The Nimrods have ranged far over the Indian ocean in support of the coalition's maritime operations. The Canberras, though long in service, offer an intelligence gathering and reconnaissance capability unmatched by almost any other aircraft in the world.
We should not forget the work of our Hercules transport aircraft. I have already referred to their role in making the Bonn negotiations possible. Together with helicopters deployed aboard the Royal Navy fleet, they have flown sorties that provided essential support to our other operations, often in dangerous and demanding circumstances. Their success is a tribute to the skill and bravery of their crews.
When we send our forces to Afghanistan, we ask them to take significant risks. The campaign has not been without cost. A small number of the United Kingdom's armed forces have been wounded or injured in Afghanistan, including the member of the Royal Engineers who was injured by a land mine at Bagram last week. I am sure that hon. Members will join me in wishing them all a swift recovery. Of course, in thinking of our casualties, we should not forget that the United States, the Northern Alliance and the Afghan people have suffered many more.
It is inevitable that the continuing deployment of British armed forces, especially when they are engaged in offensive action, should give rise to questions and anxieties. They have not diverted us from our course. We remain focused on achieving the aims that we set ourselves when we began military action on 7 October.
We continue to work towards achieving our first and second campaign aims. Osama bin Laden and elements of al-Qaeda are still, as far as we know, at large and fighting. We have inflicted significant damage on al-Qaeda, but while it remains at large, in Afghanistan or elsewhere, it is a threat. We shall therefore continue our operations until that threat has been eliminated. I will not speculate about what that might mean, where future operations might take place or what form they might take. It would serve no useful purpose to advertise our intentions in advance. The focus of our activities remains Afghanistan, but no terrorists should assume that they can find safety anywhere around the world.
We have achieved the fourth objectivea change in the leadership of Afghanistan. The thirdto ensure that Afghanistan ceases to harbour and sustain international terrorismis certainly now within our grasp. The Bonn agreement paves the way for cementing both those objectives.
I have spoken about what the United Kingdom and her coalition partners have achieved so far. We must now consider how best to support the Bonn agreement. Twenty-two years of war have left their mark on Afghanistan. The destruction of much of its most basic infrastructure and the huge number of land mines laid during the war against the Soviet Union and in the civil wars that followed are obvious examples; less tangible, perhaps, are the effects on the Afghan people. A great deal of mistrust remains between the different peoples and political groups.
The Afghans who negotiated the Bonn agreement knew all that far better than anyone else. They recognised that the new interim authority would need to establish itself as independent and not be seen as a creature of one faction or another. That is why they have agreed to and welcomed the proposal to deploy an international security force to Kabul.
As the Prime Minister said yesterday, the United Kingdom has indicated, in principle, a willingness to play a leading role in any United Nations mandated security force in Afghanistan. No decisions have yet been taken. Before decisions are taken, we need to address a range of complex and detailed issues. We will be engaged in close consultations with the Afghans, the United Nations, the United States, and other countries that have expressed an interest in contributing troops to a security force. The detailed consultations and information gathering that we have in hand will provide the basis for decisions. That process will address the questions that the shadow Foreign Secretary very properly raised in his speech.
The new interim authority formally takes office on 22 December. We must help to convince every Afghan to have confidence in that authority and in the Bonn agreement. We must convince them that this is the beginning of the rebuilding process, because the interim authority is just thatan interim authority. In six months' time, Loya Jirgah will appoint a transitional Government. We must convince all parties that their future lies in joining the political process and not in seeking a solution through the use of force.
All this argues in favour of the eventual deployment of a UN-mandated force to provide the stability that is required for Afghanistan's future. We know that that will not be easy, and that many hurdles must be overcome. Not least of these is defining and agreeing with the Afghans what tasks would fall to a security assistance mission and, just as important, what tasks they would perform themselves. They clearly have responsibilities in all of this, too. In deciding to deploy an international security assistance force, the international community is offering a helping hand to a country and a people that have suffered too much for far too long.
The events of 11 September required action in the short term to remove the threat posed by al-Qaeda and the Taliban and to help to secure the new Afghan Government, but those events also represented a challenge to our approach to defence and security. The strategic defence review laid a solid basis for the future evolution of our armed forces and how we might use them. The action we are taking in Afghanistan is largely possible as a result of the work done during the SDR.
The United Kingdom now has significantly improved capabilities and is well placed to take on asymmetric threats, such as those posed by international terrorism, but it is only right that we should look further at the conclusions of the strategic defence review, in the light of the threat that is posed today by international terrorists. The House will be aware that we are doing just that.
We are engaging not in a new strategic defence review, but in a new chapter of the review, building on the earlier conclusions. We want to ensure that the United Kingdom has the defence concepts, capabilities and forces that we need if we are to deal with threats of this kind and this scale. We are therefore looking closely at our plans and programmes, to be able to add capability where it
The success that we have enjoyed in the campaign to date and the fact that we can look forward to achieving our remaining aims with confidence ultimately depend on one thing: the excellence of the men and women of our armed forces. I cannot overstate what they have achieved and the spirit in which they have achieved it. I said at the start of my speech that they deserved every word of the praise offered by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. We owe a great deal to the men and women of our armed forces, as well as to their families. It is our responsibility and privilege to make sure that they are properly equipped and properly organised to do the excellent job that they do. We are determined to make sure that that continues.