Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11 June 1996.

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Photo of Mr Jack Thompson Mr Jack Thompson , Wansbeck 12:00, 11 June 1996

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what contingency plans are being prepared for the withdrawal of British forces from Bosnia after 20 December. [30890]

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

IFOR' s mandate expires at the end of the year and we intend to withdraw UK forces at the same time as our NATO allies.

Photo of Mr Jack Thompson Mr Jack Thompson , Wansbeck

Does the Secretary of State agree that the current situation in Bosnia does not bode well for the withdrawal of our troops on 20 December? Perhaps the whole situation needs to be re-examined. That date is only six months ahead. The families of British forces in Bosnia regard 20 December as a significant date because it is close to Christmas. Many expect that the serving forces will be back home for Christmas. Would it not be appropriate to renegotiate with our allies in Bosnia and seek a more distant date to take account of the present situation?

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

First, I should be frank with the hon. Gentleman and say that 20 December is the date on which the IFOR mandate ends. He should not read into that that the forces will be home on that date. That is the day that the operation ends. I anticipate that the ending of IFOR will lead to a withdrawal of troops over weeks, and possibly months, after that.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that many aspects of the Bosnian situation do not bode well. What is important is that the international community develops an overall political strategy to deal with the many parts of that problem—humanitarian problems, the need for reconstruction, the need to rebuild the economy, the need to prop up the Croat-Muslim federation, and the need to provide police forces and training. As a small part of that, we need to consider what, if any, need there may be for a military presence in 1997. It would, however, be premature to reach conclusions about that now.

Photo of Mr Michael Colvin Mr Michael Colvin , Romsey and Waterside

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that British troops will continue to be involved in the implementation force in Bosnia after the 20 December deadline only if, first, it continues to be a NATO operation, and if, secondly, there is a substantial involvement on the part of our United States allies?

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

Yes. I cannot conceive of any operation in Bosnia of a military sort that is not a NATO operation. I believe it is essential that in any NATO operation in Bosnia the United States should be involved alongside, and on the same terms as, her allies in the alliance.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The Secretary of State will recall that the purpose of deploying NATO forces, including British troops, in former Yugoslavia was to bring peace and stability, and to assist in the reconstruction of the civilian infrastructure of that country. If, without undue risk to British troops, we can continue to help to fulfil those objectives as part of a NATO force, should we not now express our willingness to do so? That of itself would assist stability and civilian reconstruction.

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

Although I respect the hon. and learned Gentleman's point of view, I think that the point is debatable. I am not sure that announcing an open-ended commitment to a military presence in Bosnia would be helpful in creating stability. On the contrary, it might stop the necessary concentration of minds among the former warring factions on the idea that eventually they have to make a peace for themselves. I also believe that what the implementation force was set up to do will have been achieved by December: the forces will have been separated, they will have gone back to barracks and they will have surrendered their weapons, which will be in points of storage.

The question is: what is needed in 1997? As I have already said today, what is most needed is an overall political strategy; as part of that we can consider whether any military operation is necessary.

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex

I have listened carefully to what my right hon. Friend has just said, but is there not a real problem to do with the fact that, of the moneys pledged for the reconstruction of Bosnia, only about 20 per cent. has thus far appeared? Does not that mean that, at the end of the year, the situation in Bosnia may be such that it will be difficult for IFOR troops to withdraw? Will my right hon. Friend therefore urge all his colleagues in government to bring pressure to bear on the countries that are not paying the moneys that they have pledged to reconstruction, so that they get on and pay up promptly?

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

My right hon. Friend reinforces my point that we need not just a military option for Bosnia but a total package of international help, including money and reconstruction. While it is possible to conceive of a 1997 military operation which is part of a political strategy, it would be unacceptable to conceive of a 1997 military operation instead of a political strategy.

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

Has the Secretary of State had time to read today's excellent Select Committee report on Bosnia, outlining serious inadequacies in medical provision, the provision of housing and the provision of sanitary facilities? Will he assure the House that the MOD's shortcomings outlined in the report will be rectified and that the mistakes experienced in the IFOR operation will not be repeated—if it proves necessary and desirable, as I believe it will, that British troops have to stay on in Bosnia after December 1996 in order to continue their peacemaking activities?

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

I fear that the hon. Gentleman has shown a lack of feel for the complexities of a military operation. It is outstanding that, within a one-month period—between December last year and January this year—we deployed approximately 13,000 soldiers, in the dead of winter, in the interior of Bosnia. We got them there, we kept them supplied and we provided them with ammunition, equipment, housing, sanitary facilities and medical facilities—and the hon. Gentleman has said that they were not exactly what he would have liked them to be. We learn lessons from every military operation, and we shall learn lessons from this one. For the hon. Gentleman to give the impression that this operation has been anything but an outstanding success for our forces and for the logisticians who supported them is unworthy of him.