With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on events in Afghanistan.
It is now clear that the Taliban regime is in a state of collapse across Afghanistan. Carefully targeted coalition bombing of its front lines opened the way for the Northern Alliance to advance. The fall of Mazar-i-Sharif on
One after another, Taliban positions folded: Taloqan, Baghlan, Bamiyan. The major city in the west, Herat, fell without a fight, to Ismail Khan. Now we see that the strategy that we have pursued is equally successful in the Pushtun south of the country.
Kabul fell without serious resistance on Monday night. Key cities in the Pushtun south have followed Kabul swiftly, including Jalalabad. It is clear that support for the Taliban is evaporating. Although there may be pockets of resistance, the idea that this has been some kind of tactical retreat is just the latest Taliban lie. They are in total collapse.
There are reports today that senior Taliban figures in Gardez—including Borders Minister Haqqani and intelligence Chief Ahmadullah—have surrendered. Kandahar airport has reportedly been taken by anti-Taliban forces. I have to say that regrettable incidents have happened as the liberated people have turned on their oppressors, and they should not happen. I appeal to the Northern Alliance and all other forces in Afghanistan to be restrained, to avoid acts of revenge and to engage with the United Nations.
I believe that the whole House and country should welcome the progress that has been made. Although conflict is never easy or pleasant, to see women and children smiling after years under one of the most brutal and oppressive regimes in the world is finally to understand the true meaning of the word "liberation".
I would like to pay tribute to the outstanding leadership that President Bush has given, and give heartfelt thanks to the British forces involved, now and in the future. There is no greater comfort to the British people than to know that we can call on some of the best armed forces in the world. Their work and their contribution to Britain's strength and international standing is immense.
I also pay tribute to European solidarity, to the countries of the European Union that have stood firm throughout this crisis and to our other coalition partners. However, there remain huge challenges—the military job is not yet done; Osama bin Laden is still at large, and so are his close associates; the diplomatic and political situation remains difficult; and the threat of an humanitarian crisis remains. The United Kingdom will continue to play a full role in the military, diplomatic and humanitarian aspects of this campaign, the objectives of which remain as set out in the document published in the House Library on
So far, our forces have been involved in the air strikes using Tomahawk missiles and have provided support to US bombers. On the ground, our forces have been involved in liaising and working with the Northern Alliance, advising them and helping to co-ordinate action.
I can confirm to the House that several thousand of our troops are being put on 48-hour notice to move in case they are required in the area. Those include elements from 3 Commando and 16 Air Assault Brigades, including 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment and 45 Commando Royal Marines, as well as a range of supporting assets including RAF air transport, support helicopters, engineers, logistics teams and explosive ordnance experts.
For obvious reasons, I cannot give the House full details of how those troops may be used. Consultations with the United States and our other coalition partners continue. The main purpose of the troops would be in the context of multinational efforts to make safe the humanitarian supply routes that are now opening up as a result of military progress on the ground. Others may be focused on securing airfields and clearing unexploded ordnance, and on ensuring the safe return of the United Nations and non-governmental organisations to Afghanistan, thereby permitting the construction of the broad-based Government that is so badly needed.
The troops will remain in place for only a strictly limited period, while an international force to work alongside Afghan military commanders is prepared. We cannot, of course, rule out some of our troops being used in offensive front-line operations—40 Commando Royal Marines remain at a high state of readiness for contingency operations.
On the humanitarian front, an average of more than 2,000 tonnes of food a day has been dispatched since
The UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross should now be able to improve delivery of food, health care and other assistance to 2 million vulnerable people in the northern region of Afghanistan. Plans are now being made for the international staff of the UN, the Red Cross and NGOs to return to Afghanistan. In addition, we will be able to accelerate deliveries to areas in central Afghanistan, which will become harder to access as winter sets in, so that sufficient stockpiles can be built up closer to the people who need them. That will further reduce the suffering of the Afghan people and, I hope, show the rest of Afghanistan that life for the entire nation will be better once the Taliban regime has gone.
The advance of the anti-Taliban forces has been assisted by defections from disillusioned Taliban supporters. It is time for the rest of Afghanistan—particularly the ethnic groups in the south—to join the uprising against the Taliban and throw off their oppressive rule. The sooner they act, the greater the benefit for all the people in Afghanistan.
The structure of post-Taliban Afghanistan will be for the Afghan people to determine. However, we will provide strong diplomatic and economic support to the aspirations of Afghan parties committed to an inclusive, democratic political structure, committed to the welfare of all Afghan men, women and children, and committed to providing substantial local autonomy.
I spoke to Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, yesterday, and he outlined to me the process that will now be followed. The first step will be an early UN-convened meeting of representatives of the various Afghan anti-Taliban groups—including Pushtuns—under the UN special representative, Mr. Brahimi. This would lead to a transitional Administration. To support that process under Mr. Brahimi, the UN Security Council will be adopting a resolution to underpin the principles on which Mr. Brahimi is working.
The immediate next step is for the UN to establish a presence in Kabul. I am delighted that Mr. Vendrell, UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan, and Mike Sackett, UN humanitarian co-ordinator, plan to travel there on Friday. We plan to have a UK diplomatic presence in Kabul by the weekend. I have also spoken today to President Bush and to Chancellor Schroder. The coalition is as strong today as it has ever been.
In respect of the very basis of this action, we must never forget why we are engaged in it—it is because on
Today, I have put in the Library an updated version of the evidence document first published on
"transferred the battle into the US heartland".
He warned that
"the storm of plane attacks will not abate".
"If avenging the killing of our people is terrorism, let history be a witness that we are terrorists."
They are terrorists, and history will judge them as such.
Before the history books are written, however, we will continue to hunt them down, and we will continue to do so for as long as it takes to bring them to the justice they deserve. They are guilty and they will face justice, and today, thankfully, they have far fewer places to hide and far fewer people who wish to protect them.
As we have made clear from the outset, the campaign against terrorism is much more than a military campaign—it is diplomatic, humanitarian, economic and legal. It has meant changing our laws to protect ourselves at home, and working with others to protect ourselves abroad.
Above all, at this moment, I say to the people of Afghanistan: "As we hunt down those terrorists who committed murder and as we hunt down those who are hiding in your country, they and not you are our enemy. This time, we will not walk away. Your future is in your hands, but our hands are there in friendship to help you to shape that future."
The people of Afghanistan have suffered grievously from a brutal regime, from conflict, from famine and from drought. We want to see a country with a Government representing all the people of Afghanistan, occupying a proud place in the community of nations, growing economically, enriching its people and liberating their potential. Frankly, a country that has suffered so much deserves no less than a fresh start.
Let us be clear—the way that the world embraces and supports the new Afghanistan will be the clearest possible indication that the dreadful events of
Whatever the challenges and whatever the setbacks along the way, I believe that is a vision and a world worth fighting for.