– in the House of Commons at 4:26 pm on 18th March 2002.

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Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence 4:26 pm, 18th March 2002

I would like to bring the House up to date by making a statement about the continuing role of the British armed forces in Afghanistan. It is just over five months since the global coalition, assembled in response to the terrorist attacks in the United States, began military action in Afghanistan. At that time we set out a number of specific short and longer-term campaign aims. Those included preventing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda from posing a continuing terrorist threat, breaking the links between Afghanistan and international terrorism, and reintegrating Afghanistan as a responsible member of the international community.

Five months later, it is clear that that action has been remarkably successful. Afghanistan is now a very different country. The Taliban Government, who harboured the al-Qaeda terrorists, are no more. Terrorist training camps have been put out of action. The first steps towards creating a functioning state have been taken. Aid agencies operate with increasing freedom. Refugees are beginning to return to their homes.

I am particularly proud of the vital part that British forces have played in this success. I have set out on a number of occasions the contribution that they have made to the international coalition—reconnaissance and air-to-air refuelling flights, troops on the ground engaged in operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban elements, and Royal Navy participation in submarine and interdiction support operations in the Arabian sea.

Britain's armed forces have also played a significant role in leading the international security assistance force in Kabul, with some 1,600 British troops currently deployed with the force. ISAF's full operating capability was achieved on time on 18 February, bringing together more than 4,600 troops from 18 different countries in a harsh and demanding environment at a considerable distance from home. I pay particular tribute to General John McColl for his role in this.

ISAF is helping the Afghan Interim Administration to provide a secure and stable environment in Kabul. Life in the city is at last beginning to return to some kind of normality, as I was recently able to see for myself. ISAF is already training the first battalion of an Afghan national guard about 600 strong, with an ethnic make-up that reflects that of Afghanistan itself. It is also providing advice to the Afghan police. Where it can, ISAF has helped with much needed-physical reconstruction work—projects that range from repairs to schools to getting the city's dustcarts back on the road.

British forces deployed with ISAF include troops from the second battalion of the Parachute Regiment. It was always planned that they would return to the United Kingdom at the end of March to prepare for their deployment to Northern Ireland later this year. They are now in the process of handing over their responsibilities to the first battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment.

Germany has agreed to provide a new headquarters for the Kabul multinational brigade—ISAF's subordinate headquarters—which has until now been provided by the headquarters of 16 Air Assault Brigade. A Bundeswehr brigadier will formally assume command tomorrow. That will enable us to withdraw a number of British troops from theatre, and is a demonstration of genuine international co-operation. So, too, is the Czech Republic's offer of a field hospital for ISAF. Following my discussions with my Czech counterpart earlier this month, the Czechs signed the ISAF memorandum of understanding last Thursday. Their contribution is very welcome.

The House will also be interested in the handover of the United Kingdom's responsibilities as lead nation for ISAF. Our talks with Turkey, which has expressed an interest in taking on the role, continue. It would not be appropriate to say too much before the talks are concluded, but the atmosphere in the high-level discussions between the United Kingdom, the United States and the Turks in Ankara last week was extremely positive.

We are therefore still working to transfer the leadership of ISAF. We are working hard to tie down the details, with the reassurance that Prime Minister Ecevit of Turkey has told my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that he strongly supports his country taking on the role.

However, for all the progress that we have made in Afghanistan, the threat of attack from al-Qaeda and Taliban-related groupings and individuals across the country remains very high. The recent Operation Anaconda in the Paktia province, led by the United States, tackled one group of al-Qaeda terrorists and Taliban fighters. That showed that those people are still in Afghanistan in large numbers and that they are heavily armed. Left alone, those groups would threaten all that the Afghan people and their supporters in the international community have achieved so far and would strive to retain Afghanistan as a base for training and organising terrorism. They do not recognise the Afghan Interim Administration and will work to destabilise the situation across Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda and its supporters continue to pose a direct threat to states outside Afghanistan, including the United Kingdom.

I know that the House will join me in offering its sympathies to the families of the Afghan and American soldiers who died during Operation Anaconda and in paying tribute to all the coalition forces that were involved, including the crews of the RAF Tristar tankers and Sentry AWACS aircraft that supported coalition air strikes during the operation.

The United States has now formally requested that the UK provides forces to join in future military operations against other remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban elsewhere in Afghanistan. I have therefore authorised the deployment to Afghanistan of a full United Kingdom infantry battle group, built around 45 Commando, Royal Marines. That group will join a US-led brigade, forming a potent force ready to undertake such operations.

We have held 45 Commando ready for offensive operations in Afghanistan for precisely that purpose. The lead elements of 45 Commando—its headquarters company and "Whisky" and "Zulu" companies—are already in theatre, embarked aboard HMS Ocean. Arrangements are now in hand to deploy those elements to Afghanistan, where they will be joined by the remaining companies of 45 Commando—held at high readiness in Arbroath—and also the combat support and services support elements integral to the Commando Group. Those include: 7 Battery of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, equipped with 105 mm light guns, from Plymouth; 59 Independent Commando Squadron, Royal Engineers; and elements of the Commando Logistics Regiment. There is already a versatile range of helicopters aboard HMS Ocean to support 45 Commando Group. To increase the Commando Group's operational capabilities still further, we are also deploying a further three Chinook helicopters of 27 Squadron, RAF.

That is a powerful force, in total up to 1,700 strong. We will ensure that it is ready to take part in operations as quickly as possible. The force will go initially to Bagram, with the first members of 45 Commando Group on the ground within days, and ready to commence offensive operations by mid-April.

The deployment of 45 Commando Group is not a decision that has been taken lightly. It is our largest military deployment for combat operations since the Gulf conflict. It is important that the House is under no illusions about what this might involve. These troops are being deployed to Afghanistan to take part in war-fighting operations. We will be asking them to risk their lives. Their missions will be conducted in unforgiving and hostile terrain against a dangerous enemy. They may suffer casualties.

No Government take such decisions without reaching the absolute conviction that it is something that must be done. The appalling events of 11 September demonstrated very clearly that these al-Qaeda and Taliban elements have the ability and the desire to launch attacks right into the heart of nations such as ours. Both the deployment of the Commando Group and our deployment to Kabul as part of ISAF contribute to our overall objectives of ending the threat posed by international terrorism and restoring Afghanistan. Both are entirely consistent with the campaign objectives that we set out last October. However, the troops with ISAF in Afghanistan have their own difficult and demanding job to do; 45 Commando Group will have theirs.

By deploying 45 Commando Group we shall make a new and important contribution to defeating finally al-Qaeda and the Taliban. By our continued commitment to ISAF, we are helping Afghanistan regain her place as a stable and prosperous nation. I have no doubt that our armed forces will succeed in both tasks.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement, which I received earlier today. However, I am bound to say that I am a little surprised that we and the minority parties have had no advance discussions about this very significant announcement.

Nobody should be under any illusions that this is the most significant statement by the Secretary of State, the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister since 11 September. The Secretary of State has announced the commitment of the largest force to combat operations since the Gulf war in 1991. Moreover, this deployment follows Operation Anaconda in and around Gardez where American and German troops have been killed on operations. This is not just a continuation of existing operations.

Before asking about the deployment of 45 Commando Group, may I join the Secretary of State in congratulating our forces who are already in Afghanistan? In addition to other operations, 16 Air Assault headquarters and 2 Para have been doing an absolutely outstanding job. We are proud of them. We remain concerned about the future of our role in the international security and assistance force, so will the Secretary of State confirm that ISAF is proving a more protracted operation than he had initially hoped? Moreover, will he confirm that, as of two weeks ago, there were more than 2,000 troops committed to Operation Fingal in ISAF? When will we see substantial reductions in that number, so that we can go some way to reducing the over-commitment of British troops?

On the question of Turkey's leadership, I can tell the House that Turkey's decision on whether to lead the force is imminent, but has yet to be made. I can only assume that the Secretary of State had hoped to be able to make that announcement today. What assurances has Turkey been seeking? Is it true that, like Her Majesty's official Opposition, it has been seeking clarification of the nature of the ISAF commitment, so that it is not left stranded with an open-ended commitment without clear objectives? Will the Secretary of State confirm that it would prefer ISAF to be a NATO operation and that it wants ISAF's mandate to be confined to Kabul, as he suggested it would be when he first announced ISAF? Is it also true that only the United States and the United Kingdom will shoulder the financial burden of finding the $100,000 that Turkey has requested to undertake the operation? Why should Britain and the United States be the only countries to carry this financial burden?

The announcement about 45 Commando comes as a surprise. However, we unequivocally support the Government's decision to continue standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the war against terrorism. We recognise the dangers to which the Secretary of State has referred, but it is entirely appropriate that we should be prepared and proud to make this commitment. We supported the Government's initial deployment for fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and we continue to support continuing operations.

I have some immediate questions. Under whose command will the operation be undertaken? Will the United Kingdom commander of ISAF have any role in the command of this brigade? We have warned in the past of complications and the possible confusion that might arise from the split chains of command that now exist in the Afghan theatre, with two UK deployments under separate commands undertaking diametrically opposite roles? Will the Secretary of State say anything to address that ongoing potential problem?

There will be further and urgent questions, which I am sure the House will want to discuss. May I ask the Government, through the Secretary of State, to consider replacing Thursday's debate with a debate on the war on terrorism and the war in Afghanistan to give the House a proper opportunity to debate the serious issues raised by this very significant statement? In the meantime, on behalf of the Opposition, I wish our forces every success in the challenges ahead. They fight far away for our security at home; they risk their today for our tomorrow. We think of their families. God go with them.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support and, indeed, his good wishes to the armed forces involved and their families. I shall endeavour to deal in turn with the points that he made. First, the deployment of ISAF is governed by a United Nations resolution that is due to expire in June. As I told the House in defence questions earlier today, to be honest, I recognise that there is every prospect of the resolution being extended in June, but no specific decisions have been made, nor have any decisions been made about the involvement of British forces in any operation that might continue thereafter. However, all of us looking at the situation in Afghanistan must recognise that it is difficult and demanding and that ISAF is making a significant contribution to improving it; the likelihood of an extension of ISAF's mandate cannot possibly be ruled out.

As for substantial reductions in our forces, the hon. Gentleman gave some figures that showed that there has already been a significant reduction. Initial elements have been withdrawn, having completed in particular the task of bringing up to standard the runway at the former international airport, which is now being used successfully and regularly.

As for discussions with Turkey, it is not appropriate to go into detail now about the continuing negotiations with Turkey. I have told the House about the attitude of Turkey's leadership; I am sure that once many of the outstanding questions have been resolved, the commitment that Turkey has expressed in principle can be carried through.

On the Royal Marine contingent, clear command and control arrangements are essential, as the hon. Gentleman said. As part of our deployment, Brigadier Lane, the commander of 3 Commando Brigade, and his headquarters will deploy to Bagram, joining the headquarters of United States Central Command—Centcom—which is already there, to work alongside their American counterparts in Afghanistan. It is obviously important that there should not be any confusion between the various forces deployed in Afghanistan, particularly those on offensive military action. Ultimately, of course, the responsibility for command lies with Centcom, as it has done throughout operations. However, its role will be clearly distinct from ISAF's; there will not be any confusion of roles, subject to the agreement already entered into, for the avoidance of difficulty.

The hon. Gentleman requested a debate. The Opposition could doubtless pursue that through the usual channels, so I shall not make a specific response at this stage. However, there is a full Opposition day tomorrow, part of which is already devoted to a defence matter. If the hon. Gentleman thought it vital to have that debate tomorrow in time already available to the Opposition, I am sure that the Government would accede to his request.

Photo of John Smith John Smith Labour, Vale of Glamorgan

I am not in the least surprised that 45 Commando is to be deployed in Afghanistan. I have just returned from Central Command; enormous tribute was paid to British service men already serving on the front line in Afghanistan. Because of our traditions and conventions, we are unable to pay them proper tribute, yet in the United States, people can. Is my right hon. Friend looking at the role of our special forces and our ability—I appreciate the complications—to pay tribute to them for the fantastic work that they are doing?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

It is obviously important to pay proper tribute to the role of British forces, particularly in Afghanistan, but also in other theatres. It is equally important that we maintain operational confidentiality and do not in any way put at risk those forces carrying out tasks on the Government's behalf.

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Liberal Democrat, Hereford

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for sending me an advance copy of his statement, although I echo the concerns of the shadow Defence Secretary; a deployment of this kind merits prior discussion, at least among party leaders.

May I pay tribute to the men and women of our armed forces, who continue to risk their lives in Afghanistan? As always, they perform an incredibly difficult task with great courage and skill. I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to General John McColl, who is doing an excellent job. The whole House will offer its support to the men of 45 Commando—and their families—in the endeavours that they are about to undertake.

On ISAF, I welcome the Secretary of State's comments about Turkey. Does he agree that withdrawing any peacekeeping force before an indigenous law and order force can take over would deeply destabilise the people of Afghanistan, and throw away much of the good work already done? Does he therefore agree that the success of Operation Fingal is just as important as that of Operation Veritas? Given that ISAF is a UN-mandated force, does the UN plan to extend the duration of its mission or the mission boundaries? Indeed, is deployment of 45 Commando requisite on UN authorisation?

Will the United Kingdom or the United States provide logistic support for 45 Commando's deployment, and what is the timetable for deployment? How long, in the Secretary of State's view, will the Royal Marines be there, and can he assure the House that their rules of engagement will be robust? I echo the concerns of Mr. Jenkin about command and control. Will the operation be controlled directly from Centcom, in Tampa, or via Operation Veritas?

Most importantly, although we Liberal Democrats offer our support, can the Secretary of State confirm that our forces are being deployed not just as a replacement for American forces? What assurance has he been given that the United States will remain committed on the ground, as well as in the air, until the terrorist threat from Afghanistan is ended? Does he agree that "shoulder to shoulder" surely means not only going in together, but coming out together?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I began by writing down that the hon. Gentleman's initial observations were practical and realistic, in that he did not ask questions that cannot be answered properly in a fast-moving and difficult situation. Unfortunately, he then proceeded to ask a number of such questions, but I shall do my best to deal with each of them.

On UN authorisation, the operation is being conducted in self-defence against those elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban that continue to threaten the United Kingdom and other countries. Logistic support will be provided through the numbers that I gave to the House. In such difficult and dangerous environments, it is important that the forces deployed be self-sustaining.

I shall not give the hon. Gentleman a specific answer on timetabling; clearly, it will depend on what the forces find on their deployment on the ground, the resistance that they meet and the operations that they will have to conduct. Such deployments always demonstrate that there is a limit to how long we can keep people in the field—particularly a field such as that.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman ended with that comment about the United States, which recently lost soldiers on the ground in conducting extremely dangerous and difficult operations. The United States will remain committed on the ground, and I am proud that British forces will work alongside their American counterparts in precisely such operations.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

I welcome the progress made so far in Afghanistan, and the new deployment. It is vital that we remain committed in Afghanistan for as long as it takes, and we should not allow short-term domestic considerations—I know that my right hon. Friend will not—to pressure us into jeopardising what has been achieved so far. However, the lesson of the complications that we are encountering in Afghanistan surely is that we will not have resources available for any adventures in other parts of the middle east, such as Iraq.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I think that I shall probably stick to talking about Afghanistan.

My hon. Friend is right to talk about the need to be there as long as it takes. No one who has read accounts of Operation Anaconda could be anything other than concerned about the level of resistance, the numbers involved and the determination of fighters, many of whom were not native Afghans but foreigners who remained to prosecute continuing attacks—in this case, against the United States. It is likely that there are similar organised elements in other parts of Afghanistan and it is vital for the future of Afghanistan—and the safety of the rest of the world—that we take the fight to those elements and deal with them.

Photo of Peter Tapsell Peter Tapsell Conservative, Louth and Horncastle

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall assuring me before Christmas that the British Government would certainly not be sending British troops in to Afghanistan on the ground for any permanent combat operation, but would send them in only for special operations from which they would come out quickly? Does he recall what happened to the Russian army when it went into Afghanistan? Why should he suppose that our experience would be any different?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The Royal Marines are ideally suited to precisely the kind of operation that I and the hon. Gentleman describe to the House, which involves moving fast, deploying quickly and dealing with the type of threat that I have described to the House.

Photo of Mrs Alice Mahon Mrs Alice Mahon Labour, Halifax

I am sure that the Secretary of State will confirm that this is mission creep on a massive scale. Will he tell us how many extra troops are being committed from the other 18 countries in the coalition? Will he confirm that parts of Afghanistan are now being carved up by some of the old warlords and that people are moving out of those areas? Can he give us an assurance that our troops will not be deployed in those areas, where they might get caught up fighting the Northern Alliance?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The purpose of the operation is as I have set out. It is to deal with the remaining elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who pose a continuing threat and it will involve other countries. I do not have the precise details to hand because that is a matter for those countries and, ultimately, for the United States. There are already other countries involved—countries other than the US were involved in Operation Anaconda—and I do not accept that there is any risk of British soldiers becoming involved in any fighting against the Northern Alliance, because this is a specific mission designed to deal with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

Will the Secretary of State accept that I welcome the deployment, not least because I am in no doubt—given its size and composition—that it would not be going unless it were absolutely necessary. I share the views of my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence in wishing them well.

Will the Secretary of State pay tribute, in the way that only he can, to the astonishing skill at arms of British forces in Afghanistan in the past few weeks? They have behaved remarkably and we owe them an enormous debt. I mean not only the special forces, but the soldiers doing the run-of-the-mill work around Kabul and elsewhere, which has been very hazardous. Will he also say a word about the importance of the ongoing commitment to getting aid into those areas of Afghanistan that find themselves in a difficult state? Will he assure us that there will continue to be that commitment to Afghanistan that was so lacking last time?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman who makes his points effectively and with his customary clarity. I have had the privilege of seeing the full range of commitments that Britain's armed forces have engaged in and he is right that they have displayed remarkable skill in what they do. He is also right that that applies across the board, because it is not only those at the sharp end—although I pay tribute to them as well. Deploying forces at this distance for this length of time—and sustaining them in a difficult and dangerous environment—is a considerable achievement by our logistics people, who have done a remarkable job.

I shall not go into too much detail on the question of aid at this stage, save to say that I am assured that aid is continuing to flow and that the flow of aid is improving day by day. That is a recognition of the much improved security environment across Afghanistan and not simply in Kabul.

Photo of Mr Nigel Beard Mr Nigel Beard Labour, Bexleyheath and Crayford

What is the latest assessment of the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The latest assessment is that we still do not know. Determined efforts continue to bring him to account, together with other prominent figures from al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

The ISAF operation is mandated by the United Nations, but is there not a broader point here? Is not the UN Secretary-General entitled to seek wider support among the community of nations for his mandates? Of course everyone fully supports what the United Kingdom is doing, but does the Secretary of State think not that we are doing too much, but that other countries are not fully pulling their weight? That issue involves not only Afghanistan, because there are, I am afraid, other failing states around the world. Unless other nations prepare to support the Secretary-General, the prospects for civilisation are bleak.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments of Mr. Soames. The difficulty is not lack of commitment or support from other nations. Indeed, unusually for an international operation, I have had to turn down contributions to the ISAF. Tony Baldry will recall from his days in government that that is unusual. Normally, the Defence Secretary spends a good deal of time on the telephone trying to persuade other countries to participate in international operations, but the reverse is true on this occasion.

The reason for that is that we required particular, specialist skills. Those necessary for the early deployment of the ISAF involved engineering—rebuilding runways and ensuring that the basic infrastructure could accommodate a force of such a size. The operations that I set out in my statement involve determined war-fighting skills and the ability to deploy rapidly in extraordinarily difficult and dangerous surroundings. Again, there are simply not that many armed forces in the world that can complete those tasks at such notice.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Labour, North Warwickshire

I congratulate our armed forces on their operations to date and acknowledge that the announcement is indeed significant. Of course, 45 Commando will go, and ought to know that it goes, with the full support of the House. Can my right hon. Friend reassure us that he has received assurances that 45 Commando will have available to it full air and logistic support where necessary from US forces in any combat operations that it may undertake?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

This will be an integrated force working alongside its US counterparts and receiving US back-up in precisely the way that my hon. Friend describes.

Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson Conservative, Ruislip - Northwood

In pursuing his forward strategy in Afghanistan—a debate on which would be highly desirable at the earliest possible date, preferably tomorrow—will the Secretary of State ensure that he balances it with vigorous efforts to maintain the closest liaison with and support for the Government of Pakistan, without whose stability no progress towards pacifying the region and eradicating terrorism could be achieved? That is particularly so in view of the horrendous atrocity at an Islamabad church yesterday.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I recently visited Pakistan and had a meeting with the President and other senior Government figures. The hon. Gentleman is right that it is vital that we take forward those operations in consultation with the Government of Pakistan, as well as with other countries that neighbour Afghanistan. Their role not only in operations in general, but specifically as part of the political process of rebuilding Afghanistan is vital.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

Clearly, the thoughts of Members in all parts of the House are with the forces in their perilous task. Have the Government considered seeking a precise UN mandate for the continuing campaign in Afghanistan?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

There is a precise mandate for the ISAF operation. The follow-on operations that I announced this afternoon are covered by the UN charter as justified in self-defence.

Photo of John MacDougall John MacDougall Labour, Central Fife

Does my right hon. Friend agree that fears over loss of life among the troops in Afghanistan, which we all share, will increase if we do not move with the speed and stealth referred to in the statement? Indeed, if we are serious about tackling terrorism, we must use the tactics that have been applied in this instance.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

My hon. Friend makes a number of very good points with which I entirely agree. It is vital in this kind of operation that security is not compromised in any way.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

Are the 1,700 troops that we are deploying precisely what the United States requested, or did it ask for more? Secondly, will the Secretary of State tell us which other countries are providing combat troops, as part not of ISAF but of this operation? Presumably, this force was put together in consultation with Centcom and other national headquarters, so he must be able to tell us what other countries will provide combat troops to fight alongside ours.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I can certainly give the House an idea of which other countries are likely to be involved, but I anticipate that those countries will have to make the same kind of announcements to their Parliaments as the one that I am making this afternoon, and it would be wrong at this stage to give the House a definitive list. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall be able to do that in due course, however.

So far as American requests are concerned, I am absolutely confident that we are providing to the Americans precisely what they have been looking for to work alongside their own forces dealing with the remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Photo of Dr Jenny Tonge Dr Jenny Tonge Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

I am delighted that the ISAF troops have managed to help the humanitarian effort in Afghanistan, but will the Secretary of State tell us how many Afghans have been killed during the operation, either by military action or by starvation? Does he not agree that the United States should finish its job in Afghanistan before it embarks on another war with Iraq?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I cannot tell the hon. Lady precisely how many Afghans have been killed during these operations. That figure is simply not available to anyone. I anticipate, however, that it is much lower than much of the hysterical comment has suggested from time to time. As a result of an astonishingly well targeted bombing campaign, I expect the number of civilian casualties to be very low. I will not deal with the other subject.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh

May I ask the Secretary of State several brief questions? First, will he confirm whether there is any plan for a call-up of elements of the Royal Marine reserves to bolster 45 Commando group's proposed operation? Secondly, will he give the House some idea of what medical facilities will accompany the group on operations? Will they be provided by the UK, the United States or, perhaps, a combination of the two nations? Thirdly, I support this initiative, but I would like the Secretary of State to give us some idea of the effect on the tour plot back home of the decision to deploy yet another regular battalion on operations abroad.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

No decisions have been taken yet about calling up reserves as a result of this operation. I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's third question next. It is unlikely that the operation will have a significant impact on tour plots, for precisely the reason set out in my statement earlier, which is that elements of the Royal Marines are already deployed and have been on HMS Ocean for some time. The remaining elements that we intend to deploy are being held at very high readiness for precisely this kind of operation.

There are now some excellent medical facilities in and around Kabul. I mentioned the contribution that the Czech Government were prepared to make, and we are discussing with them the best way of deploying a state-of-the-art field hospital that they have available. That is why I was so pleased with the contribution that they were able to make. It is this kind of specialist contribution that allows this kind of international operation to be so effective in difficult circumstances.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

Last year the Select Committee on Defence—of which I am a member—was lucky and privileged enough to visit the men of 45 Commando Royal Marines on Operation Saif Sareea. They struck me as the finest body of men that we are ever likely to deploy overseas. However, the additional troops that are going to Afghanistan, and that we may or may not be deploying to the Balkans, and the lack of any apparent reduction in the forces in Northern Ireland, will all make the pips—which are already hard-pressed—begin to squeak even more. May I seek from the Secretary of State—whose presence here I applaud after his illness at the weekend—an assurance that new and imaginative ideas will be used to reduce commitments and deployments elsewhere?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

As I have told the House on many occasions, I am responsible for ensuring that our commitments are balanced and can be maintained within the capabilities we have available. That continues to be my responsibility.

Photo of Hugh Robertson Hugh Robertson Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

In his statement, the Secretary of State rightly drew our attention to the continuing threat from al-Qaeda. Some of those fighters will no doubt stand and fight, as in Operation Anaconda; others may well contemplate guerrilla action, which we have seen many times in Afghanistan over the years. Can the Secretary of State tell us what plans we have to meet that threat, and in particular how we will seal the border to ensure that people cannot come and go as they wish?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The one thing I have become in recent months is something of an expert on maps and the topography of Afghanistan, and I will not pretend that sealing the border is in any way realistic. That applies not least to the border along Pakistan. A number of Afghanistan's external borders consist of extraordinary terrain, and frankly there are not the troops to do what the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Let me say, however, in the spirit of the hon. Gentleman's question, that the operations in prospect, consistent with Operation Anaconda, deal with precisely the kind of guerrilla threat about which he is rightly concerned. It is important that we get to those elements before they are in a position to conduct a guerrilla campaign. That is why Operation Anaconda was necessary, and why the follow-up operations I have described are also necessary.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

In his statement, the Secretary of State said that 45 Commando and other forces would be used against the remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Can he tell us how large those remnants are, in his judgment and that of the intelligence we have?

So far, in their military operations abroad, the Government have been careful to set precise time scales and targets for the deployment of our forces. What consideration has the Secretary of State given to the question of when our mission—the mission of 45 Commando—can be said to have been completed?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman's questions are perfectly proper and perfectly fair, but I will not go into the detail of the numbers with which we expect to have to deal. I said earlier that the resistance to Operation Anaconda had been significantly greater than might have been originally anticipated, and had led to some serious fighting. What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that if he studies the nature of the deployment we propose, he will see that we are delivering a particularly potent force to Afghanistan. That is not coincidental; it will sit alongside similar deployments from the United States and a number of other countries. It is designed to deal with the elements concerned, and to deal with them extremely effectively.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I thank the Secretary of State for the full answers that he has given. He has described a fast-moving situation. Other partners may be involved in the operation taken on by 45 Commando; meanwhile, the question of ISAF's leadership remains unresolved. May I reiterate the need for a full debate which should, I stress, be in Government time? [Interruption.] I do not think it appropriate to make light of that request. The Secretary of State has made a very serious announcement, and the House is entitled to debate it. I merely ask the Secretary of State to take the request to the usual channels, and to use his influence. I know that he has some.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I am certainly conscious of the importance of the subject. That is why I took the first possible opportunity to make a statement in the House. If the hon. Gentleman is determined to engage in a debate, I am ready and available tomorrow.