"Mr Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a Statement on events in Afghanistan.
"It is now clear that the Taliban has been decisively defeated 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 9th November was the key to the north. It accelerated defections from the Taliban and allowed General Dostum and Mohammed Atta of the Northern Alliance to cut the lines of communication of the remaining Taliban and Al'Qaeda troops in the north-east.
"One after another, Taliban positions folded: Taloqan; Baghlan; Bamian. The major city in the west, Herat, fell without a fight, to Ismail Khan. And now we see that the strategy we have pursued is being 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 in falling, including Jalalabad. It is clear that support for the Taliban is evaporating. Though there may be pockets of resistance, the idea that this has been some kind of tactical retreat is just the latest Taliban lie. It is 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.
"Regrettable incidents have happened, as the liberated people have turned on their oppressors. This should not happen and I appeal to the Northern Alliance and all other forces in Afghanistan to be restrained; to avoid any acts of revenge; and to engage with the UN.
"I believe the whole House should welcome the progress that has been made. Though conflict is never easy, or nice, to see women and children smiling after years under one of the most brutal, oppressive regimes in the world is finally to understand the 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.
"But there remain huge challenges. The military job is not yet done. Bin Laden is still at large. So are his close associates. The diplomatic and political situation remains difficult. The threat of a humanitarian crisis remains.
"I should tell the House that the United Kingdom will continue to play a full role in the military, the diplomatic and humanitarian tracks of this campaign, the objectives of which remain as set out in the document published in the House Library on 16th October.
"Our forces, so far, have been involved in the air strikes using Tomahawk missiles and through providing support to US bombers. On the ground, our forces have been involved in liaising with the people of 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, and a range of supporting assets including RAF air transport, support helicopters, engineers, logistic teams and explosive ordnance experts.
"I cannot give the House full details on how those troops may be used. Consultations with the United States and our other coalition partners continue. The main purpose of those troops would be in the context of multinational efforts to make safe the humanitarian supply routes now opening up as a result of military progress on the ground. Others may be focused on securing airfields and clearing unexploded ordnance; and ensuring the safe return of the United Nations and NGOs to Afghanistan, permitting the construction of the broad-based government that is so badly needed. They will only remain in place for a strictly limited period of time 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, I should say that an average of over 2,000 tonnes of food a day has been despatched since 4th November. That is four times the rate at the start of October when it was 500 tonnes a day. The WFP is optimistic about reaching its targets: it has despatched over 50,000 metric tonnes of food to Afghanistan since the beginning of October—sufficient for 5 million people for one month.
"We look forward to the opening of a corridor from the liberated areas to the borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In particular, the Friendship Bridge between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan will be made safe for the passage of those supplies.
"The UN and ICRC should now be able to improve delivery of food, healthcare 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, 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 show the rest of Afghanistan that life for the entire nation will be better once the Taliban are gone.
"The advance of the anti-Taliban forces has been assisted by defections from disillusioned 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 its oppressive rule. The sooner they act, the greater the benefit.
"The structure of post-Taliban Afghanistan will be for the Afghan people to determine. But 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 providing substantial local autonomy.
"I spoke yesterday to Kofi Annan who outlined to me the process that will now follow. The first step will be an early UN-convened meeting of representatives of the various Afghan anti-Taliban groups (including Pushtuns) under the United Nations Special Representative, Mr Brahimi. That 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 United Nations 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 for Afghanistan) 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 Schroeder. The coalition is as strong today as it has ever been.
"As I said on 11th September, and have repeated many times since, although there can be no excuses for terrorism we must do what we can to address the causes and the injustices that the terrorists exploit. That is why we want progress towards peace in the Middle East.
"We must never forget why we are engaged in this action: it is because on 11th September Al'Qaeda perpetrated the worst terrorist outrage in history. It is to bring them to justice, and to eliminate them as a threat to world affairs that we are acting as we are.
"Today, I have put in the Library an updated version of the evidence document we first published on 4th October. The new document will be translated into Arabic and Urdu and other languages.
"The intelligence material now leaves no doubt whatever of the guilt of bin Laden and his associates. On 4th October we knew that three of the hijackers were linked to Al'Qaeda. Now we know that the majority were. Indeed, the utterances from his and their own mouths leave no doubt either. Far from hiding their guilt, they gloat. On 9th October one of his spokesmen praised the September 11th atrocities as, 'a good deed' which,
'transferred the battle into the US heartland'.
'The storm of plane attacks will not abate'.
"Bin Laden himself said on 20th October in an unbroadcast video tape,
'If avenging the killing of our people is terrorism, let history be a witness that we are terrorists'.
"Mr Speaker, they are terrorists, and history will judge them as such. Before the history books are written, we will continue to hunt them down until we find them, for as long as it takes.
"They are guilty. They will face justice and today 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, legal. It has meant changing our laws to protect ourselves at home, working with others to protect ourselves abroad.
"And I say this to the people of Afghanistan: as we hunt down the murdering terrorists hiding in your country, they, 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 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, liberating their potential. A country that has suffered so much deserves no less.
"And let us be clear. The way the world embraces and supports the new Afghanistan will be the clearest possible indication that the dreadful events of 11th September have resulted in a triumph for the international community as a force for good, and the defeat of the evil that is international terrorism. A safer world is built out of secure countries representing all their people living in peace with their neighbours. That is how terrorism will eventually be defeated, and that, step by step, must be the new international order that emerges from the worst terrorist atrocity in our history.
"Whatever the challenges, whatever the setbacks that lie along the way, I believe that is a vision, and a world, worth fighting for".
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.