Afghanistan

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:28 pm on 17th December 2001.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement) 8:28 pm, 17th December 2001

My Lords, I am going on to advise noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, to be patient. The week is young—it is Monday—and Saturday is the 22nd. There may be events between now and then; there may not be. But there certainly will not be events unless we are satisfied that the questions asked in this debate have been answered satisfactorily from a British point of view. The last thing that we are going to do is to send our troops somewhere when we do not know the answers to a number of questions.

A number of difficult and complex issues have to be worked through. They include the mandate and the length of time that any force would be there, and the way in which it would operate in relation to other foreign forces asked for by the Afghans. There are other questions too. We accept that 22nd December is an important date in all this.

For these reasons, we and our partners agreed to send a small international reconnaissance and liaison team to Kabul over the weekend. Led by Major-General John McColl, the team included representatives from the United States, Canada and Italy. It built upon our already friendly and constructive relations with the interim authority in its discussions about the role, size and relationship with the interim authority of an ISAF.

General McColl has provided our partners and ourselves with an invaluable insight into the conditions in which an ISAF would operate. We are in the midst of incorporating that advice into our plans now. There is, of course, a great deal of interest in this potential deployment. But once again I counsel patience. We can make no announcement until our plans are finalised. This House will be informed as soon as we are able to do so.

Why are we thinking of doing this? The noble Lord, Lord Vivian, asked that question, adding the point: even though we are the most capable. That is certainly one of the factors in our reasons for considering such an operation. We do consider that we are among the most capable. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, asked about clarity. Unless we have clarity as regards rules of engagement and our role there, we shall not undertake this task.

Perhaps I may refer briefly to the humanitarian crisis. Of course, it remains severe, but there are some grounds for hope. In November, the World Food Programme delivered some 56,000 metric tonnes of food aid—4,000 metric tonnes more than its target. The Friendship Bridge over the River Oxus has been reopened. Last week the coalition stopped its air drops of emergency aid to the Afghan people because there are now secure air heads to deliver food and other aid instead. Some have criticised those air drops but no one has proposed realistic alternatives. The Taliban was already attacking aid organisations well before 11th September. It is worth saying that it was a magnificent effort by the United States. More than 2.4 million ration packs were dropped.

The events on 11th September raised the threshold for terrorism. Today's operations, and those that we are considering for the near future are but the first response that we must make. We must look at the structure and shape of our Armed Forces. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, asked questions and made strong comments about the possibility of what was described as a new Strategic Defence Review. There is no intention to have a new SDR. We are right to consider—and there is no need to fear that consideration—whether we ought to make changes, given what happened on 11th September. It would add an extra chapter to the 1998 review, but that should not worry your Lordships. It will not be as wide-ranging as the review of 1998.

Surely it is legitimate for the Government to ask questions such as what are the threats we face, and what are their causes? What are our vulnerabilities, and how can we manage risk? What is the role of the Armed Forces and the right balance between homeland defence and overseas operations? What are the implications for international organisations and our regional and bilateral relationships? Those are important questions.

The noble and gallant Lord made some fun of the fact that it had been said that the Treasury would be involved at the start. It is arguable that it is better for the Treasury to be involved at the start than just at the finish. In a sense, one is damned if one does, and damned if one does not. In our judgment it is better to take the Treasury along with us. I notice the smiles on the faces of noble Lords who have been senior Ministers, or even Chiefs of the Defence Staff. It is important to take the Treasury with us because the case is so overwhelming.

I hope that your Lordships will give a fair ride to this enterprise. We are seeking the views of not only noble Lords but other experts on this important new chapter. Time is almost up. We have had an excellent debate, like all the others before it. There has been an increase in scope this time because of the many expert military contributions. Noble Lords hold many different views and have expressed them clearly, but the view of all noble Lords who have spoken in every debate is the abiding excellence of the British Armed Forces. The huge debt that we owe them, and which we shall continue to owe them has been expressed from all sides of the House. We know that we can depend on our Armed Forces; we must make sure that they can depend on us.