Hansard version will be duly published at
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. These included preventing Usama bin Laden and
Al Qaida 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 this action has been remarkably successful.
Afghanistan is now a very
different country. The Taliban government, which harboured
the Al Qaida terrorists, is no more. Terrorist training
camps have been put out of action. The first steps towards
recreating 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 Qaida 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 leading the International
Security Assistance Force in Kabul, with some 1,800
British troops deployed with the Force.
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. I pay particular tribute to General John McColl
for his role in this.
The ISAF is helping the
Afghan Interim Authority 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.
The ISAF is already training
the first battalion of an Afghan National Guard - about
600 strong and with an ethnic make-up that reflects
that of Afghanistan itself. They are also providing
advice to the Afghan police. Where it can, the ISAF
has helped with much-needed physical reconstruction
work - projects that range from repairs to schools to
getting the city's dust carts back on the road.
British forces deployed
with the 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,
the 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. This will enable us to withdraw a
number of British troops from theatre and is a real
demonstration of genuine international co-operation.
So too is the Czech Republic's offer of a field hospital
for the 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 indeed.
The House will also be
interested in the hand-over of the United Kingdom's
responsibilities as lead nation for the ISAF. Our talks
with Turkey, which has expressed an interest in taking
this on, continue. It would not be appropriate to say
too much before these talks are concluded. But certainly
the atmosphere in the high level discussions between
the UK, the US, and the Turks in Ankara last week was
We are still working, therefore,
to transfer the leadership of the ISAF. We are working
hard to tie down the details, with the reassurance that
Prime Minister Ecevit of Turkey has told my Rt Hon Friend
the Prime Minister that he strongly supports his country
taking on the role.
But for all the progress
that we have made in Afghanistan, the threat of attack
from Al Qaida and Taliban-related groupings and individuals
across the country remains high.
The recent Operation Anaconda
in the Paktia province, led by the United States, tackled
one group of Al Qaida terrorists and Taliban fighters.
They showed that these people are still in Afghanistan
in large numbers and that they are heavily armed. Left
alone, these 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 Authority and will
work to destabilise the situation across Afghanistan.
Al Qaida and its supporters continue to pose a direct
threat to states outside Afghanistan, including to the
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 who were involved, including the crews of the
RAF Tristar tankers and Sentry AWACS aircraft which
supported coalition air strikes during the operation.
The United States has formally
requested that the UK provide forces to join in future
military operations against other remnants of Al Qaida
and the Taliban elsewhere in Afghanistan. I have, therefore,
authorised the deployment to Afghanistan of a full UK
infantry battlegroup, built around 45 Commando, Royal
Marines. This 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
this 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 these 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. These
- 7 Battery of 29 Commando
Regiment, Royal Artillery, equipped with 105 millimetre
light guns, from Plymouth;
- 59 Independent Commando
Squadron, Royal Engineers, from Chivenor;
- and elements of the
Commando Logistics Regiment, also from Chivenor;
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 - based in Odiham.
This is a powerful force,
in total up to 1700 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 mean.
These troops are being deployed to Afghanistan to take
part in warfighting 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 ever makes
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 Qaida and Taliban elements have the ability
and the desire to launch attacks right into the heart
of nations like ours.
Both the deployment of
the Commando Group and our deployment to Kabul as part
of the 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.
But the troops with the International Security Assistance
Force in Afghanistan have their own difficult and demanding
job to do. 45 Commando Group will have their's.
By deploying 45 Commando
Group we shall make a new and important contribution
to defeating the remnants of Al Qaida and the Taliban.
And by our continued commitment to the 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.
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