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  Ministry of Defence / UK Defence Today / Operations / Operation Veritas Index / Speeches and Statements / Statement - 18 Mar 02 

The Secretary of State for Defence's statement in the Commons - 18 March 2002

(The authoritative Hansard version will be duly published at 
the Parliament website)

Mr Speaker.

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 very positive.

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 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 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 include:

  • 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.

Mr Speaker.

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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