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Published Wednesday 19th December 2001

Mr Speaker.

The recent Bonn Agreement on the future Governance of Afghanistan called for the deployment of an international force to Afghanistan to assist the new Afghan Interim Authority – which formally takes office on Saturday 22nd December – with the provision of security and stability for Kabul.

Two days ago, my Rt Hon Friend the Prime Minister confirmed that the United Kingdom was willing, in principle, to lead such a force.

I can now confirm that the United Kingdom is formally prepared to take on the leadership of an International Security Assistance Force for a limited period of three months. My Rt Hon Friend the Foreign Secretary has today written to the Secretary General of the United Nations to inform him of our decision.

Our decision follows further discussions with the United States, with the other nations that have indicated that they may be willing to contribute troops to the force, with the United Nations, and with the designated leaders of the Interim Authority in Afghanistan.

There are a number of issues still to be finalised. We have not yet settled every detail about this force. But it is right that I should inform the House today – in particular about the letter to the UN Secretary General. And today is the last opportunity for me to bring this before the House before the Christmas Recess.

As the Prime Minister emphasised, the situation in Afghanistan remains fragile. The International Security Assistance Force is a vital part of the international cmmunity’s efforts to assist the Afghan people in this early and difficult period of the reconstruction of their country.

A deployment of this kind – involving troops, equipment, and logistical support from several nations - is undoubtedly a complex undertaking. We have no illusions about Afghanistan – deploying forces there inevitably involves an element of risk. It is a challenging, difficult, and sometimes dangerous environment.

The force will be charged with assisting the Afghan Interim Authority in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding areas. Responsibility for security will remain with the Interim Authority. Potential tasks could, however, include liaison with and advice and support to the Interim Authority as well as the UN on security issues, together with scoping future requirements for help in establishing and training the new Afghan security forces.

The United Kingdom will provide the force Commander and his Headquarters. The force Commander will be Major General John McColl, who is currently serving as the General Officer Commanding 3(UK) Division – based at Bulford. General McColl, as the House will be aware, led last weekend’s reconnaissance and liaison team to Kabul. The force Headquarters will also be drawn from 3 Division, as will some of its main force and many of its essential support troops. Other elements will be drawn from the Headquarters of 16 Air Assault Brigade, and key enablers and units that are maintained at very high readiness, including elements of 40 Commando Royal Marines and the Second Battalion, The Parachute Regiment.

Indicative planning to date suggests that the United Kingdom’s contribution will be in the region of 1,500 troops, although the actual figure will depend on the contributions made by other nations. This will be an international force. It is too soon to say exactly how many troops it will include, or the nations from which they will come. But the force will number three to five thousand and will include contributions from the armed forces of several nations.

Sixteen nations were represented at last Friday’s conference for potential troop contributors. Twenty-one nations are represented at today’s follow-on conference at the Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood. We expect to establish the detailed force composition over the next few days.

The United States has indicated that it fully supports the deployment of the Force. The United States will provide essential enabling support to deploy and sustain the force. That is a vital and a considerable task.

The House will wish to know the arrangements for command and control. The force will have a particular mission, distinct from Operation Enduring Freedom. If the United Kingdom’s offer to be lead nation is accepted, the United Kingdom will exercise command. As I have said, General McColl will be the force commander. The force will work very closely with the United States, as set out in the letter from the Foreign Secretary to the UN Secretary General – a copy of which has been placed in the Library of the House.

I would like to place on record our gratitude to the United States. The United States has led the global coalition’s offensive operations against international terrorism with great success. Their generosity in also finding the capacity to support the International Security Assistance Force, by providing enabling capabilities that no other country can match, should be recognised and should be applauded.

I would also like to take this opportunity to record our appreciation of all the nations who have indicated that they are willing to provide troops.

The International Security Assistance Force is a reflection of the strong international support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. It will go to Kabul with the backing of the wider international community. Work is underway in New York to draw up a United Nations’ Security Council Resolution to authorise the deployment under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. We anticipate that it will be agreed within the next few days.

The House will have a number of proper questions about issues that have yet to be resolved. We not yet finalised all of the details about the force. There are still major questions, both about its exact size and precise composition - including which nations will contribute. We hope to refine the answers to these questions over the coming days.

We also need to agree with the Afghan authorities the precise tasks that the force will undertake and the modalities of its deployment. Let me be clear - the International Community is sending the force to assist the Afghans, not to interfere in their affairs. Discussions with designated members of the Interim Authority, including its Chairman, Defence, Interior and Foreign Ministers, indicate that they welcome our intention to lead the ISAF.

General McColl’s reconnaissance and liaison team met leading designated members of the Interim Authority to discuss how the force could best assist the Afghans and how it should relate to the Interim Authority. Further discussions are required and General McColl will be returning to Kabul later this week. These tasks will need to be encapsulated in a detailed Military Technical Agreement, which we anticipate finalising with the Interim Authority as soon as possible after it is established. Once this Agreement and the authorising UN Security Council Resolution are in place, the International Security Assistance Force will be able to deploy in full.

Needless to say, British forces deploying to Afghanistan will be properly equipped for the tasks that they will undertake and they will be provided with robust Rules of Engagement.

The United Kingdom has been invited to take on lead nation status because we and others believe that our forces have the capability and experience required to undertake this operation. We have the ability to get a force in and up and running very quickly. It is, therefore, right that we take on this responsibility, when so much depends on the early success of the political process that the force will support.

I am absolutely satisfied that this operation is within our capacity. Our commitment is limited in numbers – up to 1,500 troops and duration – up to three months. After three months, we will hand over lead nation status to one of our partners. There have already been indications that others may be willing to take this on.

General McColl and his immediate team will be returning to Kabul later this week to continue detailed negotiations with the Afghan authorities on the terms of a detailed military technical agreement. They will also be present for the inauguration of the Interim Authority on 22 December. Troops from 40 Commando Royal Marines will be available to support General McColl and, if required, the Interim Authority. A company of Marines is being sent this week to bolster the existing presence at Bagram.

The deployment of the main elements of the ISAF will be dependent on the outcome of discussions on the Military Technical Agreement and the complexity of the task. Given the circumstances, the main body will not begin to deploy before 28 December at the earliest and it will be some weeks before a substantial force could deploy to Afghanistan.

I am very conscious that our decision to lead this force will mean that some of our troops will not be able to spend Christmas with their families. Some of our troops have been at Bagram for some time. Separation from friends and family is never easy - least of all at this time of year. Our troops will, however, deploy to Afghanistan knowing that they will be carrying out a vital and a worthwhile task, contributing to restoring peace and stability to a country that has been torn apart by strife and international terrorism.

In offering to be the lead nation for the ISAF and to deploy British troops to Afghanistan, we are aware that we have taken on significant responsibilities. The war there is being won; we must now secure the peace. The United Kingdom is proud to be able to play an important role in this.

Mr Speaker, I am confident that we will.

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