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War Against Terrorism: A Struggle on Many Fronts

War Against Terrorism: A Struggle on Many Fronts

Speech by FCO Minister of State, Baroness Symons, in a Parliamentary Debate on Afghanistan, House of Lords, Monday, March 25, 2002. Source: FCO, London.

My Lords, over the past few months, the House has heard a great deal about the deployment of British troops to Afghanistan. The events of the past week, however, justify our careful attention to the subject. Following the Statement made by the Secretary of State for Defence in another place last Monday and the subsequent Adjournment debate on Wednesday, I am delighted to take the opportunity to open the debate this evening.

It has been recognised, ever since the terrible events of 11 September, that the struggle against international terrorism will be long and multi-faceted, embracing diplomatic, financial, economic and humanitarian aspects, as well as military. In the case of Afghanistan, we are working to secure peace and stability for a country that has, for far too long, been ravaged by war.

I shall remind your Lordships of the United Kingdom's objectives in the war against terrorism. They remain as declared on 16 October last year: to do everything possible to eliminate the threat posed by international terrorism; to deter states from supporting, harbouring or acting complicitly with international terrorist groups; to contribute to the reintegration of Afghanistan as a responsible member of the international community; and to maintain a positive political agenda of engagement with Arab countries and the Muslim world.

The United Kingdom's commitment to the campaign against international terrorism is as strong today as it was when those objectives were declared. We continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States — our friend and ally — and all other members of the coalition against terrorism. We must remember the other countries that took part in the operation earlier this month against the Taliban and Al-Qa'ida — Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, France and Norway. There are also 18 nations contributing to the International Assistance Force in Kabul.

The success of military operations and the need to continue

It is important to bear in mind that the struggle to defeat international terrorism is not over. Usama bin Laden and many other leaders of the Al-Qa'ida terrorist network have still to be brought to justice. They and their supporters are still a threat.

In opening the debate in another place last Wednesday, the Secretary of State for Defence made three points to set the context before discussing the detail of deployments of British troops in Afghanistan. First, we are right to act in Afghanistan. The terrorist attacks in the United States last September were only possible because Usama bin Laden and Al-Qa'ida had been able to draw on the support and the shelter offered by the Taliban regime. Had we done nothing, there was no doubt that bin Laden and his accomplices would have carried out further attacks: attacks perhaps by now even on the United Kingdom. We were right to act in self-defence under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. We were right to act to prevent Usama bin Laden and Al-Qa'ida from posing a continuing terrorist threat. We were right to act to break the links between Afghanistan and international terrorism and to reintegrate Afghanistan as a responsible member of the international community to ensure that those links are not established again.

Secondly, the action that the international community has taken has been remarkably successful. Afghanistan is now a very different country. The decision to deploy considerable military force against the terrorists and their supporters has been vindicated. Usama bin Laden and his Al-Qa'ida network have been dealt a heavy blow; only remnants remain of the Taliban, whose support was so important for Al-Qa'ida. The decision to deploy the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, to Kabul to help the interim authority to maintain security in the capital has also been vindicated.

Afghanistan is beginning to return to normality. Commercial life is returning to market stalls, which are full of food; people are out on the street; life is gradually getting back to normal. The Afghan New Year celebrations of this weekend were marked by the sight of kites flying over the capital, with dancing, displays of agricultural machinery and farm produce competitions — more akin to a British village fete than a country recovering from the ravages of war. Let us not forget as well the effect that this has had on the women of Afghanistan: schoolgirls returning to school last Saturday; women students once again attending Kabul University; the wearing of the burqa by choice, not obligation; and women joining in the voice of government.

Thirdly, British forces have played a vital role in this success. British forces have a reputation around the world for their skill and professionalism. Time and again, they have made a massive contribution to bringing stability to the world's trouble spots. Afghanistan is the latest example. We take immense pride in all that they do and in the credit that they bring to the United Kingdom. I wish to take this opportunity to note our appreciation of the widespread support within this House for the work that the British forces have done in Afghanistan and for the work that they will continue to do.

Improving the lot of the Afghan people

Almost an entire generation of Afghans has known nothing but war, poverty, insecurity, terrorism, drugs and refugee movements. Millions of Afghans have suffered appalling privations, but their resilience is extraordinary. Her Majesty's Government are determined to help make the future better than the past. We have a responsibility to help and we also have a direct national interest to do so.

In the first place, we want the Bonn agreement to succeed. The early signs are encouraging. In particular, we welcome the way in which Chairman Karzai and his fellow interim ministers are working energetically to provide effective administration. Over time, the interim administration should become increasingly broad-based and representative. That is why, for example, we are helping to fund the work of the new Loya Jirga commission, which will decide the rules and arrangements for the meeting of the Grand Assembly in June.

Secondly, we are trying to combat poverty. At Tokyo, we announced an additional pledge of £200 million over five years. In addition, we have already provided £60 million since September last year to UN agencies, the Red Cross and NGOs for immediate humanitarian and emergency aid.

Thirdly, insecurity: as is well known, the United Kingdom is leading the International Security Assistance Force. What is less well known, however, is that we have also begun training the new national army of Afghanistan and provided communications equipment for use by the Kabul police.

On drugs, we have begun work with the new government in Kabul to counter the cultivation, trafficking and consumption of heroin. The problem is urgent, as a substantial poppy crop is forecast for harvest next month. However, I wish to stress that it is wrong to make the connection, as some have done, between this harvest and the fall of the Taliban. The seeds for this year's harvest were sown many months ago, well before the interim administration took over. We have told the Afghans that we are willing to help with crop substitution — seeds, fertilisers, tools — and support for alternative livelihoods. We are also recommending to the interim administration that they should consider punitive action against farmers who fail to comply with the ban.

We are also looking at ways to enable Afghan refugees now living in Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere, as well as internally displaced persons, to return to their homes.

The role of the ISAF and its future development

Let me turn now to the International Security Assistance Force. British armed forces have played a significant role leading the ISAF in Kabul. This force is helping the Afghan interim authority to provide a secure and stable environment in Kabul and is contributing in a major way to creating an atmosphere of law and order. This is particularly important as the Afghan people take the next step along the path agreed in Bonn in December towards the emergency Loya Jirga on 6 June.

As this House is aware, the United Kingdom agreed to take on the leadership of this force from its inception for a limited period of time. It was a job that had to be done, and it had to be done well, if the Bonn agreement was to have the best possible chance of success. The United Kingdom was particularly well placed to do this. Our Armed Forces had the right capabilities and experience in expeditionary operations and rapid deployments. We knew that we could provide effective command structures and key equipment to get a force in and up and running in the timescale required, and we were right to take on this responsibility.

Turkey has indicated an interest in taking over as lead nation of the ISAF, and we are in detailed discussions on this with Turkey. Good progress has been made during a series of both diplomatic and military technical discussions with the Turks over the last few weeks, and we are hopeful of an announcement on hand-over of the leadership in the very near future.

Turkey will need continuing contributions of troops from other nations. Certainly the United Kingdom will continue to have troops in ISAF after we have handed over the lead. We have promised Turkey that this will be the case, and other nations have done so as well.

That does not, however, change our determination to draw down the number of British troops deployed as part of ISAF. Progress in securing wider international participation in the force is going well. We had, for example, the welcome arrival last week of the German brigadier to take over command of the Kabul Multinational Brigade, the ISAF subordinate headquarters, which until now has been provided by the headquarters of 16 Air Assault Brigade. This will enable us to withdraw a number of British troops and is a real demonstration of international co-operation. Similarly, confirmation from the Czechs last week of their offer of a field hospital for ISAF is very welcome.

As for the wider future of ISAF, the House will know that United Nations Security Council Resolution 1386 permits the force to remain in Kabul for six months, that is, until 20 June. The resolution may well be renewed, extending the duration of ISAF's deployment. Certainly it is clear that such a force will have a continuing role to play in bringing security to Kabul and its immediate surroundings, particularly over the period during and immediately following the Loya Jirga.

Before I move on to talk about the deployment of 45 Commando Group announced last Monday, I wish to underline our commitment to the continuing success of ISAF. Our deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan is entirely separate from ISAF, and neither this nor the transfer of our role as lead nation will change the strength of our commitment. The force has done great work, not only in patrolling the streets of Kabul, important though that is, but also by helping to train the first battalion of the new Afghan National Guard, as well as helping with such basic needs as the organisation of rubbish collection and an ambulance service. Those are all vital services which help to ensure the future stability of Afghanistan.

The deployment of 45 Commando Group

The deployment of 45 Commando Group to Afghanistan is entirely consistent with our campaign objectives that I highlighted at the beginning of my address. Since the military campaign began, we have made clear our determination to act to prevent Usama bin Laden and Al-Qa'ida from posing a continuing terrorist threat. That is why British forces have been involved in operations on the ground in Afghanistan for some months now.

As the Secretary of State for Defence emphasised in another place last Wednesday, we have also made clear that the military advice is that rooting out the remaining elements of Al-Qa'ida will take time. This has been a constant theme of our statements since the early days of the military deployment. Contrary to what many commentators have been reporting, the Government have never said that this was going to be a quick fix. Indeed, I recall making the point about how long this would take on the second Statement we made following the dreadful events of 11 September. Certainly, while Al-Qa'ida ceased to exist as a coherent force some months ago and the Taliban regime has long since been removed from power, there are still pockets of resistance.

As the recent US-led Operation Anaconda has demonstrated, elements of Al-Qa'ida and the Taliban regime remain in Afghanistan, hidden away in the remoter areas of the country. We must deal with these. The threat of attack from these groups and individuals remains high. If we do not deal with them, they would threaten all that the Afghan people and their supporters in the international community have achieved so far. They would certainly work to retain Afghanistan as a base for training and organising terrorism. And, left to regroup, there is no doubt that Al-Qa'ida and its supporters would continue to pose a direct threat to states outside Afghanistan, including to the United Kingdom.

That is why we are deploying 45 Commando Group with the clear mission to assist the United States troops to search out and defeat the remaining elements of Al-Qa'ida and Taliban terrorists. It is simply continuing the work that we began last October. In no sense is this 'mission creep'. In such situations, everyone always wants to know the details of the mission. But let me be clear that we are not going to describe exactly what is to happen next, as to do so puts knowledge and information into the hands of those opposed to us who would jeopardise the safety of our troops. We would simply put into the hands of potential adversaries that which they must not have.

Estimates have been made as to the length of the deployment: of the order of three months. Nonetheless, we must be clear that military action in difficult terrain against a determined enemy is dependent on many unknown factors. Our exit strategy is simple: we will leave when the task is completed.

Equally important is the need to have a clear chain of command. The 3 Commando Brigade headquarters will be based at Bagram airport, alongside the United States operational command of Operation Enduring Freedom under Major General Hagenbeck, Commanding General, 10th Mountain Division. 45 Commando Group command and control is entirely separate to that of ISAF, and is integrated in the United States command system, for active operations in the country. 45 Commando has a long history of operating and training alongside US forces—including in northern Iraq and Kosovo. Furthermore, there is full operational interoperability of communications available, as it has been throughout our operations in Afghanistan.

Let me be clear as well on the availability of close air support for British forces. We must recognise that complete air supremacy is available in Afghanistan. Therefore at any time during the conflict the marines will be able to call upon a formidable array of air support. The expert military advice is that there is no need to augment coalition air power with our own strike aircraft in support of this particular deployment. The Royal Marines possess highly skilled forward air controllers who train regularly with United States forces.

Finally, the situation that our forces find themselves in Afghanistan is one with distinct roles: security assistance by ISAF and war-fighting by 45 Commando is by no means unique. Other nations which have contributed troops to ISAF are in exactly the same situation: Denmark, France, Germany and Norway have all sent ground forces to participate in Operation Anaconda, while other elements of their armed forces remain in Kabul under General McColl.

The decision to deploy 45 Commando Group to Afghanistan underlines our determination to continue the action against terrorism and to assist with Afghanistan's reintegration into the world community as a responsible and valued member. It is not a decision that has been taken lightly and is one that has been taken in the full knowledge of the dangers inherent in the mission. I am sure that all Members of the House will wish to join me in wishing our forces every success in the difficult job that they are undertaking and in sending a message of support to members of all three of the armed services and their families.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).