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Volume 448: debated on Monday 26 June 2006

UK forces in Afghanistan are primarily deployed as part of the international security assistance force. The ISAF mission, as published, is to help the Afghan Government to create a secure environment in which their authority can be extended across the entire country and reconstruction of the country can be taken forward. Of course, that objective will not be achieved by military means alone, and consequently the British Government have undertaken an unprecedented degree of cross-governmental co-ordination to ensure that we deliver a fully integrated package that addresses governance, security, economic development and political and social change.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that that objective will also not be secured with only 6,000 NATO troops in the southern part of Afghanistan. Is it not essential that more troops are made available, and what is he doing to ensure that that happens?

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that no one is yet at full operational capability in southern Afghanistan. We are in southern Afghanistan with several international partners—Canada, the United States, the Netherlands, Estonia, Denmark, Romania and Australia—and for our part, in Helmand province, we believe that we have deployed an important and appropriate force. I do not necessarily accept that there are insufficient forces in any other part of southern Afghanistan. However, the issue will need to be kept constantly under review by ISAF and NATO. It will be incumbent on us to ensure that we deploy sufficient forces to enable us to carry out the task in hand. However, the right hon. Gentleman should not forget that the Afghan army itself is increasingly deploying forces to that area. The assessment of those soldiers that I am given is that they are of the highest calibre.

I know that the Secretary of State will agree that central to a successful deployment in Afghanistan will be the heavy-lift capability provided by the Hercules aircraft from RAF Lyneham, which is in my constituency. In that context, he will know that one of the contributory factors to the tragic crash of a Hercules in Iraq last year might have been the absence of foam flame retardant in the wing tanks. Will he tell us how quickly the retardant will be fitted in the Hercules fleet and how many planes will be fitted with it? Will he confirm that all the planes that are deployed in Afghanistan will have that safeguard fitted to them?

I am happy to accept the hon. Gentleman’s invitation to pay tribute to the contribution that the Hercules—and, more importantly, those who fly the Hercules—have made to military operations in not only Afghanistan and Iraq at present, but elsewhere. He knows, as I am sure that the House does, that we intend to fit the flame-retardant foam into Hercules and to ensure that those that are deployed to the theatre are fitted with that. I have said in public, so I have no reason to say anything different from the Dispatch Box, that we hope to be able to do that by August for the first of them. We will ensure that sufficient numbers of Hercules are fitted with the appropriate retardant foam so that operations can be conducted.