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Volume 472: debated on Monday 3 March 2008

6. What forces he has identified for possible deployment to Kosovo; and for how long he expects such forces to be liable for deployment to Kosovo. (190363)

As part of our long-standing commitment to the Balkans, the UK remains ready to deploy a battalion to Kosovo until the end of 2008, as part of the NATO pan-Balkans operational reserve force. Any deployment would be for an initial period of 30 days, after which we will re-examine the requirement with NATO. The 1 Welsh Guards is currently on standby to deploy if necessary.

If UK troops are deployed, the armed forces, which are already at breaking point, will be heavily overstretched. Will the Minister confirm what effect the deployment may have on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq?

It would not have any effect on operations in Afghanistan and Iran—[Hon. Members: “Iraq.”] In Iraq. This is a long-standing commitment that is being provided for within our planning assumptions, and 1 Welsh Guards stand ready to deploy. The lead element would be ready, if necessary, within four days; the rest of the battalion would be ready within seven days. We have been prepared for that for some time.

Given our overstretch and the regrettable reluctance of European Union NATO countries to take on their share in Afghanistan, does the Minister not agree that those countries should bear the brunt of any troop deployment for peacekeeping purposes in Kosovo?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just told me that there are 18,000 NATO troops in Kosovo. We share responsibility for the reserve with Italy and Germany. It happens that, in 2008, that responsibility falls to us, and we have prepared for that deployment, which is all catered for within our assumptions. As I have said, 1 Welsh Guards will take on that responsibility for the first three months; after that, the responsibility will fall to 2 Rifles.

How does my right hon. Friend respond to the remarks made by Commander John Muxworthy, the chief executive of the United Kingdom National Defence Association, that the Ministry of Defence would be

“heaving a sigh of relief”

if no more troops were required in Kosovo, because the British armed forces are in chronic crisis?

I would respond by saying that this is a deployment that has been prepared for, and a commitment that we have known about. It started on 1 January and, to date, there has been no requirement for the reserve to be deployed. Let us all hope that that situation pertains, but I do not think that my hon. Friend or anyone else in the House would deny the fact that our forces have played an extremely positive role in Kosovo and in the wider former Yugoslav republic over a period of time. People will recognise the capability that we have been able to put in there, and the considerable effect that that has had over the past few years in helping to stabilise that part of the world.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says, but what efforts are he and his colleagues making to ensure that other European nations hold to their commitments and realise that, due to our commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia, it is possible that they might be asked to do more?

As my hon. Friend and all other hon. Members know, there is an ongoing debate to try to ensure burden sharing across NATO. We are trying to achieve that to the maximum possible degree, taking into account not only our NATO allies’ preparedness to deploy in various places—whether in Afghanistan or Kosovo—but their capability to do so. We ought to be enormously proud of the fact that this country has a very real military capability that we have been able to use very effectively in the Balkans. We have accepted responsibility for this deployment as part of that. As I have already said, it is shared with Italy and Germany, which will take turns to be able to provide the reserve capability. It has not been called on for the first three months of this year. Let us hope that it will not be necessary to provide it, but our people stand ready and able to undertake the deployment, should it become so.

Russia’s new President, Mr. Medvedev, visited Belgrade twice during his campaign to show solidarity with the Serbs over Kosovo. Russia’s newly appointed ambassador to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, has warned that Russia could use military force if the situation in Kosovo worsened. What assessment have the Government made of how the new Russian Government might affect the security situation in Kosovo?

We conduct those ongoing assessments, along with our NATO allies, and we can only hope that the Russians will play a constructive part in exerting the very real influence that they have on the Serb side of the reaction to Kosovo. Let us hope that everybody plays a constructive role and that peace prevails, so that we do not need to deploy the reserve force and the transition to the new status in Kosovo takes place in a peaceful manner.

It was no secret that the date on which Kosovo was expected to declare independence would fall in the early part of 2008, yet the Government did not make an arrangement with any other NATO country to provide troops for the operational reserve force. If, as many worry, the security situation worsens and we have to deploy British troops to the area, it will have an impact on our armed forces. At a time when roughly 20 per cent. of the British armed forces are deployed overseas, is not that just another example of the Government failing to plan properly and our allies failing to carry their share of the burden fairly?

If the hon. Gentleman would listen—I have said that there are 18,000 NATO troops in Kosovo. The commitment was long expected and planned for; and throughout the run-up to what has subsequently happened in Kosovo we knew that from 1 January we would have to meet the commitment, should it become necessary and be required. That was part of our planning assumptions. We are now three months into the year, and it has not been necessary yet—let us hope that it does not become necessary. Should the deployment be necessary, however, we have the ability and we have done the planning in order to be able to meet our commitments, and we will do precisely that.