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EDITIONS
Thursday, 20 June, 2002, 16:52 GMT 17:52 UK
Hoon attacks 'armchair critics'
Turkish members of ISAF
Turkish peacekeepers have taken the lead role
The vast majority of the 3,000 UK troops deployed in Afghanistan will be home by the end of August.


Those who carp about the lack of action do so from a position of ignorance about the nature of warfare

Geoff Hoon
But the UK will continue to maintain a presence "in and around" the country in readiness for rapid re-deployment if needed, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has told MPs.

He also mounted a robust defence of UK operations in Afghanistan, attacking the "armchair commentators" who "carped" about the "lack of action".

And he strongly denied Conservative claims that the UK's armed forces were "overstretched" and facing a recruitment crisis.

'Ignorance'

In a Commons statement, Mr Hoon went out of his way to praise the "exemplary" leadership of the Marines' commanding officer in Afghanistan, Brigadier Roger Lane.

The Ministry of Defence has denied media reports that it was unhappy with his performance and had wanted him replaced.

The Marines' mission - codenamed Jacana - has been criticised in some quarters for failing to locate any al-Qaeda fighters, despite strong warnings from ministers of likely combat casualties.

But Mr Hoon said: "Those who carp about the lack of action do so from a position of ignorance about the nature of warfare.

"That is one thing, it is quite another to wish that they had come under fire, which appears to have been the hope of some armchair commentators in recent weeks."

Speaking later on BBC News 24, Mr Hoon said it would have been "entirely wrong" of him not to warn MPs and the country as a whole of possible casualties.

Future deployments

Earlier on Thursday, the UK officially handed over command of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan to Turkey whose army's presence is set to be increased.

British troops walking in Afghanistan
British troops have been crucial, the MoD says
This will release about 900 members of the Royal Anglian regiment, who had been employed in a peacekeeping role.

They are set to return to home by the middle of July, Mr Hoon said.

A small UK force of about 400 will remain in Kabul, in line with earlier plans to maintain a "substantial but reduced" force.

Meanwhile, withdrawal of all 1,700 members of 45 Commando battlegroup Royal Marines will begin on 4 July and should be completed by the end of the month.

They will not be replaced immediately.

But about 1,700 UK troops will continue to be stationed in the Afghanistan area, in Pakistan and the Indian Ocean, while stores would be kept in Afghanistan in readiness for any future deployments.

'Overstretched' forces

"The future of Afghanistan now looks brighter than for some time," Mr Hoon told MPs.

He also went out of his way to stress that the government had taken no decision on military operations in Iraq despite suggestions to the contrary by former senior Nato commander General Wesley Clark on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Shadow Defence Secretary Bernard Jenkin welcomed the "substantial reduction" of forces in Afghanistan saying it would ease the "over-stretch" affecting Britain's armed forces.

But his claim that total UK forces would soon number 95,000 - "the smallest standing army that Britain has had since the days of Wellington" - were dismissed out of hand by Mr Hoon.

The current total was 101,320, Mr Hoon said, and although more recruitment was needed, the situation was not as serious as Mr Jenkin had suggested.

Mr Hoon also denied suggestions by Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Paul Keech that the large-scale withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan could be interpreted as a scaling down of the UK's commitment to peace in the country.

Heroin production

The defence secretary also stressed Britain's commitment to persuading Afghan farmers to grow food rather than the "lucrative cash crop of poppy".

According to Mr Hoon, 90% of the heroin sold on Britain's streets originates in Afghanistan.

And although there had been success in destroying this year's poppy crop, there needed to be a system in place to ensure that farmers grew crops for food "rather than destruction", he said.

Britain would also continue to support efforts to re-build the Afghan army, which was necessary for the future stability of the country, Mr Hoon added.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jonathan Head reports from Kabul
"Hamid Karzai's peaceful election here owed much to the British presence"
Geoff Hoon
"I'm delighted we haven't suffered any casualties, but it was a possibility"
Menzies Campbell, Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman
"They acted as a deterrent"
Find out more about the Royal Marines in Afghanistan


Analysis

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See also:

20 Jun 02 | UK Politics
20 Jun 02 | South Asia
23 May 02 | South Asia
21 Feb 02 | South Asia
13 Apr 02 | South Asia
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