On the Initial U.S. and British operations in Afghanistan

As you all know from the announcement by President Bush, military action against targets inside Afghanistan has begun. I can confirm that UK forces are engaged in this action. I want to pay tribute at the outset to Britain’s armed forces. There is no greater strength for a British prime minister and the British nation at a time like this to know that the forces we are calling upon are amongst the best in the world. They and their families are of course carrying an immense burden at this moment and will be feeling deep anxiety, as will the British people, but we can take great pride in their courage, their sense of duty, and the esteem with which they are held throughout the world.

No country lightly commits forces to military action and the inevitable risks involved. We made clear following the attacks upon the US on 11 September that we would take action once it was clear who was responsible. There is no doubt in my mind, nor in the mind of anyone who has been through all the available evidence, including intelligence material, that these attacks were carried out by the al-Qaeda network headed by Osama Bin Laden.

Equally it is clear that they are harbored and supported by the Taleban regime inside Afghanistan. It is now almost a month since the atrocity occurred. It is more than two weeks since an ultimatum was delivered to the Taleban to yield up the terrorists or face the consequences. It is clear beyond doubt that the Taleban will not do this. They were given the choice of siding with justice, or siding with terror. They chose terror. There are three parts, all equally important, to the operation in which we are engaged – military, diplomatic and humanitarian. The military action we are taking will be targeted against places we know to be involved in the al-Qaeda network of terror or against the military apparatus of the Taleban.

The military plan has been put together mindful of our determination to do all we humanly can to avoid civilian casualties. I cannot disclose how long this wave of action will last. But we will act with reason and resolve. We have set the objective to pursue those responsible for the attacks, to eradicate Bin Laden’s network of terrorism and to take action against the Taleban regime that is sponsoring him. After the precise British involvement, I can confirm that last Wednesday the US government made a specific request that a number of UK military assets be used in the operation which has now begun, and that I gave the authority for these assets to be deployed. They include the base at Diego Garcia, reconnaissance and other aircraft and missile-firing submarines. The missile-firing submarines are in use tonight. The air assets will be available for use in the coming days. The US are obviously providing the bulk of the force required and leading the operation.

But this is an international effort. As well as the UK, France, Germany, Australia and Canada have also committed themselves to take part in it. On the diplomatic and political fronts, in the time I have been Prime Minister, I cannot recall a situation that has commanded so quickly such a powerful coalition of support – not just from those countries directly involved in military action but from many others in all parts of the world. That coalition has strengthened not weakened in the 26 days since the atrocity occurred. This is no small measure due to the statesmanship of President Bush. The world understands that whilst of course there are dangers in acting as we are, the dangers of inaction are far, far greater – the threat of further such outrages, the threats to our economies, the threat to the stability of the world.

On the humanitarian front, we are assembling a coalition of support for refugees in and outside Afghanistan, which is as vital as the military coalition. Even before September 11, four million Afghans were on the move. There are two million refugees in Pakistan and one and a half million in Iran. We have to ask for humanitarian reasons to alleviate the appalling suffering of the Afghan people and to deliver stability so that people from that region stay in that region. We have already contributed £36 million to the humanitarian effort and stand ready to do more. So we are taking action therefore on three fronts – military, diplomatic and humanitarian.

I also want to say very directly to the British people why this matters so much to Britain. First, let us not forget that the attacks of 11 September represented the worst terrorist outrage against British citizens in our history. The murder of British citizens, whether it happened overseas or not, is an attack upon Britain. But even if no British citizen had died, we would be right to act. This atrocity was an attack on us all, on people of all faiths and people of none. We know the al-Qaeda network threatens Europe, including Britain, and indeed any nation throughout the world that does not share their fanatical views. So we have a direct interest in acting in our self-defense to protect British lives. It was an attack on lives and livelihoods. The airlines, tourism and other industries have been affected, and economic confidence has suffered with all that means to British jobs and business. Our prosperity and standard of living require us to deal with the terrorist threat. We act also because the al-Qaeda network and the Taleban regime are funded in large parts on the drugs trade – 90% of all heroin sold in Britain originates from Afghanistan. Stopping that trade is again directly in our interests.

I wish to say finally, as I have said many times before, that this is not a war with Islam. It angers me, as it angers the vast majority of Muslims, to hear Bin Laden and his associates described as Islamic terrorists. They are terrorists pure and simple. Islam is a peaceful and tolerant religion, and the acts of these people are contrary to the teachings of the Koran. These are difficult and testing times for us all. People are bound to be concerned about what the terrorists may seek to do in response. I should say there is at present no specific credible threat to the United Kingdom that we know of and that we have in place tried and tested contingency plans which are the best possible response to any further attempts at terror.

This is a moment of utmost gravity for the world. None of the leaders involved in this action want war. None of our nations want it. We are peaceful people. But we know that sometimes to safeguard peace, we have to fight. Britain has learnt that lesson many times in our history. We only do it if the cause is just. This cause is just.