Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Nick Harvey MP, has undertaken his first visit to Afghanistan since he took up post in the Ministry of Defence last month.
Joined on the visit by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, Mr Harvey is the first Liberal Democrat member of the new coalition government to visit an operational theatre.
Mr Harvey, the Member of Parliament for North Devon, and Admiral Stanhope, the professional head of the Royal Navy, visited British troops serving in Helmand province as part of 4 Mechanised Brigade, including Royal Marines from Somerset-based 40 Commando and Royal Navy medical staff based at Camp Bastion.
The minister and the Navy chief spent time chatting to servicemen and women about their experiences serving as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, asking them about the challenges they face as well as the progress they see on a day-to-day basis.
As part of the new Minister’s packed fact-finding schedule, he saw the work of British and ISAF forces in Helmand and elsewhere, including Royal Air Force personnel at Kandahar Airfield and staff based at Headquarters ISAF in Afghan capital Kabul.
He was briefed by British and US military commanders including receiving a detailed brief from Brigadier Richard Felton, the Commander of Task Force Helmand.
He had meetings with Afghan ministers, visited medical facilities and took a look at the work of the British-led Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team, which supports the Afghan government in delivering effective security and governance across the province.
The Minister then flew by helicopter to Check Point Tapa Paraang in Lashkar Gah where he met soldiers from the 1st Battalion Scots Guards.
He saw the accommodation where the soldiers live and work before the Commanding Officer of the Scots Guards, Lieutenant Colonel Lincoln Jopp, pointed out aspects of the area of operations from a vantage point on the roof of the accommodation.
Mr Harvey also met a Military Stabilisation Support Team who talked him through the work that they do on the ground to interact with and reassure the local population.
Mr Harvey said:
I last visited Afghanistan two years ago and this trip has shown me the vast amount of progress that has been made in that time.
Under General McChrystal there have been vast changes not only militarily but also politically. It will be a long road but Afghanistan is on the way to being a country that stands on its own feet.
Warrant Officer Class 2 (Company Sergeant Major) Andrew Johnstone from 1 Scots Guards, said:
It’s good that the Minister came out to see exactly what it is that we’re doing here. I think by seeing the base here he can appreciate how hard we work and the steps we have taken to improve security in the Lashkar Gah area.
It’s a boost for the lads to be able to ask questions and speak directly to the politicians that are making the decisions which affect them, I think that’s really important.
Meanwhile, Admiral Stanhope travelled by helicopter to Sangin, where British forces work alongside their Afghan counterparts in dangerous but crucial counter-insurgency operations.
Here he received a detailed ground brief from the Commanding Officer of 40 Commando Royal Marines, Lieutenant Colonel Paul James, visited forward operating bases, and was given a demonstration of the latest kit being used in the area including the new Sharpshooter and sniper rifles.
Admiral Stanhope said:
It was excellent to see at first hand all the hard work being done by the Royal Marines and Naval personnel in Afghanistan.
The Royal Marines in Sangin, in particular, have shown immense courage in what has been a hard tour so far but the progress they have made is clear to see. They are working with the ANSF to make Sangin a safer place for the local population and thereby contribute to a more secure Afghanistan and a safer world.
The visit follows a recent trip to Afghanistan by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup. During this visit, the Prime Minister announced the doubling of the operational allowance for deployed service personnel and an additional £67m of investment in technology, equipment and manning to counter the threat of improvised explosive devices.
The Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Liam Fox, also recently visited Afghanistan alongside the Foreign Secretary William Hague and the International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell.