Mr Cameron said yesterday’s statement was the first of regular updates to the House of Commons on the mission in Afghanistan, with quarterly statements by the Foreign and Defence Secretaries.
During yesterday’s statement, Mr Cameron reiterated why British troops are operating in Afghanistan. He said:
Our forces are in Afghanistan to prevent Afghan territory from again being used by Al-Qaeda as a base from which to plan attacks on the UK or our allies.
Of course the Al-Qaeda training camps and the Taliban regime that protected them were removed from Afghanistan in the months after 9/11 and the presence of NATO forces prevents them from returning, but Afghanistan is not yet strong enough to look after its own security; and that is why we are there.
And together with the greater efforts of the Pakistanis to hunt down Al-Qaeda in their own country, Al-Qaeda are now under pressure on both sides of the border.
Mr Cameron said that he has been advised that the threat from Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan has reduced in the last eighteen months, adding:
But I am also advised that if it was not for the current presence of UK and international coalition forces, Al-Qaeda would return to Afghanistan and the threat to the UK would rise.
Mr Cameron then talked about how long British forces must remain in Afghanistan. He said:
The Afghan people do not want foreign forces on their soil any longer than necessary, and the British people are rightly impatient for progress.
Our forces will not remain in Afghanistan a day longer than is necessary and I want to bring them home the moment it is safe to do so.
He described the key to success as training and equipping the Afghan security forces so they can secure their country themselves.
Mr Cameron added that this is why the UK backs the strategy developed by the ISAF Commander, General McChrystal, which involves protecting the civilian population from the insurgents, supporting more effective government at every level, and building the Afghan National Security Forces as rapidly as feasible. Mr Cameron said:
We want to transfer security responsibility for districts and provinces to Afghan control as soon as they’re ready, but this must be done on the basis of the facts on the ground and not a pre-announced timetable.
He also said:
The current year is the vital year. We are six months into an 18-month military surge and we must now redouble our efforts to drive progress.
Central Helmand, along with Kandahar, has been the heartland of the Taliban. It is from here that they gave safe haven to the Al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan. That’s why the operation in central Helmand is crucial to the success of the whole mission.
Four years ago we went into Helmand with 3,000 troops. I don’t think anyone now seriously argues that that was sufficient. Today there are around 30,000 there; 8,000 British working alongside 20,000 US Marines. In total we have over 10,000 troops in the country as a whole.
With the arrival of reinforcements, and the continued growth of the Afghan security forces, we are now evening out the ISAF presence in the main populated areas in Helmand.
This is an absolutely crucial point. In the past we simply have not had enough soldiers per population for an effective counter-insurgency campaign.
Today, although the rebalancing is still work in progress, the situation is much improved. The arrival of a US Marine Expeditionary Force, combined with additional contributions from other ISAF partners, including the UK, has given a huge boost to the resources available to ISAF in Helmand.
For example, the Marines have arrived with some 80 aircraft and helicopters of their own, which are now available to support all ISAF forces in Helmand.
Mr Cameron said it is clear that real progress has been made in central Helmand this year, with a degree of normality returning to places like Nad ‘Ali:
But the progress is not yet irreversible,” he added. “Inevitably, there will be tough fighting as Afghan forces, with ISAF support, hold the ground that we have taken and push the insurgents out of further towns and villages.
But Mr Cameron said that we cannot succeed either in Helmand or in Afghanistan by military means alone:
Insurgencies usually end with political settlements not military victories, and that is why I have always said we need a political surge to accompany the military one. We need better to align our development spending with our overall strategy, and I have announced £200m to be spent on training, strengthening the police services and government institutions, and crucially we need a political process to help bring the insurgency to an end.
As a first step this means getting individual Taliban fighters to put down their weapons, renounce violence and reintegrate into Afghan society.
The successful peace jirga earlier this month should enable that process to move ahead more swiftly.
But it means more than that; for long-term political stability, everyone in Afghanistan, including those in the south, must feel it is their government, their country, and that they have a role to play.
As I agree with President Karzai, we must start working towards a wider reconciliation process leading to a political settlement that works for all the peoples of Afghanistan.
We are seeing a good example of that in Kandahar, where, importantly, the process getting underway is largely Afghan-led.
Alongside military operations by Afghan security forces, together with international forces, it includes, for example, a shura of several hundred local elders conducted yesterday by the local governor, which President Karzai attended. And it includes a major drive by the Afghan Government with our support to improve public services and the rule of law.
From now on what is happening around Kandahar and within Helmand should reflect a deeper understanding of the influence of tribal structures in Afghanistan. In the past we simply have not paid enough attention to this, and to the unintended consequences of some of our policies.
I want, for example, for us to take a careful look at the contracting policy of ISAF, to ensure that the money going into the local economy from the huge contracts that are let has a positive impact and does not help fund local militias or, even worse, the insurgents.
Mr Cameron concluded by saying success will not come easily and that we must be ready for further casualties. He said:
This is the vital year. We have the forces needed on the ground, we have our very best people, not just military, but leading on the diplomatic and development front as well; but I do not pretend it will be easy.