General Richards, who took up post as Chief of the Defence Staff last week, spoke at length about UK operations in Afghanistan in an interview with The Sun newspaper which has been published today.
He explained to The Sun that his priorities are first and foremost to contribute as effectively as we can to assisting US General David Petraeus in Afghanistan.
He said that contributing as effectively as we can to a successful but timely end to the Afghan operation has got to be our main effort because our soldiers are out there risking life and limb in the interests of this country. He continued:
I feel a huge emotional, as well as practical/strategic, obligation to put that centremost. And that is, formally, as you know, the Department’s main effort.
General Richards added:
It’s definitely winnable, absolutely definitely.
And he compared the situation to Iraq saying:
Two-and-a-half years ago, Iraq was written off. They then put in those extra resources and the right leadership and the right political commitment and today we are pretty optimistic that they’re going to come through it.
General Richards said that the Afghan people are impatient with us for failing to deliver on expectations we’ve regularly raised and therefore we haven’t got forever, adding:
In a way, I think that the timelines that President Obama and our own Prime Minister are talking about - 2014, 2015 - are no bad thing because it’s not just domestic populations that will get tired of this thing, it’s also the Afghan population.
So actually, there is a congruence there of this can’t go on forever, we’d better get our act together and make sure we can win.
Asked whether a British withdrawal was on the cards any time within the next year, General Richards said:
I think we will take every opportunity that makes military and strategic sense to reduce our commitment because it’s big and it’s expensive. But absolutely, while acknowledging that that is a desirable thing to achieve, it will be, as the Prime Minister’s said before now, conditions-based, and, of course, we, the British, are in a demanding part of Afghanistan and therefore, inevitably, we’re going to be shouldering the burden at least through next year.
But actually, look, with a big touch wood here, the transformation as a result of the surge in our own part of that, in terms of success at the tactical level, has been marked.
In a period in September of this year, as I say, touch wood, these things come and go, casualty levels are mercifully reduced.
General Richards was asked what is the level of commitment if everything goes according to plan post-2015:
In terms of a number, it’s absolutely impossible for me to give you one,” he said. “I just can’t tell you. All I can tell you is that from the Prime Minister down, all of us are very clear that there will have to be a residual supporting commitment to the Afghan Police and Army, NSF [National Security Forces]. The nature of that support will depend on our success over the next five years.
So I’m optimistic that we can absolutely meet the point, achieve the target which is wrapped around the Afghan National Security Forces being able to take up the combat role from us by 2014-ish, which will then give us a period of overwatch for a while and being ready to help them whenever they need it.
Asked how long’s a while, General Richards said:
After 2015. And then we’ll be in a supporting role thereafter and I just couldn’t give you a figure. We’ve expended so much time, effort and - yes - lives on this.
The worst of all things would be to get out before we finish the job properly for want of 1,000 trainers to keep them going for another couple of years. It’ll be their administration, their logistics, all the things that make an army into a proper army that can sustain itself.
The interviewer then asked if you won’t give a number and won’t give a time length, presumably that’s exactly what you’re asking of the Government or the Prime Minister of the time; after 2015, do not put a number and do not put a time length on how much longer, in what depth, we need to stay for: