General Richards gave an interview about UK operations in Afghanistan to The Times newspaper, published today. In the piece, CDS spoke about the reasons for the mission, the current strategy and plans for the UK’s military withdrawal.
General Richards said that we won’t really know how successful the mission in Afghanistan has been for a few years yet, but justified the mission saying:
You have to be prepared to fight for one’s freedom and one’s security. And if you go back to the situation in 2001 - and I think people tend not to do this sufficiently often - and think of those twin towers, think again of what happened here in London a few years later, and just pause as to whether or not, if we had not gone into Afghanistan, we wouldn’t have had a lot more of that.
All the people that I’ve got under me have been fighting for ten years to ensure that this country and the people of this country will not have such a high risk of that sort of thing being inflicted on them.
And the fact is that, while I’m the first to concede that we have made mistakes collectively, and no doubt individually, over the ten years there has not been a terrorist attack launched from Afghanistan.
General Richards added that, regarding Helmand, there is now a consensus that things have gone much better and that we are launched on a strategy that he believes will deliver a successful outcome by the end of 2014. He added:
The strategy is all about growing the numbers and the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces. I think everything we’re seeing is that we’re on track for them assuming more and more responsibility, which is the strategy, culminating sometime in 2014 with them having the lead throughout Helmand, with us there still in support. And I’m confident that the broad strategy will deliver the sort of success we need.
Asked whether the Afghans are doomed to failure, given that the government itself is so corrupt, the General said:
There is corruption in Afghanistan, but there’s corruption in a lot of places around the world and you just have to factor it in and increasingly marginalise it.
Explaining what the indicators will be that the mission has succeeded come 2014, he said:
First of all, narrowly, from our perspective, that the Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF] are able to take on the task that we have predominantly been performing with them, but often for them, as they grow in size and capability.
And we’re not talking about turning them into the British Army, able to manoeuvre with tanks and air forces and all those sorts of things; we’re talking about an army that is sufficiently good to deal with people who are quite rudimentary at the military tactical level. And I see that that is a perfectly realisable strategy and we’re en route to deliver it.
More widely, clearly there has to be continuing improvement in terms of governance. The relationship with Pakistan is vital and I, along with lots of other people, spent a lot of time working with the Pakistanis on how they can help us seal that border and address their own problems.
So there’s a mish-mash, a mosaic of activity, but as far as I’m concerned our focus, which is core to the military strategy, is making sure the ANSF can step up to the task and carry on all the good work, but with our continuing support.
Regarding the timescales for US or UK withdrawals from Afghanistan General Richards said that the declared military objective is transition between now and the end of 2014, and the handover of primacy to the ANSF. CDS added:
As long as plans allow that outcome, the detail of which plan we go for is still being debated, and I literally expect, sometime in the next month, that we will get from the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, because this is not just Britain or just America, his endorsed recommendation. We will then synthesise our own national planning with that.
The biggest risk we face is if the many nations that constitute ISAF go national. We’ve got to remain closely co-ordinated and see this through as an alliance in a properly synchronised way.
And we just don’t know yet. We’re still talking three years before we hand over. We’re talking another year before anything substantial happens in terms of changes in troop numbers. We need to think it through properly and get it right.
So we’re not in a desperate hurry. We’ve got plenty of time. We know that we will remain until the end of 2012 at 9,000. We’ve got 9,500, we’re coming down by 500 over the next year.
Asked if the war has been worth the lives lost and the resources spent, General Richards said:
As far as we in the British Armed Forces are concerned, the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. The vast, vast majority of soldiers - we’re all volunteers, we have no doubt that this is a good war, despite all of us losing friends throughout it.