The tragic incident in Helmand involving six British soldiers is sad news for all in the Services but even more so for their families and friends.
Moments of tragedy understandably focus our minds on the many sacrifices that have been made by our Armed Forces, why such courage is required, and for what cause our soldiers, sailors and airmen are bravely putting their lives at risk.
The operations in Afghanistan did not start out of nothing or from vainglorious adventure. They were triggered by a terrorist atrocity which still casts a shadow over our world.
The 9/11 attacks took place in New York but they killed more Britons in a single terrorist incident than any other. Fifty-nine other nationalities were amongst the dead. No continent or religious group was left untouched.
The murderers of a decade ago sought destruction for the West, but they brought sadness to communities in Pakistan and Bangladesh, in Jordan and Indonesia. The world was united in our need to respond and remove the perpetrators from their bolt-hole and training ground in Afghanistan.
The threat from those men has diminished. Osama bin Laden is dead and many of his accomplices have been arrested or killed as they attempted to sow fear into other communities and homes. They have failed to turn their hateful grievances into a global revolution because they do not represent more than a fringe movement. They have no answers to society’s problems. But this does not stop them being a threat.
Afghanistan was a base for terrorism not because of the Afghan people; the 9/11 attackers were not Afghan. It was because the country had collapsed and the state had failed. The institutions that ensure a country can govern itself and take responsibility for itself had disappeared. Over the past 10 years we have been rebuilding them.
The progress we have made is truly impressive. The Afghan National Security Forces are barely nine years old. That’s an army and police formed in about the same time as it takes to train the company commanders who are now leading so many operations in Helmand. Afghan security forces now partner almost all operations and lead on more than a third of them.
The results are also clear. The number of complex attacks, the kind of incidents that require planning and sophisticated understanding of tactics, are dropping not only in Helmand but across the country. This is not just because of our efforts but because the Afghan Army and Police, strongly supported by the vast majority of the Afghan people, are increasingly able to take responsibility for their own security and respond to the threats they face.
As progress continues, the work of our servicemen and women will draw down but our efforts will endure. We have drawn up a plan with our ISAF allies to ensure we hand over a working security force responsive to the people they serve. When we cease combat operations at the end of 2014 the strategy will not change, but those who own and execute it will be Afghan.
We are set on a course that will see us ending combat operations. This is the path that was set out at Lisbon and will be refined at the NATO summit in Chicago this May. It is the path the Prime Minister and National Security Council have tasked the Armed Forces to deliver.
So we will hold our nerve. I know I speak for every man and woman in uniform when I say that we understand the importance of the mission with which we are charged. We do not underestimate the dangers, indeed we are the ones who pay the price through the death and injury of our friends and colleagues. But we also know how important our efforts are.
Getting this right will not see the end of Britain’s commitment in Afghanistan. DFID’s [Department for International Development’s] efforts are too often overlooked and the Foreign Office will ensure our friendship with the Afghan people endures long into the future. But it will see the end of the UK’s combat role.
As we transition we are securing our legacy and the reputation of our Forces. In itself that reputation helps to secure our interests. It reassures our friends and deters our enemies. Whilst I am confident of success, getting the balance right and ensuring the Afghans take over in an orderly manner will be our challenge.
Sadly, as we hold that course it is likely that others will lose loved ones. It is right that we take these moments to remember not only the fallen but that the families of the injured and killed are the ones who pay the enduring price of our security. Whilst we cannot be deflected from doing what is right, we can, and we should, always be aware of what we are asking the bravest of their generation to do.
We need your help! We are trying out designs for a new single website for all of government and we’d love your feedback. Please visit the ‘Government beta site’ by clicking on the link under Related Links.