Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Liam Fox, visited troops in Lashkar Gah in Helmand province yesterday in his first visit since taking up his Cabinet post.
He was joined by Foreign Secretary William Hague, International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, and Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup.
The visitors were briefed by Brigadier Richard Felton, the Commander of Task Force Helmand, and by Lindy Cameron, the Head of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, before meeting Service personnel based in Lashkar Gah.
Captain Stuart Thomas of 204 Signal Squadron said:
It’s a great show of support for the three Ministers to come out so shortly after the election and it was great to hear them speak passionately about our achievements in Afghanistan.
Liam Fox was keen to find out what life is like for us here and our relationship with the Afghan security forces, which is improving all the time.
All three Ministers addressed the assembled Service and civilian personnel and praised their courage and dedication to the mission in Afghanistan.
Dr Fox said:
I will give you my promise that we will do everything we can to ensure that, whatever you are asked to do, you are properly, fully equipped to do so, to maximise your chance of success and minimise the risk to you.
Mr Hague paid tribute to the progress which has been made in Helmand, saying he was ‘full of admiration’ for the work being done. He said:
It’s very encouraging for all of us who have been here 18 months or two years ago to see the enormous progress that’s been made thanks to your incredible hard work.
The difference over that period, the difference in governance, the difference in freedom of movement, the difference in protecting communities, is colossal. And a lot of that progress has been made in the last few months. We want to thank you for all that hard work.
Many soldiers were keen to know about the promised doubling of operational bonuses. The Defence Secretary said that after discussions with the Treasury, the new Government will be sticking to the pledge and details of the increase will be announced in next month’s Budget.
While in Lashkar Gah yesterday, Dr Fox was interviewed on Sky News Sunday Live by Adam Boulton, when he said:
I’ve been here five or six times now over the last few years. There’s no doubt that where we are in Lashkar Gah, things are considerably better than when I last visited, that there is more freedom of movement; we’ve seen local bazaars opening up with shopkeepers able to stock up, local people able to buy things, so clearly there are areas where there has been substantial improvement.
Some areas are further behind in terms of regaining and holding ground, so we have to give our Forces time and General McChrystal’s strategy time to feed through. But certainly there are some signs that make me feel optimistic, although clearly there’s still a long way to go, but I think that we do need to remember, and I’ve been making at every stop that I’ve had here the same point, which is that we are in Afghanistan for reasons of Britain’s national security.
We don’t want Afghanistan to roll back to being a failed state from which terrorist campaigns can be designed and launched, nor do we want to see the destabilisation of Pakistan next door. There are big regional security questions as well as national security questions for the UK.
On the reasons for British military involvement in Afghanistan Dr Fox added:
The primary reason why we’re in Afghanistan is a national security imperative. We had to break the grip that Al-Qaeda had on this country; we have to stop the Taliban coming back and giving help to other terrorist groupings.
It’s of course clear that if we want a stable and prosperous Afghanistan in the longer term, we need to be investing in this country, we need to be ensuring that there is prosperity, better governance, better human rights, all of these things.
It will take a long time and they’re part of a different if complementary international mission that will have to continue for a long time after our Armed Forces have left here.
Asked how long he thinks it will be before Armed Forces can leave Afghanistan, Dr Fox replied:
General McChrystal’s made very clear in his strategy that the whole point now is to get the Afghan National Security Forces able to deal with their own internal and external security without reference to the international coalition. That’s moving on apace.
I’ve this morning been talking to some of our own troops who’ve been training the Afghan forces. I’ve met some of the Afghan forces themselves and they’ve come on a long way from some of my previous visits. But it’s still going to take some time to get the numbers and the quality up.
General McChrystal talks about 2014 as being a reasonable target for when we might get those sort of numbers and quality to a level where we might be able to transition to them having the overall role of security in this country.
That seems perfectly attainable, but clearly to think about bringing our Forces out before we’ve completed our task would be wrong. But against that, we have to ensure that we’re not keeping our troops here for any longer than absolutely necessary and I think that everybody in the United Kingdom will want to see our Forces back as soon as we could once they had completed the task we’ve set for them.
Dr Fox added that Helmand is one of the more difficult parts of Afghanistan and it’s probably one of the last places where there will be an overall transition to Afghan forces. He added:
I think we need to be very realistic with the British people about the state of the mission. I intend to give regular statements to Parliament showing both sides of the ledger, the problems we face, but the successes our Armed Forces are having, and I think that’s necessary if we’re to maintain broad public support for our Armed Forces.
When I spoke to an assembly of our troops earlier today, it was very clear that they wanted the public to support them, not just for being members of the Armed Forces, but for carrying out a mission which they believed was right for the security of the people of Britain. I applaud them in that and I hope that we can continue to build public support for them.