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Defence Secretary on progress in Afghanistan

In a wide ranging interview published in today's Guardian, the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, restated why UK Forces are operating in Afghanistan and the tangible progress they are making.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Speaking about the reasons behind the UK’s continued presence in Afghanistan, Mr Hammond said:

We didn’t come here to defeat the insurgency. We came here to ensure that international terrorists that had been using Afghan territory were denied access to that territory.

And the way to do that was to control and manage the insurgency and the historical pattern is ISAF troops controlling and managing the insurgency while building up the capacity of Afghan forces to take on that role… so I think there has been huge progress made in these areas and the ultimate measure of success must be the extent to which we can leave Afghanistan in a state that will continue to deny its territory to international terrorists.

He added:

Look, we have to be clear why we came here in the place. In my opinion, we came here to protect our national security.

The presence of our troops and ISAF troops on the ground has massively reduced, indeed almost eliminated, the use of Afghanistan as a base for international terrorism and that has kept the bombers off the streets of our cities and that’s a huge success and even if we’d achieved nothing lasting, every year that goes by, keeping the bombers at bay, so they can’t operate, they don’t have the space to operate and organise, keeping them off our streets, is a significant achievement in itself.

But we clearly have built the basics of a future solution which will deny the space of Afghanistan to those who would seek to harm us and it’s important that the Afghans understand, as we’ve transitioned to them, where our red lines are.

And our red line and I know this is true for the Americans, is that they will not tolerate… we will not tolerate international terrorists being allowed to operate from Afghan territory and the very good news is that the Afghan government has no intention of allowing that to happen.

They’re very clear that they must maintain their sovereignty over their territory and deny it to terrorists. So the message for people back home is that over the years we have contained the threat to UK national security.

We’ve built the Afghan national security forces to the point where they will now be able to take over that burden and we are confident that we will leave in place a solution which may not look perfect. Well, I can go further than that.

It will not look perfect. There will be some compromises made between the Afghans and insurgents, but if it maintains the integrity of Afghanistan and denies the use of it to international terrorists, then we have achieved our primary purpose.

During the course of 12th Mechanized Brigade’s current tour, the numbers of British tactical bases will have gone from 82, in April, to 34 due to closures and handovers to Afghan forces made possible by their continuing improvement and build up of strength.

Commenting on this, Mr Hammond said:

That’s amazing reduction in our footprint and it’s changed the nature of the mission. What we are doing is quite different from what we were doing a year ago and it will go on changing as more areas transition to secure force assistance.

Asked about plans to draw down UK troops from Afghanistan, Mr Hammond said:

We genuinely haven’t made a decision yet and I think it’s probably true to say that the military view on this is changing a little a bit. I think if you’d asked six months ago the question, privately the commanders out here would have been saying that they would push for keeping force levels as possible for as long as possible.

I think as we’ve moved through the transition to security force assistance model, and perhaps our own commanders have been a little surprised by the extent to which they’ve been able to draw back and leave the Afghans taking the lion’s share of the combat role…

I think there is a bit of a rethinking going on about how many troops we do actually need to deliver that role effectively.

On working with and alongside ISAF partners going forward, he added:

Our position is that we want to work with our allies within an ISAF framework to draw down in an orderly fashion that secures our legacy and achieves our objectives and it doesn’t make sense for us unilaterally to decide what that drawdown pattern will look like.

We have to wait until ISAF, but more particularly the Americans have reached a decision about their drawdown pattern just because they constitute the overwhelming bulk of the force.

For further details of the Defence Secretary’s visit to Afghanistan, including the reassurances he received on the issue of so-called ‘green on blue’ or ‘insider threat’ attacks, see Related News.

Published 14 September 2012