Accompanied by the Chief of the General Staff (CGS), General Sir Peter Wall, and the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, Dr Fox saw at first hand the training being delivered by British forces to thousands of Afghan soldiers and policemen ahead of the first phase of transition later this summer.
The two-day visit, which has just concluded, saw Dr Fox and his party travel across the British area of operations in Helmand province, meeting troops at Main Operating Bases Bastion and Lashkar Gah, and the smaller, more remote Forward Operating Bases and Patrol Bases.
As well as seeing training in action, Dr Fox and the military chiefs had the opportunity to speak with members of the Afghan forces and their senior officers about their increasing capability and confidence as they prepare for a future with themselves in the security lead. Dr Fox said:
Transition is a process that is driven by the Afghan government and they have announced that the first phase will begin later this summer. To make that viable, we need rapid and continuous progress in the size and capability of the Afghan security forces, and that’s exactly what we are seeing.
I found what I saw on my visit to be extremely encouraging. We are well ahead of schedule for training up our target numbers of Afghan soldiers and police by the end of the year and, thanks to the outstanding mentoring being provided by British Armed Forces, the quality is improving all the time.
Of course, transition does not mean an early exit or early drawdown of UK forces. As Afghan capacity grows, the role of British and other international troops will evolve, moving from principally combat to training and support roles. But all the evidence on the ground suggests that by 2015 we will be in a position to conclude our combat mission.
The Afghan National Police in Helmand are being trained by members of 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles. The visitors met with the Battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Fraser Rea, and the Helmand Provincial Chief of Police, General Hakim Angar, who runs the Lashkar Gah Regional Police Training Centre (South West), where more than 3,000 ANP recruits have graduated since November 2009.
Dr Fox and the military chiefs also watched a security demonstration by Afghan Local Police who are being trained by 45 Commando Royal Marines (45 Cdo RM) and members of the Royal Military Police.
The Defence Secretary received detailed briefings on recent operations and progress of the overall campaign from the Commander of Task Force Helmand, Brigadier Ed Davis, other headquarters staff and Battle Group commanders.
As head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Stanhope took the opportunity of the visit to meet Royal Marines from 42 Cdo RM, based at Patrol Base Wahid. There, they work alongside International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) allies from Estonia, and recently played a major role in Operation OMID HAFT.
Adm Stanhope, said:
I am extremely proud of the contribution that Royal Marines have made to the improved security situation in central Helmand. They have made a great deal of sacrifice yet remain resolute and determined to continue their work to develop the ANA and ANP to enable them to take over security.
Meanwhile, CGS visited Check Point Saalang, which was only built a few weeks ago during Operation OMID HAFT to provide security in an area which had previously been occupied by insurgents. After soldiers from 1st Battalion The Rifles and their Afghan National Army counterparts secured the area, engineers from the Joint Force Engineer Group established the Check Point to monitor security on a new bridge that was built over the Nahr-e Burgha canal.
General Wall said:
The sense of progress here in Helmand is really encouraging. We have the right resources and the right method. The insurgency is suffering badly, governance is accelerating, and the economy is up. ANSF are increasingly competent to take the lead in many areas. Across the board prospects are improving. Our people are making a tremendous contribution.
Before leaving Helmand, the Defence Secretary and military chiefs met with members of Joint Force Support Afghanistan, the team responsible for the UK’s Camp Bastion. They went into the base’s hospital and spent time with injured Service personnel, as well as chatting to medical staff who work around the clock to treat those wounded in action.
On conclusion of the Helmand leg of the visit, the party flew to the Afghan capital, Kabul, where they met officials from the Afghan Government, including Defence Minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismullah Khan, as well as senior British Embassy staff and ISAF officials.
Dr Fox also linked up with his Danish and Estonian counterparts, Gitte Lillelund Bech and Mart Laar, to discuss the three countries’ ongoing partnership in Helmand. To mark the eve of the fifth anniversary of the joint mission, during which the UK, Denmark and Estonia have worked side-by-side to improve security in Helmand province, the three defence ministers issued a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to the campaign.