As 12th Mechanized Brigade begins the process of heading home, to be replaced by 4th Mechanized Brigade as the lead UK military formation in Helmand, Mr Hammond met military personnel approaching the end of their six-month tours and listened to their views on progress on the ground.
The Defence Secretary also met troops from 4th Mechanized Brigade transiting through the Gulf on their way to Helmand province. They will oversee the start of the British drawdown in Afghanistan, sending 500 personnel home by the end of the year, as announced by the Prime Minister in July 2011.
During his visit, Mr Hammond took the opportunity to discuss the issue of so-called ‘green on blue’ or ‘insider threat’ attacks with senior Afghan figures. Beginning his visit in the capital city Kabul, Mr Hammond met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the country’s acting Defence Minister Enayatullah Nazari.
As part of wide-ranging discussions about the UK’s ongoing role in Afghanistan and its future relationship with the country, Mr Hammond sought and received assurances that the Afghan Government and military are doing everything possible to tackle the issue.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), to which the UK is the second-largest contributor, has itself taken a number of steps to mitigate the threat. And Mr Hammond was briefed on measures which the Afghans have adopted, including the:
- issue of a presidential decree by President Karzai mandating that Afghan National Army recruits are to be interviewed by a four-person council consisting of Afghan Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Interior, National Directorate of Security and medical department officials
- doubling in size of the Afghan Ministry of Defence’s counter-intelligence department
- transfer of hundreds of agents from Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security to its Ministry of Defence to fill shortfalls and improve vetting
- introduction of revetting procedures for Afghan National Army soldiers returning from leave
- outlawing of the sale of military and police uniforms
- establishment an anonymous reporting system across the Afghan security forces
- embedding of National Directorate of Security agents at recruiting centres and within various units
- arrest of more than 100 Afghan National Army soldiers for holding false identification cards, of whom more than half have since been permanently removed from the ranks, plus additional arrests for ‘suspicion of support for the Taliban’ or ‘working for the Taliban’
- strengthening of ‘absence without leave’ policy, which can prevent soldiers from returning to duty.
Mr Hammond said:
Operations in Afghanistan are our first priority and I always value the chance to see at first-hand and hear directly from the troops in theatre about progress on the ground.
I am in no doubt that we are firmly on the road to seeing Afghan forces assume full security control in their own country.
The ‘green on blue’ threat and the tragic incidents we have seen are a very serious concern to me and the issue was at the top of my agenda in meetings with Afghan leaders.
I recognise that we cannot eliminate the risk entirely but I was reassured that President Karzai and the rest of the Afghan Government and military hierarchy clearly take this issue as seriously as I do and are taking real steps to tackle the threat.
We are all united in the view that we cannot let these few terrible incidents derail the steady progress that is taking place.
Our servicemen and women are doing vital work protecting the UK from the threat of international terrorism.
We have a clear strategy to bring our combat role to an end while protecting our national security by training and mentoring the Afghans to take over and we will not allow that strategy to be derailed.
As well as key Afghan figures, Mr Hammond met a number of senior British and ISAF officers, including the commander of the operation, General John Allen (USA), and deputy commander, Lieutenant General Adrian Bradshaw (UK).
Mr Hammond had the opportunity to meet a wide range of military personnel at Camp Bastion, the main military base in Helmand, where he also visited the Joint Aviation Group and personnel working there.
Mr Hammond then joined troops for a meal before his return to the UK.