When the Prime Minister asked me to take on the job of Defence Secretary, the first question I asked myself was should we be in Afghanistan? The answer is categorically yes.
This is a war of necessity for Britain, not choice. Our troops are in Afghanistan, alongside those of over 45 other countries, to prevent Afghan territory from being used by Al-Qaeda to attack the UK or our allies.
The Taliban regime that protected these vicious terrorists was removed in the months after 9/11, but it is only the continuing presence of international troops that prevents their return. Until the Afghan Government has the capacity to provide security on its own, the job must fall to the international coalition.
The imperative is national security. Our Armed Forces are not in Afghanistan to create a carbon copy of a western democracy. They are there to deny haven to those who would threaten the lives of UK citizens.
The way we will do that is to build a stable enough Afghanistan which can stand on its own two feet, whose people increasingly reject the insurgency and embrace the legitimate Afghan Government on both the local and national level.
I’ve seen myself the human cost to our Armed Forces as they take on this task and the sacrifices that they and their families are making.
At a time like this, when the focus is on the fallen, it is understandable that people question our continued presence in Afghanistan.
Lieutenant General Sir Nick Parker, Deputy Commander of ISAF and Colonel Commandant of The Rifles, said:
The death of the 300th British soldier in Afghanistan must not cloud our judgement.
As the cost of our commitment is marked by this sad milestone, it is important to remember that every fatality in Afghanistan is terrible for family, friends and fellow soldiers; this is just as true for the first as for the 300th of our fallen.
Nor must we forget those who have suffered life-changing injuries. It is self-evident that, for those intimately connected with these heartbreaking events, there can be little consolation, and at a personal level I very much doubt that the sacrifice of their loved ones can ever be ‘worth it’.
But conflict is tough. There will be casualties, and, if we cannot see beyond the personal grief that surrounds every fatality, we risk making poor judgements. The consequences of this would be even more tragic - and not just for those who pay the ultimate price. The plan for Afghanistan is on track and now is the time to hold our nerve.
As you think of our men and women serving in Helmand, please remember that they do not want sympathy - they are enormously proud of their collective endeavour. But what they do need and want is the continued support of the public.
Our commitment to Afghanistan has lasted just under nine years. Success has been hard won and progress can seem slow, but we are at a critical moment and we need steady nerves and clear thinking.
General Stanley McChrystal’s arrival in Afghanistan has brought a new approach and a sense of optimism to the International Security Assistance Force. He has reinvigorated operations by focusing on protecting the population.
We must respect Afghan sovereignty and hand them back full responsibility for their country as soon as practical. Our plan focuses on undermining the insurgency where it is at its strongest and this is supported by a significant increase in US and NATO troops.
As the insurgents see the Afghan National Security Forces maturing and taking over from international forces, Afghan-led security will become a credible prospect. But we will not achieve it without continuing sacrifice. For ISAF, this will be a hard summer.
Security will provide the platform on which to build sustainable success. While we are still challenging the insurgency on the periphery of the populated areas, in Nad ‘Ali in central Helmand, British forces are working closely with the Afghan Army and Police.