Delivering the first of the quarterly reports to Parliament that the Prime Minister announced on 14 June 2010, Mr Hague confirmed that progress in Afghanistan is the top foreign policy priority for the Government, linked closely to our foreign and development policy towards Pakistan.
Mr Hague began his statement, which is prepared jointly by the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, by praising the work of British forces in Afghanistan:
They are the finest any nation could hope to have,” he said.
We should also remember the families of the 341 men and women who have given their lives and the many who have been wounded. For nine years thousands of Britons have served in Afghanistan in both civilian and military roles in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and we owe them a great deal.
Mr Hague stressed that the security of Afghanistan remains vital to our own national security and that Afghanistan must be able to maintain its own security and prevent Al-Qaeda from returning.
NATO’s strategy is to protect the civilian population, support more effective government at every level and build up the Afghan National Security Forces as rapidly as is possible. It also requires the Afghan Government to meet the commitments on governance and security that it made at the Kabul Conference in July this year.
On security, we assess that steady progress is being made across Afghanistan and specifically in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. International forces now number 130,000 while the Afghan National Security Forces will reach 260,000 by the end of the year, exceeding their target size for 2010.
Afghan and ISAF forces have checked the momentum of the insurgency and the area under the control of the Government of Afghanistan is increasing. However, the situation remains extremely challenging.
One of the effects of increased military activity is that the number of security incidents, particularly those involving direct fire, has increased sharply. So we should not underestimate the highly difficult task our forces continue to face.
Mr Hague said that ISAF’s military effort is currently focused on Kandahar, and Afghan and international forces continue to clear the insurgency out of areas adjacent to the provincial capital.
He stressed that the Afghan National Security Forces are taking an increased role in planning and executing the current phase of these operations and make up well over half the forces involved.
Mr Hague said that in Helmand province UK forces continue to train the Afghan National Security Forces and conduct operations against the insurgency.
The Foreign Secretary said that the number of UK troops directly involved in the training and developing of the Afghan National Security Forces is increasing by over 320. This increase, he added, is part of the rebalancing of UK forces in the province, made possible by the handover of security responsibility for Kajaki, Musa Qal’ah and Sangin to our US allies in order to concentrate British forces in the key population centres of central Helmand.
On recent operational activity, Mr Hague said:
On 17 October units of the 3rd Brigade of the Afghan National Army’s 215 Corps launched a significant operation to secure settlements near Gereshk.
This operation is building on the success of previous Afghan National Security Forces operations which have cleared the insurgency out of former safe havens in central Helmand over the course of the summer.
Planning and implementation is being led by the Afghans with British mentors from 1st Battalion Irish Guards providing support.
For the first time, engineering, artillery, countering improvised explosive devices and reconnaissance are being conducted by the Afghan National Army itself.
US Marines, which now form the majority of the ISAF troops in Helmand, continue the hard fought struggle against the insurgency in Sangin, while in Marjah they have continued to carry out operations alongside the Afghan National Army and Police.
Mr Hague said the Government is confident that we have the right military strategy in place and the right number of troops in Afghanistan.
However he added:
We must expect levels of violence to remain high, and even increase, as Afghan and ISAF forces tackle the insurgency.
The murders by insurgents of the Governor of Kunduz province and a District Governor in Nangarhar province reminds us of the violence that still exists, even in the more secure areas of the country.
Mr Hague confirmed that the Prime Minister will attend the NATO Summit in Lisbon on 19 November, when we expect NATO to agree the process of transferring lead responsibility for security across Afghanistan to the Afghan National Security Forces by the end of 2014.
He said it will be a phased transition with the Afghan National Security Forces gradually taking the lead, as they have in Kabul, in jointly selected districts and provinces, as the conditions on the ground are met. British forces will be drawn down from combat operations by 2015.
On governance, Mr Hague said that the Government of Afghanistan is making some progress on its Kabul Conference commitments and on 7 October 2010 the High Peace Council was inaugurated, fulfilling a key request of the Afghan Consultative Peace Jirga in June which, he said, marks an important milestone for the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Programme:
It is for the Afghan people to shape a political settlement which reflects the needs, culture and aspirations of all the Afghan people,” Mr Hague said.
The United Kingdom will support a settlement which gives Afghanistan stability and security, is representative, gives no one group disproportionate influence, upholds human rights and the rule of law, and is in accordance with Afghanistan’s constitutional framework.
Mr Hague concluded by saying that the deployment of British Armed Forces abroad is ‘one of the gravest of responsibilities of Government, along with that of protecting the security of British citizens and territory’:
In Afghanistan the two go hand-in-hand. The Government understands how important it is to retain public confidence in our mission and to ensure democratic scrutiny of it.
We will continue to provide regular and frank assessments to the House. But above all we will do our utmost to ensure that NATO’s strategy in Afghanistan is seen through with rigour and determination and that the extraordinary efforts of so many thousands of our Armed Forces serve to enhance the national security of the United Kingdom.
The next quarterly report on Afghanistan will be delivered by Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox in the New Year.