For the first time since 2006 year-on-year violence levels decreased across Afghanistan in 2011, Foreign Secretary William Hague said yesterday in the government's quarterly update on Afghanistan.
The latest update reviews the progress made in Afghanistan since 18 October 2011 and represents the combined assessment of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development.
Mr Hague began by paying tribute to the ‘brave men and women of our Armed Forces’, adding:
They have borne the brunt of the immense difficulties and dangers Afghanistan has presented each and every day of the last ten years and which it still presents in so many ways today.
397 British Service personnel have lost their lives since 2001; 14 since my Right Honourable friend the Defence Secretary made his statement, the last of these statements, on 18 October. This House and our nation will never forget the sacrifices they have made to protect Britain’s national security.
Mr Hague said that the UK Government’s objective in Afghanistan is shared by the Afghan Government and all fifty nations that contribute forces to ISAF. He said:
We all want an Afghanistan that is able to maintain its own security and prevent the country from being used as a safe haven for international terrorists. Our strategy is to help the Afghan Government to build capable Afghan National Security Forces, to make progress towards a sustainable political settlement, and to support the building of a viable Afghan state.
Central to this, Mr Hague said, is the gradual handover of security responsibilities from international forces to the Afghan National Security Forces by the end of 2014, as agreed at the Lisbon Summit in 2010:
British and ISAF troops will continue to perform combat roles until the end of 2014. Our commitment in terms of aid, trade, investment and close diplomatic ties will last far beyond 2014,” he added.
Mr Hague also said that no-one should underestimate the scale of the challenges that remain but that he is confident that our strategy in Afghanistan is the right one to maintain our national security, and that steady progress towards our goals is being made.
2012 will be an important year to consolidate progress in Afghanistan he added, saying that the NATO Conference in Chicago in May and the Tokyo Conference on development in July will build on pledges made at the International Afghanistan Conference in Bonn last December, with the aim of securing concrete financial, development and security commitments for Afghanistan beyond 2014.
Discussing transition, Mr Hague said:
The process of ‘transition’ made considerable progress last year. This is the means by which responsibility for security across Afghanistan is progressively transferred from the international community to Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF], up to the end of 2014 when international troops will withdraw from a combat role.
Transition is based on conditions on the ground, it is phased, it is gradual, and it can take up to 18 months in any one area. In December 2011 transition began in the second group of areas. Approximately half the Afghan population live in areas now in the process of transition.
The progress made in Helmand by Afghan, UK and ISAF forces is illustrated by the inclusion of Nad ‘Ali early in the transition process alongside Lashkar Gah, which began in July.
“The security situation in these districts is unrecognisable compared to the start of British operations in 2006. Violence levels have fallen dramatically, Afghans have freedom of movement in Lashkar Gah, and in all five central Helmand districts pupil enrolment for both girls and boys is rising and the Afghan Government is able to provide services to the province.”
Mr Hague also said that British forces continue to conduct operations in Helmand but are supporting a growing number of Afghan-led operations. He added:
In December over 280 British Service personnel joined forces with 550 Afghan troops on Operation WINTER SUCCESS. The operation was planned and led by the Afghan National Army with ISAF mentoring and support.
It succeeded in clearing insurgents from the area where three Helmand districts meet - Nad ‘Ali, Nahr-e Saraj and Lashkar Gah - before building new checkpoints, manned by Afghan forces, to increase security and extend the governance and development footprint of the Afghan Government.
The success of such operations allows us gradually to focus our efforts on mentoring and training. We will help to create an Afghan National Officer Academy to produce the Afghan Army officers of the future which will open its doors in 2013.
Mr Hague also said that we have seen progress on the political track, and at the International Conference in Bonn the Afghan Government made commitments to tackle corruption, improve the capacity of Afghan institutions, and uphold international human rights obligations and the protection of women’s rights.
He also said that there have been a number of important developments in the political process already this year, saying:
Last month the Taliban expressed its willingness to participate in a political office in Qatar. We welcome any steps towards reconciliation but recognise that they are at an early stage and more work will be needed to move forwards.
Nevertheless, the Taliban leadership have accepted the need to engage in a political process, and this is significant. If they are willing to renounce violence, break links with Al-Qaeda and respect the Afghan constitution there can be a place for them in their country’s future.
A political office provides an opportunity for all Afghans to work together towards a sustainable peace, for it is only with the engagement of all Afghans that we can hope to see a durable settlement. Britain will continue to support the Afghan Government in these efforts.
Mr Hague concluded by saying:
Serious challenges remain in Afghanistan. There will undoubtedly be setbacks and difficulties ahead, but we are making steady progress. 2012 will be an important year to consolidate this progress and to strengthen the international commitments to Afghanistan and long-term partnership with its people.