Liam Fox reaffirms why British troops remain in Afghanistan and explains that their return is dependent on national security needs
Defence Secretary Liam Fox was in Washington today to deliver a speech to the Heritage Foundation to set out British policy in Afghanistan, where, he said, success is vital "to the national security of the UK, the US, our allies and to international security more widely".
He sought to answer critics who talk about bringing British troops home now by reminding his audience that operations in Afghanistan are a response to the events of 9/11:
"In Afghanistan today, the operations of NATO and other Coalition allies are a direct consequence of 9/11. It was there that the Taliban rulers gave Al-Qaeda sanctuary, allowed it to run terrorist training camps, and made it a base for terrorist attacks across the world. The Taliban were driven out of power by Afghan and international forces. Al-Qaeda fled to the border areas of Pakistan. Although reduced and under considerable pressure, they are still there and continue to pose a real and significant threat to us. So the first reason we cannot bring our troops home immediately is that their mission is not yet completed... The second reason is that it would be a shot in the arm to jihadists everywhere, re-energising violent radical and extreme Islamism. It would send the signal that we did not have the morale resolve and political fortitude to see through what we ourselves have described a national security imperative."
Dr Fox warned that "we are likely to see an increase number of ISAF casualties over this summer" in Afghanistan, but reiterated the purpose of the mission and explained that the success of it would be evaluated in the following terms:
"Our purpose is to degrade and manage the terrorist threat emanating from the region to ensure al-Qaeda cannot once again have sanctuary in Afghanistan. So in Afghanistan success means first continuing to reverse the momentum of the Taliban-led insurgency. Second, to contain and reduce the threat from the insurgency to a level that allows the legitimate Afghan Government to manage it themselves. And third creating a stable enough system of national security and governance so the Afghan Government can provide internal security on an enduring basis... Insurgencies usually end with political settlements not military victories. So success in Afghanistan will be a process and not an event. An effective Government—on both the local and national level, and an inclusive political settlement will be vital to lasting peace."
And on that question of when British troops will be able to return home, Dr Fox said:
"In military terms, building the size and strength of the Afghan National Security Forces is the route to bringing our troops home without leaving a security vacuum behind. I am heartened by the progress that has been made, but I recognise that the tough times are by no means over... Progress will be incremental. Our natural impatience to see our troops come home, should be seen in the context of the needs of national security. As David Cameron made clear to the British Parliament on Monday, the presence of large-scale ISAF forces cannot be indefinite. We want the Afghans to assume increasing responsibility for security within the next five years. We need, therefore, to get the job done."
"But we should not take for granted that the images of 9/11 still resonate with the public in the same way they did six, seven or eight years ago... Across the alliance we need to do better at reminding our publics why we are fighting in Afghanistan and why the cost of failure is a price we cannot afford to pay. And we need to have clear messages for the Afghan people, and those messages need to be communicated by our deeds as well as words. We are neither colonisers nor occupiers. We are there under a UN mandate. We are not in Afghanistan to create a carbon copy of a western democracy, and we are not there to convert the people to western ways. We seek the government of Afghanistan by the Afghans themselves. We insist only that it does not pose a security threat to our interests or allies."
The Defence Secretary concluded his speech with extremely warm words about the 'special relationship':
"Britain’s relationship with the United States will remain critical for our national security. The United States will remain the United Kingdom’s most important and prized strategic relationship... The relationship between our two nations is based on shared history, shared values and shared interests. We have stood shoulder to shoulder at many times in the past, in the face of tyranny and adversity – in defence of freedom. And today in Afghanistan we stand shoulder to shoulder again, alongside our many partners and alongside the Afghans themselves.
"In his famous speech at Fulton, Missouri in 1946, Winston Churchill warned that fraternal association would not be enough to overcome the Iron Curtain that he described dividing the free world from the subjugated... I too believe that now, in our age, in the shadow of 9/11, fraternal association is not enough. We must continue to strengthen our military relationship and remodel our Armed Forces to face new threats in this new era. For when the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack fly side by side, we are greater than the sum of our parts."