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Courage and Commitment: Doing the Job in Afghanistan, Supporting Personnel at Home

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17 December 2009, 10:30
A lecture by the Rt. Hon. Bob Ainsworth MP, Secretary of State for Defence, UK.

A lecture by the Rt Hon Bob Ainsworth MP, Secretary of State for Defence.

Bob Ainsworth discussed the progress being made in Afghanistan, addressing issues of operational welfare and support to troops on operations. He also set out the government’s commitment to Armed Forces personnel in general, including mapping out the implementation of the Service Personnel Command Paper published last year.

The Speech

Listen to the speech using the player below or read text:

Bob Ainsworth at RUSI 

Ladies and Gentleman,

Afghanistan is the Main Effort for defence.

Where choices have to be made in the Ministry of Defence between competing requirements, support to the campaign in Afghanistan, and complementary activity in Pakistan, will be given priority.

I have set out some of the consequences in Parliament this week.

When our forces are deployed, we must also make sure that:

  • We meet the needs of forces personnel in theatre;
  • Look after their families at home while they are away;
  • And when they return make sure they have all the support they need, especially those who have been injured.

Afghanistan First means making sure the Government meets these obligations too.

I would like to pay tribute to Lance Corporal David Kirkness and Rifleman James Brown from 3rd Battalion the Rifles who were killed this week while on foot patrol.

Their deaths harden our resolve, but this will be a very difficult time for their families as they come to terms with their loss.

We are approaching Christmas, a time traditionally spent in the warmth of family and home.

For those serving in Afghanistan and for their families, separation at this time is especially difficult.

Today, I would like to reassure those families that the Government is straining every sinew to ensure their loved ones are well cared for and well protected.

But first I would like to set out the ground truth on the progress we are making in Afghanistan.

Momentum

The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I have explained consistently that the mission in Afghanistan is to defend the national security of our country.

British Armed Forces are deployed to keep our country safe by preventing Al Qaeda from having a secure base from which to threaten us.

Afghan Defence Minister Wardak said to me last week in Kabul that he wished the Afghans could do this job themselves and defend our collective freedom on their own.

But that is currently not the case.

In June, at the start of this summer's military operations, I set out our comprehensive counter-insurgency approach focusing on the people of Afghanistan and aimed at bringing security and development to our areas of operation.

At the moment the fighting is hard and the sacrifice significant.

In the months to come we can expect this to continue, particularly around Kandahar and in Helmand, as we seek to extend Afghan Government influence in the main population areas.

Alongside Afghan forces, we will continue to confront the insurgency, deny it space, disrupt it, separate it from the people, bringing to them more security, freedom of movement, and confidence in a better future.

We are making progress and building momentum all the time.

The strategy is well resourced - the mission achievable.

The decision by the US, UK and over twenty other countries to send tens of thousands of extra troops is a demonstration of our collective resolve.

In Iraq, 2006 was a dark time, remember?

We saw how a military surge coupled with a political surge and the training of local forces can create the conditions for progress and transition.

Afghanistan is a wholly different place with unique problems, but we would be wrong to ignore the lessons of Iraq as our understanding of delivering a counter-insurgency campaign evolves.

General McChrystal has now set out his strategy and a campaign plan to roll this out across ISAF as a whole. 

He is determined that we put our people alongside the Afghans - protecting the civilian population and accelerating the training of the Afghan Army and Police to the point where they can take on the lead for their own security.

This is the approach our forces have consistently taken.

Delivery

Let me set out the wider progress being made in Helmand where the majority of UK forces are operating.

There are now district governors in 11 of Helmand's 13 districts compared to 5 in 2006 when we first entered the province.

Community councils are establishing themselves to manage local life along traditional Afghan lines.

Initiatives by Governor Mangal have cut poppy cultivation by a third removing funds from the insurgents and criminal gangs.

Other provinces are looking to copy his plans.

Sixty-three schools have opened in the last eleven months.

Many new hospital and local health clinics too.

The work is varied.

It includes everything from small projects to get village water pumps working better and improve local irrigation systems to larger constructions such as the new Babaji Road.

There are some who confuse the way we will achieve success for the reason we are in Afghanistan in the first place.

But helping the Afghans build schools and hospital as we are doing, encouraging local governance, providing alternatives to growing poppy and supporting the budding Afghan democracy is the means to our end.

It is not why we are there, but it is how we will succeed.

I have yet to come across a member of the Armed Forces who doesn't understand what they are doing this for.

I spent some time last week at the UK bases in Helmand, including in the newly cleared area of Babaji where holding operations are taking place.

They know they are doing a good job for good reasons and with good purpose.

And let me be clear - our troops want people to support what they are doing as well as who they are.

To support the mission, not just the soldier.

Partnering

Around the village of Basharan, the Grenadier Guards have been following the approach of the McChrystal strategy, living alongside and operating jointly with the Afghan National Army and Police.

Partnering means, side by side across Helmand, our forces are sharing the risks with their Afghan colleagues.

We saw this only too clearly on Tuesday when two Afghan soldiers died alongside Lance Corporal Kirkness and Rifleman Brown in the same suicide attack.

Partnering marries the discipline of UK troops - their equipment, logistics and professionalism - with the ANA's skills - understanding the people, cultural sensitivity, spotting things that are not quite right.

By patrolling together we are safer and stronger.

Over 90 per cent of ISAF operations are now conducted in conjunction with Afghan security forces.

In Helmand we are expecting around 1000 extra ANSF to be in place and available to work along side ISAF troops early in the New Year.

'Afghanisation' is the means by which our troops can come home and by which national security will be served.

This is necessarily conditions-based rather than time limited, although we hope to see the first districts handed over to the Afghans next year.

We have the time to succeed, but we have no time to waste.

Our forces are shouldering a heavy burden to protect our national security.

This is tough soldiering at the sharp end.

So I want to turn to the efforts we make to ensure they are well equipped, well resourced, and well looked after.

The Tools for the Job

The Government and the Military Chiefs work together with commanders in the field to match carefully the objectives the military are asked to achieve with the people, resources and equipment available.

That is why we were right to ensure that before we deployed further troops, the Military Chiefs were satisfied they had the tools to do the job.

Circumstances can change rapidly requiring different types of equipment to achieve the same objectives or to adapt to the tactics of the enemy.

As the enemy have relied more heavily on ambushes, road side bombs and improvised explosive devices so we have sought to ensure that new types of equipment are available to protect against that threat.

With the inflow of helicopters, vehicles and specialist equipment, the Chief of the Defence Staff has said that our forces are better equipped now than at any time in his forty years service.

But as he also rightly warned there is never such a thing as enough in war.

This week I announced some of the tough choices we are taking in the MoD to ensure the mission in Afghanistan comes first and we continue to increase the quality and quantity of equipment available.

A further £900m will be spent over the next 3 years, on top of the spending from the Treasury Reserve to sustain the mission and on Urgent Operational Requirements.

We are reprioritising the core Defence Budget in this way because the enhancements will not only benefit the mission in Afghanistan, but Defence as a whole going forward.

The twenty-two new Chinooks, the additional communications systems and ISTAR capabilities, the upgrade of heavy lift with a new C-17 and enhancements to the Hercules fleet - these are all investments in capability for the future.

Medical Care

But there has never been - and could not ever be - such a thing as a risk-free military operation.

One of the most critical things to get right is to ensure that the best emergency medical care is available.

The medical care in theatre is at the cutting edge of world medicine.

Many lives are saved on the battlefield itself by the immense bravery of fellow soldiers recovering, protecting and treating the wounded.

In Helmand, UK Chinooks and US Blackhawks are available to evacuate ISAF and Afghan casualties 24 hours a day. 

The helicopters we use are big enough to be a 'flying emergency room' bringing medical teams out to the patient to give specialist care on the way to hospital. 

This undoubtedly saves lives that would have been lost in earlier conflicts as the National Audit Office has said.

At any one time 500 pints of blood donated in the UK through the NHS blood transfusion service are held at Camp Bastion medical facilities.

If you donate blood in the UK you are not only helping to save lives at home, but also the lives of British forces in Afghanistan.

I have seen for myself the strength of character and resilience shown by our most seriously-injured personnel.

I have seen the high standard of care and enormous dedication of civilian and military medical personnel at Selly Oak Hospital and the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court.

I am determined that the medical facilities available to all service personnel continue to improve.

Earlier this year at Headley Court, we brought into service a new 58 bed accommodation block for patients and staff and a new Unit specialising in mental health.

A new rehabilitation complex will be opened in spring funded in a large part by the generosity of the public through the charity Help for Heroes.

And, early next year, we shall be starting on the design phase of a major new project to replace and upgrade the clinical facilities at Headley Court.

The new Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham will take forward the concepts developed at Selly Oak with additional facilities for the exclusive use of military patients.

A range of programmes are in place to help those who may have mental health problems as a result of Service including six regional community-based mental health pilot schemes we have helped the NHS to set up.

I am pleased to announce a further three year contract with the Kings Centre for Military Health Research who are doing important work looking at the health and wellbeing of military personnel during their career and beyond.  

Inquests

While we do our best for those who have been wounded, we must also honour the sacrifice of those who have died.

We must learn all the lessons we can so that if necessary we change the way we do things.

Inquests enable families to find out to how and why their loved one died and provide an independent assessment of what lessons can be learned.

Over the last few years I have met with many close relatives of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. 

Time and again I have been struck by the dignity and determination they display.

Many have told me that they want better access to legal advice about inquests and all that surrounds them. 

They want someone independent that they can trust to know about the Services and to be focussed on the family's real interests. 

I am able to announce today that the MoD is giving financial support to a new two year pilot initiative for an Independent Legal Advice Service for bereaved families run by the Royal British Legion

It's an excellent example of how we work with the Third Sector, so that the most suitable organisation delivers the right services to our people and their families.  

Operational Welfare

Let me turn to how we are meeting our obligations to Armed Forces personnel in a much wider context.

To ensure that service on operations is properly recognised and that contact with loved ones is maintained we keep the Deployed Welfare Package under constant review.

We will spend well in excess of £60 million on operational welfare support this year.

This includes free internet and email access for those on operations and the free mail service which enables families and close friends to send packages out to theatre.

We have made available an additional 30 minutes of free telephone calls, so that deployed personnel will have an hour of free call time over the Christmas period. 

This all helps to keep those on operations in touch with family and friends.

They need to know their families are being well looked after while they are away and receiving all the support they need.

It is for this reason that last year we doubled the Families Welfare Grant, so that a typical Battalion rear party has up to £30,000 to spend on looking after the families when the Battalion is deployed. 

In 2006 we introduced the Operational Allowance now increased to £2,380 for a six month tour on top of the Longer Separation Allowance that applies.

This is in addition of course to basic pay which has gone up in line with the recommendations of the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body in full and on time in each of the last 11 years.

The largest percentage increases have been rightly targeted at those more junior ranks.

The 2009 award sees, for the third year running, the increase for the Armed Forces amongst the highest in the public sector.

The Nation's Commitment

But our support for the Armed Forces must go much wider than supporting those away on operations or dealing with purely monetary concerns.

On taking the Queen's shilling our Armed Forces personnel do not cease to be citizens.

No member of the Armed Forces, their families or veterans should suffer any disadvantage from the unique demands of service life.

The command paper we published in 2008 enshrines this enduring principle.

It is a step change in the way the Government thinks about and delivers for service personnel.

Our vision for the future is a nation:

  • Where as a matter of routine all public services are provided to the Armed Forces Community in a way which means they are not subject to any disadvantage;
  • Where some will get special treatment when appropriate - including those who've been injured;
  • And where all those directing and delivering public services are aware of their responsibilities to Forces personnel and get all the encouragement and guidance they need to get things done.

This is not just a calling for the MoD, or even central government.

It is a calling for society as a whole - from devolved administrations to local government, from the professionals working in our public services to the charities and private companies offering specialised services.

We are enormously grateful for the support that the general public and businesses are giving the Armed Forces throughout the country.

This is truly our nation's commitment.

Together, we have delivered many key changes already, not just for serving personnel and their families but for leavers and veterans too.

These include:

  • Grants to adapt housing for disabled veterans;
  • Retention of places on NHS waiting lists when moving between areas;
  • Help for spouses to find work when they move;
  • Priority places in state boarding schools for forces children;
  • Fairer treatment when applying for social housing;
  • Free further education for service leavers and help getting on the housing ladder.

So there is much we have achieved.

This is pointed out in the recently published Annual Report from the External Reference Group set up to monitor progress on our Command Paper.

But it also shows that we have more to do.

Despite the wide range of support available some of our people do not know what they are entitled to or how to find out.

We need to make sure that they do.

We have set up a one-stop-shop freephone number for veterans, service personnel and their families which will provide a first port of call for those seeking advice or who want to know what help they can get.

Last month, we also launched a pilot scheme with Kent County Council of our new concept of the 'Welfare Pathway'.

This will make it easier for the Armed Forces community to access the help and support which is already available.

Armed Forces Community Charter

The real prize is permanent, cultural change - what we call consistent and enduring support for our Armed Forces community. 

This summer we launched a public consultation on how to achieve the next steps in this process.

One proposal is for an Armed Forces Community Charter, setting out individual and specific rights of the Armed Forces community and the duty placed on public bodies to fulfil them.

There are a number of ways we could take this forward.

One would be to make the Charter legally binding on public bodies.

This could have the effect of enshrining the principles of the 'military covenant' in law.

Another possibility is a more general legal duty to treat the Armed Forces properly.  

This Government has demonstrated our readiness to use legislation to address specific issues of disadvantage when necessary. 

But we will not legislate for legislation's sake.

Our consultation has demonstrated there are arguments in favour of all the options we tabled, and others too.

We are now assessing the practicalities of the various ideas.

I hope to be able to publish the findings early in the New Year.  

Conclusion

Ladies and Gentlemen.

People matter.

The men and women of our Armed Forces are the best asset we have.

In Afghanistan our Armed Forces are operating in tough circumstances.

The sacrifice is significant.

We fight to weaken the insurgency.

We build to strengthen the Afghan state.

We train the Afghan security forces to take over responsibility.

We are making significant progress.

As a coalition we have renewed commitment and momentum.

Working together success is achievable.

In this we rely on the dedication, professionalism and selfless duty of our Armed Forces - and on the civilians working with them.

As a Government, working in partnership at every level, with charities and the private sector, we will fulfil our obligations to them.

As a nation we will honour our commitment.

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