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Departmental Official Engagements

Volume 507: debated on Monday 8 March 2010

My official spokesman announces my forthcoming official engagements each day.

On 6 March, I visited Helmand where I was briefed by our military and civilian leaders, and by Afghan Commanders, on the latest developments on the ground, in particular on Operation Moshtarak, and on the challenges faced by our forces throughout Helmand, especially in Sangin.

I was updated on ISAF plans to reorganise responsibilities and command and control in Southern Afghanistan, as the operational situation evolves after Operation Moshtarak and the deployment of additional US forces. Key to this will be building on the increasingly successful partnering of the Afghan security forces, and achieving the right ratios of security forces (international and Afghan) to the civilian population to enable General McChrystal’s counter-insurgency approach. And although final decisions have yet to be taken it is likely UK forces will increasingly concentrate in central Helmand.

I was updated on ongoing stabilisation efforts: provision of jobs on projects, efforts to strengthen the local economy, and helping farmers cultivate a range of legal crops rather than poppy. 1,000 Afghan civil order police are now being deployed into the areas cleared in Operation Moshtarak. Over time they will be replaced by 1,000 regular Afghan police. To support this the UK are deploying an additional eight police mentoring teams, additional police advisers for the NATO training mission and the EU police mission, and additional support for the police training centre, a total of over 150 extra personnel.

I was updated on progress with recruiting in the Afghan army, which has increased sevenfold since the end of 2009, with 500 more Afghan army in Helmand since December. Embedded partnering between British forces and the Afghan army is already generating positive results: for example, UK battlegroups report a 30 per cent. improvement in intelligence collection, including on the location of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), after the introduction of joint patrolling with Afghan forces.

I was updated on progress in equipment including faster delivery of Vallon IED detectors towards our target of deploying over 6,500 by July, together with additional sets of ground penetrating radar. Specialised Talisman route-clearance vehicles and equipment will deploy in the next two months. The Ministry of Defence is also committing a further £18 million over the next two years to strengthen pre-deployment training on counter-IED techniques, in addition to the significant investment announced in December.

I was updated on the increased number of hours our Chinook and Apache helicopters can fly each month; the successful introduction of Merlin helicopters; the deployment of Czech helicopters made possible by the British helicopter fund initiative; and the recent increases of Hermes 450 unmanned aerial vehicles and options for accelerating the planned increase of Predator/Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles.

Finally, I visited engineers responsible for sustaining the fleet of protected mobility vehicles including Mastiff and Ridgeback vehicles—offering world-leading protection against IED strikes. Over 100 more of those vehicles have been deployed since last summer. I also inspected the newly introduced Husky utility vehicle, 100 of which are in transit to Afghanistan. I was able to update our forces on the Ministry of Defence’s plans for a new light protected patrol vehicle, with Treasury approval of the first 200 vehicles as an urgent operational requirement. The Ministry of Defence judge that this meets the requirement in Afghanistan and will make announcements on further tranches in due course, as is standard practice with major equipment procurements.

I look forward in the coming weeks to discussing the position in Afghanistan with the King of Jordan and Prime Minister Erdogan when they visit London. I also plan to attend the European Council meeting in Brussels on 25 to 26 March.