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An edited version of a speech to the Labour Party Conference by Rt Hon Bob Ainsworth MP, Secretary of State for Defence, 1st October 2009

Daily, our Armed Forces are doing a difficult job, taking great risk on our behalf, facing a violent and prolonged fight in Afghanistan.

Daily, there are reports of bravery of acts of courage carried out in the line of duty by professional soldiers, doing their job.


This year, 81 soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice by laying down their lives for their country; 52 of them since I became Defence Secretary in June.71 have sustained life changing injuries in the same period.

In my experience they don't want plaudits for what they do. They do however deserve our thanks and they expect, and are absolutely entitled to, our support.

The public rightly ask questions:

Why are we there?

How long will we need to stay?

Are our troops properly equipped?

Can we afford to be fighting there?

Can we win?

My job as defence secretary is to answer these questions; to ensure that, when the country's resolve is tested, we hold firm; and to ensure that the stability of the whole region and the credibility of the NATO alliance is not put at risk by our walking away.

In my view we can't afford NOT to be there.

It is eight years since Al-Qaeda terrorists, sheltering under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, brought down the twin towers using planes as suicide bombs - A terrorist strike of unprecedented scale and impact.

Not only had a NATO ally been attacked, invoking Article V of the treaty which views an attack on one member as an attack on all, but the victims included 67 British citizens among the casualties from over 90 countries.

The war in Afghanistan is our war, alongside the 41 other countries providing troops to the coalition.

We are there as the result of a sober assessment of the terrorist threat facing Britain. We are there to prevent the Taliban returning and again giving Al Qaeda free reign. We are there to ensure our national security.

I understand that it is sometimes difficult for people to see that this faraway country poses a direct threat to them. But the distant threat can become a local atrocity.

Three quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against the UK have germinated in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the airline plot where the terrorists have recently been convicted.

For Britain to be secure, Afghanistan needs to be secure, Pakistan needs to be secure.

The threat may be less visible but it is no less real. The risks of leaving Afghanistan before the job is finished are stark. We would have lost our resolve in the face of adversity, with profound consequences for our international reputation. The terrorists would be characterised as the winners; we would be the losers.

Pakistan is currently engaged against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, lodged in its borderlands. Success will be when the Afghan government is also strong enough to do this by itself.

We can't put a time limit on this. But we are making progress and we need to see significantly more in the next year or so.

As the coalition commander, General McChrystal, has said: the situation is serious.

We have difficult decisions to take in the coming months,including whether more troops are needed in the short term. We will take these decisions as an alliance, although the UK cannot allow the deployment of its troops to outstrip the supply of equipment which allows them to do their job and minimises the risks that they face.

Before I agree to any increase in troop numbers, I must be sure that the balance of risk is acceptable by evaluating the capacity of the supply chain to properly equip an increased force.

And as our prime minister, Gordon Brown, has said: We will move to 'partnering' the Afghan National Army, giving it the skills and strength to help it to hold the ground that the coalition clears.

We support a more ambitious target of training 4,000 Afghan Army soldiers per month, increased from the current rate of 2,000, so the Afghan army reaches its target strength by November next year, ahead of schedule.

The recent elections were not everything we had hoped not enough people voted and there were reports of ballot rigging. But the fact that they took place at all, despite the Taliban determination to stop them, is an achievement.

And when it emerges, the new government must have a mandate to work on the issues that matter to the Afghan people, including building up the Afghan Army.

Over time, as the Afghans take increasing responsibility for their own security and our military presence is less required, our focus will increasingly be on the political reconciliation and development efforts which are crucial to rebuild Afghanistan in the long term.

As a nation we are fiercely proud of our Armed Forces. But having the best Armed Forces in the world does not come without human cost. We need to understand that conflict is dangerous and it is bloody.

Our Armed Forces know that they cannot defeat an enemy without risking death and injury.

But if we ask our forces to take that risk, on our behalf, then we have a responsibility to look after them;to deliver the best medical care when they are injured, to support their loved ones waiting at home.

Last year we doubled the up-front lump-sum compensation payment for those most seriously injured. However, I want all our forces to have confidence that we are offering them a fair compensation package. That is why over the summer I announced a review into the compensation scheme to be independently chaired by Admiral Boyce.

And over the course of the last year my ministerial team have been working with other departments to implement our improvement plan for the welfare of our personnel

making sure that being a member of the Forces does not disadvantage you when accessing health care, education or housing.

If we ask our forces to fight on our behalf, then as a government we must equip them properly.

Our commanders have almost double the helicopter capacity of three years ago

but of course we can and must do more. That's why later this year our Merlin fleet, recently back from Iraq, will go out to the Afghan theatre.

We have spent over a billion pounds on more than a thousand new vehicles since entering Helmand in 2006. This includes 280 "Mastiff" which offer world-leading protection against mines and roadside bombs.

But in a counter insurgency campaign when you are trying to win the hearts and minds of the people you have to get out of the Mastiff.

And the tactics used by our enemy constantly evolve. The biggest threat our forces in Afghanistan now face is the threat of the Improvised Explosive Device. Lying in wait for a vehicle to drive over, or a foot patrol to detonate.

I am determined to do everything that I can to ensure our equipment evolves too, and keeps pace with developing threats, in order to get one step ahead of our enemy.

It is right that the government is subject to scrutiny. I believe that the national interest must come before party politics if there are ways in which we can do better, no-one wants to know them more than I.

But those who suggest that the government is failing in its duty by having helicopters in "Hampshire rather than Helmand", misunderstand that having a sustainable force in theatre requires a training fleet back in Britain.

Battle-replacements and those helicopters being repaired are also stationed here at home.

Over the next few months to the general election, we must have determination and resolve.

We must continue to put the national interest first and stay the course in Afghanistan.

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