David Cameron visited the Helmand PRT on Saturday 29th June as part of a grueling three country tour also taking in Pakistan and Kazakhstan.
His day in Afghanistan started at 06.30 at Camp Bastion, took in a Forward Operating Base just outside Lashkar Gah, a visit to Main Operating Base Lashkar Gar (where the PRT is based), and then on to lunch in Kabul with President Karzai. The PM was accompanied by Baroness Warsi, Sir Kim Darroch from the National Security Council, Sir John Houghton, Chief of the Defence Staff Designate, General Patrick Sanders, and Ed Llwewlyn the PM’s chief of staff.
British Ambassador Sir Dickie Stagg and Deputy Commander ISAF General Nick Carter accompanied from Kabul. 25 members of the press were also part of the group, most of whom were lobby correspondents rather than defence or foreign correspondents.
Organising a visit of this kind in an insecure environment is an enormous undertaking with No 10 advance recce teams, military police, media handlers and lots of video conferences with London. At the Helmand end my Aide de Camp, Flight Lieutenant Mel Chisholm, worked with her military counterpart, Captain Lucy Mason, and they did a fantastic job with everything going very smoothly on the day.
I met the PM at the helipad at 08.30. He skipped off the helicopter looking fresh and relaxed. His good humour was all the more admirable given he had flown on a CI7 to Camp Bastion straight from the European Council. Not the most comfortable of journeys for anyone.
We strolled up from the helipad through the PRT’s pride and joy – our beautiful flower beds. Our creative and passionate gardener, Mr Naziri, who brings his collage of colour into our dusty desert environment of tents, hescos and barbed wire was as usual hard at work as the Prime Minister stopped to admire the flowers and thank him.
After the PM had chatted to troops, I briefed him with Brigadier Rupert Jones, Commander of the British troops, in Helmand. Rupert focused on progress with the Afghan National Security Forces now holding their own with minimal UK support.
I focused in on what we are doing to lock in the considerable gains in Helmand including 130,000 children in school, 30,000 of which are girls – up from zero in 2001. On his last visit the PM focused on two key issues: getting the UN on the ground in Helmand and our last big infrastructure project Route 611 connecting Sangin and Kajaki in the most kinetic insurgent contested part of the province.
I was able to report that we are only months away from a UN presence and Route 611 is ahead of schedule and more than half complete. I also reported that the Helmand model of sub national governance (based on elected local councils and delegated budgeting and planning) is shaping the national debate and this is the best way of ensuring it is sustainable.
“Ah” said the PM “localism – that is good”. So we hit the right button there! And finally I reported that our local polling data shows that support for the Taliban in central Helmand (where 80% of the population live) has dropped from 22% in March 2011 to 5% in March 2013.
The PM then met Provincial Governor Naeem Baluch who set out his view on the progress in security and development in Helmand. He expressed full confidence that Afghan National Security Forces could hold the gains when ISAF forces draw down.
He then flagged the role elected District Councils had played in acting as a bridge between the government and the people, and his intent to take this innovation to the more contested areas of northern Helmand. The PM emphasised the enduring commitment that Britain had to Afghanistan and the importance of building on the achievements in Helmand.
Finally the PM addressed all PRT staff on our decking. He had three points:
Firstly he thanked all staff, UK, Afghan, US, Danish, Estonian, civilian, military and police for their fantastic efforts. He commented on the huge progress he had seen over the 7 years he had been visiting Afghanistan. He remembered when Helmand was desolate, now there were thousands of children in school, representative local bodies and countless other positive developments. It is in the name said the PM: the Provincial Reconstruction Team – you have reconstructed Helmand.
Secondly he celebrated the diversity of the team stressing that the military can only ever take things to a certain point, the civilian effort is imperative and he was very pleased to see how well it worked here.
Finally he said we should celebrate our legacy and there were two aspects to this: firstly the huge gains that had been made and secondly the learning from the experience itself. He stressed that we must ensure we work with our military colleagues to learn these lessons for other conflicts such as Mali and Somalia.
He then took three questions: US political officer Matt Duncan asked him his views on the national election, which the PM replied was essential to the future of the Afghan people and essential for the international community’s continued support beyond 2014.; one of our local staff Tullah from the Rule of Law team thanked him for the redundancy package for local staff who were now considering their options.
The PM stressed that the package was deliberately generous on the in country training package to encourage Afghans to stay and contribute to the future of Afghanistan.
Finally Cleo Blackman from the Strategy team asked about how progress in Helmand is being perceived at home. The PM said it was true the British public were war weary, which is why it is so important to continue to pro-actively communicate the considerable and impressive gains from our investment in Helmand.
After only 2.5 hours at our base it was time to board the helicopter for Camp Bastion and from there on to Kabul. As I walked the PM down to the helipad he thanked me for my leadership of the team and for committing to do 18 months.
He stressed again that he wanted us to learn lessons and disseminate them widely. I thanked him for his support and the great morale boost provided by his recognition of our collective efforts. We finished with a nice photo of the two of us. As the helicopter took off safely the visit team did a high five, breathed a sigh of relief and headed off to the Naafi for a celebratory cold orange juice!