Monday, 21 November 2011

Nikki in Afghanistan


West Midlands MEP Nikki Sinclaire has just returned from a fact-finding visit to British Forces at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.

As part of her role in the RAF Parliamentary Scheme, Nikki was briefed on Britain's role within The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) by senior officers General Bucknell and Brigadier Patrick Sanders. She also took the opportunity to discuss conditions and operations with soldiers from across the West Midlands.

Discussions included ISAF's role in reducing the capability and will of the insurgency, its support role in the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and its long-term objective of facilitating improvements in governance and socio-economic development in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability and growth.

Nikki observed training exercises including the location and deactivation of mines and was shown a wide range of military hardware. The quality of our soldiers’ ‘kit’ has improved considerably in recent years with British soldiers now amongst the best equipped. Nikki also met with local Afghans who work in the Camp.

Despite casualties in recent days there has been a marked overall improvement, with insurgent attacks reduced by 24% in the past year.  The greatest difference lies in the social changes. Healthcare access for the local population has increased from 8% under the Taliban to 60% today. Infant mortality has been reduced by 20%. Access to education has substantially increased and, of course, now includes girls to whom the Taliban denied instruction. There are 13,000 more schools, 170,000 more teachers and 7.3 million more students.

Nikki said "These social changes have helped the Afghans to reject the Taliban who are still responsible for as many as 90% of civilian casualties. British forces within ISAF are creating trust, thus persuading locals that there is an alternative to the Taliban"

The 9,500 British forces in Afghanistan are soon to be reduced by 500 with a view to the bulk of forces leaving by the end of 2014.  Officers and soldiers alike are concerned that the Afghan infrastructure needs to be consolidated and that 'a rush for the exit' may undo a decade of hard work. Further creation and fostering of local governance are a priority. Investment is needed so that troop withdrawal will not be followed by recession.

Nikki said "Our servicemen and women are rightly proud of their achievements, but I understand their anxiety that those achievements, paid for 'in blood and treasure', should be wasted rather than consolidated.  There is a widespread feeling that, despite public support for the Armed forces, their role and their quiet but hugely significant contributions are not being fully understood by the British public."

Servicemen and women took the opportunity to voice their frustration at the lack of co-operation they and their families receive from public authorities and public services. Schooling for their children, dental and doctor registration are also problems. It was also pointed out that local authorities make no provision in respect of Council Tax when service personnel are on active duty. A tour of duty lasts approximately six months. Quality of housing for their families is also an issue. Nikki will be taking up these cases with local councils to make sure the ‘Military Covenant’ is implemented without delay.

Reflecting on her visit Nikki said "I feel privileged to have been given this opportunity. My visit has given me a precious firsthand insight into the situation. Nothing prepares you for flying into Afghanistan on a C17 loaded with cargo, in pitch black wearing body armour - it dawns on you how perilous the situation can be and the debt that we owe to our brave men and women."

Looking to the future, Nikki commented "We all want our forces home quickly, but we must appreciate their role, their achievements and their professional pride. They are making a difference. They want it to be a lasting difference.”