By Joseph Willits
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Yesterday was Phillip Hammond's first opportunity to answer defence questions. Hammond's address to Parliament also followed a recent, first trip to Afghanistan, where the Defence Secretary marked Armistice Day with 3,000 British troops at Camp Bastion. Whilst in Afghanistan, Hammond said:
''British troops are making significant progress in Helmand to rid the country of a brutal insurgency that is a threat to our country and the people of Afghanistan."
In Parliament yesterday, Hammond echoed the remarks he made at Camp Bastion, describing the "fantastic job" and "progress" British troops are "making both in reversing the momentum of the insurgency and in training the Afghan security forces to defend their own country". Hammond's assessment was that "the security situation in central Helmand has improved" and that improvements had been made in the capability and numbers of British trained Afghan national security forces.
Hammond was asked by Nicholas Soames MP, if he had come to a decision about "which particular areas we will specialise in training Afghans after 2015". In response, the Defence Secretary reiterated Cameron's "commitment that Britain will take the lead role in the Afghan national officer training academy" just outside of Kabul, which hold responsibility for training the "bulk of officer recruits to the Afghan national security forces".
James Arbuthnot MP warned of previous, well-founded perceptions of the Afghan national police being regarded as a "threat by the local population second only to the Taliban", asking whether the improvements made to the Afghan national army had been replicated in the police force. Again, Hammond emphasised that "progress" had been made, but highlighted some key differences. The "composition of the Afghan national police is different from that of the Afghan national army in terms of the distribution of locally raised forces", he said, which meant "a greater affinity between ANP forces and local people than between the army and local people."
Former Labour Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth MP asserted that progress had been made, not just because of troop bravery, but because "in the past year" there has been "sufficient troop density in the area of operations to carry out an effective counter-insurgency operation". Ainsworth warned of "decisions that will effectively widen the area of responsibility, but with the same number of troops", that such moves "will potentially undermine their ability to succeed in the way they have in the past couple of years". Hammond suggested that Ainsworth's warning referred to the US Marine Corps withdrawal from central Helmand, and said:
“We are very clear it is the increased force density that had secured the success of the British mission and we have no intention of allowing that density to be diluted in a way that damages our future prospects for success.”
Aside from questions about Afghanistan, Hammond was also faced, perhaps dauntingly so, with a question from his predecessor Liam Fox, who welcomed him with the "greatest pleasure and the utmost confidence". With regards to the security at 2012's Olympic Games, Fox asked whether "there will be a full range of multilayered defence and deterrence for the London games, including ground-to-air missiles in London."
Hammond assured Dr Fox, that "all necessary measures to ensure the security and safety of the London Olympic games will be taken, including—if the advice of the military is that it is required—appropriate ground-to-air defences".