Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Armed forces chief Jock Stirrup believes Afghanistan aims can be achieved

The long-term goals of the war in Afghanistan can be achieved with the extra troops now being put in place, head of the armed forces Sir Jock Stirrup said yesterday.

He was among more than 500 serving personnel, guests and bereaved relatives who gathered for a memorial and thanksgiving service at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast in honour of the Northern Ireland-based 19 Light Brigade recently returned from the war-zone.

The names of 83 fallen soldiers were read out during the ceremony, among them the two sappers shot dead by dissident republicans at a Co Antrim barracks last March hours before the troops were to be deployed.

The Chief of Defence Staff paid tribute to all the soldiers who had lost their lives, but with Britain committed to sending 500 extra troops and after the US pledged an extra 30,000, he said further progress could be made in Afghanistan under plans by Nato Commander General Stanley McChrystal.

"We are going to have hard times ahead, we are going to have sad times ahead," said the UK military leader.

But he added: "We have now a plan drawn-up by General McChrystal which is a coherent plan to deliver our longterm strategy.

"We now have the resources necessary for him to execute that plan.

"That is very important for all of us."

The Earl of Wessex represented the Queen at today's service of remembrance which was conducted by Dean of Belfast, the Very Reverend Dr Houston McKelvey.

The Earl is Royal Colonel of 2nd Battalion, The Rifles, which is based at Ballykinler in County Down and is one of the main units in 19 Light Brigade.

The unit's commanding officer, Brigadier Tim Radford, read out the names of those soldiers who were killed.

He began with Sappers Mark Quinsey, 23, of Birmingham, and Patrick Azimkar, 21, of London, who were shot dead outside Massereene army barracks in Antrim by the Real IRA hours before the troops were due to deploy to Afghanistan.

Two people have been charged with killing the soldiers.

Brig Radford, who also laid a wreath, spoke of the bravery and courage of his men during the summer offensive, Operation Panther's Claw, when they were said to have cleared one of Helmand's most heavily populated areas of Taliban influence as part of their six month tour of duty.

He said: "Operation Panther's Claw was designed to force the insurgents to stand and fight or to flee. It did just that. As we broke through the enemy defences, the fighting was truly ferocious but the determination and resolve of my soldiers never wavered.

"For five tough weeks they fought a resurgent Taliban in the very harshest of conditions and force on force they defeated them at every turn."

He said there were very few civilian casualties, and added: "There is no doubt in my mind that we had a significant impact on the Taliban's command and control structures in that region."

In August they supported the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) as they provided security for the elections.

Brig Radford said: "I expect that 19 Light Brigade's tour will be remembered for the hardest fight the British Army has encountered in Helmand province. But to selectively remember the sacrifice without the progress would be to forget the reason that so many laid down their lives. I judge that we have made real progress and injected a renewed momentum into Helmand."

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Shaun Woodward and First Minister Peter Robinson, plus his wife Iris, attended today's ceremony.

Leader of the House of Commons Harriet Harman was joined by Secretary of State for Defence Bob Ainsworth, who joined Brigadier Radford and Sir Jock Stirrup in praising the sacrifice of the soldiers who died.

Mr Ainsworth welcomed news that the US was to send further troops and underlined the international importance of the conflict.

"If we were to fail in Afghanistan, the consequences for Afghanistan would be profound, the consequences for Pakistan would be profound, and the consequences therefore for our safety back here in the United Kingdom would be very considerable indeed."

He denied that the US government's target date for handover would provide succour to the Taliban and instead said progress was vital and was achievable.

He said: "I think that we can in the next year or so show some real progress in Afghanistan."

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