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Handover 'won't mean troops return'

Defence Secretary Liam Fox has stressed that the forthcoming handover of responsibility for security in parts of Afghanistan will not mean British troops can come home early.

Afghan police and soldiers will take control of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, late next month as part of moves towards the ultimate pull-out of Nato forces.

Speaking at the end of a two-day visit to Helmand with the heads of the Army and Royal Navy, Dr Fox said evidence on the ground suggested the UK was on track to complete its combat mission in Afghanistan by 2015.

He added: "We are well ahead of schedule for training up our target numbers of Afghan soldiers and police by the end of the year and, thanks to the outstanding mentoring being provided by British armed forces, the quality is improving all the time. Of course, transition does not mean an early exit or early drawdown of UK forces. As Afghan capacity grows, the role of British and other international troops will evolve, moving from principally combat to training and support roles."

Dr Fox visited Helmand with the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Peter Wall, and the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, who received a dressing-down from Prime Minister David Cameron this week after he questioned the armed forces' ability to sustain a lengthy campaign in Libya.

Mr Cameron told MPs last month that more than 400 British troops would be returning home from Afghanistan over the coming nine months, but said their return did not mark the start of a general withdrawal of UK forces.

Dr Fox landed in Afghanistan early on Wednesday morning and flew out on Thursday afternoon after visiting Lashkar Gah and the main British base in Helmand at Camp Bastion, as well as smaller forward operating bases and patrol bases.

He received a briefing on the progress of the campaign from Brigadier Ed Davis, commander of Task Force Helmand, and met Afghan defence minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak and interior minister Bismullah Khan in Kabul.

Admiral Stanhope met Royal Marines from 42 Commando, who recently took part in a major joint operation with Afghan forces against an insurgent stronghold in Helmand.

He said: "I am extremely proud of the contribution that Royal Marines have made to the improved security situation in central Helmand. They have made a great deal of sacrifice yet remain resolute and determined to continue their work to develop the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police to enable them to take over security."

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