Page last updated at 15:50 GMT, Monday, 17 August 2009 16:50 UK

Ainsworth defends Afghan mission

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said he "firmly believed" the mission in Afghanistan was "winnable"

Defence secretary Bob Ainsworth has insisted the UK campaign in Afghanistan is "winnable", as MoD figures show the number of casualties has doubled.

A total of 94 UK soldiers were injured in action in Helmand in July, more than double the number in June.

In total, 19 soldiers were very seriously injured, although not all in action. The number of UK fatalities killed in Afghanistan is now 204.

It comes as the Tories called for "clarification" of the UK's mission.

In a letter to Mr Ainsworth, shadow defence secretary Dr Liam Fox asked him to expand on comments that British troops will eventually begin undertaking a "training and mentoring role to the Afghan National Army".

We can get this country to a place where they are able to protect their own security and prevent the Taliban's return
Bob Ainsworth
Defence secretary

Mr Ainsworth told the BBC's Breakfast programme: "We are making progress. I know it's hard to get that message across to the public.

"The troops know that we have made progress in the last few months and I still firmly believe that Afghanistan is winnable.

"We can get this country to a place where they are able to protect their own security and prevent the Taliban's return."

Panther's Claw

Newly-released figures from the Ministry of Defence show 92 troops were admitted to field hospitals in July through disease or non-disease related injury.

The number of helicopter evacuations of injured troops also rose in July, from 128 to 190.

In comparison, in June, 46 troops were wounded in action and five very seriously injured.

We will succeed and we must succeed; it's really important
General Sir Richard Dannatt

So far this year, 236 troops have been hurt in fighting, while last year's casualties in action totalled 235.

The number killed since the start of the mission in Afghanistan in 2001 has reached 204, after five soldiers were killed over the weekend.

Operation Panther's Claw, a UK offensive against the Taliban in Helmand, began in June and took place throughout much of July.

This month British troops are also trying to shore up security ahead of presidential elections this week.

Speaking to the BBC, the outgoing head of the British Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said British forces could remain in operations in the country for up to five years.

"We have got to get it right. It will take a bit of time. We will go on doing, as the military, what we need to do until the Afghan capability is good enough to take over from us.

"That will continue for years. I don't want to put a figure on that, but certainly two to four years, three to five years, of this kind of level of commitment by the military.

"Our operations are very clear. We have to clear areas of the Taliban.

"We have to hold them with sufficient troops and then we have to allow a building process to go on so that people can see a better life.

"And when they see a better life, that's when they'll support Governor Mangal in Helmand, when they'll support their elected president, whoever they elect this week, and then that's the business about winning the hearts and minds.

General Sir Richard Dannatt: "We need to persuade the people of Afghanistan to get out there and vote"

"That's why we say it's about the people.

"We will succeed and we must succeed; it's really important".

However, Labour MP Paul Flynn said the mission in Afghanistan was unwinnable and branded the politicians orchestrating the Nato mission "foolish".

Mr Flynn, who represents Newport West, said he had originally agreed with the troops going into Afghanistan at the start of the campaign in 2001.

But in 2006 he voiced misgivings about the decision to go into Helmand province, predicting it would "stir up a hornet's nest" and be "as futile as the charge of the Light Brigade".

"Our soldiers are dying in a cause that is as noble to them as any cause that we've fought in our history.

"But sadly they are the lions who are being led by foolish politicians and military leaders. The war is unwinnable. Nothing that we've attempted to do has actually worked."

Previous interview

A statement issued by the Ministry of Defence on behalf of the next head of the Army, sought to clarify previous comments by General Sir David Richards.

He said: "In an interview a few weeks ago I said the whole process in Afghanistan might take as long as 30 to 40 years.

"This seems to have been taken by some as meaning that the British Army would be involved in operations like those we are currently engaged in for that duration.

"I want to nail this once and for all. It is not what I said or what I believe.

"Afghanistan will need international help for many years to come - for example through development, governance and security sector reform - and I am sure the UK will play a part in that.

"But a British military force along current lines should only be needed for a much shorter period."

• Two of the latest British military fatalities in Afghanistan have been named by the Ministry of Defence as Private Richard Hunt, 21, and Sergeant Simon Valentine, 29.

British casualties in Afghanistan

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