General Sir David Richards: Afghan confidence 'vital'

General Sir David Richards
Image caption General Sir David Richards spoke about Afghanistan and wider defence issues such as Syria

Retaining the confidence of Afghans in the West's long-term commitment to their country is vital, the head of the UK's armed forces has said.

General Sir David Richards warned the Taliban would not see the need to talk peace if they thought the UK and Nato were "cutting and running".

Sir David said Nato and the Afghan security forces had been more successful than many realised.

The general was speaking at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Syria options

He spoke of the wider dangers in the world, such as instability in Syria, and how the armed forces would continue to carry out their global role despite recent cutbacks.

Speaking of current threats to stability, the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) referred to the immediate danger of the collapse of the Syrian regime.

He said the UK would support its allies in the region and wanted to see a diplomatic solution but could not afford to remove options from the table.

Should chemical weapons be used or proliferate, he said both US President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron had made it clear a line would have been crossed.

BBC defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt said that seemed to imply British forces would support the US if Washington felt action was needed were chemical weapons to be used by the regime or fall into the wrong hands.

Sir David said he had recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan, where over the past decade British forces had helped close al-Qaeda's bolthole, overseen elections, trained the army and police and helped underpin a more stable government.

Military roles

He admitted there was still a long way to go but said the campaign was heading in the right direction.

He stressed the West must not be seen to be "cutting and running" as it withdrew its troops from Afghanistan - and Afghan confidence remained key to a long-term peaceful solution.

Sir David listed the military's tasks over the past year, including its role in Libya, helping to control the spread of piracy off Somalia and providing security for the Olympic Games.

He talked about how the British armed forces will have to rely more heavily on allies as spending cuts begin to bite.

Sir David referred to the new UK joint expeditionary force, in which British service personnel work closely with the French military, as the "building block to future alliances and independent action".

His hope is that allies such as Denmark and Estonia would wish to play "key roles" within the British element of the combined joint expeditionary force.

Sir David also seemed to suggest the force may play a greater role in the Middle East, perhaps in conflict prevention, our defence correspondent said.

The general stated: "Nowhere is more important to us than our friends in the Middle East and Gulf and in line with clear political intent we would expect, with other initiatives, for joint expeditionary force elements to spend more time reassuring and deterring in that region."

Sir David spoke of a new emphasis on deterrence and preventing conflict.

He noted that as the armed forces contracted, they were already "doing more with less" and using what he termed a "brains-based" approach, which meant deciding to act only when the UK had to, and not always with force.

Sir David said the UK had implemented some of the most radical changes for decades to the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces over the past two years.

He said future operations would require the strength and guile for which the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force were famous.

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