Cameron: British patience with the Afghan mission is not limitless

June 10, 2010

OUKTP-UK-BRITAIN-ARMY-STRENGTHNew British Prime Minister David Cameron is not giving a timetable for the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan but during his first visit to the country as premier on Thursday he was already looking ahead to a time when the British have left the country.

“Even after our troops have left Afghanistan — and I believe that they will — the relationship between Britain and Afghanistan, just as the relationship between Britain and Pakistan, are vitally important relationships for all of our countries,” Cameron said at a press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.

Unlike his predecessor Gordon Brown, who talked cautiously about gradually handing over Afghan districts and provinces to local control, Cameron made patently clear that British patience with the Afghan mission was not limitless.

“No one wants British troops to stay in Afghanistan for a day longer than is necessary,” he said.

Cameron said repeatedly that 2010 was “the vital year”, clearly implying that the U.S.-led coalition has a year to turn around the situation in Afghanistan, which has seen a new upsurge in Taliban violence in recent weeks.

“We should be laser-like focused on the thing that matters most of all which is helping the Afghans to deliver their own security,” he said.

The question of sending more troops to supplement the 9,500 British troops locked in a bloody battle with Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan was “not remotely on the UK agenda,” Cameron said.

Cameron, who took office after the May 6 British election at the head of a coalition of centre-right Conservatives and centre-left Liberal Democrats, is acutely aware of the growing disillusionment back home with the nine-year-old Afghan conflict which has now cost nearly 300 British soldiers’ lives.

The mission has not only been costly in soldiers’ lives but also financially. Britain is spending billions of pounds a year on the war at a time when the government plans deep cuts to rein in a gaping budget deficit.

Cameron has made the Afghan conflict his top foreign policy priority and has devoted a significant chunk of his first month in office to discussing what to do about the conflict.

It was not only Cameron’s tone but his style that was different during his visit to the sweltering Afghan capital. In between official engagements, he wore a casual shirt and trousers, unlike Brown who was always buttoned up in suit and tie.

Cameron is backing U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan, already formulated before he took office, which combines a military “surge” with a “political surge”, aimed at encouraging an Afghan political settlement.

But he made clear that his ultimate focus is on getting the troops home.

“Success in Afghanistan is the Afghans taking responsibility for their own security so our troops can come home,” Cameron told reporters.

In opposition, Cameron sharply criticised the previous Labour government for failing to properly equip Britain’s troops in Afghanistan and failing to clearly spell out the importance of the mission there to the British public. On Thursday, he announced an extra 67 million pounds of funding to help protect British troops from roadside bombs.

Cameron said he wanted a “relentless focus” on Britain’s own national security – countering the threat from militants at source — as its motivation for being in Afghanistan.

“Clearly we have got rid of the terrorist training camps but we need to go on to make sure that al Qaeda cannot return to Afghanistan and also to work with the Pakistan government to do as much to inflict damage on the capacity of al Qaeda in Pakistan  as well,” he said.

To explain the strategy, Cameron has put a new emphasis on communication.

Ministers will make quarterly statements to parliament on the situation in Afghanistan and the government will release regular information about the build-up of the Afghan security forces, progress in combatting corruption and the readiness of Afghan districts and provinces to be handed over to Afghan security control.

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