U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan and said recent progress by allied forces suggests NATO’s plan to hand control of the country’s security to its own army by 2014 is achievable.
The addition of about 20,000 international troops in Helmand Province is underpinning social and economic reconstruction while an increase in Afghan army numbers to 140,000 from 97,000 a year ago is helping improve security, Cameron said late yesterday. A North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Lisbon last month embraced the 2014 target date set by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
“There’s a lot to do but we are going in the right direction,” Cameron told reporters. “What NATO was talking about around the table is doable.”
Britain may begin pulling troops from Afghanistan as soon as next year amid public disquiet at home about the military campaign’s objectives. The prime minister said the allies aren’t seeking to build a “Swiss-style democracy in the Hindu Kush.” The aim instead is to restore political stability in most of the country and rid it of insurgents, he said.
Cameron landed at Camp Bastion in Helmand yesterday for a stop of just under 24 hours that included meetings with military officials, a Chinook helicopter ride to a U.K. patrol base in Nahr-e-Saraj near Lashkar Gah, and an inspection of newly arrived Warthog armored vehicles.
The prime minister spoke of the “tragic” case of a British soldier killed in a presumed friendly-fire incident over the weekend and said that “there needs to be an inquiry.”
General David Richards, Britain’s most senior military commander, backed Cameron’s view that troops may begin returning home by next year and said a withdrawal timetable was helping “focus the mind” on getting the job done.
“There’s been an astronomical rate of progress,” Richards said, speaking alongside the prime minister. “The resources are in and things are coming together well.”
The Afghan economy expanded by 22 percent in 2009 and 5.3 million children attended school compared with 1 million under Taliban rule, according to U.K. government figures. Parliamentary elections in September were the first to be run by Afghans since the 1960s, while four of the 34 provinces of the country account for about 70 percent of the violence.
‘Deradicalize the People’
“We’re long-term partners,” Cameron told a joint press conference in Kabul with Karzai today. “We want to be your friends. We want to help with the aid, the education, the development, the economy. It’s these things that will help to deradicalize the people.”
He announced an extra 33 million pounds ($39 million) in aid to refurbish police stations, control posts and checkpoints.
The prime minister’s visit came three days after President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul. The U.S. president plans to announce during the week of Dec. 13 the outcome of an administration review of the Afghan war strategy he outlined a year ago.
Cameron’s trip took place after confidential diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks.org cited Karzai as questioning Britain’s commitment to the war effort.
“Of course there are frustrations,” Cameron said. “We all know now that there weren’t enough troops in Helmand but the relationship between the last prime minister, this prime minister and Hamid Karzai is strong.”
Karzai said the leaks “have some truth, some not so truth in them.”
He agreed with Cameron that the focus of the criticism had been on the numbers of troops in Helmand province. The U.K. sent an extra 500 soldiers to the country last year to support Obama’s troop surge.