Monday, October 20, 2014

Britain Reaffirms Support for Afghanistan Effort

LONDON — As the Obama administration reaches out to head off any weakening of allied resolve, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain — America’s closest military ally — flew to Kabul on Thursday, saying this would be the “vital year” for the campaign against the Taliban.

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan during a news conference in Kabul on Thursday.

His visit came after a three-day diplomatic offensive in London, with a trio of top Pentagon figures — Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates; Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in the region; and Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army — seeking assurances that Britain will remain steadfast in its Afghan commitment.

Britain has committed around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan — the second largest contingent in the 46-nation coalition after the 94,000 American soldiers there. On his surprise visit, which comes as British casualties are mounting and the country confronts huge financial strains, Mr. Cameron made clear that his government was not planning to increase its troop levels. Such an increase, Mr. Cameron said, was “not remotely on the U.K. agenda.”

Indeed, he made clear that Britain’s goal was to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces as soon as that was possible.

“We should all the time be asking ‘Can we go further, can we go faster,’ ” Britain’s Press Association news agency quoted him as saying.

At a news conference alongside President Hamid Karzai, Mr. Cameron declared: “No one wants British troops to stay in Afghanistan for a day longer than is necessary.”

But, he said, “What we want — and is our national security interest — is to hand over to an Afghanistan that is able to take control of its own security.”

The visit was Mr. Cameron’s first to Afghanistan as head of a coalition of his Conservative Party and the smaller Liberal Democrats. He said he had described this year “in terms of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, as the vital year.”

“This is the year when we have to make progress — progress for the sake of the Afghan people, but progress also on behalf of people back at home who want this to work,” he said.

His remarks echoed comments in London on Wednesday by Mr. Gates, who said that the United States and its allies were under pressure to show progress in the war by the end of the year, and that American voters would not accept an open-ended “stalemate.”

“All of us, for our publics, are going to have to show by the end of the year that our strategy is on the right track and making some headway,” he said.

As Mr. Gates headed for a NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels, it seemed clear the Americans had achieved the reaffirmation they had sought after Mr. Gates and General Petraeus met separately with Mr. Cameron, and in talks both men had with the new British defense minister, Liam Fox.

After Mr. Gates met Mr. Cameron on Monday, the prime minister’s office issued a statement saying that he had “reiterated U.K. support for U.S. strategy,” but tellingly singled out as the strategy’s main element the $20 billion plan to build up Afghanistan’s own forces so they can take over security responsibilities and allow allied troops to leave.

The renewed British commitment was expected. Mr. Cameron and Mr. Fox are Conservatives, who strongly supported the British role in Afghanistan while in opposition, before they joined the left-of-center Liberal Democrats in a coalition after the inconclusive May 6 general election.

The Conservatives’ differences with the former Labour government centered less on whether the war should be fought than on whether the British troops had been adequately equipped.

In Kabul on Thursday, Press Association reported, Mr. Cameron said, “My biggest duty as prime minister of the United Kingdom is to our armed forces, to make sure that they have all the equipment and all the protection they need to do the absolutely vital job that they are doing here in Afghanistan.”

He also announced extra spending of around $100 million for a specialized unit to counter the threat of insurgents’ roadside bombs — one of the Taliban’s most effective weapons.

American officials regard a bolstering of Britain’s support as especially important at a time when many European countries with troops in Afghanistan, including Britain and Germany, are committed to sharp cuts in defense spending as part of their drive to reduce huge government deficits. With Britain reaffirming its backing for the Afghanistan effort, the American hope is that other European nations will be hesitant to back out.

Mr. Gates said in London that he hoped the European allies would follow the Pentagon’s example in seeking $100 billion in spending cuts by reducing overhead costs and spending on new weapons programs. “I would hope that our allies, before they consider force structure reductions, and reductions more broadly in capabilities, will look overall at how they spend their money,” he said.

In a concession to Britain, American officials said they had abandoned plans to move many of the 8,000 British troops who have been fighting in the southwestern province of Helmand to the city of Kandahar as part of a mission realignment. Many of the additional 30,000 American troops ordered into Afghanistan by President Obama will be sent to Helmand.

British officials had argued that many of the nearly 300 British soldiers who have been killed in the war died fighting in Helmand, and that giving way to the Marines would amount to surrendering territory that had been won with British lives.

Mr. Cameron said on Thursday: “In Helmand, there are now over 20,000 U.S. troops and 10,000 U.K. troops. I think it is important to let them get on with the very important work of delivering greater security in Helmand and making sure we have the right force density — the right number of troops — together with the Afghan national security forces throughout the province.”

By JOHN F. BURNS and ALAN COWELL

John F. Burns reported from London and Alan Cowell from Paris.

Source: The New York Times