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'We cannot walk away' from Afghanistan

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 04 September 2009

Gordon Brown has mounted a defence of his military campaign in Afghanistan, declaring 'Britain cannot simply walk away'. Cathy Newman reports.

Gordon Brown (credit:Reuters)

A day after ministerial aide Eric Joyce resigned, demanding a clear exit strategy, Mr Brown insisted the British presence was justified, but he still wouldn't commit to a timetable for withdrawal, or even a parameter to measure when it was safe to do so.

Once again the harsh realities loomed over the politics, as the bodies of two more British soldiers were flown home.

This comes as dozens of civilians are killed in Afghanistan following an airstrike on two fuel tankers that had been hijacked by Taliban fighters, and on a day that the British government is warned it faces an extra £150m bill to improve the "paltry" compensation settlements it has made with injured soldiers.

Brown defends Afghan strategy

The prime minister's speech had been in the diary for some time, but it followed hot on the heels of the resignation of Eric Joyce, who had been an aide to Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth.

Hundreds of people also gathered today to pay their respects today to two soldiers killed in Afghanistan as their bodies were returned to British soil. Sergeant Stuart Millar, 40, from Inverness, and Private Kevin Elliott, 24, from Dundee, both from The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, died in a blast in Lashkar Gah District, southern Helmand on Monday.

In a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, Mr Brown said: "The advice I receive from the security agencies is clear.

"The sustained pressure on al-Qaida in Pakistan combined with military action in Afghanistan is having a suppressive effect on al Qaida's ability to operate effectively in the region - but despite these difficulties, the main element of the threat to the UK continues to emanate from al-Qaida and Pakistan."

Mr Brown said he felt "awe and humility" at the feats of the UK military, and said every casualty was "heartbreaking". The situation in Helmand province was "serious", but the strategy being taken could work, he insisted.

"A strategy based on credible, deliverable and, where right to do so, time-specific objectives - above all for the advance of Afghan autonomy and responsibility - because the more Afghans can take responsibility in the short term, the less our coalition forces will be needed in the long term," Mr Brown said.

The PM said UK troops had to move from "mentoring" the Afghan army to "partnering" with them.

"In the spring Nato announced that we would support the expansion of the Afghan army from 80,000 to 134,000 by November 2011.

"That training is already proceeding at the rate of 2,000 new troops per month. And Britain would also support a more ambitious target of 134,000 by an earlier date of November 2010 - which would mean increasing the rate of training to 4,000 per month.

"It is clear that to achieve this rapid increase in numbers - and to increase the quality and effectiveness of the new Afghan forces - would require a new approach, shifting from mentoring - where small numbers of mentors work with Afghan units - to one of partnering, where the bulk of our combat forces would be dedicated to working side by side with the Afghan army at all levels - where British troops would eat, sleep, live, train, plan and fight together with their Afghan partners, to bring security to the population."

Mr Brown said that by November 2010 a third of British troops would be partnering Afghan forces.

The premier insisted the objectives in Afghanistan were "clear and justified", as well as "realistic and achievable".

"It remains my judgment that a safer Britain requires a safer Afghanistan and in Afghanistan last week, I was further convinced that, despite the challenges we face, a nation emerging from three decades of violence can be healed and strengthened; and that our country and the whole world can be safer; because together we have the values, the strategy and the resolve to complete our vital task," he said.

Mr Brown added: "It is at times like this when we must strengthen not weaken our resolve. Stand up to those who would threaten our way of life; take heart from the progress we have made since 2001; and take the right action to deal with the changing tactics of the Taliban."

In his resignation letter last night, Mr Joyce warned that Labour would not win the next General Election unless it got a grip on defence, and demanded an exit strategy from Afghanistan during the next Parliament.

He said: "I do not think the British people will support the physical risk to our servicemen and women unless they can be given confidence that Afghanistan's government has been properly elected and has a clear intent to deal with the corruption there which has continued unabated in recent years.

"We also need to make it clear that our commitment in Afghanistan is high but time-limited.

"It should be possible now to say that we will move off our present war footing and reduce our forces there substantially during our next term in Government."

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