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Cameron in Afghanistan: this year is 'vital'

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 10 June 2010

While David Cameron rules out sending more troops to Afghanistan, analyst Michael Semple tells Jon Snow the prime minister believes a political settlement is the way forward.

David Cameron made his first visit to Afghanistan today after taking office in the coalition government more than a month ago.

In a joint press conference with the Afghan president Hamid Karzai in Kabul, the prime minister ruled out sending more troops to the country, saying that Britain's forces should not stay on "for a day longer" than necessary. The British public need to see more progress over the next six months, he said, adding that this year was "vital" for the Afghan mission.

However Cameron was forced to cancel a visit to a forward British military base following concerns of a Taliban attack.

Aides said the decision had been made by military commanders after two mobile phone calls, one suggesting a possible rocket attack on a helicopter and another claiming a VIP was flying in, had been intercepted.

Features on this page
- Colonel Richard Kemp on the task ahead
- Cameron announces Afghan bomb teams will 'double'
- MP Patrick Mercer: 'Awful Afghan mess'
- McChrystal sees slower pace for Kandahar operation

Cameron has been conducting an intensive reassessment of the strategy in Afghanistan where Britain has almost 10,000 troops.

With British casualties rising to almost 300, Cameron said his "biggest duty" was to make sure armed forces have the equipment and protection they need to do the job. 

The prime minister pledged an extra £67m to be spent on countering the Taliban use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) - a major threat facing British soldiers.

"I'm pleased to announce today that we will be spending an extra £67m on countering the IED threat and actually doubling the number of British teams that are there to counter the threat from these explosive devices," Cameron told the press conference.

Michael Semple, from Harvard's Kennedy School in the US, told Jon Snow said today's "change of tone" on the part of the prime minister suggested that he had been advised "that it is still possible to achieve a stable solution in Afghanistan - basically, prop up the Afghan government."

He continued: "But it's not going to be achieved through militarily eradicating the Taliban. It's going to be achieved by showing that the Afghan security forces are becoming competent to hold on to the key administrative centres and convincing the Taliban that they're never going to win, and therefore that in quite a reasonable timetable they actually will come to the negotiating table.

"I think that's basically what he's heard, so they're not going to fight their way to victory in the next 12 months. But he is hoping that he will be able to bring the troops home after some kind of political settlement."

'Progress must be made this year'
Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and author of Attack State Red, writes for Channel 4 News.

I am glad to hear David Cameron pledge substantial extra funding for the counter IED effort in Afghanistan. These lethal devices are the Taliban's most effective weapons, killing and wounding our troops as well as Afghan civilians in large numbers.

It is essential that such a high level of financial and moral commitment is made by the new government to every aspect of the war in Afghanistan, taking no account of budgetary pressures elsewhere or of the increasing army of defeatists who say we can't win the campaign.

If the cause in Afghanistan is worth asking our soldiers to lay down their lives then it is worth supporting them in any and every way necessary to achieve victory over those forces who would seize power by violent insurgency.

It is important also that we show our commitment to winning to the Afghan people. Of course we must get out as quickly as we can and that is also what the Afghans want. But only when the job is done. If the people think there is a likelihood or even a chance that we will pull out too early, leaving them again to the mercy of the Taliban, they will not give us their support - support which is essential if we are to prevail.

As the prime minister says, we need to see substantial and tangible progress in the campaign this year. President Obama has pledged to pull out some US troops in 2011 and if this happens without such progress it will be seen as retreat in the face of a superior enemy rather than withdrawal on our own terms.

The US troop surge, with support from us and other Nato nations, allied with an ever-strengthening Afghan National Army, undoubtedly has the potential to achieve military success against the Taliban.

Just as important, however, is building the Afghan government's capability and credibility. David Cameron should give this most difficult challenge as high a priority as our military efforts.

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The prime minister added: "I've described this year - and the president, I know, agrees - 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."

'Awful mess'
Tributes were paid today to Lance Bombardier Mark Chandler, from 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, killed in southern Afghanistan earlier this week. Another soldier, who is yet to be named, was killed yesterday bringing the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan to 294.

With public support for the campaign waning Cameron was keen to reiterate that the war is number one foreign policy priority.

Patrick Mercer, a Conservative MP, told Channel 4 News that he felt the British public are not behind the Afghan mission.

"If it is explained properly public opinion can be swayed but the last government's attempt was thoroughly dismal," he said.

General's 10 point plan for Cameron
Former Helmand commander Andrew Mackay and Operation Snakebite author Stephen Grey set out 10 key points for the PM's agenda.

"I'm not convinced that we can ever win but we may be able to contain. Ultimately we're going to have to get some form of complete overhaul of our aims and strategy."

The former army officer said that an "awful mess" had been made of the Afghan mission.  

"I think there is a strategy. How realistic it is I would certainly question", he told Channel 4 News.

"Serious mistakes have been made most recently in Helmand policy. The Aim and mission were never clear when we went in. And we were without any form of study of British or Soviet problems in the past.

"The first thing that's got to be made clear is that this is a regional conflict. It is not bounded simply by Afghanistan - it stretches from the borders of Iran to Russia. It is every bit about Pakistan as it is about Afghanistan.

"The ultimate aim must be withdrawal but it has got to be measured, not against a timeline, but by serious successes."

An investigation into the Afghan strategy as part of the Strategic Defence Review is now expected after the re-election of James Arbuthnot, also a Tory MP, as chairman of the Defence Select Committee.

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Afghan bomb teams to 'double'
The Ministry of Defence insisted that the £67m announced today was new money, writes Carl Dinnen. They said the bulk of it would be spent on a fleet of specialised vehicles for British bomb disposal teams; they would be based on the Mastiff vehicles already in use. There would also be a "significant enhancement" of the number of sniffer dogs and more of the remote vehicles used by the bomb disposal teams.

Doubling the number of British bomb disposal teams will prove far harder.

The actual number of teams in Afghanistan is a closely guarded secret but they are known to be working at full stretch. The difficulty is that the army say to train a high threat counter IED operator takes seven years from start to finish.

Alternatives that the MOD is known to be exploring are a faster training scheme which just focuses on the Afghan threat, bringing back officers who have been promoted out of the bomb disposal trade and re-recruiting those that have left the military. The MOD wouldn't say how any of these schemes are going so far.

But the extra effort will be welcome news in Helmand where, we learned today, 51 per cent of British casualties are as a direct result of IED blasts.

But the extra effort will be welcome news in Helmand where, we learned today, 51 per cent of British casualties are as a direct result of IED blasts. But many of the blunt traumas (14 per cent of injuries) are as an indirect result of IEDs; from things like being thrown against the side of a vehicle. 23 per cent of injuries are from gunshot wounds.

There is no doubt the next year is critical for Afghanistan. The problem for ISAF is that Counterinsurgency operations are a long game, not a quick one and many of the organisations insiders say are needed for successful counterinsurgency have only been put in place in the last 18 months or so ; rather extraordinary for a campaign that has been running for 9 years.

Kandahar delays
Military operations to gain control of Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace, will move more slowly and take longer than initially planned, the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan said on Thursday.

General Stanley McChrystal said he wanted more time to shore up Afghan support for the operation and to build up the capabilities of local authorities to provide services as security improves.

The changes, following setbacks in a US-led offensive in neighbouring Helmand province, may add to doubts about what can be achieved in southern Afghanistan before the year's end, when the White House plans to review progress in the war.

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