The prime minister visits troops on the front line in Afghanistan as a senior British commander claimed talks with the Taliban should have been attempted a decade ago.
On a trip timed to coincide with Armed Forces Day, David Cameron acknowledged that things could have been done differently after military operations removed the Taliban regime.
But he insisted it was right for the west to consider talks with the Taliban now, with hopes of an Afghanistan where everyone can play a role in the country’s future.
General Nick Carter, deputy commander of the Nato-led coalition, told The Guardian that it would have been more successful to approach the Taliban in 2002 after they were knocked from power.
The United States and Afghanistan are still waiting to hear from the Taliban about opening peace talks, but remain willing to go ahead with negotiations despite a stir the militant group caused in opening a new office in Qatar.
Gen Carter told the newspaper: “Back in 2002, the Taliban were on the run. I think that at that stage, if we had been very prescient, we might have spotted that a final political solution to what started in 2001, from our perspective, would have involved getting all Afghans to sit at the table and talk about their future.”
Speaking in Lashkar Gah, Mr Cameron told Sky News: “I think you can argue about whether the settlement we put in place after 2001 could have been better arranged.
“Of course you can make that argument. Since I became prime minister in 2010 I have been pushing all the time for a political process and that political process is now under way.
“But at the same time I know that you cannot bank on that, which is why we have built up the Afghan army, built up the Afghan police, supported the Afghan government so after our troops have left, and they will be leaving under the programme we have set out, this country shouldn’t be a haven for terrorists.”
The prime minister told reporters: “We want a political solution as well as making sure we have a security solution. What we have done in Afghanistan is we came here to stop it being used as a base for terrorist activities. That has been and is successful.
“What we need to do is build up the Afghan armed forces and at the same time make sure that the politics of Afghanistan enable everyone in Afghanistan to play a role in the future of their country.
“We are making some progress there as well.”
He said: “I can announce today that we will be taking more money off the Libor fines and putting it in to military charities including building a permanent memorial at the Staffordshire Arboretum so that we can always remember and future generations can remember those that fell and died here in Afghanistan.”
Mr Cameron said the political process should mean “those people are prepared to give up the bomb, the bullet, can actually be part of that process, part of that future Afghanistan”.
A senior British military source suggested that Nato would need to assist the Afghans for “three to five years” after the combat role ends in 2014.
The British military have committed to running an academy for Afghan officer – nicknamed “Sandhurst in the sand” – but the source suggested that Nato could also be required to assist with close air support, casualty evacuation and logistics.
A senior No 10 source said it will be for the National Security Council to decide what the UK’s role would be after 2014 but “we have done our fair share”.
The source said: “The prime minister has been clear that we have paid a heavy price and already given a lot.
“Our combat troops will leave at the end of next year.
“The only military commitments we have made beyond 2014 are to part-run the Officer Academy and to provide financial support to sustain Afghan forces.
“We have not been asked to do anything more.
“The prime minister’s view is that we have done our fair share and it will now be for other Isaf partners to carry the main burden.”