David Cameron today announced £67m (€81m) in additional funding to counter the threat of Taliban roadside bombs to British troops in Afghanistan, as he made his first trip to the country as Prime Minister.
Following talks with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, Mr Cameron identified Afghanistan as his top foreign policy and national security priority, and said that 2010 was “the vital year” for making progress in the country.
He said that Britain was diverting an additional £200m (€241m) in aid funding to help President Karzai build up his army, police and civil service, with the aim of bringing forward the date when Afghanistan was able to handle its own security needs.
In an indication that he wanted to move towards the eventual withdrawal of Britain’s 10,000-strong military deployment without unnecessary delay, Mr Cameron said: “We should all the time be asking ’Can we go further, can we go faster?’
“Nobody wants British troops to be in Afghanistan a moment longer than is necessary.”
The new money will fund a specialist team to deal with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) for every sub-unit of the UK deployment in Helmand province, and will also fund new vehicles, including seven Mastiff armoured patrol vehicles.
But the deployment of further troops to Afghanistan was “not remotely on the UK agenda”, said Mr Cameron.
President Barack Obama has given US commander General Stanley McChrystal until the end of the year to assess whether his troop “surge” was working and when they could start drawing down forces.
Gen McChrystal, who heads the Nato-led international force in the country, today acknowledged that efforts to take control of the former Taliban heartland of Kandahar province “will happen more slowly than we had originally intended”.
“We are already in the process of doing political and military shaping but it is my personal assessment that it will be more deliberate than we thought earlier. I think it will take a number of months for this to play out, he told reporters on the sidelines of a Nato conference in Brussels. ”It’s more important we get it right than we get it fast.“
Speaking alongside Mr Karzai at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Mr Cameron said that the surge needed to be given time to show results.
The public in both the US and UK “want to see real progress this year”, he said.
But he added: “I think they are giving us more time. I think they recognise that the Obama/McChrystal plan is a new approach and we have to give that time to see results come through.”
Mr Cameron said he would update MPs with a statement to the House of Commons on Afghanistan on Monday and he announced that the Defence Secretary or Foreign Secretary would give a detailed statement on Afghanistan every three months to keep the public informed about progress there.
Mr Cameron’s visit comes in a particularly bad week for the international forces in Afghanistan.
Four US troops died when their helicopter was shot down by the Taliban in Afghanistan yesterday as they were reportedly trying to rescue some injured British soldiers in Helmand province.
The four deaths in Helmand province, and that of a British Nato service member in a homemade bomb attack earlier yesterday, took the number of Nato troops killed this month to 29.
Ten troops died on Monday. The previous most deadly day was October 26 last year, when 11 American troops were killed.
Since becoming Prime Minister last month, Mr Cameron has already hosted Mr Karzai at his country residence Chequers as well as speaking to him by telephone.
He also sent a high-level ministerial delegation – comprising Foreign Secretary William Hague, Defence Secretary Liam Fox and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell – to assess the situation for themselves.
This week he met US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Central Command chief General David Petraeus in Downing Street for high-level talks on progress.
Mr Cameron’s visit was being seen in Whitehall as rounding off a period of assessment and taking stock.
It is not thought that the new coalition Government is facing any immediate decisions in relation to Britain’s military commitment in the country.