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British Defense Secretary Visits Troops, Meets Afghan Leaders


Britain's recently appointed defense secretary met in Kabul with President Hamid Karzai and top-ranking members of Afghanistan's Cabinet. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kabul that London is preparing to increase the number of its troops in Afghanistan.

Britain is increasingly shifting its overseas military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. As it draws down its remaining 4,000 troops in Iraq, the British are to increase the number of soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.

But Britain's new Defense Secretary, John Hutton, says it is premature to discuss specific numbers.

"There will be decisions made about that in due course," he said. "And we will support our friends and allies in Afghanistan to the fullest extent we can."

Hutton spoke to VOA News at a British military base on the outskirts of Kabul, following his meetings with top international military commanders in the country, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and several members of the Afghan Cabinet.

Many British and other Western military leaders and ambassadors are declaring the Taliban cannot be defeated on the battlefield. Some are calling for negotiations between the Kabul government and the fundamentalist Taliban.

Hutton says while the international forces have to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming "a safe haven for international terrorism" the government in Kabul has to take the lead in finding a possible political accommodation with the Taliban.

"Guaranteeing an appropriate level of security is fundamental to creating the space for the political reconciliation process and the economic development to take place in parallel," he said. "But that is a process that the Afghan government should necessarily be in the lead on. These are matters for the Afghan people to resolve."

The British have 8,500 troops in the country, mainly in Helmand province in the southern part of Afghanistan. That is an area where the insurgents have a significant presence.

The British defense minister, who visited the troops there, says his government's top priority is to do everything it can to improve the reach of government across the province where reconstruction and development are clearly lagging.

The United Kingdom is Afghanistan's second biggest aid donor, behind the United States. London has committed more than $1 billion of aid to the country since the Taliban were ousted from power in late 2001.

But it is those same fundamentalist Taliban who continue to bedevil one of the world's poorest countries. Attacks on foreign military troops and civilian aid workers are increasing. One of the latest victims - a young female British charity worker fatally gunned down Monday on a Kabul street.

The effort to convince Afghans that the billions of dollars and tens of thousands of foreign troops are making a difference has been obscured by the perception most are not better off in terms of security and development than they were during the repressive Taliban era.

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