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Britain Reaffirms Support for Afghanistan

  • Tom Rivers

Three top officials from Britain's new coalition government flew in to Afghanistan for high-level discussions Saturday with political and military leaders there. With many Britons back home now openly questioning why its troops are still in the country, a big part of the trip was to clarify the British mission in Afghanistan.

Just weeks into a new administration here in London, a high-powered British delegation spent Saturday discussing the current situation in Afghanistan with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. commander of international forces, General Stanley McChrystal.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague called it a stock taking exercise by the incoming government, but as Prime Minister David Cameron stated on the campaign trail, it was his belief that British forces should start coming home within the next five years.

Opinion polls repeatedly show that the British public has grown weary of the nearly nine-year-long deployment.

Upon meeting the Afghan President in Kabul, Mr. Hague was very diplomatic in his language. "Afghanistan will find in the new government in Britain a steady friend in helping to tackle the problems that we have suffered in this area of world for too long," he said.

But speaking to the Times of London newspaper on Saturday, new Defense Secretary Liam Fox said he would like to see British soldiers come home as soon as possible and that he said would mean accelerating the training of Afghan forces if at all possible.

Meanwhile, interviewed by the BBC, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Colonel Richard Kemp says increasing the tempo of training of Afghan soldiers could be done but it would come with a price.

"In my opinion, to do that which is a very laudable objective, the sooner we can do it the more capable they are and more quickly we can write down the Taliban the quicker we will be able to withdraw from Afghanistan. But to do that I think we need more resources. Now are we prepared to put in more forces, more troops to help train the Afghan national army? Are we prepared to dedicate more resources to do that? If not, I suspect we probably cannot speed it up hugely," he said.

Britain supplies the second largest contingent of NATO troops in Afghanistan. Most are based in Helmand province in the south.

Nearly 300 British military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001.

Britain's new coalition government has promised an urgent defense review and many observers believe that will mean deep cuts as the new administration grapples with the country's huge and growing deficit problem.