British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Wednesday that his country is determined to carry on with its combat mission in Afghanistan despite a rise in casualties and skepticism in domestic opinion polls. Miliband discussed the Afghan situation and related issues with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton here in Washington.
Miliband says the Afghan conflict is in a "tough phase," but that Britain intends to work through the difficulties, side-by-side with the United States as Afghanistan approaches historic elections next month.
The British top diplomat met Secretary Clinton amid a backdrop of high British casualties in the current offensive against Taliban forces in Afghanistan and public opinion polls indicating that a majority of Britons would like to see their troops brought home.
But Miliband said his country intends to stay the course on a mission that is in its national interest, given Afghanistan's past links to terrorism.
"I think that the British people understand the vital nature of the mission that's taking place in Afghanistan," said David Miliband. "They know that Afghanistan was the incubator for global terrorism that struck with such deadly effect in September 2001. I think the British people will stay with this mission because there is a clear strategy and a clear determination on behalf of the United States and other coalition member to see this through."
Nearly 200 British troops have died in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion began in 2001. More than 20 troops have been killed this month in the major offensive against the Taliban in Helmand province.
Clinton, appearing alongside Miliband at a press event, hailed the bravery of British troops fighting alongside Americans. She expressed deep sadness over the battlefield losses, while also saying that coalition forces have made "significant gains".
"We know that this is a challenge that is not going to be easily resolved in a short period of time," said Hillary Clinton. "But we believe that we are pursuing a strategy, both military and civilian, that holds out promise for achieving our principle objective - that is to destroy, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida and their allies in the syndicate of terror that has unfortunately taken root in Afghanistan and spilled over into Pakistan."
Clinton and Miliband stressed the importance of the August 20th Afghan presidential election - for reaffirming the democratic ideals for which the war is being fought and opening the way for a new Afghan government to share more of the security burden.
That point was also stressed by U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, who in a press briefing here said it is "absolutely essential" that the Kabul government, over time, assumes responsibility for its own security while foreign troops are drawn down.
"The current force levels of police and army are clearly going to have to be increased," said Richard Holbrooke. "But we're in the middle of an election campaign in Afghanistan. And that election campaign has been going on, basically and in one form or another, since this administration took office."
Holbrooke, just back from a visit to the region, said a perfect Afghan election is not possible, given among other things the likelihood that some polling stations may not open because of security concerns.
But he said the United States hopes to see an election that reflects the desires of those who do vote, and whose outcome is "accepted as legitimate" by the Afghan people and the world community.