Monday, December 14, 2009

Brown vows new push to defeat Taliban

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown vowed a renewed effort to defeat the Taliban insurgency during a visit to Afghanistan on Sunday, hailing the next few months as critical.

Brown was on an unannounced visit two weeks after ordering 500 extra British troops into the war alongside a surge of 30,000 American forces as part of a sweeping new US strategy to turn around the eight-year war.

He held talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a military base in Kandahar, the southern province where the Taliban were born and one of the deadliest battlefields for NATO and US troops since the 2001 US-led invasion.

"The combined effort of allied forces with the Afghan government is the way we will defeat the insurgency, the way we will stop Al-Qaeda having any space to operate in Afghanistan," he told a news conference with Karzai.

"I think the next few months are obviously critical," Brown had earlier told reporters travelling with him.

"What we need to show is... a determination to take on the Taliban and weaken them," Brown said.

The extra deployment, which will boost the number of British forces in Afghanistan to more than 10,000, would arrive "in the next few days", he added.

The prime minister held over an hour of talks with Karzai, who is under huge Western pressure to clamp down on corruption and form a transparent government after winning a fraud-tainted election in August.

Karzai, who has yet to unveil his new cabinet nearly a month after being inaugurated for another five-year term, pledged do "a lot more" in building an accountable administration.

"Sure, Afghanistan needs to do a lot more, primarily for the Afghan people," he said.

"We need to have a government that is responsive to the needs of the Afghan people. That's our responsibility and we will be taking a lot more measures."

The British leader welcomed his remarks.

"Of course, people will judge what happens by results, but I think we have seen a determination on the part of President Karzai to take new action against corruption," Brown said.

The visit is Brown's third to Afghanistan this year and comes in the run-up to Christmas, which many troops will spend away from their families fighting a war that is increasingly unpopular at home.

British losses so far this year stand at 100, making 2009 the deadliest year for the country's armed forces since the 1982 Falkland's War. Brown admitted it had been "a difficult year" but said morale was high among troops.

Officials said Brown's visit, which saw him stay overnight Saturday on the base at Kandahar, marked the first time a British prime minister had spent a night in a theatre of war in living memory.

Facing serious questions at home about the equipping of the British mission, the second-largest behind the US contingent, the British government has sent more military hardware to Afghanistan including helicopters.

Referring to the increase in equipment, some of which he inspected, Brown said: "These things are being done in a way that is calculated to weaken the Taliban and show they can't win this campaign."

British troops are based in Helmand, the heartland of opium production in Afghanistan which has become one of the deadliest battlegrounds in the country.

Brown said the Afghan army, currently 90,000 strong, will increase over the next year to around 135,000 and some Afghan districts could be handed over to local control in 2010.

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