MANCHESTER, England, (AP) – Prime Minister Tony Blair said Sunday that NATO’s battle with Afghan insurgents has been more difficult than anticipated but must continue.
“I think the particular mission was tougher than anyone expected. But I’m not surprised it was tough,” Blair said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. TV in Manchester, where his Labour Party is holding its annual meeting. “The British troops there are doing just an incredible job.”
“The whole reason we’ve gone into that as part of the NATO force under the U.N. resolution is because it is essential for the Taliban and al-Qaida to come back into the southern part of Afghanistan and it’s essential for us to keep them out,” Blair said.
Over the last few months, southern Afghanistan has seen some of the fiercest fighting since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban regime. Blair’s government has had to cope with charges by middle-ranking officers in Afghanistan that ground troops have not received adequate air support and other backing.
With around 5,000 troops in the restive Helmand province in the south, Britain is an important part of a NATO force trying to subdue insurgents to permit reconstruction.
Britain’s army has been defending itself in response to critical e-mail messages from officers that were leaked to the news media.
On Thursday, Maj. Jon Swift said in a message from Afghanistan that, “The scale of casualties has not been properly reported and shows no sign of reducing.” His comments were posted on a regimental Web site, but were quickly withdrawn, the BBC reported.
On Friday, several British broadcasters quoted from an e-mail message written by Maj. James Loden.
“The R.A.F. have been utterly, utterly useless,” Maj. Loden was quoted as saying, referring to two instances involving Harrier warplanes during which pilots allegedly missed enemy forces and jeopardized British troops.
Sir Richard Dannatt, Britain’s chief of general staff, said in a written statement that, “The way the R.A.F. has performed in support of our operations in Afghanistan has been exceptional. Irresponsible comments, based on a snapshot, are regrettable.”
In a television interview, Dannatt denied that the British authorities were seeking to underreport casualty figures. “We have got nothing to hide as far as that is concerned,” he said. “The truth is what matters.”
Britain’s defense ministry said of Loden’s comments: “It must be remembered that this is the opinion of only one man. The general view is very different.”
Defense Minister Des Browne acknowledged in an address to the Royal United Services Institute think-tank this week that the battle in southern Afghanistan had been harder than expected. He rejected suggestions that British forces were poorly supported.