AFGHANISTAN, (AFP) – British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Tuesday that next year must show “irreversible” progress in the anti-Taliban war, expressing hope that British troops could start leaving Afghanistan in 2011.
Making his second visit to the war-torn country as prime minister, Cameron met Afghan President Hamid Karzai days after leaked American cables showed heavy criticism by US and Afghan officials of the performance of British forces.
Cameron told a joint press conference with Karzai that he was “cautiously optimistic” over progress being made on the battlefield and about NATO plans to bring some troops home next year and the rest by the end of 2014.
“2010 was without a doubt a year in which we made real progress. 2011 must be the year in which that progress becomes irreversible,” he said.
“President Karzai gives me confidence that our plans for transition are achievable,” he said. “We are going to make it happen.”
The Afghan leader, whose relations with the West have become increasingly strained, was quoted in one US cable in 2009 as saying that British incompetence had led to a breakdown in law and order in Helmand province.
Asked about the memos divulged by the website WikiLeaks, Karzai reiterated his view that some may not be authentic and said: “Britain has been a steadfast supporter of Afghanistan and the Afghan people.”
Cameron left on Sunday for Afghanistan where around 10,000 British troops are stationed — the second biggest contribution after the United States to the more than 140,000 NATO-led troops fighting a nine-year Taliban insurgency.
Downing Street gave no date for the end of his visit.
He was accompanied by Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards, who had previously ruled out the prospects of a British withdrawal starting next year but now said it appeared a realistic target.
Cameron said: “There’s no scope for complacency… but I’m cautiously optimistic we have the right strategy. We are now a year into that strategy. We have put in the right resources to back it up.”
The last year has seen a massive build-up of US-led forces, trying to drive the Taliban from their strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces as part of a new strategy designed to bring Western troops home as soon as possible.
Referring to the leaked criticism by US and Afghan officials of Britain’s effort in Helmand province, the Taliban’s drug capital where British soldiers are deployed alongside 20,000 US Marines, Cameron said:
“There weren’t enough troops in the past. It’s clear now that we didn’t have enough troops in Helmand to actually deliver the security that was necessary.”
But he said the security situation in the restive province was now “getting progressively easier… people are rejecting the Taliban”.
Cameron held talks on Tuesday with Helmand governor Gulab Mangal, provincial government spokesman Daud Ahmadi said. Mangal was cited in the WikiLeaks cables as one of the officials criticising the British.
According to US cables in January 2009, the governor accused the British of doing too little to interact with the local community, instead being holed up in their main base in Sangin district.
In April 2007, General Dan McNeill, then NATO commander in Afghanistan, was quoted as saying he was “particularly dismayed” by the British who had “made a mess of things in Helmand” owing to the “wrong” tactics.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to reassure Britain over its role in Afghanistan last week, expressing “deep respect and admiration for the extraordinary efforts” of British forces in the country.
Nearly 350 British troops have been killed in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion that brought down the Taliban regime following the September 11 attacks.