KABUL (AP) – Britain’s prime minister paid a surprise visit Saturday to British troops in southern Afghanistan, promising more help to cope with Taliban insurgents who have inflicted casualties on the embattled force and undercut support in Britain for the war.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaking to British soldiers and journalists at the British base in Lashkar Gah, pledged to provide more equipment to help overcome the threat of Taliban roadside bombs, a major threat to NATO forces.
More than 200 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001, more than Britain lost in the Iraq conflict.
Last week, British troops cleared 337 roadside bombs from some of the most dangerous roads in Helmand province, which has been center-stage in the recent fighting.
“Let me pay tribute to the courage, bravery, professionalism and patriotism of our forces,” Brown told the troops. “This has been a most difficult summer in Afghanistan, because the Taliban have tried to prevent elections taking place,” referring to the Aug. 20 presidential ballot.
“I think our forces have shown extraordinary courage during this period,” he added. “They know the reason why we are here and that is our security at home depends on a stable Afghanistan, no return of the Taliban, and no role for Al Qaeda in the running of Afghanistan.”
British officials said they recognize the need for better-armored vehicles and more helicopters in Afghanistan and that they would get then here as soon as possible.
Brown also said he wants to accelerate the training of the Afghan army so the Afghans can assume a greater role in defending the country. He called for speeding up the target of training about 50,000 additional Afghan troops, which would bring the overall level trained to around 135,000.
The prime minister arrived with Air Chief Marshal Jock Stirrup, chief of the British Defense Staff, and met with senior commanders including the top U.S. officer, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Support for the war is slipping in Britain. Critics believe the mission is too open-ended, and its goals too vague. At various times British officials have emphasized the need to make Afghanistan a stable democracy, to curb the opium trade and to stop Al Qaeda and related groups basing themselves there.
Brown’s promise of more help followed news reports in Britain that the new British army chief, Gen. David Richards, warned three years ago there were not enough troops to carry out the mission in Afghanistan. Richards told The Times of London that his remarks upset senior figures in NATO and the British Ministry of Defense.