KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Afghan President Hamid Karzai met at an Afghan air base on Sunday, aiming to fix a relationship that has grown bitter as the Afghan war grows deadlier and more unpopular.
Brown, whose troops have this year faced Britain’s deadliest fighting in a generation, made an unannounced visit to Kandahar air base, headquarters of NATO troops in southern Afghanistan, and said the next few months of the war would be critical.
In a show of unity, the leaders — whose public complaints about each other have been symptomatic of Karzai’s eroding standing in the West — jointly surveyed a parade of Afghan and NATO troops at the base and insisted their ties remain warm. “I find him an extremely dignified person. I’m happy and honoured indeed to call him a friend,” Karzai told journalists when asked about sharp remarks about Brown he made last week. “He has a relationship with me I can call very trustworthy.” Brown said the two had “the best of relations. We talk regularly by telephone”.
As the war has grown less popular at home, Brown has been even more prominent than other Western leaders in voicing mounting criticism of the government of Karzai, who was re-elected in an August vote that was marred by widespread fraud.
The Afghan leader lashed back in an interview last week, saying comments from Brown were “very unfortunate and very artificial. It is extremely insulting”.
Western leaders are trying to strike a balance between rebuking Karzai for what they see as weak leadership and tolerance of corruption, without further undermining his legitimacy and support for their war to protect his government.
This year 100 British soldiers have been killed in the fiercest fighting of the eight-year-old war, fuelling opposition in Britain to the forces’ involvement. That public doubt puts pressure on Brown, who faces an uphill battle to win an election due by next June. Brown has had to defend himself against criticism that he poorly explained the reasons behind Britain’s participation in the war and starved the military of cash it needed for helicopters and armoured vehicles. “What we need to show is that there’s a determination to take on the Taliban and to weaken them, but also a determination on the part of the Afghan government to play a bigger part in the future in what is to be done,” he told reporters in Kandahar.
Brown has been a strong supporter of U.S. President Barack Obama’s new counter-insurgency strategy, which involves sending in 30,000 new U.S. troops, speeding up the training of Afghan forces and beginning a withdrawal in mid-2011.
With 9,500 troops pledged, the British contingent is by far the biggest of Washington’s NATO allies and especially this year has borne the brunt of non-U.S. NATO casualties. Brown hopes Afghan troops will gradually be able to take control of security, allowing Western forces to take a less prominent role.
British and U.S. commanders have particularly complained of a shortage of Afghan troops in Helmand, Afghanistan’s most violent province, where the British contingent and a similar-sized U.S. Marine force vastly outnumber Afghan security forces.
Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told Reuters on Saturday that Afghanistan was sending 8,000-10,000 extra troops to Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar. Brown said Karzai promised to send 10,000 Afghan troops to Helmand, half of which would by trained by British forces. Brown acknowledged it had been a hard year, but said he was more confidant about the future because new troops were coming and Britain was adding helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles. His overnight stay in a spartan room at Kandahar air base was the first time either he or predecessor Tony Blair had spent the night in a war zone. On previous trips to Afghanistan and Iraq he and Blair had flown in and out on the same day.