British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday made his first official visit to Afghanistan, hailing 2010 as vital in efforts to fight the Taliban but ruling out the prospect of sending any extra troops.
Cameron, whose visit was not announced ahead of time for security reasons, held talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the heavily guarded palace in Kabul before the two leaders held a joint news conference.
The new British premier declared Afghanistan “the most important foreign policy issue, the most important national security issue for my country”.
Britain has about 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, mostly in the south, as part of a 46-nation force. It is the second-biggest contributor to the NATO-led mission after the United States.
But Cameron told the news conference: “the issue of more troops is not remotely on the UK agenda”.
It is his first visit to Afghanistan since taking power as head of a coalition government involving his centre-right Conservatives and the centre-left Liberal Democrats last month.
Cameron’s new government has faced questions over whether it will follow the same strategy as his predecessor Gordon Brown and increasing public support for troops to come home.
An Independent on Sunday/ComRes survey in April found that 77 per cent of those questioned now supported a phased withdrawal and the end of operations within a year, up six per cent in five months.
A total of 294 British personnel have died in Afghanistan since operations began in the country to topple the Taliban government in October 2001.
British Defence Secretary Liam Fox, who visited Afghanistan shortly after the new government took power last month, caused controversy by telling the Times newspaper that he would like British troops to “come back as soon as possible” and referred to Afghanistan to “a broken 13th century country”.
Cameron announced an additional STG67 million ($A117.39 million) for British forces to counter the threat from improvised bombs, which are the biggest killer of Western soldiers in Afghanistan. “I’ve described this year — and the president, I know, agrees — in terms of the NATO mission in Afghanistan as the vital year,” Cameron said.
“This is the year when we have to make progress — progress for the sake of the Afghan people, but progress also on behalf of people back at home who want this to work,” he added. His visit to Kabul marks his second face-to-face talks with Karzai, whom he met earlier in London – his first with a foreign leader as premier.
Visiting London this week, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Britain was “resolute” in its commitment to the war in Afghanistan but he would not ask London for more troops for the mission.