Reporting from London — British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday made his first visit to Afghanistan since taking office, saying the war there was his top foreign policy priority but that British troops should not stay "a day longer than is necessary."
Cameron's unannounced trip came a day after U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus declared that defeating the Taliban could not be accomplished without Britain's participation. Petraeus and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates were in London this week to shore up Britain's commitment to the war in the face of public opposition and the new government's vow to cut spending.
Standing alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Cameron said securing Afghanistan remained uppermost on his foreign policy agenda but warned that this was "the vital year."
"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," Cameron said. "Obviously, no one wants British troops to stay in Afghanistan for a day longer than is necessary."
He ruled out any troop increases as "not remotely on the U.K. agenda." After the U.S., the British have the largest deployment in Afghanistan, consisting of about 10,000 military personnel.
But as troops continue to come home in coffins, many here are questioning Britain's involvement and demanding withdrawal as quickly as possible. More than 290 British troops have been killed in Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces invaded in 2001 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks U.S. and NATO military deaths in Afghanistan.
Mindful of the stirrings at home, Cameron promised to give regular updates on the war. He also pledged an extra $98 million for personnel and equipment to counter the threat posed by roadside bombs, which have been responsible for many British troop deaths.
In addition, he said Britain would fulfill its promise to provide nearly $300 million to help Afghanistan build institutions such as its national police so that foreign forces could "hand power over to an Afghanistan that is able to take control of its own security."
Cameron stressed the need for a "proper political surge" alongside the recent military buildup, mostly of American troops, to hasten some sort of political settlement between the Afghan government and the insurgency.
With the backing of a national peace conference last week, Karzai's administration is hoping to persuade rank-and-file fighters to lay down their weapons and has expressed a willingness to talk to Taliban leaders.