Blair Meets Troops in South Afghanistan

The Associated Press
Monday, November 20, 2006; 1:42 AM

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair met Monday with soldiers fighting the resurgent Taliban in the country's restive south, telling them that their mission was vital to global stability.

Ahead of talks in Kabul with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Blair met dozens of the 1,800 troops based at Camp Bastion _ Britain's main southern base, close to the capital of the restive southern Helmand province.

"Here in this extraordinary desert is where the future of world security in the early 21st century is going to be played out," Blair said.

Blair and his entourage arrived for the 70-minute visit in an unmarked C-130 Hercules cargo plane that made a winding, corkscrew landing to avoid any incoming missiles.

Blair's arrival followed a two-day visit to Pakistan, where he and Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf agreed to a package of joint ventures to tackle extremism and support Afghanistan.

Musharraf said Pakistan's troubled neighbor needed a huge influx of reconstruction aid, similar to the U.S. Marshall Plan for the rebuilding of Europe following World War II.

A total of 41 British soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led 2001 invasion of the country _ 36 deaths since July's deployment to Helmand, Blair's office said.

British troops moved into the province, a hub of the global heroin trade, as part of the NATO mission to subdue insurgents and allow a reconstruction program to expand.

Blair's office said Britain has around 6,000 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.

British Defense Secretary Des Browne said last month that operations in Afghanistan since 2001 had cost Britain $1.6 billion.

© 2006 The Associated Press