British PM Visits Troops in Afghanistan

The Associated Press
Monday, November 20, 2006; 4:05 PM

KABUL, Afghanistan -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair told soldiers fighting a resurgent Taliban that success in Afghanistan would be a step toward global security, and on Monday pledged Britain's commitment to the war-torn country "for as long as it takes."

Blair held talks in Kabul with President Hamid Karzai following a visit to meet hundreds of troops in the country's restive southern Helmand province _ a former Taliban stronghold and hub of Afghanistan's heroin trade.

Blair paid tribute to the troops at Camp Bastion _ Britain's main southern base.

"Here in this extraordinary desert is where the future of world security in the early 21st century is going to be played out," he said, speaking on a platform raised above a vast stretch of gray dust.

The visit was the British leader's first to Afghanistan since 2002. Britain has around 6,000 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.

Blair told a joint news conference with Karzai at the presidential palace that British and NATO forces would likely remain in Afghanistan for years to prevent any return to power of the Taliban.

"We came to Afghanistan because the sickness and the evil that was here came to us," Blair said, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. "I don't believe there is an alternative but to fight this and to fight it for as long as it takes."

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 to aid neighboring Afghanistan.

Musharraf said Afghanistan needed a huge influx of reconstruction aid, similar to the U.S. Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II.

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

British troops moved into the former Taliban stronghold and global heroin hub as part of the NATO mission to subdue insurgents and allow reconstruction to expand.

"This is a fight of a different kind from anything we have faced as a country, certainly in the postwar years," Blair said in Helmand. "It is not the same as two major powers fighting each other. It's not like World War I or World War II."

After talking with the British leader, Maj. Andy Plewes said his company of commandos _ newly arrived on a six-month tour _ were eager to begin the job of ousting insurgents, but also to mend relations with local community leaders.

"They've trained back in Britain for it and are ready to get out into the villages, sit down for talks with tribal leaders and drink endless cups of green tea," Plewes said.

Nick Key, a regional coordinator for Britain's foreign office, said meetings with tribal leaders had led to the withdrawal of British forces from the district of Musa Qala _ prompting claims soldiers were in effect forced into retreat and raised concerns the area could be exploited by Taliban fighters.

"We know we have to keep our eyes open and we do that," Key said, insisting the pullout had been at the request of local leaders and Karzai.

Britain's Sunday Times newspaper reported Sunday that Taliban commanders had been discovered freely recuperating in the Pakistani city of Quetta following battles in Afghanistan with British forces.

"Fighting the British is as easy as eating a loaf of bread from my hand," the newspaper quoted an unidentified Taliban commander as saying. "Fighting the British is much easier than the Americans. They have no faith."

© 2006 The Associated Press