KABUL Afghanistan will need financial and military support for many years after a 2014 deadline for foreign combat troops to return home, and may not be able to balance its budget until the middle of next decade, Britain's ambassador in Kabul said.
William Patey, speaking 10 years after the start of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, said he was confident the Afghan army was already stronger than the Taliban, but it would need long-term help with training and funds.
British and other forces should provide that, because if the Taliban returned to power by force, it risked the country becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda again, he added.
"It's important to get across (the message) that Afghanistan is not being abandoned in 2014, the nature of our engagement is changing," Patey told Reuters in his Kabul residence.
President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers agreed all foreign combat troops would return home by the end of 2014, prompting fears among some Afghans that their security forces would not be able to stop the country slipping into full-blown civil war.
But Patey said that while foreign soldiers would no longer go out to fight, Afghan forces would get funds and support.
Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest countries, will likely need long-term financial help, he warned, although Karzai's government hopes development of untapped mineral resources will make it financially independent within years, not decades.
"I think it's going to take at the earliest 2025 before Afghanistan might be able to balance its budget," Patey said.
Supporting Afghanistan's army was critical to preventing attacks on Britain like those that killed over 50 people in London in 2005, because if the Taliban fought their way back to power, they could provide a haven for al Qaeda again, he added.
"It's still about national security, we're here in order to ensure that Afghanistan once again does not return to a state where it can be used to threaten our security."
"The reality is that they have been reluctant to cut the links with al Qaeda," he added.
RESOURCES TO MATCH AMBITION
Patey said reconstruction after the fall of the Taliban had been slower than it should have been because resources were diverted to Iraq during the early years of the war.
"Our ambition wasn't matched by our resources, so we are not as far down the road as we could have been had we not been distracted by Iraq," he said in an interview on the eve of the October 7th anniversary.
"I think we are now putting in the sorts of resources that can deliver a viable state, an army capable of providing security in the country. So I think that we've got more resources and we've reduced our ambitions."
The progress of the war in Afghanistan has been heavily contested by Afghans themselves and the different groups in Afghanistan, from the foreign military to the United Nations.
NATO-led forces fighting in Afghanistan last month reported a drop in the number of "security incidents," a stark contrast to a U.N. report released the same week that said the country had become significantly more insecure in 2011.
There is a mixed picture on the ground. Taliban influence is spreading in the once-peaceful north and west, and insurgents have carried out a string of high profile assassinations, most recently of a former president. But NATO forces have tightened their control of former Taliban strongholds in the south.
Patey, who has served in Afghanistan since May 2010, said additional funds and troops sent to Afghanistan had already transformed Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
"They have been denied territory there. In the central Helmand plain Afghans are going about their normal business, and the Taliban are unable to pursue their normal strategy."
"(There are) benefits of stability that we are seeing in Helmand, where people are able to go about their daily business, grow their crops, get them to market, send their kids to school, have decent health services," he said.
But the true test of Western success would be when the handover to the army and police they are shaping is complete, in little over three years, he added.
"Everyone likes milestones, and everyone is right that people should take stock after a decade," he said.
"But I think the big milestone is going to be at the beginning of 2015, have we delivered an Afghan security force capable of defending Afghanistan against whatever terrorist threat remains, and I think we are on track for that."
(Editing by Martin Petty)