CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday ruled out sending more troops to Afghanistan, saying Britain’s forces should not stay on “for a day longer” than necessary.
On his first visit as premier to a country his new coalition government has set as its top foreign policy priority, Cameron called 2010 a “vital year” for the Afghan war and said the British public needed to see progress over the next six months.
In the month since he took power at the head of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, Cameron has been conducting an intensive assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, where Britain has 9,500 troops.
The risks got personal when Cameron’s helicopter was diverted during a tour of military bases in southern Helmand province. An aide described this as a precaution after intercepted communications suggested insurgents might try to shoot it down.
Rising casualties -- nearly 300 British soldiers have been killed since 2001 -- are eroding British public support for the war. Its spiraling cost worries a Cameron government searching for deep spending cuts to rein in a gaping budget deficit.
“No one wants British troops to stay in Afghanistan for a day longer than is necessary,” Cameron told a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace.
“What we want, and in our national security interest, is to hand power over to an Afghanistan that is able to take control of its own security,” he said.
The number of foreign troops in Afghanistan is about to peak at around 150,000 but the death of 18 international soldiers this week alone shows that the Taliban are at their strongest since they were overthrown in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
In the insurgent heartland of Kandahar, a suspected Taliban suicide bomber killed at least 40 people at a wedding party on Wednesday night, officials said. Many of the guests had links to local authorities that cooperate with Western forces.
While Cameron said he fully supported U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy of sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan to try and turn the tide in the nine-year war, he ruled out reinforcing them with Britons.
“The issue of more troops is not remotely on the UK agenda,” Cameron said.
While Britain is the second-highest troop contributor to Afghanistan, the numbers are significantly lower compared to the United States, which by year’s end will have some 100,000 troops deployed.
Cameron said the British people sought word of progress in Afghanistan and of prospects for the return of British troops.
BRITONS WANT “CLEAR PATHWAY”
“I’ve described this year ... in terms of the NATO mission here in Afghanistan as 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,” he said.
“I want to make sure the British public have all the information they need about the progress we’re making ... so the people can see a clear pathway to Afghanistan taking more control of its own security.”
In the past month, Karzai has visited Cameron in Britain, three senior British ministers have made a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan and Cameron’s newly created National Security Council has devoted several sessions to the Afghan conflict.
Cameron visited Afghanistan four times while opposition leader and accused the then Labour government of endangering British soldiers’ by failing to equip them with enough helicopters and protected vehicles. As prime minister, he will be mindful of the need to come up with such kit quickly.
Another concern are the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), or homemade bombs that are a major hindrance to operations, having killed 130 foreign troops in Afghanistan this year alone.
Cameron said Britain would be spending an extra 67 million pounds ($98 million) on countering the IED threat and would be doubling the number of bomb-disposal teams in the country.
Last month, the British army’s top bomb-disposal officer resigned, reportedly over a lethal shortage of trained sappers.
Most of Britain’s troops are in Helmand, scene of some of the fiercest fighting with the Taliban. British forces have also been involved in recent weeks in a major Helmand offensive dubbed Operation Moshtarak.
Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch; Editing by David Fox