LONDON (Reuters) - Britain has offered to host an international conference in January to set a timetable for transferring security responsibilities to Afghan forces from next year, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Monday.
The bloodiest year for British troops in Afghanistan has fueled public opposition to the campaign, creating another headache for Brown as he tries to close a big gap on the opposition Conservatives ahead of an election due by June.
Brown, trying to show voters he had an exit strategy, argues that expanding training of Afghan security forces may allow Britain to reduce its troop numbers over time.
He also presented the mission as part of the fight against al Qaeda, the militant Islamist group.
Brown said that he had offered London as a venue for an international meeting on Afghanistan in January.
“I want that conference to chart a comprehensive political framework within which the military strategy can be accomplished,” he said in excerpts of a speech he is due to deliver on Monday evening.
“It should identify a process for transferring district by district to full Afghan control and if at all possible set a timetable for transfer starting in 2010,” he said.
Britain has the second largest foreign military contingent in Afghanistan after the United States, with 9,000 soldiers.
But the rise in the British death toll to 233 since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 has led many Britons to question the war while Brown has been accused of failing to provide British forces with the helicopters and armored vehicles they need.
Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy jointly proposed a conference on Afghanistan in September. The British government has already said it has offered to host the meeting.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday that al Qaeda remained the biggest threat to U.S. security.
Brown underlined the threat he said terror plots hatched in Afghanistan and its neighbor Pakistan posed to Britain but underlined what he said was progress against al Qaeda.
“Since January 2008 seven of the top dozen figures in al Qaeda have been killed, depleting its reserve of experienced leaders and sapping its morale,” he said.
“Our security services report to me that there is now an opportunity to inflict significant and long-lasting damage to al Qaeda.”
Brown said that the campaign in Afghanistan was proving more effective in combating al Qaeda than at any point since the first months of the war in 2001.
A government source said the presence of international forces had pushed the al Qaeda leadership into Pakistan where the Pakistani army had mounted a series of offensives against the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Malcolm Chalmers, of the Royal United Services Institute, said the claims of progress against al Qaeda were not unreasonable but not linked directly to the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
“There has been an increase in attacks using American drones in Pakistan. Certainly from the reports one sees it suggests it has put them on the back foot.”
Additional reporting by Adrian Croft, editing by Diana Abdallah