British PM pledges support for Taliban talks

KABUL, July 5, 2011 (AFP) - British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday pledged to support talks with the Taliban, saying that the nearly 10-year Afghan war could be resolved like the conflict in Northern Ireland.

On a day that four NATO soldiers were killed in eastern Afghanistan, he also announced the creation of a Sandhurst-style military academy to train Afghan officers ahead of the pullout of Western combat forces by 2015.

"In terms of the political process and political reconciliation, firstly I would say to the Afghan people, we are with you, we want to help you," Cameron told a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.

"To the Taliban my message is very clear. Stop bombing, stop killing, stop fighting, put down your weapons, join the political process and you can join the future of this country."

Violence in Afghanistan has been at record highs, nearly 10 years after US-led troops invaded to bring down the Taliban regime for refusing to give up Osama bin Laden after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

"I have seen in it in my own country. In Northern Ireland, we had people trying to bomb and kill police and now they are taking part in politics themselves," said Cameron.

A British-led military academy staffed with around 120 British military trainers hopes to open its doors in 2013 and train 1,350 Afghan officers a year, attracting a funding pledge of $38 million from the United States.

"Today the president and I have been discussing our plan to build an Afghan Sandhurst to train the officers of the future that will form the backbone of the already successful Afghan army," said Cameron.

He also defended plans to increase British aid to Afghanistan, despite austere budget cuts at home, branding opponents "hard-hearted".

The Department for International Development said this financial year British aid to Afghanistan was £102 million ($164 million) and will be £178 million ($287 million) next financial year.

Cameron declared progress in Afghanistan to be "on the right track" as he sought to regain momentum in a two-day trip overshadowed by the death of a British soldier who had earlier gone missing from his Helmand base.

"This is a great example of a country that if we walk away from, and if we ignore, if we forget about, the problems will come visited back on our doorstep," Cameron said.

He said "some progress" in Helmand province where the bulk of British troops are based, would allow for a "modest" drawdown to be announced for next year.

The British soldier's mysterious death in Helmand province, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility, overshadowed Cameron's earlier announcement that security had improved enough for Britain to soon withdraw some troops.

Cameron said he would make an announcement in parliament on Wednesday on the level of drawdown of troops next year, with weekend media reports saying he would order the withdrawal of 500-800 soldiers by the end of 2012.

Britain has a total force of 9,500 -- the second largest contingent of foreign troops in the country after the United States.

Cameron arrived in Helmand on Monday on a previously unannounced visit but decided to abandon a planned trip to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, one of a handful of towns earmarked for an early handover to Afghan forces.

The soldier went missing from a checkpost in the early hours of Monday and London later announced that his body had been found with gunshot wounds.

The top Afghan army commander for Helmand said the soldier had drowned after going for a swim on his military base and that his body had been carried away by a strong current and later shot by Taliban insurgents.

Lashkar Gah was one of seven areas in Afghanistan identified by NATO for an initial handover of security ahead of a full transfer of responsibility across the country and the withdrawal of all Western combat troops.

Cameron's announcement comes nearly two weeks after US President Barack Obama said he would withdraw 33,000 US "surge" troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, bringing total US forces there down to 65,000.

The speed of that drawdown has been criticised by senior Republican lawmakers and met with a cool reception by US military commanders.

Other news