Blair visits British troops in Afghanistan

Updated on Nov 20, 2006 01:08 PM IST

The UK premier arrived at the southern Camp Bastion base and paid tribute to the soldiers' commitment and bravery in difficult circumstances.

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None | ByPhil Hazlewood (AFP), Lashkar Gah

British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew into Afghanistan on Monday to visit British troops serving with the NATO force fighting Taliban insurgents.

Blair arrived at the southern Camp Bastion base by military transporter plane and paid tribute to the soldiers' commitment and bravery in difficult circumstances.

"Here on this extraordinary piece of desert is where the future of the security of the early 21st century is going to be played out," Blair told troops at the base in restive Helmand province.

He spent about 60 minutes talking to soldiers from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) deployed against militants in the volatile region and was shown military hardware.

One soldier, Sgt Chris Hunter, from 42 Commando, Royal Marines, told Blair: "I think a point that needs to be made back home is that the lads want to be here."

The British premier later flew to Kabul for talks with President Hamid Karzai.

Blair's visit, which was subject to British government-imposed reporting restrictions until after he left the base for security reasons, comes after a two-day trip to neighbouring Pakistan.

His talks with President Pervez Musharraf focused heavily on countering Islamic extremism and Afghanistan.

Pakistan's military leader called for massive investment in reconstruction and development in Afghanistan along the lines of the US Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War Two.

Britain currently has about 5,500 troops in Afghanistan -- the second-largest contingent in the 37-nation, 31,000-strong ISAF force set up to bring stability to the troubled country and aid reconstruction.

Of the 4,500 stationed in the south, 3,000 are in Helmand province -- where Taliban resistance has been strongest -- with the remainder at camps elsewhere in the restive area. The rest are posted in the capital.

But Britain's involvement has come at a price: 41 British soldiers have died since the start of the US-led operation against Afghanistan's hardline former rulers in October 2001.

Of those, 36 died this year, 18 of them since the deployment to the south began.

Defence Secretary Des Browne has admitted they underestimated the strength of taliban resistance, while accusations that troops were overstretched, underequipped and had no clear strategy have mounted.

Blair's office, however, was keen to focus Monday on the "real progress" made since the Taliban were ousted in late 2001.

The prime minister last made a flying visit to Afghanistan in January 2002, meeting dignitaries in a disused aircraft hanger left over from the Russian occupation.

But he will now make his first trip to Kabul to see developments in democratic government, emancipating women, improved schooling, health care and sanitation as well as reconstruction work after more than a generation of conflict.

The international community pledged 10.5 billion dollars to the Afghan government for reconstruction at a conference in London in January this year.

Britain has spent more than 390 million pounds (739 million dollars) on reconstruction and aid in Afghanistan since 2001 and was committed to spend a further 500 million pounds by 2009, the Department for International Development said.

But as well as countering a resurgent Taliban, there are still concerns about the abilities of Afghan security forces to contain violence while opium production is at an all-time high.

Afghanistan produces 92 percent of the world's opium. Cultivation jumped nearly 60 percent to a record 6,100 tonnes in the past year, the United Nations said on September 2.

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