British PM's Afghan trip marred by soldier death
British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced Monday to scrap part of a visit to Afghanistan intended to hail improved security after a soldier went missing and was later found dead.
The soldier's mysterious death in Helmand province, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility, overshadowed Cameron's announcement that security had improved enough for Britain to soon withdraw a small number of troops.
Cameron arrived in Helmand on Monday morning on a surprise visit but quickly 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 trooper went missing from a checkpoint in Helmand the early hours of Monday and the defence ministry in London announced later in the day that his body had been found with gunshot wounds after a huge international manhunt.
"His exact cause of death and the circumstances surrounding his disappearance and death are currently urder investigation," Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said in a statement.
There was no immediate reaction from Cameron on the soldier's death, but he earlier told reporters travelling with him that he had cancelled his trip to Lashkar Gah after hearing of the "very worrying" disappearance of the soldier.
"I was just very clear that you've got something like that absolutely urgent taking place, where you want to concentrate all the assets and ability that you have to try and find this person and bring it to the right conclusion.
"Its just absolute common sense that the military should concentrate on the most important requirement of all which is to help and find this person rather than to bother flying me around."
Instead, Cameron met Helmand provincial governor Gulab Mangal and senior British commanders at Camp Bastion, the main British and US base in Helmand, on the first day of a two-day visit to Afghanistan.
Afghan police said the man had been kidnapped in the Gereshk area of Nahri Sarraj district.
The Taliban claimed that its fighters had kidnapped and killed a British soldier in Helmand, but there was no independent confirmation and the militia is known to routinely exaggerate its claims.
Lashkar Gah was one of seven areas in Afghanistan identified by foreign forces for an initial handover of security ahead of a full transfer of responsibility across the country and the withdrawal of all western combat troops by the end of 2014.
After years of Taliban violence Lashkar Gah was seen as the most unlikely candidate among those chosen for early transition.
But Cameron said the campaign against Taliban militants had entered a "new phase" ahead of the deadline and that Afghanistan's army and police were "increasingly confident", including in Lashkar Gah.
"As that happens, there will be opportunities to bring British soldiers home, but we are talking relatively small numbers and over a period of time," Cameron said.
Cameron said he would make a full announcement in the British parliament on Wednesday. Reports at the weekend said he would order the withdrawal of 500-800 troops by the end of 2012.
He said Monday that "you're not going to see a radical change (in numbers) before the next fighting season" next year.
The British contingent is the second-largest in Afghanistan after the United States.
Cameron's announcement comes nearly two weeks after US President Barack Obama announced that 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 slammed by senior Republican lawmakers in the United States, and met with a cool reception by US military commanders.
Both General David Petraeus, the US commander on the ground in Afghanistan, and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said Obama's plan was more "aggressive" than they had recommended.
France and Belgium have also announced the withdrawal of some troops from the Afghan theatre, while Canada's roughly 3,000-strong mission is due to end this week.
Last week marked the second anniversary of the kidnapping of a US soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by Taliban believed to be allied to the militant Haqqani network from his base in Paktika near the Pakistan border.
© 2011 AFP