British PM's Afghan trip marred by soldier death
British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced 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 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 in the early hours of Monday and the defence ministry in London later announced, after a huge international manhunt, that his body had been found with gunshot wounds.
"His exact cause of death and the circumstances surrounding his disappearance and death are currently under 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.
"It's 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.
In wide coverage of the story in the British media, some commentators said the death of the soldier undermined Cameron's claims on the quality and readiness of the Afghan security forces.
"The confluence of a visit designed to pave the way for troop withdrawals and the death of the soldier was a dreadful reminder of the lack of progress" in Afghanistan, the Guardian daily said.
The Observer noted in a commentary piece that the soldier's death came after a brazen Taliban raid on a leading Kabul hotel, a bloody attack on a hospital in the east and the assassination of senior officials.
"Pulling British forces out at such a fast rate, against the judgment of military commanders, risks undoing some of the progress towards stability which had undoubtedly taken place," it said.
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 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 slammed by senior Republican lawmakers and met with a cool reception by US military commanders.
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.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard also insisted Tuesday that progress was being made in Afghanistan despite the death of another Australian soldier Monday in an encounter with insurgents.
Australia has around 1,500 personnel in Afghanistan and Gillard said the deployment will remain at current levels until 2014.
© 2011 AFP