British PM's Afghan trip marred by soldier death
British Prime Minister David Cameron declared progress in Afghanistan was "on the right track" Tuesday as he sought to regain momentum in a two-day trip overshadowed by the death of a British soldier.
Speaking to reporters alongside President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, Cameron 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.
"I do believe it is right to start a limited withdrawal of some of our troops," said Cameron, despite being forced to scrap part of his visit to the restive south after a British soldier went missing and was later found dead.
The prime minister said the nature of the relationship with Afghanistan would gradually change to one focused on aid and training of security forces, as he also announced the establishment of a Sandhurst-style training centre.
Afghan forces are due to take control of security across the country by the end of 2014 when the US-led NATO combat mission ends.
The 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 checkpoint in the early hours of Monday and the defence ministry in London later announced, after a huge manhunt, 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.
Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said that the cause of death and circumstances surrounding his disappearance were under investigation.
Cameron said the death was "very sad news" and a "reminder of the high price we have paid for the work that we do in Afghanistan."
Forced to abandon the trip to Lashkar Gah, Cameron instead 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 his two-day trip.
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 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 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.
In the British media, some commentators said Monday's death of the soldier undermined Cameron's claims on the quality and readiness of the Afghan forces.
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.
France and Belgium have also announced the withdrawal of some troops from the Afghan theatre, while Canada's roughly 3,000-strong combat mission is due to end this week.
© 2011 AFP