Further troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan, David Cameron will announce today, having paid tribute to the latest British soldier to have died there.
Speaking in Kabul yesterday at the end of a two-day visit to the country, the Prime Minister said the death of the soldier, named yesterday as Highlander Scott McLaren of 4th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, was evidence of the "high price" Britain was paying in its decade-long efforts to drive terrorists out of the country.
The Highlander's body was found with gunshot wounds after a 17-hour search. He appeared to have been captured and killed by insurgents, though it remains unclear exactly how he died. He had gone missing from a checkpoint in central Helmand – hours before Mr Cameron was due to visit the province to demonstrate progress in the area.
In a statement to MPs today, Mr Cameron will insist that Britain's strategy in Afghanistan has not been affected by the tragedy. He is expected to confirm another 500 troops are to be withdrawn in 2012, in addition to the 450 due to return this year.
Sitting alongside Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, he yesterday repeated that all UK combat forces would be pulled out of the country by the end of 2014, insisting Britain was "on track" to meet that deadline. "I do believe it is the right time. I have worked extremely closely with the military to get this right," he said.
But he promised that Afghanistan would not be abandoned to its fate, with Britain helping with military training and continuing to support moves to tackle poverty in the country and improve its infrastructure. He pointed to the establishment of an elite Afghan officer academy modelled on Sandhurst in Surrey, where 1,350 recruits a year are to be trained from 2013 by 120 British soldiers.
Mr Cameron suggested aid to Afghanistan would continue to increase – it rose from £102m in 2012 to £178m this year. "This is a great example of a country that if we walk away from, and if we ignore... the problems will come visited back on our doorstep," he said.
He drew a parallel with the peace process in Northern Ireland as he appealed to the Taliban to lay down arms and take part in the political system. "The message is very clear: stop killing, stop bombing, stop fighting, put down your weapons, join the political process and you can be part of the future of this country. I have seen it in... Northern Ireland, where people who were involved in trying to kill, to maim and bomb civilians and police officers, Army personnel and even politicians, have actually become politicians themselves and are involved in the governance of that country. It can happen and the message to the Taliban is: you cannot win this fight."