Storm disrupts David Cameron's Afghanistan plans


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Indy Politics

David Cameron flew into Afghanistan today to pay a pre-Christmas visit to troops - but his plans were left in tatters by bad weather.

The Prime Minister had been due to make a morale-boosting trip to Camp Bastion in Helmand province, where most British forces are based.

But his RAF flight was forced to divert because a dust storm caused the Camp Bastion runway to be shut for the first time this year.

Instead, the C-17 Globemaster had to land at Kandahar airfield, where only a small proportion of the 9,500 UK troops deployed in Afghanistan are based.

At Kandahar, Mr Cameron took the opportunity to meet members of RAF 12(B) Squadron - from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland - who fly the Tornado fighter jet on missions all over Afghanistan.

In a reference to the weather - the first day of poor visibility after weeks of clear skies - the Prime Minister joked: "It's slightly changed our plan."

Wearing a black Berghaus fleece, khaki chinos and boots, Mr Cameron was shown around a Tornado.

He also met US General James Huggins, the head of Isaf Regional Command South, for talks on military progress in Afghanistan.

And he had a chat over a mug of tea with soldiers and air personnel in the Naafi canteen.

But plans to take a helicopter to Lashkar Gah to meet the governor of Helmand and visit a frontline base in the province had to be abandoned.

Speaking to journalists on the trip, Mr Cameron admitted it was "disappointing" but said British troops in Afghanistan faced the same issues every day.

"You just have to take it as it comes in this job," he said.

"What we have experienced today is what people working out here experience the whole time."

He said there was "no point whingeing about it" and he had been able to meet service personnel he would not usually see.

"You just have to take the rough with the smooth; I don't feel particularly jinxed," he added in response to the suggestion that he faced regular difficulties on foreign trips.

The Prime Minister indicated that he was planning further withdrawals of troops in 2013 after the 500 due to be pulled out next year.

He again refused to give an exact timescale for how Britain's deployment would be withdrawn ahead of his deadline for all combat troops to be out by the end of 2014.

But he told reporters: "I don't want to see some massive cliff-edge in 2014 - I don't think that's practical.

"But I don't think we need to make hard and fast decisions at this stage."

He said there was "an ongoing conversation with our allies" about how and when Nato forces would be withdrawn over the next three years.

"I'm absolutely clear that the British public deserve to know there is an endpoint to our involvement in Afghanistan and that endpoint is 2014," he said.

Towards the end of his one-day visit, Mr Cameron spoke to Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who is in Kabul, via telephone.

Mr Karzai said he was impressed with progress in Helmand and the two men discussed the need for reconciliation with the Taliban and the importance of good relations with Pakistan.

They plan to meet in London early next year - probably late January - to sign a strategic agreement between the UK and Afghanistan.

Downing Street said service personnel would be getting an hour and a quarter free talk time with their families over Christmas in a deal provided by the Government and the service provider.

Mr Cameron said: "Christmas can be a very difficult time for troops and their families.

"This is just something we can do to thank them and help them keep in touch with loved ones when it matters most."