Afghans 'need progress to keep support'

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David Cameron warned today that the international coalition in Afghanistan was facing a "vital year" as he made his first visit to the country since becoming Prime Minister.

Mr Cameron acknowledged that the public needed to see "real and noticeable and marked" progress in the coming months if they were to continue to support the mission.

Following talks with President Hamid Karzai in the capital, Kabul, he promised that his new Government would maintain a "relentless focus" on Britain's own national security interests.

He announced that he was providing an additional £67 million to counter the threat of deadly roadside bombs - improvised explosive devices (IEDs) - saying ensuring British forces were properly equipped was his "biggest duty" as Prime Minister.

But while he emphasised the need to ensure that al-Qa'ida could not make a return to Afghanistan, he said that he did not want to keep British troops there "a moment longer than is necessary".

The deployment of additional British troops to Afghanistan - on top of the 10,000 already there - was "not remotely on the UK agenda", he added.

With General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of international forces in Afghanistan, due to deliver his review of President Barack Obama's troop "surge" in December, Mr Cameron said that it was a "vital year" for the coalition.

He echoed US Defence Secretary Robert Gates's warning that their publics at home would not tolerate the "perception of stalemate while we're losing young men".

Video: More funds for Afghan bomb threat

"This is the year when we have to make progress for the sake of the Afghan people, but also progress on behalf of the people back home who want this to work," he said.

"I think our publics back home want to see real and noticeable and marked progress this year and next. We should all the time be asking: can we go further, can we go faster?

"Nobody wants British troops to be in Afghanistan a moment longer than is necessary."

Mr Cameron said that the international troop surge needed to be accompanied by a "political surge", stepping up efforts by the Afghan government to reintegrate those elements of the Taliban prepared to lay down their arms.

At a joint press conference with Mr Karzai, he said that the goal was still to enable the Afghans to take responsibility for their own security so that international forces could be withdrawn.

"Our overriding focus must be to help the Afghans and to help Afghanistan take control of its own destiny," he said.

His visit came during a particularly bad week for the international coalition. Four US troops were killed yesterday when their helicopter was shot down by the Taliban in Helmand as they were reportedly trying to rescue some injured British soldiers.

With a British Nato service member dying yesterday in a homemade bomb attack, it took the number of Nato troops killed this month to 29.

The Afghans have also suffered their losses, with 39 being killed when a suicide bomber attacked a wedding party near Kandahar.

It was also reported the Taliban had executed a seven-year-old boy for acting as a spy for foreign forces - a killing condemned by Mr Cameron and Mr Karzai as a "crime against humanity".

The Afghan president meanwhile brushed aside suggestions that he was becoming disillusioned with the US-led coalition, insisting that they had "a strategic partnership which is working very well".

Aides said that the extra £67 million for British forces would enable a doubling of the number of counter-IED teams from 10 to 20,

Mr Cameron said that some of the cash could be used to purchase additional armoured vehicles - including up to 13 new Mastiffs.

He also announced that the Government was reallocating an additional £200 million from the existing Department for International Development Budget.