British troops are defending security of world, says Blair

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair flew back to Britain last night after telling Nato countries that the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) troops he met in Afghanistan were fighting for the future security of the 21st century.

The Prime Minister returned with a new determination to demand wider support for Isaf forces in Afghanistan when he goes to a Nato conference in Riga in nine days' time.

In a clear warning to Nato members, Mr Blair said at a joint press conference with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President: "You have the same alternative you had five years ago [when the Afghanistan invasion took place].

"You either stick with it until the job is done, or you leave it to another generation. I am not prepared to do that."

The Prime Minister met 800 soldiers, including 600 British troops, at the Camp Bastion desert base in Helmand province, where they have been engaged in the most intensive fighting since the Second World War.

"This is so important because here in this extraordinary piece of desert is where the future of world security in the early 21st century is going to be played out," he told the troops.

Mr Blair will call on some of the 37 nations contributing to Isaf to drop their refusal to allow their troops to fight against the Taliban, ending some of their national constraints. There is scepticism within Downing Street that much will be achieved on that score, but it is hoped that some will contribute more civilian staff to ease the burden on British troops who are needed on the front line.

Mr Blair told President Karzai in the garden of the palace in Kabul: "I didn't suppose when I became Prime Minister in 1997 ... [that] I would be standing in the centre of Kabul 10 years on. I didn't anticipate that, but what has happened has happened. We have to adjust to that. I don't think there is any alternative to fighting this for as long as it takes."

Mr Blair also returned to Britain determined to redouble his efforts to revive the Middle East peace process before he leaves office, and he is planning to "swing" through the region, possibly before Christmas, according to senior advisers travelling with him.

"He wants to achieve more progress on the Middle East before he goes," said one senior official. "But there will be continuity in the Government, whoever takes over."

Downing Street officials were pleased with the strong message of support they got for their strategy from President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. He reinforced Mr Blair's message that the Middle East holds the solution to global terrorism. They were gratified by his stand against the "Talibanisation" of the tribal areas of Pakistan across the border with Afghanistan.

Mr Blair put the defeat of the Taliban as a priority for the world. He told the troops at Camp Bastion that the reason they were out "in the middle of Afghanistan, in the middle of nowhere" was to rid the country of the Taliban who had allowed training camps for al-Qa'ida.

"That struggle is continuing because the people we are fighting want to fight us back," he said. "The only way we are going to beat them is to have the courage and the absolute will to make sure however much they fight us, we stand up and defeat them."

The fact that the Hercules on which he flew into the air base had to go through a roll and steep dive before landing underlined the dangers from the Taliban. Officers said they were armed with shoulder-launched missiles which could bring down an aircraft. Patrols had gone out before Mr Blair's arrival to discourage an attack, although the base itself has so far not come under fire.

The soldiers he met gave Mr Blair the endorsement he wanted, telling him that they had got the air power they demanded in the summer when units were pinned down for days, and improved vehicles had been deployed for their forays into bandit country.

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