Brown spends night in Afghanistan

PM is first UK leader in recent times to sleep in a combat zone
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The Independent Online

Prime Minister Gordon Brown met Afghan President Hamid Karzai on an unannounced visit yesterday, aiming to fix a relationship that has frayed as the Afghan war grows deadlier and more unpopular.

Brown, whose troops have this year faced Britain's deadliest fighting in a generation, said the next few months would be critical in Afghanistan as the United States and its allies ramp up their forces to try to turn the tide against Taliban insurgents.

"What we need to show is that there's a determination to take on the Taliban and to weaken them, but also a determination on the part of the Afghan government to play a bigger part in the future in what is to be done," Brown told reporters at Kandahar air field, where he spent the night before meeting Karzai.

As the war has grown less popular at home, Brown has been even more prominent than other Western leaders in voicing mounting criticism of the government of Karzai, who was re-elected in an August vote that was marred by widespread fraud.

The Afghan leader lashed back in an interview last week, saying comments from Brown were "very unfortunate and very artificial. It is extremely insulting"

This year 100 British soldiers have been killed in the fiercest fighting of the eight-year-old war, fuelling opposition in Britain to the forces' involvement.

That public doubt puts pressure on Brown, who faces an uphill battle to win an election due by next June. Brown has had to defend himself against criticism that he poorly explained the reasons behind Britain's participation in the war and starved the military of cash it needed for helicopters and armoured vehicles.

Brown has been a strong supporter of US President Barack Obama's new counter-insurgency strategy, which involves sending in 30,000 new U.S. troops, speeding up the training of Afghan forces and beginning a withdrawal in mid-2011.

With 9,500 troops pledged, the British contingent is by far the biggest of Washington's NATO allies and especially this year has borne the brunt of non-U.S. NATO casualties.

Brown hopes a trained Afghan force will gradually be able to take control of security, allowing British and other Western forces to take a less prominent role.

British and U.S. commanders have particularly complained of a shortage of Afghan troops in Helmand, Afghanistan's most violent province, where the British contingent and a similar-sized US Marine force vastly outnumber Afghan security forces.

Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told Reuters on Saturday that Afghanistan is now sending 8,000-10,000 extra troops to Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar.

Brown acknowledged it had been a hard year, but said he was more confident about the future because new troops were coming and Britain was adding helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles.

His overnight stay in a spartan room at Kandahar air base was the first time either he or predecessor Tony Blair had spent the night in a war zone. On previous trips to Afghanistan and Iraq he and Blair had flown in and out on the same day.