An international conference paving the way for an exit strategy for British troops in Afghanistan should be held in London in January, Gordon Brown proposed last night.
In his annual foreign affairs address at Guildhall, the Prime Minister insisted that real progress was being made in the struggle against al-Qa'ida. He said the London meeting should "identify a process for transferring [security] district by district" to the Afghan army and police – if possible, from next year. Aides insisted he was talking about "a horizon and success rather than an exit strategy".
The move marks Mr Brown's latest attempt to show leadership on Afghanistan as public support for the war slides and British political and military leaders express concern privately about a "vacuum", while Barack Obama decides whether to dispatch more troops to the US-led operation. A ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday showed that almost three-quarters of voters (71 per cent) want British troops withdrawn from Afghanistan within a year.
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, would be invited to the London conference, along with military chiefs, foreign ministers and diplomats from the countries taking part in the mission in Afghanistan.
The Prime Minister told his City of London audience at the Lord Mayor's Banquet that since January last year, seven of the top dozen figures in al-Qa'ida had been killed. "More has been planned and enacted with greater success in this one year to disable al-Qa'ida than in any year since the original invasion in 2001," he said.
He revealed: "Our security services report that there is now an opportunity to inflict significant and long-lasting damage to al-Qa'ida. We understand the reality of the danger and the nature of the consequences if we do not succeed: we will never forget the fatal al-Qa'ida-led attacks in London on 7 July 2005."
Al-Qa'ida had a recruitment network across Africa, the Middle East, Western Europe and in the UK, Mr Brown said. Since 2001, almost 200 people had been convicted of terrorist or terrorist-related offences in Britain. "To those who say this threat is not real, I ask them to consider that almost half of those convicted pleaded guilty," he added.
He pledged: "Vigilance in defence of national security will never be sacrificed to expediency. Necessary resolution will never succumb to appeasement. The greater international good will never be subordinated to the mood of the passing moment.
"So I vigorously defend our action in Afghanistan and Pakistan because al-Qa'ida is today the biggest source of threat to our national security and to the security of people's lives in Britain.
"We are in Afghanistan because we judge that if the Taliban regained power al-Qa'ida and other terrorist groups would once more have an environment in which they could operate. We are there because action in Afghanistan is not an alternative to action in Pakistan, but an inseparable support to it."
Mr Brown warned Iran that time was running out for it to comply with international demands for it to engage in talks on its nuclear weapons programme. Repeating President Obama's deadline of the end of the year, he said: "If Iran does not reconsider, then the United Nations, the EU and individual countries must impose tougher sanctions".
The Prime Minister issued a stark warning that Britain would be at the margins rather than the centre of the world stage if David Cameron becomes Prime Minister because of the Conservative Party's hostility to the European Union.
Accusing the Tory approach of being unpatriotic and shortsighted, Mr Brown said Britain must play a full part in institutions like the EU to shape a new world order and could not afford to be isolationist. "In a world where the historic challenges we face are so profoundly global, this view has never been more dangerous and threatening to the security and prosperity of our country," he argued.
Mr Brown added: "Our foreign policy must be both patriotic and internationalist: a foreign policy that recognises and exploits Britain's unique strengths, and defends Britain's national interests strongly – not by retreating into isolation but by advancing in international co-operation.
"I believe that Britain can inspire the world. I believe that Britain can challenge the world. But most importantly of all I believe that Britain can and must play its full part in changing the world."
Troops in Afghanistan Who’s there
UK: 9,000 TROOPS Britain is sending 500 new troops to Helmand imminently, with Gordon Brown estimating that Nato countries other than the US will provide 5,000 in total. He has spoken tentatively of withdrawal when Afghan forces can step up.
US: 65,000 Barack Obama has promised that his deliberations on the Afghan strategy will soon come to an end, with an increase of 30,000 the most likely end result of lengthy Washington wranglings.
SPAIN: 4,000 In the face of popular opposition, the Spanish government recently announced 200 reinforcements to join its contingent. But Defence Minister Carme Chacon has said she hopes to see a full withdrawal within five years
POLAND: 2,025 Three quarters of the Polish public want an immediate withdrawal from the country’s role in some of the toughest fighting in Afghanistan. But the government will not consider a withdrawal unless as part of a broader Nato rethink.
NETHERLANDS: 2,160 The Dutch approach, focused on development and civilian protection rather than fighting, has been seen as a success. The country’s parliament is nevertheless debating a full withdrawal next year.
ITALY: 2,795 After six Italian paratroopers died in a car bombing in September, the government's already fragile appetite for the conflict reduced further. A shaken Silvio Berlusconi spoke of withdrawal, but gave no timeline.
GERMANY: 4,245 The third biggest contributor after the UK and US, Germany has promised an additional 120 troops in January for its deployment in Kunduz. But with attacks increasing in the previously quiet region, on Sunday Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle mooted a withdrawal.
FRANCE: 3,070 Facing concerted public opposition, Nicolas Sarkozy has now promised not to increase French troop numbers. The Socialist opposition advocates withdrawal, and subjected Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to fierce questioning in parliament yesterday.
CANADA: 2,830 Since making a major commitment of forces in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has faced considerable public opposition to the deployment. The government is expected to end the military mission by 2011, but some troops may remain in support roles.