Cameron finds morale of troops high on Afghan trip

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The Independent Online

The Conservative leader, David Cameron, was briefed by military commanders as he paid a surprise visit to UK troops in Afghanistan.

Mr Cameron said he had found morale at the large airbase at Kandahar "incredibly high" and commanders happy with the level of manpower and logistical support that they were receiving from the Government.

The arrival of Mr Cameron and the shadow Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, at the former Taliban stronghold on board a Ministry of Defence jet took place in conditions of strict secrecy for security reasons. The camp has been a target for regular rocket attacks in recent weeks, though few have done much damage.

Donning a flak jacket for the steep descent into the airbase, Mr Cameron said his first visit to troops serving overseas since becoming Tory leader would be devoted to "listening, learning and showing our support for what is being done".

Accompanying him was Brigadier Ed Butler, the commander of the 5,000-strong British forces in Afghanistan, who acknowledged that UK troops had faced "persistent and ferocious" attacks from supporters of the former Taliban regime in the southern province of Helmand.

But he said that the "tip of the spike of that enemy activity" had now been reached and that the level of violence - which has resulted in six British deaths in the past two months - would begin to tail off within weeks or months.

Brig Butler confirmed that military top brass were planning to "rebalance" their deployment in Helmand, but declined to confirm reports suggesting that they want to pull back detachments from the more remote outposts in the north of the province where they have come under fiercest attack.

The fact-finding mission follows the announcement by the Defence Secretary, Des Browne, on 10 July of 900 additional personnel for southern Afghanistan, and foremost in discussions was whether troops in theatre were getting the support they needed from London.

"We were asking the question to all the commanders," Mr Cameron said. "They seem to be happy with what they get. Obviously, a lot of them would say 'we could always use more' but I think they are communicating that effectively to the Government. It's a question we keep asking and keep probing as a responsible Opposition."

Recent setbacks in Helmand have led to criticism from some quarters that the British-led Nato team was sent to the province without the numbers needed to impose security and allow reconstruction work to begin.

But Mr Cameron has been careful to remain supportive of the mission, and stressed yesterday that he wanted to demonstrate that there was "cross-party consensus" behind the work of the armed forces in Afghanistan.

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