Cameron makes surprise visit to Afghan mission troops

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The Independent Online

David Cameron arrived in Afghanistan today on a surprise trip to visit British troops.

His flight by Ministry of Defence jet into the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar was conducted in the conditions of strict secrecy for security reasons.

Mr Cameron said his first visit to troops stationed overseas since becoming Conservative leader would be devoted to "listening, learning and showing our support for what is being done."

The recent upsurge of violence in the south of the country - which has seen six British soldiers killed in the past two months - had sparked criticism from some quarters of the Government decision to commit UK troops to the lead role in Nato's deployment there.

But Mr Cameron has remained supportive of the mission and today stressed that he wanted to show there was "cross party consensus" behind the work of British armed forces in Afghanistan.

Accompanying Mr Cameron and the Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox was Brigadier Ed Butler, the Commander of Britain's 5,000-strong contribution to the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force.

He said UK troops in the lawless southern province of Helmand had faced "persistent and ferocious" attacks from supporters of the former Taliban regime, allied with local drug lords and criminal gangs.

But he said he believed that "the tip of the spike of enemy activity" had been reached and that within weeks or months the violence could be expected to tail off.

Brig Butler confirmed that military top brass were considering a "rebalancing" of their deployment in Helmand, but declined to confirm reports that this might involve pulling back detachments from the more remote outposts in the north of the province where they have come under fiercest attack.

Mr Cameron will today meet military commanders and air crew from the RAF squadrons operating Harrier GR7s, Chinook helicopters and Hercules transport aircraft from Kandahar airfield, one of the UK's three main bases in the country.

Donning body armour as the planes came into land, he said: "The purpose of this visit is extremely straightforward and simple. It is to show support for what our troops are doing in Afghanistan and show that there is a cross-party consensus for the very difficult and important work that they are doing.

"The second purpose is to see for myself the challenges, the difficulties and the opportunities and to learn about what we are doing and how well it is working."

Following Defence Secretary Des Browne's July 10 announcement of 900 additional troops for southern Afghanistan, Mr Cameron said that manpower and equipment levels remained an "ongoing issue" about which he wanted Conservative to ask "sensible, legitimate, reasonable" questions in Parliament.

But he added: "The Government say that they have always responded positively to requests from the Army and it will obviously be interesting being here, being able to ask the questions myself."

Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague yesterday used a newspaper article to urge the Government to make the case for more troops from other Nato nations.

But today, Mr Cameron said only: "Britain has got a very substantial contribution and it is important always to stress the multinational nature of what is being done in Afghanistan, with 36 countries involved."

Mr Cameron hailed the "professionalism and dedication and sheer ability to get the job done" of British troops and said it was important for politicians to see first hand the conditions in which they are asked to serve.

"We ask our troops to do incredibly difficult and dangerous work on our behalf and I believe it is only right to see at first hand what they are being asked to deal with," he said.

Brig Butler, returning to Afghanistan after a three-day visit to 16 Air Assault Brigade's UK home in Colchester, said that the deployment in Helmand was always expected to be tough.

"We fully expected the Taliban to have a resurgence of the violence which we are seeing," he said.

"I sense that we are at the tip of that spike of enemy activity. They are certainly very persistent and ferocious in their attacks, but I also think that it will only be a matter of weeks, maybe months before these levels of attacks will start to tail off.

"On every occasion we have come up against the Taliban, we have significantly overmatched them, demonstrating that the force is well trained, prepared and equipped to take on this very complex and challenging operation."

He said that the reinforcements, which will bring UK strength in Helmand up to 4,500 by October, were "very welcome" and would allow UK personnel to press ahead with their key task of reconstruction and development work in the province.

He confirmed that thought was being given to "rebalancing" the UK deployment.

"We are at that stage of the campaign where we have achieved what we call the break in battle," he said.

"We have established our forces within Helmand province, we have got a lay down which was very much predicated by six locations we had to go into, the operational environment and the question of where the Afghan government wanted us to be.

"We are now in a period of consolidation. We are looking at how we best rebalance the force for both the medium and long-term, all with the purpose of setting the optimum conditions to allow reconstruction and development."

He said it would be "premature" for him to predict what the outcome would be.