David Cameron urges Taliban to lay down arms

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The Independent Online

David Cameron today issued a direct appeal to the Taliban to lay down their arms and join the political process in Afghanistan.

On the final day of a two-day visit to the country, the Prime Minister drew a direct comparison to the situation in Northern Ireland, where former terrorists were now in government alongside one-time enemies.

At a joint press conference in Kabul with President Hamid Karzai, he insisted the Taliban could not succeed in their struggle and urged them to give up the fight and become "part of the future of this country".

At the same time, he confirmed he would be announcing further "modest" troop withdrawals in a statement to the House of Commons tomorrow ahead of the ending of the UK's involvement in major combat operations in 2014.

Following the latest death yesterday of a British soldier, Mr Cameron acknowledged the "high price" the UK had paid in seeking to help stabilise Afghanistan and prevent it reverting to a haven for terrorists.

At the same time, however, he stressed the need for reconciliation in Afghanistan if the country was to move forward.

"It is very difficult to reconcile with people who have been killing your own soldiers, or your own countrymen," he said.

"To the Taliban, the message is very clear: stop killing, stop bombing, stop fighting, put down your weapons, join the political process and you can be part of the future of this country.

"I have seen it in my own country, in Northern Ireland, where people who were involved in trying to kill, to maim and bomb civilians and police officers, Army personnel and even politicians, have actually become politicians themselves and are involved in the governance of that country.

"It can happen and the message to the Taliban is: you cannot win this fight, you are losing this fight."

The Army was continuing to investigate yesterday's death of a soldier from the The Highlanders, 4th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland.

His body was discovered last night following a 17-hour search after he went missing from a checkpoint in central Helmand province. Next of kin have been informed.

A spokesman said that he had suffered gunshot wounds, although the cause of death and the circumstances surrounding his disappearance were still under investigation.

Despite the setback, Mr Cameron insisted that the planned transition to Afghan security control in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah later this month remained on track.

"I do believe it is the right time," he said.

"Many things have to be got right to ensure that transition can be done properly. But I believe we are on track. It can be done."

In his Commons statement tomorrow, Mr Cameron is expected to announce the withdrawal of around 500 troops next year on top of the 450 coming home this year.

He stressed, however, that Britain would continue to provide support for Afghanistan after the end of combat operations in 2014.

He pointed to the creation of an Afghan national officer academy modelled on Britain's Sandhurst.

It will open its doors in 2013 and accept 1,350 recruits annually. Some 120 UK troops will be involved in the training.