Karzai is sent away empty-handed

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The Independent Online

Hamid Karzai, the interim Afghan leader, left Downing Street empty-handed yesterday after Tony Blair rejected his appeals for a longer-term commitment of British troops to Afghanistan.

Mr Karzai, who had appealed to the United Nations in New York on Monday to increase the size of the UN-mandated force, said he was not disappointed with Britain's response, but he still pressed his case for more and longer-term international involvement.

As he met Mr Blair, forces loyal to the interim government were fighting tribal enemies in the south-eastern Afghan town of Gardez. The fierce clashes, still raging last night, have underscored the vulnerability of the interim authorities, whose writ extends barely beyond Kabul. Mr Karzai said pointedly that every local Afghan leader who came to visit him in Kabul had asked "in various ways for the continuation of the international force and its expansion to other parts of Afghanistan". He added: "That's a demand of the Afghan people." He said the presence of more troops was intended to provide "symbolic" reassurance, rather than guaranteeing every Afghan's physical security.

Mr Blair stressed Britain's "complete and continuing commitment" to the future of Afghanistan. "Our leadership is there, but it's for a limited period," he told a joint news conference at Downing Street. "Britain is not the only nation that makes a contribution in this regard," he said. "We will be working ... with other countries as to how we make sure the security force continues. We will be there to give logistical support to the force which takes over from us."

Mr Karzai spent much of his day's visit to London paying handsome tribute to the role of Britain and Mr Blair in initiating and leading the 4,000-strong international force operating in and around Kabul. He commended Mr Blair's courage in being the first foreign leader to visit post-Taliban Afghanistan, when "terrorists were still there in the mountains".

The Afghan leader, accorded the signal honour of addressing a cabinet meeting – the only foreign leader other than President Bill Clinton to have done so – said: "We could not have liberated ourselves from the aggression of terrorism and the occupation of the Taliban ... without the help you gave us. This has brought about Afghanistan again: we lost it, and now we have it. Thank you very much." The Cabinet applauded.

At the news conference later, Mr Karzai, who has been called the "chicest man on the planet" by Tom Ford of Gucci, was resplendent in a cloak of luminescent green and blue. In the international spotlight only since 22 December, when he was sworn in as Afghanistan's interim leader under the UN-backed Bonn agreement, he appeared confident and at ease.

But Mr Karzai's plea for a bigger international force reflects wide concern that few countries are offering troops after the mandate of the "stabilisation force" expires. This covers the crucial two months preparing for an emergency tribal assembly, or loya jirga, in late June. Sources say between 10,000 and 30,000 troops would be needed just to cover Afghanistan's five main cities.