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British PM defends Afghan mission

Premier justifies action as death toll mounts and support wanes, but report says he is planning a Nato meeting in 2010 over an 'exit strategy'.

LONDON // Military operations in Afghanistan this year have done more to disrupt al Qa'eda terrorism than at any time since the 2001 invasion, the British prime minister claimed yesterday.

At a time when the rising death toll among British troops is dramatically undermining public support for the war, Gordon Brown launched a vigorous defence of UK policy during his traditional foreign affairs speech at the annual Lord Mayor of London's banquet. He issued a stark warning that, if the international force pulled out of Afghanistan in the face of Taliban attacks, al Qa'eda would return in strength and bring terror to the streets of London and cities throughout the world. However, even before he made his speech, the London Evening Standard revealed that Mr Brown was calling a Nato meeting in 2010 - to which the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, will be invited - to formulate what the newspaper described as an "exit strategy" from Afghanistan over the next few years.

In his speech, Mr Brown acknowledged that a meeting was being planned for January. He described it as "a conference to chart a comprehensive political framework within which the military strategy can be accomplished". He added: "It should identify a process for transferring district by district to full Afghan control and set a timetable for transfer starting in 2010." British ministers have been forced to mount a "hearts and minds" offensive in support of the British mission after 233 soldiers' deaths in Afghanistan, almost 100 of them so far this year.

The Independent on Sunday published an opinion poll this week showing that an unprecedented 71 per cent favoured a phased withdrawal of UK troops over the coming year. Reiterating the government's position that al Qa'eda poses the greatest threat to Britain's security, Mr Brown rejected a policy of "splendid isolation" in favour of one that was both "patriotic and internationalist". It was only through "leading in the construction of a new global order" that Britain could best defend its own national interests, he said.

This month, Mr Brown said al Qa'eda was not currently operating in Afghanistan but he warned yesterday that the organisation had "several hundred" fighters still based in the tribal areas of northern Pakistan, attending training camps to learn bomb-making and weapons skills. The prime minister also said the terrorist group had "an extensive recruitment network across Africa, the Middle East, western Europe and in the UK".

He went on: "We are in Afghanistan because we judge that, if the Taliban regained power, al Qa'eda and other terrorist groups would once more have an environment in which they could operate. "Vigilance in defence of national security will never be sacrificed to expediency. Necessary resolution will never succumb to appeasement. The greater international goodwill will never be subordinated to the mood of the passing moment.

"So I vigorously defend our action in Afghanistan and Pakistan because al Qa'eda is today the biggest source of threat to our national security - and to the security of people's lives in Britain." Mr Brown said the involvement of UK troops in Afghanistan was "not an alternative to action in Pakistan, but an inseparable support to it". Flatly rejecting the clamour for Britain to pull out of the International Security and Assistance Force and bring its troops home, Mr Brown said: "Now, more than ever, there is no future in what was once called 'splendid isolation'.

"When Britain is bold, when Britain is engaged, when Britain is confident and outward-looking, we have shown time and again that Britain has a power and an energy that far exceeds the limits of our geography, our population, and our means." According to yesterday's Evening Standard, the meeting in January will "fix priorities and a strategy to fulfil the military mission by empowering Afghanistan to fight the Taliban unaided.

"The event is hoped to have a galvanising effect on the war leadership. Mr Brown will also use it to increase pressure on Nato allies, particularly in Europe, to send more troops and military resources to ensure it is a success." dsapsted@thenational.ae

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