British PM visits UK troops near Afghan front line
By PAISLEY DODDS,Associated Press Writer AP - 2 hours 38 minutes ago
KABUL, Afghanistan - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, visited one of Afghanistan's most volatile front lines Saturday, saying the fight against the Tailban had left Europe's streets safer from terrorists.
But it was unclear how far he would go to match a planned U.S. troop surge.
Brown is leading a review of the UK's strategy in Afghanistan and a troop announcement is expected in Parliament this week. A few hundred reinforcements have already been sent from Cyprus on a temporary deployment to the Helmand province.
American leaders say thousands of incoming U.S. troops will be sent to reinforce British forces in the south, a major shift in U.S. strategy. Most American forces have been deployed in eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan. But Helmand and neighboring Kandahar have suffered from the country's worst violence the last two years.
"It is right that the Americans propose to bring more troops into Afghanistan, but it is also right that the burden-sharing means that others have to do more," Brown said visiting troops in Helmand and meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "We are the second largest force in Afghanistan and we will expect as part of the burden sharing that other countries will do more."
Britain has some 8,200 troops in Afghanistan but it lacks the strength and financial backing of the U.S. military. By 2009, more than 10,000 U.S. troops may be deployed to Helmand alone.
Even if Brown wanted to, reality might stop him from providing more British troops.
Britain's military has repeatedly been accused of sending soldiers into the field without the necessary equipment. Only recently, a committee of British lawmakers warned that the military's performance and morale were suffering because it was so tightly stretched by extended warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. The economic downturn isn't likely to help.
The link between Afghanistan's ousted Taliban and today's current terror threat is also become less clear.
Brown said Saturday a "chain of terror" stretches from Afghanistan into Pakistan.
Although many of Europe's recent terror attacks _ such as the trans-Atlantic airliner plot and the recent Mumbai shootings _ have led back to Pakistan, the link between Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime and the al-Qaida terror network has become blurred since the Afghan regime once harbored Osama bin Laden. Equally unclear is the Afghan link to the some 2,000 terror suspects being monitored in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.
"British people are safer today because we have our troops working with the Afghan people to act against terror," Brown said.
Karzai said any additional troops would be better used on the Afghan-Pakistan border where insurgents with clear links to al-Qaida are hiding
"In the opinion of the Afghan government, any increase in troops should be in the Afghan borders with Pakistan to prevent the infiltration of terrorists," Karzai said in a news conference with Brown.
British troops say despite problems progress has been made in Afghanistan _ key regions have been taken back from extremists and there is better intelligence information on the ground.
But the toll has been high _ more than 130 British troops have died in Afghanistan since 2001.
Brown on Saturday visited Helmand's Sangin Valley, about 25 miles (45 kilometers) from the scene of the two attacks Friday. British military officials said it was the closest the country's prime minister had been to the front lines in the Afghan war.
In one attack, a teenage suicide bomber killed three troops. A small homemade bomb was placed under a pile of newspapers in the wheelbarrow he had carted past three Marines on foot patrol. Another was killed in a separate roadside bomb.
"I think that there is disgust and horror at these tactics used by the Taliban," said Brown, who described Friday's suicide bombing as a "cowardly." "It is a terrible commentary on the Taliban that they should use a 13-year-old child to be a suicide bomber."
Troops say the Taliban today lacks a structure and is a mixture of people opposed to foreign intervention, people trying to protect their livelihoods in poppy production or those with extremist ideologies.
British officials said militant bombs have become more sophisticated but not as sophisticated as those seen in Iraq. Ambushes have also become more complex, with insurgents firing from multiple angles after a bomb goes off. The officials spoke on condition they weren't identified because of government rules.
But the quality of intelligence from Afghan residents has risen over the last year, the officials said. A tipping point in Britain's fight against the Irish Republican Army came when ground intelligence started improving, the officials noted.
British forces were tipped off before Oct. 11 when dozens of Taliban fighters were trying to launch an attack on Helmand province's capital, Lashkar Gah, in an attempt to kill the provincial governor. The officials said that type of tip would have been unprecedented.
Brown met with Afghan leaders in Helmand, including Gov. Gulab Mangal, with whom he discussed the province's drug trade, the governor's food zone and the importance of next year's presidential election.
"Challenges remain but there's been visible progress from my last visit," Brown said. He noted that 18 tons of poppy seed had been seized in Gereshk district, and that 3,100 tons of wheat seed had been distributed to farmers.
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