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David Cameron hit back at critics of UK aid spending on Tuesday as he hinted the country may increase aid to Afghanistan as it pulls out its troops.
At a joint press conference with the Afghan president Hamid Karzai in Kabul, the prime minister branded critics of international aid as “hard headed and possibly hard hearted”.
“This is a great example of a country that if you walk away from and ignore and forget about, the problems will come visiting back on your doorstep,” he said.
Afghanistan received £102m from the UK last year, and will get £178m next year. Mr Cameron suggested countries with broken political systems would qualify for further such increases in the future.
He was speaking after a two day trip to Afghanistan, which was disrupted on Monday by the death of a British soldier in Helmand province. He expressed his sadness over the death, saying: “I want the thoughts and condolences of everyone on my team to be with the family of the soldier.”
But he insisted the incident would not delay plans to withdraw troops next year and to pull out completely from fighting by 2014. The British and Afghan people “deserved” a timetable he insisted, and the transition efforts were “on track”.
He will announce on wednesday how many troops from the core british force will leave next year, but said on Tuesday the figure would be “modest”. Military chiefs have previously called for a reduction of no more than 500.
Mr Cameron added that talks with the Taliban would be an important part of the transition to Afghan control, comparing the process to that in Northern Ireland.
He said: “I would say to the Taliban... put down your weapons and you can be a part of this country.”
The prime minister had been forced by the death of the British soldier to cancel parts of his trip to Helmand province. On arrival in Camp Bastion, the UK’s main military base in Helmand, he was told that the soldier had gone missing in Babaji near Lashkar Gah, the province’s capital.
The prime minister promptly cancelled a planned trip to the city, which has been held up by defence chiefs as an example of how British troops are handing over control of security operations to Afghan forces.
Britain mounted an air and ground search for the soldier, from the 4th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, which made it impossible to transport the prime minister around the province.
Events around the soldier’s disappearance were still unclear on Monday night, although, several hours before his death was confirmed by the Ministry of Defence, the Taliban issued a statement saying it had captured and killed him.
The latest military tragedy was a blow to Number 10 on a trip designed to show how much progress had been made in handing over responsibility for security in Helmand to the Afghan police and army. Lashkar Gah is due to be the first part of Helmand to be transferred completely into Afghan hands, a process that will start on July 20.
The latest death came at a sensitive time for the US-led coalition which has been battling the Taliban for almost a decade and is facing growing weariness with the war at home. In the US, for example, recent opinion polls have shown a majority favouring a withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Barack Obama announced last month that the US would pull 10,000 troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year and a further 23,000 by September 2012. The US president has also recommitted the alliance to a handover of main security operations by 2014.
But clear signs remain that Afghan forces are not ready. Nato units intervened to help Afghan forces after insurgents attacked the Hotel InterContinental in Kabul last week, although General Sir David Richards, chief of the UK defence staff, insisted on Monday that the response to the hotel attack had shown the success of the transition. “The response to the hotel attack in Kabul was essentially Afghan”, he said.
Mr Cameron said on Monday that the conflict was in a new phase, with Afghans taking gradual control. Despite Monday’s incident, a “proper transition is taking place, including the town Lashkar Gah itself”, he said.
However, military chiefs sounded a more cautious note, saying the transition was “do-able” but faced challenges. They insisted the speed would depend on conditions on the ground.