Tony Blair on Monday stepped up pressure on the UK’s Nato allies to send more troops and bolster support for Afghanistan ahead of a key summit in Riga, Latvia, at the end of this month.
Speaking in Kabul after meeting President Hamid Karzai, the UK prime minister compared the current situation facing the alliance in Afghanistan with the hesitancy shown by some Nato countries at the beginning of the Balkan crisis in the 1990s.
Failure to act in co-ordinated fashion in the Balkans he said, had led to “thousands of dead”.
On the challenge facing the Nato international security and assistance force (Isaf) in Afghanistan, Mr Blair added: “Now is the right time to bring into sharp focus the need to stay with Afghanistan and help it progress and develop….We have to regain the vision that brought us here in the first place and which should keep us here until the job is done.”
In recent weeks, the US has been putting pressure on Spain, France, Italy and Germany, all of which have soldiers elsewhere in the country, to free up troops to move into the south.
Fighting with the Taliban in the south has been intense and the drug eradication programme, in one of the biggest opium producing regions of the world, has largely failed.
Despite this, General David Richards, the alliance’s military commander in Afghanistan, said on Monday that the situation had improved in recent weeks.
“There is a different atmosphere in the place. I know the Taliban are concerned we [the alliance] are on the rise”.
However, other senior UK officers privately accept that the improved situation may only be a tactical retreat by the Taliban as winter approaches. The more upbeat note coming publicly from General Richards, is aimed at restoring public confidence both among the Afghan people and more broadly within Nato, that the US-led military campaign is one that can defeat the Taliban and lead to longer-term security and stability in the region.
It is Mr Blair’s first visit to Afghanistan since visiting Bagram airport in 2002, an absence which serves as a reminder of the extent to which he and US President George W. Bush’s diplomatic and military focus has been diverted by the crisis in Iraq.
Earlier Mr Blair flew in to the UK military task force base at Camp Bastion in the southern province of Helmand, following a two day visit to Pakistan.
He spent about an hour at the base’s airport meeting some of the 2,200 mainly UK troops stationed there. In a five-minute speech to the troops, Mr Blair said: “It is here in this extraordinary piece of desert that the future of the 21st century is going to be decided.”
The prime minister said he recognised the toughness of the challenge Nato troops were facing, but insisted that this was a war that the alliance could not afford to lose,
“The only way we are going to beat the Taliban is having the courage and the will to make sure that however much they fight us, we stand up and defeat them,” he said.
However, officers and soldiers, underlined the huge military and economic task they are facing with the Taliban stepping up suicide attacks, continuing logistical support for the Taliban from within Pakistan and local farmers already planting for the next opium harvest.
Several officers also complained of a lack of equipment and spare parts, including telecommunications and armoured vehicles. Royal Air Force pilots, who are operating Chinook helicopters, also reflected concern about the pressure on operations brought about by the continuing military commitments in Iraq.