UK's Cameron visits troops in Afghanistan
CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan (AP) -- British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed confidence Monday that a security agreement will be signed to allow a continuing allied training mission in Afghanistan after 2014, as he declared Britain had accomplished its mission in the South Asian country.
Cameron was in Afghanistan for a pre-Christmas visit with U.K. soldiers, who form the second-largest NATO contingent fighting to stop the Taliban insurgency, ahead of a planned withdrawal of all British combat troops by the end of next year.
He stressed that Britain would stick to that timetable to withdraw all troops by the end of 2014, but noted the importance of a deal to ensure the framework for training missions and counterterrorism support, to ensure security through the transition and after 2014, when the NATO mandate expires and all foreign forces must depart.
"That's clearly in Afghanistan's interest, that's in America and NATO's interest, too, and so I'm confident that after some discussions an agreement will be signed," he told reporters at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province.
Much is at stake if the deal falls apart. Afghanistan could lose up to $15 billion a year in aid, effectively collapsing its fragile economy and making it unable to pay its 350,000-strong army and police.
After helping forge the deal - known as the Bilateral Security Agreement - President Hamid Karzai balked at signing it. Although a national assembly of 2,500 delegates known as the Loya Jirga endorsed the deal last month and backed a U.S. request that it be signed by the end of the year, Karzai has said he will be deferring that to his successor and has added new conditions, such as restarting peace talks with the Taliban.
Cameron said it would be better if the deal is signed "sooner rather than later" because NATO countries have to plan.
A post-2014 mission could involve around 8,000 American and 6,000 allied troops. The U.K. has committed to leaving a small number of advisers to Afghan's Ministry of Defense and trainers at the national officer's academy in Kabul - and those plans could be in jeopardy if a deal is not signed.
"Clearly Britain wants to continue playing its role," Cameron told reporters.
He noted that "the big drawdown" is now taking place and praised British troops for helping to train the Afghan National Army.
Cameron toured Camp Bastion, having breakfast with troops and taking in a soccer training session between Afghan soldiers and British troops.
He then then took a Chinook helicopter to one of the last four British forward operating bases. At one point, there were 137 such bases.
Upon alighting at Forward Operating Base Sterga 2, with breathtaking views of the Helmand River, Cameron was given a briefing on reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities.
"The surveillance kit - it's amazing!" he later said to troops while touring their accommodations.
Afghan security forces took the lead in security around the country last summer, and are now mostly training and assisting the army and police.
Cameron later pointed to those gains as a reason that U.K. combat troops can go home "with heads held high" next year.
Where it once had about 9,500 military personnel in Afghanistan, by the end of this month Britain is expected to have about 5,200 troops on the ground. Cameron repeatedly said he has no plans to break his promise of bringing all combat troops home by the end of 2014 and that this would be his last pre-Christmas visit.
While the U.K. will not be leaving behind a "perfect country," Cameron said, it is important to note that the purpose of the NATO mission was to build an Afghan security force that could maintain basic security and ensure the country never became a haven for terrorist training camps again.
"That is the mission, that was the mission, and I think we will have accomplished that mission and so our troops can be very proud of what they have done," he said.