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David Cameron: “This is the year we have to make progress”

David Cameron has announced more money for tackling the threat of roadside bombs in Afganistan, during his first visit to the country as prime minister.

In a press conference in Kabul, Mr Cameron said the issue of Afghanistan was his “number one priority”.

He said an extra £67m would go into countering insurgents' bombs. Last year former PM Gordon Brown pledged £150m over three years for a similar project.

Mr Cameron said there were no plans for more UK troops to be committed.

Afghanistan was the UK government's “most important foreign policy” and “national security issue”, he said.

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Nobody wants British troops to be in Afghanistan a moment longer than is necessary

David Cameron
UK prime minister
Kandahar operation to 'go slower'
Britain has about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, including some 500 special forces.

In response to questions Mr Cameron said the issue of sending more UK troops to the country was “not remotely” on the government's agenda.

Although he did not predict when UK troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan, he said: “We should all the time be asking 'Can we go further, can we go faster?'

“Nobody wants British troops to be in Afghanistan a moment longer than is necessary.”

'Vital year'
There has been pressure on the Army to produce more bomb-disposal experts quickly, as a result of the threat of roadside bombs in Afghanistan – the biggest single killer of troops.

Last month the Army's top bomb disposal officer – Colonel Bob Seddon – resigned over fears bomb disposal training could be compromised.

Speaking alongside Mr Karzai at his presidential palace on Thursday, Mr Cameron said the number of British teams dealing with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) would be doubled.

The money is to fund a specialist IEDs team for every sub-unit of the UK deployment in Helmand province, as well as new vehicles, including seven armoured Mastiffs.

Mr Cameron also said £200m in aid funding would be diverted from existing budgets to help Afghanistan build up its army, police and civil service capacity, in order to enable it able to handle its own security needs as soon as possible.

That was important in what was “the vital year” to make progress in stabilising the country, he added.

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James Landale,
BBC political correspondent, Afghanistan
I think the PM is acutely aware that public opinion will not tolerate an open-ended presence of British forces continuing to fight and die on a regular basis in Afghanistan.

What the PM is trying to do is two things. On the one hand explain more clearly to the British public why it is necessary, in Britain's national security interests, to have British forces remaining in Afghanistan.

On the other hand he is also using the language of the end game. He is not predicting when British troops are going to come out but he is clearly saying this is the vital year.

He talked like I have never heard a British PM do about the time after British troops have left.

Certainly, a hardening of the rhetoric to say to people: This is why we are there but we are not going to be there forever.

Mr Cameron went on to describe relations between the two countries as “very, very important”.

He said: “For me, the issue of Afghanistan is the most important foreign policy issue, the most important national security issue for my country.”

Mr Cameron said he would update MPs with a statement to the House of Commons on Monday and that the defence or foreign secretary would give a detailed statement on Afghanistan every three months to keep the public informed about progress.

The PM added: “I think there is progress being made… particularly progress that has been made in terms of driving al Qaeda both out of Afghanistan and… seriously damaging its interests in Pakistan.

“It is through that prism of national security that I want to see this whole issue. Our overriding focus must be to help the Afghans and to help Afghanistan to take control of its own security and its own destiny.”

Mr Cameron said that alongside the Nato-led military surge which has been under way for six months, there must be a “proper political settlement”.

He said he welcomed last week's Kabul peace meeting – or jirga – at which Mr Karzai discussed proposals to encourage elements of the Taliban to rejoin the political mainstream.

Last month Mr Cameron met Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the UK, and both said they wanted to “further strengthen” relations between their countries.

Since becoming PM he has also sent a ministerial delegation – comprising Foreign Secretary William Hague, Defence Secretary Liam Fox and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell – to assess the situation.

Earlier this week, following talks with US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Dr Fox made clear that he had no plans to switch British forces from Helmand – where the bulk are deployed – to Kandahar where the Americans are preparing a major offensive.

On Thursday the top Nato commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, said the operation to gain control of Kandahar would now move at a slower pace than planned, in order to ensure local support.

This week British soldier Lance Bombardier Mark Chandler, 32, from Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, was killed in a gun battle in Nad Ali district, Helmand.

On Wednesday a soldier from 2nd Battalion The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment died in an explosion.

His was the 294th UK military death in Afghanistan since 2001. Twenty nine Nato soldiers have been killed this month alone.