British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew into Afghanistan yesterday to visit British troops who are members of a NATO force fighting Taliban insurgents, as well as to hold talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Blair arrived at the Camp Bastion base in southern Helmand Province by military transport and paid tribute to the soldiers' commitment and bravery under difficult circumstances.
"Here on this extraordinary piece of desert is where the future of the security of the early 21st century is going to be played out," Blair told troops at the base.
He spent at least an hour talking to British soldiers from the International Security Assistance Force, who are battling militants in the volatile region.
As troops clamored to have photographs taken with Blair, one soldier, Sergeant Chris Hunter from the 42nd Commando, Royal Marines, told him: "I think a point that needs to be made back home is that the lads want to be here."
The British premier later flew to Kabul for talks with key "war on terror" ally Karzai, the first time Blair has stayed in the capital for a visit.
The prime minister last made a visit to Afghanistan in January 2002, meeting dignitaries in a disused aircraft hanger on the city's outskirts that was left over from the Russian occupation.
This time he will see developments in democratic government, women's rights, improved schooling, health care and sanitation and reconstruction work after more than a generation of conflict, officials said.
Blair's visit comes after a two-day trip to neighboring Pakistan, where his talks with President Pervez Musharraf focused heavily on countering Islamic extremism and solving Afghanistan's problems.
Pakistan's military leader called for massive investment in reconstruction and development in Afghanistan along the lines of the US Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II.
Britain has about 5,500 troops in Afghanistan -- the second-largest contingent in the 37-nation, 31,000-member security assistance force that was set up to bring stability to the war-torn country and help with reconstruction.
Of the 4,500 British troops stationed in the south, 3,000 are in Helmand Province -- where the Taliban resistance has been strongest -- with the remainder at camps elsewhere in the restive area. The rest are posted in the capital.
But Britain's involvement has come at a price: 41 British soldiers have died since the US-led operation against the Taliban began in October 2001.
Of those soldiers, 36 died this year, and 18 of them were killed since the deployment to the south began.
British Defense Secretary Des Browne has admitted the government underestimated the strength of Taliban resistance, while accusations that troops were overstretched, underequipped and had no clear strategy have mounted.
Blair's office, however, was keen to focus on the progress being made in the country. The international community pledged US$10.5 billion to the Afghan government for reconstruction at a conference in London in January.
Britain has spent more than £390 million on reconstruction and aid in Afghanistan since 2001 and committed to spending a further £500 million by 2009, the Department for International Development said.
But in addition to the resurgent Taliban, there are still concerns about the ability of Afghan security forces to contain violence while opium production reaches an all-time high.