UK committing more money to Kabul

CLEAR THREATS: Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government has made fighting the Taliban a priority because of the impact it will have in combating terrorism and drugs


Fri, Aug 17, 2007 - Page 5

As Britain winds down its efforts in Iraq, London is pouring more soldiers and aid money into Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban and booming drug trade it says pose a direct threat to the nation.

Britain's ambassador in Kabul said the country began increasing its focus on Afghanistan shortly before the end of former British prime minister Tony Blair's tenure in June, and made it even more of a priority under Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

"[Afghanistan] matters to us because a high proportion of the terrorism investigations in the UK can be traced back to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area," Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles said in an interview this week.

"It matters to us because 90 percent of the heroin on British streets comes from Afghanistan, and it matters to us because it is desperately poor, and we have a commitment through the international development act of tackling poverty around the world," he said.

During a visit to the US late last month, Brown called Afghanistan "the front line against terrorism," in contrast to US President George W. Bush's common refrain that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror.

Britain will increase its troop strength in Afghanistan to 7,700 by the year's end, up from 7,000 today and 3,600 a year ago, in what Cowper-Coles labeled a "sensible tactical adjustment" based on commanders' advice.

In Iraq, Britain has handed over two of its three bases in Basra to the Iraqi government, and in the coming weeks its force levels will drop to 5,000, down from 40,000 after the March 2003 invasion.

"I think there is a general feeling in the United Kingdom concerning Iraq, as far as the UK's efforts are concerned, that there is not much more than can be done with military force, so we can logically shift more focus to Afghanistan," said Colonel Christopher Langton, a former British officer and an analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Britain's move to Afghanistan, where the US has 25,000 soldiers, "is proof that we're not leaving the United States in the lurch, and although I'm quite sure they'd rather we stay in Iraq they also know we don't have endless resources," he said.

Britain's new Foreign Secretary David Miliband chose Afghanistan as his first overseas trip.

Afterward, he wrote in the British magazine The Spectator that "most British terrorism investigations trace back to the training camps just across the border, in western Pakistan."

Police said two of the suspects in the London subway and bus bombings on July 7, 2005, had attended training camps in Pakistan, as did the ringleader of failed attacks two weeks later.

"There's a real concern among ministers that, first of all, Afghanistan is one of our top foreign policy priorities and secondly that we need to get it right," Cowper-Coles said.

British troops are responsible for Helmand Province -- scene of some of the heaviest fighting over the last two years and the largest poppy-growing region in the world.

Cowper-Coles said NATO's International Security Assistance Force, including British troops, will "really raise its game on counternarcotics" next growing season.

"You're going to see increased disruption of traffickers. You're going to see some serious targeted, non-negotiated eradication [of poppy fields]," he said. "In short the big traffickers are going to start feeling the heat."

Heroin accounted for nearly a third of the total number of drug-related deaths in Britain in 2005, the last year for which statistics are available, the government said.

Cowper-Coles said that Britain doesn't have any significant policy differences in Afghanistan with the US, although Britain does not back Washington's interest in launching an aerial spray campaign.

"There are occasionally differences of emphasis," he said. "We're both agreed that there's no case for aerial spraying unless the government of Afghanistan agrees to it, and as I understand it the government of Afghanistan does not favor spraying."