British PM pledges vehicles to battle Afghan bombs
KABUL (AP) – British Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised British troops 200 new patrol vehicles that can resist roadside bombs more effectively during an unannounced visit Saturday to southern Afghanistan.
Brown made the trip to Camp Bastion in Helmand province to thank some of the 4,000 British soldiers who are involved in a 3-week-old NATO offensive to wrest control of the Taliban haven of Marjah from the insurgents.
“We will do everything we can to support you with the equipment necessary and the resources you need,” he told the troops, according to the British Press Association.
His visit came as Britain’s military said one of its soldiers died after being wounded by an explosion in Helmand on Friday. More than 265 British military personnel have been killed since the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001.
Brown’s remarks Saturday focused on the battle against improvised explosive devices and the need to bolster training of the Afghan police force.
British officials will be announcing a $151 million investment in new British-built vehicles to replace Snatch Land Rovers, blamed by troops for many of the deaths caused by roadside bombs. The new vehicles, which should arrive in Afghanistan by late 2011, have better armor and more maneuverability.
Another $27 million will be spent on metal detectors and training for Afghan forces to help them combat the roadside bombs commonly used by Taliban forces. Britain also is sending 150 new police and army trainers to help train Afghan police.
Recalling five British soldiers killed last year by an Afghan policeman they had been training, Brown acknowledged soldiers’ sacrifice, but said the effort to build up Afghanistan’s army and police force will be crucial to allowing the country to stand on its own.
“I pay tribute to all those involved, but training the Afghan forces to serve their country for themselves is the right approach. It will provide the conditions where the Afghans are able to maintain their own security and our troops can come home,” he said.
He toured a police training center in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, where he saw 150 recruits who will be graduating next week.
Brown also visited enemy bases seized by international and Afghan troops during their massive offensive involving a total of 15,000 allied and Afghan forces. Four British soldiers were among the 15 NATO troops killed during the campaign in Marjah.
The Marjah offensive is the largest combined allied operation of the war. The goal is for international and Afghan forces to secure the area to allow a credible, effective Afghan government to take root.
On Saturday, however, news broke that the man chosen to be the area’s new civilian chief has a violent criminal record in Germany. Western officials said they are not pushing to oust him.
Court records and news reports in Germany showed that Abdul Zahir, the man appointed as Marjah’s new civilian chief, served part of a more than four-year prison sentence for stabbing his son in 1998. A U.S. official confirmed that he did serve time in Germany, though Zahir denied he committed any crime.
Violence in Afghanistan has spiraled in the last year, as the Taliban’s hard-line Islamist fighters have reasserted their presence in much of the country they ruled for five years before being ousted in 2001 in a U.S.-led invasion.
In eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban attacked the convoy of a member of the Afghan parliament on Saturday, but she escaped injury.
Fauzia Khofi, who represents the far northern province of Badakhshan, said insurgents fired on her seven-vehicle convoy with rocket-propelled grenades as it was traveling from Nangarhar province in the east to Kabul, the capital. She said a policeman suffered a leg injury and another was slightly wounded in the attack.
Militants have also increasingly been targeting Kabul. On Feb. 26, a car bomb detonated and gunmen in suicide vests then stormed two residential hotels. A total of 17 people were killed.
India’s visiting national security adviser vowed Saturday that his country would continue all its aid programs in Afghanistan despite the attacks, which killed seven Indian citizens.
National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon said his meetings with President Hamid Karzai and other officials reassured him that proposed new security measures could protect the 3,500-strong Indian community in Afghanistan.
He declined to comment on an Afghan official’s accusation that Pakistan-based militia Lashkar-e-Taiba was responsible for the assaults. Lashkar-e-Taiba is the same group India has blamed for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that killed 166 people.
The Afghan Taliban have also claimed they carried out the Feb. 26 attacks.
Two of the victims were members of the Indian Army Education Corps who were teaching English at the Afghan Military Academy, India’s embassy said. India’s offer to help train Afghan national forces has drawn the ire of its regional archrival Pakistan, which also has strategic interests in Afghanistan.
The seventh Indian victim died Thursday of his wounds, Menon said, raising the overall death toll to 17.