Page last updated at 14:54 GMT, Sunday, 16 August 2009 15:54 UK

PM sees progress in Afghanistan

Gordon Brown: "We must never forget why we are in Afghanistan''

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has insisted UK armed forces are making progress in Afghanistan, despite the death toll among personnel passing 200.

Five soldiers died at the weekend, bringing the number of deaths to 204.

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said he was unhappy with the speed of supply to forces but vowed to "flex every muscle" to minimise the risk to troops.

However, political opponents are calling for a review of strategy for dealing with the conflict.

The Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party both say a different approach may be needed.

Speaking after the Ministry of Defence confirmed the deaths of two soldiers as a result of explosions in Helmand province, Mr Brown said the public "must never forget" why troops were making sacrifices in Afghanistan.

'Security threat'

"Al Qaeda and the Taliban had become a threat to our security in Britain and in the rest of the world," he said, adding that three quarters of anti-UK terrorist plots derived from parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Mr Brown admitted that more than 30 deaths during July and August, as British troops went on the offensive to shore up security in time for Afghan elections, had made it "one of the most difficult summers yet".

But he said: "We have shown with Operation Panther's Claw that we can make progress... by creating space in which the elections that will take place in the next few days will be held.

"We have created space in which we can have Afghan government, Afghan police and Afghan forces and that will make it very difficult for the Taliban and Al Qaeda to reassert themselves."

Bob Ainsworth
The notion that we are going to be in Afghanistan in 30 to 40 years in anything like the form we are now is ludicrous
Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth

The prime minister said "every effort" would be made to provide the best security and equipment for troops, in particular against roadside bombs which have proven deadly in recent months.

Meanwhile, Mr Ainsworth admitted on BBC One's Andrew Marr Show that he was not happy with the speed of supply to the front line but promised to "bend people out of shape" to improve the situation.

Opponents have accused the government of leaving troops vulnerable to roadside bombs by failing to provide enough helicopters.

But Mr Ainsworth said the number of flying hours had been doubled and argued the craft were "not like the family car" and had to be brought back to the UK for modifications, repair and crew training.

Mr Ainsworth accused Conservatives of "reaching for a quick headline" about equipment shortages, saying it "cheap political points" were undermining UK troops.

He rejected claims by shadow defence secretary Dr Liam Fox that troops were put at risk because Ridgeback armoured vehicles had not been sent to Afghanistan soon enough.

Their deployment was ahead of schedule but they could not be produced and armoured in time for the recent offensive, he said.

Mr Ainsworth accepted the UK's mission in Afghanistan would not be a "short engagement".

But, referring to comments by incoming head of the army Gen Sir David Richards, he said: "The notion that we are going to be in Afghanistan in 30 to 40 years in anything like the form we are now is ludicrous."

'Legitimate concerns'

The UK's role would increasingly become one of training and supervision of Afghan forces, Mr Ainsworth said.

He warned that danger could not be removed entirely from the operation, adding: "We will lose more people and we need to show resolve as a nation."

However, Mr Fox demanded to know on what basis troops could scale down their role. He said: "Is it just spin designed to detract from the failure of the government to fully equip our troops in Afghanistan?"

A Conservative party spokesman added that the shadow defence secretary would make no apology for raising questions about equipment.

We need a fundamental change of gear - and a shift from a purely military campaign
Nick Harvey, Lib Dem defence spokesman

"This has been an eight-year campaign and very legitimate concerns have been raised about the level of equipment available to troops," he said.

Lib Dem defence spokesman Nick Harvey also doubted that Britain's role would diminish.

"Nothing I have seen in this conflict leads me to believe it is even remotely possible that British troops will be off the front line within one year," he said.

"Rather than trying to sway public opinion with false optimism, Bob Ainsworth must admit we need a fundamental change of gear, and a shift from a purely military campaign to one which focuses on achieving peace through meaningful political engagement, co-operation and progress."

Angus Robertson, the SNP's defence spokesman, said ministers should mark the UK's 200th death by adopting a more realistic approach to the conflict.

"This tragic milestone throws into sharp relief the need for a serious review of our operations in Afghanistan to refocus our efforts and ensure that the right strategy is being pursued.

"Ministers must take the initiative after the Afghan elections this month to rethink our strategy and objectives reflecting the wider regional concerns."

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