Page last updated at 10:04 GMT, Saturday, 27 December 2008

Afghan situation 'has improved'

A British mobile patrol in Afghanistan
There will be 8,300 UK troops in Afghanistan by March 2009

Britain's ambassador to Afghanistan has insisted the country has improved in 2008, despite the deaths of 50 troops making it UK forces' worst year yet.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles said the number of attacks had fallen by up to 40% in state-controlled areas.

Speaking before the death on Christmas Eve of Royal Marine L/Cpl Benjamin Whatley, Sir Sherard said he thought elections could go ahead this year.

But he admitted the overall security situation remained "mixed".

Sir Sherard told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It's certainly true the insurgency has spread into some areas where the Afghan government has not been present.

"But it's not true to say that the overall picture is universally gloomy."

The ambassador said Nato figures showed the level of terrorist attacks had fallen 40% in Kabul and 20% in the wider province, while areas of Helmand had been brought under government control.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles
Nearly 60% of the security operations here are now led by the Afghan military or Afghan police
Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles

"We are doing everything possible to make sure that by the autumn of next year, when we hope the election will be held, security is in place and that the Afghan people have the confidence to go out and vote," he said.

Refusing to be drawn on whether the election could be postponed, Sir Sherard described levels of voter registration as "good" in half the provinces.

There are already 8,000 UK troops in Afghanistan, with another 300 to be sent in March.

The US plans to send up to 30,000 extra personnel during 2009 to swell its 31,000-strong force.

But Sir Sherard said the planned increases were not on the same scale as last year's surge in Iraq and that it was important to transfer responsibility for security to the Afghans.

"In the past year nearly 40,000 extra Afghan army have been trained, nearly 60% of the security operations here are now led by the Afghan military or Afghan police," he said.

It was also important for the Afghan government to lead any attempts at reconciliation with the Taleban and other opponents, said Sir Sherard.

But that process could only take place if the parties agreed to accept the Afghan constitution and the basic principles of human rights, and sever any links with core Al Qaeda, he added.

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