Page last updated at 16:02 GMT, Sunday, 13 December 2009

Gordon Brown visits UK troops and Afghan leader

Gordon Brown and Hamid Karzai
Both leaders denied suggestions of a rift between them

Gordon Brown has been visiting British troops in Afghanistan to show his support in the run-up to Christmas.

The prime minister inspected new equipment and held talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kandahar.

He said the next few months would be "critical" and urged the Afghan government to take a bigger role in confronting the Taliban.

Unusually, Mr Brown spent the night in the country, rather than flying in and out in one day.

He slept in "basic quarters" at the Kandahar air base, the headquarters of Nato troops in the south of the country.

There are currently about one or two attacks a week by Taliban in the Kandahar area.

The prime minister said: "I wanted to be here with the troops to thank them for what they are doing.

Gordon Brown: "I am here to thank our troops"

"I wanted to see what it was like working with them."

This year alone, 100 British service personnel have been killed in Afghanistan.

In a joint press conference with Mr Karzai, the prime minister acknowledged that casualty numbers had been high and paid tribute to their "bravery, professionalism and dedication".

He said: "I feel for all of those families who have lost loved ones, particularly as we move towards Christmas.

"I know this has been a difficult year."

Mr Brown said he felt more confident about the conflict following decisions by the US and Britain to send in more troops.

He insisted Afghanistan's border regions were "the epicentre of global terrorism" and operations there were directly related to security on British streets.

Both leaders denied suggestions of a rift between them.

James Landale
James Landale, BBC News, Afghanistan
It is one thing to visit. It is another to stay over.

But this is exactly what Gordon Brown has done in Afghanistan - the first prime minister since the Second World War to spend a night in a combat zone.

He bunked down in a basic hut with limited heating and a shared latrine at Kandahar air base, which comes under rocket fire at least once a week.

"No frills" was how one officer described it. This was in part down to logistics. It allowed Mr Brown to fit in more meetings.

Plus it also, he said, allowed him the chance to get a small glimpse of how service personnel live out here in the dusty, concrete-clad, container-strewn military bases.

Mr Brown said his Afghan counterpart had offered to send 10,000 extra Afghan troops to be trained in Helmand, where most of the British forces were based.

There would also be 10,000 more Afghan police in Helmand and Kandahar, he said.

Asked about corruption in the Kabul administration, Mr Brown said Mr Karzai would present plans, including improvements to governance, to a conference in London next month.

Mr Karzai said he was "very, very sorry" when he saw British troops killed or wounded in Afghanistan.

He addressed the parents of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan, saying: "I am terribly sorry for them losing their sons and daughters, as we are sorry for us losing our sons and daughters in Afghanistan.

"But we have a job to do together and we must endure, as hard as it may be."

Limited resources

During his visit, he revealed that British forces had destroyed almost 1,500 roadside bombs in the last six months.

This, said Brigadier Dickie Davis, the Isaf chief of staff for southern regional command, might provoke a further backlash from the Taliban.

Asked whether Afghan forces would be in a position to take over the control of security in the country, Brig Davis was non-committal.

A British soldier walks from the accommodation block where Mr Brown spent the night
The prime minister slept in these "basic quarters" at Kandahar air base

But he stressed that there had been "remarkable progress" within the Afghan National Army.

Meanwhile Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has said the Ministry of Defence faces "tough decisions" over funding.

He told BBC 1's Politics Show that other areas of defence would face cuts as limited resources were shifted to support the operation in Afghanistan.

"I am being asked to live within my budget and there are tough decisions that will have to be taken in that regard," Mr Ainsworth said.

It is reported that Mr Ainsworth will this week announce the closure of at least one RAF base and a scaling back of the UK sovereign base area in Cyprus, as well as cuts to the MoD Police and back office functions.

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