Page last updated at 17:27 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 18:27 UK

Blair 'wanted quick Afghan exit'

British Para in Afghanistan
UK troops have been involved in fierce fighting in Afghanistan

Tony Blair said privately that he wanted the UK to get out of Afghanistan "very quickly" after the 2001 invasion, ex-Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown claims.

Lord Ashdown said the then prime minister was anxious not to become entangled in a lengthy conflict.

Britain deployed troops to Afghanistan shortly after the 11 September attacks.

Since then 108 British troops have been killed in fierce fighting as part of Nato's International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF).

The government has not officially said how long it believes British troops will have to stay in Afghanistan.

But in confidential government papers leaked to The Daily Telegraph earlier this month, Foreign Secretary David Miliband warns cabinet colleagues of a "long hard struggle" against the Taleban and opium trade that could last many years.

'Leave straight away'

In an interview with Straight Talk with Andrew Neil, Lord Ashdown says he spoke to Tony Blair before the initial invasion in 2001.

"I just happened to be looking through - actually this morning - the notes of a meeting I had with the prime minister on the 6th December 2001, and what he says to me is, 'Paddy, we are going to have to go in and do this'. And I said of course he'd have our support."

I have made some mistakes in my life but viewed out from a year ago, it does not seem to me that my decision to decline Mr Brown's kind invitation to join his government was one of them
Lord Ashdown

Lord Ashdown says Mr Blair went on: "But it's going to be in and out very quickly. We're going to go into Kabul, we'll take Kabul and then we'll leave straight away."

The peer, who was recently blocked from being UN envoy to Afghanistan by President Hamid Karzai, recalls telling Mr Blair that avoiding becoming entangled in a conflict there was a "good idea".

He goes on: "There's no doubt that we started off actually wanting to go in, remove Al-Qaeda and get out quickly, and that plan changed.

"I guess it changed because somebody said, if you get out, Al-Qaeda will take over again. But there's no doubt that it has become bigger than we thought it was."

'Containment' strategy

Lord Ashdown also reveals his advice to Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband in December 2007 when it seemed he was about to be posted to Afghanistan.

"I said to them, I just want you to understand that we, you know, we haven't got the troops, we haven't got the time, we haven't got the will to make Afghanistan very different than it's been for 1,000 years," said Lord Ashdown.

He said the government was right to strive for nationhood but warned containment "is the best we can do," he tells Straight Talk.

"We have to ask ourselves... is Afghanistan so important to us that we have to contain a situation to deny it to Al-Qaeda?

"My answer to that is yes, and that is why British troops will be there, but we've just got to be a bit more straightforward about it."

Elsewhere in the interview, the Lib Dem peer speaks of his relief at turning down the offer of a cabinet job from Mr Blair's successor Gordon Brown.

"I have made some mistakes in my life but viewed out from a year ago, it does not seem to me that my decision to decline Mr Brown's kind invitation to join his government was one of them.

"Can he survive? Well, Margaret Thatcher was more unpopular than him but does he - you know? She had the personality, the opportunity and the luck.

"He's an unlucky prime minister, he hasn't got a great personality and I can't see what the opportunity is."

Mr Brown is understood to have offered Lord Ashdown the role of Northern Ireland secretary.

Watch the full interview with Lord Ashdown on the BBC News Channel on Saturday at 0130, 0430 and 2230 on Straight Talk with Andrew Neil.

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