CAMP BASTION, AFGHANISTAN // The British prime minister David Cameron told troops today they were not in Afghanistan for a "dreamy idea" or to build a model society, and pledged they would leave once Afghans could defend themselves. On his first trip as prime minister to meet British troops in southern Afghanistan, Mr Cameron said the new coalition he heads had a clear mission - defending Britain's national security from the threat of attack by al Qa'eda.
Mr Cameron's doctrine showed a new hard-headed approach to the war in Afghanistan and marked an abandoning of previous goals such as democracy-building and ensuring girls received an education. He pledged to give the 9,500 British troops serving in Afghanistan, who have taken part in some of the fiercest fighting against Taliban insurgents, the equipment they needed. Mr Cameron, who formed a coalition of centre-right Conservatives and centre-left Liberals after the May 6 election, said the operational allowance soldiers receive while on active service in Afghanistan would be doubled.
The moves addressed the main criticisms Mr Cameron had of the previous Labour government - that it had failed to give British soldiers the right equipment to protect them from deadly roadside bombs and had failed to explain clearly to British people why the troops needed to be in Afghanistan. "We are not here to build the perfect democracy. We are not here to build some perfect model society. We are here to help the Afghans take control of their security so we can go home," Mr Cameron told about 400 British troops gathered on a dusty, sandstorm-swept parade ground at the Camp Bastion base in southern Afghanistan.
"I can sum up this mission in two words: It is about national security, our national security in the UK ... We don't have some dreamy ideas about what this mission is about," Mr Cameron said. "Just as soon as we have trained up that Afghan security we can go home with our heads held high." He told the troops it was a war of necessity, not of choice. If the British left tomorrow, al Qa'eda training camps would come back to Afghanistan, because the Afghans were not yet ready to look after their own security, he said.
Britain has the second-largest foreign contingent in Afghanistan, still small compared to the 100,000 US troops, but support for the mission is waning at home. Mr Cameron spent the night at the sprawling desert base of Camp Bastion in the southern province of Helmand, the first British prime minister to do so. The former prime minister Gordon Brown over-nighted at Kandahar earlier this year.
Mr Cameron read out to the troops a message from England soccer coach Fabio Capello, about to kick off England's campaign in the World Cup in South Africa, who told the soldiers: "We want you to know that we believe that you are the real heroes." Mr Cameron had to abandon a trip to a forward patrol base on Thursday evening after the military intercepted information suggesting insurgents could be planning to attack his helicopter. He got up early today for a 10-minute run inside the base and breakfast with the troops.
Pledging to re-write the "military covenant", under which British governments back the country's military, he said he would also act to improve the armed forces' health care, education and housing back in Britain. * Reuters