British PM Gordon Brown Visits Troops in Afghanistan

Britain's prime minister worked Sunday to smooth relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and renew Britain's commitment to the war despite its unpopularity back home.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he would ship helicopters, equipment and roadside bomb surveillance devices along with 500 reinforcements he recently announced will join 9,500 British troops deployed mostly in southern Afghanistan. Regions of Afghanistan are at the "epicenter" of the global terrorist threat, Brown said, defending his decision to sent more British forces to war.

Brown recently sharply criticized the Afghan leader, saying that Britain would not continue risking the lives of its soldiers to defend a corrupt government. But in a news conference in Kandahar province, he refrained from confrontation.

The change in tone appears to reflect the fact that the two governments must work in concert in coming months if they are to achieve their goals of restoring stability in the south, training Afghan security forces and enabling British troops to leave.

"We have good cooperation and we're hoping, with the new (Afghan) Cabinet, to work on fighting corruption and take a step toward improving security in Afghanistan," Brown said.

"Our plan is to weaken the Taliban and to strengthen the Afghan authorities."

Brown spent Saturday night at an airfield in Kandahar — the first time he has stayed overnight in either Afghanistan or Iraq. For security reasons, his pre-holiday visit was not officially announced until Sunday.

He offered condolences to the families of 100 British soldiers who have died in the war this year. "I feel for the families of whose who have lost loved ones, particularly as we move toward Christmas," Brown said.

As fatalities rise, public support for the war has fallen in Britain. In November, a rogue Afghan policeman killed five British troops, underlining the difficulty in training the Afghan security forces who are hoped to take more responsibilities, allowing international forces to return home. Britain is the largest contributor to NATO forces in Afghanistan after the United States. At least 237 British soldiers have been killed since the war began after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, which topped the Taliban regime.

Before President Barack Obama announced he was sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, Brown was among a host of world leaders who pressured Karzai to cleanse his government of corrupt officials. Karzai is hosting a three-day conference on corruption in Kabul this week.

Also, in announcing an international conference on Afghanistan Jan 28. in London, Brown handed Karzai a page of "milestones on which he's going to be judged." Besides stepping up training and deployment of Afghan security forces, reducing corruption and appointing local leaders, Brown stated that by the end of next year, the Afghan government should have trained another 50,000 troops and must take control of at least five districts from the NATO-led force.

Karzai bristled at the benchmarks.

"Very unfortunate and very artificial," Karzai said in a Dec. 3 interview with The Associated Press. "It is extremely insulting. But it doesn't affect me and it doesn't affect the Afghan people."

But in Kandahar, Karzai too sought to publicly ease past friction between the two leaders.

Karzai told Brown he was working to assemble a slate of Cabinet ministers for his second term, which he will announce in coming days.

"It is the request of the international community and Afghans to improve the security and stability and fight corruption," Karzai said.

Karzai invited Brown to visit the governor's house in neighboring Helmand province where many of the British troops are deployed, but bad weather prevented the trip.

A crowd estimated at 600, which included British troops and Afghan elders, clerics and villagers, waited for two hours in a hall to see Brown, but his flight was canceled because of cloud cover, according to Daud Ahmadi, spokesman for the governor of Helmand province.