KABUL: British Prime Minister David Cameron Tuesday said the Taliban could have a future in the mainstream politics of Afghanistan, with the 10-year war resolved like the conflict in Northern Ireland.
On a day that four NATO soldiers were killed in eastern Afghanistan, he also announced the creation of a Sandhurst-style military academy to train Afghan officers ahead of the pullout of Western combat forces by 2015.
“In terms of the political process and political reconciliation, firstly I would say to the Afghan people, we are with you, we want to help you,” Cameron told a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.
“To the Taliban my message is very clear. Stop bombing, stop killing, stop fighting, put down your weapons, join the political process and you can join the future of this country.”
Violence in Afghanistan has been at record highs, nearly 10 years after US-led troops invaded to bring down the Taliban regime for refusing to give up Osama bin Laden after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
“I have seen in it in my own country. In Northern Ireland, we had people trying to bomb and kill police and now they are taking part in politics themselves,” said Cameron.
The Taliban have always refused to lay down arms until all foreign forces leave Afghanistan, but in recent weeks officials have said efforts are being made to establish contact between the insurgents, Kabul and the United States.
Cameron said a British-led military academy hoped to open its doors in 2013 and would train 1,350 Afghan officers a year, with around 120 British military trainers, attracting a funding pledge of $38 million from the United States.
“Today the president and I have been discussing our plan to build an Afghan Sandhurst to train the officers of the future that will form the backbone of the already successful Afghan army,” said Cameron.
He also defended plans to increase British aid to Afghanistan, despite austere budget cuts at home, branding opponents “hard-hearted”.
The Department for International Development said that British aid to Afghanistan this financial year was £102 million ($164 million) and would be £178 million ($287 million) next financial year.
Cameron declared progress in Afghanistan to be “on the right track” as he sought to regain momentum in a two-day trip overshadowed by the death of a British soldier who had earlier gone missing from his Helmand base.
“This is a great example of a country that if we walk away from, and if we ignore, if we forget about, the problems will come visited back on our doorstep,” Cameron said.
He said “some progress” in Helmand province where the bulk of British troops are based, would allow for a “modest” drawdown to be announced for next year.
The British soldier’s mysterious death in Helmand province, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility, overshadowed Cameron’s earlier announcement that security had improved enough for Britain to withdraw some troops soon.
Cameron said he would make an announcement in parliament on Wednesday about the level of troop drawdowns next year, with weekend media reports saying he would order the withdrawal of 500-800 soldiers by the end of 2012.
Britain has a total force of 9,500 in Afghanistan — the second largest contingent of foreign troops in the country after the United States.
Cameron arrived in Helmand on Monday on a previously unannounced visit but decided to abandon a planned trip to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, one of a handful of towns earmarked for an early handover to Afghan forces.
The soldier went missing from a checkpost in the early hours of Monday and London later announced that his body had been found with gunshot wounds.
The top Afghan army commander for Helmand said the soldier had drowned after going for a swim on his military base, and that his body had been carried away by a strong current and later shot by Taliban insurgents.
Lashkar Gah was one of seven areas in Afghanistan identified by NATO for an initial handover of security ahead of a full transfer of responsibility across the country and the withdrawal of all Western combat troops.
Cameron’s announcement comes nearly two weeks after US President Barack Obama said he would withdraw 33,000 US “surge” troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, bringing total US forces there down to 65,000.
The speed of that drawdown has been criticised by senior Republican lawmakers and met with a cool reception from US military commanders.
In recent days a row between Afghanistan and Pakistan over claims of cross-border attacks by both sides has heightened tensions between the neighbours, threatening to disrupt any negotiated peace.
Cameron struck a diplomatic note over the issue and said Britain backed an improvement in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations.
“Now is the time for Pakistan and Afghanistan to sit and meet and talk on how we are to ensure what we need to do,” he told reporters.