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17 November 2009

Brown hopes for Afghanistan pull-out talks

Prime minister says he hopes talks in the new year will set a timetable for handover to local forces

By Staff Blogger

Gordon Brown hopes to agree a timetable for international withdrawal from Afghanistan during talks in the new year, he said in a speech last night.

Making his annual foreign policy speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in the City of London, he said that he hoped that UN-based talks in London early next year would set a time frame for handing over the campaign in Afghanistan to local security forces.

Downing Street said that the conference would not be an “exit” discussion, but an opportunity to discuss long-term strategy.

Brown said: “The international community will meet to agree plans for the support we will provide to Afghanistan during this next phase. I have offered London as a venue in the New Year.

“I want that conference to chart a comprehensive political framework within which the military strategy can be accomplished.

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“It should identify a process for transferring district by district to Afghan control, and if at all possible we should set a timetable for transferring districts starting in 2010.”

Brown also defended the UK’s ongoing presence in Afghanistan, saying: “Since January 2008, seven of the top dozen figures in al-Qaida have been killed, depleting its reserve of experienced leaders and sapping its morale. And our security services report to me that there is now an opportunity to inflict significant and long-lasting damage to al-Qaida.”

The legitimacy and strength of the regime in Kabul is seen as key to an eventual handover from the West to local security forces. However, President Hamid Karzai’s re-election was marred by widespread fraud. Washington and London regard a clean-up of his administration as fundamental to the war effort.

In his speech, Brown said: “Following the inauguration this week of President Karzai, I’m urging him to set out the contract between the new government and its people, including early action on corruption.”

At a press conference yesterday, Karzai appeared with the US and British ambassadors in Afghanistan, and promised to clean up his corrupt government, saying he would work with the FBI, Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency, and Europol.

The prime minister’s speech followed the announcement that a UK serviceman was killed by an explosion in Helmand province on Sunday, bringing the UK’s death toll for 2009 to 97.

He cautioned that al-Qaeda continue to recruit and train in Pakistan, saying: “We are in Afghanistan because we judge that, if the Taliban regained power, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups would once more have an environment in which they could operate.”

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