PRIME Minister David Cameron has warned British troops preparing to wind down their mission in Afghanistan that they face “the struggle of our generation” against Islamist extremism.
Addressing soldiers at Camp Bastion in Helmand province for what could be the last time, the Prime Minister used an unannounced visit to state they should be “incredibly proud” of what they had achieved.
He said in helping to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven in the country where they plotted the 9/11 terror attacks in the US, they had helped keep the streets of Britain secure.
However, he said the atrocities committed by groups such as Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria and Boko Haram in Nigeria showed there was a long battle ahead.
There are around 1,300 British troops still at Camp Bastion. A small number will remain to train Afghan army officers.
“I am afraid the work you are doing here will go on in other parts of the world, maybe not in the same way, maybe not with troops on the ground,” said Mr Cameron, who yesterday also visited Cyprus.
“But the fact is that when we see the appalling extent of Islamist terrorism in terms of al-Qaeda, that disease is still present in many parts of the world. This struggle against Islamist extremist terrorism, this is the struggle of our generation.
“It is about protecting ourselves in our streets, in our homes, in our towns.
“These people have declared war upon us and we must make sure, as Britain always does, that we respond with robustness and resolution.”
Camp Bastion is due to close in a few weeks’ time in line with Mr Cameron’s commitment to end combat operations in Afghanistan this year. Around 9,500 troops were deployed in Helmand at the height of the 13-year military campaign.
Mr Cameron’s visit to Afghanistan came on the same day he visited RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, from where RAF Tornados are launching air strikes against IS in Iraq.
He confirmed that two more RAF Tornado jets were being deployed, joining the six already in Cyprus.
The planes have carried out air strikes on four of their missions so far, hitting eight targets at five locations.
Later, at a joint press conference in Kabul with new Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, Mr Cameron made clear that while Britain would continue to provide support for the Afghan government, there was no question of using combat troops.
He said Britain’s armed forces had paid a “very high price” for their involvement in Afghanistan. “We are not going to send combat troops back to Afghanistan because we have trained up an effective Afghan national army and national police force.”
Mr Cameron was meeting Mr Ghani – who took office four days ago – and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.
The two presidential rivals finally came to a power-sharing agreement after a dispute over the outcome of the elections threatened to plunge the country into renewed turmoil.
The Prime Minister and Mr Ghani also paid tribute to the 453 UK servicemen and women who have died during operations in the country as well as to those who had been injured.
Mr Cameron, making his 13th visit to Afghanistan, said the country had been transformed since international military operations began in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York.
In that time, they have sought to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven while creating an Afghan army and police force capable of delivering security in their own country.
Mr Ghani said the Afghan people would remember that the UK stood “shoulder to shoulder” with them.
Mr Ghani said: “I would like to say thank you to those families for the loss of their loved ones. They stood shoulder to shoulder with us and we will remember.
“But remember what brought us together at first was tragedy: 9/11 was followed by attacks on London.
“Your presence here has meant that London has been safe, as well as the rest of the world.
“We face joint threats. We live, whether we like it or not, in an integrated world where global forces both for good and for evil co-exist.”
Mr Cameron added that the Afghan army and police were now “capable and determined”. He said the UK would continue to support the Afghan National Officer Academy in the capital, and would be providing £178 million a year until 2017 to “sustain the major progress” the country had made on education, health and other public services.
Mr Cameron and Mr Ghani will be co-hosting a London conference on Afghanistan in November.