News story

Transcript of press briefing by David Cameron in Afghanistan

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

"I wanted to come to Afghanistan ... to wish the troops a happy Christmas and to thank them for the work they're doing,' says David Cameron.

PRIME MINISTER

Reflections on the visit, I think it’s been a good visit.  I think this is the tenth time I’ve come to Helmand Province and really what I wanted to come to do was to wish the troops a happy Christmas and to thank them for the work they’re doing, but it’s always a good opportunity to have lots of those conversations with everyone from private soldiers up to colonels and beyond about how it’s going, about how the Afghan national forces are doing, about how transition will work and the rest of it.

And I have to say I come away very reassured that the troops are doing a brilliant job, that the Afghan National Army are getting more and more capable, that the transition is on track and that the plans that we have for drawdown are very much military based, bottom up, very much based on what’s actually happening on the ground.  So I thought that was very encouraging.

And I think everyone’s got a clear timeline, a clear plan, everyone can see what needs to be done from handing over control bases, building up the Afghan National Army functions and making sure we recover equipment properly to the UK.  So I find that reassuring.

Another thing I reflect on, on having visited for the tenth time, is in the early days there were lots of issues about equipment, about protected vehicles, about contact time with home, about the quantity of helicopters, the number of helicopter hours.  You know, I’ve pushed people pretty hard for worries and complaints and issues and I’ve had a pretty reassuring message that the equipment is great, the protective vehicles are good, the contact time with home is there.  And, you know, it’s been very reassuring to hear from the troops that they feel they’ve got what they want and they now feel they are some of the best equipped soldiers anywhere in the world.

In terms of Afghanistan more broadly, obviously this has been a Helmand trip rather than an Afghan trip.  I think the things we still must focus on are obviously the problems the issues of good governance from the Afghan government to issues of corruption and justice.  And I think the biggest role the UK government can play now, as well as making sure this transition works well and that the planning is all done properly, is working to enhance relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan and working to encourage the maximum amount of reconciliation because we need a political track as well as a military track. 

That has always been the case and I have had good meetings with Afghan and Pakistani premiers, and I’m looking forward to hosting the meeting with them again in the New Year.  But I feel that as there is a clear drawdown plan, not only does that give the Afghan military the certainty and the knowledge that they are taking over, but it also means the Afghan politicians and indeed the Pakistani politicians are focussed on life after drawdown.

One last point I’ve just obviously been stressing to everybody that while our troops will be leaving Afghanistan we won’t have combat troops after 2014 the relationship with Afghanistan will still be very strong.  You know, we are spending £70 million a year on Afghan national security forces, very significant aid and development programme, and that will continue for many years into the future.  So I spoke to the Governor of Helmand province this morning and reassured him about that long-term relationship.

There are one or two issues from that to take away, things that we still need to do here in Helmand in terms of roads that need building, in terms of making sure the United Nations have a strong presence here in Helmand, so there’s plenty of work to do but I think it’s been a good trip quite a reassuring trip about the state of transition and how it’s a transition based on success.

QUESTION

Can I ask you about the meeting you just mentioned a meeting in the New Year, what’s that piece?

PRIME MINISTER

I’ve had two meetings so far with the Afghan President Karzai and President Zardari from Pakistan: two meetings I’ve hosted as part of this trilateral process, building relations between the two countries, working towards a strategic partnership agreement between them.  It’s been good.  Britain is friends of both countries; we are saying to both countries, we want long-term relationships with both of you.

I think they both know we don’t have selfish interests, it’s just about recognising that Pakistan would benefit from a stable Afghanistan on its borders and Afghanistan would benefit from a stable Pakistan on its borders, and the relationship between the two needs to be closer.  I think Pak-Afghan relations are better than they’ve been for a long time, and so we’re working on that, and in the New Year I’m planning to hold another meeting. It will be more like February than January, but with both premiers.

QUESTION

We’ve just spoken to Peter Wall a bit and we pushed him on the kind of numbers and whether they were open to change next year if the conditions weren’t as good as we expect, and he said that we’ll have to see what happens. How flexible is this?  Are you based entirely on the military…?

PRIME MINISTER

It is very much a bottom up plan.  We all were at FOB Price yesterday and you can see what their plans are.  You can see here’s this base, here are the patrol bases, here are the individual bases, which ones are we going to be handing over to the Afghans, which ones will no longer be required and, therefore, how many troops will we need.

And of course there’s always flexibility in any plan and that’s why we’ve talked about two relatively even steps 2013, 2014 but I would make the point that, so far, things have surprised on the upside in terms of the capability of the Afghan national forces and so it may well be that we may be able to move a little faster.  So let’s see how things go.  But it’s very important to have a plan, and to have a plan that everybody knows they’re working towards it: the British troops are working towards it, the Afghan troops are working towards it, the Afghan government’s working towards it but there’s always of course flexibility.

QUESTION

You talked about the political track for the future of Afghanistan, I mean presumably that has to, at some stage, involve people who are now allied with the Taliban.  How is that going?  How are you bringing them into the political process?

PRIME MINISTER

Slowly but I think there are two parts to the political track.  One is the politics of Afghanistan making sure that there are successful elections in 2014, making sure the capacity of the government to get things done keeps increasing, making sure that money from central government goes to provincial government and making sure, as we’ve done here in Helmand, that provincial and district government is accountable and there are proper shuras and locally elected bodies to scrutinise how money is spent and make sure that local priorities are met.

And what’s interesting was yesterday hearing from our head civilian here about how the Taliban are now far from shutting schools, are actually sometimes going to local shuras and saying they want more schools or they want better hospitals.  So there is the start of engagement, but the part of transition which is more of an entry into political processes of the Taliban, that has still got some way to go.  But I’ve always said we have a transition plan with or without Taliban political participation.

The plan is proceeding quite well in terms of the security picture and the handover, which we’ve discussed, but obviously everything we can achieve on Taliban entry into a political process, anything on that front will make the rest of transition easier.

QUESTION

General Sir David Richards earlier this week suggested that we may see redeployment of British troops in the Gulf.  Do you envisage the building of new British army bases in the Gulf and the Middle East, including perhaps Oman?

PRIME MINISTER
We already have some British forces based in the Gulf.  Obviously there’s British forces in Bahrain; there’s Al Udeid airbase which we use with the Americans in Qatar; and we have some forces in the Emirates already, at Minhad, and there are other deployments as well.  I think what you’re seeing specifically with the United Arab Emirates is not just a plan to sell Typhoon aircrafts, but a big, significant defence cooperation which could, yes, lead to more British troops stationed in that country.

And I think this is an exciting possibility for both countries, to have a proper strategic defence relationship defence partnership.  And I think that’s the way the world is going.  People don’t just want to buy equipment now, they want to have proper industrial and defence partnerships.  And where we have strong alliances like we do with the UAE I think it’s all to the good.

QUESTION

You said a moment ago about perhaps, depending on how well the Afghan forces are at proving their capability, that things might be able to move a little bit faster.  Does that mean more coming home before the end of 2013 or bringing the 2014 deadline forward?

PRIME MINISTER

No, the 2014 deadline is fixed. At the end of 2014 there won’t be British troops in a combat role and we’ll have radically reduced the footprint remember, we have 9,000 today.  So there are sort of two relatively even steps.  At the end of 2013 where the estimate is some 4,000 troops will be coming out and then you obviously have a further drawdown during 2014.  So the 2014 deadline doesn’t change. 

What is obviously movable is how the transition goes. But there is flexibility because all the time commanders are seeing how fast Afghan forces can take over particular patrol bases, particular roles, and I’ve been very struck - including sitting in an ops room in FOB Price where they were discussing an operation but it was an Afghan-led operation that we would be supporting and there’s going to be more and more of that. 

So there are flexibilities in it, we’ve set out the parameters, roughly: 4,000 home by next Christmas.  But clearly there’s flexibility and we’ll update parliament on a regular basis, as we’ve done. This government promised monthly updates and that’s what we’ve been doing.

QUESTION
Can I just ask about a domestic matter, Prime Minister?  Have you been kept up to date with the flooding at home and are you having any discussions about help for the affected areas?

PRIME MINISTER

Well I’m always in permanent contact; I have staff with me to make sure we’re kept in touch.  I haven’t got any particular proposals on this matter but we have well-honed procedures on floods and I thought it was very welcome in the Autumn Statement that we were able to increase the budget for flood defences.  And that’s not just government money, it can leverage in private sector money as well.  But I’ll obviously expect to be kept in the picture on all these things.

QUESTION

Apologies if I misunderstood, when you were talking about buying aircrafts and posting more troops in the Middle East you were talking about the UAE.  Are you also hoping to sell more Typhoon aircraft to them?

PRIME MINISTER

Where we’ve got to with Typhoon is obviously Saudi Arabia is a big customer and that’s successfully done.  We’re in negotiations with UAE, I announced this strategic defence partnership after my recent visit and that partnership includes buying Typhoon aircraft. I’m just off to Oman, where we’ll be agreeing that the Omanis will be purchasing Typhoon. 

This is good news.  This is great aircraft; it proved itself in Libya.  It’s a major defence project for Britain, it employs thousands of people in our country in Lancashire and the East Riding of Yorkshire.  And I’m very keen to make sure we successfully market it overseas.  So Saudi Arabia tick, UAE looking good, Oman tick and there’ll be other opportunities as well.

QUESTION

Can I just ask you about Andrew Mitchell?  What do you think the police federation need to take from this episode?  What do you think about the way they’ve behaved in it all?

PRIME MINISTER
Well I think we need to allow the investigation to be properly done.  It’s overseen and supervised by the Independent Police Complaints Commission and I’m sure, when we see the results of that investigation I’m sure there’ll be lessons for lots of people to learn.  But we should probably wait until we find out the full picture.

QUESTION

Do you think it’s clear yet that Mr Mitchell was quite hard done by to lose his job?

PRIME MINISTER
Well obviously I wanted to keep him in his job.  He made the apology which was right and necessary for what he himself admitted to saying in front of a police officer.  I thought he’d made an apology and I thought we should continue like that but it became impossible for him to do his job and that’s why he resigned, and I accepted his resignation as you know. 

Look, we’re going to have to wait for the outcome of the investigation.  We should take this one step at a time but clearly what happened in terms of the email from a police officer who had posed as a member of the public, that is totally unacceptable and it is a very worrying development and very important that it’s properly looked into.  It’s a very serious matter, as I’ve said.  But  the police have clearly put some resources into this investigation, they’ve said they’re going to make sure it’s done thoroughly I think that’s important and we should hope for an early resolution.

QUESTION
Do you get any sense that the mood in the parliamentary party towards Mr Mitchell has shifted?

PRIME MINISTER

I think there’s a lot of sympathy for Andrew because the revelation about the email on its own, I think, has shocked quite a lot of people and so some people will have been influenced by that, because it is quite a shocking development.

QUESTION

Have you spoken to him yourself about it?

PRIME MINISTER
I spoke to Andrew Mitchell relatively recently.  He came in on Monday night, and I had a word with him then.

QUESTION

Came into Number 10 or you met him in the Commons?

PRIME MINISTER

I saw him in Number 10, he came in to see me.

QUESTION

On his bike?

PRIME MINISTER

I didn’t ask the means of transport that he took but I spoke to him and my office has been in contact with him, as you’d expect, fairly regularly during this.  And I myself watched the Channel 4 News programme.

QUESTION

How would you describe his mood when you met him on Monday?

PRIME MINISTER

Well he was very calm and rational but, you know, feels obviously disturbed by what seems to have happened and is very keen to get to the bottom of it.  But I thought his mood was pretty calm and reasonable given what are pretty extraordinary revelations.