Britain wants reform in Afghanistan

Brown says nation risks support cutoff

By Gregory Katz
Associated Press / November 7, 2009

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LONDON - Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Washington’s closest ally in Afghanistan, toughened his tone yesterday with this harsh message for the Afghan leadership: Clean up your act - for real this time - or risk a cutoff of support.

In what 10 Downing Street billed as a major speech, Brown reflected public outrage over troop casualties by threatening to pull back support, and perhaps even additional troops, unless President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan cracked down on corruption.

It was his first challenge since the Afghan leader was declared the winner of an election deeply marred by charges of fraud and ballot-rigging.

“I am not prepared to put the lives of British men and women in harm’s way for a government that does not stand up against corruption,’’ he said.

Brown’s stark warning came as NATO allies in Brussels advised American officials on what policy President Obama should embrace in Afghanistan, where the eight-year campaign against Taliban insurgents has stalled, with rising casualties for Western forces.

European political and military leaders are anxiously waiting for Obama to decide whether to increase troops levels, as sought by the top US and NATO general in Afghanistan, or redefine the goals of the NATO-led mission.

Brown’s challenge to the Afghan government also reflects the pressure he faces as public support for the conflict wanes in light of deaths among the British forces, including the loss this week of seven more soldiers.

Still, he said the effort to defeat Taliban insurgents is vital to British security, leading some lawmakers to say his threat to Karzai could not be taken seriously because Britain had no viable option but to stay and fight, regardless of the Karzai government’s compromised position.

Conservative Party lawmaker Liam Fox, the party’s defense spokesman, said Brown could not really reduce Britain’s commitment if its own well-being is at stake.

“We must put pressure on the Karzai government to improve governance and tackle corruption, but if our mission in Afghanistan is a national security imperative, it can’t be conditional on the behavior of others,’’ he said.

He said it was not helpful for Britain’s position to be “confused by mixed messages or empty threats.’’

The apparent disarray reflected the deterioration of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan as the European community looks to Obama for a decision that seems to some to be slow in coming.

“I personally believe that we can’t have this delay for too much longer,’’ said Richard Kemp, a retired colonel who was British commander in Afghanistan.

He believes Obama will soon embrace the advice of General Stanley McChrystal and add 40,000 or more troops to the US contingent.

“I do not believe he has any option,’’ Kemp said.

Kemp also said Brown’s speech contained contradictions. He said the warnings to Karzai were made for the benefit of the British public, which is unhappy with the course of the war and the performance of the government.

“We won’t be able to withdraw, whether or not there is improvement,’’ he said. “The bottom line is to be in Afghanistan to counter terrorism, and to prevent Pakistan from falling into extremist hands. I don’t see we have a choice in that matter.’’

The Afghan leader has repeatedly promised to work to clean up his government. Corruption is deeply rooted in Afghanistan, a country awash in drug money, and where bribes are a part of everyday life.