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Britain's Blair Visits the Troops in Afghanistan


British Prime Minister Tony Blair is in Afghanistan today. He's met with some of the 5,000 British troops stationed there, and he's to talk with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

This is a difficult time for Britain's involvement in Afghanistan. It's had dozens of soldiers killed fighting the resurgent Taliban since the summer. Talking to the troops, Blair stressed the importance of the Afghanistan mission.


Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Great Britain): Here, in this extraordinary piece of desert, is where the future in the early 21st century, the world's security is going to be played out. And you're the people that are doing the difficult work.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ivan Watson joins us now from Kabul. And Ivan, this visit was long planned, but typically kept secret, and it's prime minister's first visit to Afghanistan since 2001.

IVAN WATSON: Yeah. He seems to be trying to bolster support domestically for what has become a very bloody British troop deployment in a very turbulent drug-producing province of Southern Afghanistan. More than 30 British soldiers killed since this summer there.

And he also brought a message that his government would recommit itself and try to recommit the international community to Afghanistan. There's a persistent fear among Afghans that the world is going to abandon this country that happened after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan after the Soviet occupation. And those fears have grown this year especially, in the most violent year yet of the Taliban insurgency.

MONTAGNE: And after all this fighting, how much of a threat are the Taliban would you say now?


WATSON: Renee, there was a report just issued by a joint Afghan international agency here that estimated more than 600 attacks a month around the country, around 4,000 people killed in the fighting this year alone, the overwhelming majority of those dead being Afghans.

And many of the advances that have been made in the first years since the Taliban was overthrown, such as building schools and building highways, they're being reversed by this fighting. The new highway south to Kandahar has become so dangerous that most foreigners and government officials won't drive it because the Taliban openly operates on stretches of that highway and attacks government convoys.

And the Taliban's also been burning hundreds of schools in the countryside, assassinating government officials. Southern and Eastern Afghanistan are a no-go zones now. And the Taliban's even been distributing threatening propaganda DVDs in neighborhoods just three miles from the palace of Hamid Karzai.

MONTAGNE: Okay, so it's been five years since the overthrow of the Taliban government. What are you hearing, Ivan, from ordinary Afghans about the international involvement in their country, and also about President Hamid Karzai?

WATSON: Renee, I really think there was a honeymoon for several years. The Afghans were so sick of war and so desperate for help, but that honeymoon is over. There's a lot of disappointment at the slow rate of reconstruction and fear at how bad the security situation has gotten.

Just today I was at a mosque that's being built in downtown Kabul, and the construction workers said that the Afghan businessman who's funding the project, he says it's too dangerous to stay in Kabul right now.

Also, Afghan politicians are warning that the foreign troops are not as loved as they once were, in part because they're relying so heavily on air strikes to fight the Taliban. There's far more bombing and strafing going on from helicopters and warplanes here than in Iraq on any given day. And inevitably civilians are being killed and maimed in these attacks.

A final issue is the issue of corruption in the Afghan government, which we didn't really hear about from Tony Blair. That is one of the biggest complaints I hear from Afghans. They say the government of Hamid Karzai is as much a part of the problem as the Taliban is.

MONTAGNE: Thank you, Ivan.

NPR's Ivan Watson in Kabul, where British Prime Minister Tony Blair is visiting today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.