KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- David Cameron has indicated that a substantial number of British troops in Afghanistan would be returning home in 2013 as he landed in the war-ravaged nation.
Cameron had planned to visit thousands of British troops spending Christmas in Afghanistan, but his plans were scuppered by one of the worst dust storms to hit the region in over a year.
The prime minister flew into Afghanistan on Tuesday morning on-board a military C-17 transport plane from RAF Brize Norton in his Oxfordshire constituency of Witney.
He had planned to fly direct from the UK into Camp Bastion, but severe weather at the giant British base forced his plane to divert at the last minute 100 miles south, to the city of Kandahar.
While unable to proceed with the trip as planned, Cameron did manage to meet with some British forces stationed at the Nato base in the region.
Dressed in a fleece and chinos he met and drank tea with Tornado crews from 12(b) Squadron from RAF Lossimouth in Scotland, who fly missions all over Afghanistan.
He acknowledged that his plan to make it to the British headquarters in Helmand province had been “slightly changed” by the dire conditions.
"It was disappointing not to get to Camp Bastion," Cameron told journalists on Tuesday afternoon. "But what I’ve been able to do is perhaps see the people I wouldn’t normally see."
The prime minister joked he did not think he was "particularly jinxed" having seen a series of foreign trips go awry. "I’m very fortunate to have these opportunities," he said.
“You just have to take it as it comes in this job. What I have experienced today is what people working here experience all the time.”
He added: "When the dust cloud descends there’s no point whinging about it."
Cameron’s whistle-stop tour has been billed as a ‘thank you’ to the troops and was timed to coincide with the first report on the government’s progress on implementing the military covenant.
Troops are being given an extra 1 hour 15 minutes 'talk time' to speak to heir families over the Christmas period, instead of their usual 30 minutes a week. The gesture is being funded jointly by the MoD and a private phone company.
"Christmas is a a difficult time for troops and this is something small we can do to help them keep in touch when it matters most," Cameron said.
He said he was keen to stress the positive things the coalition has done to “thank and reward” the armed forces, including exempting them from paying increased pension contributions and providing extra funding to schools who teach children of service personnel which he said he had personally intervened to make happen.
The government has also announced the creation of a new cabinet committee that will bring together ministers from across Whitehall to make sure servicemen are looked after in a co-ordinated way.
The visit comes as the Ministry of Defence has seen its budget squeezed by public spending cuts across Whitehall.
And a leaked document obtained by the Guardian yesterday revealed that the MoD may cull over 1,000 senior officers and civilians as part of cost cutting measures.
But a Downing Street spokesperson insisted today in Afghanistan that the military convenant was not designed to offset austerity measures that may have hit the military’s moral.
Britain currently has 9,500 armed forces personnel in Afghanistan, a number the government hopes to reduce by 500 by the end of 2012. Under current plans all UK combat troops will be out by the end of 2014.
“The British public deserve to know there is an end point and that end point is the end of 2014,” he said.
Officials have insisted that a final decision about how quickly the remaining British forces will withdraw is yet to be made but Cameron indicated today he would like to see a substantial number return home in 2013.
“I don't want to see some massive cliff edge in 2014; I don't think that's practical,” he said.
Some British forces will remain in Afghanistan after 2015 in order to assist with training, but the prime minister said today it would not be a “large number”.
Nato is hoping that Afghan National Security Forces will have a sufficient grip on the security situation by the end of 2014 to police the planned presidential election that is set to see Hamid Karzai retire.
Cameron had a "positive discussion" with Karzai during his quick visit. Karzai told the prime minister that he was "impressed with the work in Helmand".
They also discussed reconciliation with the Taliban and the importance of relations with Pakistan.
Cameron is expected to be back at his desk in Downing Street on Wednesday.
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