Barack Obama and David Cameron say no early exit from Afghanistan
On a day that saw more ceremony than substance, the leaders of the United States and Britain were on the defensive at a White House press conference yesterday, conceding that the mission in Afghanistan would not yield a perfect democracy and that military action in Syria was unlikely.
Even as Barack Obama and David Cameron attempted to deflect pressure for an accelerated withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan after new atrocities — including the alleged shooting by a US serviceman of 16 civilians — they were barely abreast of unfolding news of a possible failed car bombing at Camp Bastion adjacent to a runway moments after the US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, had landed there.
The Prime Minster referenced the Camp Bastion attack saying that the UK would take whatever new steps might be necessary to ensure security for all military and civilian personnel on the ground in Afghanistan.
He and Mr Obama meanwhile sought to emphasise existing plans to begin shifting security responsibility to the Afghan forces starting in the middle of 2013, ending the combat role soon after, and terminating the mission by the end of 2014. But there was no hint that they would countenance a shortening of that timetable.
“We're going to complete this mission and we're going to do it responsibly,” the US President said during the 40-minute press conference, adding he was committed to the phased withdrawal timetable agreed at a Nato summit in Lisbon 15 months ago.
The three-day visit by Mr Cameron continues this morning with a visit to Ground Zero in New York. Last night, the Prime Minister and his wife were guests at a lavish dinner on the White House grounds of a scale normally reserved for heads of state.
Agreeing that Afghanistan will not be “perfect” when the mission ends in 2014, Mr Cameron insisted that great progress had been made. “If you compare where we are today to where we have been two to three years ago, the situation is considerably improved,” he said.
Both emphasised the need for “transition” in Syria to avoid outright civil war, with the departure of President Bashar al-Assad as a crucial first step. “The first way to end the killing is for Assad to go,” Mr Cameron said, adding that Britain and the US were looking at ways to ensure a “robust” delivery of humanitarian aid to the country.
Pressed to say what possible military steps were under consideration, both men declined. Mr Obama conceded that “our natural instinct is to act” but then contrasted Libya, where intervention was ordered, with Syria, inferring that it was more complicated.
On Iran, Mr Obama urged Tehran to take the opportunity of new six-party talks on its alleged nuclear weapons programme to resolve a dispute that has brought crippling sanctions on its economy.
“We've got to have somebody on the other side of the table who's taking this seriously,” Mr Obama said. “The window for solving this issue diplomatically is shrinking.”
Mr Cameron is also reported to have raised extradition arrangements between the two countries, after a series of high-profile cases including that of British citizen Christopher Tappin, a retired businessman who was extradited to the US last month for allegedly selling parts for weapons to Iran.