Gen. David Petraeus warned Wednesday that the effort to quash the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan would fail without British support, making his case to U.K. leaders facing painful choices over what kind of military commitments the country can afford.
Addressing an audience of officers and diplomats in London ahead of a major U.K. strategic defense review, the head of the U.S. Central Command said that he needed Britain's help to beat the Taliban.
"As was the case in Iraq, the scale of the British contribution in Afghanistan is such that the coalition cannot succeed without you," he said.
The U.K. currently has some 10,000 soldiers in the NATO-led mission fighting in Afghanistan, and it is the second-largest foreign contingent after the United States. But public support for the war is uneven and Britain also faces a yawning budget deficit the country's newly elected leaders must tackle.
U.S. leaders have been eager to get assurances that Britain is still in for the long haul in Afghanistan following the installation of a coalition government that marries Prime Minister David Cameron's right-leaning Conservatives with the dovish Liberal Democrats — the only major party to oppose Britain's involvement in Iraq.
Petraeus's visit to London — which also took him to No. 10 Downing Street to meet with Cameron — follows that of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who received assurances that the U.K. remained committed to its central role in the Afghan war.
But British Defense Secretary Liam Fox has said that his government has inherited an economic "train wreck" and that the military needs to come to "a realistic assessment of how much can we reasonably afford given the threat that the country faces."
Petraeus acknowledged Wednesday that Britain was facing tough choices about where to deploy its resources, but said that the trans-Atlantic allies faced many of the same threats in the region and would probably have to remain there for some time to come.
He also leavened his speech with a heavy dose of charm, joking with the audience about the forthcoming U.S. versus England World Cup soccer game in South Africa and repeatedly praising the British military, British valor, British humor, and even British weather.
The four-star general said that the U.K. was his country's "most trusted and important coalition partner" and said relations between the two were as close as any time since World War II. He also said U.S. forces felt privileged to serve alongside their British counterparts and boasted of a "an inherent and abiding trust between those who wear my country's uniform and those who serve in Her Majesty's Armed Forces."
But British Gen. Peter Wall, who spoke ahead of Petraeus, seemed more reserved.
The commander in chief of British land forces said that while the U.K.'s commitment to the NATO alliance was without doubt its most important, he said "it's not the only show in town."
And a frosty note was sounded when Wall quoted 19th century Prime Minister Lord Palmerston's dictum that Britain had no permanent allies — only permanent interests.
Britain is preparing for a major review of its military that will lay out the armed forces' new priorities as they recover from an unpopular war in Iraq and continue a deadly slog in southern Afghanistan. Some 294 British military personnel have lost their lives there since 2001, including a soldier who was killed Wednesday morning when he was caught in an explosion in the Nahr-e Saraj District of Helmand Province.
Petraeus was speaking at an event organized by the Royal United Services Institute, a leading military think tank.
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