David Cameron's careful words on Afghan end game

David Cameron with UK troops in Afghanistan
Image caption Mr Cameron said Afghanistan was his "number one priority"

On his first visit to Afghanistan since becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron described 2010 as the vital year for showing progress in the country.

He hinted at an end game - and at a time when UK troops can leave the country - but at the same time, tried to reassure Britain's US allies, and the Afghans, of his commitment to the mission.

The problem is that the facts on the ground in Helmand and elsewhere still make for grim reading.

This month alone, 29 Nato troops have been killed, while Afghan civilians continue to die.

Earlier this week, a Taliban suicide bomb ripped through a wedding party, killing up to 40 people and wounding dozens more.

Last year, the UN recorded nearly 2,500 civilian deaths as a result of the war, making 2009 the bloodiest year since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

In the UK, opinion polls suggest that a majority want British troops to come home within a year, putting pressure on politicians and commanders to make progress faster.

And, increasingly, questions are being asked back home about whether being in Afghanistan really is vital to the UK's national security, as David Cameron reiterated today, or whether the fighting there serves more as a recruiting sergeant to radicalise others.

Wrong message

The messages coming from the new government are finely balanced.

Mr Cameron and his cabinet ministers are treading a difficult path between trying to reassure the public that British forces will not be fighting in Afghanistan forever, and seeking to show the US that the UK remains a reliable ally.

Some within the British army worry that political will in the West is fast running out, with the wrong message being sent to the Taliban about the coalition's staying power.

These fears exist despite the Nato campaign becoming more focussed and acquiring more of the resources it needs, with 98,000 US troops due to be in Afghanistan by the end of August.

Many in the British army see making progress in Helmand - and staying the course - as vital for their reputation after Iraq.

Mr Cameron will be all too aware that however keen the public and many MPs are to bring the troops home as soon as possible, the timetable is likely to be set by the US.

Much will also depend on the situation on the ground.

Political progress

The US Nato commander, Gen Stanley McChrystal, emphasised in an interview with the BBC on Thursday, that counter-insurgency takes time, and in his view, it must not be about doing the job faster, but about getting it right.

But he and others know the clock is ticking and the pressure is on for him to produce results.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, too, is under increasing pressure to show progress on the political front, and to deal with corruption and deliver better governance.

It is, though, increasingly clear that the public's patience is wearing thin in many quarters, and already the Canadians and the Dutch have set an exit date for their combat troops.

Washington may well be wondering if the UK might wish to be next.