UK Politics

Cameron and Karzai: Why it's different

Hamid Karzai and David Cameron
Image caption Hamid Karzai was the first foreign leader invited to meet the new PM

Let me tell you the story of David Cameron and President Karzai's pigeon.

The Afghan leader had clearly been tickled by his recent visit to Chequers and wanted to repay the favour.

So on Thursday the prime minister was given the full tour of the presidential palace in Kabul.

And amid the faded grandeur and unkempt masonry was perhaps the most secure nest in all Afghanistan where lay the president's pigeon and its young just outside his office window.

I tell you this not to reveal the president's secret hinterland as a pigeon fancier but to illustrate what it tells us about the prime minister.

Not only is he charming President Karzai in a way his predecessor did not, but he is also investing in him in particular and Afghanistan in general.

Britain's security

Karzai was the first foreign leader to be invited to meet the new prime minister.

There have been half day meetings on Afghanistan, a new security council set up, ministers dispatched to visit, and now Mr Cameron himself is here.

All before his first month in office is up.

And yet, why? The basic policy is clearly not going to change.

Mr Cameron makes clear that Britain will continue to support the US-led troop surge.

British servicemen and women will continue to fight - and sadly die - trying to protect Afghan civilians from the insurgency.

No, David Cameron is not changing the policy but he is changing the approach.

In the short term, he wants to be more honest with the public, explain more clearly why British troops are here - not to build a nation but to protect Britain's national security.

Further and faster

He clearly feels the previous administration came rather late to Afghanistan and paid a price for it, whether in rows over kit or the loss of public support.

But, in the longer term, he wants to prepare for a time when Britain is not at war in this part of the world.

I have been coming to Afghanistan with British prime ministers for several years now and Mr Cameron is the first who will willingly contemplate the future without tying himself in chronological, semantic knots about avoiding arbitrary timetables.

British troops, he says, should not be here any longer than they have to be.

They will be off the moment the Afghans can run their security.

He talks of the relationship Britain should have with Afghanistan once the troops are gone.

The truth, of course, is that our role and presence here will be determined by what the Americans do as much as the Afghans.

But the insight is that David Cameron is trying to force the pace. In his own words, to go further and faster.

He is the third British prime minister to confront this conflict in Afghanistan.

And he is clearly determined to be the last.