British PM pledges vehicles to battle Afghan bombs

KABUL: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised British troops 200 new patrol vehicles that can resist roadside bombs more effectively during an unannounced visit Saturday to southern Afghanistan.

Brown made the trip to Camp Bastion in Helmand province to thank some of the 4,000 British soldiers who are involved in a 3-week-old NATO offensive to wrest control of the Taliban haven of Marjah from the insurgents.

"We will do everything we can to support you with the equipment necessary and the resources you need," he told the troops, according to the British Press Association.

Brown, who faces a difficult election campaign in the coming months, has been criticized by the British press and by some opposition politicians for failing to provide enough protection for soldiers in Afghanistan.

Critics have cited a shortage of helicopters — forcing soldiers to use dangerous roads — and the lack of strongly armored vehicles as factors that have left troops vulnerable to improvised explosive devices.

His visit came as Britain's military said two of its soldiers died in Helmand. One soldier from the 3 Rifles unit was fatally wounded from an explosion on a foot patrol Friday, and the other was hit by small arms fire Saturday while on an operation against insurgents.

More than 265 British soldiers have died since the war began in 2001, with many perishing during roadside explosions as bombs used by insurgents have become more effective.

Brown's remarks Saturday focused on the battle against improvised explosive devices and the need to bolster training of the Afghan police force.

British officials will be announcing a $151 million investment in new British-built vehicles to replace Snatch Land Rovers, blamed by troops for many of the deaths caused by roadside bombs. The new vehicles, which should arrive in Afghanistan by late 2011, have better armor and more maneuverability.

Another $27 million will be spent on metal detectors and training for Afghan forces to help them combat the roadside bombs. Britain also is sending 150 new police and army trainers to help train Afghan police.

Brown toured a police training center in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, where he saw 150 recruits who will be graduating this coming week.

He also visited enemy bases seized by international and Afghan troops during their massive offensive involving a total of 15,000 allied and Afghan forces. Four British soldiers were among the 15 NATO troops killed during the campaign in Marjah.

The Marjah offensive is the largest combined allied operation of the war. The goal is for international and Afghan forces to secure the area to allow a credible, effective Afghan government to take root.

On Saturday, however, news broke that the man chosen to be the area's new civilian chief has a violent criminal record in Germany. Western officials said they are not pushing to oust him.

Court records and news reports in Germany showed that Abdul Zahir, the man appointed as Marjah's new civilian chief, served part of a more than four-year prison sentence for stabbing his son in 1998. Zahir denied he committed any crime.

Violence in Afghanistan has spiraled in the last year, as the Taliban's hard-line Islamist fighters have reasserted their presence in much of the country they ruled for five years before being ousted in 2001 in a U.S.-led invasion.

In eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban attacked the convoy of a member of the Afghan parliament on Saturday, but she escaped injury.

Fauzia Khofi, who represents the far northern province of Badakhshan, said insurgents fired on her seven-vehicle convoy with rocket-propelled grenades as it was traveling east of Kabul, the capital.

Militants have also increasingly been targeting Kabul. On Feb. 26, a car bomb detonated and gunmen in suicide vests then stormed two residential hotels. A total of 17 people were killed.

India's visiting national security adviser vowed Saturday that his country would continue all its aid programs in Afghanistan despite the attacks, which killed seven Indian citizens. The seventh Indian victim died Thursday of his wounds.

National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon said his meetings with President Hamid Karzai and other officials reassured him that proposed new security measures could protect the 3,500-strong Indian community in Afghanistan.

He declined to comment on an Afghan official's accusation that Pakistan-based militia Lashkar-e-Taiba was responsible for the assaults. Lashkar-e-Taiba is the same group India has blamed for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that killed 166 people.

The Afghan Taliban have also claimed they carried out the Feb. 26 attacks.

Taliban attacks on schools are also preventing hundreds of thousands of children from getting an education, President Hamid Karzai said Saturday.

Karzai said that 5 million children, or 42 percent of the school-age children in Afghanistan, are not in school. Poverty and fear of Taliban attacks are the main obstacles. Karzai said that a total of 442 schools are closed because of insecurity, denying 200,000 children and education.

"This is not acceptable for a nation," he said at a ceremony with the minister of education.

Still, educational opportunities have improved.

During the Taliban rule, when the movement's strict interpretation of Islam banned girls from education. Then, only about 1 million children — all male — went to school, the education minister said. Now, children in school total 7 million, 37 percent of them girls.