British Prime Minister Affirms Afghan Commitment : The Two-Way U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron talked about Afghanistan and BP, two subjects that will be big issues here, on his first trip to the U.S. as prime minister.

British Prime Minister Affirms Commitment To Afghanistan

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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Britain's new prime minister is meeting with President Obama at this hour at the White House. It's David Cameron's first visit to the U.S. since the election. High on the agenda: Afghanistan and the global economy. Later this afternoon, Mr. Cameron will be seeing leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill. Before any of that, though, I sat down with him at the ambassador's residence here in Washington, D.C.

Prime Minister Cameron, good morning.

Prime Minister DAVID CAMERON (United Kingdom): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Today - let's begin with Afghanistan. Today, foreign secretaries from the U.S., the U.K. and dozens of donor countries are meeting in Kabul. And this time they're meeting to map out, with President Karzai, precisely how the billions going to Afghanistan are going to make Afghanistan a better place: better governed, more secure. Your government this week announced a significant increase in aid to that country. What, at this point, gives you confidence that President Karzai is going to use it well?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, we'll make sure the money is used well. We'll be using it partly through the Afghan government, but also through non-governmental organizations, NGO's, as well, and making sure that the aid is going alongside the better governance and the better security that our troops are bringing. I mean, I think it's obviously very difficult in Afghanistan, but there are three good things happening. There's the surge of forces, particularly the U.S. forces coming into the south of the country. That's helping provide more security. There's the aid going in that's delivering some progress on the ground. And vitally - and President Obama and I will be talking about this this morning - there's the political track of trying to make sure that all of Afghanistan feels part of the politics of Afghanistan and the constitution of Afghanistan. That matters, too, because in the end, insurgencies are defeated by a combination of force of arms, but also political change, as well.

MONTAGNE: Insurgencies are also defeated by time - that is, lots of time has to be spent. Theories have it that years and years have to be spent in countries before insurgencies die down or are defeated. In Afghanistan today, at this conference, President Karzai said that Afghan forces would take charge of the country by 2014, which is precisely the date - just before your next election in Britain - precisely the date that you have said that the pullout of British fighting forces will be complete. The Afghan army is barely competent at this point, hardly a fighting machine. How realistic is that goal?

Mr. CAMERON: I think it is realistic. I mean, if you - there's a proper plan behind this that was drawn up by Stan McChrystal and now David Petraeus, where you can see how we're training the Afghan army month after month. And actually, it's on target at the moment, in terms of the numbers of troops that have been trained. And it is quite effective. Look, it's not perfect, by any manner of means. There's more that needs to be done. But remember 2014 is four years away, so there's quite a lot of time to train up that Afghan army.

And that, to me, is the most important thing, because in the end, we're not in Afghanistan to create the perfect democracy or the perfect society. We're there for a very simple national security reason about our security in the UK, your security here in the U.S., which is we do not want Afghanistan to be a haven for terrorist training groups, for al-Qaida, for extremism. So we need the Afghans to be able to take care of their own security. That's the key to coming home.

MONTAGNE: Would you find it, though - just briefly, what do you see as the endgame in Afghanistan? Would you find it acceptable for the Taliban to control parts of that country?

Mr. CAMERON: Success, for me, in Afghanistan is an Afghanistan which is able to control its own security, to keep it free from terrorist training camps and that has a basic level of stability. That's what success is about. We're not, as I say, going to create perfection. We need the Afghans to know, though, that we are there for the long term, whatever happens in terms of the politics of Afghanistan...

MONTAGNE: Or the fighting.

Mr. CAMERON: ...and the fighting. They need to know that Britain and America and the NATO countries will go on providing aid and support and help so that country doesn't slip back into the mess that it once was.

MONTAGNE: I'm speaking with British Minister David Cameron. Now, I gather you flew here on a commercial airliner, business class.

Mr. CAMERON: That's right. It was very comfortable

MONTAGNE: Good. Well - in keeping with the severe spending cuts outlined in your government's budget. Now, you've announced that nearly every government department will have to cut their budgets by 25 percent over the next few years. Mr. Cameron, Britain is not Greece. Why cuts that the Financial Times, among others, have called savage?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, this year, we're actually borrowing, as a percentage of our GDP, about the same level as the Greeks. Obviously, their level of overall debt is greater, but this year, that's how bad things were from the government that was voted out of office at the last general election.

MONTAGNE: Are you saying that Britain is in as much financial trouble as Greece?

Mr. CAMERON: No, of course not, because Greece has a larger pile of accumulated debt. But this year, this specific year, we're actually borrowing as much money as the Greeks are: around 11 percent of our GDP. That's the highest level of any country in the G-20. So we do have a problem, and we have to deal with it. And my government was elected, my party was elected, and we formed this coalition government, and we've set out how we're going to deal with that. And it does mean some steep cuts in public spending.

We have to do that - not because we want to, but because we want to safeguard the British economy and British society from the sort of problems that you do see in countries like Greece. And I think it's important for a country like ours - we're not a reserve currency. We're not the United States of America. We can't take our time with this. We have to get on with it and prove to the world and prove to ourselves that, actually, we can live within our means again.

And that's what we've started to do. We had a very successful budget that has set out how we're going to basically get rid of the budget - the structural budget deficit over the course of this parliament.

MONTAGNE: Although conventional economics would say that cuts as severe as these could be counterproductive. It could actually hurt the British economy, send it back into recession. That has repercussions for the U.S. economy. President Obama himself has urged the stronger European countries to go slow on their spending cuts. When you see him today, are you - when you talk about this, are the two of you going to see this very differently?

Mr. CAMERON: No. We see it in the same way, which is that every country has to deal with this budget deficit, but obviously, the time at which we do it can vary. And that's what the IMF agreed at the G-20 meetings, that this needs to be done, but different countries should do it at the right pace for themselves. We have an independent budget office now, independent of government, and it has set out its forecast for growth, following our very tough budget. And it says the economy is going to grow every year, and unemployment is going to fall each year.

So we think that what we're doing is actually the right thing. And it will enable us to keep monetary policy, to keep interest rates low, because I think that's what's needed right now, is to have fiscal policy where we get on top of the deficits, but keep interest rates and monetary policy loose to help growth.

MONTAGNE: On to another subject. BP has been much in the news, of course, but not just because of the Gulf oil spill these last few days, but also because of renewed outrage over BP's alleged connection to the release of the Lockerbie bomber from a Scottish prison, that intelligence agent Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was released based on claims he was dying. Eleven months later, he's still alive. Now a Senate committee is looking into the possibility that his release was in part to help BP land an oil deal with Libya. I mean, granted, you were in the opposition at the time the decision to release him was made, but still, what are you going to tell senators today - and we just have a brief few minutes - today when you meet them?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, what I'll say to them is that I agree that the decision to release al-Megrahi was wrong. I said it was wrong at the time. I think it was the Scottish government that took that decision. They took it after proper processes, and what they saw as the right, compassionate reasons. I just happened to think it was profoundly misguided. This was the biggest - he was convicted of the biggest mass murder in British history, and in my view, he should've died in jail. I said that very, very clearly at the time.


Mr. CAMERON: That's my view today. And I don't think - look. Of course BP has got to do everything necessary to cap the oil well, to cleanup the spill, to pay compensation. I've met with BP. I know they want to do that, and they will do that. But it's actually, you know - let's be clear about who released al-Megrahi. It was a government decision in the U.K. It was a wrong decision. It wasn't the decision of BP. It was the decision of Scottish ministers.

MONTAGNE: British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking to us from the British Embassy. Thank you very much.

Mr. CAMERON: Pleasure.

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