RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Republican candidates have expressed concern at times about the war in Afghanistan. President Obama sent a surge of tens of thousands of troops in an effort to stabilize that country. This week, the war effort is under strain once again.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made a surprise visit to Afghanistan. He's working to repair relations after the killing of 16 Afghan civilians by an American soldier. Panetta tells reporters he sees no reason for a change in strategy. That is also the message from Britain, which behind the U.S. is the foreign power with the most troops in Afghanistan.
Britain's prime minister is visiting the U.S. this week, and the new British ambassador, Sir Peter Westmacott, tells us it's important to see the Afghan mission through.
PETER WESTMACOTT: We stick to the plan. We think the plan does makes sense. Of course, it's not going to be an indefinite commitment. We've got the plan that was set out at the NATO summit in Lisbon and of course that's going to be reviewed in Chicago just in May.
But we are all, I think, on the same page, which is that we are busy standing up an Afghan state and Afghan security forces, gradually handing over the control for those operations, particularly for the short - the provision of security of the Afghan people with a view to us all leaving by the end of 2014.
But with a continuing, I would say, training and support role, which would have to pay for. Thereafter we don't want to cut and run and just leave Afghanistan entirely on its own, because of the risk then is that we end up back where we started and with the risk that Afghanistan once again becomes a breeding ground for terrorism, and that is absolutely not in our interest.
INSKEEP: Have there been discussions in your government as there have been in the United States government about the timing of the withdrawal, whether that might be accelerated a little bit?
WESTMACOTT: Well, the plan at the moment is that we will be leaving together, not every single soldier, but the end of 2014. I think the actual numbers depend on what we do in the change of the mission over the next year or so. There will be a progressive handover of the lead role for combat operations to the Afghan army, the Afghan police force, which we are busy training up.
We all know that by the end this year, the plan for the United States, for example, is to end the surge and you'll be back at around 68,000 troops. We are around 10,000 at the moment. I think that the actual numbers and the speed of the pace, the timetable for that withdrawal, must be defined by the mission, which is going to be clarified at the NATO summit in Chicago in May.
INSKEEP: Well, that's one of the reasons I asked about the timing of this. Incidents like this bring to mind that there's always a risk, particularly if you're fighting a counter-insurgency, in having troops among the civilian population. Things can happen no matter how well trained the troops overall may be. Is the size of the troop presence that you have right now proving to be counterproductive in some ways?
WESTMACOTT: That's not the view that we have. In fact, in Helmand, where we have taken a lot of hits, in terms of casualties proportionate to the size of our contribution, the British, I'm afraid, have taken more hits than anybody else. But what we did find was in Helmand that the risk to our soldiers and the number of casualties were taking significantly declined after the U.S. Marines came in as part of the surge.
So our conclusion is if you're going to do the job there, and if you're going to protect your soldiers, as is your duty, you need to have sufficient numbers to do the job properly.
INSKEEP: Ambassador, let me ask about Iran. As you know very well, the United States and Israel have had meetings on the subject of what to do about Iran. Israelis have spoken fairly openly about the possibility of a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. How often does your boss, Prime Minister Cameron, communicate with President Obama or with members of the United States government on this issue about what to do with Iran?
WESTMACOTT: The president and the prime minister probably talk, I would say, on average, every two or three weeks. They talk about the big issues which are confronting us; it might be the future of the eurozone and European Union's finances. It might be Afghanistan. It might be Pakistan. It might be Iran. It might be Syria. You know, whatever is, frankly, on the international agenda and where Britain and United States are implicated, where we feel that we can make a difference.
So there's a regular dialogue which continues on that subject.
INSKEEP: Is it the right time, or near the right time, to consider military action?
WESTMACOTT: We do not think so. We are ready to pursue engagement with them if they want to engage seriously, which they haven't done recently. And in the meantime, we are buttressing that offer with increasingly tough sanctions, which are now addressing the financial system, the core of their financial architecture, if you like, the central bank (unintelligible) exports, and a variety of other things, including travel privileges for Iranian citizens.
INSKEEP: I ask this knowing that your prime minister co-authored an article with President Obama stating that the special relationship between Britain and the United States is excellent, so it'd be difficult for me to ask you to contradict that. But is there any subject on which there is even a little daylight between these two nations at the moment when it comes to the major issues we've just discussed?
WESTMACOTT: To be honest, I don't see any issues on which we have got any significant differences. There is perhaps a different perspective on some parts of the world. For example, when you look at Pakistan, millions of families in Britain have got links to Pakistan, and much of the home grown terrorist threat that we have had in Britain has actually, unfortunately, had links directly back into Pakistan.
This means that the stability and the security of Pakistan, in itself, is a very top priority for the United Kingdom, whereas sometimes for other countries, perhaps the United States, Pakistan is sometimes seen a little bit more through the prism of what's going on in Afghanistan and a broader, different kind of threat to national security. But I would say that on all the - the Arab Spring response, on Syria, on Afghanistan, Pakistan, on the strategy to be followed with Iran, the approaches of the United States and the United Kingdom are in fact identical.
INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks very much.
WESTMACOTT: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Sir Peter Westmacott is the new British Ambassador to the United States. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.