NATO forces in Afghanistan have set themselves a six-month deadline to establish a clear advantage over Taliban insurgents, their commander said in an interview.
Lieutenant General David Richards, the British general in charge of the international force in the war-shattered country, said they had to prove that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration had the upper hand in the battle against supporters of the deposed Taliban regime.
'DREADFUL AND SHOCKING NEWS'
A Chinook helicopter flies overhead as British soldiers patrol Afghanistan's Helmand province in May 2006. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has revealed that 14 British armed personnel died when their aircraft flying a NATO mission crashed in Afghanistan. (AFP/File/John D McHugh)
"We have to show in the next six months that the government is on the winning side," Richards told Britain's Financial Times business daily in an interview published on Saturday.
His comments highlight the growing concern that Afghan and international officials needed to do more to win popular support in the lawless south of the country.
Taliban fighters have been waging an increasingly sophisticated insurgency since being driven from government in late 2001 in a US-led military operation.
"Over the past five years there has never been a united agenda," Jawed Ludin, Karzai's chief of staff, told the FT.
He said Karzai had established a high-level multi-national Policy Action Group focused on tackling the insurgency in a more co-ordinated fashion.
He said the group included Karzai, Afghan ministers, NATO and US military commanders and the ambassadors of Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, countries which have all contributed troops in the troubled four southern provinces.
"It has been understood that the situation in the south calls for a much more coherent policy to win hearts and minds," said Mohammed Hanif Atmar, the Afghan minister of education.
He heads a working group on reconstruction in the south which is part of Karzai's initiative.
"Afghanistan has had two administrations: one that the government of Afghanistan has established and another that the international community has set up. We are trying to make them work together."
Fourteen British armed personnel have died when their aircraft flying a NATO mission crashed in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has revealed.
Twelve were from the Royal Air Force, one was a Royal Marine and the last was a British army soldier, an MoD spokesman said Saturday.
On Friday, a British soldier was killed in southern Afghanistan, the latest victim of fighting between NATO and Taliban insurgents.
In a statement, Britain's Defence Secretary Des Browne said: "This is dreadful and shocking news.
"I know that the people of Britain will join me in sending our deep condolences to the loved ones of those who have lost their lives, and to the British military as it deals with the loss of friends and comrades."
The latest deaths -- the greatest loss of British life in Afghanistan in a single incident -- come just a day after a Fijian British Army soldier died fighting Taliban militants in the volatile Helmand province on Friday.
The crash brings the number of British armed forces personnel killed in Afghanistan since the start of operations against Afghanistan's hardline former rulers in 2001 to 36.
Fifteen of those deaths have been in combat. Six soldiers were killed last month alone.
The Ministry of Defence in London immediately set up a special incident line for concerned family members. Browne stressed it was "not the time for speculation" and work was ongoing to secure the crash site.
"Everyone will understand that our first priority is to inform and support the families of those on board," he added.
"I can say, however, at this stage all the indications are that this was a terrible accident and not the result of hostile action.
"This tragic incident should serve to remind us all of the risks the British military shoulder on all our behalf across the world every day."
Britain has nearly 4,000 troops in Helmand as part of a NATO-led force working to bring security to the restive southern province.
Saturday's crash comes after a Dutch F16 fighter jet went down Thursday on its way to southern Afghanistan, killing the Dutch pilot.
The cause of that crash was also said to be an accident.
Ten British armed forces personnel were killed in Iraq in January 2005 when their C130 transport plane was shot down by enemy fire on a flight out of the capital Baghdad..
Copyright © 2006 AFP