As a row between Britain and Pakistan threatens to erupt over the war in Afghanistan, Joe Willis talks to the Armed Forces Minister about the spat and the progress of troops from the region fighting the Taliban.

IT’S no surprise Nick Harvey fails to see eye to eye with Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari over the success of the war in Afghanistan.

“I think he is wrong about this,” says the minister, when asked about the president’s claim that the international community is losing the fight against the Taliban.

Despite his country suffering its worst floods for generations, Mr Zardari arrived in Britain on Wednesday to meet the Prime Minister and, apparently, launch the political career of his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, a student at Oxford University.

Mr Harvey, promoted to the Cabinet position after being the Liberal Democrat’s defence spokesman, said Pakistan had played its part in the war, providing vital supply routes and holding the Taliban at bay on the Pakistan- Afghan border.

But he added that some “frank talking” would take place with Mr Zardari over the comments.

“I think both sides will be keen to get on to a normal a footing as quickly as we can, given the huge challenges the Pakistanis have got with the floods,” he said.

“They won’t want to be in a war of words with the UK and nor do we.”

Mr Harvey said that far from losing the war, the work by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) meant that in the past two years the Afghan government had gone from controlling six of the 14 districts in Helmand to holding 11.

“We are making progress,” he said. “Of course it’s slow because it’s heavy work.

“But you can see that in the course of two years significant progress has been made – and that’s in Helmand, which by anybody’s reckoning is probably the toughest part of the battle in Afghanistan.”

This week, troops from 4 Mechanised Brigade, based at Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire, took and held the Taliban’s last stronghold in an area of southern Afghanistan.

Mr Harvey, who met members of the brigade when visiting the country in June, said the soldiers were coping well.

“They’re really carrying the battle to the Taliban in difficult terrain and they’re doing it with great professionalism and a very perceptible esprit de corps.”

The minister said Britain was now working towards a transition process to hand control over to the Afghan national security forces.

When a Northern Echo reporter was imbedded with 3 Rifles in Afghanistan last year, a number of troops expressed doubt about the capabilities – and mistrust of the motives – of the Afghan forces.

But Mr Harvey said: “British officers are now saying they are increasingly impressed by the ability of the Afghan National Army to plan and execute operations with less and less support.

“We expect to be alongside them for a few more years yet and they are building up their capacity and capabilities all the time.”