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More bodies arrive home to Britain as leaders look for a way out of Afghanistan.
"I mean, the faster we can transition districts and provinces to Afghan control, clearly the faster that some forces can be brought home. I don't want to raise expectations about that because that transition should be based on how well the security situation is progressing," Cameron said. He added: "People in Britain should understand we're not going to be there in five years' time, in 2015, with combat troops or large numbers because I think it's important to give people an end date by which we won't be continuing in that way."
Across the road from where Steve Hubbell was looking after the bereaved, his comrades were a little more willing to allow politics into the days' solemnity, even if, as Andy Rathbone began, "We're not here for the politics."
He paused and then bit out: "Despite INCONTROVERTIBLE evidence they will be pulling out, the guys are doing their jobs to the best of their ability and making the ultimate sacrifice."
His buddy Andy Sleep added: "I never and will never follow politics. You know and I know the politicians get us embroiled in things we shouldn't be embroiled in. They should have gone a diplomatic route first."
Now the politicians are stuck trying to find a way out of the mess, but they have to be careful how they do it, according to Sleep, "otherwise 324 guys [current British death toll] have died for nothing."
At about the same time the crowd in Wootton Bassett was swelling to more than a thousand, in Kabul, Hague — the British Foreign Secretary — and Clinton were reaching an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to channel 50 percent of foreign aid through his government, up from the current 20 percent. They also, in the words of the final communique, expressed "support for the president of Afghanistan's objective that the Afghan national security forces should lead and conduct military operations in all provinces by the end of 2014."
Karzai said a review of the security situation in all 34 of Afghanistan's provinces would be undertaken and in some places Afghan security forces might take over as soon as next year. That seems to be fine with all the NATO nations who have troops around the country.
Hague told the BBC: "It's a very mixed picture and I don't want to be starry-eyed about it in any way, but there are many areas where things have improved."
Improved security = withdrawal. The task for Cameron and Hague and Obama and Clinton now shifts to creating a rationale for withdrawal that sells their own people the idea that their soldiers have not died in vain.
Around 2:20 p.m. the bell of St. Batholomew's church began tolling at a mournful rate. Big Steve Blundell made a final check on the grieving families, handing out tissues, whispering a quick word of encouragement. By 2:30 the silence was total. There wasn't even a breeze to flutter the ear drums.
An elderly voice called out to the octogenarian Royal British Legion color guard to present their flags, then dip them to the ground. Then a minute later, a quiet rumble of police motorcycles moving slowly, a police car and then, an undertaker in top hat and tails, holding a staff, led the four black hearses each containing a coffin past the crowd. The vehicles stopped and the various family groups placed flowers on cars. The only sound was the shuffling of footsteps to and from the vehicles and the strained attempts to choke back sobs. Men occasionally looked skyward hoping to let gravity roll the stinging salt back into their brimming eyes.
A very long minute of silence — more like four, one for each body — followed. Then the color sergeant barked out to the elderly guard of honor to stand down. The hearses resumed their journeys and the crowd moved on.