David Cameron dodged a Taliban death plot tonight after intelligence officers uncovered plans to assassinate the Prime Minister.
Mr Cameron’s first trip to Afghanistan as Prime Minister was thrown into disarray as a visit to a forward base was aborted to thwart an insurgent bid to shoot down his helicopter.
Military spies intercepted two Taliban phone calls in quick succession near to the Shahzad patrol base that Mr Cameron was due to visit.
The first featured a discussion about plans to shoot down a helicopter – using shoulder launched missiles. British military sources said that such calls are a regular occurrence in lawless Helmand province.
But military commanders pulled the plug when they overheard a second Taliban call discussing the presence of a VIP in the area.
Mr Cameron was in the air in a Chinook transport helicopter when the decision was taken by the commander on the ground, Brigadier Richard Felton, to abort the mission.
The Prime Minister was less than 10 minutes flying time from the area where the Taliban forces were apparently lying in wait.
A senior government source said: ‘There was a first phonecall which talked about a rocket attack on a helicopter. That is fairly common occurrence. That wouldn’t have put the trip off on its own.
‘But the second phone call was really quite close to where the helicopter was landing. That made them a lot more wary.
‘They picked up a second communication that they knew a VIP was in the area, so the brigadier, who was already at the forward base, took the view that we should divert.’
The Prime Minister’s helicopter was diverted to the nearby British brigade headquarters in the centre of the town of Lashkar Gah, where he first learned of the threats to his life.
The government source said: ‘David knew nothing about it until we landed at Lashkar Gah.’
Military officials sought to downplay the incident, pointing out that the flight might not have been diverted were it not Mr Cameron aboard. But they were on edge after the loss of an American helicopter earlier in the week.
‘The call was very close to the base where he was going,’ said one military official. ‘We make these security assessments all the time. The second call was enough to justify not sending someone like the Prime Minister into that situation.’
The Prime Minister was said to be unmoved by the assassination threat.
At Lashkar Gah, he met troops for a barbecue. An apparently unconcerned Mr Cameron wolfed down a hamburger with ketchup and a side salad.
One aide said the incident had brought home to the Prime Minister the dangers faced by British troops– 294 of whom have died in the current conflict.
Earlier in the day Mr Cameron signalled a ‘faster’ withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan yesterday admitting that the public will not tolerate them staying ‘a day longer than is necessary’.
On his first trip to the frontline as Prime Minister, Mr Cameron said 2010 is ‘the vital year’ for the war against the Taliban and talked repeatedly about bringing an end to the British deployment.
Mr Cameron also announced £67 million of new funding to counter the Taliban’s improvised explosive devices that have driven the British death toll to 294.
But he explicitly ruled out sending any further British reinforcement to fuel the American-led surge, saying: ‘The issue of more troops is not remotely on the UK agenda.’
Arriving during the deadliest week for Nato forces for two years – with 20 Nato troops killed in action – Mr Cameron signaled a clear break from the Labour government’s emphasis on nation building in Afghanistan.
The Prime Minister said all future decisions would be decided by ‘placing a much higher priority on Britain’s national security’.
But the starkest break with his predecessors came over the prospect of a total withdrawal.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said U.S. forces will start to drawn down from the surge next summer.
But Mr Cameron said the review his government is conducting into British strategy is looking to move more quickly.
At a press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, Mr Cameron ‘We should all the time be asking: can we go further, can we go faster?
He added: ‘Obviously no one wants British troops to stay in Afghanistan for a day longer than is necessary. The president doesn’t, the Afghan people don’t, the British people don’t.
‘We want, in our own national security interest, to hand power over to an Afghanistan that is able to take control of its own national security.’