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28 Mar 2012 13:25
The UK is preparing to pull 1 500 troops out of Afghanistan next year before rapidly accelerating its withdrawal at the beginning of 2014.
Ministers are expected to endorse plans that stick closely to advice from British commanders in Helmand and from Nato headquarters in Kabul when they come before the National Security Council (NSC).
The strategy would leave the bulk of UK forces in place throughout most of next year, though there is also an option for a “fast-track” pull-out by the spring of 2014.
Pressure to speed up the withdrawal has intensified because of recent atrocities against Afghan civilians, which provoked protests across the country and left troops in Nato’s International Security and Assistance Force (Isaf) vulnerable to retribution from Afghan colleagues.
A Royal Marine and a soldier from the Adjutant’s General Corps were killed on Monday by a member of the Afghan security forces, raising further questions about the viability of the Nato mission.
But according to sources in Whitehall, ministers have been persuaded—so far—that a greater folly would be to leave Afghanistan before local forces are ready to take the lead in the fight against the Taliban.
Only 500 British troops will leave Afghanistan this year, leaving a total of 9 000 still in Helmand province at the start of next year.
Under current plans, the force will be reduced in size again in September 2013, bringing the total down to 7 500.
The military intends to speed up the withdrawal markedly after that, with planners drawing up two options.
The first—and preferred—scenario involves withdrawing another 6 000 troops before September 2014, leaving a rump of 1 500 in Afghanistan at the time of the formal handover to Afghan security forces at the end of the year.
Most of them would leave the country in early 2015.
A more radical option involves withdrawing all but 1 500 troops from Afghanistan by April 2014. In practice, this would mean the British brigade withdrawing from Afghanistan in the spring being replaced by a much smaller force.
“The option we take depends on the US,” said a Whitehall source.
“If the Americans increase the size and speed of their withdrawal then we may have to consider a much quicker exit in early 2014.”
During David Cameron’s recent visit to see the US president, Barack Obama, at the White House, both leaders spoke about transferring security responsibility to the Afghans during 2013.
Officials say this was misinterpreted as a signal that more troops would come back early, but that is not what the military wants.
“Even if more troops came home next year, we’d have to support the Afghans in different ways with more military advisors,” said one.
“If you ask Afghans to take the lead before they are ready, then you still need to support them, so the overall numbers of British personnel in the country might not change.
“Transferring the lead on security to the Afghans early gives something to the Afghans, the French, and the American audiences, but it won’t change much.”
Obama is due to speak at the Chicago summit on Afghanistan in May, six months before he seeks re-election.
“We expect Obama to keep something up his sleeve in May,” said a Nato commander.
“A lot will turn on what he says then, and what happens in November.
The defence ministry said no decisions would be taken until after the NSC had reviewed and rubberstamped the strategy.
“No decision has yet been taken about the drawdown of UK forces,” said a defence spokesperson. “As the prime minister has already stated, ‘ours will be a steady and measured drawdown leading up to 2014’.
“Both he and President Obama confirmed in Washington recently that our transition plan is on track, realistic and achievable.”
Last week Cameron told the Commons the UK would “not be in a combat role in Afghanistan after 2014, nor will we have anything like the number of troops that we have now”.
He added: “What I discussed with President Obama in America is making sure that in 2013, if there are opportunities to change the nature of the mission and be more in support rather than a direct combat role, then that’s something that I think everyone will want to see.”
Giving evidence to MPs on Monday, the new national security adviser, Sir Kim Darroch, said that “at some point in the middle of 2013 all the different provinces of Afghanistan will transition to Afghan lead”.
A poll in Tuesday’s New York Times reflects how support for the US effort in Afghanistan is dropping sharply. US soldiers have been responsible for burning the Qu’ran, and been filmed urinating on dead Afghans in recent weeks. A US staff sergeant, Robert Bales, shot 17 Afghan civilians earlier this month.
The poll of 1 000 showed 69% thought that the US should not be at war in Afghanistan, up 16 points from February.—
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