Britain stands firm as US wavers over Afghanistan withdrawal date
Nato seeks to impose conditions on an exit by 2015 but Downing Street considers the deadline to be totally realistic
Britain says it will stick to the 2014-15 deadline for ending combat operations in Afghanistan, despite apparent wavering from US defence and senior Nato officials over the date.
At a summit of Nato leaders in Lisbon to chart the exit strategy and a four-year transition to Afghan control of security, the UK government tonight stressed that 2015 was an unconditional deadline for an end to British combat operations.
“The British people want to see an end to our combat role,” said a Downing Street spokeswoman. “That would be 2015.”
The commitment by David Cameron was restated yesterday by his defence secretary, Liam Fox.
Asked whether UK troops would withdraw from combat by the end of 2014 “whatever happens”, Fox replied: “We certainly don’t want to be in a combat role.”
General Sir David Richards, the head of the armed forces, told the Commons defence committee this week the deadline was “very doable”, and the prime minister had not simply “plucked it from thin air”.
General Sir Nick Carter, just returned from Kabul, where he was deputy to General David Petraeus, US commander of Nato troops in Afghanistan, told the Commons committee the timetable for withdrawal from combat operations was “entirely reasonable”.
“If we can’t we should pull our fingers out … but we need to continue to plan for contingencies,” he said.
The end of 2014 deadline is a political imperative, British officials say. However, they also suggest it depends what exactly is meant by “combat”.
In Lisbon, senior Nato officials made plain that the plan being unveiled tomorrow for the exit strategy was “conditions-based”; that Afghan “towns, cities, districts and provinces” would not be turned over to the control of the Afghan army and police unless they were “irreversibly” ready. That raised the issue of the “conditions” possibly not being met by the end of 2014 and complicating any pullout.
Richards told the MPs British forces “will continue to be [engaged in] military operations in support of the Afghan army and police … They will continue to need much help.” He suggested there might be up to 1,000 British troops mentoring, training, and assisting Afghan forces.
British officials say this could include helicopters but also military support in the form of air strikes and special forces.
Fox said the government did not know how many troops would need to remain in the country in non-combat roles after 2015. Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether Britain would keep “large numbers” there, he replied: “Well, we may or may not, it will depend as we go through this as a coalition. That’s one of the things we will be discussing over the next two days, exactly how we see the shape of transition happening.”
The Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, described the pullout by 2014 as a “realistic” road map. “We hope that they will be able to take such lead responsibility all over Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But obviously this process must be conditions-based.”
Criteria for what conditions would be sufficient for a withdrawal of combat troops have changed – for example, lowering expectations about the state of Afghan governance – and could change again, say British officials.