Britain will slash its military force in Afghanistan next year, withdrawing nearly 4,000 troops as local security forces become increasingly capable, Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday.
Cameron told parliament that the current force of 9,000 British troops would be reduced to 5,200 by the end of 2013 and that most of the rest would leave the following year.
Britain, the United States and other NATO nations in Afghanistan are due to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 when they will hand over responsibility for security to Afghan forces.
But the government has faced pressure at home to speed up the withdrawal from Afghanistan following a series of “insider attacks”, in which Afghans in army uniform have attacked British and other foreign soldiers.
Cameron said the withdrawal was possible “because of the success of our forces and the Afghan National Security Forces”, and the mentoring arrangements between them.
“We’ll be able to see troops come home in two relatively even steps in 2013, 2014, leaving probably around 5,200 troops after the end of 2013 compared with the 9,000 that we have now,” Cameron told parliament.
Cameron said there was no final decision on how many British troops would stay in Afghanistan after 2014 but added that Britain would honour its commitment to help set up an officer training academy for the Afghans.
Cameron discussed the plans with US President Barack Obama in an hour-long video call on Tuesday night during which they agreed the handover plan was “on track”, Downing Street said in a statement.
“This would present further opportunities for ISAF countries to bring troops home next year and they agreed to stay in close touch as detailed plans develop,” it said, referring to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
“They also agreed on joint work to strengthen the political process, particularly supporting Afghanistan and her neighbours to work together for stability, building on the trilateral discussions with Pakistan led by the United Kingdom.”
The final decision on the latest withdrawal was taken at a meeting of Britain’s National Security Council on Tuesday, the Ministry of Defence said.
The government is reportedly considering leaving several hundred British troops in Kabul for training and support roles when NATO ends its combat role in 2014.
Britain has lost 438 troops in Afghanistan since operations began in October 2001. Of these, at least 395 were killed as a result of hostile action.
The US military currently has about 66,000 troops on the ground as part of a NATO-led force of roughly 100,000.
The British announcement comes as Kabul laid out a five-step plan that could bring hardline Taliban Islamists into government as efforts to broker peace accelerate ahead of the withdrawal of Western troops.
The Taliban regime was ousted by a US-led invasion in 2001 and there are concerns that their return to any sort of power could see an erosion of gains in democracy and human rights, particularly the rights of women.