London: British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Thursday he would be "very surprised" if Afghan forces had not taken control of their own security from international forces by 2014.
But he insisted Britain was not setting a timetable for withdrawing its 9,500 troops from Afghanistan, even after Prime Minister David Cameron said last week he wanted them home before the next election in 2015.
"We are committed to the Afghans being able to conduct their military operations and security and that takes time. But I would be very surprised if that took longer than 2014," Hague told BBC radio.
He argued, however, that Cameron`s 2015 date was simply a "hope", saying: "Of course, in the next Parliament he would hope -- anyone would hope -- that the British combat troops were coming home.”
"But he`s also stressed that`s not setting a timetable for what happens over the next few years."
Defence Secretary Liam Fox seemed to strike a different tone from Cameron in a speech in Washington on Wednesday, when he said NATO forces must "maintain our resolve, and have the resilience to see the job through”.
Britain has lost 309 soldiers in Afghanistan since operations there began in October 2001.
Meanwhile, a senior British military spokesman on Afghanistan said yesterday that Taliban fighters had been smuggling in components for roadside bombs -- which have killed a large number of foreign troops -- from Iran and Pakistan.
Major General Gordon Messenger told reporters in London: "We are looking beyond Afghanistan in terms of the provision of some of the more sophisticated components and in terms of the financing."
He added: "I think there is evidence that something is coming from Iran and something is coming from Pakistan."
But he stressed there was no "institutionalised support" for such efforts to supply the Taliban.