UK plans early troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

Philip Hammond said military commanders have changed their views about how many troops need to remain in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban.

Updated: Sep 14, 2012, 13:02 PM IST

London: Britain could withdraw its troops from Afghanistan faster than expected next year, the country’s defence secretary has said.

Philip Hammond said the move comes after military commanders changed their views about how many troops need to remain in Afghanistan to help forces fight the Taliban.

In an interview with the Guardian, Hammond admitted that six months ago the military was privately pushing ‘for keeping force levels as high as possible, for as long as possible’.

“I think that the message I am getting clearly from the military is that it might be possible to draw down further troops in 2013,” Hammond said.

"Whereas six months ago the message coming from them was that we really need to hold on to everything we have got for as long as we possibly can. I think they are seeing potentially more flexibility in the situation,” he added.

But he said the British military thought of a withdrawal because commanders had been ‘surprised by the extent to which they have been able to draw back and leave the Afghans to take the lion’s share of the combat role’.

According to the report, he said that the UK has closed 52 of its military bases and checkpoints in Helmand province over the last six months, leaving 34 still operating.

Britain is withdrawing 500 troops by the end of this year, leaving 9,000, the report said.

“I think there is a bit of a rethinking going on about how many troops we do actually need … there may be some scope for a little bit more flexibility on the way we draw down, and that is something commanders on the ground are looking at very actively,” he said.

According to the report, though the extent and timing of next year’s withdrawal will depend on the US plans, this is Hammond’s first admission that British commanders are now reassessing how many troops they need, because, he said, they have been encouraged at the way Afghan National Security Forces have taken to the battle.