Camp Bastion: British Prime Minister David Cameron, visiting Afghanistan on an unannounced trip, said troops could start withdrawing from the country as early as next year.
Cameron, who arrived on Monday, shrugged off U.S. and Afghan criticism of the troops` performance, saying it no longer held true. Troops deployed in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand were "not up" to the task of securing the province, American diplomats said in cables released by WikiLeaks last week.
At a conference in Lisbon last month, NATO leaders agreed to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai`s timeline for foreign troops to end combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Some U.S. and NATO leaders have warned that may spill into 2015.
That has thrown the spotlight on the readiness of Afghanistan`s roughly 260,000 police and soldiers to take over from foreign forces.
Cameron and Chief of the Defense Staff General David Richards, the head of Britain`s armed forces, both painted an upbeat picture of progress in training the Afghan army.
"I think though next year, as we`ve agreed, it`s conditions-based but looking at the progress we`ve made, I was only here three months ago it`s quite astronomical how quickly things are coming together," Richards said.
U.S. and NATO commanders have been talking up improvements in Afghan forces, although others acknowledge there are problems with the training, equipment and retention rates among Afghan forces and that a target of 306,000 for Afghan forces by October 2011 might be hard to meet.
Both Cameron and Richards said improving conditions could allow British troops to start withdrawing next year. Cameron has passionately defended his deadline of having no British troops in combat operations by 2015.
Britain has about 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, the bulk of which are in Helmand, where they were spread thinly until U.S. President Barack Obama last December ordered an extra 30,000 troops to the Afghanistan, the last of which arrived in August.