David Cameron is being told by defence chiefs that he must resist implementing a big withdrawal of UK troops from Afghanistan until October 2012, with the military insisting Britain must say “strong for long” in Helmand province.
As Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence prepared to hear details of President Barack Obama’s drawdown of US troops on Wednesday night, senior defence figures said Britain would almost certainly reduce its 9,500 strong core force in Afghanistan next year.
But while Mr Obama was announcing a reduction in the US presence this year, the military advice to Mr Cameron is that he should wait another 16 months before implementing a reduction in force levels. Service chiefs believe the UK should then come down by only about 500 troops, with a more substantial reduction in the following two years as the UK moved to end its combat role by 2015.
“The military advice is that we should hold firm until October next year and then come down very sharply indeed in 2013 and 2014,” said a senior MoD figure. “We know we’ll come up against political and financial pressures to take a risk and go faster. But our advice to the prime minister is you don’t want to expose yourself too early.”
Last month, Mr Cameron told MPs the UK would be withdrawing 426 military personnel from Afghanistan this year. However, these forces were sent to carry out special missions, such as providing a rapid-reaction force, guarding the Kandahar airfield and providing troop transportation. These 426 personnel are not part of the core 9,500 UK force in Afghanistan.
Military chiefs say the UK must now see how conditions develop on the ground in Afghanistan before taking decisions on how far to reduce the UK’s presence there.
The army wants to see whether the Taliban can mount insurgent attacks against UK forces over the next few months, in what is traditionally the fighting season. It also wants to see how events unfold in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, where the Afghan National Security Forces will take the lead security role in mid-July.
A Whitehall official said on Wednesday that Mr Cameron could announce a modest reduction in UK forces in July as a result of the transition to the ANSF in Lashkar Gah, but that anything substantial would be postponed until next year.
“The prime minister does think it is possible to draw down force numbers, depending on progress we are making on the ground and the rate at which the ANSF is trained,” said a Whitehall official. “There are grounds for cautious optimism that things are going in the right direction.”
General Lord Dannatt, the former head of the army, warned on Tuesday against excessive haste in reducing troop numbers, saying the prime minister should not “risk the investment in blood and treasure just for a domestic political agenda”.
Liam Fox, the defence secretary, said last week that any decision on the first phase of a reduction in British numbers should not be taken before the impact of this summer’s campaign had been assessed.
British officials think the UK should not feel under pressure to cut troop numbers simply because Mr Obama has decided to do so. They point out the US increased numbers by 30,000 last year to intensify pressure on the Taliban, giving him more scoop to scale back the military presence than the UK.