The Ministry of Defence has drafted plans for a significant withdrawal of British troops from Iraq over the next 18 months and a big deployment to Afghanistan, the Financial Times has learnt.
In what would represent the biggest operational shake-up involving the armed forces since the Iraq war, the first stage of a run-down in military operations is likely to take place this autumn with a handover of security to Iraqis in at least two southern provinces.
Defence officials emphasised that all plans for Iraqi deployments were contingent on the ability of domestic security forces to assume peacekeeping duties from UK troops. Iraqi forces have so far proven unable to take over such roles in areas where the insurgency is most intense, and progress has disappointed coalition officials.
But senior UK officers believe the four south-east provinces under UK command, which are largely Shia and have not seen the same violence as more Sunni-dominated areas north of Baghdad, may be ready for a handover earlier than those under US command.
Any reduction of UK troops could be timed to coincide with plans being developed to deploy a total of up to 3,000 troops to Afghanistan before the end of next year. This deployment would take the lead in a Nato force to take over from US troops in the south of Afghanistan.
In that role, the UK forces would help fight insurgents and provide support for the war on narcotics in the region.
While the MoD insisted that no decision had been made on Afghan or Iraqi deployments, John Reid, defence secretary, said yesterday that Iraqi forces could begin to take charge of security in their country within a year.
In an interview with the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Mr Reid suggested that plans were consistent with the recent prediction of Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, that it could take take up to 12 years to defeat the Iraqi insurgency.
He told the BBC that while the insurgency in Iraq may go on for “some considerable time”, there remained a second question.
“Who will lead the security efforts against the insurgency? And I think in a relatively short period of time we can start the process of that being led by the Iraqi security forces themselves,” he said.
Mr Reid went on: “So although Donald Rumsfeld may have said, correctly, that this may take years before it is finally completed, that did not imply that all that period will have to be led by the multi-national forces or the British forces.
“I personally think that within a year we could begin that transition to the Iraqi forces leading the effort themselves.”
It is a view echoed by military commanders. Air Chief Marshall Jock Stirrup, the current Royal Air Force commander who will become chief of the general staff next year, said more stable Iraqi provinces – including those under UK command – were likely to be handed over to local security forces more quickly than first thought.“Clearly, we’ve had substantial progress in the four provinces of the southeast,” Sir Jock said.
Sir Jock would not say how this would effect British troop deployments. Asked whether that meant UK troops would be withdrawn more quickly than US troops, which are operating in the Sunni heartland where the insurgency is most intense, Sir Jock would only say that “its not UK versus US.”
However UK military planners, who say that they are laising closely with their US counterparts, are thought to envisage British troops being gradually withdrawn from front-line duties in Iraq , with an announcement later this summer. and pulled back to two major bases in the south including Basra.
By next April, a best case scenario would see current troops levels of 8,500 reduced to about 4,000-5,000, with a further cut in the period leading to the first quarter of 2007, when the British military presence is expected to fall to about 1,000 advisers and training personnel.
In Afghanistan, where the UK currently has about 500 troops in Nato’s International Security Assistance Force, US and Nato officials expect a brigade-sized contingent of British soldiers - 2,000 to 3,000- to take over security operations from the US in the south by the end of next year.
Colonel James Denny, commander of British forces in Afghanistan would not be drawn on precise numbers, but noted: “A lot is predicated on how Iraq develops.”
But in an inteview with the FT he added that discussions were ongoing about how to marry the different objectives of a southern-deployed force: fighting insurgents, wining local hearts and minds and supporting counter-narcotics efforts.”
A senior UK official and adviser to Kabul on counter-narcotics policy said rules of engagement for UK troops would be limited to a suport role to Afghan forces said rules off engagement for British troops.
Additional reporting by Victoria Burnett in Kabul