BRITISH troops could be withdrawn from Afghanistan even faster after better-than-expected progress by the country’s own security forces, David Cameron signalled today.
The Prime Minister announced this week that UK numbers would be nearly halved to 5,200 next year as part of the plan to end combat operations in 2014.
About 500 troops have already been sent home in time for Christmas as part of a planned reduction.
But, during a pre-Christmas visit to troops in Camp Bastion, he indicated that the process could be speeded up further.
The comments come despite warnings from some quarters that western powers appear to be cutting and running from Afghanistan - potentially leaving the door open for a Taliban resurgence.
But Mr Cameron hailed the performance of the Afghan police and army, saying the timetable was on track.
“Of course there is always flexibility in any plan,” he told journalists at a briefing.
“But I would make the point that so far things have surprised on the upside in terms of the capability of Afghan forces.
“So we might be able to move a little faster.
“Let’s see how things go. Of course there is flexibility. We have set out the parameters roughly.”
He added: “The 2014 deadline is fixed.
“By the end of 2014 there won’t be British forces in a combat role.
“What’s obviously moveable is how the transition goes.”
Head of the Army General Sir Peter Wall, also at the Camp Bastion headquarters in Helmand province this morning, said the troop withdrawal announcement was “consistent with the military plan to finish our combat operations here in Afghanistan by the end of 2014”.
Asked if the pullout timings could change, he added: “We will have to see how things play out.
“But it is very much our intention to continue our handover to Afghan security forces who are doing a very good job.
“We have every reason to believe that they will continue on that track.”
Military commanders have been stressing the recent improvement by Afghan security forces.
Major Andy Watson, 33, from Edinburgh, who serves with 1st Battalion, The Royal Scots Borderers, The Royal Regiment of Scotland, (1 SCOTS), said he believes the soldiers being sent home is a “visual sign of success” of the mission they set out to do.
Major Andrew Lumley, also from 1 SCOTS, said carrying out training drills for explosives reduction, casualty evacuation, map reading, intelligence and vehicle maintenance is now their “bread and butter”.
UK forces have handed over a large number of checkpoints to the ANSF, and in many cases the troops are no longer training large groups of Afghans, but teaching the native commanders how to carry out the training themselves, in more of a mentoring role.
Police officers apparently safely cleared 26 IED devices in just one day earlier this month, while native soldiers have been leading increasing numbers of operations against insurgents.
After spending the night at Bastion, Mr Cameron breakfasted with troops including Private Emma Soult, from Ashbourne, and Craftsman Sam Davidson-Webb, from Rippon, of the Equipment Support Regiment.
He also handwrote a Christmas message that is being faxed to all the patrol bases in Helmand.
It said: “The professionalism and valour you have shown in Afghanistan has been remarkable and we can see real progress, with the successful handover to Afghan forces well under way.
“We should remember at this time especially all those who have been wounded or paid the ultimate price - and our prayers go out to their families.
“Your work has kept us safe for another year - and made us proud of what you do.”
Yesterday, the Government pledged an extra £230 million for military kit to be used in Afghanistan, with officials saying the move demonstrates its determination to see the campaign through.
A large chunk of the money - from the Treasury reserve - is going on better IED detection and disposal.
During his two-day visit, which was partly disrupted by the weather, Mr Cameron viewed vehicles that are now surplus to requirements and being sent home after troop numbers were cut by 500 to 9,000 this Christmas.
He also travelled to the smaller Camp Price base, 20 miles from Bastion, where he joined in a carol service with troops from 40 Commando Royal Marines.
Famous tunes sung included God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Once in Royal David’s City.