Martyn McLaughlin: Call to scale back ambitions as UK looks to bring its troops back home

THE British death toll in Afghanistan has reached 300 at a time when serious concerns are being aired about the future of the mission.

There are fears the operation is drifting amid a lack of focus and political will from the government of Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Furthermore, the Taleban insurgency shows little sign of letting up as militants continue to launch frequent deadly attacks on Nato troops and Afghan officials.

The commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, America's General Stanley McChrystal, admitted recently that crucial operations in Kandahar in the south of the country were going more slowly than intended.

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Prime Minister David Cameron supports Britain's involvement, but has stressed several times that UK forces will not remain in Afghanistan "a day longer than is necessary".

This has raised speculation the new government is working out how best to extricate itself from the conflict.

The UK's goal continues to be building up Afghanistan's army and police so they can protect the country themselves. But ministers have suggested that Britain should scale back its ambitions to improve Afghan society at the same time.

There may be further shifts in strategy ahead as a new team is installed at the head of the military and the government gets to grips with the huge domestic budget deficit.

The head of the UK Armed Forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, and the Ministry of Defence's top civil servant, Sir Bill Jeffrey, will both stand down in the autumn.

Meanwhile, the current strategic defence review of military spending is likely to raise difficult questions about whether funding should go on the war in Afghanistan or on big equipment projects, such as replacing the Trident nuclear deterrent.

Anatol Lieven, of King's College London's war studies department, believes that the idea of helping the Afghans to form a stable democracy should be abandoned.

He says: "The belief in creating real progress, democracy, in Afghanistan is now virtually dead. The point is to simply maintain the American alliance and to try and get out eventually without the humiliation of an outright Taleban victory."

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But Conservative MP Adam Holloway, a former Grenadier Guards officer, believes the new administration is asking the right questions: "They're keen to understand and get it right."

He argues that the solution to Afghanistan's problems is "essentially political", and will involve major settlements with Taleban leaders as well as "hundreds of little local deals" with insurgents on the ground.