The UK will be able to reduce its force levels in Afghanistan from 9,500 to 9,000 by the end of 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron announced today, Wednesday 6 July 2011.
This follows the withdrawal of 426 UK military personnel by February 2012 that has already been announced.
And it follows President Obama’s announcement last month that the US will withdraw 10,000 of its forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year and will complete the removal of the US surge of 33,000 by the end of the summer of next year. At the time of the US surge, the UK increased its core force levels by an extra 500.
Mr Cameron said that the decision to withdraw British troops by a further 500 by the end of 2012 has been agreed by the National Security Council on the advice of military commanders. And he added that these reductions reflect the progress that is being made in building up the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
During a statement to the House of Commons today Mr Cameron said:
We are now entering a new phase in which the Afghan forces will do more of the fighting and patrolling, and our forces more training and mentoring.
As President Obama said in his address last month, the mission is changing from ‘combat to support’.
When we arrived there was no-one to hand over to - no proper army, no police force.
In many places across the country the Afghan National Security Forces now stand ready to begin the process of taking over security responsibility.
He added that success in Afghanistan requires a number of critical steps, with the first of these being to make sure that the Afghan National Security Forces are able to secure their own territory.
Mr Cameron said that there has been real progress in the last two years and that General Petraeus went out of his way to praise the recent performance of Afghan forces in a number of complex and dangerous operations. Mr Cameron continued:
The Afghan forces are growing rapidly. They are ahead of schedule to meet the current target of 171,600 Afghan Army and 134,000 Afghan Police by the end of October this year.
They are deploying in formed units and carrying out their own operations. There have been some real successes. The Afghan National Security Forces have prevented insurgents from reaching many of their targets.
And, just eight days ago, when a major hotel was attacked in Kabul, the Afghan forces dealt with the situation. This was a major, sophisticated attack. The Afghan forces dealt with it professionally and speedily, only calling in assistance from a NATO helicopter to deal with insurgents on the roof.
It is this growing strength and capability which will allow us over time to hand over control of security to the Afghan forces and draw down our own numbers.
Mr Cameron said we remain committed to the objective shared by President Karzai and the whole of NATO that the Afghans should assume lead security responsibility across the whole country by the end of 2014. He said:
This marks the start of a process which will ensure that by the end of 2014 there will not be anything like the number of British troops there as there are now - and they will not be serving in a combat role.
This is the commitment I have made - and that is the commitment we will stick to.
Having taken such a huge share of the burden and having performed so magnificently for a decade now, the country needs to know that there is an end point to the level of our current commitment and to our combat operations.
This decision is not only right for Britain. It is right for Afghanistan too. It has given the Afghans a clear deadline against which to plan and has injected a sense of urgency into their efforts.
Mr Cameron said that after 2014, the UK will continue to have a major, strategic relationship with Afghanistan, a development relationship, a diplomatic relationship, and a trade relationship. He said:
Above all, we have a vital national security interest in preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for international terrorism. So although our forces will no longer be present in a combat role, we will have a continuing military relationship. We will continue to train the Afghan security forces.
Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, said:
I accompanied the Prime Minister on his recent visit to Afghanistan. The meetings we held with ground commanders confirmed my view that the military contribution to the assistance mission in Afghanistan is on track to hand over the lead for combat operations to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
UK forces are starting to give the lead for security responsibilities in Lashkar Gah to the ANSF. Afghans have been recruited and trained faster than expected and the Army will have an additional 70,000 by next autumn. Some of these will be heading to Helmand where they will be more than replacing the 500 British troops leaving at the end of the year. The Prime Minister’s announcement reflects the progress of our activity and the military advice from Afghan, ISAF and the UK Armed Forces.
I particularly welcome the Prime Minister’s pledge of officer training to the Afghan military. The UK’s model for officer development is respected across the world and I am very proud to be able to offer assistance to the Afghan National Army to develop the command and leadership that is so vital to a professional and effective military. It will secure the enduring military relationship between our two nations and will ensure the enemies of Afghanistan will meet a formidable professional security force.
Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Liam Fox, said:
Today’s announcement by the Prime Minister is an indication of the progress British forces have made in Helmand. Our commitment to ending combat missions by the end of 2014 is clear. That Lashkar Gah is in the first tranche to enter the transition process is a sign that our efforts are bringing about an ever-strengthening, homegrown Afghan security presence in Helmand.
By the time these 500 troops withdraw by 2012, the Afghan security forces will be conducting even more operations with even less assistance from us. I am confident that, by the end of 2014, UK forces will no longer need to be in a combat role in Afghanistan.
This is by no means a rush for the exit. We and our allies will maintain a very strong relationship with Afghanistan long into the future, based on diplomacy, trade, aid and development, and on training Afghan troops.