UK to reduce Afghan role next year
British troops will step back from their lead combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2013 under plans drawn up by the Nato-led Isaf international alliance, Downing Street has said.
The announcement followed comments by both the US and France, ahead of a Nato summit in Brussels on Thursday, suggesting that the Isaf coalition will make a transition out of combat next year.
But Downing Street denied the move amounted to an acceleration in the handover of control over Afghanistan to local forces, insisting it was in line with a strategy agreed at the Nato summit in Lisbon in 2010. It is envisaged that Afghan forces will take over lead security responsibility in all parts of the country by the end of next year, said Prime Minister David Cameron's official spokesman.
Isaf troops - including UK personnel - will retain a "supporting" combat role during 2014, but Afghan forces will be in the lead throughout the country.
Mr Cameron has previously said that the UK's military role in Afghanistan will be completed by the end of 2014, but added that he wanted to avoid a "cliff-edge" withdrawal of the entire force at that point. He has also said the UK will be able to reduce its force levels by 500 to 9,000 this year.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters on his flight to Brussels on Wednesday night: "Hopefully by the mid to later part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist role." He added that this "doesn't mean we're not going to be combat-ready", but said the US and other international forces will no longer be in "the formal combat role we're in now".
Following talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai last Friday, Nicolas Sarkozy said that France and Afghanistan had agreed to ask Nato to bring forward the handover of all combat operations to local forces to 2013. The French President also announced an accelerated exit for France, the fourth-largest contributor of troops in Afghanistan.
Asked about Mr Panetta's comments, Mr Cameron's spokesman told reporters: "The agreed ISAF strategy hasn't changed.
"The strategy envisages progressively transitioning areas of the country. Within that strategy, it is envisaged that Afghan forces should have the lead security responsibility across the country by the end of 2013, and that ISAF forces will increasingly move from a combat role to a training role.
"They will be operating in 2014 in a combat role, but it will be a supporting role. It is anticipated that Afghan forces should have the lead responsibility by the end of 2013."