Britain is drawing up plans to pull its forces out of Afghanistan much sooner than had been intended after high-level indications from Washington that American troops may leave early.
Sources in London and Kabul suggested last week that President Barack Obama was considering accelerating the withdrawal from Afghanistan in the run-up to presidential elections in November next year.
“The Americans need to pull out early for financial and electoral reasons,” said a source. “It’s all part and parcel with the decision to pull out of Iraq by the end of the year.”
With British troops in Helmand now a small part of an American-dominated Nato force, Ministry of Defence planners have been forced to look at speeding up the withdrawal of UK troops. MoD officials insisted that any British withdrawal would be “conditions-based” and dependent on an agreement with the Afghan government.
“The Americans are now looking to pull out much faster than previously planned,” said a senior British official. “We have no choice but to dovetail our planning with theirs.”
At present Nato plans to withdraw the vast bulk of its troops by the end of 2014, leaving a small contingent of conventional troops and special forces. As part of the process, the Americans are due to withdraw 33,000 troops by September 2012.
That would leave 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan. But a Nato official in Kabul said the chances of there being anywhere near that number by the end of 2013 were “slim to none”.
Although no final decision had been taken, it was “highly likely” that American troops would be pulled out more rapidly and in far greater numbers than previously discussed, said sources in London and Kabul. Other Nato countries are as keen as the Americans to bring their troops home early.
Full details of the withdrawal plan will not be finalised until a Nato summit in Obama’s home city of Chicago in May next year, giving the president a possible platform from which to announce an accelerated American withdrawal ahead of the elections.
Kabul and Washington are locked in negotiations about America’s future role in Afghanistan.
A conference of tribal elders and Afghan officials held by President Hamid Karzai yesterday gave its blessing to a pact that will see limited American forces remain in the country after 2014.
Under the terms of this “strategic partnership”, America will keep a force of at least several thousand soldiers to gather intelligence, train Afghan forces and conduct strikes against militants. Both Afghan and American officials fear that the country could be plunged into chaos without America’s continued military and economic support.
Mohammad Hanif Atmar, the former interior minister, said last week that only the presence of at least 20,000 foreign troops would be able to prevent the state from disintegrating post-2014.
A pact between Washington and Kabul, which America wants to finalise before an international conference on Afghanistan next month, has been delayed partly because of Karzai’s demand that Nato end its use of controversial night raids.
A senior source in Kabul said that it would take time for details of America’s new withdrawal strategy to emerge. “There’s a lot of talk in smoke-filled rooms at the moment. What’s clear is that right before the election there’s nothing better than people coming home,” he said.