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Dominic Raab asks this year’s £3.6 billion question: when are the troops coming home?

By Peter Hoskin
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Afghanistan is on the agenda as David Cameron sweeps into Mumbai. The Indian Government is, apparently (£), concerned at our PM’s efforts to involve Pakistan in the maintenance of the Afghan state after Western troops have departed. They fear losing whatever influence they currently have in Kabul.

But questions about Afghanistan are also waiting for Mr Cameron back home, in Britain – and they’re questions which, I suspect, will take on ever greater significance as the year progresses.

One of these questions is implicit within Dominic Raab’s article for the Financial Times (£) this morning. Mr Raab recommends a swathe of further cuts to bolster the economy and public finances, but there’s one that stands out above all the rest. “Beyond Whitehall,” he writes, “bringing all UK troops home from Afghanistan by the end of 2013 (instead of 2014) would save £3.6bn.”

There are plenty of Tory backbenchers who are sympathetic to this argument – as one put it to me, “The country’s going to be left a mess anyway, so why not get our troops out and save some money?” And there are signs that George Osborne thinks likewise, too. According to reports last year, he asked generals why British forces couldn’t just return home now. This was dismissed as a “provocation” at the time, but you can understand why the Chancellor might be eager to provoke in this case. How he could do with a few extra £billion, whether to ease the course of deficit reduction, or to fund some budgetary giveaway or other.

So, will Mr Cameron buckle to any of this pressure? It is, in truth, unlikely; and not least because the British withdrawal is currently aligned with America’s. Barack Obama last week announced that around half of his country’s troops would leave Afghanistan by early 2014. Our own departure—announced before last week, but after phone conversations between Messrs Obama and Cameron—is, currently, similarly paced.   

But there is still some room for Mr Cameron to balance backbenchers’ fiscal concerns against the demands of the generals. Neither America nor Britain has made any firm commitments about how many troops will remain after 2014 to help train the Afghan army, among other tasks. If savings are to be found, expect them to come from there.


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