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David Cameron decides on a withdrawal plan for Afghanistan

By Peter Hoskin
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Beyond the Andrew Mitchell row, there’s another significant political story in the newspapers today — and it’s exactly as the headline to this post suggests. The Government is set to announce that up to 4,000 troops could return home from Afghanistan next year. That would leave 5,000 remaining into 2014 and the planned “end of combat operations”.

No doubt the decision has waited until now because of the US election. The battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney cast America’s Afghan policy into some doubt: Mr Obama wanted to get out in 2014, whereas Mr Romney… well, he wasn’t exactly clear, but he did at least raise the possibility of staying in longer. Now that Mr Obama has his four more years, David Cameron knows how British policy will align with America’s. Indeed, the two men spoke about that very subject, yesterday.

It also appears that Mr Cameron has aligned his plan with the views of our military chiefs, who have been in something of a battle with George Osborne over the pace of withdrawal. They, on the whole, want to keep the bulk of our forces in Afghanistan until 2014. By contrast, the Chancellor — mindful of the costs of the conflict — is said to have asked why all our troops couldn’t just come home now. Today’s Sun reckons that, “Leaving the majority of Our Boys out there is a defeat for George Osborne and the Treasury at the hands of the service chiefs.”

But this doesn’t mean that all the politics has been sucked from the matter. In 2014, the Government will face questions about the state of the Afghanistan it’s leaving behind, as well as about the number of “non-combat” troops that may stay to help out. And, in the meantime, defence sorts may cite Britain’s continuing presence in the country as an argument against the cuts to the defence budget that were implied by the Autumn Statement.

As for what the public will think, YouGov polling suggests that most people would like British troops out of Afghanistan before 2014. Yet it’s still likely that the impending prospect of withdrawal will be popular in itself. Only around one-in-ten think that our forces should stay for as long as the Afghan government wants them.


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