British PM to announce 'modest' Afghanistan troop pullout
Prime Minister David Cameron was to announce the withdrawal of hundreds of British troops from Afghanistan on Wednesday, only days after the United States said it would reduce its military presence.
Cameron has warned that the numbers of soldiers involved in the announcement to parliament would be "modest", with media reports saying he would order the withdrawal of 500-800 troops by the end of 2012.
Some 450 mainly auxiliary British personnel are already scheduled to be withdrawn in the coming months.
Britain has around 9,500 soldiers stationed in the south of Afghanistan -- the second largest contingent of foreign troops in the country after the United States.
The announcement comes less than a fortnight after US President Barack Obama said he would withdraw 33,000 US "surge" troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, bringing total US forces there down to 65,000.
The British government has come under pressure at home to follow the US example by making a significant withdrawal as Western forcs move towards their goal of pulling out combat forces from Afghanistan by 2015.
But Cameron played down expectations during a two-day trip to Afghanistan this week, saying British troop levels were "not going to see a radical change for the fighting season of next year".
Britain also wants to increasingly shift its focus to training Afghan forces, with Cameron announcing in Kabul the creation of a Sandhurst-style military academy to train Afghan officers.
He declared progress in Afghanistan to be "on the right track" but his trip was overshadowed by the death of a British soldier who had earlier gone missing from his base in Helmand, where most British troops are based.
The mysterious death of 21-year-old Scott McLaren -- claimed by the Taliban although he reportedly drowned before gunshot wounds were inflicted -- undermined Cameron's claim that security had improved enough for Britain to withdraw some troops soon.
McLaren was the 375th member of the British forces to die since the US-led invasion in October 2001.
Cameron said "some progress" in Helmand would allow for a "modest" drawdown.
But he is expected to reiterate Britain's commitment to Afghanistan after saying during his trip that it was "a great example of a country that if we walk away from, and if we ignore, if we forget about, the problems will come visited back on our doorstep".
Cameron's announcement comes after the Ministry of Defence confirmed Tuesday that a British drone had killed four Afghan civilians and wounded two more during an attack on a Taliban commander three months ago.
Although US drones have been blamed for a number of civilian deaths, the March 25 attack was the first time that a British Reaper drone has caused civilian casualties since the Royal Air Force began using the pilotless aircraft over Afghanistan.
The ministry expressed "deep regret" for the deaths.
Violence in Afghanistan is at record highs, nearly 10 years after US-led troops invaded to bring down the Taliban regime for refusing to give up Osama bin Laden after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
In Afghanistan, Cameron made a plea to the Taliban to lay down their weapons and join the political process, and pointed to the example of Northern Ireland where erstwhile bitter foes now share power.
"To the Taliban my message is very clear. Stop bombing, stop killing, stop fighting, put down your weapons, join the political process and you can join the future of this country," he said.
"I have seen in it in my own country. In Northern Ireland, we had people trying to bomb and kill police and now they are taking part in politics themselves."
© 2011 AFP