British commander warns over troops cuts in Afghanistan

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The army general leading British soldiers in Afghanistan on Tuesday warned leading politicians that a significant reduction in troop levels could undo the gains made since last year's US surge.

General James Bucknall, who is also deputy commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, told the Telegraph newspaper it was "not the time to send conflicting signals on commitment to the campaign.

"The coalition has had a good winter. We have got to hold on to what we have gained and hold that over this fighting season," he argued.

"What we are doing is reaping the benefits of having the resources in place to match the strategy we have always had. Many of those resources only hit the ground in autumn 2010," he added.

"We need, in broadest terms, that set of resources in place for two winters and two fighting seasons, which would mean we are talking about autumn 2012," Bucknall told the British paper.

"This is not the time to send conflicting signals on commitment to the campaign."

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced earlier this month that Britain would pull out 450 troops by the end of 2011, defying defence chiefs who wanted a smaller reduction.

US leader Barack Obama is also locked in a battle with US defence officials, and is reported to be contemplating bringing 10,000 soldiers home this year, after the July deadline he set for the beginning of the drawdown.

In response to the general's comments, a British Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said: "Afghanistan remains our top priority.

"UK forces will no longer be in a combat role or in the present numbers by 2015 but may remain to train and mentor the Afghan forces after that.

"UK forces are in the most difficult part of Afghanistan and what we cannot do is to see a reduction in our combat troops until we are sure that we've got sufficient and lasting security," explained the spokesman.

The general warned that despite recent success, heavy casualties were expected as ISAF shifted its focus away from night-time attacks on mid-level Taliban commanders to a broader strategy.

"It would be fair to say the insurgency is under greater pressure than it has ever been before but ... we expect (the Taliban) to come back hard and their main focus of effort will likely be Kandahar and Helmand," he predicted.

The United States led the invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US after the Taliban, in power in Kabul at the time, refused to hand over the Al-Qaeda leader.

© 2011 AFP

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