- ‘The Afghan war as we know it is over,’ declares President Obama
- PM concurs, saying plans for withdrawal are ‘on track and on target’
- But senior British official admits it is unrealistic to say country is secure
By Tim Shipman
PUBLISHED: 17:52 EST, 21 May 2012 | UPDATED: 17:52 EST, 21 May 2012
Afghanistan could slip back into the hands of extremists and pose a terrorist threat to the West when British troops leave, experts have warned.
David Cameron claimed at a Nato summit yesterday that plans for withdrawal by the end of December 2014 are ‘on track and on target’.
Barack Obama went even further, declaring that the allies would soon be able to say: ‘The Afghan war as we know it is over.’
But despite those optimistic statements, the US commander of Nato’s troops said they would have to fight their way out of the country.
A senior British official also conceded that it was ‘unrealistic’ to assume Afghanistan ‘is going to be completely secure’ or that there would be ‘no possiblity of a terrorist threat re-emerging’.
With this in mind, up to 200 members of the SAS will remain to take on Al Qaeda into 2015.
The admission raises questions about whether Britain’s deployment in Afghanistan, designed to deprive the terrorist group of a safe haven, has been worth the thousands of injuries and 414 fatalities suffered by the Armed Forces.
Yesterday’s summit was designed to set out a final timetable for the handover to Afghan security forces, which will lead all combat operations by mid-2013.
General John Allen said he ‘fully expects that combat is going to continue’ past that milestone.
‘There is no end of combat before the end of 2014,’ he added. ‘And in fact, the Taliban will oppose the Afghan National Security Forces after 2014.’
He went on to warn that Nato may need to send more troops to Helmand province, where British forces are currently stationed, if extremists seize ground vacated by the allies.
Mr Cameron insisted that British troops will have completed their mission and can leave ‘with their heads held high’ – but he conceded that Western leaders would not control the country’s fate.
‘I am confident that our troops can leave with their heads held high’
‘British troops will no longer be in a combat role beyond the end of 2014,’ he said. ‘That is our deadline. And at this summit, Nato confirmed it will be the deadline for the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] mission. The plan for the transition of full security responsibility from ISAF to the Afghan National Security Forces is on track and on target.’
But he added: ‘There will still be occasions when we are in a combat mode before the end of 2014. It’s very important to make that point to people.
‘What is absolutely within our control is the growth of the Afghan National Security Forces, the capability they have. Clearly there will be a better outcome in Afghanistan if that is accompanied by a political solution as well. That is not fully within our control.
‘But I am confident that our troops can leave with their heads held high having completed the combat task in 2014, because they will be handing over to fully capable Afghan security forces that will be able to deal with any residual problems and issues in a fully capable way. They will have done a great job.’
Even if the withdrawal goes to plan, British taxpayers will bankroll the Afghan security forces for years to come, starting with a handout of £70million in 2015. Yesterday’s summit saw countries pledge £2.2billion in total, with Britain set to fund an officer training centre dubbed Sandhurst in the Sand.
A British source claimed the cost to taxpayers would decline over time.
‘Long-term World Bank projections suggest the Afghans won’t be able to be self-funding until the mid-2020s, but we expect the amount required to fall as the Afghan state continues to develop,’ they said.
‘The UK’s contribution will be reviewed after the first year. This is about ensuring that the Afghans are able to manage their own security once we leave.’