British troops are going to have their tours in Afghanistan lengthened by half while the exit strategy from the 12-year-old war is underway, the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond announced today.
The Independent revealed three months ago that the plan to extend deployment time was under active consideration after senior officers stressed that the extension was imperative to ensure that Afghan army and police are in a position to take over security duties as Western forces withdraw.
The Government has also desisted from carrying out any major cuts in numbers of British troops during the summer ‘fighting season’. The most senior UK commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant
General Nick Carter, told The Independent that a drawdown during that period would seriously undermine the gains which have been made. Senior officers were worried that headlines back in Britain claiming the war was over because UK troops had drastically cut down on combat missions woul, encourage demands for a faster timetable of withdrawl.
However, the decision to extend the tour length is likely to prove controversial in some quarters with critics arguing that this will put troops in additional danger at a time when the Taliban are expected to step up their attacks. The military commanders insist that no one will be exposed to higher risk by the new policy; they hold that the additional time is particularly important for those engaged in partnering local forces, a job where establishing trust and continuity is seen as essential.
It was also felt that there should not be a brigade rotation during the Afghan presidential elections next April with Hamid Karzai due to step down under the constitution after serving two terms.
There is uncertainty over the elections with insurgents threatening to disrupt the voting with attacks and fear of civic disorder if there are signs of widespread corruption which marred the polling process when President Karzai returned to power four years ago.
The changes will also mean that the cost of training an extra brigade can be saved as the size of the British forces in Afghanistan is drastically reduced from the end of this year. It will also mean that the numbers of final tranche to be withdrawn, will be fewer than projected.
UK forces currently serve six month tours. The next brigade to deploy, in the autumn, will do an eight-month tour although some will serve an added month. The majority of the next brigade, with British numbers by then drastically reduced, will serve six months, but some will be in post for nine..
An MoD source said: “This decision is based on clear military advice to provide continuity in key posts as we transition to Afghan control and manage troop deployments during key events such as the Afghan Presidential Elections in the Spring. It’s the most effective way of meeting our commitment to the Afghans and the NATO ISAF mission until the end of 2014, at the same time as minimising the number of Service personnel who deploy on operations. During this time troops will predominantly be based behind the wire in Camp Bastion carrying out redeployment tasks and training work.”