Brown plays down Afghan pullout

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Gordon Brown played down suggestions that British troops would start pulling out of Afghanistan next year as the Government dismissed accusations of a split over tactics with President Barack Obama.

He said responsibility for sections of Helmand province would be handed over to the Afghans in 2010, but admitted UK forces would remain in a supporting role.

Earlier comments by the Prime Minister have been interpreted as signalling the beginning of a UK withdrawal by late next year.

That timetable appeared to contradict Mr Obama’s forecast that the US could start withdrawing its troops until July 2011.

Senior Tories suspect that Mr Brown is deliberately raising hopes that British forces could soon be on their way home as a way of defusing the issue of Afghanistan in next year’s general election.

In the Commons, David Cameron seized on the apparent disparity between the leaders, warning Mr Brown against giving “false expectations” or “mixed messages” over the date for the withdrawal of British troops.

The Tory leader challenged him to clarify whether UK forces would start pulling out next year or in 2011.

The Prime Minister replied that transferring control of some areas to Afghan forces was not the same as pulling out of the country.

He said he had made it absolutely clear “there was no question of us withdrawing our troops until the point that we were sure that the Afghans could take over security control themselves”.

Mr Brown added: “We will stay and do the job that is necessary.”

Downing Street flatly denied any suggestion of a division with the White House over Afghanistan.

He was speaking as it was announced that the 500 extra troops to be sent to Afghanistan within a fortnight would be drawn from 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh.

Their arrival will bring the number of British servicemen and women in the country, including special forces, to more than 10,000.

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