The Defence Secretary Philip Hammond insisted today that British military operations in Afghanistan will continue “substantially unchanged”, after an order changing the way international troops train and mentor home-grown security forces.
Hammond was called back to Parliament for the second time in two days to explain the surprise decision to dramatically scale back operations in Afghanistan with local soldiers and policemen.
Most joint patrols and advisory work with Afghan troops will now only be conducted at the battalion level or above, while co-operation with smaller units will have to be “evaluated on a case-by-case basis”, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said.
The move comes amid mounting concern over “green on blue” attacks on coalition forces. So far this year, 51 international troops have been killed by Afghan forces or militants wearing their uniforms.
The Ministry of Defence said there had been 18 “green on blue” UK fatalities since 2008, including the nine killed this year. In 2011, there was only one such death.
The House of Commons Speaker John Bercow granted an urgent question from Conservative MP John Baron and agreed to call Mr Hammond to explain the new policy - and its effect on Afghan security policy.
But Mr Hammond today told the House of Commons that there was no change to British strategy and that the timetable for withdrawal remained in place.
He said he only discovered the measure yesterday afternoon after addressing the Commons, and today told MPs British forces would continue to co-operate with the Afghan national security forces (ANSF) down to platoon level.
ISAF insisted that it remained committed to its partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces. (ANSF) But there are concerns that the decision undermine the training programme for Afghan forces which are due to take over responsibility for security by 2014.
“Most partnering and advising will now be at the Kandak (Battalion) level and above,” ISAF said in a statement.
“This does not mean there will be no partnering below that level - the need for that will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and approved by RC (regional) commanders.
“In some cases, ANSF are fully capable of increased independent activity and their advisers will simply be stepping back to advise from the next level.”
Mr Hammond revealed last night that Prince Harry, who is serving as an Apache helicopter pilot in Afghanistan had been moved to a guarded location during an attack on Camp Bastion last Friday.
Speaking on BBC 2's Newsnight last night, he said: “Clearly there are fall-back plans and I can't go into the detail of them - but once we knew on Friday night that the perimeter at Bastion had been breached he would have been moved to a secure position under effective guard.”
Asked if that meant Prince Harry was not treated the same as every other soldier, the Defence Secretary said: “Clearly if we had a VIP in theatre and there was a breach of the perimeter security, anybody who might, by nature of who they are, be a target, they would be put in a secure location.”
He added: “He is serving there as an ordinary officer but clearly there are additional security arrangements in place that recognise that he could be a target himself specifically as a result of who he is.”
Afghan deputy foreign minister Jawed Ludin said he understood Nato's efforts to protect its forces but insisted the move did not represent a “break in the partnership” to train Afghan forces to take over in 2014.
“This insider attack phenomenon is a matter of deep concern for all of us,” he said.
“This is a challenge that has come up in what is really a very essential mission and that is to get the Afghan forces up to speed.
“We are fully aware and conscious of this and how important it is and that it could affect our joint effort and we are trying our best.
“For Nato to take measures to reduce the risk of these attacks being repeated is a very natural thing. We totally understand it.
“But this should not be overstated because these are just some of the measures to reduce risk; they do not in any way represent a break in the partnership that exists on a day-to-day basis and this will continue.”
He said Kabul was “not in any way concerned about the strategic impact” at this stage.
“What we are concerned about is that this could, if not prevented, lead to a strategic setback.
“But at this stage it is just a measure, with other measures that are required.
“There are so many alternatives there. Joint operations are crucial but they could be conducted in a way that reduces the risk of Nato soldiers suffering these attacks.”
Answering an urgent question in the Commons, Mr Hammond insisted the strategy of “mentoring and training” Afghan army and police was vital to the war effort, adding: “We cannot and we will not allow the process to be derailed.”
He said the Isaf announcement, which followed at least 51 so-called “green on blue” deaths this year where Afghan forces target their Isaf allies, would “reduce our profile and vulnerability to civil disturbances or insider attacks”.
He said Isaf would “return to normal operations” as soon as the tension eased and repeated the Government's pledge to remove British servicemen from fighting roles by the end of 2014.
“We have a strategic plan which takes us to the end of combat operations in 2014 while strengthening the ANSF to take over security responsibility from us,” said Mr Hammond, adding he had “every confidence” in the plan.
But Mr Baron criticised confusion surrounding the decision, which he believed “appeared to take the UK Government by surprise”.
He added: “This announcement adds to the uncertainty as to whether Afghan forces will have the ability to keep an undefeated Taliban at bay once Nato forces have left.”