David Cameron said today that he does not expect British troops to be in Afghanistan in five years' time.
His comments came a day ahead of a bilateral meeting with US President Barack Obama on the fringes of the G8 Muskoka summit in Canada, at which Afghanistan is expected to be high on the agenda.
Mr Obama has set out a timetable under which the "surge" of US troops ordered last year would lead to withdrawals from the middle of 2011, but Mr Cameron has so far refused to commit himself to any deadline for British troops to come home, saying only that he does not believe they should stay a day longer than is necessary.
But asked today whether the 10,000-strong deployment would be back home by the time of the next general election - scheduled for 2015 - Mr Cameron today told Sky News: "I want that to happen, make no mistake about it.
"We can't be there for another five years, having been there for nine years already.
"But one thing we should be clear about - Britain should have a long-term relationship with Afghanistan, including helping to train their troops and their civil society, long after the vast bulk of troops have gone home."
Aides travelling with the Prime Minister made clear that he was not setting a deadline or target for the withdrawal of UK troops, or committing himself to a timetable of any kind, which the UK regards as secondary to the development of conditions on the ground.
But his comments give an insight into the way he envisages events unrolling in Afghanistan and suggest he is keen not to go into the next election with an ongoing military presence in the country.
Discussing Mr Obama's preference for beginning a drawdown around July next year, Mr Cameron said: "I prefer not to see it in strict timetables.
"I want us to roll up our sleeves and get on with delivering what will bring the success we want, which is not a perfect Afghanistan, but some stability in Afghanistan and the ability for the Afghans themselves to run their country so they can come home."
In a separate interview with ITV News, Mr Cameron acknowledged that the British troops can expect tough opposition from the Taliban over the coming months.
"It will be a difficult summer, there is no doubt about that," said the Prime Minister.
"But (that's) partly because we are doing so much more with the Americans in Helmand province, with hundreds of thousands of troops rather than the few thousand we used to have and it's making a big difference.
"It will be a difficult summer, but we are getting to a period where parts of Afghanistan can now be run by the Afghans themselves. That is a very exciting prospect for bringing our troops home."Reuse content