Afghanistan deadline 'overstated' says top British general

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The Independent Online

The significance of a deadline to start withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan next summer has been "overstated", the top British general in Kabul said today.

Lieutenant General Sir Nick Parker, deputy commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, said it is "entirely reasonable" for some personnel to go home in line with the July 2011 timetable set by US President Barack Obama.

But he played down the importance of the date and said military advice would be for "as few as possible" to be pulled out next year.

Speaking via video link from Kabul, Lt Gen Parker said: "It is entirely reasonable for there to be some drawdown of some sort, although I suggest that all the indicators I've heard are this is not as significant as some people choose to make it out to be.

"We will by July next year have many more Afghans in the front line and we will have many more Isaf (Nato-led International Security Assistance Force) troops providing enabling and supporting functions."

He described the July 2011 deadline as "an interesting milestone" but added: "It's been interpreted by people as they would wish. I suspect there's some domestic politics in certain countries where it's been overstated."

Lt Gen Parker, who is about to return to the UK to become Commander-in-Chief Land Forces, predicted that by next summer British troops in Helmand province will be able to hand over responsibility for frontline security to Afghan police and soldiers in many places.

But he warned: "My military advice is, we should be cautious.

"We should not in any way let the Afghans feel that we are not supporting them and allowing them to do what will remain a very challenging security task.

"This is a debate which we need to be very measured about."

He added: "My military assessment is that we will still have numbers of our troops in advisory roles right on the front line in positions of considerable peril, but right alongside their Afghan partners."

Referring to the July 2011 target, Lt Gen Parker said it is reasonable to set down a date to make it clear to the Afghans that Nato forces are not "some occupying regime".

He said: "Is a July, summer 2011 deadline an over-optimistic target to have capable Afghan forces taking over the front line from the coalition? This is a personal assessment - I don't believe it is. I think it is an entirely reasonable milestone target to give us.

"The big debate is then how many go home. I know that the military advice will be as few as possible. The military men will want to keep their options open as much as possible."

The general noted reports suggesting only a few thousand American troops will return home next summer, and said this level of drawdown would "not (be) a subject of any strategic significance".

Lt Gen Parker, who has been deputy Isaf commander since November last year, admitted he may have overplayed how successful a major offensive against insurgents in central Helmand would be.

Operation Moshtarak, launched in February, saw about 15,000 UK, US and Afghan forces attack Taliban strongholds in areas around Marjah and Nad-e-Ali.

Lt Gen Parker said: "As we promoted the prospect of Operation Moshtarak, we were probably a little bit over-enthusiastic in the comprehensive success that we were going to achieve...

"I suspect the way my words were interpreted, there was an expectation of a sudden sort of 'peace in our time' at the 120-day point. Of course that self-evidently has not been the case.

"But what has happened is that the security operation has done what we said it would do. There is persistent security in large parts of central Helmand, where we have taken some pretty serious fights to the insurgency."

He stressed there would be no "rush to the exit" as Nato troops handed over to Afghan forces.

"This is not a conventional war, this is a highly complex counter-insurgency with a very complicated regional dynamic. This is not a win-lose war," he said.

"What there has to be is diplomatic and political activity running in parallel with what we're doing, which creates the conditions for improving security, improving government and a platform on which to build the economy."