British troops will be stuck in Afghanistan for up to five years after Nato’s “final” withdrawal from the war-torn country by the end of 2014.
Senior military sources confirmed on Saturday that hundreds of British forces will remain in the country for “three to five years”, in a “support role” designed to help Afghanistan’s new democracy survive after more than a decade of conflict.
Details of the shape of the new Afghanistan after western powers have left emerged as David Cameron made a whistle-stop tour of frontline Nato bases in the country, to mark Armed Forces Day.
The Prime Minister met British troops and commanders at Camp Bastion and Lashkar Gar, where he announced almost £3.8m of funding for charities that support military families and programmes providing mental health support for veterans.
But his visit was dominated by the row over Afghanistan’s future, and particularly the role the Taliban will play when foreign forces have left. Britain’s top commander in Afghanistan was yesterday reported to say the west should have tried talking to the Taliban a decade ago. General Nick Carter, deputy commander of the Nato-led coalition, said Afghan forces would need western military and financial support for several years after western combat troops head home in 2014.
A senior military source in Afghanistan told The Independent on Sunday on Saturday: “We have a plan to build [Afghanistan’s] capacity. We will not have achieved this by 2014.
“The NATO follow-on mission will still be needed for probably three to five years.”
On a trip timed to coincide with Armed Forces Day, David Cameron acknowledged that things could have been done differently after military operations removed the Taliban regime.
But he insisted it was right for the West to consider talks with the Taliban now, with hopes of an Afghanistan where everyone can play a role in the country’s future.
Speaking in Lashkar Gah, Mr Cameron said “I think you can argue about whether the settlement we put in place after 2001 could have been better arranged. Of course you can make that argument. Since I became Prime Minister in 2010 I have been pushing all the time for a political process and that political process is now under way. But at the same time I know that you cannot bank on that, which is why we have built up the Afghan army, built up the Afghan police, supported the Afghan government so after our troops have left, and they will be leaving under the programme we have set out, this country shouldn’t be a haven for terrorists.”
The Prime Minister told reporters: “We want a political solution as well as making sure we have a security solution. What we have done in Afghanistan is we came here to stop it being used as a base for terrorist activities. That has been and is successful.
“What we need to do is build up the Afghan armed forces and at the same time make sure that the politics of Afghanistan enable everyone in Afghanistan to play a role in the future of their country. We are making some progress there as well.”
Mr Cameron announced that funding from bankers’ Libor fines would be used to create a permanent memorial to the 444 British personnel killed in Afghanistan.
He said: “I can announce today that we will be taking more money off the Libor fines and putting it in to military charities including building a permanent memorial at the Staffordshire Arboretum so that we can always remember and future generations can remember those that fell and died here in Afghanistan.”
Mr Cameron said the political process should mean “those people are prepared to give up the bomb, the bullet, can actually be part of that process, part of that future Afghanistan”.
A senior British military source suggested that Nato would need to assist the Afghans for “three to five years” after the combat role ends in 2014.
The British military have committed to running an academy for Afghan officers - nicknamed “Sandhurst in the sand” - but the source suggested that Nato could also be required to assist with close air support, casualty evacuation and logistics.
A senior No 10 source said it will be for the National Security Council to decide what the UK’s role would be after 2014, but “we have done our fair share”. The source said: “The Prime Minister has been clear that we have paid a heavy price and already given a lot. Our combat troops will leave at the end of next year. The only military commitments we have made beyond 2014 are to part-run the Officer Academy and to provide financial support to sustain Afghan forces. We have not been asked to do anything more. The Prime Minister’s view is that we have done our fair share and it will now be for other Isaf partners to carry the main burden.”