Gordon Brown's attempts to sketch out an exit strategy from Afghanistan ran into trouble when the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, suggested that UK troops may need to remain in his country for another 15 years.
Mr Brown said the process of handing over Afghanistan's 34 provinces to Afghan security forces "will begin later this year". While refusing to give a firm timetable, he hinted at a troop reduction from next year, saying: "By the middle of next year, we have to turn the tide in the fight against the insurgency."
The Prime Minister said the Afghan army would number 171,600 by October next year and its police force 134,000 – providing a 300,000-strong security force that would outnumber the 135,000-strong coalition forces from 43 nations now in the country.
Like Barack Obama in the US, the Prime Minister is keen to reassure a domestic audience before an election this year that the commitment in Afghanistan is not open-ended.
But Mr Brown's optimistic timeline appeared at odds with President Karzai, who suggested that Nato troops would play a crucial role for five years and would need to remain in his country for much longer.
He said: "With regard to training and equipping the Afghan security forces, five to 10 years will be enough. With regard to sustaining them till Afghanistan is financially able to provide for our forces, the time may be extended to 10-15 years."
The communiqué agreed at the London conference last night endorsed the Kabul government's goal for Afghan forces to conduct the majority of operations within three years and take responsibility for physical security within five years. It said handover of security responsibilities to Afghan forces in an unspecified number of more peaceful provinces would begin "by late 2010/early 2011," with coalition forces moving to a supporting role.
Kai Eide, the outgoing UN special representative for Afghanistan, warned that there were "serious flaws" in the coalition's strategy. He claimed the recent decision to opt for a troops "surge" risked entrenching the international military presence, putting back their eventual withdrawal.
Mr Eide said there was a danger that the expected offensive against the Taliban in Helmand province, where the main British taskforce is based, would simply lead to more civilian casualties. "There is a danger with the military surge that the military will take on more civilian tasks," he said. "I think that will mean that the military will get more entrenched and it will take longer for us to talk about any kind of meaningful reduction in the troop level."
Pathway to peace? Communique highlights
* Conference participants welcomed the plans of the government of Afghanistan to offer an honourable place in society to those willing to renounce violence, participate in the free and open society and respect the principles that are enshrined in the Afghan constitution, cut ties with al-Qa'ida and other terrorist groups, and pursue their political goals peacefully....
* [and the] commitment to reinvigorate Afghan-led reintegration efforts by developing and implementing a... national Peace and Reintegration Programme; plans to convene a Grand Peace Jirga...; and the international community's commitment to establish a Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund to finance the Afghan-led Peace and Reintegration Programme.