Kim Sengupta: Withdrawing British forces sends the wrong message

The capture and killing of the British soldier in Helmand, on the day David Cameron arrived in Afghanistan to announce a reduction in troop numbers, has attracted huge publicity.

But this was just one death among many across Afghanistan with the insurgents driving through their murderous summer offensive. The Intercontinental Hotel was attacked in Kabul; a hospital was blown up in the east; government officials and senior police officers are being assassinated; and Western troops are dying from improvised explosive devices and in ambushes.

The Prime Minister's walkabout in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gar, to show how safe the place has become, is likely to be cancelled over security concerns. But this will not stop him from announcing that the task force will be reduced by another 500 by the end of 2012.

Once Barack Obama announced his larger than expected withdrawal of American troops, Mr Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel were quick to follow. The mantra hitherto used – that the pullout would be "conditions based" – is not heard now. Mr Cameron says repeatedly that all combat missions will end in 2015.

The American withdrawal will have a direct effect on British forces in Helmand who have been able to concentrate on protecting urban centres because US troops had taken over some of the frontline duties in places like Sangin.

Pulling British forces out at such a fast rate, against the judgment of military commanders, risks undoing some of the progress towards stability which had undoubtedly taken place. This sends the wrong message to allies and enemies.