The Government has tried to present plans to withdraw half of Britain's forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year as a sign of progress. The numbers given for the first time this week – as many as 3,800 troops home by the end of 2013, the majority of the remaining 5,000 by the end of the year after – are merely flesh on the bones of the long-held strategy to conclude combat operations by the end of 2014, according to the Defence Secretary. They also reflect the successful transfer of responsibility to Afghan security forces, he says.
It will, of course, be an advance if the shift from mentoring battalion by battalion to involvement only at (larger) brigade level is completed safely by the end of 2013, as the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force hopes. For all the warm words on the rapid improvement in Afghan capability, however, high desertion rates, simmering ethnic tensions and the steady increase in the number of so-called "green on blue" attacks – where Nato soldiers are killed by their Afghan allies – underline the continuing fragility of Isaf's handover.
Nor does the political situation inspire much optimism: corruption remains rampant, improvements in women's rights are under threat and poppy-growing shot up by nearly a fifth this year alone. Philip Hammond himself conceded as much in his quarterly update to Parliament on Wednesday. Not only did the Defence Secretary admit that Afghanistan is "not a perfect democracy", he also acknowledged that "it never will be".
The Prime Minister has committed an annual £70m in aid after 2014 and a smattering of troops will also remain to continue training efforts. But such measures, while welcome, have all the appearance of a fig leaf in the context of widespread concerns that Kabul will lose control once Nato leaves. Mr Hammond's warning of "messy compromises" needed to expedite the international withdrawal – in all likelihood a political settlement with the Taliban – hardly leaves the impression of a job well done either.
For all the Government's flat denials that Britain's retreat from Afghanistan is being accelerated, it is difficult to view such sharp and sudden troop reductions as those outlined this week in any other light. Indeed, there is little choice but to do so. After all, with Canada and France already gone, and any number of other countries spelling out their own plans, the momentum in the international coalition is only going one way. The US is also mulling how many of its 66,000 troops to pull out next year, and the man tipped to become Barack Obama's next Defence Secretary – Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel – is expected to support a more rapid withdrawal. Add to that the Chancellor's desire to put an end to a military involvement that has cost the cash-strapped Exchequer more than £17bn so far, and it would be surprising if military pressure to slow down rather than speed up was heeded.
It is not all politics, though. There are also sound practical reasons to hasten our departure – even if the Government cannot admit to be doing so. The Isaf commitment to end combat operations by 2014 – set out publicly in May – has already made a mockery of any claims to victory. Once a departure date was fixed, Taliban insurgents only ever needed to wait Nato out. And in the meantime the rising toll of British soldiers killed and wounded becomes ever more difficult to justify. Withdrawal from Afghanistan may be an admission of defeat, but it is one that has already been made. With so little evidence that staying longer would change anything, the sooner all our troops are home, the better.