KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – British Prime Minister David Cameron visited frontline troops at the start of a visit to Afghanistan Wednesday and defended the decision to withdraw from the war-torn country, British officials said.Cameron, who is expected to meet President Hamid Karzai in Kabul during his visit, flew into the southern city of Lashkar Gar, capital of Helmand province, where British forces are based at Camp Bastion.
Britain has around 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, making it the second-largest contributor to NATO’s US-led 130,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is due to withdraw by the end of 2014.
Asked about major reductions in troop numbers, Cameron said it had been a difficult decision to make but insisted the coalition needed a defence budget which made sense, a statement from his office said.
“What I will commit to is that we will do this in a sensible, ordered, practical way — 9,500 to 9,000 this year,” he said. “As Afghan troops take a bigger role we will be able to reduce troop numbers further next year.
“I don’t want to see some cliff edge. I’m confident we are going to have a staged reduction and deliver a safe and secure situation,” he said.
London has previously announced plans for most of its troops to be withdrawn by the end of 2014, with 500 coming home by the end of 2012 and the rest gradually withdrawn over 2013 and 2014.
The Sun newspaper reported this week that ministers, including finance minister George Osborne, want a faster withdrawal.They believe that completing the pull-out by the end of 2013 could save the government £3 billion ($4.7 billion), the daily said.
Military chiefs reportedly oppose the move, saying it would risk hard-won gains.
Cameron’s spokesman said on Tuesday that no decisions had been taken on the timing yet but that the drawdown would be “steady and measured” and discussed in coming months.
The timing will also be discussed with Britain’s ISAF allies, the spokesman said.