UK general warns of cutting Afghanistan troops too quickly

20-tonne armoured Warthog trucks in Afghanistan, taken 25/02/2013
Image caption Britain's presence in Afghanistan will be reduced by almost a half by the end of this year to 5,200

Cutting British forces in Afghanistan too quickly could "endanger" progress at a critical time, the UK's top commander there has told a paper.

Lt Gen Nick Carter, deputy chief of Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), told the Independent passing control of security to Afghan forces was going well.

But he warned any move to thin out UK forces too soon would be unforgivable.

Nato combat operations against the Taliban will finish by the end of 2014.

And as part of a gradual withdrawal, the number of British troops in Afghanistan will be almost halved from 9,000 to 5,200 by the end of 2013.

Gen Carter's warning comes as forces for Afghan President Hamid Karzai - who have been carrying out their first engagement without Western help - called for support from Isaf during a battle against drug smugglers, according to the paper.

Elsewhere, a major operation to airlift tonnes of UK military equipment from Afghanistan, including helicopters and armoured vehicles, is already under way.

'Test of determination'

Speaking to the independent, Gen Carter said: "It would be unforgivable if we allowed the gains of the last three years to be lost because we were not able to provide the Afghans with the support to take this through into 2014.

"Our judgement is we have to manage this in a way that retains confidence. Precipitating withdrawal that is not in line with the current plan will damage Afghan confidence."

He also said the coming summer would be "a genuine test of the capability and confidence of the Afghan forces, a test of determination of the Afghan people to be with their government and a test of how much will remain in the insurgency".

"We want the Afghans to be doing it, but, if the Afghans get into trouble, or if the fighting season proves to be very difficult, we would be able to put our power back into the field to support and sustain them."

Brig Bob Bruce, commander of Task Force Helmand - where British troops have been based since 2006 - told the Guardian newspaper it was the right time for Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to take control of the country's security, with the option of British back-up "if they really struggle".

"This is their insurgency. We know for a fact there is no military solution to the insurgency," he said, explaining the main problem was a political one.

"It is a battle of offers: the offer the government makes to the people and the offer the insurgents make to the people."

He added: "We will not let them fail. When they really need us, we will intervene."

Some 441 UK service personnel have died since operations began in Afghanistan in 2001.