UK Politics

Cameron denies 'mixed messages' on Afghan pull-out

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Media captionDavid Cameron: "There is absolutely no change in policy (on Afghanistan)"

David Cameron has denied sending out "mixed messages" over plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by 2015.

The prime minister, his deputy Nick Clegg and foreign secretary William Hague have all said UK forces will not stay beyond that date in a combat role.

But Mr Cameron has also said the withdrawal would be "conditions-based".

Hitting back at criticism from Labour and some of his own backbenchers, he told the BBC there was "absolutely no contradiction between the two things".

Mr Cameron, who is in Washington, said there was "absolutely no change in policy" on Afghanistan from the previous government.

He explained that he had said troops would be home by 2015 because he wanted to send out a signal "that we won't be in Afghanistan forever".

"To give people some certainty, we have said, to be clear, that in 2015 there are not going to be combat troops, or large numbers of British troops, in Afghanistan," he told BBC News.

'Pressure'

He said there will be "a relationship with Afghanistan and there may be some training still going on" but "not anything like there is now".

It was "safe" to say 2015, he added, because the coalition forces planned to hand over to Afghan forces by 2014, "based on the conditions on the ground".

In the Commons, shadow foreign secretary David Miliband accused the government of sending out "mixed messages" - a point echoed by senior Tory backbencher Andrew Tyrie.

"I certainly think there's a danger of mixed messages," Mr Tyrie told BBC Radio 4's The World at One.

"Do we have a fixed timetable or do we have a policy based on conditionality? I was also left a little unclear about what exactly we're leaving behind after 2015.

"There's certainly a risk that if we are locked into a timetable, we could empower the Taliban."

Conservative MP Julian Lewis said setting a date for withdrawal put pressure on the Afghan government, not the Taliban.

Shadow defence secretary Bob Ainsworth also suggested setting a timetable would encourage the Taliban and make the work of British troops harder.

Foreign secretary William Hague told MPs the Afghan National Army would number 171,600 by October 2011, which he said was a "very large army" and a sign of how much progress was being made.

Quizzed on why, given that Afghan forces were now more than twice the size of Britain's armed forces, the UK did not pull out now, he said the Afghan National Army would not be ready to take over any sooner than 2014.

He also said their training was part of a three-pronged strategy, along with economic and political development, that would bring stability to Afghanistan.

He conceded that it would suit the UK's interests in Afghanistan to reach a "political settlement" with the Taliban, but it would have to be one "under which al-Qaeda cannot return" and there was a "legitimate government" in place.

And he stressed the role the armed forces played in the political process.

"The military pressure on the Taliban, the work that our forces do in fighting the Taliban and in making areas secure from the Taliban, is an important part of putting them under the necessary pressure for some of them to want to make a political agreement," he told MPs.

Mr Hague said he did not want to define the government's 2015 objective "any more tightly" than that.

'Wary'

US president Barack Obama has talked about beginning the pull-out of American soldiers from July 2011.

David Cameron told the BBC the same could be expected of UK forces "based on conditions on the ground".

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Media captionClegg: Timetable 'cannot be chiselled in stone'

But former head of the Army Gen Sir Mike Jackson said he was "wary" about setting dates, and a plan to transfer power "does not equal reality".

Taking his first Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the removal of British troops in a combat role by 2015 was "consistent" with the timetable for Afghan forces assuming responsibility for security.

"No timetable can be chiselled in stone but we are absolutely determined - given how long we have been in Afghanistan, given that we are six months into an 18-month military strategy, embarking on a new political strategy - that we must be out in a combat role by 2015," he said.

Former Army chief Sir Mike refused to say whether he felt Mr Cameron's 2015 target was achievable, but he acknowledged that it was "ambitious".

"The important thing for me is that a plan does not equal reality. If the conditions are not going the way of the plan, we need to keep that in mind," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"There could be an element of hostage to fortune in being too pedantic about the date. I have always been wary about dates. We seek a set of conditions on the ground."

Sir Mike said it was "always a considerable concern" that setting a date would simply encourage the Taliban to hold out until then to resurge.

He said that power could only be transferred to Afghans when they were able to maintain their own security, adding: "I don't think anybody would contemplate ceasing international military operations unless that very clear condition has been met."

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