Afghanistan withdrawal to continue in 2012

By Alex Stevenson

Five hundred more British troops are to be withdrawn from Afghanistan next year, the prime minister has told MPs.

The move follows the exit of 426 troops from the country by February 2012. By the end of next year Britain's core forces will return to 9,000 in total – as they were before the US' troop surge.

"This marks the start of a process which will ensure that by the end of 2014 there will not be anything like the number of British troops that are there now and that they will not be serving in a combat role," David Cameron told the Commons.

"This is the commitment I have made and it is the commitment we will stick to."

He said the UK deserved to know there is an "end point" for the current level of commitment and said it was right for Afghans too.

"It has injected a sense of urgency into their efforts," he claimed.

The US is withdrawing 10,000 soldiers from Afghanistan and ending its surge, which saw an extra 30,000 personnel deployed to fight the Taliban, in 2012.

David Cameron's statement to MPs came after his return from a two-day visit to Afghanistan, where he appealed to the Taliban to stop fighting and join the political process.

Sir William Patey, Britain's ambassador to Afghanistan, said there had been a "positive reaction" to the prime minister's message on Britain's long-term commitment to the country.

The prime minister raised eyebrows by drawing a parallel with Northern Ireland, where republicans who had tried to "kill, to maim and bomb civilians and police officers, Army personnel and even politicians" had become politicians themselves.

"It can happen and the message to the Taliban is: you cannot win this fight," he said.

The prime minister's visit was marred by the death of 20-year-old Highlander Scott McLaren, who had gone missing after leaving his checkpoint alone. He was found dead with gunshot wounds after a lengthy search.

Mr Cameron said his death showed the "high price" Britain was paying for its ongoing efforts to bring stability to the country. Highlander McLaren was the 375th British soldier to have died in Afghanistan since the start of operations in October 2001.