KABUL, Afghanistan – British troops may start withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Tuesday, during a surprise trip to the country.
Since taking office in May, Cameron said his government had scaled back British ambitions in Afghanistan and acknowledged the dangers of waning public support. He also said British troops will quit their combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
"The whole of NATO ... have signed up to a transition process that starts early next year handing over districts and provinces to Afghan lead control, to be completed by 2014," Cameron said Tuesday at a news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
On Monday, Cameron visited the southern Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold.
When asked about British withdrawal Monday, Cameron said: "I think that it is possible and we'll see that next year. But more importantly is that whole of NATO, not just Britain, the whole of NATO, all of the countries involved here in Afghanistan — now almost 50 countries plus the Afghan government — they're saying: Transition starts now and it runs up to 2014."
Cameron and Karzai also addressed information from leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, including a November 2008 cable saying the U.S. and Karzai "agree the British are not up to the task of securing Helmand." Afghanistan's foreign minister "expressed disappointment in the British, contending they were not ready to fight as actively as American soldiers."
Cameron responded Tuesday that "it's clear now that we didn't have enough troops in Helmand," a southern province and Taliban stronghold. Karzai brushed off the controversy, as well.
"Britain has been a steadfast supporter of Afghanistan and the Afghan people," Karzai said.
Cameron also urged an investigation into the death of a British soldier in a friendly fire incident in the country's south.
The British Defense Ministry has said a British soldier who died in southern Afghanistan on Sunday may have been killed by supporting fire from a U.S. aircraft. He was shot while on patrol in Nad Ali district of Helmand province. He was the 346th death among British forces and civilian defense workers in Afghanistan since 2002.
"Well, it's absolutely tragic when incidents like this happen and my heart goes out to the family concerned — to lose the loved one and to lose the loved one in this way is obviously a terrible thing," he said in Helmand on Monday. "There'll have to be a proper investigation to find out what happened and how this went wrong."
At the NATO summit in Lisbon last month, Cameron said British troops will quit their combat role in Afghanistan by 2015.
Also Monday, the Afghan Ministry of Defense said six Afghan soldiers were killed Monday. Three died in a gunbattle with insurgents in Muqur district of Badghis province in northwest Afghanistan, and three others were killed in a traffic accident in Qarabagh district of Ghazni province in eastern Afghanistan, along the Pakistani border.