LONDON – Prime Minister David Cameron insisted Thursday that British troops will quit their combat role in Afghanistan by 2015, whatever the security conditions or progress made in tackling insurgents.
Ahead of a NATO summit in Lisbon on Friday, Cameron told a committee hearing with senior lawmakers that the deadline for the majority of Britain's 10,000 forces to withdraw was not negotiable.
"Britain by 2015 will have played a huge role, made a massive contribution, made massive sacrifices for a better, safer and stronger Afghanistan, and I think the British public deserve to know that there is an endpoint to all this," Cameron said.
Giving evidence to Parliament's liaison committee — a panel of the 33 heads of each of the other committees — Cameron insisted he would not waver on the decision. "That is why I set the deadline of 2015, and yes it is a deadline," he said.
Cameron was making his first appearance before the panel, which conducts two lengthy evidence sessions each year with the incumbent prime minister to scrutinize policy on a range of issues.
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 told the panel that shortly after taking office he called in experts from outside government to review Britain's role — including former special forces director Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb, lawmaker and ex-diplomat Rory Stewart and Paddy Ashdown, a House of Lords legislator and former U.N. High Representative for Bosnia.
Cameron said there "wasn't time for a great strategic rethink," but that the session had led to a subtle revision of Britain's approach to the conflict.
"Since then it's been much more national-security-focused, more hardheaded in its approach ... and a bit more realistic about what's achievable," he told lawmakers.
Britain's previous administration had been more active in supporting efforts to improve health care and education, alongside security.
Cameron declined to say specifically whether the U.S. and other allies, including Britain, are in dispute over political reconciliation in Afghanistan. He said he would talk "candidly as friends" with the U.S. over its reservations about Taliban fighters joining the country's politics, rather than comment in public.
Decisions over how to strike peace with the Taliban were for the Afghan government to make, but "most counterinsurgencies end through a combination of force of arms and a political settlement," Cameron said.
He told lawmakers he had spoken Thursday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in advance of the NATO summit in Portugal.
"The idea that there's some great disagreement between countries in the alliance about the combination of military success and political settlement — I don't think that's the case at all," Cameron said.
Cameron also defended his four-year package of spending cuts worth 81 billion pounds ($128 billion) announced last month to tackle Britain's budget deficit.
Cameron said he was forced to intervene personally between the defense ministry and treasury to strike an agreement on an 8-percent cut to the annual 37 billion pound ($59 billion) military budget.