Meeting of National Security Council holds back from endorsing plans for swifter drawdown next year
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 13 December 2011 23.26 GMT
A special meeting of the government’s National Security Council (NSC) has reaffirmed plans for all UK combat troops to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but held back from endorsing plans for an additional withdrawal next year beyond the 500 troops already announced by David Cameron. The NSC also examined options for a swifter drawdown in 2013, but no decision was made.
The stocktaking session lasted two hours and focused on the chances of hastening a reconciliation between the Taliban and the Karzai government.
There had been options on the table to speed up troop withdrawals in 2013 on the basis that it might in turn expedite the process of reconciliation, as well as force the Afghan army to take further control of security in the country. Cost savings would also be made.
The extended meeting heard from three independent experts: Michael Semple, a Harvard professor and expert on Pashtun Afghans; Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow in foreign policy from the Saban Centre at the Brookings Institution; and Anatole Lieven, the chair of international relations and terrorism studies at King’s College London.
Riedel chaired an interagency review of policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan for the White House that was completed in March 2009. Semple has long been an advocate of talking to the Taliban.
The prime minister’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mark Sedwill, also addressed the meeting.
The presence of independent experts may have been designed to provide the NSC with a counterweight to the sometimes-Panglossian assessment by British military chiefs that victory is imminent.
There has been a widespread view inside government for more than two years that Nato military forces are unlikely to prevail – but, equally, that the Taliban cannot assassinate their way to victory.
Under proposals discussed at the meeting, the number of UK troops in Helmand province would be cut from 9,000 to 5,000 in 2013, and almost the same number would withdraw the following year – leaving a few hundred in Kabul when Nato ends its combat role in 2014.
But plans to speed up the pullout would be in defiance of Nato commanders leading the International Security and Assistance Force in Kabul. They have advised a more cautious approach, and are urging all Nato countries – most importantly the US – to delay any further troop withdrawals to the end of 2013 so Nato forces can contribute to another full “fighting season”. The troop freeze is deemed important to keep the coalition from fracturing.
The possibility that US president, Barack Obama, might decide to speed up his own troop withdrawal plans next year was also discussed at the meeting, but the consensus is that, in an election year, Obama is unlikely to go against the advice of his military chiefs, who favour the current troop drawdown timetable.
Cameron’s spokesman said no decisions on accelerating troop withdrawals were made, adding that the UK combat role will end in 2014.
Sedwill has predicted that in 2020 “Afghanistan will not be a safe haven for al-Qaida and whatever remains of the insurgency should no longer pose a mortal threat to the Afghan state. The lives of most Afghans will still be dominated by poverty rather than insecurity, illiteracy will still be high, and children will still be at risk from respiratory and diarrhoeal diseases which are responsible for the highest infant mortality rate in the world. But economic growth should be lifting more Afghans out of subsistence poverty.”