Despite some concern, privately, by some British commanders, UK Defence Minister Phillip Hammond has announced the withdrawal of 500 British troops from Afghanistan. Hammond said that Afghan Security Forces were now strong enough to permit 500 British troops to return home.
The draw down of the British contingent from 9,500 troops to 9,000 was announced last year, but was based on conditions on the ground and the recommendations of the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards.
While the insurgency still poses a real threat, Hammond said that Afghan Security Forces were vastly improved, a situation, which allowed the construction of 30 extra schools and 29 health clinics. He said that prosperity was the key in fighting the insurgency.
"Prosperity will be a critical weapon in the battle against the
insurgency," he said "In the last year alone, income levels in Helmand
have increased by 20%."
During the past six months, Hammond said, that Afghan Security Forces had cleared more than 200 compounds, made safe 44 improvised explosive
devices, found seven bomb-making factories and confiscated over 145
kilograms of homemade explosives.
"The success of that operation further demonstrated their increasing
professionalism and capability. The reality on the ground is that Afghan
forces are increasingly taking the lead."
British Commanders, who had just returned from Afghanistan, said that Helmand province was insulated from the unrest of the rest of the country, which was provoked by the behaviour of American troops, but there is some concern by British commanders on what the effects of a withdrawal of 16,000 US troops from Helmand will have on the situation.
NATO has gone into full exit mode. Earlier this week, the U.S. finalized a Strategic Planning Treaty, which is ready for signature by both President Obama and President Hamid Karzai. There was the issue of funding requirements for some 352,000 Afghan troops by the end of next year. President Karzai had demanded that the US commit to $2 Billion in writing. The total cost is expected to be $4.2 Billion, of which the US will cover approximately $2.1 Billion.
According to RT TV, NATO and the US will have troops in Afghanistan until 2024. The size and scope is not known, however they will be providing support and training. Canadian media reported recently that Canada and Australia had been asked leave a small contingent of forces in place. Speculation is that those will be special forces.
Australia has announced that it will withdraw its 1500 troops by the end of 2013, one year ahead of schedule. France has also given its intend to exit one year early.
Despite the optimistic outlook by most NATO countries, there is still a lot of concern over Afghanistan's ability to cope with the insurgency. Recently coordinated attacks in Kabul and Eastern Afghanistan have raised serious concerns.
President Obama will hold a summit in Chicago in May. More details should be made public then.