There is a clear, unremitting pattern to David Cameron’s announcements on Afghanistan: they all point to the exit. Today he repeated that troops could begin returning in 2011 — contradicting a warning from the new head of the armed forces last month. As one senior military figure told me recently, Cameron “is not making our job easier”.
General Sir David Richards, the chief of defence staff, is travelling with the prime minister in Helmand and certainly gave a much warmer response to the idea of an “accelerated withdrawal” when asked this time round. But there will still be a lively discussion over the pace of the draw down and what, if anything, would slow it down.
The other big issue is what happens after 2015, when the “combat mission” comes to an end. Senior military officers are planning for a training mission to support the Afghan army, with a 1,000 or more British troops turning to teaching.
To most voters, that probably sounds harmless enough, given the “combat” is over.
But the military’s view of a training mission is a bit different. It is not what most people expect. Training Afghan forces involves mentoring them in battle, on the frontline. This won’t be done in heavily protected camps. It will involve British troops being shot at and firing back. Some men will be injured and killed. They may be called “military advisers”, but it will feel like war.
The other issue is how many of them are out there. To sustain 1,000 trainers — the number cited by Richards in his interview with The Sun — you’d need a relatively big base. Unless British trainers are billeted with US forces, that could mean a total commitment of something around 3,500 UK soldiers, just in order to provide force protection.
These hypotheticals just underline how complex the process of ending combat operations by 2015 will be. Cameron has so far — over setting a clear deadline and leaving Sangin — showed complete determination over drawing a line under Britain’s war in Afghanistan. But there will be many more tests to come.