LONDON — The rate of NATO troop withdrawals from Afghanistan ahead of a 2014 departure deadline must depend on security conditions on the ground, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Saturday. The comments could be seen as a gentle rebuke to France, which has announced it is pulling its soldiers out a year early.
Speaking after talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Cameron said that "between now and 2014 there will be opportunities for different countries to reduce their troop numbers."
"I don't want to see some sort of cliff edge in 2014 when all of the remaining troops come out at once," Cameron said. "But clearly, between now and 2014, the rate at which we can reduce our troops will depend on the transition to Afghan control in the different parts of Afghanistan and that should be the same for all of the members of NATO who are all contributing and helping to (build) a strong, stable and peaceful Afghanistan, which is in all our interests."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced Friday that French troops would speed up withdrawal plans and leave the country by the end of next year, instead of NATO's agreed 2014 date. The announcement follows the deaths of four French soldiers, killed Jan. 20 by an Afghan soldier they were training.
Speaking after meeting Karzai in Paris, Sarkozy said the two leaders had agreed that NATO should hand over all security to Afghans by the end of 2013, saying the proposal would be discussed at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels next week.
The NATO-led international force in Afghanistan has been steadily handing over responsibility for security to the Afghan army and police ever since the alliance's last summit in Lisbon in 2010. There, NATO leaders decided to move the Afghans into the lead role in fighting the Taliban by 2014 and end the coalition's combat role.
France has about 3,600 soldiers in the international force, which is made up mostly of American troops. Britain has about 9,500 troops in Afghanistan and says it will withdraw several hundred this year and almost all of them by the end of 2014.
A total of 397 British personnel have died in Afghanistan since operations began in 2001, the most recent a soldier shot dead on Friday in Helmand province.
Cameron and Karzai signed a long-term partnership agreement outlining future aid, trade and investment during a working lunch at Chequers, the prime minister's country retreat outside London.
Karzai praised Britain as his country's "steadfast friend."
"May I convey to the people of Britain the gratitude of the Afghan people for all that Britain has offered Afghanistan, for having been ready to sacrifice, and having been ready to share, hard-earned taxpayers' money with Afghanistan for the benefit of the Afghan life," he said.