British Prime Minister David Cameron says his country's troops may begin to leave Afghanistan as early as 2011.
Cameron made his comments today during a surprise visit to Afghanistan, as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also flew into the country.
Cameron spoke at Camp Bastion, the British military base in the volatile southern Afghan province of Helmand where the prime minister began his Afghan visit on December 6.
Helmand is where the bulk of Britain's 9,500-strong Afghanistan contingent is serving.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) with Cameron at a joint press conference in Kabul
The British prime Mmnister today also held bilateral talks with President Hamid Karzai in the capital, Kabul.
More than 340 British troops have so far died in Afghanistan, and a recent rise in casualties has added to the war's unpopularity at home.
Since taking office, Cameron has backed a plan to bring all British combat troops home from Afghanistan by 2015. He previously said his government has scaled back British ambitions in Afghanistan and has warned of declining public support for the war there.
In a joint press conference with the Afghan president in Kabul, Cameron said that "real progress" made this year in the nine-year conflict in Afghanistan must be made "irreversible" in 2011.
He said that all NATO members have signed up to a transition process in which security responsibilities would be gradually handed over to the Afghans. The process would begin next year and is expected to be completed in 2014, when Western forces would end their combat role.
"I have seen for myself the progress that we are making in Helmand Province," Cameron said. "I have discussed with President Karzai the plan for handing over responsibility to Afghan forces and our long-term relationship between our two countries. And we also discussed our shared priorities for 2011, which we must make a decisive year in this campaign."
Cameron said that London and Kabul would work together on a new long-term partnership that would "set out in black and white the ways in which we will support you politically, economically, and militarily."
The two leaders also put on a joint front in the wake of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables that revealed criticism of British operations in Afghanistan.
A November 2008 cable made public by the WikiLeaks website said that Washington and Karzai "agree the British are not up to the task of securing Helmand." The cables also quoted senior Afghan officials as expressing grave doubts over British willingness to really take on the insurgents.
Karzai today, however, brushed such disagreements aside.
"The WikiLeaks documents are having some truth and some not-so-truth in them," Karzai said. "Britain has been a steadfast supporter of Afghanistan and of the Afghan people. Britain has contributed in the sacrifice of its soldiers, of blood and of resources in Afghanistan, for which the Afghan people are extremely grateful."
Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also arrived in Afghanistan today for talks with commanders and Karzai.
His unannounced trip comes ahead of a review of U.S. military policy in Afghanistan due for completion next week. The review will gauge whether the sending of an additional 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan ordered by President Barack Obama last year is working to suppress the stubborn insurgency and train Afghans to take control of their own security.
There are now 150,000 coalition forces in Afghanistan, over half of them American, with Britain the second-largest contributing nation.written by Abubakar Siddique, with agency reports