British troop numbers in Afghanistan could be scaled back in five years as the Afghan army is strengthened, though some will have to stay behind in a support role, the British army’s new chief said.
General David Richards, who took over as chief of general staff in August, told the BBC he agreed with the analysis by the US commander of international forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, that additional troops would be needed.
Troops numbers could be reduced once the Afghan army and police were trained in sufficient numbers to take over more responsibility in the fight against Taliban insurgents, he said.
"We are in a period of risk where we haven’t got enough troops in the round to do what we all know is required," he said.
"So we need what he (McChrystal) calls a bridging force to enable us to contain the Taliban while we much more aggressively grow the Afghan army and police.
"If we get it right, our estimation is that by about 2011/2012 you will see an appreciable improvement and by about 2014 we will ramp down our numbers as they ramp up, and you will start to reduce the overall risks of the operation."
Britain currently has 9000 troops in Afghanistan, but Prime Minister Gordon Brown last week said an extra 500 could be sent providing key conditions were met.
"It is an ambitious target, but if I’m half right, I’d say we’ve got five years of declining violence as we get that formula right and then we will go into what might be called a supporting role where we continue to do things that are probably beyond the Afghan army; support and logistics, that sort of thing," Richards added.
"Obviously the civilian effort will probably go on for many, many years beyond that."
Richards, a former NATO commander in Afghanistan, courted controversy in August when he said Britain could be involved in Afghanistan for another "30 to 40 years."
Public opinion is increasingly turning against the campaign as the number of British casualties increases, and disputes have arisen between the government and some military figures over equipment shortages.