British troop numbers in Afghanistan fall by a fifth as UK mirrors Donald Trump's withdrawal

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British soldiers stand guard at the site where gunmen attacked a political gathering in Kabul, Afghanistan, 06 March 2020.
British soldiers stand guard at the site where gunmen attacked a political gathering in Kabul, Afghanistan, 06 March 2020.

British troop levels in Afghanistan have fallen by a fifth in recent months as the UK has shadowed Donald Trump's withdrawal, the Ministry of Defence has disclosed.

The number of British troops in the country has been cut from 1,100 in February to 850 currently, as American numbers have plummeted.

Mr Trump caused alarm among Nato allies last week after unexpectedly signalling American troop levels will fall to just 2,500 by the time he leaves office in mid-January.

Under the American troop withdrawal deal signed with the Taliban in Doha in February all US troops should be out of the country by May. Britain is expected to cut further in the coming months as Nato forces follow American troops to the exits.

Ben Wallace, defence secretary, this week said that British and Nato troops were heavily reliant on American forces to operate in Afghanistan.

“Force levels dropping below a certain level would be problematic for us all,” he told MPs.

“At the moment, our dependency is so great that if the United States were to unilaterally pull out of Afghanistan, it would give very few options for the other nations.”

Nato officials have suggested they might be able to keep a permanent presence in Afghanistan to train the Afghan forces even after the Americans leave. But officials admit the Taliban are unlikely to agree.

“For the Taliban constituency, they will want to say they have got rid of all foreign forces,” said one senior diplomat.

At the peak of America's longest war, the Pentagon had more than 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan and there were still more than 13,000 at the start of 2020.

British troops ended their Helmand combat mission in 2014, but have conducted security patrols and officer training in Kabul since then.

Joe Biden has long been skeptical of the Afghan military campaign and is not expected to increase troop levels, though he has said he would consider keeping a small special forces mission of around 2,000 in the country.

One of the first foreign policy decisions to be taken when he takes office will be whether America continues to abide by the Doha deal. There has been no reduction in Taliban violence, peace talks with the Afghan government have stalled before they have begun and intelligence assessments say the insurgents are still close to al-Qaeda.

An MoD spokeswoman said: “The number of UK military personnel in Afghanistan has gradually reduced as the Afghan National Army have taken on more responsibilities, in part thanks to their UK and Nato training.

“Any decisions on our future military presence are being made in consultation with our allies and partners. We always give consideration to the conditions on the ground.”

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