UK, Australia back US Afghan strategy
London - British leader David Cameron "fully agreed" with US President Barack Obama that "sustained pressure" could be applied to Afghan insurgents despite a troop cutback, his office said on Thursday.
In a call made hours before Obama announced the withdrawal of thousands of US troops from the war-torn nation, Cameron reaffirmed to the US leader that Britain would remove all of its combat troops by 2015.
Obama briefed Cameron on the latest situation on the ground and "the implications for the timing of the withdrawal of the US surge", according to a Downing Street statement.
"The prime minister fully agreed (with) the president's assessment, noting the good progress being made on security transition," continued the statement.
The pair "agreed that in due course the progress on transition would make it possible to sustain pressure on the insurgency while allowing a progressive reduction in International Security Assistance Force force levels," it added.
Obama announced that all 33 000 US surge troops would be withdrawn by "next summer" as a result of progress in the war against Taliban insurgents.
In a televised address from the White House, the president said "we will be able to remove 10 000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33 000 by next summer".
Obama ordered the surge in December 2009 in a bid to reverse fortunes in the war, which began in 2001.
Cameron "reaffirmed that UK forces will no longer be in a combat role in Afghanistan by 2015" in a pointed response to senior British military figures who this week voiced fears that the drawdown was being rushed.
On an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Wednesday pledged that his country would be a "friend for the long-term" to Afghanistan, but echoed his leader's vow to bring back combat troops.
"By 2015, we will not have troops here in a combat role or anything like their present numbers but we will be a friend for the long-term with our expertise, our economic co-operation and development aid," he told a news conference in Kabul.
The former Conservative party leader also revealed that Britain was involved in a dialogue with the Taliban.
9 500 British troops
"Talks do happen with the Taliban, let me put it that way," Hague told The Sun newspaper.
"We are connected to what happens, we will assist where we can and we are strongly supportive of it," he added.
Hague was on a joint three-day visit to Afghanistan with his counterpart from the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
Britain is the second-largest contributor of foreign troops in Afghanistan, with about 9 500, mainly in the south.
Head of the British army General Peter Wall on Wednesday cast doubt on Cameron's 2015 deadline during an interview for BBC documentary "Afghanistan: War Without End?"
"Whether or not it turns out to be an absolute timeline or more conditions-based approach nearer the time, we shall find out," Chief of the General Staff Wall said.
Investment in blood
Former army chief Richard Dannatt warned Cameron not to be tempted to accelerate the withdrawal by Obama's announcement.
"Obama may wish to withdraw troops for his domestic political purposes but I am quite sure our prime minister will not fall into the same trap," the former soldier told Wednesday's The Times.
"He will not want to risk the investment in blood and treasure just for a domestic political agenda," he added.
Meanwhile Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Thursday said Australian troops would remain in Afghanistan until 2014 as planned despite the US drawback.
Australia, a key coalition partner, has around 1 500 personnel in Afghanistan and Gillard said they would stay the distance.
"As recently as today the chief of the defence force has confirmed to me that those 1 500 Australian personnel are required to acquit our mission in Uruzgan province," she told reporters.
Australia sticking to strategy
"In terms of the announcement of the United States, our work in Uruzgan province will continue in the same way."
Gillard insisted Australia's strategy would not change.
"We are working to build up the capacity of the Afghanistan nation to provide for its own security," she said.
"We are working to transition security to the leadership of local Afghan forces. We are aiming to do that by 2014 as announced by President Karzai."
Gillard has had to defend her decision to keep troops in Afghanistan in recent weeks after a spate of casualties, with 27 Australians killed in the decade-old conflict so far.
She said Australians would continue to work with the US military in Uruzgan.
"You should not be concerned about the support for our troops from the American personnel that we work with," she said.