KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan president on Thursday welcomed the withdrawal of nearly half of the British troops stationed in Afghanistan next year, saying his forces were ready to take up the country's defense.
A statement from Hamid Karzai's office said the partial pull-out was an "appropriate" move as NATO forces transfer responsibility for the war against the Taliban to the Afghan military.
British Prime Minister David Cameron announced Wednesday that about 3,800 British troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2013, with some 5,000 staying into 2014. The majority of NATO forces, including those of the United States, are set to leave by the end of 2014.
"The Afghan security forces are ready to implement the defense and security of the country. It is an appropriate act in the transition of security to Afghan forces," Karzai's statement said.
Cameron told lawmakers in London that the decision reflects confidence in the Afghan military. It also reflects mounting political pressure and periodic public protests in Britain for the end of its military role in Afghanistan, where it sent the second largest NATO force after the United States and sustained the second highest number of casualties.
Afghanistan's army and police have grown substantially with the help of international allies and now number 350,000. But desertion rates, illiteracy and tensions among ethnic groups within the ranks remain high and analysts say the Afghan military still lacks the know-how to mount major, multi-unit operations. Attacks by insurgents still occur daily.
In the latest incidence of violence, a powerful roadside bomb killed five civilians and two police officers Thursday in the western province of Nimroz, governor Mohammad Sarwar Subat told The Associated Press. The blast, he said, occurred near a police checkpoint as a vehicle carrying the civilians headed for a session in the provincial capital, Zaranuj. The governor said the bomb was set by "enemies of the state," used by officials to describe the Taliban or groups allied to it.
NATO officials regularly praise operations as "Afghan-led," even when Afghan forces play a minimal role, making it difficult to determine their full capability to take over. Also, a surge in insider attacks by Afghan soldiers and police against their own colleagues and international allies has raised further questions about their readiness.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who visited the country last week, said U.S. commanders in Afghanistan believe NATO has "turned the tide" after 11 years of war. But skepticism remains over whether the Afghan military can hold back a still powerful and resilient insurgency after 2014.
The U.S. has some 66,000 troops in the country with the number to be pulled out next year and the size of a residual force past 2014 currently under review in Washington.
Cameron said some British troops would stay on after 2014 to return equipment and deal with logistics.
"We've said very clearly: no one in a combat role, nothing like the number of troops there are now," Cameron said. "We've promised the Afghans that we will provide this officer training academy that they've specifically asked for. We are prepared to look at other issues above and beyond that, but that is the starting baseline."
The withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan will start next April, according to Defense Secretary Philip Hammond.
Cameron said Britain would continue to support Afghanistan by contributing about 70 million pounds (US $114,000) a year to help pay for Afghan security forces. Another 70 million pounds a year are spread through other aid programs.
Since 2001, 438 British personnel have died in Afghanistan.
Last month, France ended its combat operations in the country, pulling hundreds of troops from a base in a volatile region northeast of Kabul and fulfilling promises to end its combat role ahead of other NATO allies. France has lost 88 troops in Afghanistan since late 2001.