Army chief aims for Afghan pullout in 5 yrs

LONDON: The war in Afghanistan will die down next year and British troops could be withdrawn within five years, the head of the army said in a newspaper interview Saturday.

General Sir David Richards told the Daily Telegraph that coalition forces had reached a "turning point" in the battle against the Taliban, thanks to a major allied offensive on an insurgent-held area of southern Afghanistan.

He said the current 10,000-strong British force could be reduced as early as next year, with the majority to be pulled out within the next five years.

"We expect the military conflict to trail off in 2011. The combat role will start to decline in 2011, but we will remain militarily engaged in training and support roles for another five years, and we will remain in a support role for many years to come," he told the newspaper.

Just seven months ago, Richards had warned that Britain could be involved in Afghanistan for up to 40 years.

He said he was seeing some "very optimistic signs" from Operation Mushtarak, conducted by US, British, Canadian and other NATO troops alongside Afghan forces, aimed at returning the town of Marjah to government control.

The Taliban were on the back foot as a result of the offensive, he said.

"A year ago they thought they had us on the run. But now the tables have been turned.

"They are under relentless pressure, and they are now having some serious thoughts about continuing the fight," he said.

"The Taliban is now beginning to realise that they can lose this war, which was not the view held a year ago."

A total of 266 British servicemen have died since the conflict began in 2001, including three over the past few days.

A US commander said Saturday that most combat operations in Operation Mushtarak had subsided, but a US official said it was just the prelude to a larger assault being planned on the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.