Australia was today strongly criticised for plans to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan a year earlier than planned.
A senior British military source said the move was “unhelpful” and that an orderly pull-out of Allied forces could “unravel” if NATO nations go it alone and decide different timetable to exit from the wartorn country.
“If people do start cutting and running 12 to 18 months earlier, you just risk the whole end piece getting ragged and messy,” he told The Standard.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard cited security improvements and the death of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders among reasons for speeding up a withdrawal, which will likely see most Australia troops home by the end of 2013.
“This is a war with a purpose. This is a war with an end,” she said in a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.
“We have a strategy, a mission and a timeframe for achieving it.”
But British military insiders were surprised by the announcement.
One senior source told The Standard: “We had an agreed plan. It did make sense. It was just about feasible and viable to get out in the timeline we were talking about and hand over to Afghan forces that were just ready.
“The whole thing is going to unravel if everybody starts doing their own thing.
“Instead of it being orderly and co-ordinated, you do run the risk that you hand over to an Afghan force that is not quite ready for the task.”
Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces losing the French presidency within weeks, and US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta have hinted at accelerating the hand-over for Afghan forces to take the security lead across the country, with Allied forces stepping back from a combat role next year and no longer taking part in routine day-to-day patrols.
But Ms Gillard’s statement was seen as more dramatic and fuelled speculation that the faster timetable is being driven by Barack Obama to have withdrawal plans finalised before the November US presidential election.
She denied this and the pull-out will be discussed at the NATO summit in Chicago next month.
America and Britain have agreed to withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014.
If the US changed its plans, the UK is widely expected to follow them.
But a major assault by the Taliban in Kabul this week raised questions about whether Afghan forces will be able to control security after foreign troops withdraw.
US forces number about 90,000 of the 130,000-strong NATO-led force. France has 3,600 troops in Afghanistan and Britain 9,500. Australia has about 1,550.
With 32 Australian soldiers killed and hundreds wounded, the Australian government is under mounting pressure to withdraw troops, and faces an expected election next year which Ms Gillard is forecast to lose.
The Australian soldiers’ primary objective has been training an Afghan National Army brigade to take responsibility for security in Uruzgan province.