By Mohammed Abbas
LONDON, March 21 (Reuters) - Britain said on Wednesday it would use money once earmarked for its military mission in Afghanistan to fund tax cuts, a move that underlines a 2015 withdrawal date and that hints at significant troop drawdowns soon.
British finance minister George Osborne said spending on the Afghan conflict would be 2.4 billion pounds ($3.8 billion) less than expected in the years up to 2015.
“UK forces will cease combat operations by the end of 2014. As a consequence ... the cost of operations ... are expected to be a total of 2.4 billion pounds lower than planned over the remainder of the parliament,” Osborne told parliament while presenting his annual budget.
A Treasury official said the cash would pay for tax cuts, part of plans to stimulate Britain’s sagging economy.
The current parliament ends in 2015 and Britain has long said it would withdraw the bulk of its 9,500 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
It has said it will withdraw 500 soldiers this year but has not revealed its plans for reducing troop numbers after that.
The diversion of funding could mean it envisages a significant drawdown of forces during 2013.
According to official figures, Britain has spent at least 13.3 billion pounds on the conflict since 2001, in addition to normal defence spending.
Pressure has grown in recent months for the return of British troops after a series of setbacks, including the killing earlier this month of six soldiers in an explosion in southern Helmand province, where most British troops are based.
“It really does headline now the fact that they really are going to withdraw by the end of 2014 and the withdrawal is going to be phased,” said Charles Heyman, defence analyst and editor of the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom.
“It was a bit of an aspiration last year. This year it really means something, and the withdrawal is properly costed,” he added, predicting a drawdown of between 3,000 and 4,000 troops by the end 2013.
Speaking to parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron said he would look for opportunities next year to pull troops back from the Afghan front line.
“What I discussed with President Obama in America is making sure that in 2013 if there are opportunities to change the nature of the mission and be more in support rather than a direct combat role, then that’s something that I think everyone would want to see,” said Cameron, who was in Washington last week.
He has previously said he wanted to avoid a “cliff-edge” withdrawal of a large number of troops at the end of 2014.
Obama’s top commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, who commands U.S. and NATO forces there, will make recommendations about how quickly the United States should pull out of the country in the last three months of this year .