UK troops could stay in Afghanistan for 5 years - general

LONDON (Reuters) - British troops could stay in Afghanistan for up to five more years, the head of the British Army was quoted as saying on Wednesday.

A British soldier is seen holding on to the turret gun of a manoeuvring armoured vehicle in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, February 8, 2010. REUTERS/Baris Atayman

General David Richards, who is tipped for possible promotion to overall chief of the British armed forces, told Prospect magazine that the reason Britain had no more than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan was that it could “endure that forever” within the army’s deployable strength of 75,000.

Asked whether U.S. forces could withdraw from Afghanistan quite soon, Richards said: “Well, it depends who you talk to. That is not the official line coming out of the White House or the Pentagon.

“I’m assuming we’ll be involved in Afghanistan for another three to five years, that is the current working assumption at the Ministry of Defence.”

Richards’s comments were published as U.S. President Barack Obama prepared to confront his top Afghanistan commander, General Stanley McChrystal, before deciding whether to fire him over inflammatory comments that have angered the White House and threaten to undermine the war effort [nSGE65M0DW].

Despite a surge that has brought the U.S.-dominated foreign force to 150,000, the Taliban insurgency is at its strongest since the hardline Islamists were overthrown in 2001.

Under Obama’s strategy, U.S. forces would gradually begin to withdraw starting in July 2011 as Afghan forces take the lead. The U.S. administration has not said how many troops will be withdrawn or how quickly they will leave.

British forces have been engaged in some of the fiercest fighting in the southern province of Helmand. The British military death toll since 2001 has risen above 300, eroding support for the mission among the British public.

New Prime Minister David Cameron has ruled out sending more troops to the Afghan mission and said Britain’s forces should not stay on “for a day longer” than necessary.

Visiting Afghanistan this month, Cameron called 2010 a “vital year” for the Afghan war and said the British public needed to see progress over the next six months.

The Afghan war is costing Britain billions of pounds at a time when it is slashing government spending to rein in a gaping budget deficit. Defence spending is likely to be cut.

Richards is a leading contender to succeed Jock Stirrup as chief of the defence staff, Britain’s most senior military officer, when he steps down later this year.

Reporting by Adrian Croft; editing by Philippa Fletcher