LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s incoming army chief said on Monday comments he made earlier this month about the conflict in Afghanistan lasting up to 40 years were misconstrued.
General David Richards, who takes over as chief of the defense staff on August 28, said in a statement his earlier comments needed clarifying and he did not think British soldiers would be fighting there for 40 more years.
“It is not what I said or what I believe,” he said in a statement issued by the Ministry of Defense.
“Afghanistan will need international help for many years to come — for example through development, governance and security sector reform — and I am sure the UK will play a part in that.
“But a British military force along current lines should only be needed for a much shorter period. There is no difference between my views and those of the secretary of state on this.
Commentators said his remarks had shown the disconnect between the army and the politicians.
They also kicked off a political debate, with the opposition Conservative party, which is expected to win the next election, saying government policy on Afghanistan was wrong if the general really did believe it could last 40 years more.
Richards, who previously served as the NATO commander in Afghanistan, has said before Britain needs more troops if it is going to help the United States defeat the Taliban.
But in an interview with the Times newspaper published on August 8, he appeared to go much further, suggesting Afghanistan could involve Britain for 40 more years.
“The army’s role will evolve, but the whole process might take as long as 30 or 40 years,” he was quoted as saying.
“I believe that the UK will be committed to Afghanistan in some manner — development, governance and security sector reform — for the next 30 to 40 years.”
Britain has 9,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, most in the southern province of Helmand, where the Taliban remain strong. British and U.S. forces have launched offensives in the past four weeks to try to drive militants out of southern strongholds before a presidential election on August 20.
July was the deadliest month of the conflict for Britain and the United States. Britain lost 22 troops and has lost a further 10 this month, raising the total death toll since the war began in 2001 to 204, exceeding the toll from the war in Iraq.
The United States has about 63,000 troops in Afghanistan, half of them serving under a total NATO deployment of 68,000.
Reporting by Luke Baker; Editing by Sophie Hares