LONDON (Reuters) - Britain could play some role in Afghanistan until 2050, the next head of the British army said in an interview published on Saturday.
General Sir David Richards, who becomes chief of the general staff later this month, said Britain’s military involvement should only be needed for the medium term before giving way to help with governing the country.
“I believe that the UK will be committed to Afghanistan in some manner, development, governance, security sector reform, for the next 30 to 40 years,” he was quoted as telling the Times newspaper.
“The army’s role will evolve, but the whole process might take as long as 30 to 40 years.”
There is “absolutely no chance” of NATO withdrawing its forces before Afghanistan’s own security forces are ready, he said.
“Just as in Iraq, it is our route out militarily, but the Afghan people and our opponents need to know that this does not mean our abandoning the region,” he told the Times.
“We made this mistake once. Our opponents are banking on us doing it again, and we must prove them wrong,” he said in an apparent reference to Western disengagement from Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
While Britain has about 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, the second largest contingent after the United States, the idea of keeping British forces there for years to come could prove difficult to sell to the public.
A poll for the Times last month suggested that two-thirds of voters want the troops to withdraw at once or within a year.
Political pressure on Prime Minister Gordon Brown rose after the deaths of 22 British troops in July, the deadliest month since Britain joined the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Critics have accused Brown of failing to commit sufficient troops to Afghanistan and sending them to fight the Taliban without adequate equipment, such as armored vehicles and helicopters.
Brown, who is well behind in the opinion polls with a parliamentary election less than a year away, has rejected the criticism and says British forces are properly equipped.
Violence has escalated ahead of the August 20 presidential poll that is seen as a key test of Western-led efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.
Reporting by Peter Griffiths; Editing by Jon Hemming