Page last updated at 12:19 GMT, Thursday, 13 November 2008

Britons call for troop withdrawal

British troops in Helmand, May 2007
There have been 124 UK troops killed in operations in Afghanistan

More than two-thirds of Britons think UK troops should leave Afghanistan within a year, a BBC poll has found.

Of 1,013 people polled, 68% - 59% men and 75% women - said troops should withdraw within 12 months.

But Farid Popal, the Afghan Embassy's political affairs secretary, said it was "unrealistic" to expect the force of 8,000 to "just abandon" the country.

Defence Secretary John Hutton has said UK forces in Afghanistan were crucial to British national security.

'Devastating consequences'

The ICM poll was commissioned to coincide with a BBC round-table discussion on the status of Afghanistan.

The age-group most opposed to the war were 18 to 24-year-olds, 75% of whom said they wanted troops pulled out.

Mr Popal told the BBC: "While your poll suggests that troops should come home, think about the devastation that it will bring to the local Afghans and think about the consequences of security for the rest of the international community."

It was done at the bidding of the Americans... I just think we should pull out
Simon Jenkins, columnist

He added: "It is unrealistic to think that the 8,000-strong British military will just abandon Helmand province in less than a year's time."

Also at the discussion, to be broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, was Zarghona Rassa, who chairs the British Afghan Women's Society.

She told the BBC her "heart goes to people from both sides that are killed in this war", but she also implored people to take a broader perspective on the conflict.

Ms Rassa said: "Imagine...if they are out of Afghanistan, would it solve the problem of British society or would it solve the problem of international terrorism?

"So we should not look narrowly only to one side: we should think about all other aspects of this war."

'Public opinion'

But another participant, columnist Simon Jenkins, said the government should take notice of the survey.

He told the BBC: "I think the government should always pay attention to public opinion, particularly in matters of war and peace. It has never received a popular mandate for this war in any realistic sense.

"It was done at the bidding of the Americans - there's a new American president we might be able to capture something from that but he's equally in favour of it. I just think we should pull out."

I am absolutely clear that our commitment to Afghanistan is first and foremost about the UK's national security
Defence Secretary John Hutton

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The defence secretary chose the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I on Tuesday to reiterate his reasons for maintaining British troops in Afghanistan.

He said: "I am absolutely clear that our commitment to Afghanistan is first and foremost about the UK's national security.

"Terrorism poses a direct threat to the security of the British people. So, let us not for one moment think that it does not threaten our way of life, our values of democracy and human rights."

He stressed that 2008 had been a tough year for coalition forces and that the coming 12 months were likely to be equally as tough, testing the resolve of the international community.

The Ministry of Defence said the UK was committed to keeping a military presence in Afghanistan until the Afghan government could maintain security and the rule of law in the country.

An MoD spokesman said: "UK military and civilians are playing a vital role in helping the Afghan government to build a better future for Afghanistan.

"In turn, a stable and secure Afghanistan is in the UK national interest, and we must not let it become a training ground for terrorists.

"We need to do more to explain to the UK public why it's so important that the UK continues to support the government of Afghanistan and the international presence in Afghanistan."

Should We Bring Home the Troops? will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 13 November at 2000 GMT

Graphics showing breakdown of people who believe the UK should  or should not pull troops out of Afghanistan within a year

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