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Thursday, 20 June, 2002, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
UK troops to leave Afghanistan
British Marines in Afghanistan
UK troops have been in Afghanistan since December
UK troops deployed to Afghanistan as part of a mop-up operation against al-Qaeda and Taleban fighters are set to return home.

Ahead of the withdrawal the UK officially handed over command of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) to Turkey whose army's presence is set to be increased.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said all 1,700 members of 45 Commando battlegroup Royal Marines will be brought home from Afghanistan in mid-August.

The Ministry of Defence has also confirmed that up to 1,000 of the 1,300 UK peacekeepers based in Kabul will be pulled out.

'Substantial contribution'

Mr Hoon said about 300 would remain, in line with earlier plans to keep a "reduced but substantial British contribution remaining in Afghanistan".

British troops walking in Afghanistan
British troops have been crucial, the MoD says
Royal Marines deployed on missions to hunt for remaining pockets of al-Qaeda would finish "as planned" by the end of July, with some beginning to leave in the first two weeks.

General Sir John McColl who was in command of the international force in Afghanistan said that things had significantly improved there since the British troops went in.

"I don't claim everything is perfect either in a security sense or a political sense but it has improved considerably in a relatively short period of time," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Former Nato commander General Wesley Clark was asked on the same programme whether the troop withdrawal came ahead of an attack on Iraq.

He said that "plans and preparations are under way but no decision has been made".

A diplomatic campaign would be conducted first through the United Nations although that was likely to fail in which case "there will be no recourse but to go after" Saddam Hussein.

"How that's done remains to be determined."

Flexible Balkans force

The MoD spokesman said there was "no connection" between the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and a removal of troops from the Balkans.

After a review, Nato had decided on having a "lighter and more flexible force" in the Balkans and the UK contingent would be reduced as part of changes in the sizes of groups supplied by member states.

But shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin said that "shortfalls" in British soldier numbers meant the UK was increasingly unable to meet overseas objectives.

He said: "It is clear that the shrinking military under Labour is now too small for the government to maintain their commitments.

"The Army's strength presently stands at 100,900 - a shortfall of nearly 8,000."

Mr Jenkin insisted that despite a limited number of engagements the mission had been a success.

'Great contribution'

Mr Hoon echoed that message, who hit out "armchair critics", who misunderstood the nature of warfare.

A MoD spokesman said the British troops had made "an enormous contribution to the stability of Afghanistan" and that had been "critical" to its future.

The 5,000-strong ISAF began deploying in and around the Afghan capital Kabul just days before an interim administration was sworn into office on 22 December last year, following the end of Afghanistan's Taleban regime.

ISAF's original mandate was due to end on 20 June, but the UN Security Council decided to extend the force for six months.

The British marines have been involved in a number of missions since arriving in the region, including securing a turbulent area in south-eastern Afghanistan and combing the mountain valleys to destroy remaining pockets of the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

The marines' commander, Brigadier Roger Lane - who has reportedly faced criticism over his role, although the MoD denies this - will be leaving Afghanistan with his troops.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jonathan Head reports from Kabul
"The security now enjoyed in the capital doesn't exist in the rest of the country"
British commander, General Sir John McCall
"I don't claim everything is perfect... but it has improved considerably"
Shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin
"The shrinking military is now too small for the government to maintain their commitments"
Find out more about the Royal Marines in Afghanistan


Analysis

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TALKING POINT
See also:

23 May 02 | South Asia
21 Feb 02 | South Asia
13 Apr 02 | South Asia
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